“With magic as your captain you can choose just about any destination, any time, or any place if you never abandon imagination.”
Tony DiTerlizzi formally proclaimed his credo, “Never Abandon Imagination,” in the opening pages of his very first children’s book, Jimmy Zangwow’s Out-of-this-World Moon Pie Adventure (2000). However, those three words derived from the above quotation were first put to paper in a poetry journal written by the artist in summer 1995, and they hold as much weight for him today as they did then, when he first achieved recognition as an illustrator for the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.
In fact, DiTerlizzi has crafted an entire mission statement, more expressive and methodical than that twenty-two-year-old phrase, around which all of his past, present, and future work adheres.
The full text is as follows:
Imagination is a world of possibility that exists within each of us. It is what makes us uniquely human. It is our creative fingerprint that touches and influences the world around us. Imagination is essential to art and science; to innovation and prosperity. It gives us hope, calls us to action, and leads to change.
Whether it is fairies, dragons, robots, or aliens, all of my children’s book characters are siblings born of my imagination – an imagination strengthened through years of encouragement from family, teachers, and friends. While so many others abandoned it during their transition from childhood to adulthood, I fiercely held onto mine, hoping for a day when I could share it to inspire the next generation of dreamers. Innovators. World changers.
Imagination empowers us to envision and create a reality of what could be. We must hold it dear, foster it, and never abandon it.
Holding true to his vow to never abandon imagination, DiTerlizzi has achieved amazing success in exciting and inspiring the youth of today, and rekindling the feelings of our own childlike wonder, while carrying on the great tradition of narrative illustration.
Tony DiTerlizzi has written and illustrated over twenty children’s books – some of which were made into a major motion picture – and served as illustrator on many more. He has painted hundreds of dragons, trolls, goblins, fairies, wizards, elves, and every other fantasy creature imaginable. Many of his books have been on the New York Times bestseller list, he has won the prestigious Caldecott Honor Award, and his works are read in classrooms throughout the world. But beyond the awards, accolades, and well-deserved book blurbs exists an artist with tremendous talent, unbridled determination, humility, and an undying childlike effusion of wonder.
In preparing the exhibition and reviewing the extent of DiTerlizzi’s creative output of the last quarter century, I quickly came to realize I was working alongside a visionary possessing immense creativity, with a mind filled with fantastic images and worlds yet unexplored. Though his artwork and writings are well regarded, there is much more to the man than has been revealed on paper. Therefore, I felt compelled to explore the source of this creativity and understand how such a remarkable mind evolved.
The Birth of Imagination
“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
– Albert Einstein
Though the literary success of The Spiderwick Chronicles would eventually return him to the city of Los Angeles where he was born, Tony DiTerlizzi spent most of his youth in Jupiter, Florida. He devoted many days to exploring the insects and flora in the dense ecosystems to his west and in the shallows of the Atlantic Ocean to his east, just a short bike ride away. When he was not spending time outdoors in the Sunshine State’s often uncomfortably high heat and humidity, young DiTerlizzi hid himself away in the air-conditioned refuge of his childhood bedroom – imagining, creating, and drawing.
DiTerlizzi recalls that his first artistic influence was his mother, Carole. He notes that though his mother was very artistic in her youth, she did not receive encouragement for her creativity during her formative years. However, she ensured that all three of her children would be inspired to use their imaginations, creating artwork for them, including origami and paper dolls of characters from Gilligan’s Island, and painting a mural on Tony’s bedroom wall of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh characters as depicted by E.H. Shepard – an artist whom DiTerlizzi would revisit later in his career.
My play always involved imagination. It started with listening to my mom read the stories of Winnie-the-Pooh and learning that toys come to life when you play with them. After I’d moved on from stuffed animals, my Star Wars action figures acted out scenes from the movie and other adventures I’d dream up. My Micronauts would crash land in my bedroom and explore my bizarre world, my Aurora dinosaur models would come to life and grow to their proper size, and I was the narrator moving these characters around and coming up with stories for them.
Relying on a collection of Golden Nature Guide books which included titles like Insects, Birds, Seashores, and Reptiles and Amphibians, DiTerlizzi compiled an immense insect collection complete with his own hand-drawn field guide. He recalls checking off pages of the Insects guide as he added new ones to his collection. DiTerlizzi notes that spending time with his father also helped feed his growing imagination. As a Boy Scout, he often went on outdoor adventures with his Scoutmaster father, Tony, such as camping, hiking, and visiting historical sites.
