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When Julio Torres released an HBO special My Favorite Shapes, he shared his favorite shapes, while offering varied stories, anecdotes and jokes. Now three years later, the comedian is continuing to take the audience into a vibrant world of shapes but now more specifically household objects in his debut children’s book I Want to Be a Vase, set to be released by Atheneum Books for Young Readers on June 7.
In the book, Torres tells the story of a toilet plunger aspiring to be a vase, however, an antagonist vacuum is adamant that theirs and other household objects’ dreams to go beyond their predestined roles is not possible. Readers follow along as the objects strive for happiness and to embrace their truest selves. The story was one Torres couldn’t help but relate to his own journey of when he dreamt of being a writer.
“For me, it was very informed by not even being a kid, but being an adolescent, being a teenager and graduating high school and wanting to come to New York and be a writer. But my parents were very broke and my grades were very bad. My college counselor at school was like ‘that makes no sense.’ And then it wasn’t until I found another counselor and a teacher and also my mother who were just like, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter what the logical thing is. It’s about what you want to be, and who you are,’ and I’m very grateful for that,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter.
As readers follow along with the plunger’s journey while also meeting a sink, hairdryer, trash can and more, the story, Torres says, is one where readers can “do a little digging and find their own meaning.” He explains, “For some, what [the character] plunger stands for and what [the character] vase stands for, I think will mean different things to different people, depending on their experience. And that is very exciting to me.”
The book’s lively artwork — THR shares interior pages below — was created by 3D animator Julian Glander, whose art has appeared in projects for Disney, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. Though a myriad of children’s books feature illustrations, Torres aimed to instead have something that felt like “reality” and gave a “sense of the uncanny.” “I was very into the idea of objects feeling like objects and finding beauty in the mundane, and I thought that the book would be artistically successful if it really captured the beauty of everyday life and objects,” he said of the book’s immersive and colorful spread.
Ahead of the book’s release, Torres chatted with THR about writing his debut picture book and teased finishing the second season of Los Espookys.
For starters, I was hoping you could talk about how this book came to be. Had there always been an interest in writing and releasing a book? Why did you choose to write a book for young readers, and what about the genre interested you?
I always thought that my work would lend itself well to a younger audience just because my visibility and my way of thinking and my fondness for metaphor and explaining things through metaphor I think is very much like the way that kids think. And I draw a lot of inspiration from my childhood and it felt like it would be a good fit. My publisher reached out saying that they’d be interested in a kids’ book from me and that felt right. I really wanted to make something that didn’t feel like it talked down to kids but rather that it just engaged with them honestly. And it had where we could all discover something together rather than me as an adult talking down and like giving them a lesson.
When did you start working on this book?
Was it therapeutic working on this during that time?
Yeah! I mean, I really turned to writing during that time and am fortunate enough that was an option for me. I loved having something joyful to work on during that time.
You’re obviously a writer already, but what was it like putting your craft of comedy and writing into book form? I imagine it’s a different ball game than working on a show or writing sketches.
You know, it is technically a different ball game, but it didn’t feel dissimilar to the other work I do. I really did approach it almost like a script. When thinking with Julian [Glander], the illustrator, about the images on the page, he was saying how I used a lot of cinematic language. I think this book is very cinematic in that way. It didn’t feel like doing something different. It just felt like finding a different avenue for the same thing that I’ve been doing.
Then speaking of Julian, this book has many great illustrations from them. Can you talk about your collaboration? What conversations did you have about your initial vision for the book and how, if so, did that change along the way?
I was very into the idea of objects feeling like objects and finding beauty in the mundane, and I thought that the book would be artistically successful if it really captured the beauty of everyday life and objects. Originally, I wanted it to be a photography book and I wanted pictures because I didn’t feel like the book illustrations that I was seeing around, as beautiful as they are, they felt like illustrations. They felt like there was a hand of an artist making them. I almost didn’t want to feel the hand of an artist. I wanted to feel reality and a sense of the uncanny. And we looked at Julian’s work and it was just so perfect splitting the difference between an illustration and a photograph. I like that the images in the page look like reality, but a little different. I didn’t want it to feel tender. I wanted to feel exciting.
Readers are able to follow a plunger’s dream and journey to being a vase. But we also see a vacuum as the antagonist. Where did the idea come that the main character was to be a plunger and the antagonist a vacuum?
I like the idea of a plunger being the protagonist because it’s like in the hierarchy of objects, a plunger would be at the very bottom because no one’s ever happy while using a plunger. And the idea of something as utilitarian and gruff as a plunger wanting to be something that is purely for aesthetic purposes, there was something very moving to me about that. In terms of vacuum, I was very drawn to the idea that [if] you’re an object and you’re a vacuum cleaner then you’re very into efficiency and being a vacuum cleaner is being in a very cutthroat career path because there’s always a better, faster, lighter vacuum cleaner out there. And people are constantly being told to get rid of their vacuum cleaner and get the better vacuum cleaner. I really drew a parallel between a vacuum cleaner and people who are in very competitive, very cutthroat work environments who succeed and have a very hard time claiming their stake, have a very hard time carving their space there and going up that ladder. And usually, very competitive people like that have a very hard time empathizing with more sensitive people who are just finding themselves, and people for whom the rules of the game work well can also sometimes be blind or deaf to how the system doesn’t work for others. So I thought that that perspective was important of having an antagonist that wasn’t just a villain that had to be defeated but was every bit as complex as the protagonist.
