When David Shannon was 5 years old, he wrote the basis for what would become No, David! — a whole book dedicated to the many, many things he was told not to do. (“No, David!” being the dominant phrase, with occasional detours into sharper scoldings like, “Stop that this instant!”) As an adult, he spruced it up in advance of its official publication on Sept. 1, 1998, weaving together a narrative and contributing imaginative original illustrations.
The ride he’d go on from there was hardly expected.
No, David! emerged as a picture-book phenomenon, winning Shannon the prestigious Caldecott Honor and landing on best-seller lists around the country. It inspired countless sequels, throwing Shannon’s semi-autobiographical hero into new areas of troublemaking, from the classroom to Christmastime, while always retaining the original’s spirit. About a decade ago, he thought he was done, having long moved on to other projects — until the 20th anniversary of the book that launched his career reared its head, and a new idea sprung. Grow Up, David! is the latest entrant in the beloved series, a book for which Shannon looked back to his relationship with his big brother as inspiration. (It’s now available for purchase.)
No, David! and its follow-ups are still grabbing new young readers, and still hitting parents hard too. (Anyone who read it with a parent as a kid likely remembers their mom or dad turning emotional at the final pages.) Its simplicity has rendered it timeless. And so to commemorate the series’ continued success, Shannon stopped by the EW offices to chat with a fellow David — a David who grew up with No, David! as his children’s book of choice, at that. Read on for Shannon’s reflections on the series, the surprising impact it’s had, and much more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Growing up, No, David! was my number-one children’s book.
DAVID SHANNON: And how was it growing up with that book? [Laughs] Did you get “No, David!” a lot?
It was very relatable!
I know you wrote it, initially, when you were 5. Now, so many years later, what do you remember about writing it, if anything?
I’m not sure if I remember writing it, but I do just remember getting into a lot of trouble. [Laughs]
Any of the specific “nos” that you remember particularly?
There were a bunch from the book that are true to life. Getting into Christmas tree ornaments. Stealing cookie dough, too. That was the only way you could get it then. I tell kids that now: Cookie dough ice cream hadn’t been invented, and you couldn’t get it in the rolls. The only way you could get it was to steal it when your mom was making cookies. So that’s one I remember well.
Over the years, what sense have you gotten about what No, David! means to people?
A lot of people have come up to me, and then also, I got lots of letters from kids. There are two categories of what it means to people” For kids, it’s just fun for them. David doesn’t do anything that they haven’t at least thought of doing. He’s not really that unusual. The only thing unusual about him is that he does all of them. Kids can identify with that, and they feel good about having fun with being told “no.” Then for parents — that last page, the “I love you” part, that’s really for the grownups. The kids kind of get uncomfortable with that. [Laughs] But parents say they’re always telling their kids “no” all day long, and then they say, “Oh, am I a bad mother? Do they know I love them?” So they respond to that.
And teachers! I didn’t see this coming. Teachers use it to have a discussion about rules. David is like the anti-example. And the other one I was thinking of: Special-needs kids have really responded to it, which is another thing I didn’t see coming. It’s very gratifying. Autistic kids, in particular, really identify; I think it’s because they can read his facial expressions easily. And of course, they get told “no” a lot too.
Did the success of the book, broadly, take you by surprise?
The degree of success. While I was working on it, I thought it was a good book that was different from anything I’d seen. But you never know if it’s going to be a success or not. I started out doing folk tales, and that’s really hit-or-miss. Sometimes they just fall flat, sometimes they’re big. You don’t really know. I was confident enough about it and had enough fun doing the first one that I started a sequel before No, David! came out. Scholastic was very cool to say, “Yes, David!”
So how did that process change for you? You weren’t an adult as you initially wrote No, David!, so how as an adult did you approach conceiving and then crafting sequels?
I really liked the way the first book came out. It was also a departure, artwork-wise, for me. Everybody I showed it to responded pretty strongly. I said, “The next level where you get told ‘no’ all the time is school.” That’s where I got in even more trouble than at home. From then on, I’ve never done a David book that didn’t explore a different part of being told “no.” The truest sequel is David Gets in Trouble, because that has his responses to being told “no.” The Christmas one I’d always wanted to do, because like I said, there was a page I did in the original, when I was a kid, of the Christmas ornaments. Christmas is the perfect storm: There’s presents, there’s secrets, there’s sweets, the parents are on edge because the grandparents are coming. And then of course, watching over the whole thing is Santa. The biggest “no” you could be told is [in the form of] a lump of coal.
