I hope your weekend is going smooth and yummy! 🧁🧁
Well, today I have a very delicious and special interview for you all. Today’s interview is with Matthew Swanson & Robbi Behr, the amazing author-illustrator duo of Cookie Chronicles (Ben Yokoyama duology). I can’t wait to let you read their amazing answers and experience the extreme foodgasm they put Ben (the MC of their children’s graphic duology) through! 🧁🥠
Cookie Chronicles duology (#1 – Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Doom & #2 – Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Endless Waiting) are the recently released books, published by Alfred A Knopf Books for Young Readers. Both books are 304 pages long and are for age group 8-14, although they should change it to “for all ages!”
Before I start the interview, let me give a quick introduction of today’s really special guests. MATTHEW SWANSON and ROBBI BEHR are the husband/wife, author/illustrator team behind The Real McCoys, Babies Ruin Everything and Everywhere, Wonder. Until recently, they also ran two small presses: Bobbledy Books and Idiots’ Books. These days, they spend most of their time making books and raising four kids (10, 8, 6, and almost 2) in the hayloft of an old barn in Chestertown, Maryland. They spend the rest of their time speaking, teaching, and leading workshops on collaboration and creative entrepreneurship—and the rest of the rest of their time running a commercial salmon fishing operation on the Alaskan tundra.
Let the questions begin!! 🥠🥠
- Tell me something about the inspiration for the Cookie Chronicles books, which are full of serious meals!
Matthew: I freely admit that there’s lots of eating in these books. After reading the first draft of book one, my editor Katherine asked if we were running the risk of overfeeding poor Ben, who, in the course of 24 hours, eats two orders of lo mein, a fortune cookie, a slice of frozen cake, a bowl of uncooked spaghetti, an entire other cake, some ice cream, and two slices of apple pie. I told her I was only drawing from my own experience as an enthusiastic eater, and that as far as I knew, Ben’s caloric intake was survivable. But the truth is that Ben’s big appetite is just a metaphor for his voracious approach to everything—including the way he puts his whole heart into believing and acting on the literal meanings of fortune cookie fortunes.
Which is why, in The Cookie of Doom, when Ben gets the fortune, “Live each day as if it were your last,” he truly believes he has only one day to live. Which is why he eats so much cake. Because, why not?
Robbi: Matthew is not kidding about his appetite. The first time I had dinner with him, he poured almost an entire bottle of ketchup onto his plate! I was, frankly, shocked. But he totally ate it all. I personally limit my snacking to items that help me stay awake during all-night drawing sessions. Gallon-size tubs of Utz cheese balls are my go-to inspiration these days.
- Is food your real source of motivation, or is it something else?
R: Honestly, I just love making stuff. I’m always delighted when there’s something I made that wasn’t there before, that I willed into being (yikes, maybe that’s why we have four kids…? Are you my psychologist?!). Sometimes my projects take a really long time, like our books (or our kids), but other times I love doing something really simple like making a banana hat out of a piece of construction paper. It’s a pretty powerful feeling. So—maybe my motivation is… absolute power? You know, standard villain fare.
M: I love the act of writing and the way it makes me feel—especially the initial, no-holds-barred early stages where strange things happen and I let my characters do whatever they want. I used to really fear revision, especially the idea of getting rid of paragraphs or pages I’d spent time writing. Now I love the process of reinventing a first draft to bring out the better book inside it. It helps to get to work with a brilliant editor who I trust and who knows exactly the right questions to ask to get the best work out of me. But beyond the fun of creating the books, the other source of motivation is seeing the impact they can have on kids’ lives.R: Agree 100%. We love going into schools and using our books as a platform to get kids excited about writing, illustration, or just creativity in general. Our number one message in our presentations is that anyone can be an author or illustrator—that no one can tell you whether your work is good enough to make or not make. We spent ten years self publishing about 70 books. During that time, we learned a ton and made connections that paved the way to the books we’re making now.
- Who are the creators you find most inspiring?
M: Growing up, it was Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. Ramona was my little sister and Fudgie was my little brother. I loved the perfect balance of humor and heart, which is what I always strive for in my own work. My contemporary favorites are Louis Sachar and Daniel Handler. Again, both use humor so masterfully.
R: Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time on Warwick Johnson Cadwell’s Instagram feed. He does an amazing job of creating believable spaces and people that are super-specific but also incredibly wonky. I just love how fluid it looks. I desperately wish I could draw like that. Victo Ngai makes these dazzling, beautifully complex illustrations that you can get lost in for hours. Also, Robert Young. He does a great job of creating these flat, graphic spaces and textures using a line with a funky 70s vibe. He has a great series of tutorials on YouTube called “Hello, Young Illustrators” that anyone interested in getting into the business should check out.
