Thursday, October 11, 2018

Spotlight on Calef Brown + DMC Challenge


Described as "consistently interesting," "a bulwark against mediocrity," the "modern master of nonsense verse," and the "reigning children's poet of weird," I have been waiting a long time for the opportunity to feature the decidedly quirky and uber-talented author-illustrator Calef Brown. That time has finally arrived.

Calef has been writing children's books since 1998 and illustrating a few years before that. His illustrations have appeared in numerous publications, including Newsweek, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Time, and The New York Times. He has also illustrated the work of other authors, including Daniel Pinkwater, Edward Lear, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jonah Winter. He's created murals, book covers, visual development, packaging and advertising for clients including Adidas, Coca-Cola, and Levi Strauss, and currently teaches illustration at the highly respected Rhode Island School of Design. Many of you might recognize his protest poster published by School Library Journal and distributed to 15,000 school librarians in 2017. 

View Calef Brown's work on his website, his booksite, Tumblr, and Etsy.

Some of the first stories Calef Brown wrote concerned subjects such as a giant pile of stinky dead fish, people driving tables and bathtubs, tiny Vikings who live in cereal boxes, and the time he got his tongue stuck to a freezer box. As a poet he is largely self-taught, but that hasn't held him back from publishing numerous collections of poetry for children, including Flamingos on the Roof—winner of the Myra Cohn Livingston poetry award and a New York Times bestseller—and Hypnotize a Tiger: Poems About Just About Everything—a collection for middle-grade readers that won a Lee Bennett Hopkins honor award and The Lion and the Unicorn Award for Children’s Poetry.

Expect the unexpected is sound advice when diving into one of Calef Brown's delightfully offbeat collections. There are two things Calef Brown likes a whole lot: musical language and serious nonsense, and it's obvious that he excels in both. His poems are meant to be read aloud, and it is only in so doing that you will truly experience the musicality and improvisation that go into his whimsical wanderings. The childlike perspective of both his words and illustrations make for a playful experience of pure enjoyment.

Purchase at LernerBooks.comBarnes & NobleAmazon, or via

The Ghostly Carousel: Delightfully Frightful Poems is Calef's latest collection, published this summer by Carolrhoda Books. True to his distinctive style, readers of all ages will find it inventive, zany, and freewheeling. Featuring 17 poems on mostly double-page spreads, a macabre assortment of not-your-garden-variety witches, warlocks, ghosts, zombies, a "Jekyll Lantern," Medusa, and even "Creeping Crud" come to life with eerie narratives, wicked humor, compelling illustrations, and a healthy dose of ewww! (Insect pie, anyone? Cannibal fondue?) The Ghostly Carousel is perfect for Halloween, of course, but for many young readers, creepy humor laced with silliness is satisfying at any time of year. (Just ask Carol Hinz's inquisitive 5-year-old!)

When asked in an interview on Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, what turns him on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally, Calef responded "sublime absurdity." Call it what you will, Calef Brown knows how to capture and serve up fun.

Are you ready for more fun facts about Calef Brown? 

Then please help me welcome him to the TLD spotlight! We'll begin our conversation, as always, with five favorites.

So many, but here are a few: Nellie Come Home by Roland Emmett, Abol Tabol by Sukumar Ray, A Hole is to Dig by Ruth Krauss, A Tale of Two Bad Mice and Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter. A Long Long Song by Etienne Delessert, My Friends by Taro Gomi, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor by Mervyn Peake, Grasshopper on the Road by Arnold Lobel, May I Bring a Friend? by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, and Fishhead by Jean Fritz.


A few of Calef Brown's paints.

For second grade I went to an elementary school program taught by grad students at Columbia. It was a completely free, do-what-you-want-all-day-every-day situation so I spent most of my time blissfully drawing and reading.

My high school art teachers were both very encouraging and supportive. In a school which didn’t give much in terms of resources or support to the art program, both of them treated those that took art seriously like future peers.

I would love to spend some time in Morocco.

