Getting to “Cute”

“Your octopus isn’t cute enough. Try making him cuter.” 

Not the words I wanted to hear.  I’d been drawing and revising “Monsieur Pierre,” the main character for my children’s picture book for months. He started out as a long-tentacled, suave, moustachioed creature. Perhaps even rakish.  But he sure wasn’t “cute.” And I was now discovering that “cute” was a better quality for a little octopus adventuring through a big city in a children’s picture book.  

Monsieur Pierre was originally inspired by a stuffed toy I found in a children’s furniture shop in the Marais District of Paris. All the other stuffed toys were the usual creatures popular with children: dogs, cats, bears, foxes, owls. And then there was an octopus. His hand-made quality, long tentacles and giant staring eyes brought a smile to my face. The octopus came home to California with me and Monsieur Pierre was born. 

I initially felt rather smug that I had selected a main character that was relatively easy to draw. Here you see early versions I tried: eight arms (clearly octopus); mustache and beret (clearly French). I then set to work illustrating his journey around Paris and off to California.

Within the world of literature, children’s picture books fall into a specific format. One of the most useful and important resources I’ve used to learn about writing and illustrating in this format are courses from the Children’s Book Academy taught by Dr. Mira Reisberg. It was during a class critique session with Dr. Reisberg that she advised that my octopus needed to “be cuter.” Sure, my long-tentacled, rectangular-eyed, octopus looked like the creature he was supposed to be but he lacked something that pre-schoolers would relate to. I realized that the story itself required a Monsieur Pierre that was more childlike, less louche. So I did what any artist in need of a reference does: I Googled “cute octopus.” Lo and behold, this little guy immediately popped up. 

In 2015, researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium discovered the little octopus above, a new species so cute they named it “Adorabilis.” Looking at the little Adorabilis, I started to see how to transform Monsieur Pierre into something more appealing to children:

Aha! “Cute” in this case meant more child-like proportions: larger head, smaller arms, larger eyes. And thus, the new Monsieur Pierre was born.

Unique, memorable children’s picture book characters come in all sorts of species: mice, sheep, spiders, bears, pigs, humans … and even octopuses. 

- Anne

Useful links:

Monterey Bay Aquarium
Children’s Book Academy
“Picture Book Characters We Love” Pinterest board 

Anne Dana