SPIKE: The Mixed-Up Monster
Students from Mrs. Toomajian’s class at Tamarac Elementary in Troy, NY, provided the interview questions for Susan and Melissa. Here are their responses.
QUESTIONS FOR SUSAN HOOD
How did you come up with the idea?
It all started back when I was fact-checking a baby animal story for Nick Jr. Magazine.
I was reading about kittens, cubs and colts, when I came across this photo. I stopped cold and thought, “What in the world is THAT?”
I thought it looked like a Muppet! I found out this ridiculously cute little critter with its blue eyes, feathery spikes and slight smile is a salamander called an axolotl. It is critically endangered, almost extinct like the dinosaurs. However, there is a chance we can save it, so I knew I had to write a book about it.
Why didn’t you put people characters in your book? Why are all the characters animals?
Axolotls are quite small, about the length of a ruler, so I wanted to use characters that would be about Spike’s size or just a little bigger. With a person on the page, Spike would be too small. I also wanted to introduce the more unusual animals that might live around his lakeside home—a cinnamon teal duck, a Mexican vole and an armadillo.
Why did you use Spanish?
There’s a good reason for that! In the wild, axolotls live in only ONE place in the world: a lake outside the capital of Mexico—Mexico City. People speak Spanish there, so using some Spanish words helps transport readers to that place!
QUESTIONS FOR MELISSA SWEET
What materials did you use to make SPIKE?
Most of my art starts with handmade watercolor paper and watercolors. Then I go in and add collage using different papers, pencil, and pastels. I’m always on the look out for fun paper with nice color and patterns.
Where did you learn to draw?
I’ve been drawing since I was a little kid starting off with crayons and coloring books. On my website (in the ABOUT section) I mention a TV program I watched as a kid on Saturday mornings where an artist taught us how to draw using simples shapes: circles, triangles and squares. I draw everyday and like anything, it gets better with practice.
Did you take the photos in the back?
No, different photographers took those photos that Susan found. When we were designing the book, we knew from the start we’d be using photos of the characters to show what they looked like in real life.
QUESTIONS FOR BOTH
How did you find out about Spike and those animals?
Susan: Research! I read books, newspapers, magazines and internet articles. I talked to scientists and visited an axolotl exhibit at the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, CT. I watched YouTube videos of axolotls kept as pets. I even contacted Dr. Luis Zambrano, the scientist who is trying to save the axolotls in Mexico via Twitter.
Melissa: I’m with Susan—research! I looked on the internet for reference and then went to the library to find more information on axolotls and the other animals and their habitat. I also saw a live axolotl at the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, CT.
Why did you make this book?
Susan: I fell in love with Spike. At first, I simply thought he would make an adorable character. But the more I researched, the more I became fascinated and concerned about the actual animal. I was amazed to discover:
- Like Peter Pan, axolotls never grow up. They lives their whole lives and even have children as teenage water babies.
- Axolotls were named after an Aztec god named Xolotl.
- There was a Mad Magazine connection. “Axolotl” was one of the odd words Mad liked to use in comic strips, along with words like “potrzebie,” “furshlugginer” and “veeblefetzer.”
- Axolotls have a type of superpower scientists want to know more about: these salamanders can completely regrow body parts, including their legs, tail, even parts of their brain!
- They live in only one place in the world—a polluted lake in the biggest city in Mexico.
- If we don’t do something to clean up that lake, axolotls will very soon become extinct in the wild.
Before SPIKE, I had never heard of axolotls; many people haven’t. So writing the book was a way of calling attention to them and helping Dr. Zambrano, the biologist who is trying to save them.
Melissa: The minute I read this story and saw a picture of an axolotl, I knew I had to illustrate it. Susan had written a wonderful and funny story, and an important one. I knew kids would love Spike and his escapades.
Where did you get the end information?
Susan: From my research notes. Then I had everything double-checked by a biologist who specializes in Mexican animals and by the person who runs axolotl.org to make sure the facts were up-to-date.
Why did you put photos in the back? They were a nice touch.
Susan: We thought it would be fun for kids to see the actual critters. Melissa’s cover illustration of Spike is so cute it’s hard to believe he’s real. But he is!
A note from the librarian: We’ve compared SPIKE to LEONARDO, THE TERRIBLE MONSTER by Mo Willems. Students have found many similarities (including the cover art of Leonardo and the title page art for Spike) and, of course, lots of differences in text and illustrations. Have you compared the two books yourselves?
Susan: Thank you! It’s a true compliment to be compared to the great Mo Willems. I think many children’s books look at characters who are different, who are trying to figure out where they fit in, and who just want to be taken seriously. Many adult books, too, for that matter! It’s part of growing up.
Similarities: Spike and Leonardo have a lot in common emotionally. Both discover that kindness is the way to make friends.
Differences: While Leonardo IS a monster, Spike is confused about who he is. He suspects he looks like a monster, so he behaves monstrously. (Axolotl means “water monstrosity” in the native Aztec language.) Both Leonardo and Spike try to use fear to scare their friends. But only Spike has to face fear himself when the Gila Monster arrives on the scene.
So SPIKE is not only about self-awareness and making friends, but also about the courage it takes to listen to someone who’s bigger and scarier.
And of course, SPIKE has a little nonfiction, too. The back pages let you find out more about all the animals found around Spike’s lakeside home in Mexico.
Melissa: I have to confess, though I love Mo Willems’ books, I have not seen this one. Susan explained the differences above, so now my homework is to get a copy of LEONARDO and see for myself!
Susan: Here are some other photos of axolotls:
And here’s the axolotl cake a friend made me to celebrate SPIKE’s book birthday!
You can find SPIKE masks, games, a maze, a song and more at susanhoodbooks.com.
Muchas gracias for the great questions. ¡Adiós, mis amigos!
Susan Hood and Melissa Sweet, June 2013