Welcome back, Creatives. The dust is finally settling on the #kidlit March madness. Before we ramp up again on the first of march with #Cookiepitch, #Springflingkidlit, and the #PBchat Mentorship deadline, let’s all take a breath with a yoga bunny and their new friend. No, you don’t have to do yoga unless you want to. I am extremely excited to welcome Brian Russo to this Behind the Page interview.
Brian is the author-illustrator of Yoga Bunny and its sequel, A Friend for Yoga Bunny — which is out now! The series combines his love of drawing with something else he loves just as much doing yoga. He earned his teaching certificate from Yoga to the People in 2010, during which time he developed the Yoga Bunny illustrations.
In A Friend for Yoga Bunny, Yoga Bunny returns in a sequel about anxiety and friendship. Yoga Bunny loves doing yoga and loves teaching others how to do it, too. When he bumps into a bear who is anxious about celebrating her birthday, Yoga Bunny knows exactly what do to. The two friends learn a variety of poses, meditation warm-ups, and the importance of deep breathing together.
Brian, Welcome to Behind the Page! How did a sequel for Yoga Bunny happen? Did you pitch it to your editor or did they approach you?
I was working a graphic design job where I had a lot of downtime. It had been several years since the original Yoga Bunny had been released. And I wasn’t sure if the publisher wanted a sequel. But, I loved the characters from that book, and I had time, so I thought up a new story and drew it. It was a parody of the movie ‘Step Up’, where Yoga Bunny and his friends’ turf is overtaken by a group of big bears, and they must have a ‘yoga-off’ to see who gets the spot.
I sent it to my friends over at HarperCollins and waited.
Eventually, they got back to me and said that while they didn’t want to do the story I had written, they were interested in doing another Yoga Bunny book, which was great! Lisa Sharkey, a Senior Vice President and Director of Creative Development at HarperCollins, pitched the story that would eventually become the new book, in which Yoga Bunny meets a new friend struggling with anxiety. I suggested that the friend be a bear because I liked the size difference between the bears and Bunny in my ‘Step-Up’ parody, and Lisa agreed (you can also read a version of this story from Lisa’s perspective over at my blog)
I put together another Dummy, and after a few more weeks of nervous waiting, HarperCollins came back with a formal offer to do another book.
A Yoga Bunny step-up parody sounds hilarious but I can see how it would be out of character for this series. How did you know the plot for A Friend For Yoga Bunny was the right story to follow Yoga Bunny?
I knew that the story Lisa pitched was the way to go because it was so simple. I have a tendency to overcomplicate things, both in my writing and in my life. Working in Yoga Bunny’s world is great for me, creatively, because everything is so straightforward. Lisa deserves a lot of credit for bringing this kind of energy to both Yoga Bunny books.
A Friend For Yoga Bunny is a great follow-up because Yoga Bunny is a little more proactive in this second outing. He really wants to help Bear. And by focusing on just these two characters throughout most of the book, I think we get a better sense of who Yoga Bunny is.
When sitting down to illustrate A Friend For Yoga Bunny, How did you balance the feeling of both revisiting a familiar character (Bunny) and working on one that was brand new (Bear)?
I had a lot of fun illustrating Bunny and Bear and contrasting the way their emotions played off of each other; Bunny’s calmness to Bear’s anxiousness. I think it’s a great template for the way future Yoga Bunny stories can work. These big, troubled, personalities orbiting around Yoga Bunny’s calm stability. I read Jim Henson’s autobiography, and it mentioned how he saw the dynamic of ‘The Muppets’ working in a similar way, with Kermit the Frog being that calm gravitational center.
Bear is a great addition to Yoga Bunny’s bench of characters, and I think the way she and Bunny interact solidifies that the Yoga Bunny series is as much about friendship as it is about yoga.
I love how the end pages in A Friend For Yoga Bunny mirror those in Yoga Bunny but with a whole new set of 32 yoga poses. What was it like drawing Bunny in all those different poses? Was one (or a few) harder to draw than the others?
I drew the poses from the first Yoga Bunny when I was taking a Yoga Teacher certification course, as part of a sequence I had to memorize. This one was a bit more open-ended. I went on a bunch of different yoga sites and picked the asanas that looked the most interesting and which I could also hold… for a few seconds at least. Coming up with all 32 poses was a bit of a challenge, and for the first pass, I’ll admit I just made up a few poses of my own.
The good people at HarperCollins deserve credit for fact-checking, because as we were finishing, my editor, Luana Horry, came to me and asked where I had gotten ‘Michelangelo Pose’ and a few other made up asanas, which is when I had to confess that I had just made them up. At this point, both Luana and Lisa stepped in and suggested a few final, actual yoga poses to fill out the endpapers.
So yes, rest assured, every pose featured in A Friend For Yoga Bunny is, in fact, a very real pose.
Ironically, Bear Pose was the most difficult to draw (and for me to do). But it had to go in because I think Bear, the character, would insist on it!
That is a great story. Now, I super curious about what Michelangelo pose looks like. What has been your favorite experience while working on this book?
I loved working with the team at HarperCollins. It’s really special for me to work with professionals whose goal is to make my illustration and writing as good as possible. It elevates the work to a level I couldn’t reach on my own. Artists can be very sensitive, and I’m no exception. Luckily, an Art Director like Jeanne Hogle or an editor like Luana knows how to point out when something isn’t working while being both direct and kind about their notes. It makes a huge difference in the creative process.
I’m so proud of every single page in A Friend for Yoga Bunny, and I’m so grateful to everyone whose work went into these pages.
Was there a piece of advice that really helped you or applied when working on A Friend For Yoga Bunny?
We were beginning production on the book just as the pandemic was beginning. As it first started, I had this real moment of panic, like, Oh no, we’re all gonna die. I remember talking to my best friend, Sean, about it. I forget what he said exactly, but it was something like, ‘Part of being human is knowing that we’re going to eventually die, and maybe the whole reason why we’re here is just figuring out how to make sense of that.’ (Sorry, I know that’s a little dark for an interview about a kid’s book.)
I kept thinking about this throughout the pandemic, and it put me in the calm state I needed to be in to illustrate the book.
Thank you for stopping by and giving us a look behind the page, but before you go, what snack fueled you while working on this book?
My diet during the book definitely reflected my role as new dad more than my role as a yogi. So… cookies, ice cream, peanut butter, cookie ice cream sandwiches with peanut butter. People talk about eating your feelings like it’s a bad thing, but I have to tell you, I really enjoyed myself. And even with my new dad bod, I still do yoga every morning… It just goes to show, yoga really is for everyone!
Thank you for reading this fun Interview with Brian Russo. Make sure to grab your copy or request it from your local library. If you love it, write a review. Reviews are a free and priceless way to support authors and illustrators. If you’re not following Brian already, you can find him on Instagram and Twitter at @russodraw and www.russodraw.com
If you enjoyed this interview, please comment, share, or subscribe. (or all three if you feel called to.) Until then, take care and stay creative!