What were you like as a child? Judging by your work, I imagine that you were curious, clever, and imaginative. Maybe you drew comics, or kept journals or sketchbooks? Maybe your smarts combined with your keen sense of humor got you in trouble from time to time? What can you divulge?
A few of Calef Brown's sketchbooks.
I was pretty introverted when I was young. My family moved many times when I was growing up, so I was always the new kid at school. You’re right about the sketchbooks and comics for sure. I was pretty comfortable being by myself and spending time focused on drawing and making stuff up. I did have two friends in elementary school that also liked to draw and create comics and we worked on some together. We also did a paint and marker mural in one of their rooms that we worked on after school for a few months. As far as any trouble I got into, I’d say it wasn’t because of my sense of humor, but more regular everyday run of the mill poor decision-making.

Sometimes when an illustrator becomes an author-illustrator, the perceptive reader can tell. The words don’t always hold their own. This, however, is not true of you. Your poems have always been as vibrant and playful as your art. When brainstorming or beginning a new project, which comes first for you—words or sketches?

My first two books—Polkabats and Dutch Sneakers

both were called collections of “stories” not “poems” in their subtitles. Because, I suppose, they were created out of a kind of wide-open attempt to find something that seemed to fit well with the voice of my paintings and illustrations, and not out of a set effort to write poems. And I definitely didn’t think of myself as a poet. I had never written any poetry before that first book.
Polkabats came out of a challenge I gave myself. This was to create a book dummy from scratch in a certain amount of time—to see what I could come up with on a six week working vacation. But beyond that self-imposed deadline, things were wide open in terms of what kind of writing it could employ. As I said, I had never studied or written poetry before, but that’s somehow what I gravitated to, or verse, at least. At first I tried to write more traditional narrative tales, and some nonsensical stuff in prose, but it didn’t come naturally to me at all, and felt forced. I did, however, draw from one of my influences growing up—a love for antique nonsense verse—Edward Lear, Carroll, and Peter Newell, all of whom I discovered in my grandparent’s bookshelves while staying at their house in the summer.

But I mostly took inspiration from music, lots of different genres, and the structure of songs. I wanted the poems to be musical—they’re meant to be read aloud. Also, even if  brief, I tried to give the poems a beginning, middle and end, and introduce the reader to someone interesting, or weird, or memorable. If not a character, then maybe bring the reader somewhere new in the space of a few (mostly) rhyming lines.

Getting back to the question, these days the ideas for the poems still come from both drawing and writing, but perhaps in the past four or five books, writing as a beginning point has been more common.

Your poetry is often unpredictable—the reader never quite knows where it’s going to take them. Is that representative of your creative process as well? Do you have a clear vision of the end product before getting underway, or do does your muse surprise even you?

Most often I don’t have a full vision of where a particular poem will go in terms of its story or possible meaning. I usually get started with a phrase or sentence that appeals to me, and try to build out from there. The next step is to focus on the character and particular pattern or rhythm of that snippet and try different ways to expand on it. It feels like trying to make something come into focus, or solidify. I love that aspect of not knowing precisely where something is going, It’s akin to putting together a puzzle that changes with each new addition or subtraction. And, yes, I am surprised sometimes at where the poems end up or how they resolve.

For example, from The Ghostly Carousel, for the poem Joel, what I started with was one line that came about during some free writing: “He burrows and furrows his brow.” So after playing around with it a while I had: “A zombie named Joel/deep in a hole/burrows/and furrows/his brow.” It seemed to be the beginning of a story, so I wanted to see if I could tell the rest of the tale using that specific rhyme pattern three more times. At that point I didn’t know what the story of this fretting, tunneling undead person would be, but just let the process of following the first rhyme template find the story, which turned out to be that of an anxious digging zombie kid trying to get away from annoying relatives at a family reunion.

© 2018 by Calef Brown, published by Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Publishing Group. (Click on image to enlarge.)

This is not your first book of ghoulish poetry.  Hallowilloween: Nefarious Silliness from Calef Brown was published in 2010. What is it about the combination of whimsy and creepiness that appeals to you?

