What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night: A Conversation with Creators Susan and Refe Tuma

Parent Co. caught up with the creative parents behind the popular Dinovember books to hear what they had to say about living the Dinovember life.

Susan and Refe Tuma are the authors of the Dinovember books, including What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night and What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night: A Very Messy Adventure.

Parent Co. caught up with the creative couple, parents to four children under the age of eight. Here’s what they had to say about living the Dinovember life.

PARENT CO: The photographs in the Dinovember books are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Your dinos blow the Elf on the Shelf and the Mensch on a Bench away by miles, in my opinion, and also provide a secular option that allows any family to get in on the fun previously reserved for specific religious holidays (albeit tangentially, as much as such a product can be considered for “religious” purposes). Can you describe the genesis of Dinovember?

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via Dinovember.tumblr.com

REFE TUMA: When our son was an infant, he had some minor health problems that kept him up at night for hours. Two years into this, Susan and I were exhausted. We’d get up in the morning and have nothing left for our older kids, and they were starting to notice. We needed some way to reconnect with them.

One night, after putting the kids to bed, we came across a box of dinosaur toys. On a whim, Susan decided to set them up on the bathroom sink and give them the kids’ toothbrushes. We figured it might give the kids a laugh in the morning. We went to bed without thinking much more about it.

The next morning, our daughter burst into our room and pulled us out of bed. The dinosaurs had come to life and she had caught them brushing their teeth! Her reaction was so unexpected and priceless. That’s when we knew the dinosaurs would have to come to life again. And they did, for the entire month of November.

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via Dinovember.tumblr.com

PC: A Pinterest search for “Dinovember” ideas yields seemingly endless results. How did the month-long family activity become an Internet sensation and two-book deal with Little, Brown?

RT: In 2012, the very first year the dinosaurs came to life, we started taking pictures of the messes they were making. We put a few on Facebook for friends and family, and jokingly called it Dinovember. Everyone enjoyed it, and they were a bit of an inside joke.

In 2013, the dinosaurs returned—and we found out that our kids weren’t the only ones interested in what they were doing. Friends and family started sharing the photos, and on top of that our kids were telling anyone who would listen all about their crazy dinosaurs. We wanted an easy way to explain what on earth our kids were so excited about, so I wrote a quick essay describing what Dinovember was and what it was about and posted it on a new site, medium.com. I figured, whenever someone asked us what our kids were talking about we could point them to that essay and the photos, and it would make a little more sense.

Instead, Welcome to Dinovember was read [on Medium] more than 2 million times in 24 hours. It was syndicated by the Huffington Post and the story was picked up by the Washington Post, Metro UK, and others. I started getting emails from literary agents and editors who wanted to talk about expanding the essay into a full-length photo book. We were in complete shock (and excited out of our minds!).

We wanted to make two books, one for the adults who had started following along with Dinovember, and one just for kids. John Parsley at Little Brown shared our vision and, along with our wonderful agents Liz Farrell and Kristyn Keene, helped orchestrate a deal with Little Brown and Co. and children’s imprint Little Brown Books for Young Readers.

PC: From what I understand, your family’s home is truly the scene of the crime in these photos. What’s the worst mess the dinosaurs ever made?

SUSAN TUMA: That really is our house! As for the worst mess—the dinosaurs once created an avalanche from our refrigerator’s ice-maker. It stood 4’ tall and 3’ wide and took over 750 lbs. of ice. It’s in one of the final photos of What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night, but we also have a photo of two of our kids sledding down it. It was that big.

PC: Setting up the dinosaur scenes and seeing your kids’ reactions must be so fun. Who does the clean up?

ST: Not the dinosaurs, unfortunately—if only we’d gone with robots!

The kids will often play with whatever the dinosaurs got into the night before, so a lot of the clean-up during Dinovember isn’t all that different from any other month; if the dinosaurs do crafts, the kids do them too. It’s a mess either way. (Of course, if spray paint or broken eggs are involved, it’s going to be mom and dad doing the cleaning.)

