melissa iwai and denis markell dish on hush, little monster

Melissa, Jamie, and Denis

Don’t you just love it when one good thing leads to another?

I’ve been a big Melissa Iwai fan for awhile now. How could I not love someone who illustrates a book about a quest for pancakes and then follows up with a self-illustrated title about soup? In addition to her writing, drawing and painting chops, this girl can cook! Just check out The Hungry Artist, where Melissa regularly creates tasty, healthy magic in the kitchen (please adopt me). 🙂

If you’ve seen Melissa’s delightful Soup Day (Henry Holt, 2010), you know it was inspired by the time she spent cooking with her son Jamie. Apparently, we can also thank Jamie for her latest book, Hush, Little Monster (Little, Simon, 2012), which was written by her husband Denis Markell. Because Jamie had trouble sleeping when he was a wee babe, Denis, an award-winning Broadway musical and comedy writer, sang “Hush, Little Baby” to him over and over every. single. night.

Possibly going insane getting really tired of mockingbirds, diamond rings and looking glasses, one night Denis thought about doing a monsterish riff on this traditional lullaby.

Both Denis and Melissa are here today to tell us more about Hush, Little Monster, which features a harried Monster Daddy who tries to comfort his child with a screeching owl, a ghost, a vampire, a witch, an ogre, a werewolf and a few zombies. Never has a monster family proved more endearing than in this sweet, ghoulish lullaby that’s perfect for munchkins eager for a little not-too-scary fun.

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to create a picture book with your spouse and live to tell about it, read on. Melissa’s also sharing a Halloweenish recipe for your little monsters to gobble up!

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Denis, how’d you think of doing a monster-ous spin on this classic lullaby? Did you start singing, “Hush, Little Baby,” to Jamie because it was your childhood favorite?

D:  Honestly, I had in the back of my mind to try and come up with a “seasonal” book that could be trotted out each holiday like Melissa’s Chanukah Lights Everywhere. Somewhere around the third or fourth time singing “Hush Little Baby” one night, the title popped in my head.

Art © 2012 Melissa Iwai

Like any good 21st century author, the first thing I did was run to Amazon to see if anyone else had already written it! I knew it was a good hook and was thrilled when Simon and Schuster expressed interest in it.

Ironically, they eventually asked me to change it from a “Halloween” book to a “Goodnight” book, so it could be sold year ‘round.  Even so, I think all the reviews have treated it like a Halloween book, even though there are no pumpkins or kids dressed up in costumes.

I can’t say it was a childhood favorite.  My good night song, typically, was an old folk song called “The Riddle Song” (“I gave my love a cherry, that had no stone, I gave my love a chicken that had no bone, I gave my love a story that had no end, I gave my love a baby with no crying…”). Unfortunately, I did NOT give my love a baby with no crying. Jamie finally fell asleep somewhere at about six months old. Yikes.

Melissa’s rough thumbnail dummy

Denis and Melissa, would you mind telling us how, when and where you two met? What were your first impressions of each other?

D: We were actually one of the early couples to meet on This was about fifteen years ago. It had just come to New York, so this was long before video, etc. You just wrote to one another. Which we did for a while, eventually meeting at the Guggenheim Museum for our first date.

Famously, my first thought when I saw Melissa was “she’s so pretty!” while she has said that her first thought upon meeting me was ‘”He’s so old!”  For the record, I am nine years older than my still pretty wife.

She was at a place in her life, having just moved to New York, that she wasn’t ready for someone as wonderful as me, so we were friends for a year. I honestly enjoyed the friendship, and wasn’t expecting anything else from Melissa, but I guess a combination of my incredible charm and the fact that I’d started going to a gym regularly wore her down.

M:  Believe it or not, we met on when it was a grass roots, fledging start up!  It was free then, and I signed up when I moved to NYC. There were no photos and hardly anyone on it back then. We emailed for a long time and then met at the Guggenheim museum and had a five hour date. Amazingly when we met, it felt like we already knew each other and we joked and laughed and generally related to each other the way we do now. But we didn’t date until a year later. I think I freaked out about how connected I felt, and I needed to process it. Lol.

