This week, I am delighted to welcome another author/illustrator guest – Brian Russo – to First Stories! Brian’s latest book, A FRIEND FOR YOGA BUNNY, hit shelves this past February and is the perfect spring/summer gift for the kid in your life! I look forward to talking with him about this book, how he got started in writing, and how he’s seen his writing evolve from that very First Story.
A little more about Brian:
Brian Russo has been drawing since he can remember. He grew up in Short Hills, New Jersey, then moved to New York, where he earned a degree from NYU. Afterwards, he discovered something he loves just as much as drawing: doing yoga. He earned a teaching certificate from Yoga to the People in 2010, during which time he developed the Yoga Bunny illustrations. He now lives in Lehi, Utah (the setting of the film Footloose) with his beautiful wife, Emily, adorable son, Quill, and loyal dog, Spike. His favorite film is Spirited Away, and the celebrity he’d most like to meet is ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic.
Me: Brian, thanks so much for stopping by First Stories!
Brian: Thanks for having me.
Me: Tell me about your “first story.” The one that really pushed you to consider publishing. What inspired you to write it? What was it about?
Brian: The story is called ‘The Perfect Cheese’. I went to the Burning Man Festival back in 2010, and someone I met there asked me to make up a story on the spot. When I got back home, I wrote down the story with rough illustrations on notecards, and then started to work on it as a picture book. It’s about a mouse who finds the perfect piece of cheese, but can’t eat it because it’s too perfect. So, he hides it for later and starts a new life, but then forgets where he hid it.
Me: I love this idea! How many kids have saved their cupcake or a craft they made at school or something that their parents would consider to be trash…because they knew it was special?! Very relatable and fun. Now I wish I could see your illustrations for that story!
So, where is THE PERFECT CHEESE now?
Brian: My agent, Sera Rivers, and I have adapted it into a graphic novel manuscript and she is currently in the process of shopping it to publishers!
Me: Fantastic! So I may be able to see your illustrations of a mouse’s idea of a perfect piece of cheese after all! I am definitely cheering this project on…keep us all posted…
Are there any themes in that story that you can see in your writing today?
Brian: Over the course of the story, the mouse enlists the help of a cat who also might eat him. So, I guess the story has a theme of ‘complicated friendships,’ which I see in a lot of the projects that I’m currently working on.
Me: And, boy, relationships are all kinds of complicated, aren’t they? And many children’s stories (old and new) address this idea – friends, enemies, who you can trust.
Looking back, what elements of that first story made it unmarketable? Did you receive feedback on that story? What did that feedback teach you?
Brian: The story has gone through many iterations since I first wrote it twelve years ago. In the first draft, the mouse started a family…and then left after having a nervous breakdown over the cheese. I did a public reading of that first draft, and my friend Keith pointed out that this was totally inappropriate for a children’s book. In the current draft, he leaves behind a high end accounting job instead of a family.
More recently, my agent, Sera, has also helped me tweak the cat and mouse’s friendship so that it doesn’t just feel like Stockholm Syndrome.
In both of these instances, the feedback taught me to be more mindful of what message my writing is sending to young readers. I want my stories to have an authentic voice, so I want to be able to write what I find funny or entertaining at the moment. But that also must be balanced with saying the right things about how families and friendships are supposed to work.
Me: That tension between authentic voice and what messages a manuscript conveys is tricky. And I’m so glad you bring that up, because you said it so well – as writers, we do want to hone and craft an authentic voice while holding our readers firmly in our minds as we write.
Why is that “first story” special to you? How was it important for your writing journey?
Brian: At one point, I redrew the story as one long illustration on a rolling piece of paper. I would carry this around with me in a portable ‘scrolling box’ that my friend, Victor, built for me. At the time, I was working as a babysitter and picking two boys up from school. One of the boys’ teachers noticed the box and invited me to come present the story to her classroom. The teacher’s name was Emily. We’re now married and have a two-year-old son. So, the most special thing about this story to me will always be how it led me to falling in love and becoming a father.
Starting a family has been important in my writing journey because it’s gotten me outside of my head. Ultimately, it has taught me to love myself, and my voice, whether the writing I do is good or bad, publishable or unpublishable. Writing is a skill that I have and cherish. But even without this, I know that I still have an inherent value as a person.
Whatever my son winds up doing in life, I want him to know this too: that he brings value to this world just by being himself, regardless of whatever success he finds, or doesn’t find, in his chosen career.
Me: WOW!!! What a story!! We’ve never had a love story directly from a first story here on the blog! Thanks so much for sharing that, Brian, and how being married and being a father have shaped your writing and your view of yourself. That’s GREAT stuff, right there!
I almost feel like we should end on that amazing story, BUT I don’t want to miss the chance to talk to you about YOGA BUNNY! What can you tell us about this book? How did you come up with the idea for this book? Does it relate at all to your “first story”?
Brian: A Friend for Yoga Bunny was released this past February and I’m really thrilled with some of the positive reviews it’s been getting. This is a follow up to my 2016 book, the original ‘Yoga Bunny.’ A few years after this first book’s release, I knew I really wanted to write and illustrate a follow up story, whether it was going to be published or not. So I drew a rough, black and white version of a story that was basically a parody of the Step-Up movies, where Yoga Bunny and his friends have a ‘yoga-off’ against a group of bears in order to defend their turf. I sent it to the publishers and eventually they wrote back saying they were interested in doing another Yoga Bunny story, just not the one I pitched. Lisa Sharkey, a Senior Vice President and Director of Creative Development at HarperCollins, pitched the story that would eventually become the new book, where Yoga Bunny meets a new friend struggling with anxiety. I suggested that the friend be a bear, because I liked the size difference between the bears and Bunny in my ‘Step-Up’ parody.
A Friend for Yoga Bunny relates to The Perfect Cheese in that they both have the theme of friendship. I think the second Yoga Bunny presents a more idealized form of how friendship should work, which is appropriate since it’s for younger readers and has a more relaxing tone. My excellent editor, Luana Horry, and I spent a long time finding the right words so that when Bunny suggests to Bear that she try yoga to help with her anxiety, he’s not telling her what to do or coming off like a guru. I’m really happy with what we ultimately came up with and I hope readers will be too.
To me, the Yoga Bunny series is as much about friendship as it is about yoga, and I hope it can help a young audience form healthy attitudes towards both these things.
Me: I love hearing the story behind your latest release and your illustration is gorgeous. Anything else you’d like to share about your writing journey?
Brian: I’ve already written two more Yoga Bunny stories that I’m very pleased with, and if this second outing sells well enough, then I may be lucky enough to have these published as well. Like I said earlier, my agent is currently pitching a graphic novel version of The Perfect Cheese that I’m really excited about. Finally, I’m working on a dummy for a new picture book called Bee & Amanda about two friends, a witch and a baker, who start their own at-home business together.
I still feel like a beginner at understanding the art of writing a great picture book. When I see the books that my son gets really excited about, like The Bad Seed or Don’t Feed the Coos, I’m very inspired to keep pushing my craft forward. And I know that the best way to do that is to just keep writing, and just keep drawing.
Me: Brian, thanks so much for dropping by today! I can’t wait to see your next release and best wishes for YOGA BUNNY!
Brian: Thanks for having me!
Brian has very generously offered a SIGNED copy of A Friend for Yoga Bunny to one lucky winner! Comment below or retweet one of the Twitter announcements about this First Stories article to be entered in a random drawing. The contest will close Monday, April 25, and the winner will be announced here and on Twitter on Tuesday, April 26. Don’t miss the opportunity to win a signed author copy of this lovely picture book!