In A Sick Day for Amos McGee, a very punctual, somewhat rigid, zookeeper always — always — takes the No. 5 bus to work at 6 a.m.
At the City Zoo, he visits his friends: the elephant, the tortoise, the penguin, the rhinoceros and the owl.
Until one day, Amos McGee wakes up with a terrible cold. He calls in sick, and his animal friends must overcome their fears to help take care of their friend.
It was the very first book that Philip Stead and Erin Stead, who are married, ever worked on together.
"We really didn't expect anybody to ever see the book," says Philip Stead. "We really thought we were making a book just for one another."
A Sick Day for Amos McGee went on to sell nearly 500,000 copies — and now, more than a decade later, there's a sequel.
"We weren't sure at first if we wanted to re-enter the world of Amos McGee," says Philip Stead. "Largely because we weren't sure what made it so popular in the first place."
Roaring Brook Press
Amos McGee Misses the Bus,
Roaring Brook Press
In Amos McGee Misses the Bus, Amos is up too late planning an exciting outing for his friends at the zoo. He oversleeps and misses the bus to work. Because he arrives late, he doesn't know if he'll have time to finish all his chores in time for the adventure he's planned.
"We had had a rough couple of years in a row," says Erin Stead. "And the outside world seemed kind of rough, too. And we just wanted to selfishly go live in this world again of Amos McGee. And we wanted to make this book for ourselves again."
The world of Amos McGee, his creators say, is one where caring and kindness are the rule that all the characters follow.
When Amos falls asleep on a bench at the zoo, his friends step in to help him finish his work on time, not even knowing that he has a surprise planned for them after work.
"It's not a complicated book," says Philip Stead. "It takes a really simple problem and gives it a really simple solution. And really the book is about just seeing how these characters love each other and care for each other."
As in A Sick Day for Amos McGee (for which Erin Stead won the Caldecott Medal), everything in Amos McGee Misses the Bus is illustrated by hand. Visually, Philip and Erin Stead say some of the books they love the most are from the 1950s, when bookmakers could only use a few colors and black for the illustrations.
"We didn't want to necessarily be that rigid," says Philip Stead. "But ... there's something very beautiful about working with limitations. It kind of sets parameters for your project."
So Erin Stead chose a limited palate of muted yellows, greens, blues and reds. She added the color using woodblock printing, which she then drew on top with pencil.
"I want to make books that you don't really know when they were made," she says. "I want them to feel like something you already know. Or maybe has even been sun-bleached on your shelf for the last 10 years, or 20 years."
Philip and Erin Stead first met when they were both in high school, and making children's books was a dream they both shared.
"I saw her one day in an art class," says Philip Stead. "Working on a drawing that I was very impressed with. And I've been very impressed with her ever since."
Today, they share a studio space in the hayloft of an old barn in Michigan, where they now live with their daughter.
"It is not typical for an author and an illustrator to work together so closely," says Philip Stead. But Erin is Philip's first editor — they'll go back and forth about lines, and pacing. And they'll work on the graphic design, and the layouts together.
"It is nice to have a partner in the studio," says Erin Stead. "I'm not sure how people do this job alone. There's often times when I just can't figure out how to draw something or I'm stuck or I can't compose a picture and it's so helpful to have somebody."
"Sometimes you just need a friend in the studio," says Philip Stead.
Philip and Erin Stead often get asked what they want to convey with their books — and it's a question that rankles Philip Stead.
"We try really, really hard not to have morals in our book," he says. "We don't want our books to impart some kind of lesson. But I do think the book should have meaning."
They admit, though, that it took them a long time to understand exactly what Amos McGee meant to readers. When they first started working on A Sick Day for Amos McGee, Philip Stead says their biggest concern was about making the book well. And it was only after watching readers interact with the book over the past decade that they finally came to understand.
"It's about what you get back when you are kind and caring to others. And what you get back is exactly what you've given," says Philip Stead. "That I think is one of the most fascinating things about being a creator of anything is that you don't necessarily have control over what it's going to mean to people. You have to watch it interact with the broader world to understand."