Chatting with Author/Illustrator Melissa Iwai about Pizza Day (+ a recipe and giveaway!)

Few words elicit more mealtime cheers than:


It doesn’t matter how old you are. Just hearing the word ‘pizza’ you’re suddenly starving for peppers, mushrooms, onions, and olives (okay, pepperoni and sausage) enmeshed in a savory tomato sauce and ooey gooey melty cheese, happily resting atop a thin and crispy or thick and chewy crust. Oh yes!

There’s just something about rolling your pizza cutter over the outer edge of crust and hearing that little ‘crack’ as you free that first hot slice. Then you blow on it just a little before taking your first bite of savory goodness, pulling a long string of mozzarella and gobbling it up quickly so you get it all in your mouth.

If you’re a pizza lover, you’ve come to the right place. Brooklyn-based author/illustrator Melissa Iwai is here to tell us all about her brand new, freshly baked picture book, Pizza Day (Henry Holt, 2017) , which officially hits shelves today. Yum!

Pizza Day is especially geared for hungry preschool munchkins, and is a tasty companion book to Melissa’s wildly popular Soup Day (Henry Holt, 2010). While his mother is away at work, an eager young boy and his father pick fresh veggies and herbs from their garden to make a pizza from scratch.

Accompanied by an adorable puppy named Caesar, they gather juicy red tomatoes, basil sprigs, carrots, onions and a green pepper, all grown from seeds they planted in the Spring.

Father and son wash the vegetables, then make the pizza dough, measuring and stirring ingredients, kneading the dough, then letting it rest and rise. Vegetables are chopped and added to the sauce, which is left to simmer on the stove while they enjoy playing together outside.

Then it’s back indoors to punch down and roll out the dough before assembling the pizza. Soon, Mom is there to make a tossed salad before the family enjoys their mouthwatering meal al fresco. There is nothing like pizza day! 🙂

This book gives kids an interesting taste of garden to table eating. They will love seeing how one of their favorite foods is made, step by step, and where the ingredients come from. Just like in Soup Day, Melissa weaves in concepts like shapes, colors, and counting as part of the cooking process, reinforcing the importance of direct participation and pride in ownership.

Once again, she focuses on a heartwarming relationship between parent and child. There is time for work as well as play, and savoring what has been accomplished together — a kind of ‘secret ingredient’ that makes everything taste better. 🙂

I love her cheery illustrations with their adorable touches (the boy’s determined tongue during preparation, and him peeking under the dishtowel and pot lid to wish the dough and sauce “Sweet Dreams” while they take a nap). You can just feel his exuberance, energy, and anticipation as he kneels among the tall tomato plants, kneads and punches down the pizza dough, and intently watches the cooked sauce whiz in the blender. Wait till you see the final spread of him eating — sheer bliss!!

Now, let’s find out more about Pizza Day from Melissa, who’s also sharing some personal and art process photos, as well as her recipe for Garden Pizza, which she included in the book.

Buon Appetito!



Did your family make homemade pizza when you were growing up? When did you first learn how to make your own pizza?

My mom cooked almost every single night during my childhood. But pizza was definitely not in her cooking repertoire! Since my parents both hail from Hawaii and my grandparents were from Japan, most of our meals were Asian-inspired and often a fusion of different cuisines. We ate rice every night along with whatever the main course was, whether it was fish or meatloaf or Thanksgiving turkey.

Melissa attacking the cookie.

Pizza night, which was very rare, took place at a local pizza parlor rather than at home. I loved it because old black and white movies of Charlie Chaplin and Abbott and Costello played continuously from a reel-to-reel projector in the eating area. Also my brother and I got to drink soda (which was very rare). So eating pizza was always a very special occasion growing up.

I didn’t make my own pizza until I was a mom! Before that, I often made “pizzas” using pita bread or Boboli crusts. It didn’t occur to me to make my own crust until I started baking bread later in life.

Pizza Day is a wonderful companion book to Soup Day. Were there any things you did differently for Pizza Day as a result of your experience with Soup Day? Was the second book easier or more difficult to do?