PC: The Dinovember books are very art-forward, but they also tell a story. Can you describe the story writing process? Who does the writing? What’s the most important message the books send?

via Dinovember.tumblr.com
via Dinovember.tumblr.com

ST: We truly work together on every step of the process. That’s one of the benefits of doing projects like these with your spouse—we live this stuff together. Refe started out doing most of the writing since that’s a big part of his background, and I (Susan) took the lead early on in the photography department. Now there isn’t quite as much distinction—it’s almost entirely collaborative. It’s just more fun that way. We have different approaches, and so often one person’s idea is refined or informed by the other’s. It actually brings out the better work from both of us.

Our books are definitely about the importance of childhood imagination; the spark and the wonder of it.  We hope they’re also an invitation to parents to engage in that wonder as well, with their children.

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PC: Do the kids still think the dinosaurs come alive at night, or do they know it’s you? How did you explain this to them and what was their reaction?

RT: It depends on which ones you ask! Our youngest two are aged 2 and 4, and they absolutely believe. Our oldest (8) is in on it now. She likes to help the dinosaurs out from time to time, and has come up with some great ideas. So far, our 7-year-old has chosen to keep playing along ;).

PC: What’s interesting to me is how you created a family tradition that was all your own—I think that’s what many of us parents want for our own families. It’s more meaningful than a commercialized product bought at a store ever could be. What did Dinovember teach you as parents and as a family?

RT: I think we’ve learned that all good things in life are messy, especially when kids are involved. And that inspiration can be found in the unlikeliest places—even in a box of old toys.

The Brain Chase Challenge keeps kids engaged with summer learning

Our interview and overview of Brain Chase, a five-week online treasure hunt / learning competition for kids ages 6-16.

Brain Chase is a five-week summer online treasure hunt competition for kids ages 6-16. This summer’s competition starts on June 22. Brain Chase partners with education programs online to provide math, reading, writing and foreign language support.

Certified teachers provide daily feedback on writing, and kids must meet certain daily goals in order to unlock clues, riddles and animated videos to solve their way to a real-life treasure worth $10,000. Kids also receive mail, such as letters from characters, seeds to plant with clues that grow on them or tools like a sundial.

We interviewed Neylan McBaine, Chief Marketing Officer for Brain Chase.

Parent Co: I’ve seen a lot of excitement building with parents online, as they sign their kids up for Brain Chase. What makes Brain Chase different from other summer online learning programs?

Neylan: I think the big difference is that we have this motivational platform built in to the online work. Not only have we curated and partnered with the best online curriculum providers that the web has to offer currently, but we’ve created this really fun motivation for the kids to do the work that is usually lacking in summer workbooks, online classes or summer school.

That motivation is just enough to keep the kids excited and let them feel like they’re on a real summer long adventure, without it sort of overshadowing the rest of their summer fun.

The kids get to follow along with our kid archeology team. They’re looking for lost treasure. Then we take the adventure offline as well, and the treasure is actually a real treasure hunt. So the kids feel like they’re participating in something online, but they know that there’s also something real buried in the earth that they potentially could be working towards.

It’s hard and riddled during the whole five weeks of the animated series, but it’s solvable and someone’s going to win $10,000 and this very cool golden mechanical trophy that looks like the ancient lost treasure found by Cortez.

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It looks like the parents on your site have great things to say about the program. You also enrolled your children in the program last summer before you started working with Brain Chase. What was your family’s experience with the program?

One of the things that worked best for my kids was simply becoming familiar with some of the resources. My kids don’t do a lot of stuff online. They’re not big gamers or anything like that, so they’re young enough that they sort of aren’t already online for other purposes.

My oldest was ten last year, so I had my ten-year-old and my eight-year-old do it last year. It was really cool to have them become familiar with Khan Academy and see them start navigating their way around it.

My kids particularly liked the writing exercises. They felt like it was really neat to have a real teacher on the other end of it that was giving them feedback on their writing in a fun, but productive way.