DiTerlizzi often spent summers playing outdoor games with neighborhood kids, including one based on Sid and Marty Krofft’s sci-fi adventure series, The Land of the Lost. In advance of the game, DiTerlizzi prepared dinosaur footprints in the gravel of their driveway. This delighted his friends when they arrived and encouraged more creative adventuring.
But more than anything, DiTerlizzi loved to draw. The encouragement he received from his parents was invaluable. When his father announced that his employer, Pratt & Whitney, was holding an art show in which staff and their family members were allowed to participate, DiTerlizzi’s parents encouraged their ten-year-old son to enter the competition, even though the majority of participants were adults. He created a watercolor painting of a Jurassic landscape, complete with a Brontosaurus. To the DiTerlizzi family’s great surprise, he won first place. For the young artist, this award carried tremendous weight and inspired him to continue making art.
A Visit to Gondwanaland
When he was twelve years old, DiTerlizzi documented the first recorded visit to a new world in a folder he titled A New Realm in Nature & Science Fiction Combined, You Are Exploring: GONDWANALAND. Within the pages of the folder, the young explorer described in great detail the flora and fauna of the unknown continent. Dr. DiTerlizzi, as he referred to himself, created the first map of the world during an adventure supposedly sponsored by The Audubon Society and National Geographic –– although the list of expenses notes that the grant was for a measly $536. After navigating through the secret entrance in the coral reef enclosure of Gondwanaland, he found himself on a large island with Snow World in the north and the Deep Dying Desert in the south, divided by the Mushy Swamp and Woody Woods. Being the first civilized man in this new world provided him the privilege of naming a spot in the lagoon, “T.D. Point.”
DiTerlizzi devised the title of Gondwanaland after the Gondwana supercontinent that combined with Laurasia around 300 million years ago to form the larger continent of Pangea. Gondwana later separated to form the continents of the Southern Hemisphere while Laurasia formed the continents of the Northern. DiTerlizzi’s idea for the fictional Gondwanaland was that it came from a piece of the supercontinent that broke off from Antarctica, South America, and Australia and became its own island that was left undiscovered for millennia.
Influenced by his collection of Golden Nature Guide books, monsters from the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, and Jim Henson’s creatures in the recently released Dark Crystal film, DiTerlizzi created his book of imagined characters in the style of an Audubon Field Guide. As is customary in identifying new species, within this Gondwanaland field guide DiTerlizzi gave the new-found monsters English and Latin names. Listed within the guide are creatures like “Tree Dwellers” (Longis Armis Swingis), a “Snow Creature” (Bigis Badis Mammais), and the evil, giant orange “Ajax Lizards” (Becarefulis Bitis Hardis).
As playful as the book appears, its importance in DiTerlizzi’s life as an artist and storyteller cannot be overstated. For within this early collection of artwork and stories lie the seeds of imagination and wonder contained in several works produced by DiTerlizzi throughout his career. The explorer Dr. DiTerlizzi reflects the wonder, innocence, and creativity of the central characters in DiTerlizzi’s early picture books Jimmy Zangwow and Ted. The WondLa Trilogy expresses the same feeling of exploration, though the female protagonist is slightly older than the characters in Jimmy Zangwow and Ted. Arthur Spiderwick’s writings in The Spiderwick Chronicles hark back to the discovery of the flora and fauna in the strange new world of Gondwanaland. The depictions of the creatures mirror his later book Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, illustrated by DiTerlizzi and co-written with Holly Black in 2005. Of course, the creation of dragons and other fantasy creatures predicted DiTerlizzi’s later rise as one of the most beloved artists of Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering.
Another folder contains sketches of characters and scenes from Star Wars (1977), which DiTerlizzi first saw in theaters at age seven. The highly detailed drawings include scenes of the battle between the AT-AT walkers and snowspeeders from the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back (1980). For some of these drawings, DiTerlizzi relied on the book The Art of Star Wars (1979), which showcased original designs by Ralph McQuarrie, the artist whom director George Lucas hired to design the look of the original Star Wars.
Also included in a pocket of his Star Wars folder are dozens of hand-written pages and sketches related to the 1978 TV series Battlestar Galactica, including a sixteen-page Dungeons & Dragons-style campaign titled “The Secret of Carillon,” based on the planet Carillon from the series’s pilot episode. The pocket also contains character sheets for Battlestar Galactica characters Starbuck, Apollo, the Daggit, a Cylon, and assorted other aliens.
