On the Road Again, with David and Mike

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David LaRochelle: Several years ago, Mike Wohnoutka and I were commissioned to create an early literacy program for libraries here in Minnesota. It included reading one of our books, writing a story together with the kids, drawing, singing, dancing, and puppetry. We visited 59 libraries that year and spent manyhours together in the car, driving to all four corners of our state. To help pass the time, we played the “Question Game” where we took turns asking the other person a question that we would then have to answer ourselves. That’s how we decided to organize this post.

The car is packed. We’ve got our seatbelts on. I’ve got my can of Pepsi and you’ve got your water bottle, Mike. The first question is yours.

Mike Wohnoutka: When did you first feel like you could someday be an author or illustrator?

David: I was lucky. My parents and teachers always encouraged me with my writing and drawing. In fact, my second grade teacher Miss Stempfley (with whom I’m still in contact 52 years later!), saved one of the stories I wrote when I was in her class and mailed it to me when I became an elementary teacher myself. Consequently, I’ve always felt like I could someday publish books, ever since early elementary school. How about you?

Mike: When I was in grade school I loved to draw, but I didn’t know there were real people behind the easy readers and picture books I loved.  I guess I thought books just magically appeared in the library. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized someone could be a children’s book illustrator.  I remember the specific moment.  David Shannon was a guest illustrator at the Savannah College of Art and Design. After his presentation about how he illustrated his first book I thought, “You can do that for a job? Hey, I want to do that!”

David: Okay, it’s my turn to ask a question. What is one of your happiest memories of reading as a child?

Mike: When my fourth grade teacher, Mr. Lokken, read Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing out loud to our class. I remember thinking the story was so funny. Mr. Lokken was a very funny guy and he really played up the characters’ voices. It was pure joy. What is one of your favorite reading memories?

David: My father was very mechanical. He was always fixing motors and doing welding projects for friends and neighbors. I never shared those interests but was an artsy-crafty, book-reading kid. One evening when I was about eight, my father took a break from working in the garage, came inside the house, and he and I took turns reading Dr. Seuss’ Fox in Socks aloud. We laughed so hard we had tears running down our faces. It’s the only time I remember my father reading with me, and it’s one of my favorite memories.

Mike: What is one of your worst memories of reading?

David: Being allowed to order from the Scholastic Book Club was always a Big Deal. One year, after the teacher had distributed book orders to the other kids, she called me up to her desk. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but they didn’t send the book you had ordered. However, here’s another book which I’m sure you will love.” She handed me Kick, Pass, and Run, a picture book about football. Not only did I hate football, I was routinely teased by other kids about being unathletic. The last thing I wanted was a reminder of those awful moments in gym class when I couldn’t throw a ball more than fifteen feet. Being a “good student,” I compliantly took the book and returned to my desk…but I’m skeptical if I ever read it. Do you have any unhappy book-related memories?

Mike: I have to admit, I was a troublemaker in grade school. In 5th grade I had to sit inside at recess for a week because I had gotten into a fight. I was told that the only thing I could do was read. Ugh! By this time I was somewhat of a reluctant reader. But I had to read something, so I picked a book with a mouse riding a motorcycle on the cover because that looked pretty cool.
I ended up absolutely loving the story and I remember thinking, “Wow, I really do love reading.” I guess that’s actually a pretty happy memory.

David: Beverly Cleary would be proud! Next question: Do you still have any drawings that you made when you were little?

Mike: A few years ago my mom gave me a box of my drawings from when I was in Headstart. My favorite one is a family portrait. I grew up in big family where there was lots of fighting and yelling, and I guess I drew it as I saw it. Whenever I see the drawing I think, “That’s what it was like growing up in our house!”    

David: That is an expressive drawing, Mike! It’s no wonder you draw such expressive characters now. I have a collection of drawings from elementary school and one of my favorites is the portrait I made of my father in first grade. It won first place in the P.T.A.’s Father’s Night contest. I was so proud when he woke me up after the meeting to tell me I had won. Not only do I still have the drawing, but I still have my prize, a copy of The Bumper Book.

Mike: Did you have any childhood heroes?

David: Charles Schulz. I wanted to be a cartoonist just like him. He was the first – and only – person I ever wrote a fan letter to. I was disappointed it was only a form letter, but I still have his reply.

Mike: I loved Peanuts too and could definitely relate to Charlie Brown! I don’t know if I would call them my heroes, but I really looked up to my three older brothers. They were all very good at drawing and I was determined to be as good as they were.

David: We’re almost at our destination. We have time for one more question. Our most recent book is See the Dog: Three Stories About a Cat. So, are you a cat person or a dog person, Mike?

Mike: I love drawing cats and dogs, but when it comes to real dogs and cats, I’m not a fan of either.  Unfortunately, I’m allergic to both!

David: I’m a dog person, but I won’t tell Max and Baby Cakes that you would be allergic to both of them!

David LaRochelle and Mike Wohnoutka are the creators of See the Cat: Three Stories About a Dog, a Nerdy Book Club Award winner and the recipient of the 2021 Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for beginning readers. Their other joint books include How to Apologize, Moo!,This is NOT a Cat!, and their newly released beginning reader, See the Dog: Three Stories About a Cat.

See David LaRochelle in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.

See Mike Wohnoutka and his family in Minneapolis.

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