Thank you!

Actually while I did write Soup Day first, I wrote Pizza Day soon after and submitted them together in 2009! I initially got the green light for both, but then due to the economic crisis completely affecting the publishing industry at that time, I was later told Soup Day was a yes, while Pizza Day was a no.

After working on many other book projects over the years and seeing my style and work evolve, I decided to revisit Pizza Day a couple of years ago. I completely redid the dummy, incorporated hand lettering, tweaked the recipe, and redid two final samples. I was able to sell the new version to my publisher! So though the two books have the same spirit and overall feel, they differ slightly in terms of art style. I think having that long span of time in between the two books was actually a blessing because this current version is SO much better than what I had originally turned in.

In your story, the boy and his father make pizza with ingredients they’ve grown in their own garden. Do you grow any of your own herbs or vegetables? Any tips for apartment dwellers or urbanites who want to grow their own food with their kids?

Sadly, I have not inherited the gardening gene from either of my parents who are both amazing with plants. It hasn’t stopped me from trying many times though! I have successfully grown tomatoes and basil in our backyard.

The weather or squirrels toppled these green ones off the plants before they ripened properly, so I made Fried Green Tomatoes with these.

We have such little space in our dark apartment and tiny backyard (we feel lucky to have one at all in Brooklyn!), so I stick with smaller plants.

Our garden

If you live in the city and are fortunate enough to have a window that gets lots of sunlight, you can grow a little window garden with herbs such as basil, thyme, oregano, etc. You can either start them from seed (I confess, I have not had success with this) or buy tiny plants at the farmer’s market or garden section of a store. You need a sunny window that gets at least five hours of sun a day. Be sure to have enough drainage for the pot and don’t over water your plants!

From reading Soup Day, I learned that you encouraged your son Jamie (who’s now in 8th grade) to help you in the kitchen from an early age. Can you share one of your favorite memories of cooking with him? Does he still like to cook today?

I remember from the time Jamie was a baby I would have him in his high chair across the counter from me while I cooked in the kitchen.

I used to do a lot of baking and cooking projects with him when he was a child. One of my favorite memories was when we made a haunted gingerbread house. Jamie helped me make the dough and stained glass “windows”. He made all of the monsters out of fondant, and we decorated the whole thing together.

(Click for Haunted Gingerbread House instructions at The Hungry Artist)

Jamie still loves to cook which makes my heart sing. He often makes his own meals and enjoys making up his own recipes as well as finding them online and watching cooking videos on YouTube.

Jamie’s Pasta Shells with Three Cheese Sauce

For Valentine’s Day he made me and Denis a lovely dinner of chicken parmesan, salad, and panna cotta all by himself. He even designed the menu for it.

I’m so proud of him and happy he has these skills and an appreciation for good food!

I was happy to see that Pizza Day featured a biracial family. Why did you make this choice? Are you seeing a noticeable difference in the availability of diverse titles for the pre-K-1 age group now compared to when Soup Day was published seven years ago?

Yes! I’m so glad you noticed. Growing up in the 60s and 70s in a small coastal town with only a handful of Asian Americans (we literally knew all of them in the town!), I always felt different. I actually wished I were Caucasian so I would fit in and also be potentially cast as a Brady, Ingalls, or Walton sibling! I knew it was never going to happen being Asian, as I never saw anyone who looked like me on television (except the newscasters, Tricia Toyota and Connie Chung, and the occasional commercial featuring silk stockings or “exotic” Asian food).

Children’s books back then were the same. I had only two books that had Asian people in them (The Seven Chinese Brothers and a book of Japanese folktales), but they weren’t American living the kind of life I led. I don’t remember seeing any books that had kids like me in them for years, and I was a voracious reader.

This experience has definitely informed my work. I want to show people who might not always be represented in my book illustrations. But I don’t want to necessarily be overt about it. I try to show them in American settings that have nothing to do with their ethnicities or cultural backgrounds. I want my books to be the kind of books I wished I had as a kid.