Interspersed among the early sketches of creatures and maps are random drawings, notes, and homemade Dungeons & Dragons character sheets drawn in the style of Jim Davis, creator of Garfield. It was during this same year that twelve-year-old DiTerlizzi received a Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, which detailed the rules of play for the role-playing game.
The artist initiated another project during his early teen years, for which he drew caricatures of rock musicians each day during his summer vacation. By the end of the summer he had completed no less than 100 drawings of popular musicians of the time including Phil Collins, David Bowie, Lionel Richie, Van Halen, Madonna, Huey Lewis, and others.
DiTerlizzi continued to draw throughout his high school years, culminating in a special art project produced during his senior year titled “Views from Wonderland,” a takeoff on Lewis Carroll’s 1865 book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. At the time, DiTerlizzi had taken every art class his school offered. His art teacher Tom Wetzl suggested he spend one-on-one time with him so that DiTerlizzi could create a portfolio piece to show to prospective art schools. Mr. Wetzl spoke with the school’s guidance counselor and convinced him to allow DiTerlizzi to spend an hour each day with him during his planning period. Wetzl instructed his pupil to focus all of his attention on one project that he could create over the course of an entire semester.
DiTerlizzi remembers discussing his project at home with his younger brother, Adam, who happened to be reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in school. The following day at school DiTerlizzi suggested to his teacher that he illustrate scenes from the classic book, and his teacher challenged him to create a storybook full of original illustrations by the end of the semester. At the end of the term, DiTerlizzi had completed his project, which featured Elton John as the Mad Hatter, with flourishes drawn with a highlighter pen that would glow under a black light. Mr. Wetzel was quite pleased with his student’s final submission.
Word spread around the school about DiTerlizzi’s art project, and the young artist shared his book with classmates who asked to see it. Small crowds of students gathered and expressed adoration of his talent. Sixteen-year-old DiTerlizzi received the validation that many teenagers desperately need at that crucial time, and knew then that he wanted to illustrate children’s books for the rest of his life.
Entering the World of Dungeons & Dragons
Throughout the 1990s, DiTerlizzi was highly regarded as one of the top artists in the fantasy field for his work on Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. However, to climb to the peak of role-playing artistry, he first had to endure a real-life odyssey. DiTerlizzi graduated with a degree in graphic design from The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in 1992. That September, at the urging of his friends, he sent samples of his fantasy drawings to TSR, Inc. (Tactical Studies Rules), the parent company and publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, which was created by Gary Gygax with Don Kaye in 1973. DiTerlizzi recalls receiving a rejection letter from TSR the next month. Not one to give up easily, he called the company the following Monday seeking advice on improving his work. The art director asked him to send more adventurous, character-driven pieces. DiTerlizzi did just that, but was rejected again.
Stubborn to the end, DiTerlizzi continued to send in submissions and in November 1992 he finally convinced TSR to give him a shot. The art director assigned him some freelance work illustrating gaming booklets for the upcoming Advanced Dungeons & Dragons boxed set, Dragon Mountain. Pleased with his work and punctuality, TSR assigned DiTerlizzi his first major project for D&D, the 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual (1993), for which he provided over one hundred color illustrations. DiTerlizzi painted such classic figures as a Beholder, Gnoll, Owlbear, Rust Monster, Mindflayer, Kobold, Orc, and Displacer Beast, many of which he had sketched during his pre-teen days playing D&D. He followed up the Monstrous Manual with the AD&D 2nd Edition Monstrous Annual I (1994).
DiTerlizzi made his first visit to TSR in August 1993 and met Dungeons & Dragons legend, David “Zeb” Cook, who began working for TSR as a game designer in 1979, and rose to the rank of Senior Designer before leaving in 1994. At the time, Zeb Cook was creating an expansion of the classic D&D game called Planescape. The game included a series of booklets within a boxed set that instructed players on how to play the new campaign. DiTerlizzi was selected to be the sole artist for Planescape, and thus became the first freelance artist in TSR’s history to fully illustrate a complete line of AD&D products for several consecutive years. Cook recalls, “It’s hard for me to think about Planescape without seeing Tony’s evocative characters and style… The fact that Tony was able to see what Planescape was and translate and expand it into pictures was amazing.” (Realms, p.67) Released in 1994, Planescape became an enormous success.
