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Interview with Jody Jensen Shaffer and Christopher Neal: CREEP, LEAP, CRUNCH! A FOOD CHAIN STORY (Knopf)

By Julie Damerell

Jody Jensen Shaffer is an award-winning poet and the author of more than 80 books for children, including PRUDENCE THE PART-TIME COW, IT’S YOUR FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, BUSY BUS!, A CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK, EMERGENCY KITTENS! and more. You can learn more about Jody at her Website or on Twitter.

Christopher Silas Neal is an award-winning author and illustrator of picture books including the Over and Under series with author Kate Messner. He strives to create diverse and inclusive characters that reflect the kids and parents who read his books. Neal is a Mexican/European-American artist who lives with his wife and two boys in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more about Christopher at his website, Instagram, or on Twitter

Written by Jody Jensen Shaffer and illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers/Penguin Random House
Publication date: December 12, 2023
For ages 4-8 years | ISBN 9780593565520

★ “This is an excellent introduction to the food chain, and will be especially popular among elementary science teachers.” —School Library Journal, starred review 

“A good and read-aloud-ready way of introducing an important natural process.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Bright, sound-rich rhyming verse engages throughout as the sun rises, the day progresses, and Jensen Shaffer works her way up the chain.” —Publishers Weekly

“This cumulative food chain story is told using lyrical text as animals move through the day “creeping, leaping, and crunching” in a forest ecosystem.: —NSTA 2023 Outstanding Science Trade Book for Students K-12

“The food chain is vital to our planet’s survival, but it can be a hard thing to talk to little ones about. Try this new nonfiction picture book to help explain the circle of life to kids.” — We Are Teachers Best New Books for Kids and Teens in December 2023 


CREEP, LEAP, CRUNCH! A FOOD CHAIN STORY is a lively, lyrical introduction to a day in a forest food chain. Follow along as the sun helps plants make their own food and the animals begin hunting for theirs. From crickets to bears, all predators and prey have a place in nature. But what happens when the prey escapes? This cumulative story will delight, with a surprise ending that all science lovers will enjoy.

Peorder the book wherever you normally buy books! For more about the book and its creators, see this November interview on Picture Book Builders.


Jody: As with most of my picture books, I was at my desk brainstorming new book ideas. I wanted to write a story about the food chain, but I knew the risks in creating a picture book about predators eating prey–-honestly, who wants to actually see that?–-so I needed to handle the telling carefully. I was searching for a voice and a structure that would help my food chain book be informative and fun, but not gory. That’s when I thought of the folk song “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” It was a food chain…of sorts. It was fun and lively. It was perfect! I set about researching forest plants and animals and the cumulative story structure of “Old Lady.” And because my story rhymes, I also needed to choose just the right words, which can be tricky when you’re limited by facts. I wrote and revised this manuscript for ten years before sending it out.

Q: How did you create your illustrations for the book?

Christopher: Everything I do starts with a sketch. Jody’s manuscript has this wonderful repeating pattern–with each page turn we add a new link to the food chain. So my early sketches and drawings played around with how to show this cumulative effect visually.

What I ended up with is a perspective shift as we move from animal to animal. So on one spread we see a cricket eating grass and on the next spread we pull back to see a mouse stalking the cricket who eats the grass and so on and so on. The way I depict animals falls somewhere between life-like and completely stylized. My work is never photo-realistic but depending on the text, I lean into how accurate vs how stylized the anatomy should be. However, these decisions are really intuitive. I read the text and based on how it makes me feel, I draw and play until it feels like it fits. I’m a self-taught artist so a lot of what I do is intuitive.

I use both traditional and digital tools to create my picture book art. It’s a mix of drawing and painting, and separations much like a print maker. Texture is a big part of what I do so I spend a lot of time figuring out how paint and pencil can be used to make a somewhat flat or simple image have more depth and feeling. I scan these handmade parts and use photoshop to put them together and add color. 

Q: What do you hope young readers will take away from your book?

Jody: I hope young readers take away four things from our book:
1. I hope they learn about food chains, food webs, and each animal that is highlighted.
2. I hope readers enjoy hearing the lyrical language and reading the fun, cumulative sections.
3. I hope they’re surprised and delighted by the ending! Go, Prey!
4. I hope readers love Chris’s illustrations as much as I do.

Christopher: We spend so much time feeling separate from the natural world. I hope our book reminds readers that we are all connected–from the sun, to the trees, and from mouse to bear, we all need each other in order to survive.

Q: What advice do you have for young writers?

Jody: Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed about your writing voice, thinking it might not sound like “real” writing. The words you choose, the way you put sentences together, and the thoughts you include in those sentences come from who you are. That’s good enough. The world needs your voice! 

Christopher: The things that make your art unique are also what make you as a person unique–a collection of life experiences, world view and identity, and personality quirks. If you are putting those things into your work, you’ll stand out as an artist. Let those experiences guide your creative decisions. There’s only one you. The closer your art gets to that core, the more it will stand out.

Q: What are you excited about now?

Jody: I’m excited to share CREEP, LEAP, CRUNCH! in person with readers! I can’t wait to read it aloud with a roomful of kids and see their reactions. And I’ve got three more picture books releasing in 2024!

Christopher: I have many book projects on the horizon including a new self-authored picture book that is in its early stages.

Also see other Interviews with Book Creators and Advice For Young Writers And Illustrators.