This book is loosely inspired by our Covid puppy, Zooni, who arrived in our lives in April of 2020, at 8 weeks old, adopted from a family who was giving her up. In the Kashmiri language of India, the word for moon is ZOON, and ZOONI is a cute pet name given to girl children. We named the pup ZOONI given how cute she was, and quickly discovered that not only was she quote, but she had the sweetest, friendliest, personality. I would often call the pup ZOONI MOONI, and one day I thought to myself, ZOONI AND MOONI sounds like the title of a book. Perhaps it could be a book about a dog and another character, maybe a cat?
Once the idea was seeded in my mind, I tried to imagine who these characters would be. ZOONI was easy, since I could base the character on my pup's personality (friendly, kind, empathetic, helpful..), and the secondary character would develop based on playing off the character of ZOONI.
To develop a book idea, I need two things: a character and a story. First I tried to see if I could come up with a cute looking character. Here are early sketches, trying to come up with a character who resembles Zooni:
I decided to try a graphic novel early reader format, but, since I love poetry, maybe this one could be in rhyme (like a Dr. Seuss book).
At this point in time, Zooni the pup was in her chewing phase - chewing everything including shoes. Shoe is an easy word to rhyme, so I thought of, maybe a story about a missing shoe? Maybe a shoe... lost at a zoo? Stolen by a kangaroo? Or a shrew? There seemed to be many rhyming possibilities here!
Having written three poetry collections to date, I thought writing a story in rhyme would be easy. Boy was I wrong! Writing a story in conversational dialogue proved to be particularly challenging. A story needs to have an arc and progress logically. And the dialogue has to sound natural and conversational. Doing all that in rhyme turned out not to be easy at all. I was planning a 72 page book, but halfway through it I got stuck. I simply could not find the words to proceed. For about six months the story went absolutely nowhere. Finally I shared it with my critique group (you know who you are), and their excitement about the story compelled me to sit down and try to finish it. And one afternoon, in a flash of brilliance, I found myself writing the entire 36 pages I needed. This was followed by creating sketches for the story along with a few pages of finished art, which looked like this:
Well obviously I did not have any more stories. So I brainstormed with myself and came up with this:
Luckily my agent liked the first story enough to send the proposal forward to my editor at Holiday House. The editor instantly loved the idea of doing a graphic novel in rhyme, because apparently teachers and librarians are constantly looking for alternatives to Dr. Seuss, and there just aren't that many of them out there.
However my editor had a couple of requests. Would I consider removing the Mooni character and just having a single protagonist? Uhm, ok, i thought, I'm willing to try that and see what happens.
The next thing the editor asked for was to redesign the Zooni character and make them more adorable. My original design was intentionally simplified to save myself from the hard labor of drawing a complex character over and over again - the way Mickey Mouse's ears are always 2 circles flat on, which was a device Walt Disney reduce his drawing effort. I redesigned the character:
Finally the editor asked if I would change the 72-page book to a 96-page book, and BTW, can you shrink this 72-page story to 30-pages, add 2 more full stories, and a couple of interspersed mini-comics. And create 2 books like this?
Wait, what? It was hard enough putting that one 72-page story together in rhyme, and now I needed to write 5 more full stories, in rhyme, and add 4 short mini-comics? That seemed like quite a challenge, but I'm not one to back down from a challenge. With a fair bit of struggle, I managed to flesh out the 'Lost at Sea' story, and add a third story about a 'Cave Rescue'. This process took a long time as I would often get stuck trying to find the right words for the next thing the characters needed to say to move the story forward. Sometimes it would take days or weeks for me to write 2 lines of rhyme. Finally, once I had 96 pages of rhyming content for the first book, we inked a deal for two books, and talk about a leap of faith, the second book was entirely unconceived in any detail at that point of time.
Next it was time to develop the finished art. In my previous OWL & PENGUIN books, I had strived for a very warm, soft, and organic look that would feel welcoming to a 3-year old reader, and put more focus on the art since there are very few words in those books. For ZOONI TALES, I decided to create a completely different look, maybe one closer to the comics that a slightly older reader might encounter, and one where the emphasis could remain on the rhyme. Here are 2 pages side-by-side so you can see the difference for yourself.
Similarly, not being able to find an ideal font for the title, I decided to create a Title font too. I ended up creating five different variations, and, with input from my editor, finally arrived at a font that is furry, has wagging tails, curly glyphs, and little pawprints. This is the font we used for the final book title:
Anyway, after a marathon of effort the art was turned in. But then I was asked if I could create a cover for Book #2, so the publisher could print it on the back of Book #1. At this point Book #2 is not even written yet, let alone drawn, so I had to scramble to finish a story for Book #2, draw the internal art for it, and then base the cover off the internal art, another speed-marathon in itself. Here are the covers for Book #1 and Book #2, side by side:
ZOONI TALES #1 released October 2023. ZOONI TALES #2 releases June 2024. Look for both books everywhere books are sold.
Here is a quick flip-through ZOONI #1 to give you an idea of the book.