Other companies began to seek out DiTerlizzi for the unique style and flair he brought to the fantasy genre. White Wolf Game Studio commissioned him to paint illustrations for their role-playing games, Changeling: The Dreaming, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and Vampire: The Dark Ages. Then in June 1996, he began working with the company Wizards of the Coast on their hugely popular collectible card game, Magic: The Gathering. DiTerlizzi recalls that Wizards of the Coast allowed a longer lead time for his work than TSR, in addition to a larger paycheck. Although he continued working on smaller projects related to D&D, DiTerlizzi would paint almost 100 Magic cards over the next six years. The success of continuous freelance work afforded the aspiring artist the opportunity to move to New York City.
In a world beyond the goblins, fairies, and otherworldly characters he illustrated, DiTerlizzi encountered magic of a different kind. In 1993 he met his future wife, Angela, who has been alongside DiTerlizzi through his ups and downs – when they were struggling to pay the bills in New York City, through the peaks of his career with The Spiderwick Chronicles and beyond. She is a tremendous force in DiTerlizzi’s professional career. He notes that she is his best friend who “has experienced it all” and describes her as honest, intelligent, and very creative. Above everything else, she cares deeply about him and his work. He added that her influence has “helped shape everything.” About DiTerlizzi, Angela notes, “I had never met anyone in my entire life who I felt had a clearer mission or purpose in why they were here.”
After several years of working at breakneck speed to meet the tight deadlines of the fantasy gaming industry, DiTerlizzi longed for a change. Through the lessons he learned creating characters, designing worlds, refining his technical skills, and capturing the attention of his audience, DiTerlizzi was able to seamlessly adapt into writing and illustrating children’s books. His first such project, Jimmy Zangwow’s Out-of-this-World Moon Pie Adventure (2000), was an instant hit.
A New Journey Begins
"Sometimes, when people grow up, they forget how to have fun."
– Tony DiTerlizzi, Ted, 2001
Jimmy Zangwow is set in an undetermined time, presumably the mid-1930s. The book opens with a discussion between mother and son in a kitchen floored with black and white patterned linoleum tiles. On the kitchen counter sits a case of empty milk bottles while an aluminum biplane toy rests on the ground. We are firmly ensconced in the period as Jimmy innocently exclaims phrases like, "Aww, nuts!," “Gadzooks!,” and "Holy macaroni."
It is almost dinnertime when the story begins, but Jimmy is in desperate need of a Moon Pie to sate his hunger. Robbed of the dessert by his mother who is busy preparing dinner, he ventures outdoors where he has constructed a flying jalopy made from spare wooden crates. He uses this makeshift spaceship to travel afar in search of a Moon Pie. On his adventure through outer space, Jimmy first encounters Mr. Moon, who resembles a more pleasant, though exhausted, version of the moon from one of cinema’s first great achievements – Le Voyage dans la Lune, the 1902 silent picture by film pioneer Georges Méliès. Jimmy soars by Mr. Moon via his jalopy inquiring about Moon Pies. Mr. Moon obliges by giving the boy an entire year’s supply – 1,000 in total. Naturally, Jimmy requires some milk to go with his treat, for which Mr. Moon advises him to head to the Milky Way.
A powerful tremor sends Jimmy tumbling down to Mars where he meets 999 Mars Men and one Grimble Grinder monster, whose tummy grumbling caused Jimmy’s descent to the Red Planet. After feeding the hungry monster one Moon Pie, Jimmy announces his desire to return home. In a reference to The Wizard of Oz, the 999 Mars Men make a hot-air balloon out of Moon Pie Wrappers that the Grimble Grinder happily agrees to fuel with gas from a burp, though he requires the remaining 999 Moon Pies to obtain the effect. Upon achieving flight, Jimmy promises his new friends, "I'll come back again soon!"
As with DiTerlizzi’s follow-up book, Ted, Jimmy’s sole parent does not have a name. Her face is never shown. In fact, in the twenty-one illustrations in the book, she is the only adult shown and appears only on the first page. This is a book full of imagination, and there is little room for the realism of the adult world.
