Author Betty Paraskevas and illustrator Michael Paraskevas are the mom-and-son team behind 14 kids books. Three of their literary creations-Marvin the Tapdancing Horse, Maggie and the Ferocious Beast and The Kids of Room 402-have been spun off into TV series by Canadian toonco Nelvana, with which the pair is also currently working on a new Flash-animated series called Jerolemon Street. Artisan Home Entertainment’s 48-minute animated video and DVD based on Paraskevas’ book series The Tangerine Bear hit shelves in November, also airing in prime time on ABC in December.
Which comes first in the creative process-stories or illustrations?
M: The story almost always comes first, but sometimes I’ll doodle a sketch and say `here, how about this guy’?
B: We got started that way. Mickey said to me one day, `Look at all my beach paintings, and we’ll do a children’s book.’ That was how we did our first book On the Edge of the Sea. Another time when the illustration came first Mickey drew a picture of this real dapper cat, and I thought of Leo Spatz Ratcatcher, which is now a movie in development with Fox Features.
What quirky things do you do to jump-start your creativity?
B: I guess we’re sort of kooky to begin with, so we really don’t need anything.
M: (jokingly) Well, a lobster roll always does the trick. No, really, one project always leads into the next. If you read all of our books, you’ll find things that connect. Jr. Kroll was a book series we did about a bear who owns another bear called The Tangerine Bear, which we eventually spun out into a book of its own. Also, our book The Shamlanders featured a ferocious beast with polka dots. Even though he wasn’t really the main character, we liked him a lot and decided to write The Ferocious Beast with the Polka Dot Hide. That book had a map on its endpapers, which was where the idea for Maggie and the Ferocious Beast came from.
What works best for a kids audience in your experience?
M: You can’t talk down to kids. I think the best thing about the Maggie and the Ferocious Beast scripts is that they have two levels-they’re very preschool-oriented, but there’s something really adult-funny about them too.
B: I don’t like toilet jokes, I don’t like vulgarity, and I don’t think you have to use them if you’re really funny.
M: We keep pushing jokes into the scripts and we know that a broadcaster is sometimes going to clip them out later.
B: You have to make these kids laugh on that other level. Sometimes the networks forget that.
M: When a show is too educational, kids eventually see through it and it doesn’t stay with them; they outgrow it really quick, and there’s nothing to come back to. My big goal was to make Maggie as intelligent as the original Winnie the Pooh book that I loved as a kid. I didn’t always get it then, but when you get older that book’s hysterical.
When a prodco likes one of your concepts, what are the next steps?
M: The development process is different for each project. Marvin was pretty quick. Marvin the Tapdancing Horse is a Canadian content show and is written by Canadian writers, but we read scripts and give notes, and we basically did the set up of the show and defined all of the characters. It doesn’t really matter what the stories are sometimes because you have to do 50 of them. What you really need is a great cast of characters, and Marvin has that. It was a very easy segue into a television show.
M: With Maggie, we had been trying to develop it for about a year, and we were trying to figure out what we should do with this book: Do we add a boy into it? What’s the story? Is it educational? We hemmed and hawed for about a year, until somebody at Nelvana called me up and said, ‘The show is about the map. It’s about this kid who draws a map and then he goes there.’ But when we showed it to Nickelodeon, they asked us to change the lead character into a little girl. It all goes through these processes. Maggie took a long time-almost four years.
Does your instinct ever let you down?
M: If we thought a concept really stunk, we’d probably just bury it. You know in two minutes in a pitch to a network whether something works or not. You can’t fake it.