Master of the Menagerie

A seagull with aerodynamic impossibilities. A strangely disproportionate cat. A grinning mouse with…six eyes? This is the world of Tom Curtis and Things I Have Drawn, an Instagram sensation that features hilarious and very LITERAL interpretations of children’s drawings.

It began a five years ago, when Tom took at look at his young sons’ drawings and wondered how their wild interpretations of the world would look if they were actually REAL. As his children have aged up, Tom has relied on his scores of fans to continue the creation of lopsided lions, fanged fish, and pop-eyed people.

In 2017, Tom and his collaborators released Things I Have Drawn: At the Zoo (Trapeeze Books). It’s a must-have coffee table book for anyone who has proudly displayed unexplicable kiddie artwork on their fridge and walls at home.

I reached out to Tom in London to chat about his playful cast of characters and his creative process!


Please tell us a little about yourself and your artistic collaborators!

I’m Tom and I’m the Executive Creative Director of a media agency in London called MediaCom. I’m also the ‘dad’ behind an Instagram account called Things I Have Drawn.
TIHD has a very simple premise. It imagines a world in which the things kids draw are real. In other words, the form of what they draw is accurate. Big heads, little bodies, eyes on one side of the head, a beak as well as a smiley mouth, that kind of thing.

My two main collaborators are my own kids, Dom and Al. When we first started, they were 5 and 3. Now that they’re 11 and 8 their drawings aren’t as gloriously naïve as they used to be, so I work with lots of other kids’ drawings as well these days. I’ve always said that the ‘I’ in Things I Have Drawn can be anyone. After all, there’s a lot of talented young artists out there.

Walk us through the creation process…

The creative process has evolved a bit over time and is usually determined by the subject matter and the circumstances in which the drawing is produced.

When we first started Things I Have Drawn there’d be a bit more of a discussion with the boys about what they were drawing. Sometimes we’d even visit the zoo together and they’d take their sketchbooks with them. I’d take photos of what they were drawing, usually from a number of angles, and then the Photoshop process would begin on our return home.

More recently what I’ll do is start with a drawing I find lying around the house – unless it’s one that’s been sent to us by one of our followers. I’ve still got many hundreds in the archive to choose from.

The ‘real’ images I create are sometimes made from a combination of photos I’ve taken myself and specific pictures I find on stock sites. It’s a lot more satisfying using my own photos, and the end results, I find, are normally better, because I’ll have taken multiple photos to work from, and the realism is easier to achieve.

Occasionally I’ll use the body of one animal to create the body of another. For example, for a giraffe, it would be far too time consuming to adjust each individual patch on its fur to the pattern a child has drawn, so on more than one occasion I’ve used the body of a white horse and then added the patterns later.

Do you wait until the very end to reveal the final product to your kids, or do they give you feedback along the way?

The boys are usually intrigued to see what I’m working on, so will peer over my shoulder to take a look – if they’re still up when I’m working on them that is, as I work mainly in the evenings. They’ve seen me do enough now not to want to watch avidly for hours.

Occasionally I have to ask them what various bits of their drawings are supposed to be. I’m sure I’ve got noses mixed up with mouths, and even tails confused with ears when they’re not around to ask, though.

When I work with people’s submissions, I can’t so easily clarify what every detail is, so I have to take a bit of a punt sometimes. I enjoy the debate on Instagram though, when people think I’ve got it wrong.

Over the years, have their reactions changed at all?

We’ve been doing Things I Have Drawn for over four years now, so it’s inevitable the boys’ reaction is different these days, but it’s been a slow change overtime. I guess the big difference is that they used to just think most of the creations were funny. Now they’re more interested in how many likes each post gets, as if that’s a measurement of quality!

Has a drawing ever stumped you?

Not that I can remember, but I can be selective, of course, so if a drawing looks like it’ll be too complicated to do, then I won’t attempt it. The more detail there is in the drawing, the longer it normally takes. I don’t have masses of time to do them because I still have my full time job.

Is it more difficult to do people? Or animals?

It depends on a few factors, including how detailed I want the image to be (I often make the images a lot higher resolution than Instagram requires them to be, which is time consuming in itself). One key factor is the main texture of the subject matter. Reptiles’ scales are surprisingly fiddly to get right, especially when you’re trying to fit them into an unusual body shape. Human skin is a lot more uniform and therefore tends to be simpler. Shadows can be a bit of a pain though, which is why I’ll often try to avoid people and animals that are standing in direct sunlight.