Hush, Little Monster is your second collaboration. Can you give us an idea of how you work on your children’s books? 

D:  Usually, we talk to each other about everything, from the earliest glimmers of an idea to a final project. I will discuss concepts with Melissa, and she will show me early sketches. I trust her completely, and I’d like to think I’ve given a few good notes to her along the way. Typically, on the projects that we do together, I have an idea and write a first draft manuscript. Melissa takes it and comes up with a very rough dummy to see if she can find a way into it. If she feels good about it, she’ll go ahead with working up a more detailed dummy. Otherwise, we’ll talk about it, and try and figure out how to adjust the text so it works better for her.

M:  It’s pretty fluid. We discuss ideas together. Usually Denis is the concept person. He’ll write up a manuscript and I give him comments. He’ll rewrite it (usually). I work on the dummy. I show him sketches. Maybe he’ll change something to go with my artwork. I’ll do more sketches. We keep going back and forth like this until we come up with something we’re both happy with.

Aside from initial inspiration, did you seek Jamie’s opinions about either the words or the pictures? What does he think of the finished book?

Early monster sketch

D:  To paraphrase a quote from one of Jamie’s favorite books (Boromir, from The Fellowship Of The Ring) “One does not simply seek Jamie’s opinion.”  Typically, he is very supportive, but at this point, he is a little old for the picture books that Melissa and I have done together. Now it’s more along the nature of showing up at book events and ‘helping out’ any way he can.

M:  For this book, since Jamie was young when it was developed, he didn’t. But these days, as an eight year old, he’s always giving us suggestions on things we are working on now. Ha ha. He’s writing his own “novel” and he wants me to illustrate it. I told him he should do them!  He does love Hush, Little Monster, though, and he is our biggest fan.

Denis, you’ve written for musical theatre and TV sitcoms, as well as lots of other comedy material for people like Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth, and Joan Rivers. Is it more difficult writing for children or adults? Do you think you would have gravitated to children’s books if you had not had any kids of your own?

D:  Honestly, at the moment I’m writing a Middle Grade novel, which has been by far the hardest writing I’ve had to do.  When writing for picture books or for the grown ups you’ve cited, being silly works just fine. I’ve loved the humor of the classic children’s books (Bedtime For Frances being a particular favorite) and these days who doesn’t laugh at Mo Willems’ stuff? I think writing humor for nine-to-twelve-year olds is the trickiest, as they are so self conscious about so many things.

As to your second question, Melissa and I were working on children’s books years before Jamie was born, so that wasn’t hypothetical!  I don’t think I would have moved over to try my hand at Middle Grade without Jamie, however.

Melissa, any special challenges illustrating Hush, Little Monster? Please give us a brief step-by-step explanation of how you created your favorite illustration from the book.

M:  I went through several different approaches with the artwork. I tried all digital, then traditional painting. Nothing seemed right. Then our editor told me they really wanted line work to be a part of the work and so I incorporated line using brush and ink. I’m actually pleased with the way it turned out in the end. I think my favorite piece is the spread where they are kissing him “good night” and the spiders are falling out of his pillow.

Rough sketch of tucking in bed scene.
Final art for tucking in bed scene.

To create the artwork, I did the paintings in acrylic and various dyes and ink washes on watercolor paper. I painted the line in India ink on opaque vellum. Then I scanned both into the computer and put them together digitally. I did this because I was apprehensive about doing line work and having it on a separate layer made it easier to correct any mistakes I made. I also used separate layers for the ink washes. This gave me more control on the values in the illustrations. For example, for the cover, I made a wash of India ink that I scanned in and put on a separate layer from the painting of the characters. I could make certain areas lighter, for example the cat’s eyes, by “cutting away” parts of that dark wash layer.

Painting of cover
Line work (before assembling of cover).

Denis, what’s your favorite illustration and why?

D:  This was a hard one, as I like so many of them. But I’m going to pick the “Zombie Invasion” picture for a couple of reasons. First off, it was a late addition, as originally after the broom flies away, the verse went: If that broom won’t sweep as planned, Here comes our friend the Zombie to lend a hand.  If that Hand just runs away/You’ll go to the graveyard where you can play. 

