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An Interview with Uncle Sillyhead III

JS - Well, I have to admit that I get a real kick out of reading this book to kids.

US3 - Well, thank you! That's what I'm hoping for!

JS - So how did this all come about? Where did you get the idea for the Tickle Bugs?

US3 - It's a game I always loved playing with little kids. I would wiggle my fingers and say "Here Come the Tickle Bugs!" and kids would go crazy. They loved it. It seemed to hit the "pure joy" (air quotes) nerve. My wife, Mrs. Sillyhead, was working with lots of kids and she tried it out. She got the exact same results. Her kids would beg for her to "bring out the Tickle Bugs."

JS - So you knew that it was something that kids could relate to.

US3 - Absolutely!

JS - And you actually made the Tickle Bugs real.

US3 - I guess I gave them more of a concrete identity.

JS - And now they are bonified characters! Congratulations! Are there a lot of Tickle Bug fans out there?

US3 - Yeah, the Tickle Bugs have lots of fans now.

JS - So what made you think about taking it from just a fun game to an actual book?

US3 - That's actually a very interesting story. I had an idea for a website that could change the way that fundraising is done for nonprofits. I really believed it could make a huge difference in the world. The problem was that I was having a hard time finding the right people to give the idea to. After a long, difficult struggle, I decided to create my own startup. The estimates to develop the technology were between $500,000 and $2 million.

JS - Interesting. This is not the answer I was expecting.

US3 - Yeah, believe it or not, this is the origin of the Tickle Bugs. I knew that I had to come up with a bunch of money. I started brainstorming ideas. At the time, Pokémon was just thriving out of control - like a 10 billion dollar enterprise. I thought to myself...'Hmmm, Unc. Wouldn't it be cool to come up with your own children's characters?' Only about 10 seconds after that thought came the revelation: 'Ah-ha! Tickle Bugs!'

JS - Interesting, so once again, necessity was the mother of invention, as they say.

US3 - Yeah, Mama Necessity! So, yeah, that's the spark that gave birth to the "real life" Tickle Bugs.

JS - So was writing the book hard? Did you have any kind of background in this?

US3 - Not really. I mean I wrote a lot and did a lot of art, but you know, children's books aren't necessarily rocket science.

JS - That's true, but HERE COME THE TICKLE BUGS! is all computer-animated.

US3 - Good point. No I didn't have any real computer or graphics training at all before this. Writing the book was pretty easy. I gave myself two weeks to come up with the entire book - to develop the characters, to write the story, to illustrate the book - everything!

JS - Two weeks? Really? Did you do it?

US3 - Absolutely! Until the question of how to color it came up... which led me down a path that I hadn't anticipated. I got some advice that, for what I envisioned, it would be best to color it on the computer. So I forced myself to learn, and it took me like 6 grueling months of hard work - long days, every day. But eventually I got there.

JS -You used Adobe Illustrator, right?

US3 - Exactly. You've done your homework! Yeah, I don't think there are many people who realize how each and every line of every character had to be carefully sculpted to make it all work. It was a major undertaking. It's funny. I also got better as the book progressed, so you see more advanced techniques toward the end of the book.

JS - The artwork really is phenomenal - a lot of the backgrounds in particular are quite beautiful.

USIII - Thank you! Those backgrounds are really what I'm talking about. Another interesting thing was that even though I created this book in order to make money for another project, the amount of love put into the book was enormous. It was truly transformational. For instance, I didn't even use the color black in the book at all. The printers thought I was crazy, but symbolically, I wanted to create the most positive book I possibly could for kids.

JS - Wow, that's something. So you finished it and then went to publish it. And you went about it in a somewhat non-conventional way, correct?

US3 - That's true. This is my first children's book. I'd heard many stories about how difficult the process is for finding an agent or a publisher, especially for a first-time writer. Then, if you're one of the lucky ones to find a publisher, it can take like three years for them to actually print it out. I wasn't patient enough for that. I figured I'd rather put my energy into publishing it myself and distributing it over the net than being at the mercy of the big boys.

JS - So is that what brought about TickleBugs.com?

US3 - Exactly. It started as just a site where people could find out about the book, though it seems to be evolving into something much bigger. It's really funny some of the things we did to try to sell the book.

JS - Really? Like what?

USIII - Well like the back of my pickup truck. We wrote TickleBugs.com in electrical tape and caught attention everywhere we went.

JS - That's funny. What other unconventional tricks did you use.

USIII - Well, this is really kind of stupid actually, but we had this whole gameplan to get the book out in time for Christmas season. It was like impossible. The entire strategy hinged on the fact that we were going to get Rosie O'Donnell to publicize it on her TV show. You know she really promotes the heck out of kids' stuff.