After the success of Jimmy Zangwow, DiTerlizzi wrote and illustrated Ted, the tale of a boy and his imaginary friend, set in an era around 1960. DiTerlizzi recalls that a key scene from the book was based on an actual event from his childhood. “I remember my parents had just painted my bedroom robin’s egg blue. The following morning, I drew all over those glorious blank blue walls. Mom was furious. ‘Wait until your father comes home!’ she warned. As punishment, I had to spend the afternoon wiping off my drawings.”
The story involves a lonely, pre-school boy who meets an imaginary friend named Ted. The boy creates Ted because his father is preoccupied with his work and he has no one else with whom to play. The large, boisterous, pink Ted shows up at the boy’s house one week after the boy’s birthday. Father hasn't had time to play the games he purchased for his son, so Ted fills in. Soon after, the boy and Ted draw on walls, cut the boy’s hair, and fill the house with water. As one might expect, the father does not believe Ted is real and is upset that his son is so convinced. When the boy runs away out of frustration with his father, Ted reveals that he was known as “Ned” to his father when he was the boy’s age. The son, through Ted, helps his father find his long-lost childhood toy – a rusty tin Atomic Blaster. The father is now able to see Ted and in fact recognizes him as Ned from his youth. In the end, the father regains his youthful imagination and plays “one mean game of space-pirates-Monopoly-Twister” with his son and Ted.
A careful reader will note the Grimble Grinder creature from the previous year's Jimmy Zangwow appears on the television in the living room while Mr. Moon from the same book is carved on the foot of the boy’s bed. The father’s Atomic Blaster was based on a 1936 Buck Rogers Liquid Helium Water Pistol, and the father’s features were based on photographs of a young Frank Oz, the puppeteering partner of the late Jim Henson. Throughout the story, the father’s eyes remain hidden behind reflected light on the lens of his glasses, only to be revealed at the climax of the story. His visage brings to mind Norman Rockwell from his famous painting, Triple Self-Portrait.
DiTerlizzi recalls that Ted was originally intended to be a much longer story. In early drafts, the boy’s grandfather also lived in the house and was also able to see Ted since he had regained the imagination he lost when he grew up. When DiTerlizzi puts pen to paper to write a book, he describes it as an attempt to sort out what’s going on in his head. According to the author, “Ted deals with the responsibility of a father who was once a playful kid, just like his son.” For the thirty-year-old artist, Ted was a way to reconcile the adult he had become with the child he once was. DiTerlizzi remarks that although Ted did not achieve bestseller status, it appears to have been among the most meaningful to his readers over the years.
For the remainder of 2001, DiTerlizzi took on side jobs, including illustrating the covers of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Bernie Magruder book series and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales. The following year, he painted the covers for Bruce Colville’s Magic Shop series and provided a new cover and illustrations for Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight before releasing an updated version of a classic tale that would win him a major literary award.
Based on the 1829 poem by Mary Howitt, The Spider and the Fly was a departure from DiTerlizzi’s earlier children’s books. In this retelling, he was illustrating a classic tale instead of his own, and it was painted in shades of black and grey instead of the Maxfield Parrish-inspired palette of vivid blue and orange in Jimmy Zangwow or the bright pink and yellow of Ted. However, DiTerlizzi’s illustrations thrilled readers and critics alike. The book put DiTerlizzi on the New York Times bestseller list and won him a Caldecott Honor Award, which recognizes the “most distinguished American picture book for children.” DiTerlizzi was at the top of his game. But just when it seemed that things couldn’t get any better – they did.
Spiderwick Takes Off
“…Who’d dare live within a stream beneath a bridge where dark thoughts teem? And where’d your loose tooth really go? To a friend? Or to a foe? Keep on reading and you will know.”
– Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, The Spiderwick Chronicles, 2003
DiTerlizzi met his co-author for The Spiderwick Chronicles, Holly Black, in the mid-1990s when she interviewed DiTerlizzi about his work on Dungeons & Dragons for the short-lived d8 gaming magazine. The pair found they had much in common – they both adored the fantasy films of Jim Henson, as well as Brian Froud and Alan Lee’s Faeries book (1978), and they had been raised by stay-at-home mothers who were artists. They quickly became good friends.
In 2001 DiTerlizzi began working on a book titled Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You. At the time, his wife Angela was assisting Holly Black in getting her first novel, Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale, published. DiTerlizzi read Black’s manuscript and discovered she had a vast knowledge of fairy folklore. He quickly recruited her to assist him in gathering research for his fantasy-themed field guide.