And with this new one?
I wasn’t going to do anymore. This is the first one in eight years or so. But it’s the 20th anniversary of No, David! this year, and it’s also my editor’s 25th anniversary of her imprint. She’d been kind of nudging me, like, “I’d sure love to have a David book for the birthday.” At first I said, “No, I’m done with David, doing new things.” But I’d just been kicking around an idea about brothers, about having a big brother — because I did — and I realized, “That’s just made for David. David’s big brother.” It was a whole different area to explore, that relationship with an older brother.
So you drew from your own life for it?
Well, a lot of it! I always refer to David in the third person because he’s based on me, but he’s not really me. But that’s where I start: “What do I remember from school? From having a brother?” I just start jotting down things. I always say it’s semi-autobiographical.
The original’s visuals are still so memorable. As you go about writing these, do you consider it more visually or in story points?
It’s very much a back-and-forth. Every book’s a little different, however it comes about, but with these I just start by writing down situations and phrases and making sketches at the same time. There would be, like, “You’re too little.” So what do I match that with? Well, “I’m not allowed to play with the big boys yet” — so those will match up. When I get those phrases matched with the images, I shuffle them around so that they have a loose narrative or timeline to them.
Sometimes, you can write a whole paragraph and go, “Oh, I can just put that in the picture.” Much more concise. And a picture’s worth a thousand words, but sometimes a word is worth a thousand pictures too — or at least a hundred. Trying to show what something smells like in a picture? It’s much easier to just describe it. That’s the good thing about being the author and the illustrator. I get to pick and choose. Plus if there’s something I can’t draw, I can just take it out altogether. [Laughs]
These books are far from the only ones you’ve written. Does No, David! have a special place in your heart?
It does. One is that it is semi-autobiographical, which can be weird, too. It is kind of me. As far as my career, it put me on the map. When I got the Caldecott Honor, that immediately got me noticed, and my books after that noticed too. So that was very exciting. It allowed me some freedom to explore different things with other books. I didn’t just have to stick with David all the time. I’m all about trying out new stuff. That’s where David came from — trying out new stuff. Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
What are you trying out now? Any new stuff?
Who knows! I’m always so grateful when I get a new idea. You know, you’re only as good as you last one. They don’t come all the time. If it’s a new idea that’s all new and different, I’ll go in that direction.
I did also want to ask you about the sense of responsibility that comes with writing children’s books. You mentioned reaching autistic kids, and there is a strong conversation happening now about representing different social groups in responsible ways. Is it something you think about, or find yourself thinking more about now?
I think about it, but it’s a secondary consideration. My first consideration is if it’s going to be fun for a kid to read. That’s the whole deal. You can do all kinds of books that have wonderful themes that are needed and things like that, but if it’s not fun for a kid to read, they’re not going to read it. Something I’ve learned over the years too is the importance of just reading. The main thing I try to do is get kids to read, first, and to have a lot of fun with it. That’s another thing about the David books that was on my mind when I made No, David! but is much more-so now: No, David! is the first book that a lot of kids have ever read. Because it’s easy: You can get eight pages in by just knowing two words. That builds up confidence.
And also, really little kids that don’t know how to read yet, they memorize it and then pretend to read. I’ve had it read to me! [Laughs] That’s the first step: They’re pretending to read. It’s really funny because they always change it a little bit according to what they hear around the house. When he’s picking his nose in the book it says, “Stop that this instant!” The little kid pretending to read will go, “Get your finger out of your nose!” That’s what they hear. But I’ve found that if I try to do something about a certain thing, how “I want this message” and stuff, it comes off really stiff and preachy. That’s the last thing I want. I hated books like that when I was little. If I try to force it into any genre or theme or anything like that, it doesn’t work.
I hear that from authors across genres, trying to find that balance.
And I must end with, is this your last David? You thought you were done.
I know, I can’t say that anymore! I said that before this one so who knows? If a new area of rule-breaking presents itself. There sure are a lot of titles that my friends joke with me about. But some of them are kind of grown-up for this. [Laughs]
This interview has been edited and condensed.