I made the Soup Day girl an adopted child from Asia and the Pizza Day boy biracial because I wanted to show families I wasn’t seeing so much in books but seeing a lot of in my neighborhood. It’s easier to do when I’m the author! But when I’ve Illustrated other’s words, I try to do this as well. For example, the families in Night Shift Daddy and Let’s Go to the Hardware Store are also biracial even though that aspect isn’t part of the text of the story. Most people don’t notice, and that’s fine. People who see themselves in those books have mentioned it to me, and that makes me happy.

I do think that there are more books that portray diversity for the Pre-K age group now compared to 2010, which is great. I hope this trend continues– not just in terms of ethnicities but other ways in which people are under represented.

How did you create the illustrations for this book? Please give us a brief step-by-step description of your process using your favorite illustration as an example.

The illustrations for Pizza Day are made up of different hand-painted elements that I scan in and assemble digitally.

This is how I did the illustration for the scene where the boy purées the sauce in the blender.

I start with the sketch from my dummy.


Then I painted parts of the boy and blender in ink.


I painted the background in watercolor.


Then I scanned all the different elements in and cleaned them up in Photoshop. I filled the shapes with a solid color. Then “cut” them out.


I filled the shapes with watercolor swatches that I had painted previously and scanned in. Then I assembled everything digitally.


I shaded and added details digitally using Kyle T. Webster brushes, which I love. I kept everything on a separate layer in case I needed to alter anything later. I grouped them together in my layers window to keep everything organized. Here is the final image:

I end up with hundreds and hundreds of layers per file! When I transfer my files to my publisher I merge and flatten the groups of layers so the final file isn’t enormous and complicated. But I still keep some layers in case I need to move everything around. If I have a bigger revision later, I’ll go back to the original unmerged file and I just adjust it there.

Here’s a portion of my layers file for another spread in the book.

From the book’s dedication, it sounds like Jamie and your husband Denis are big pizza lovers. What are their favorite toppings? What’s your favorite kind of pizza?

Denis is a purist and prefers just sauce and cheese. Jamie is more adventurous and loves pizza alla vodka (which I have not attempted making yet)! My favorite is sausage and veggie with a lot of red pepper flakes and fresh basil on top.

Judging from your food blog The Hungry Artist, you are as creative in the kitchen as you are with book writing and illustration. Where does your passion for food come from, and what similarities do you see between cooking and writing/illustrating?

Thank you! Though I’ve been cooking since I was a kid, I was never passionate about cooking until I got married. It is much more rewarding to cook for and eat with another person, I think.

Yes, there are definitely similarities between cooking, writing, and illustrating. All are creative forms of expression to me. I love creating new recipes, experimenting with ingredients, playing in the kitchen, much like I love to create stories and illustrations.

With cooking, if you are following some one else’s recipe, it is kind of like playing music—you follow along with how it is written, but you can still add your own interpretation and flavor to it. There’s something so amazing about creating something entirely new from independent, disparate parts. And of course, I love eating the final product!

Can you tell us a little about how you developed the Garden Pizza recipe you included in the book? How long did it take you to tweak it till it was just right?

Sure. The pizza recipe was trickier than the Snowy Day Soup recipe featured in Soup Day. I wanted to create a completely original recipe for the entire pizza. I did a lot of research and tried out a bunch of different crust recipes to start. Then I created my own from what I learned through experience and experimentation.

Dough ingredients
Dough pre-rise

For the sauce, I knew I wanted to use fresh tomatoes and other vegetables. A lot of recipes call for canned crushed tomatoes and garlic and that’s about it. You can make your own canned tomatoes but it involves blanching and peeling the tomatoes. I wanted something less time-consuming and simpler for kids and parents to do together. So I decided to cook the vegetables first to soften and break down, add tomato paste as a thickening agent, and then puree the mixture in a blender.

Sauce ingredients
Sauce cooking
Finished sauce

There are a lot of nutrients and fiber in the skin of the tomatoes, so this is a plus too. I think I must have made this pizza close to 10 times, trying to get the ratios and cooking times right. It’s a good thing I had pizza eaters in the house!