In discussions with his editor, Kevin Lewis, at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, DiTerlizzi realized there was more to the Arthur Spiderwick story than just the field guide. He believed he could create another story based around the character of Arthur Spiderwick. Unlike Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, which was meant to resemble an old reference book, Lewis felt the story should be set in the modern era so that contemporary readers could easily relate. However, DiTerlizzi knew he did not have the time or ability to write and illustrate both books alone, and thought Holly Black would complement him well. DiTerlizzi recalls that everything quickly came together, noting it was a “very cohesive story because Holly and I were very compatible together.”
The Spiderwick Chronicles tells the tale of the Grace family as they adapt to a new life and a new reality. Nine-year-old twins Jared and Simon and their thirteen-year-old sister Mallory move into the Victorian-style Spiderwick Estate with their mother as their parents undergo a separation. The children quickly discover there is more to the house than meets the eye when they uncover a secret library, a house brownie named Thimbletack, and a book, Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, which contains detailed information on all sorts of creatures that reside within the Invisible World. Through the five books in The Spiderwick Chronicles series – The Field Guide (2003), The Seeing Stone (2003), Lucinda's Secret (2003), The Ironwood Tree (2004), and The Wrath of Mulgarath (2004) – the Grace children encounter hungry goblins, a wounded griffin, a hobgoblin named Hogsqueal, distrustful elves, and an evil ogre named Mulgarath before finally meeting the author of the Field Guide, Arthur Spiderwick.
The Spiderwick Chronicles was an astounding success with children, parents, and teachers alike. The series topped the New York Times bestseller list and to date has sold over fifteen million copies and been translated into thirty languages. The triumph of the series spawned a handful of spin-off publications, including Arthur Spiderwick's Notebook for Fantastical Observations (2005), Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You (2005), The Spiderwick Chronicles: Care and Feeding of Sprites (2006), and the Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles series (2007) in addition to a feature film and video game.
The Spiderwick Chronicles was released by Paramount Pictures in February 2008 and starred Freddie Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker, Nick Nolte, David Strathairn, and Martin Short, with music by James Horner and cinematography by Caleb Deschanel. The success of the books translated to the screen and the film became a hit with audiences and critics. For those keeping track, it currently holds a respectable 80% approval on Rotten Tomatoes.
When asked about the impact of Spiderwick’s explosive popularity on Tony’s ability to retain his childlike imagination, Angela notes, “For as much as his work has evolved, he is still the same person that he’s always been.” He humbly declares, “I’m just a guy who tells stories for children.”
Indeed, DiTerlizzi’s humility is one of his strongest traits. He attributes this in part to a meeting he and his brother Adam had with a famous comic book artist at a convention they attended when he was in art school. Although Adam met the artist and received his signature, the artist made no attempt to make eye contact with him or any of his young fans in the crowded line. His brother was crushed under the weight of his hero’s massive ego. Yet several months later, the DiTerlizzi brothers met another comic book artist who spent time talking art with the pair, even selling an original published drawing to the boys for whatever they could afford, which literally amounted to pocket change. DiTerlizzi recalls this moment fondly, thinking at the time, “This guy is genuine. He is … awesome.” The memory of that meeting was pivotal in DiTerlizzi’s desire to remain true to his fans.
“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it.”
― Roald Dahl, The Minpins, 1991
Coming down from the high achieved from the phenomenal success of The Spiderwick Chronicles, DiTerlizzi created a silly alphabet book, G is for One Gzonk!, before turning to a book he loved reading as a child. Released in 2008, Kenny & the Dragon is DiTerlizzi’s retelling of Kenneth Grahame’s 1898 book The Reluctant Dragon. DiTerlizzi recalls reading a copy of Grahame’s book which was illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard, who also illustrated Grahame’s classic The Wind in the Willows (1908) for the 1931 edition.
Kenny shares many similarities with DiTerlizzi – the misfit who loves fairy tales and natural history and possesses a wild imagination. In the book, Kenny (a bunny) discovers an enormous dragon, Grahame, on his family’s property (both characters are named after the author of the original book). In order to learn more about the dragon, Kenny consults a borrowed book titled The King’s Royal Bestiary. After identifying some inaccuracies within the book, Grahame suggests that Kenny will go on to write his own book someday, in a nod to DiTerlizzi’s own bestiary, Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You. (Saint) George, the local bookseller, is ordered by the king, and encouraged by the townspeople, to slay the dragon, although Kenny devises a plan which will satisfy all sides. Kenny & the Dragon not only became an instant bestseller, but continues to be celebrated in schools across the country in “one-book-one-school” programs.