 The picture Melissa had done was of the Zombie holding one of his hands, which has fallen off, in the other and waving it “hello.”

Then in the next picture, we see him chasing after the hand which is hopping away on two fingers. It was hilarious. The good people at Simon and Schuster felt this was a little too morbid for the little ones, so we came up with the spread that’s in the book.

Monster Mom carrying monster cookies!

I get a kick out of the classic “Zombies breaking down the door and coming through the walls” but instead of being horrified, the family is delighted to see them, with the Monster Daddy seeming to say “Hey Zombie, what took you so long?” and the Daddy Zombie saying “The Traffic was a nightmare!”  I also like that Little Monster has gotten a playmate!

Three things Jamie has taught you.

D:  1. Eight hours of sleep is not necessary. Okay, five hours of sleep is not necessary.

2. Real little kids (like Jamie and his friends) come up with comments and remarks that if you were to put it in a script, people would say “no child actually talks like that.”   Yes, they do.

3. You never get tired of hearing “I love you daddy” no matter how many times you hear it.  Then again, if you’re lucky you’ll get stuff like:  “You’re the best daddy in the whole world…okay, in Brooklyn…okay, on this block..”

M:  One thing he has taught me is to have faith in myself and my work. Sometimes it is not always easy! He has such an abundance of faith and confidence in himself and in us – it is infectious. I hope he continues to have this ability throughout his life!

Writing and illustrating are both very tough gigs. What are some of the ways you support each other in your work? What do you admire most about each other as artists and human beings?

D:  Because of our flexible schedules, we can split the responsibilities of looking after our son, with my taking up some of the slack when Melissa has a deadline, and she doing the same for me. I think we are both very tolerant of the other person’s need for time alone or time to get the work done. We also try to critique each other’s contribution constructively and without rancor. We are not competitive with each other, and I like to think we’re both genuinely happy for the other when they receive praise or success.

As to what I admire most about Melissa as an artist? Besides her incredible color sense and compositional genius, her willingness to try new media, and adapt to the current market rather than sitting in a corner and sucking her thumb if art directors aren’t looking at certain styles at the moment. She also has an amazing work ethic, which I hope Jamie will emulate. I will leave any description of my work ethic to your imagination.

As to what I admire as a person, Melissa is the most supportive person in every way, and is able to not only create works of art in her books, but in the kitchen as well (combined so well in her Soup Day)! She puts up with my finicky taste and sees it as a challenge instead of a barrier to creating meals.  Well, most of the time. She is also the best mother in the world. Okay, in Brooklyn. Okay, this block.

M:  Because we both work in similar fields, we understand the trials and tribulations that come with our occupations in a way that might be more difficult for someone who works a 9-5 job in an office or just even someone who works in-house!  So that is something I do not take for granted. We work separately (we have two different floors), but then we can always bounce ideas off of each other at other times during the day—over lunch, at night, etc. So we are very lucky. I can’t imagine doing what I do without Denis. He is definitely my biggest supporter!

I have always admired his wit and charm from the moment I met him. He is a wonderful story teller and song writer. When we were just getting to know each other, he shared with me some recordings of the songs he had written with his writing partner, Doug, and I completely and utterly fell in love with them (and him!)  It sounds horrible (though I know he feels the exact same way!), but if I didn’t love his work, I don’t think we would have ever gotten together. It’s not just the talent part and admiring that though – it’s that we share the same sense of humor and have a similar sensibility in other areas of art – literature, music, film.

What I admire about him as a human being is his enormous capacity for giving and loving. He also has a strong sense of integrity – both of these qualities I admire so much and find to be quite rare. When I see these qualities in him, it pushes me to be a better person in those ways myself. He’s a wonderful partner and father, and I feel very lucky to have him in my life.

Please tell us about your most memorable Halloween as a child and as an adult.

D:  I can’t remember the year, maybe I was four or so. My parents made me a robot costume out of a box and silver paper. I remember being thrilled with it. The fact that I couldn’t really move in it, and had to wear a sweater because it was so cold (Robots do not wear sweaters! – wait…that could be a title for a new book..) didn’t lessen the coolness factor.