I think for me, the experience was really about having my kids become familiar with these really great, sort of super foods of the internet, like our curriculum providers are, and become comfortable and get to know their way around them.

Absolutely! I’m an educator in a school with one-to-one technology, and our kids use Khan Academy. It’s amazing, so I thought that was fantastic that you’re partnering with some stellar education companies like Khan Academy and Rosetta Stone.

What languages are offered through Rosetta Stone when kids sign up with Brain Chase?

They can actually choose from 30.

Wow!

The entire Rosetta Stone offering. That’s a big addition for us this year.

Our vision is to have a full curated library of these partners, so that parents don’t have to go and study up on all the different offerings themselves, but they can drag and drop the options that they want their kids to take every summer.

Next year maybe we’ll add a coding module or something else that the parents can select from. The core is always probably going to be reading and math with other modules built. Maybe we’ll have a science module.

We’ve talked about wanting to do a physical education module where maybe they upload activities from a pedometer that we give them, or something like that. Then they have to do a certain amount of physical exercise each week.

There’s a huge range that we can do in being this platform for a library of curated partners.

That’s incredible. The program seems like it’s really grown in three years. It’s great that it allows for more personalized learning, and that’s a growing movement in education right now. It’s also excellent for homeschooling.

Do you see Brain Chase ever being offered during the school year or other school breaks?

Definitely. In fact, we’re looking for partners right now with which to create after school partnerships, so that we can create a program for any number of students in an after school setting very easily.

We have content from our past year that we could be repurposed and sort of rewrite the clues. We’re looking for partners to do that right now, so if you have any recommendations or if any of your readers know of actual programs, we’re looking!

We do group rates and we can scale, so the per child cost of doing an actual program is actually very manageable for groups that are used to getting grants and funding for much more expensive programs.

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I know that students are working with academic skills like math, reading and writing, but what kind of social skills do you think this program helps kids develop as they work through the competition?

I think the academic work is entirely intended to be done by the child, but the riddles, watching the videos, deciphering the clues and learning together about where these clues might be pointing…that could potentially and is very likely to be a family activity.

The winners from last year said it was really a family event for them. We heard that a lot last year, that the parents would get involved with their kids and help them understand riddles and clues. They would kind of work together.

From all of the accounts last year, it was really a positive family activity that lasted the course of the five weeks. Not too heavy-handed, just fun. So parental support is definitely encouraged with the treasure hunt. The family collaboration was really powerful.

That’s amazing. I think what often happens is kids are learning at school, but when they come home parents don’t always know the right questions to ask about their day, and they get the same vague answer – “School was good.”

So I think that is what’s great about this program. They’re learning at home, and they sometimes need to rely on their parents or siblings to help them with riddles or accessing different technologies. It probably gives some great talking points for families about learning and technology.

Exactly.

Is there anything else that you think is important for our readers to know about Brain Chase?

One question we always get, is about the price. I think if people are comparing Brain Chase to an app that they can download from the Apple Store, it seems expensive. But if you’re comparing it to five weeks of a summer school or five weeks of a camp, 85% of our parents from last year said that they would’ve paid the same price or more for Brain Chase.

The value of it and everything that’s included in the program is a little bit hard to communicate because there really is nothing out there like it. The value we’re bringing is this curated library of content providers. We’re providing the whole motivational platform. We’re providing easy, all inclusive access to all of those partners. So you don’t have to buy your own Rosetta Stone subscription.

Then there’s the whole offline components. There’s the animations, the adventure tools that we send through the mail to help kids each week with the bonus challenges and deciphering the clues. And of course there’s the treasure at the end.

It’s a complex program with a lot of motivating factors. Once they’ve tried it and understand the full scope of it, parents overwhelmingly feel like it’s a really great value.

I definitely think so. I can already see the value because it’s less than the cost of a week of summer camp, or even the cost of Rosetta Stone. I was impressed with the price actually.

