Interview with Refe and Susan Tuma

Refe and Susan Tuma are the authors of the What the Dinosaurs Did picture book series, including What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night, What the Dinosaurs Did At School, and What the Dinosaurs Did on the Night Before Christmas. Refe is also the author of the critically-acclaimed Middle Grade novel Frances and the Monster. The sequel, Frances and the Werewolves of the Black Forest will be published by HarperCollins on August 22, 2023. You can find them online at

Shauna Kosoris: What inspired your What the Dinosaurs Did series of books?

Refe Tuma: Way back in 2012 (more than ten years ago 😱) Susan and I found ourselves in a situation that would become all too familiar in the years that would follow—one of our kids simply would not sleep. Ever. We walked with him, sang to him, told him stories. We tried to soothe him, tried to let him “self-soothe.” We tried everything.

After a few months of this, we’d been reduced to zombified versions of ourselves. It started impacting our older kids. We never did anything or went anywhere. Life was all grumpiness and napping—no fun.

Then a box arrived on our doorstep. A lot of boxes, in fact, but only one of them is important. We opened this box late one night and found it was filled with dinosaurs. The cheap plastic kind you might find in any house in the world. Susan used to play with them when she was a kid, with her little brother. On a whim, she set the dinosaurs on the bathroom sink and balanced toothbrushes in their hands, thinking it might put a smile on the kids’ faces when they came in to brush their own teeth the next morning. Maybe they’d even let us sleep in.

Instead, we had hardly closed our eyes (or so it felt at the time) when our three-year-old burst into our room and jumped into our bed, pulling us into the bathroom to see the dinosaurs. She was convinced they had come to life in the night and was desperate to know if they’d do it again.

And they did. For thirty days. We called it ‘Dinovember,’ and by the following year plastic dinosaurs in more than 50 countries had joined in and we were hard at work on What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night.

Susan Tuma: I think one of my favorite things about how it all happened was that it was a very natural extension of how each of us engage the world—for Refe, through stories, and for me, through art (which is really, in its raw form, just spontaneity and play). When we were able to bring both of those into our parenting during such a difficult time, it really just took on a life of its own. 

The antics that your dinosaurs get into must pose quite a photography challenge to capture. Do you have any fun behind the scenes tales?

RT: The making of our second picture book, What the Dinosaurs Did at School was a bit of a comedy of errors. We wanted to photograph the scenes on location at actual schools, which meant location scouting, getting permission from the administrations, scheduling, and making sure we had props, equipment, and a solid plan. It felt more like shooting a movie than making a picture book.

One scene in the book involves the dinosaurs surfing a giant tidal wave of bubbles down a stairway on the back of a door. Smarter picture book makers than us would have used Photoshop to make it work, but not us. We rented an industrial foam machine and mounted it at the top of a stairway at our kids’ elementary school, propped up an actual door, and sent a wave of actual suds down the stairs.

Unfortunately, the foam machine worked much faster than anticipated, and in seconds the suds had overtaken both the door and our camera. When we checked the camera afterwards, we had gotten only a single shot. That’s the shot you see in the book. 

ST: The part Refe isn’t mentioning here is that he nearly drowned me in foam all because he wanted to “test to make sure it would work.” We have very different approaches to picture book making. My approach is to just do exactly what a dinosaur might do in a particular situation: impulsively ruin everything. It’s very cathartic. Refe’s approach is both paradoxical and scientific—he apparently likes to test exactly how things might be ruined best, which involves practical tests that he finds very interesting and I find very boring. So this is my favorite story, because he ended up trapped at the top of the stairs while I took photos of a tidal wave he accidentally created that took six hours to clean up, and it’s usually the other way around. If only he hadn’t been so impulsive. 

Oh my! I’m glad you were able to get the shot after all of that! So what is your favourite dinosaur picture from the books?

ST: The one where I stressed Refe out by bending a $700 Christmas tree prop and said, “It’ll be totally fine! Just trust me!” (It was fine—UNLIKE THE BUBBLE TEST.)

RT: She’s talking about the ‘wibble, wobble, and sway’ spread from What the Dinosaurs Did The Night Before Christmas. That’s one of my favorites, too. It’s a rare spread that turned out almost exactly the way we planned it. Though we never did quite get that tree straight again… 

Refe, you’ve also branched out to novel writing. Where did you get the idea for your debut novel, Frances and the Monster?