This book may be an entertaining read but underneath there also lies this empowering important message encouraging readers to be themselves no matter what they’re “supposed” to be or follow whatever path they choose. How was it finding that balance of delivering a meaningful and thoughtful message while also offering a fun and lighthearted story for a younger audience? What, if there were any, any challenges that you faced when writing something for a young audience?
I mean always, regardless of whether it’s for kids or not, I am allergic to things that are a little too preachy or that are a little too prescriptive. I don’t want to spoon-feed any conclusions. Rather I want to present a character, a story or an experience and have people do a little digging. And, in this case, kids do a little digging and find their own meaning. I like that this book can mean different things to different readers. For some, what [the character] plunger stands for and what [the character] vase stands for, I think will mean different things to different people, depending on their experience. And that is very exciting to me. It’s not an after-school special or it’s not like specific in that way, but you can bring your own experience to it.
What did these characters mean to you specifically? Did you take anything away from them?
For me, it was very informed by not even being a kid, but being an adolescent, being a teenager and graduating high school and wanting to come to New York and be a writer. But my parents were very broke and my grades were very bad. My college counselor at school was like “that makes no sense.” And then it wasn’t until I found another counselor and a teacher and also my mother who were just like, “Well, it doesn’t matter what the logical thing is. It’s about what you want to be, and who you are,” and I’m very grateful for that. So I feel like that really much informed this.
I know this picture book was inspired by your HBO special My Favorite Shapes but it definitely has a cinematic feel to it. Do you envision this ever being adapted into a film or other version?
I don’t know. To be honest, I hadn’t thought about it. To me, the special worked because it was unusual to show figurines to adults in the context of an HBO standup special. So subverting that expectation was to its benefit. And then with the kids’ book, I felt like, well, the characters can’t be like cute little figurines, ’cause that’s pretty expected. So I was like, “What is definitely not a fun character?” And then I thought “a plunger.” Then how do you make that a fun character? I think that any sort of film adapted version would have to support the expectations of film.
Do you envision writing more books? If so, would they continue to be in the young readers’ genre or what kind of stories would you want to tell?
I don’t know! I mean, I’m very into the idea of making a coffee-table book. I like that this book feels like a coffee-table book, ’cause those were my favorite books growing up. I like the idea of a kid picking it up and discovering something and just appreciating every page and drawing mature conclusions from it. But yeah, I don’t know, maybe a coffee-table book.
What do you envision the focus to be for a coffee-table book?
Definitely more objects!
Given you now are about to be a published author with readers about to be introduced to your book, I was wanting to ask you what your personal favorite books were. I know you just said you liked coffee-table books, but did you have a favorite children’s author or book when growing up or even now?
While doing research for this book, my publisher sent me B.J. Novak’s children’s book, The Book With No Pictures, which I thought was so ingenious and so, so wonderful and, again, subverting expectations in a very stimulating way. As a kid, I remember The Rainbow Fish [by Marcus Pfister] really stayed with me cause I was drawn to shiny things and I like that my book is also pretty shiny. The comedian Nick Kroll recommended a book to me called Julián Is a Mermaid [by Jessica Love], which I thought was very beautiful and really moving. I had it in my office, and my mom was visiting, and she read it, and she was so moved by it. I really loved that. And then just because I’m a mama’s boy, I remember… What’s the book where there’s a little boy on the toilet on the cover? It’s like a very sentimental book.
Love You Forever [by Robert Munsch]?
Yeah! Deeply corny, deeply sentimental, like [it] got me every time.
Though this book is so much fun and heartfelt to read, the most fun is probably at the end when readers can learn they can transform the book jacket into a hat. Where did that idea come from?
Well, because I’m making a book that engages with the idea that objects are unique and have their own wants and desires. And it’s just like, well, what about the object that you’re holding? What about the book?
I, of course, want to ask about Los Espookys. I know the second season was in limbo amid the pandemic but can you give any update or teaser on what’s to come in the second season?
We’re editing it now. We finally finished the second season at the beginning of this year after a two-year break.
What was it like to go back after such a long break?
So a little odd. I mean, we were picking up on scenes that we left off two years ago and our lives have changed so much. But it was very moving and really beautiful to see everyone again and have everyone just so excited to be a part of it and finish it.
Did you find yourself rewatching episodes just to reacquaint yourself with where things had left off?
Well, Ana [Fabrega] and I had the advantage that we were working on editing the footage that we had already. So it was a little fresher on my mind. But we also sent those scenes to the other actors who were not a part of the editing process because it’s like, “By the way, this is what you were doing two years ago. So try to remember that.” (Laughs.)
Apart from this book, are there any other upcoming projects that you can tease that are in store?
There are not really any solid updates, but I wrote and directed a film that I’m in the editing process of right now. Doesn’t even have a title yet, but at some point, that’ll come!
Interview edited for length and clarity.
I Want to Be a Vase releases on June 7.
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