Oh cool. We’re very happy to hear that!

Absolutely. I plan to sign my daughter up this summer!

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Get ready for “Dragons Beware” with our interview with Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado

A free flowing conversation with Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado about creativity, family, storytelling, and their popular books “Giants Beware” and “Dragons Beware.”

Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado first teamed up at Ohio State, where they collaborated on many projects together. They’ve remained friends since their college days. Jorge is a writer and television producer, who has written for Disney, Nickelodeon, PBS, and other networks. Rafael is a storyboard artist for Warner Brothers, Disney, and Cartoon Network. Both have been in the creative industry for over twenty years.

Their first graphic novel, Giants Beware, received dozens of rave reviews. The New York Times called it “a rollicking fun story.” It’s about a feisty aspiring slayer named Claudette, who teams up with a wannabe princess and an aspiring pastry chef to slay a giant. Claudette returns in a second graphic novel, Dragons Beware, on May 12.

 

Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado

Parent Co:  How did your experiences growing up contribute to you wanting to be involved in the creative industry?

Raf:  I’ve been drawing since I could hold a pencil, basically. My dad is an artist himself, even though he never did that as a living. He ended up working in the petrol chemical industry. There were other artists in my family too. My uncle is an artist, and art was always encouraged in my household.

When I was a kid, I saw a segment on Sesame Street where they were doing stop motion animation. I knew my dad had a great camera, and I was like, “Hey, I want to do this!” He helped me out, and it just kind of set me on that path. The drawing and the filmmaking both kind of came together because I work in animation for a living. So does Jorge.

Parent Co:  Jorge, what about you?

Jorge:  I’ve always liked stories, and my father always told me a lot of stories – Greek myths and those sorts of things on road trips. We took a lot of road trips.

I remember that there was one teacher in fifth grade who complimented my writing, and I guess it went to my head. I started thinking that I was a good writer. A couple of teachers along the way encouraged it too, but I think it was that one teacher. She told me I was a good writer, so I took it seriously.

Parent Co:  You’ve both done a lot of writing for television, film, and graphic novels for a younger audiences. What do you find most appealing and challenging about creating for younger audiences?

Jorge:  Raf might have a totally different opinion, but we talked about this before. We don’t actually write for a young audience. We sort of began writing in a way that would entertain each other. We just think like kids, I guess.

Raf:  Yeah. We’re trying to entertain ourselves first, I suppose. I feel like if you start writing for that audience in mind, for children in mind, you’ll start slipping into being a bit patronizing somehow. I don’t think that’s a good way to go. Basically we’re making stuff that we would enjoy ourselves, you know?

Parent Co:  Do you feel any limitations writing for a younger audience?

Jorge:  I think the only thing that limits us would be – we’ll go easy on the blood, and we don’t curse.

Raf:  That’s it exactly. That’s true.

Parent Co:  Do either of you have any children of your own?

Raf:  Yes, we both do.

Jorge:  I have an eight-year-old boy and a five-year-old boy.

Raf:  I have two daughters. One is twelve and the other one will be nine in May.

Parent Co:  How do you balance being parents and also working in very creative and demanding fields?

Jorge:  That’s the million-dollar question. I don’t think I’m 100% successful. I try, and it’s really difficult. I think that’s all you can do. You just try to not fail at your work or fail at your family, you know?

Parent Co:  Yeah.

Jorge:  Both are equally important.

Raf:  Yeah. It’s hard trying to find the time to focus because doing this kind of work, it’s not like you can just pick it up for ten minutes, do something else, and come back to it. It’s almost…you have to get in the zone.

Having the pressure of day-to-day work, family, and finding that creative space – that’s a real challenge. It ends up being a lot of really early mornings before anybody gets up, and at night when everybody is in bed, and some weekends.

Parent Co:  I also have a daughter, a seven-year-old. I really love the idea of a strong female protagonist like Claudette to share with her since there aren’t enough out there. What inspired you to create your graphic novels Giants Beware and Dragons Beware?