Do you have a personal favorite, and why?

I always used to say it was the first ever one we posted to Instagram – a picture of our pet cat, Ninja, who sadly died a couple of years ago. I say ‘sadly’, but she was a bit frightening at times – not a cuddly lap cat, that’s for sure. It was based on a drawing Dom had done when he was very young.

But looking back through the many images we’ve produced I actually think it might be an image I created from one of Al’s drawings of a half-emu, half-turkey (at least that’s what we decided to make it). I found it in a pile of paper, having not been aware Alistair had drawn it. It’s a really bizarre looking creature, and I had a lot of fun working out how to interpret many of the lines he’d scribbled across it. The end result is quite grotesque, but I was always quite pleased with it.

Please finish this sentence: “When I started this, I never thought it would lead to…”

…being on the front row at the Gucci Men’s Fashion Show in Milan. That was a very recent collaboration and saw us doing a Story takeover of the Gucci Instagram account. Pretty incredible really.

All photos courtesy of Tom Curtis, Things I Have Drawn.


As a precautionary measure, Princeton University closed the gallery of the Cotsen Children’s Library until further notice, and our children’s programming as been suspended during this closure. Until our library reopens, the blog will post once a week. So every Tuesday, please check in to see what we’re up to…from story time projects to awesome interviews!

The BiblioFiles Presents: Jewell Parker Rhodes

Author Jewell Parker Rhodes with Ripley, Gurgi. Menlo Park, CA | Kirkpatrick Foundation

Just posted! A webcast and podcast with multiple award winning, and New York Times bestselling author Jewell Parker Rhodes.

Already an author of adults works, Rhodes penned Ninth Ward, her first novel for children, in 2010. This led to two additional books in her Louisiana Girls’ Trilogy: Sugar, and Bayou Magic. In 2017, her work shifted to more urban settings – New York City for Towers Falling, Chicago for Ghost Boys, and Boston for her newest novel, Black Brother, Black Brother.

Both beautiful and hard hitting, Rhodes’ books are about family connections, identity, racism, prejudice, violence, growth, pain, and hope. From a young girl fighting to survive Hurricane Katrina, to a 12 year-old ghost struggling to overcome his brutal shooting in Chicago, Rhodes writes with honesty and a powerful empathy. She is a truly gifted storyteller who takes us into the difficult lives of people, connects us to them through her words, and then invites us to carry that new understanding into the real world, and change it.

Rhodes’ books have won a Coretta Scott King Honor Award, an EB White Read-Aloud Award, a Walter Award, and have been New York Times bestsellers and Junior Library Guild selections. She holds a Master’s and a Doctor of Arts from Carnegie-Mellon and the Piper Endowed Chair at Arizona State University, where she also teaches writing and literature.

Follow this link to the BiblioFiles interview

The Beautiful Philosophy of Nothing: Patrick McDonnell

patrick mcdonnell photo by dana sheridanThis fall, Abrams ComicArts released The Art of Nothing: 25 Years of Mutts and the Art of Patrick McDonnell. And while this is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy 25 years of the much-loved comic, what truly radiates from this book is the philosophy of Mutts and its creator, Patrick McDonnell.

the art of nothing by patrick mcdonnellGranted, “philosophy” is an unusual word to use to describe a daily comic. But longtime fans will immediately nod their heads and smile. As Patrick himself writes in the preface, “Since I try to see the world through the eyes of animals, most Mutts themes are quite basic: dogs, cats, snow, rain, the moon, the ocean, and what all animals (including us) want: food, naps, and love. And, because all art is personal, other themes explore the language of comics, the high art/low art discourse, the human-animal bond, the environment, animal rights, and spirituality.”

In short, Mutts is a beautiful philosophy of simplicity, compassion, and consideration.

At its very essence, Mutts is an assortment of souls who care for one another, play together, and advocate for others. The characters are often drawn on minimalist backgrounds, which enhances the purity of their interactions. Love and laughter. Inspiration and gratitude. The Art of Nothing both reaffirms and elevates these concepts. The book prominently features our beloved Mutts friends, but it also includes Patrick’s free-style art, his creative nods to artists who inspired him, his dedication to animal rights advocacy, and his growth into other areas of creativity, including his Caldecott Honor book, Me…Jane.