Denis in his robot costume.

As an adult?  Hmmm….We tend to do Halloween pretty big here in Brooklyn, so most Halloweens since Jamie has been born have been a lot of fun. Last year, Jamie decided to be a character from Harry Potter. Being Jamie, he didn’t want to be Harry or Ron, or even Dumbledore…he wanted to be Nagini, Lord Voldemort’s snake. Which meant that I got to be Lord Voldemort. I tried to scare all the little Harrys and Hermiones running around, but they were too tough for me.

M:  The only thing I can remember is that when I was about 10, I was allowed to go trick-or-treating with my friends without an adult. It was really liberating and a bit scary at the same time. Of course, that probably wouldn’t happen today!

Melissa in her robot costume.

What are your plans for Halloween this year (will you be dressing up as the characters in the book)?

D:  That’s a great idea, but I don’t think Jamie would go for it.  Although I think he will be green this year.  He wants to go as a creeper from Minecraft (if you don’t know what that is, lucky you).

M:  I was thinking of being a zombie mom.  I was a zombie/Death Eater (we were all Harry Potter characters – Denis was Voldemort, and Jamie was Nagini).  I loved doing the gory makeup. I have a tutorial on it here.


Anything else you’d like to add about the experience of creating this book?

D:  I worked with a terrific editor at Little Simon, Sonali Fry, whose attention to detail and overall dedication to making the book the best it could be was a pleasure to experience.

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 * * * GRAVEYARD CUPS * * *


Chocolate Pudding
Some Oreo cookies or other chocolate wafer cookies
Graveyard decorations (Halloween candy, gummy worms, fondant shaped into creatures)
Long cookie, such as Milano or graham cracker shaped into a tombstone shape
Frosting for decorating

  1. Spoon some chocolate pudding into glass cups (it’s more fun to see what is buried in the “dirt”!) You can place gummy worms or other creepy candy creatures on top, then cover with more pudding.
  2. Process cookies in a food processor until ground to form “dirt”. Alternately, place cookies in a plastic bag, seal, and crush with a rolling pin.
  3. Make tombstones by writing “RIP” in frosting on Milano cookies or graham cracker. Place into dirt and decorate with more Halloween inspired creatures. We made fondant ghosts. Recipe for fondant found here.

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written by Denis Markell
illustrated by Melissa Iwai
published by Little Simon, 2012
Full-color Picture Book for ages 4-6, 32 pp.
Cool themes: lullabies, humor, Halloween, monsters, family
*Starred Review* from Publishers Weekly
**Available in hardcover and eBook

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  • Saturday, October 27: Books of Wonder, 18 West 18th Street, NYC, 12 -2 p.m.
  • Sunday, October 28: Book Court, 163 Court Street, Brooklyn, 11 a.m.
  • Saturday, November 10, Park Slope Barnes & Noble, 267 7th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 2-3 p.m.
  • Saturday, November 17: Brooklyn Museum Children’s Book Fair, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY, 12 – 4 p.m.

♥ Melissa Iwai’s Official Website — look for the Hush, Little Monster Coloring Sheet!

♥ Melissa’s food blog, The Hungry Artist click here for her Monster Cookie recipe!


♥ The aforementioned “pancake book”: Snuggle Mountain by Lindsey Lane and Melissa Iwai (an interactive picture book App by Pickpocket, 2011).


Click here for a review of Melissa’s Soup Day at Alphabet Soup. Her Vegetable Soup recipe (+ video) is here.


♥ Melissa just taped a series of Quick, Healthy Dessert videos with Katherine Lee at — Chocolate Zucchini Bread or Peanut Butter Truffles, anyone?

♥ This just in: Melissa’s next book is called Truck Stop, written by Anne Rockwell (Viking, 2013)! Yay!

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Thank you so much for visiting today, Denis and Melissa! You are zombie hands down the most talented and good-looking children’s book team in the world . . .

okay, in Brooklyn . . .

okay, on this blog . . .

🙂 ♥


*Spreads from Hush, Little Monster posted with permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2012 Denis Markell, illustrations © 2012 Melissa Iwai, published by Little Simon. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.