Rolled out dough
Pizza pre-bake
Finished pizza slice


 Anything else you’d like us to know about Pizza Day?

I mentioned before that I wrote Pizza Day soon after Soup Day. I originally envisioned a series of four books, each associated with a different season and place. Soup Day takes place in the city in winter, and Pizza Day takes place in the suburbs in the summer. I have ideas for fall and spring also. It would be wonderful to do another set of books in the future!

What’s next for you?

I am currently finishing up a non-fiction picture book for older kids that will be published next year. It’s written by the amazing Marc Tyler Nobleman and it’s about a Japanese World War II pilot who bombed the Oregon coast.

And I’ve already started a board book that is the sequel to So Big! Yosemite, which came out this year. It’s called So Small! Yosemite. After that I will be focusing on a huge project I recently sold to my publisher, Henry Holt that will be an adult DIY book. It’s all about birthday parties and will feature crafts, birthday cakes, and food projects that I am currently developing. I’m going to give myself two years to do it, so I’m pretty busy for the next couple of years!

Though it will be a DIY book and not a picture book, it will be in the same spirit of Pizza Day and Soup Day in that it celebrates families cooking and crafting together at home that kids and adults alike can enjoy.



Melissa Iwai's Garden Pizza

  • Servings: makes 2 medium pizzas
  • Difficulty: average
  • Print


Pizza Dough

  • nonstick spray or oil for greasing
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 3 cups flour, divided, plus more if needed

Pizza Sauce

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1/4 cup chopped carrot
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons chopped garlic, about 2 cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 2-1/2 cups chopped vine-ripened tomatoes, about 3 large
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste

Directions for the Dough and Sauce

  1. Spray a large bowl with nonstick spray. Set aside.
  2. Whisk together yeast, water, olive oil, and salt in another large bowl until combined. Let sit for about 5 minutes.
  3. Add 2 cups of the flour and mix together until well-blended.
  4. Add small amounts of the leftover flour gradually (you may use half or all) until dough forms a ball.
  5. Sprinkle flour onto a large board or countertop, and dump out dough. Knead for 5 minutes, adding a bit of the remaining flour each time it starts to feel sticky. You want to end up with a smooth, elastic mound of dough.
  6. Shape dough into a large ball. Place in the greased bowl and turn the dough to coat it with oil. Cover with a damp cloth and let rest for 1 hour.
  7. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and sauté onions, carrots, garlic, salt, and herbs until onion is translucent.
  8. Add tomatoes and paste. Simmer until softened on very low heat, covered, about 20 to 30 minutes. Stir occasionally.
  9. Pulse in blender or food processor to desired chunkiness.

Directions for Assembling the Pizza

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees for 10 minutes.
  2. Divide pizza dough in half and roll each into a ball. Let rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. Lightly dust 2 baking sheets and a rolling pin with flour. Roll out each ball of dough into a circle on each baking sheet.
  4. Use a spoon to spread pizza sauce onto each. Add fresh veggies, pepperoni, cooked sausage, shredded mozzarella, grated parmesan cheese, goat cheese — whatever you like!
  5. Bake for 10 to 13 minutes, depending on how crunchy you like your crust.

~ from Pizza Day by Melissa Iwai (Henry Holt, 2017), as posted at Jama’s Alphabet Soup.




written and illustrated by Melissa Iwai
published by Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt & Co., October 31, 2017
Picture Book for ages 2-6, 40 pp.

🍕Click here for a free downloadable Teacher’s Guide for Pizza Day

🍕Visit Melissa Iwai’s Official Website for lots more about all of her books. Also check out her delicious, healthy eating food blog, The Hungry Artist.

🍕Enjoy this cool book trailer created by Melissa’s son Jamie:



The publisher has generously donated a copy of PIZZA DAY for one lucky Alphabet Soup reader. For a chance to win, simply leave a comment at this post telling us what your favorite pizza toppings are no later than midnight (EST) November 7, 2017. You may also enter by sending an email with PIZZA in the subject line to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Giveaway open to residents of the U.S. and Canada only, please. Good Luck!