Recently, I was both delighted and honored to interview Patrick in his home studio. Artists’ work spaces are always interesting windows into their processes – Patrick’s studio was exactly like stepping into one of his Mutts panels. Minimal, comfortable, and with a distinct feeling of positive intent in the air. Oh, and there was an energetic terrier running around the house with a squeaky toy, as well as a glorious tabby cat lolling under a chair.

patrick mcdinnell studio desk


The title of your new book, The Art of Nothing is both a play on your first Mutts picture book and the process of a daily cartoonist. In the end, it’s about giving yourself, fully. On that note, can you tell us about the final pages of the book, the illustrated correspondence with cartoonist Lynda Barry?

I’m a big fan of Lynda and her work and had the pleasure of meeting her several times over the years. She was very close friends with my first editor at King Features comic strip syndicate. Charlie Kockman, my editor at Abrams, thought we needed an interview for the front of the book, and he suggested Lynda. But she had a really interesting idea…she didn’t want to do a conventional interview. She proposed that we be pen pals and do an interview via letter writing.

So over the course of three months she would write to me and I’d write back. She’s a teacher, so she gave me assignments. I felt like I was in high school again. I thought, and hoped, when she was done it would be a combination of her letters and my letters. But as you see in the book, she ended up putting together a collage of my letters and “homework.” It was a fun, intimate way of communicating. It came out really nice. Lynda’s a genius.

horizontal file drawers in studioYes, it was unusual in that it was non-linear and very open-ended…definitely not an interview format I’ve ever seen before! In fact, the entire format of The Art of Nothing really surprised me. A daily comic is very fixed…certain panels, certain rules, certain deadlines. This book unwinds those restrictions and let’s everything flow together – the comics, your original artwork, your thoughts, your collaborations…

Thank you. You know, when I look at the book, I feel like I’m like looking at not only the last 25 years of my creative life, but also inside the part of my brain that makes Mutts.

Charles Schultz, creator of Peanuts, is often cited as inspiring your cartooning career, and your new book is filled with your personal artistic tributes to N.C, Wyeth, Vermeer, Jasper John, Chester Gould, Jack Kirby and so many others…can you tell us the most recent artist you encountered who changed the way you look at your own art?

I recently visited the James Thurber House Museum in Columbus, Ohio. Afterwards, I started looking at his work again. I’m drawn to artists who give you license to be free, and he definitely does that so elegantly – to not worry about embellishments, to just get to the heart of something. Through his art he gave me additional permission to be even looser with mine.

cups inks and moochOver the years, both Mutts and your own life path have evolved to include animal rights advocacy. Were you ever surprised about where that journey has taken you and your characters?

It’s been an interesting journey. When I started Mutts, it was important to me that I kept my characters animal-like. The inspiration for Mutts was not only my love for comics, but my love for all animals. In particular my love for my first dog, Earl. I had wanted a dog ever since I was a kid, probably because I was in love with Snoopy from Peanuts. It took 30-something years, but I finally adopted my dog, a Jack Russell named Earl. He was everything I dreamed a dog could be. He was the inspiration for the comic. I felt if I could capture his joy of life and his spirit, I was doing my job.

Anyone who has a pet knows they’re funny. They don’t have to act like humans. They have their own personalities. I was trying my best to see the world through their eyes, and the more I looked, the more I started thinking how tough it is on this planet for other animals. In particular, I was thinking about the dogs and cats that are in shelters waiting to have Earl’s and Mooch’s lives in a forever home.

So I started playing in sketchbooks with ideas of shelter stories that I could tell in my strip. And around that same time the Humane Society of the United States got in touch with me about Animal Shelter Appreciation Week. I thought it was a perfect opportunity to share the shelter stories I was creating. That started the Shelter Stories part of the strip.

mutts bookendsThat led me to think more and more about the world and animals. When I joined the Humane Society’s board of directors, I learned so much more about how tough it is for animals on the planet. And that became integrated into the strip. Mooch and Earl helping farm animals, Mooch dreaming about Africa, and Shtinky the tabby, who became my animal advocate and took on the mission of trying to save tigers from extinction. Shtinky is able to help me introduce bigger issues related to animals.