Adventure of Meno, created by Tony and Angela DiTerlizzi in 2009, is a favorite of mine, though my fascination with the mid-century book elicits giggles and groans from the pair. Meno was intended to be a series of light-hearted children’s books that were colorful, silly, and full of imagination. The plot involves a boy elf named Meno and his adventures with his friend Yamagoo, a floating jellyfish. DiTerlizzi’s editor was as excited as I to see the work in print, so Simon & Schuster released four books in the Adventure of Meno series, titled Big Fun!, Wet Friend!, Yummy Trip!, and Uh-Oh Sick!
However, Amazon was experimenting with its Vine program at the time, which meant that free copies of books were arbitrarily distributed to a small but vocal group of Amazon customers, many of whom were not the target audience for children’s books and unfortunately did not comprehend the humor of the books. This shaky start led to a poor launch for the Meno series. Tony and Angela, along with Simon & Schuster, decided to shelve the remaining titles and move onto a project DiTerlizzi had been thinking about for over a decade.
Though it was not published until 2010, The WondLa Trilogy was first imagined around 1998 when The Spiderwick Chronicles was in development. The series carries on the tradition of elegantly illustrated children’s books. DiTerlizzi notes that the inspiration for WondLa came from “books that I loved as a kid that my mom had read to me, classics like Peter Pan, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” The idea for the story evolved as a response to Spiderwick — a story from the past coming forward to present — which led DiTerlizzi to conceive a story from the future coming backward to the present. This was combined with a now middle-aged author thinking of what the world would be like when his young daughter reached his age.
The first book in the series, The Search for WondLa, introduces us to the protagonist, a twelve-year-old girl named Eva Nine. She is being raised in an underground Sanctuary solely by her Muthr – a Multi-Utility Task Help Robot. When her Sanctuary is invaded, Eva Nine escapes to the surface of the planet Orbona, a world with which she has no connection. She is accompanied by her handheld Omnipod, a device which was designed to aid her growing up underground, but cannot provide much information on the outside world, along with two newfound companions: the alien Rovender Kitt and a gigantic water bear. In the remaining books in the series, A Hero for WondLa and The Battle for WondLa, her friends travel with her to the human-populated city of New Attica where Eva Nine finally learns what it means to be human, and struggles to save the world she holds dear.
Though The WondLa Trilogy contains many of the themes of DiTerlizzi’s previous works – a search for identity and a need for companionship in a fantasy world – the series reveals a writer deep in thought. He seems to be pondering his own place in the world and the role he can fill to effect a better future. The books reveal a more mature author and illustrator, and I predict they will be read for years to come.
In 2014, DiTerlizzi was commissioned to write the text that accompanied several of Ralph McQuarrie’s concept paintings for a book titled The Adventures of Luke Skywalker: Jedi Knight. This project provided DiTerlizzi with the chance of a lifetime. As a child he spent days in his bedroom carefully rendering McQuarrie’s Star Wars concept paintings in a notebook. In this picture book DiTerlizzi summarizes the story of the original three Star Wars films alongside McQuarrie’s gorgeously rendered images. In addition to the pleasure of writing for one of his artistic influences, DiTerlizzi got to meet his childhood idols, actors Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, during the book’s release at Star Wars Celebration.
The Story of Diva and Flea began with author Mo Willems, best known for his Caldecott Honor book, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! Willems had spent a year living in Paris and had devised some story ideas, one of which involved a dog and cat living in the City of Light. Willems casually mentioned to his wife, Cher, that he wanted a certain look to the book and shared his drawings that resembled the art of Tony DiTerlizzi. She offered, “You know who draws like Tony DiTerlizzi? Tony DiTerlizzi!” DiTerlizzi had just finished writing the last book in the WondLa Trilogy, The Battle for WondLa, in early 2015 when he received a call from his friend.
Willems spoke with DiTerlizzi about illustrating the book and sent the manuscript to him. DiTerlizzi read a couple of chapters and began sketching right away. The two author/artists worked together on what DiTerlizzi describes as “a great experience, which is what I wanted. I wanted to participate in the creative process with this author whom I have great respect for. Mo may have a different approach to bookmaking, but in the end we are both trying to accomplish the same thing: inspire young readers.”