Collect both Soup Day and Pizza Day (Soup Day board book is also out today!)




*Interior spreads from Pizza Day posted by permission of the publisher, text and illustrations copyright © 2017 Melissa Iwai, published by Henry Holt & Co. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2017 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

50 thoughts on “Chatting with Author/Illustrator Melissa Iwai about Pizza Day (+ a recipe and giveaway!)

  1. Congrats, Melissa! I’m hungry for pizza now ;). I loved learning about your illustration process. Thanks for sharing, Jama 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s a wonderful post, Jama. And thanks, Melissa for sharing so much of your process and the history of Pizza Day! I will share the recipe with my daughter who makes her own pizza, too. Just an FYI about the book. It already has 5 holds at my library, among 16 copies! I love the diversity that you mentioned, have several nieces & nephews who are grown now but we looked often for books that showed “them”! And I love all the pics shown, but especially that double-page spread with counting, so great for the younger readers. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much, Jama for featuring Pizza Day in such a wonderful post. You put such time and care into your process which is why u love your big so much. I feel so honored to be included. Thank you! 😍

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hooray for Pizza Day! I know this will be a favorite book for many kids whose favorite food is Pizza!
    This wonderful post make me want to eat pizza – I’ll try the recipe. I’m thinking grilled onions and tomatoes with goat cheese sounds good.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hello Jama! Hello Melissa! I can’t believe we both talked about Pizza Day on our blogs today Jama but then when it comes to food and children’s books who can resist. I loved learning about your process Melissa. Your blog posts are wonderful Jama. Happy Halloween to you both.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Enjoyed your post, Margie — you always write the BEST reviews. Nice coincidence that we both posted about Pizza Day today. Hungry minds think alike. 🙂 Happy Halloween to you and Mulan.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Looks like a cute book! I loved learning her development of the story and seeing her process of creating the illustrations. Pizza day here changes all the time…it’s always Friday, but sometimes I make the dough from scratch, sometimes I let the kids make their own pizzas using thin bread rounds, and every now & then we’ll order out. This Friday, I’m surprising them with a southern-New England oddity known as bakery pizza, which is just dough and plain sauce – very lightly seasoned if at all – with grated Parmesan sprinkled on top. (That’s it!) I’m doing a “beach” version, which is fried dough topped with sauce and Parmesan – something I’ve been told one can only find up here.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. What a fun interview! I especially loved the anecdote about Valentine’s Day! My favorite pizza topping is basically tons of gooey cheese. After that, almost anything else is good but no meat! :–)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Jama,
    Thank you for this wonderful interview with the author. It gives us so much insight into what goes into writing a book and the ups and downs of publishing. I also enjoyed reading about the author’s background and it’s influence on the book. Don’t think I’ll be making Pizza – but might get this for a gift for my grandchildren who love to cook-

    Liked by 1 person

  9. What a lovely book, and so much fascinating background too. Loved hearing about the process of putting it together. Pizza night is a favorite at our house, and one of the most repeated menus!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I enjoyed learning about the illustration process as well as the pizza making process — both are creative endeavors with delicious results!


  10. What a fun review Jama and such a fun book too! Now I want to go find Soup Day too–given my love for soup. 😉 I loved the interview and learning about the author’s process and the trailer her son made is wonderful. Just a great post! I seldom make my own pizza but a nearby pizza place has a delicious garlic-mushroom-spinach on thin crust that they sell by the slice and it’s a favorite treat for me to grab one.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Love everything about this! And I was particularly fascinated by the illustration process. I had no idea there were so many layers to the illustrations. We make homemade pizza quite a lot in my house. I use a little cornmeal in my dough! When I make pizza at home, we usually have onion and black olive, but when we order pizza out we always get plain cheese.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Congratulations Melissa!!! I love seeing how successful and passionate you are with your work. I’m excited about this book and your future projects. Jamie and Denis are lucky to have you.

    Liked by 2 people

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