Hi everyone, meet Pipo. Pipo thinks that pizza is the best. No, Pipo knows that pizza is the best. It is scientific fact. But when she sets out on a neighborhood-spanning quest to prove it, she discovers that “best” might not mean what she thought it means.
That's the premise of my new book, Every Night is Pizza Night, which is on sale today (September 1st, 2020).
During her quest, Pipo and her dog Muttzarella break bread with a host of new friends, each with their own idea of what "best" means. Is Eugene's family recipe for bibimbap better than pizza? What about the Moroccan tagine that reminds Farah of her home? Or maybe the best food in the world the kind of food you share with the people you love?
"I know what I'll do. I'll write a children's book. It'll be fun and easy," is what I said to myself back in late 2017.
At the time, I was a stay-at-home dad to my daughter Alicia, and though taking care of an infant is exhausting and time consuming, there's also a lot of downtime during naps, and I found myself getting a bit restless.
I was right about the fun. I was wrong about the easy.
Writing a children's book is hard. Don't get me wrong, writing a big cookbook like The Food Lab is also hard. But for that project, I had the advantage of an established writing voice (long-winded, bad jokes, pop. science). Writing a story for kids, on the other hand, has all the same challenges of writing a story for adults (good structure with conflict, character development, climax, resolution), and the added challenge of extreme word efficiency, good messaging, and finding a voice that works for children (and hopefully doesn't annoy adults).
It was finding that voice that was the most difficult for me. The first draft of Every Night is Pizza Night was well over 10,000 words long. From there, it was a process of editing the story down to its bare bones—just enough that the plot and message remained intact—and then rewriting it dozens of times over. I rewrote the story in first person and third person. I rewrote it in rhyme and prose. I wrote it from Pipo's perspective and from her parent's perspective. I changed her personality multiple times. And I read, and read, and read well over a hundred other children's books to figure out what the ones I love have in common (e.g. subversive humor that works for children and adults, enthusiastic characters, and positive messages).
The other big personal challenge I had was working so closely with a partner. Gianna Ruggiero and I found each other through social media. It almost seemed fated. On October 20th, 2017, I mentioned that I was looking for an illustrator to partner with. On that very same morning, Gigi tweeted that she was looking for work.
I’m looking for a great illustrator who has worked on children’s books to work on a project with me. Anyone have a lead or two?
— J. Kenji WEAR A MASK López-Alt (@kenjilopezalt) October 20, 2017
Hey so uh. Hi. I got laid off and need a job. I'm pretty good at art stuff. Do you need help with art stuff? Concept? Modeling? Friendship?
— gianna "gigi" ruggiero (@immagigi) October 20, 2017
Crazy, right? I took one look at her portfolio and knew she was the one.
I adore Gigi and her work, and collaborating has been an overwhelmingly positive experience that we hope to repeat with more books in the future. That said, I was used to writing alone, while in a children's book, the illustrations do as much of the storytelling as the writing does (if not more). I had the strong urge to describe in detail what every page of the book should look like, what each character should look like and be doing. But on the advice of my friend and children's book editor Alex Penfold, I resisted that urge, instead simply supplying Gigi with descriptions of each character—their personality and background—and the words on each page.
It was a good call. Gigi's imagination and visual storytelling capabilities are way better than mine (which is why she's the illustrator and I'm not). I especially love the two-page spreads where Pipo tastes something new for the first time and soars around through the ingredients. It's just such a brilliant way to capture the exhilaration of a new experience.
I spent longer and worked harder on the 1,000 words you'll find in the pages of Every Night is Pizza Night than any other words I've ever written. This also means I am far more nervous about the release of this book than I ever was about the release of Food Lab. The one thing I keep telling myself is that I wrote this book for Alicia and I already know she loves it, so no matter what happens, mission accomplished.
The message of the book is one of family, community, multiculturalism, and open-mindedness, all lessons I want my own daughter to understand growing up. I hope you and the children in your life have as much fun reading it as Gigi and I had making it.
And, of course, for those of you wondering, there's a pizza recipe featured in the book. Plus, if you follow along on my new Food Lab Jr. column here on Serious Eats, I’ll be starting off with recipes for the foods that Pipo discovers in the book, each with the goal of getting kids involved in the kitchen.