So yeah, when I started this strip, I didn’t think it was going to evolve this way, but I’m really happy it did. Animals need someone to speak up for them. And it’s become a big part of my life and a big part of this strip. And I feel that any little help I can do is probably the reason I’m here.

orange chair and original artPlease explain the derivation of Mooch’s “little pink sock.”

You know what’s funny about that theme? I get lots of pictures of people’s cats with little pink socks. I didn’t realize that was something cats love, but I learned it is. It began as a  story line for one week. But it just fit so well with Mooch’s personality it became one of the themes I go back to regularly. Cartoonists have different devices we use – the little pink sock is one of them for Mutts. It seemed perfect that Mooch would be obsessed with a little pink sock – just the way real life cats do I’ve learned.

You’ve written 12 picture books, including Me…Jane which was a Caldecott Honor winner, as well as co-written two musicals and a screenplay for a feature-length Mutts animated movie. How, if at all, did these endeavors challenge your creativity?

I’ve enjoyed all of it. The comic strip – not that it’s a grind, but it stays pretty much the same artistically. Not the storytelling and the jokes, but the process. And it’s also just me, every day, just me with my dog sitting right here next to me. That’s about it.

But I love doing the plays. To collaborate with Aaron Posner, who’s a great director and playwright, and Andy Mitton, who wrote the music…it’s so nice to have a new family for a length of time. And creating something together, and to see it come alive on the stage was just so much fun. And theater is very similar to comic strips…

Really? How so?

They’re dialogue-driven, and they kind of stay in the same place. When you think about most comic strips, the setting is basically just a few defined areas. Comic books are great for movies because comic books are big stories with dramatic visuals. But comic strips are very quiet and kind of personal. And that’s like theater. The scenery stays largely the same…and it’s mainly dialogue and character driven. I love the theater. I had the chance to do The Gift of Nothing and then Me…Jane at the Kennedy Center and we’re hoping to do another musical someday soon.

The only unsettling thing with Me…Jane was that Jane Goodall was there on opening night. I have utmost respect for her and her mission and wanted her to love it, of course. I sat next to her at the performance. As the play was unfolding, I looked every once in a while to make sure she had a smile on her face. She was pleased with it, which was thrilling for me. But believe me. It was also very nerve-wracking.

paints in cabinetWhat’s your guiding philosophy for the next 25 years of Mutts?

My, hero Charles Schulz, did it for 50 years. Based on that, I’m only halfway done. That’s a scary thought.

What’s interesting about doing a comic strip – it’s one-day-at-a-time. It’s not like writing a novel, where you have to plan everything and figure out how it’s going to end and what the plot twists are. Doing a daily-comic strip is more like life…you just take it as it comes one day at a time. So other than continuing that process, I’m hoping the Disney animated movie might happen. That’d be a new world to explore with the characters.

I’m still planning to write more picture books, and I have dreams of doing a graphic novel. I might try that next year. The limiting factor is time. Doing a daily comic strip takes up so much of it. I wanted to be a cartoonist because of Peanuts since I was four years-old. That was my dream job. But I never thought of the reality of the job. I never thought, Oh, that’s every day for the next 25 years. It didn’t really hit me until I started doing it. Then I realized. It’s like a term paper that never ends!

patrick mcdonnell prizesAlso, you know, it sounds corny, but the characters, to a certain extent, do write themselves. You live with them so long, and you know their personalities. I think visually. When I think of new ideas, I’m literally just sketching funny pictures that make me laugh. So I think, where can I put them where they haven’t been in a while? If I draw Mooch somewhere new, I know how he would react and what he would say. That helps.

With a daily comic strip you’re not allowed to have writer’s block. Somehow, you have to have a lot of faith that it will get done. And so far, it has.

patrick mcdonnell in studio photo by dana sheridan

We’re giving away a signed copy of The Art of Nothing to a lucky blog reader! Just e-mail us with your name, and the name of your favorite Mutts character. And…the winner has been selected! Thank you everyone who entered, from Idaho to Puerto Rico!


Many thanks to Patrick and his wife Karen for graciously inviting me into their home, and thank you for 25 years of Mutts…the love, the laughter, and the little pink socks.