- How did the idea of having fortune cookies as the hero in your duology come to your mind?
M: During an early-morning writing session, I wrote a paragraph about a guy who ate some noodles and then got a fortune cookie. I promptly forgot about it, but six months later, I dug it out and asked myself some follow-up questions. What did the fortune cookie say? Why does the fortune cookie matter? As it turns out, the fortune matters a lot if the person who reads it misses the figurative meaning and decides to take it literally instead. I realized it might be a good conceit for a series of books: In every Cookie Chronicles installment, Ben gets a new fortune, misinterprets it, and gets himself in trouble as a result. So far, the idea feels endlessly extendable. I’ve written the first four books already and am about to get started on book five.
R: The idea is only extendable as long as you keep supplying the illustrator with cheese balls.
- Which books do you love to reread again?
M: When I was a kid, I read a fantasy series called Dragonlance over and over again. I was obsessed. When I got a bit older, I re-read the epic Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, and I wore the cover off of this really wonderful book called Cold Sassy Tree.
R: Most of the books I’ve reread are ones I loved as a kid—the Anne of Green Gables books, the Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, and all the Douglas Adams Books. I think my re-reading fare has entirely to do with nostalgia and trying to recapture the feeling of a rainy Saturday morning with nothing to do but lounge around on the couch with a book.
- Do you think children’s books work well with minimum illustrations?
M: They can, of course. Some of the greatest books for children don’t have a single illustration, but we take the opposite approach.
R: Starting with our previous series, The Real McCoys, and continuing into Cookie Chronicles, we wanted to create an experience where the text and illustrations were really integrated. There are illustrations on every page, and sometimes 3-4 illustrations on a page. The result is a combination of a graphic novel and a chapter book.
M: Some of the dialogue is in speech bubbles, and there are some panels like you’d find in a comic, but there’s also a running narrative.
R: Apparently, the name for this format is “hybrid book.” Bookstores and libraries are starting to have sections devoted to them.
M: We’ve heard from librarians and teachers that the densely illustrated layouts make our books appealing and accessible to kids who aren’t as comfortable with reading “chapter books” but who are eager for longer, more complicated stories. Because the books are so full of drawings, they’re longer than the word count would suggest. So they give kids who usually read shorter books the pride and satisfaction of finishing such a fat book.
R: Also, the more pictures there are in a book, the closer I come to absolute power, so it totally makes sense that all our books go a little overboard on that front.
M: I’m learning a lot about Robbi from this interview. And I’m a little scared.
What would you like to say to writers and illustrators who want to create children’s books?M: That said, we wouldn’t trade it for anything.
M: On one hand, we have the best jobs in the world. We get to spend our days writing stories and illustrating characters we love. And when we’re done, we get to go into schools and connect with kids who are so excited to meet us—and who dive into creating their own stories after hearing our presentation.
R: But it’s a ton of work. Not just the creative process, which is tiring and incredibly time consuming, but the process of getting your foot in the door with an agent, and then an editor, and, then once you’re there, building an audience for your books—and sustaining it.
M: We self-published for ten years and didn’t make a penny before we had our “big break” and connected with an editor at Macmillan. Over the past five years, we’ve published three picture books and five middle grade novels, but we’re still working hard to find our audience, introduce ourselves to librarians, and cut through in a market that’s flooded with incredible books.
R: Basically, if you’re going to do this, you need to love it for its own sake, because the other rewards you’re dreaming of might take a long time to materialize, if they ever do.
R: As far as I see it, my long, slow climb to absolute power will eventually be rewarded by unlimited access to absolute cheese balls.
M: And there it is, the name of the band we will start when we give up the children’s book game.
R: It’s always good to have a backup plan.
- Tell me something about the inspiration for the Cookie Chronicles books, which are full of serious meals!
And that wraps up my interview with these too much cool & amazing duo! I’m in love with their Cookie Chronicles duology, and will surely recommend it to you all, for an beautiful fun & delicious adventure awaits you! 🥠🧁
You can follow them on Instagram, where they share some fun videos! ❤️❤️
They have their separate accounts too – Matthew Swanson & Robbi Behr.
That’s a sweet wrap for now! I’ll post my review for the books in the evening! ❤️🥠
*This interview is a part of my tour stop (today) for the Book Tour hosted by Hear Our Voices Tours.*
*I thank the authors and Team HOV for giving me a chance for this interview.*