The Joy and Healing of Creative Collaboration by Laura Shovan

Please welcome author, educator, and poet Laura Shovan to Frog on a Blog! Laura is perhaps best known for her award-winning middle grade novels, including A Place at the Table, written with Saadia Faruqi. But today we celebrate the publication day of her new children’s book Welcome to Monsterville, which is perfect for Poetry Month and features 16 poems she wrote to accompany artist Michael Rothenberg’s whimsical monster illustrations. Welcome to Monsterville is a “celebration of friendship, emotional intelligence, and creative play as a form of healing.” Laura and Michael’s collaboration began during the pandemic as just a sharing back and forth between friends before it morphed into this special book that can help kids cope with all sorts of feelings. Let’s hear more from Laura.

A monster bought the house next door…

Imagine that this is the first sentence of a poem, or a story. What happens next? This was the question I asked myself a few years ago, when my dear friend Michael sent me this picture:


A poet and artist, Michael Rothenberg had been working with an art therapist since the death of his son. Most of his illustrations were abstract, so I was surprised when this creature appeared in our message thread. With its fishy red lips, slick purple hair, and tail of flames (or bacon, depending on your perspective), this being seemed to emerge straight out of Michael’s imagination.

Inspired by the playfulness of Michael’s artwork, I started writing. I didn’t think too hard, but followed my friend’s lead, incorporating details from the drawing into my poem.

A monster bought the house next door.
When it moved in, I wasn’t sure
just how this creature, tall and wide,
would squeeze its blobby form inside.

Its lips went first, then purple hair,
then six pink feet climbed up the stair.
It wore a jumpsuit, denim blue.
I called out, “That looks great on you!”

Within minutes, I had a draft. I wasn’t concerned about polishing. This was a casual gift from one friend to another. I made a recording of the poem and sent it off to Michael, hoping it would bring a smile to his face.

“This is fun,” he wrote back. “I am already curious what monster might reveal itself tomorrow.” What revealed itself was this:


Once again, I began with a sort of story-starter.

Monsters don’t have birthdays.
I think that is unfair!

I trusted my gut. As with the first poem, the narrator here is a child faced with a problem. “What do I do when…” a monster moves into my neighborhood, or I find out my monster friend doesn’t celebrate birthdays? The solution here seemed obvious. The kid-narrator plans a surprise party for Monster, of course!

The end of my first draft for this poem reads:

Surprise! The guests all shouted,
but Monster wasn’t scared.
He laughed and hugged each friend
and said, “I never knew you cared.”

This was how our two-year-long collaboration began. Michael would lead off with a monster illustration. Sometimes he’d send me the initial pencil sketches and we’d discuss details or color options. In response, I’d send a poem. Michael thought of the poems as a form of translation. I became an interpreter, putting words to the creatures living in his imagination. He shared feedback on phrasing and musicality—we revised several of the poems together.

Our resulting project is Welcome to Monsterville, a book of sixteen illustrated poems for young readers. Michael approached the monsters with such creative abandon that I was encouraged to take similar risks in my writing. Partnering on this project helped us both stretch, learn, and grow as artists. Whether you’re working with an illustrator, another author, or a musician, that is the joy of creative collaboration.

Michael Rothenberg and Laura Shovan in January 2020. Michael passed away in November 2022.

Laura Shovan is a novelist, educator, and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. Her work appears in journals and anthologies for children and adults. Laura’s award-winning middle grade novels include The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, Takedown, and the Sydney Taylor Notable A Place at the Table, written with Saadia Faruqi. An honors graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (BFA, Dramatic Writing) and Montclair State University (Master of Arts, Teaching), Laura is a longtime Maryland State Arts Council Artist-in-Education, conducting school poetry residencies. She teaches for Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. To learn more about her life and work, visit:

Follow Laura Shovan on social media:

Facebook: @laura.shovan.poet | Instagram: @laurashovan

Book Review MAXIMILLIAN VILLAINOUS: A Teacher And Writer’s Perspective by Laura Roettiger


Everything about the book Maximillian Villainous (Running Press Kids, 2018) made me know it was going to be a hit at school. To be honest, I was excited to find this book at the library and I knew my enthusiasm would add to their interest. The title alone captured the imagination of the children who wanted to know more about this villainous monster. But wait, Max isn’t a villain! And right away, the author had us engaging with the main character.

The class of second and third graders may not know about the rule of three, expertly employed by author Margaret Chiu Greanias, but they sure appreciated the way it was woven into the story. The three tasks for Max: “1. Steal something 2. Make someone cry 3. Gain fame by being devious” are cleverly highlighted in the illustrations so that children focused on the list. We even compared it to the classroom rules, which was fun and another way to interact with the story. Of course, the students explained the tasks were the opposite of what they should be, demonstrating that the author and illustrator did a great job engaging the readers early in the story.

As a picture book writer, I’ve been studying different aspects of craft and I know how important page turns are. This book is a model of page turns done well. I’d like to mention two excellent examples. The first that attracted attention (read children needed to chime in with their predictions) involved the bunnies digging in the Sandman’s stash of magic sleeping dust. Many of the children knew what would come next. The other is when Max has an idea, complete with the villainous “Mua-ha-Ha!” This was definitely the class’s favorite part of the book (read everyone was making the sound and believed Max was turning into a villain like the rest of his family.) Well played, Margaret!

The illustrations (by Lesley Breen Withrow) in Maximillian Villainous are fantastic. They are colorful, full of wonderful detail, but not too busy, and whimsical, matching the tone of the story. Even the way the Illustrations were laid out on the pages and the use of signs and notes created a high level of interest for the children and for me.

This book definitely earns 5 stars from me because it’s got humor and heart on every page. Additionally, it allowed for a fun reading lesson learning about problem and solution in a story where they weren’t as obvious as in many books. This helped me know what the children understood and which ones needed more help. It is more proof that picture books are excellent vehicles for learning.

Laura R

Laura Roettiger is the author of the picture book Aliana Reaches for the Moon (Eifrig Publishing, 2019) She has enjoyed working with children ever since she was no longer considered a child herself. She was a reading specialist and elementary teacher in Chicago, IL before moving to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado where she worked in Environmental Education and is now a mentor for reading and writing at a STEM school. Her superpower is encouraging curiosity in children and letting them know she believes in them. Laura has three children of her own, all of whom were led by curiosity and creativity into STEM-related professions. Laura is also a part of #PictureBookBuzz, a group of authors with books being released in 2019.

Find Laura on Twitter @ljrwritenow and at her website