The Story of Diva and Flea tells a simple tale of two characters from very different social classes and species. Living opposing lives in Paris, a sheltered house-dog, Diva, and her new friend, the wandering, homeless cat, Flea, make an odd couple. Diva is afraid of the sound of footsteps (“Feet!”) and Flea is afraid of brooms. Together, they embody the adage that opposites attract as they help each other to overcome their worst fears, and form a strong bond of friendship.
DiTerlizzi chose to paint the illustrations for The Story of Diva and Flea with the pastel palettes he identified while visiting the city of Paris. As with many of DiTerlizzi’s books, the few glimpses that readers get of adults are faraway images of people turned away, and of the feet of Parisians walking by Diva and Flea. However, there is one exception to the rule: a drawing of Willems and DiTerlizzi at a café appears near the end of the book.
The Future of Imagination
Part of DiTerlizzi’s success lies in his ability to employ an ever-changing style, making each work different from the last. Depending on the project, DiTerlizzi adjusts the look of his work to best express his vision of the story he is telling. In addition, he imparts the inspiration he has received from examining the work of the many gifted illustrators who preceded him. For instance, in Jimmy Zangwow and Ted one can see the clear influence of Norman Rockwell in both the story and the artwork, from the nostalgic time periods of the 1930s and early 1960s in which the books are set, through the playfulness and innocence of the children within the stories. Rockwell’s impact is most distinct on the cover painting for Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s book Bernie Magruder & The Case of the Big Stink. DiTerlizzi’s painting mirrors Rockwell’s famous No Swimming cover for the June 4, 1921 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, but with DiTerlizzi’s sensibility.
DiTerlizzi’s other works also showcase the impact of diverse illustration on his art, including the Charles Addams and Edward Gorey-influenced book The Spider and the Fly, for which DiTerlizzi won the distinguished Caldecott Honor Award in 2003. The depiction of Arthur Spiderwick in The Spiderwick Chronicles was based on artist Arthur Rackham, whose work in books like Peter Pan, Aesop’s Fables, Rip Van Winkle, and The Wind in the Willows, has inspired generations of children’s book illustrators. Rackham’s influence is apparent in DiTerlizzi’s work throughout his career, from the watercolored ink drawings of Planescape in 1994 through today. In the more recent WondLa Trilogy, DiTerlizzi creates a sparse graphic world heavily influenced by the drawings of Heavy Metal comic artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud, and the flora within the illustrations resembles the highly detailed drawings of plants by 19th century German biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel.
With all that he has achieved, DiTerlizzi does not show any signs of resting on his laurels. He has several exciting projects in the pipeline and many more worlds being formed in his mind. Though he sees himself improving as an artist and a writer over time, he envisions some-day telling his stories outside the trappings of bound paper. Considering all he has accomplished and the dreams he hopes to fulfill in the decades to come, DiTerlizzi declares his goal remains simple: “to inspire children to use their imagination through stories and pictures.”
Jesse Kowalski, Curator of Exhibitions, Norman Rockwell Museum
Purchase the Exhibit Catalog Never Abandon Imagination The Fantastical Art of Tony DiTerlizzi here...
Illustrations by Tony DiTerlizzi
DiTerlizzi, Tony. Ted. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, April 1, 2001.
DiTerlizzi, Tony and Mary Howitt. The Spider & The Fly. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, October 1, 2002.
DiTerlizzi, Tony and Holly Black. The Spiderwick Chronicles, BOOK 1: The Field Guide. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, May 1, 2003.
DiTerlizzi, Tony and Holly Black. Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, October 25, 2005.
DiTerlizzi, Angela and Tony DiTerlizzi. Adventure of Meno, BOOK 1: Big Fun!. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, October 6, 2009.
DiTerlizzi, Tony. The Search For WondLa. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, September 21, 2010.
DiTerlizzi, Tony. REALMS: The Roleplaying Game Art of Tony DiTerlizzi. Milwaukee, OR: Dark Horse Comics/Kitchen Sink Books, June 3, 2015.
Kowalski, Jesse. Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration. New York: Abbeville Press, 2020.
Willems, Mo and Tony DiTerlizzi. The Story of Diva and Flea. New York: Disney/Hyperion Books for Children, October 13, 2015.