JS - And how were you going to get her to publicize your book?

USIII - Well, she had a nonprofit for children called the For All Kids Foundation. For every 4 books we sold, we would give one to her organization, to give to kids.

JS - Brilliant, did it work?

USIII - It failed miserably! For that to work, everything would have had to click together flawlessly, and it didn't. The printer took too long. The website took too long. By the time we were ready to call them, there was almost no time left. I think if things weren't so rushed, we may have been able to pull it off.

Really the biggest downside is that we had the books printed in softcover instead of hardcover because there wasn't enough time. Also, compared to all the other children's books that are printed overseas, the price might seem just a little steep, but our production costs were very high. We had it printed at the most reputable printer in Northern California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. And most books we sell through Amazon.com, which gives us only 45% minus shipping, which means that it's hard to sell them for any less.

JS - I was told that HERE COME THE TICKLE BUGS! was the first children's book online. Any truth to that?

US3 - To the best of my knowledge, yeah, that's true. Before HERE COME THE TICKLE BUGS!, I don't know if there was ever a children's book you could read from start to finish online. At the time we looked around and couldn't find any. We made that claim for about a year and no one has yet to challenge it. So, for whatever it's worth, we probably were.

JS - Why did you decide to remove it?

US3 - There's nothing like sitting down and reading a real book to a kid. To read the book online, waiting around for each page to load, just doesn't compare. You lose the natural flow of a book. I really want parents to own the book. That's what it's really all about. That's when it becomes magical. You still can see a lot of it online though.

JS - Is HERE COME THE TICKLE BUGS! available in many bookstores as well or just on the net?

US3 - We have it in many bookstores, but that's never been our focus. We're really trying to see how well a book can sell almost exclusively online. Eventually we're going to print a hardcover edition for the bookstores and libraries. I also want to come out with a condensed board book version. I think that would be really cute.

JS - Any plans for more books?

US3 - Yeah, totally. I've got lots of really fun ideas. I'm working on two right now. Probably more will come after that, but we'll see.

JS - Tickle Bug books?

US3 - Actually, no. Neither of these two are, but there's a good chance another will come soon enough.

JS - I just can't stop thinking about the potential for Tickle Bug toys or a TV show or movie or you name it. Do you have plans for anything along these lines?

US3 - Absolutely. I think that's where it becomes really fun. Actually, that's really the reason for writing the book. I have tons of fun ideas for a great TV show as well as movie. We get requests for Tickle Bug toys all the time. In order to do that, we'd probably need some sort of partnership. Again, lots of fun ideas for toys too.

JS - And what about Uncle Sillyhead? Is that your real name?

US3 - Absolutely. The third. Uncle Sillyhead III.

JS - Excuse me. Oh yes, the third.

US3 - I figured using a funny name was just another place to bring joy to kids. Why not?

JS - I've heard you mention joy a lot. Was that your purpose in writing this book? To bring kids joy?

US3 - Exactly. That was the absolute purpose. We need more joy in the world. More bliss. Kids need to be happy. There's a definite value in meaningful books as well. I just looked back on my childhood and for whatever reason, one book stood out far ahead of the rest. I absolutely loved "Go Dog, Go!" by P.D. Eastman. I guess I liked it because it was very matter-of-fact. But I also loved the silliness and the joy contained in it. I'd never seen anything like that crazy tree party at the end. It was awesome. In fact, I based my book completely on that one page alone. I wanted this book to give kids that same feeling of bliss.

JS - Do you think you pulled it off?

US3 - I do. When I was making it, I never really doubted that kids would connect, but now that it's out, and I get to put it to an objective test, it's really great to see how loved it actually becomes. Seeing that connection is really what makes it all worthwhile.

JS - And if you don't mind me asking, what's the status of your philanthropic web projects that motivated all this?

USIII - Well, in the course of moving the idea forward, I bumped into an group called CharityFocus. The idea is being developed there. It's actually pretty revolutionary. There is no money involved at all. It's all being done by us volunteers. Actually, as soon as I got involved with CharityFocus, I officially put down all work on TickleBugs.com for a long period of time. I couldn't give my all to both. Now that I don't need a financial windfall from the Tickle Bugs, it's really all for fun. Actually, we donate quite a few books to kids around the world.

JS - Fascinating story. Well, Mr. Sillyhead, I mean Uncle Sillyhead...

US3 - The third.

JS - (laughs) Yes, of course, the third! I truly wish you the best of luck and we'll all be looking forward to seeing what comes next from the silly mind of Uncle Sillyhead...THE THIRD.

US3 - Thank you very much.