Overall my work is very playful, and I hope, joyful, but I also want it to have a little edge as a counterweight. Halloween was my favorite holiday by far growing up, and I also have lots of great memories staying up late with my brother watching old monster movies. I loved all things Charles Addams, and TV shows like The Munsters—combinations of humor and creepiness. 

I first saw an Edward Gorey book when I was about ten and fell in love with it. But I just assumed that the work was from another time, that it was actually Victorian or Edwardian, not a contemporary reimagining, and definitely not created by someone who was alive. Another influence that came from my grandparents, whom I referred to earlier, was a copy of Slovenly Peter, which I was fascinated by. Also scary but (unintentionaly) silly.

Please share a favorite spread from The Ghostly Carousel and tell us why it's a favorite.

The art for Canary Canoe is definitely my favorite spread in the book, and maybe my favorite poem as well.

© 2018 by Calef Brown, published by Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Publishing Group. (Click on image to enlarge.)

I guess it just came out as I pictured it in my head, with bright spots of yellow in a dark seascape. The canaries seem to have appropriately vengeful expressions.

I also like the spread for Joel, the poem I talked about above. I handled the zombie kid digging the tunnel with a cutaway that doesn’t make sense the way it’s painted in the space, but I kind of like that. It adds something to be able to see his expression as well as the reason for it in one picture. I think the aunts came out pretty well as characters. I don’t really care for zombie-themed movies or series so I didn’t do any research, just painted a few of what I assumed looked like zombies having a family reunion. 
Hipster zombie buffet, å la Calef Brown.

There’s a brain being served with whipped cream and a cherry on top at the buffet table—the zombie reverse-equivalent of bacon topped donuts one can get at hipster donut shops.

No doubt Halloween has its appeal, but if you had the opportunity to invent an entirely new holiday, what would it be?

Definitely National Cat Day, which is probably a hashtag, but this would be a full-on stores closed, government shuttered, employer-paid Monday in April when the whole society puts aside all else in order to focus attention and affection on the country’s feline citizens. Everyone would be required to either adopt a cat if able to pass a rigorous vetting process, or make a donation to a shelter. Not following one of these two requirements would result in huge tax penalties, especially for corporations.

© Calef Brown

Ed. note: Until we get that full-on holiday, #NationalCatDay 
is Monday, October 29, 2018. Mark your calendars!

What's coming up next for you?

I have a book coming out in March 2019 called Up Verses Down: Poems, Paintings, and Serious Nonsense from Christy Ottoviano Books and Henry Holt.

If you had all the world's children in one room, what would you tell them?

I love visiting schools and drawing with kids, so maybe it could be a humongous art and poetry making workshop. With endless snacks from all over the world.

Read more about Calef Brown's school visits HERE.

Finally, what you have chosen as this month's ditty challenge?

Write a poem or a story about two anthropomorphized objects. They can be an odd couple, close friends, mortal enemies, or meet each other for the first time. The poem or story can be about an adventure they have together, a conflict, a game they play, anything. 

A toaster and a stapler bond over the fact that they both “er” things—toast and staples respectively. Two letters meet in a mailbox, become friends, and conspire to keep the mailman from separating them. While stored together on a pantry shelf, a box of birthday candles and a lightbulb get in a terrible argument, but talk their way through it and end up as good pals.

Oh boy! This is going to be FUN!

Thanks so much for being here today, Calef—for sharing your tricks and treats, and conjuring up the spirits of Curiosity and Imagination.

Thanks also for sending a signed copy of The Ghostly Carousel: Delightfully Frightful Poems (Carolrhoda Books, 2018) which I will pass on to one lucky DMC participant, chosen randomly at the end of the month!


Post your poem about two anthropomorphized objects on our October 2018 padlet. Stop by any time during the month to add your work or to check out what others are contributing.

By posting on the padlet, you are granting me permission to share your poem on Today's Little Ditty.  Some poems will be featured as daily ditties, though authors may not be given advanced notice. Subscribe to the blog if you'd like to keep tabs. You can do that in the sidebar to the right where it says "Follow TLD by Email." As always, all of the poems will be included in a wrap-up celebration at the conclusion of the challenge. Because of our late start this month, the wrap-up celebration will be on Friday, November 2nd, so that I can accommodate as many daily ditties as possible.