24 thoughts on “melissa iwai and denis markell dish on hush, little monster

  1. Wow, everything about this post is wonderful! This book looks great – both the text and the illustrations! I am so rushing out today to find Hush Little Monster! I also love the story of how they met – I think that could make a fabulously fun graphic novel! Off to watch Melissa’s videos….


    1. Yes, a graphic novel! Great idea! These two are perfect for that type of project. Maybe they already have one in the works . . .

      Hope you get the book pronto and review it on your blog. Spread the monster love! 🙂


  2. Oh Jama, an online meet-up! How positively awesome and inspiring! I loved reading their love story and Jamie looks handsome! And look at those gorgeous illustrations and a spooky recipe to boot – my heart, be still. I will hunt down their books here in Singapore. We should have them here. 🙂


    1. I know — I LOVE the story of how they met, and didn’t realize that in the early days of, you just emailed each other. Even more romantic, yes? There’s so much love in that family — the pictures speak volumes.

      Definitely look for their books, and also the other titles Melissa has illustrated for other authors. And check out The Hungry Artist — I know you’re a fellow food lover. Melissa does a beautiful job with her recipes and posts.


    1. I thought of you when I first saw the robot costumes. These two were fated to be together, don’t you think? And that *does* look like a genie lamp. These Brooklyn people lead magical lives . . .


  3. I have to say, Jama, this couple, everything about them, is so inspirational. The first picture of them with their son, Jamie is as beautiful as this interview. I’m adding several titles to my list and I’ve bookmarked her cooking site. I love books inspired by real life. Thanks to all.


    1. Yes, that first picture says so much. Feel happy every time I look at it! I’m grateful to D and M for taking the time to write such thoughtful answers to my questions — so nice of them to be so candid, too. I laughed when I heard that Melissa first thought Denis looked so old — my same reaction when I first saw Len (who’s 3 years older).

      They’re definitely very inspiring people — partners in life, partners in work, each supporting the other through thick and thin. 🙂


  4. Since the question has been asked, I feel I need to respond (while blushing at all the sweet comments). The “Genie Lamp’ behind me in the robot photo is indeed “Aladdin’s Lamp’ with a very special story attached to it. My father started his career as one of the first (and best) set designers in the early days of Television. One of the shows he was proudest of was Cole Porter’s Aladdin, which had a book by S.J. Perleman.

    My sister (who is two years older than me) was visiting the set one day and a prop man gave her the lamp as a ‘souvenir’ which wasn’t really supposed to happen! I forget if they ‘borrowed’ it back for the show or if they had more than one and let her keep it. But my dad has it still!



    1. That is just too cool, Denis! Were you and your sister allowed to play with it at all? Believe it or not, I’ve always wanted to be a set designer — one of my dream occupations along with interior decorator :).


  5. The book is just great sounding, Jama, Melissa & Denis. There are lots of bedtime songs sung for my little granddaughters, and the oldest (3) is lately much enamored with monsters. This is the book for her! I can just imagine singing “hush little monster…” Thanks for the amazing interview. It was nice hearing the story of your meeting, the collaboration & how it works, now including Jamie. I know some of the books and will certainly look out for more!


    1. This does sound like the perfect book for your granddaughter, and I can just imagine you singing it to her. And then, of course, you’d make Graveyard Cups or Monster Cookies together :).


  6. Marvelous interview! Their warmth and endearing personalities come shining through and make me want to gobble up every one of their books!


    1. Maybe I need to change their description to, “the most talented, good-looking, warm and endearing children’s book team in the world.” 🙂 Thanks for reading. Glad you enjoyed the interview.


  7. so fantastic that this writing/illustrating team met by writing back and forth to each other. love that! and how great to be able to bounce ideas off each other every day – not many picture books writers have that luxury. great interview, as always!


  8. Jama, this is a delightful interview. Do you base the majority of your posts on books you’ve found yourself or ones sent to you by authors/publishers?


    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Kathleen.

      The answer to your question is both. For the most part, I “find” the books and request them from publishers. I’m very selective about what I’ll feature here in the interest of time and space.


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