Tom Lichtenheld

Posted in Writing on Sep 17, 2010


tom lichtenheld

Kids hear a lot of “No” in their day…what if there was a day that adults could only say YES to kids?! Don’t worry, it’s just a fictional scenario, so you won’t actually need to buy that hamster. It’s the fantastic premise vibrantly brought to life through Tom Lichtenheld’s illustrations in the children’s book, Yes Day!

Tom, the author and illustrator of a dozen children’s books, collaborated with popular children’s author Amy Krouse Rosenthal on Yes Day!, as well as on It’s Not Fair! For The OK Book, the duo brilliantly turns the word “OK” on its side to teach us about new perspectives and share the lesson that being OK at things is just fine.

Tom’s collaboration with Amy on the wildly successful New York Times best-selling book Duck!Rabbit! put him on my radar well before I met him at the Target Children’s Book Festival last week (what’s that, you ask? see a few of my posts about that starting here.)  Tom had the kids at the festival on the edge of their seats when he augmented his book reading with a game he plays during workshops and appearances. In the game, he brings out a “Bag of Heroes” which is filled with slips of paper that name a character, and a “Bag of Settings” filled with slips of paper describing settings. At the festival, two kids picked out a piece of paper from each bag: the character was a “pirate” and the setting was “playing baseball.” The denouement was when Tom fascinated the crowd by drawing (in about 90 seconds) a picture on a big white board of a pirate playing baseball.

Tom told me he uses this “Bag” technique when he teaches writing workshops to kids because they often say they don’t know what to write about. Looks like I just learned a new technique for my own creative blocks!

tom at a school workshop

Tom’s books resonate with kids because of his acute ability to understand what’s important and comes naturally to kids: fresh perspectives, fanciful circumstances and – perhaps most importantly – laughing. What parents connect to is both the fun and the message in his books, as exemplified beautifully in Bridget’s Beret which Tom wrote and illustrated. The book is perfect for anyone who has ever had a creative block or has a child who’s attached to a security blanket/pacifier/doll/etc (especially if you’re trying to ween them from it or  – gasp! – they lose it.) Read more about the book here.

Tom, who just a few years ago left his day job as an art director at an ad agency, shares insight below (and check his his website for his ad work and more illustrations.)


want to know why Tom loves working for kids? see his answer here in this 1 minute video I shot at last week’s book fest.

How did you get started in children’s books?

Years ago my nephew asked me to draw him pirates. One cold winter weekend I created many drawings of pirates, along with a story of pirate “facts” that I made up. I bound it and titled it Everything I Know About Pirates. People who saw it said I should publish it, so I started sending it to publishers and they sent me rejection letters. But after a few years I landed an agent through a friend of a friend and things took off.

Where do you get your inspiration?

I don’t have kids, but I certainly get inspiration from watching them or listening to them. I also get inspiration from adults. The idea for What Are You So Grumpy About? came from a man I was sitting next to on an airplane – he was just mad about everything. (What Are You So Grumpy About? is a hilarious book about the triggers that set kids off – e.g., being forced to eat adult breakfast cereal, being touched by a sibling or receiving underwear for a birthday.)

How did you get connected to your frequent collaborator, Amy Krouse Rosenthal?

My boss was also Amy’s boss at an ad agency where we both worked, but we didn’t know each other. We’ve now done four books together. It’s great to collaborate with someone you know because often in children’s books the illustrator and author don’t meet. Amy and I meet to discuss ideas. For example, she came up with the idea that if you turn “OK” in different ways you can create a sort of figure and from that starting point we created what became The OK Book. Duck! Rabbit! is another example of how we work. I brought the image of this duck/rabbit, which I first saw in a college philosophy class. Together we brainstormed on how to create a story around it and decided that a debate type of dialogue would be a great way to approach it. I love that this book teaches kids that you can hold two opposing truths in your mind at the same time.

What’s a day like for you?

I work long hours from my home studio. I use a variety of mediums – from watercolors to colored pencil – depending on what suits the book’s subject matter best.

Tom paints the shark from "Shark Vs Train"

tom's studio

Talk about Nature v Nurture – did you always just know you wanted to be an artist?

I did always know I wanted to be an artist, but I had no idea how to do it. My first memories involve me drawing on a chalk board in the kitchen. One of the most important things that happened for me was that my mother enrolled me in a creative dramatics class when I was in 3rd grade. It legitimized what I was doing by nature. But it really wasn’t until I got to college and majored in art that I could really flourish and find my place.

At home, I felt like my creativity was supported and I did see arts in the home because my father’s hobbies included woodcarving and watercolors. My mother wouldn’t allow a television in the house until I was in junior high school and by that time I wasn’t interested.

I was also impacted by a coffee table book in my childhood home: William Steig’s The Lonely Ones. It was surrealistic and included his drawings of odd people in poses. The fact that it was in our living room validated that a creative pursuit is a legitimate path through life. (Steig created the character Shrek, which inspired the popular film.)

Proust Questionnaire

My favorite snack is: chocolate (great chocolate; but I’m also a fan of cocoa puffs)

Don’t ask me to: do math

I would put into a time capsule my: childhood

My favorite place is: my studio

When I have a creative block I: physically move

My favorite mantra is: anything worth doing is worth overdoing