RT: I’ve always loved Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the classic monster movies it has inspired, but it wasn’t until I happened to rewatch the Magician’s Apprentice sequence of Disney’s Fantasia that I found the inspiration for what would eventually become Frances and the Monster. I loved the idea of the apprentice growing impatient with his teacher and wanting to skip ahead to mastery all at once. It’s easy to feel that impatience as a kid. I know I certainly did. If I’m being honest, that impatience probably defined my childhood more than anything else. Impatience and maybe more than a little arrogance. So, Frances ended up with a healthy dose of both. And like the magician’s apprentice, when she gives into those impulses she creates a monster. 

That sounds like a lot of fun! What were the challenges of working on a novel over a picture book?

RT: Our process for the What the Dinosaurs Did picture books is unique in that our illustrations are almost entirely photography. I mentioned this above, but it’s like filming a movie. Sets, props, lighting, budgets, even costumes (for the dinosaurs, anyway.) There’s a ton of collaboration between Susan and I, and of course with our editor Mary-Kate and our team at Little, Brown. 

The greatest challenge I faced when writing my first novel was believing I could finish it. Frances and the Monster is just over 300 pages long, and clocks in at around 74,000 words. How can anyone write that much? How can anyone stick with something that long? Writing and rewriting, revising… It’s a big job. It took a few years, but the moment I typed, ‘The End,’ the hole in my imagination where that unfinishable manuscript lived vanished. When it came time to write the sequel, Frances and the Werewolves of the Black Forest, that wasn’t an issue. Which is good, because that was also my first time writing a novel with a deadline!

ST: The biggest challenge for me is that Refe took none of my ideas and I wasn’t involved at all. (Just kidding.) I do think it’s funny that he couldn’t imagine finishing it—I don’t think he’s ever not finished anything in his entire life, and it’s always both surprising and incredible when he’s done.

What has been the response to your new novels, particularly from readers who enjoyed your previous books?

RT: Readers have really connected with Frances. Reviews have been extremely encouraging, and I’ve been blown away by the kids’ excitement when I’ve visited schools and performed readings from the book.

Feedback from kids who grew up with our What the Dinosaurs Did books is just starting to come in now that Frances has been out almost a year, and it is so surreal to hear from kids who have been reading our books for literally their entire lives. It’s an incredible honor that I’m not sure I’ve fully processed yet. Also, there is no way I’m old enough to have middle schoolers talking about how their parents used to read them our books every night. 

What can you tell me about your newest book, Frances and the Werewolves of the Black Forest, which is coming out later this month?

RT: Frances and the Werewolves of the Black Forest picks up a few months after the events of Frances and the Monster, while Europe is in the midst of what would prove to be the last quiet period between major battles. Frances’s parents have taken a furlough to spend time with her and, when the story opens, she has been doing everything she can to avoid them.

But when she is personally invited to a meeting of the European Society of Science and Invention, she has to say yes—even if it means being trapped in a train car with her parents.

Unfortunately, her train never reaches its destination, and Frances finds herself stranded with Luca in the largest wilderness on the continent, hunted by men, beasts, and monsters.

It’s a much bigger book than Frances and the Monster in a lot of ways, with a cast of characters that was so much fun to write. It also gave me the opportunity to write a lot of sign language, which I love. Signing is a feature of the first book but much more important in Werewolves.

What are you two working on now?

ST: We both have separate projects—I make music with my brother under the name Good Lemons, and I think Refe has probably seven novels lined up in his head. We’ve also talked about another Dinosaur book (after a very long, much needed hiatus). But we’re also exploring the idea of branching out into non-photographic picture books with a few characters I created while drawing. One is about a boy who hates everything, because everything is the worst. The other is a secret that Refe won’t want me to tell (BUT THERE IS A PIG). 

I’d like to end with a few questions about what you both read. What book or author inspired you to write?

ST: If I had to pick an author, I’d probably say Maurice Sendak—he’s the best mix of a little bit shocking and clever and sweet. But really, I’m less a writer and more someone who likes to make a scene now and again. All the characters I create come out of that.

RT: I always think of Brian Jacques and the Redwall novels. I met Jacques once before he passed, at a signing event in Lombard, IL, near where we live now. He was the kindest, funniest, most generous guy and I wanted to tell stories just like him.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

ST: Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

RT: Susan has never read that book.

Wait, what?

ST: I haven’t actually started it yet but Refe tells me it is very good. 

Ohhh. How about you, Refe? What are you currently reading?

RT: I’m reading The Ogress and the Orphans by Kelly Barnhill. It’s a fun, fantastical sort of tale with a very classic vibe. I’m only a few chapters in and already hooked. I also recently finished The Lion of Mars by Jennifer L. Holm, which was great, and Monsters and Marvels by Alysa Wishingrad (who I’ll be doing a panel with about monsters in Middle Grade fiction at the NCTE conference in November!)