Raf:  Jorge and I are old friends. We went to film school together at Ohio State. We did some projects together in film school, and then we kind of both went our separate ways. But we always knew that we wanted to do another project together at some point.

I had this idea…the character of Claudette was just this character that I kept sketching all the time. I sort of had the personality, but I wasn’t sure what the story was. I just knew that this little character deserved some kind of story.

I think I was on a long family car trip to the beach, 12-hour car ride kind of thing, and things started percolating in my head. I wrote an outline for the basic story, and then I brought it to Jorge with some sketches. I said, “Is this something you’d be interested in?”

He looked at it, and then he went off on his own and totally fleshed out the world and came up with this really rich environment. We just took it from there.

Giants Beware

Parent Co:  The medieval settings and quirky characters are really engaging for parents and kids. What about schools? What role do you see for graphic novels playing in the classroom?

Jorge:  Well, I think they’re really great motivators for reading books. If you have a reluctant reader, it’s a really good introduction for that. I found that my seven-year-old son flips pretty quickly between graphic novels and regular books, and non-form fiction, and nonfiction as well. I feel like, they just help kind of tap into the imagination, and it does keep him reading.

Raf:  Almost like a good gateway into reading chapter books or fiction. I’ve heard this first-hand from a lot of parents and teachers, because I’ve been doing a lot of school visits for the last couple of years. Like Jorge said, the reluctant readers find this easier to tackle. If they’re having difficulty with reading, it helps. It’s a good step towards that direction. Then you end up reading regular fiction or what have you.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this from parents and teachers. It’s really good for those kids that are having trouble getting it. That makes me feel great.

Parent Co: It’s true. I teach ninth graders, and even at that age, using graphic novels makes reading and language more accessible for struggling or resistant readers. They’re also great for English language learners because they can access the illustrations to makes sense of what is happening.

Raf:  I grew up in Puerto Rico, and I learned a lot of my vocabulary just from reading comic books in English as a kid. I read in Spanish too, but I started getting English comic books because it would take them a year to get translated into Spanish, so I started buying them in English. It helped me certainly as a kid. When I moved to the states I had a bigger vocabulary and that came in handy.

Parent Co:  Very cool! Do you have any advice for kids and teenagers who are interested in becoming writers or illustrators?

Raf:  Sure. Certainly draw as much as you can. I always tell kids, “If you like to sketch, just make sure you keep a sketchbook or two or three are in the house, and jot down any idea you might have because it might come in handy later on.” You have to put them down, or they’ll disappear. It’s nice to have those sketchbooks to go back to.

And practice all the time. Practice as much as you can. I tell kids, “Just like learning to play an instrument or getting good at sports, it’s the same with drawing. You just have to be dedicated, practice, and always aim to get better.”

As far as your own comics, all you need is a piece of paper and a pencil to make a comic. It’s such an inexpensive art form. You know?

Parent Co:  Totally! 

Jorge:  Yeah. I would say something similar to writing as well. To become a good writer, you just have to write. And you have to show it to people. You should be able to listen, to take criticism – but pick which criticism to take and which not to take. You have to write a lot.

Parent Co:  I know that Dragons Beware comes out May 12. What’s next for Claudette? Are you working on a third installment in the Chronicles of Claudette?

Jorge:  Yeah. It’ll be another Beware. We’re not sure if we should say who she’s supposed to be with in the next book, or who should beware Claudette. The script is written and Raf is drawing as fast as he can. And it’s looking really good.

Raf:  I’m about two-thirds into the roughs.

Parent Co:  So happy to hear that. Claudette is such a fun and lovable character. Thanks for taking the time to speak with Parent Co. Do you have any questions for us?

Jorge:  Yeah. How far are you from the Ben and Jerry’s factory?

Parent Co:  Ha! We’re in Burlington, so we’re about 30 minutes away. Close, but not dangerously close.

Jorge:  I toured there once. I loved it.