Skip to main content
News & Articles

February 29, 2024 | Alumni

Michael Gayle’s experimental children’s book defied all norms, and kids loved it

By Alexa Battler

Michael speaking at a book event

Author Michael Gayle ended a year of milestones with a signing and Q&A at a Toronto bookstore. Photo by Samar Salman.

It’s been one year since picture book author Michael Gayle (BSc 2020 UTSC) took a risk.

He had an idea for a book, but the more it took shape, the less it happened to fit within the children’s book genre. A cover with nothing but black text on solid red; inside, pages of intricate, gothic illustrations entirely in black and white; fancy words and a freewheeling rhyming scheme; and an impressively ugly main character who hates almost everything in the world — most of all, children. 

Yet as Gayle spent 2023 travelling across Europe and North America to perform readings and workshops in schools, he found the same thing. Kids loved the unconventional. 

“The positive reactions I get from students only makes me want to experiment even more with the genre,” says Gayle, who writes under the penname Magic Mike.

Gayle published Krumpps First Taste last January, the tale of Krumpp, a seemingly incorrigible grump, and Petunia, the little girl determined to cheer him up. Despite Gayle’s darker, Tim-Burton-esque visual style, Petunia looks far closer to what one would expect in a kid’s book — beaming smile, fluffy hair, massive puppy-dog eyes. Krumpp, meanwhile, exudes misanthropy: hunchbacked and clad in vintage formalwear, his goblin-like face is dominated by his furrowed brow and deep frown. He’s also the character kids gravitate toward most.

Black and white illustration of two characters
The two main character's of Gayle's latest work, Petunia (left) and the titular Krumpp. Photo by Michael Gayle.

“The childhood personality is curious. There is a slightly forbidden nature to Krumpp, being as beastly and misshapen as he is for a lead picture book character, that I think deeply provokes their intrigue. Theirs and adults’ interest, too,” he says.

In the era of the iPad kid, books are already a tough sell, and children’s book authors need to sway both kids and their parents. Gayle set out to create a book any adult could find substance in, one that would transcend a target age group while still belonging in the picture book section. It’s led to the most praise he’s gotten out of his three books, and landed him seats as a panelist at events across North America.

Gayle packed the book with Easter egg references to theatre and fine art, and didn’t shy from complex words like “curmudgeon,” nor sporadically breaking into French, nor alluding to things a kid might not usually come across, from loam to eating capers.

“A great takeaway from the last year has been the confirmation that kids care a lot less about how neatly something fits into a genre, than the experience you’re offering being one they find compelling and fun,” he says.

Not everyone gets what he’s doing, and to Gayle that’s perfectly fine. His style is so outside the box that his book has been placed in the graphic novel section in some bookstores, and outright rejected by others. Still, it’s been a year of milestones for Gayle, which he credits to “the serendipity you can create by setting things in motion.” He’s constantly building relationships, virtually and in-person, and red-eye flights, upended plans and last-minute schedule changes haven’t deterred him from jetting around the world at a moment’s notice for readings and events. 

Michael reading to a room of children
Michael Gayle sharing his work with students at Internacional Aravaca, in Madrid, Spain, in spring 2023.

Gayle capped the year in a Toronto bookstore with a December signing and Q-and-A event. One audience member asked whether the book is black and white because it’s told through Krumpp’s eyes, thus his (initially) miserable world is devoid of colour. Gayle made the choice simply because it felt right for the story, but unpredictable insights are a plus to making something that’s both out of left field and left open to interpretation.

“The stories I’ve written are the products of what has come most naturally to me to make at those moments,” he says. “I think it would sound more impressive if I lied and said these were all calculated steps to try to upend the genre. That idea doesn’t inspire me. I’m just a curious person, like the audience I write for, and want to see what treasures might be floating about at the bleeding edges of this thing that I love.”

This spring, Gayle is embarking on a reading tour throughout western Canada, sharing his work via school and library visits across B.C., Alberta and Manitoba. Event news and updates will be posted to his Instagram and signed copies of Krumpp’s First Taste can be purchased on his website.

Originally published by U of T Scarborough