A Penguin Journey: PW Talks with Eric Bennett
Our book was not going into a black hole, but would be known about and promoted to thousands of like-minded penguin-loving people.Eric Bennett, who has been selling penguin memorabilia for more than 30 years, is the owner of penguingiftshop.com, where shoppers can find anything from penguin umbrellas to penguin wedding-cake toppers. Illustrated by Liz Bannish, Noodles & Albie: A Penguin Journey is Bennett’s debut picture book—about a penguin named Noodles who gets some valuable advice from a fish named Albie. We chatted with Bennett about the collaboration, the advantages of self-publishing through an already established business, and his plans for a sequel.
Can you tell us a bit about how the project grew out of your lifelong obsession with penguins?
It started as a story I would tell my kids at bedtime or in the car when I didn’t have a book available. It was kind of based on my daughter’s early irrational fear of the water, my love for penguins, and my desperation for a story when I forgot to bring one. There was a book I liked as a kid called The Penguin Who Hated the Cold by Barbara Brenner. It’s a very sweet story with fun illustrations. My story was set along that ironic theme, but in this case there was a penguin that was afraid of the water. The line in the story that was meant for my kids, and now I suppose for all kids, is when Noodles finally gets knocked in the water and realizes swimming isn’t that hard. “Of course Noodles could swim, all he had to do was try.”
So, after years of telling and re-telling, adding on and fine-tuning the story, Rose, my youngest, asked me to read it to her kindergarten class. Of course I said yes, and decided to finally write it down. A week later I read it and the class and teacher loved it.
What made you realize that you finally wanted to team up on a picture book, and why did you choose to work with Liz Bannish?
It was one of those classic, serendipitous, good timing things. Liz worked in a cafe downstairs from where I lived in downtown Northampton. I had only just met her when I read Noodles to Rose’s class. So I walked into the cafe and told my friends about my little reading. I showed the story to Liz who said she liked it, and found it a very visual tale. The following weekend I went to see an art show that featured some of her work. I was immediately struck by her art as well as how satirical and ironic much of it was. Much of her art was of the natural world, and yet much of it surreal and kind of dark. But, within her work there was an omnipresent wry nod and a wink. To top it off, it was obvious she had a thing for the sea and sea creatures, real or fantastic. My only question as to whether or not her talent would translate to a picture book was answered a few days later when she brought me a sketch of Noodles based solely on how he’s described in the book, and she absolutely nailed him.
Since you have seen so many penguins over the years, was there an essential aspect of them you wanted to capture?Of all animals, the penguin must be the hardest not to anthropomorphize. In their natural tuxedos, they just don’t walk upright, they have to go one better and waddle. They are naturally very communal animals, and [boast] the wonderful combination of being dignified and silly at the same time. [They are] very loyal and family oriented on land, and very courageous and autonomous in the sea. They are like two different animals above and below the water. Yet Liz and I are always amazed by their incredible projectile poop prowess. Velocity, distance, and accuracy—they are unsurpassed in the world in this respect. Which I suppose is the opposite of all things cute, which is probably why we embrace it.
Did you try to pitch the book to any publishers? Why did you think it would be a good idea to self-publish?
I did shop it to agents and publishers in New York. But, for the most part, they weren’t interested in taking on a first-time writer and first-time illustrator together. After a couple of months of the same responses, we gave up the search, and we were simply going to put it out as an e-book and offer it on my website. During the months it took Liz to finish her illustrations, a writer friend of mine told me about Small Batch Books, a local publishing company. We decided to meet with them and we were impressed with what they had produced and could offer us, and, in turn, they were impressed with Noodles & Albie. It was always on our minds that somehow Noodles & Albie would not just be an e-book. The advantage we have over a lot of other self-published books was that I already had my own all-penguin online store, with a large mailing list and social media presence. To publish with Small Batch and put it on my already built-in penguin-friendly platforms was a huge advantage for us. In other words, our book was not going into a black hole, but would be known about and promoted to thousands of like-minded penguin-loving people.
Will there be a follow-up book?
The next Noodles story is already written and it’s called Noodles & Albie’s Birthday Surprise. Obviously, it’s Noodles’ birthday, but the “surprise” part of the title is what adventures are in store for them, and the interesting characters they encounter along the way. Hopefully it’ll be available by next summer. We are presently searching for a [traditional] publisher for this and future Noodles & Albie projects, but it’s nice to know that we have [self-publishing] options.