TEACHERS, it's great when students get involved! Ditty of the Month Club challenges are wonderful opportunities to learn about working poets and authors while having fun with poetry prompts. Thank you for spreading the word! For children under 13, please read my COPPA compliance statement in the sidebar to the right.

FIRST-TIMERS (those who have never contributed to a ditty challenge before), in addition to posting your work on the padlet, please send your name and email address to TodaysLittleDitty (at) gmail (dot) com. That way I'll be able to contact you for possible inclusion in future Best of Today's Little Ditty anthologies.

BLOGGERS, thank you for publishing your poems on your own blogs– I love that!  Please let me know about it, so I can share your post! Also remember to include your poem (or a direct link to your post) on the padlet in order to be included in the wrap-up celebration and end-of-month giveaway.

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Hugs to everyone who expressed concern about my family crisis last week. The situation is improving, but my attention is still needed at home. I'm fairly certain I can keep up with posting daily ditties this month, but may be slower than usual when it comes to checking the padlet for new contributions and commenting on others' Poetry Friday posts. Your patience is appreciated!

This week's Poetry Friday roundup is being hosted by children's author Laura Purdie Salas at Writing the World for Kids. Thanks, Laura!


  1. Totally fab spotlight! Been a Calef Brown fan for many years, so it was wonderful learning more about him and his work. I'll pass on the brains with whipped cream at the buffet, though. . . Thanks to both of you!

  2. Michelle, I'm so glad you are climbing out of your recent family emergency. Slow is's still forward, right? Another rock-star interview with a really fun author/illustrator. Thank you for the questions and giving Mr. Brown the space to share so much of himself here. The challenge, challenging! But, I always love the TLD challenge. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  3. Fun interview, Michelle! It'll be hard to follow Calef Brown, but, I'll see what I can do with inanimate objects. A definite challenge for a writer of haiku!

  4. This will be a lot of fun. Hope I can come up with a fun idea. Thanks for a very interesting post and challenge.

  5. A new-to-me author; thanks for the introduction, Michelle!

    "It feels like trying to make something come into focus, or solidify" is my favorite line from this interview--great description.

    I think my students, who love silly and creepy, will love Calef's poems--especially Canary Canoe!

  6. I think I've read Polka Bats maybe 10,000 times? We all loved it, and we still quote it from time to time--"except the ones on jury duty!" What a fun challenge! Thanks to Michelle and thanks to Calef for a great post. Totally worth the wait!

  7. Wonderful interview! Love the title "PolkaBats & Octopus Slacks"!

  8. Even though I'm not generally a reader of absurdist poetry, I adore Hallowilloween and can't wait to read this one. Love these vengeful little canaries!

  9. What terrific art and originality!
    I like the prompt (I've already done something along those lines, as you know, M.!). I will have to come up with something suitably wacky.

  10. This interview and challenge is so wacky and fun. I can't wait to share it with my students to see what they may come up with.

  11. Thanks for a great interview. What a fun challenge!

  12. A fantastic interview. Thanks for the peek into the process.

  13. What fun learning about you Calef Brown–your poems and art are delightful, and we share two favorite books, "May I Bring A Friend," and books by Edward Gorey. Love your "Canary Canoe," it reminds me a bit of Edward Gorey's sensibility. I'm looking forward to the challenge too. Thanks for this terrific interview Michelle!

  14. Oh, I love Calef's style! Thanks for introducing me to him, Michelle. I've been buried in work for the past couple of months, and I'm just now emerging to try to revive my mummified muse. (Yep, I do love Halloween imagery...) Hoping I'll have time to give this month's challenge a shot, even if I can't submit my poem until the very last minute.

  15. Great interview, Michelle! Polkabats was the first children's poetry collection I bought for my own children when they were little. It's one of the books that inspired me to hone my craft as a children's poetry. I loved learning the origin of the book's idea. I look forward to Up Verses Down!

  16. I love Calef Brown! Thanks for sharing him with us. Glad to hear life is improving.

  17. I love your opening description of Caleb, Michelle.