Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the March edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can read here and sign up for here).

My Q&A this month is with Melissa Stewart and Stephanie Laberis. Melissa and Stephanie are the author and illustrator, respectively, of Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs, an acclaimed nonfiction picture book published last year by Peachtree.

The biggest animals, the fastest ones, the strongest, etc., get plenty of attention in picture books — but not in Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers, which instead shines a light on species (zorillas, anyone?) whose survival-aiding attributes are less heralded.

I’m giving away one copy of Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want to be that winner, please let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on March 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Melissa Stewart and Stephanie Laberis.

Chris: Was there a certain animal — a particular pipsqueak, slowpoke, or stinker — that you gravitated toward when creating this book? One that drew you to this topic in the first place or that you were especially excited to write about or depict?

Melissa: I was a clumsy, uncoordinated, unathletic kid, so the western fence lizard is kind of my hero. See how its “weakness” helps it catch prey?

Let’s face it. Eating is pretty important if you want to stay alive, and this lizard has come up with a completely unique way to get the job done.

This lizard’s surprising hunting strategy is just one example of this book’s core concept. Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs is a book about animal adaptations and celebrating the traits that make us different and unique.

I think that’s an important message for kids because we all have our weaknesses, our foibles, and I don’t think there’s a kid in the world who hasn’t felt like an underdog at some point.

Stephanie: I’ve got to say, it was the okapi that won me over from the start. They’re one of my favorite animals, and I didn’t even know they existed until I was in my late 20s.

Illustrator Stephanie Laberis

I was at the San Diego Zoo and wandering about, sketching the animals. I glanced up and saw a gorgeous okapi just emerge from the bushes of its habitat and couldn’t believe what I was seeing! I love how they look like they’re cobbled together from other animals.

I was happy to not only have an excuse to illustrate an okapi, but to introduce kids to them! They don’t get enough recognition as other African animals do, like elephants or lions.

Originally, I was going to have the okapi depicted with a paper bag over its head, because they’re so shy! It was deemed a little too silly in the end and didn’t make it to the final artwork, but that’s typically how I like to approach my animal artwork: light hearted, with a splash of fiction.

I’m happy with the representation of all the species in the book and hope that readers are intrigued to find out more about their favorite underdogs!

Chris: What’s next for you? What do your readers (and their parents, teachers, librarians, etc.) have to look forward to in the not-so-distant future?

Stephanie: I’m happy to say that I have a lot of animal-themed books on the horizon, both fiction and nonfiction! March 5th marks the release of Unhappy Birthday, Grumpy Cat!, marking Grumpy Cat’s first book in the Step Into Reading series by Random House.

Later this year and in 2020 we’ll see two more picture books, Peppermint Post by Bruce Hale and Just So Willow by Sara Shacter. I also have completed a nonfiction book focused on nocturnal animals with Highlights, but it’s a little too early to reveal details on that one!

Author Melissa Stewart

Melissa: I’m really excited for the publication of my next book with illustrator Sarah S. Brannen. Seashells: More than a Home will hit bookshelves on April 2. It’s a companion title to our 2014 book Feathers: Not Just for Flying.

Seashells describes some of the unexpected ways sea creatures use their shells to swim, anchor themselves, find and eat food, avoid enemies, and more. It has received a starred review from Booklist and is a Junior Library Guild selection.