Iowa State University Alumni Association

Cy's Surprise: A Conversation with the Author and Illustrator


A conversation with Cy’s Surprise author Kate Bruns and illustrator Tara Gartin

We sat down with Kate Bruns (’99 journ & mass comm)(pictured at center, top left with her son and dad) and Tara Gartin (’87 graphic design)(pictured at center, top right with her extensive legacy family) to learn about the inspiration behind Cy’s Surprise, the new book published this summer by the ISU Alumni Association for children enrolled in the LegaCY Club, and about their creative processes to bring the story to life.

Kate, the book started with your story. What was your inspiration for writing Cy’s Surprise?
Kate: I am attracted in general to children’s books that rhyme, so for me I was inspired by a lot of my favorite books growing up, Dr. Seuss and the like. And I really felt like I wanted the kids to be able to relate to Cy more than just having him be sort of a figure in their lives that’s maybe a little less accessible, more of a rock star type of feel, instead to have Cy be more like them.

You say you have a “Dr. Seuss gene”
Kate: Yeah! I’ve been writing rhyming poems since I was very, very young. I’ve just always been drawn to lighthearted poetry, won some poetry contests when I was a kid, participated in an author’s workshop program that had a big impact on my life when I was in junior high school. I wrote children’s books; we had to go through the whole process of writing, illustrating, binding, and the whole nine yards. I still have those books.

It’s just something that’s come naturally to me. I read a lot of books like that when I was a kid. My mom and dad read me a lot of books like that. Weirdly, ever since I was probably 2 years old, my favorite form of play was to create books or, as I got a little bit older, to write things about Iowa State.

Tara: It’s really funny. I’ve written one story and it’s in the exact same style as Kate’s. I wrote it a few years ago, and it’s like the Dr. Seuss meter. So the minute I read Cy’s Surprise, I was just…I love things that are humorous; I love to see the humor in everyday situations. Yeah, Kate did an awesome job.

Did you have a particular reader in mind when you wrote the story?
Kate: It was me when I was a kid. In terms of the age, I definitely think I structured it toward my son’s age (5) because that’s just naturally kind of the level that I’m on right now. I’ve read a lot of books that are aimed at preschoolers, and so that’s kind of the audience. But I hope that the book is appealing beyond those years, too. I think it is. I wanted to make sure it grabbed kids from a pretty young age, but I’m thinking as they grow up, different parts might resonate with them.

Tara, you signed on with the project after Kate finished the story. How did you approach the illustration style for the book?
Tara: I wanted Cy of course to be the main focus because he’s sort of, a little more stylized and cartoony. I wanted Iowa State to look a little more realistic, so I used realistic lighting so it looked like Cy was really here. And I made the people in it a little more realistic so the emphasis would be on Cy. I wanted to capture different parts of campus that are kind of sentimental and I tried to include as many different parts of the campus as possible.

I wanted to make Cy appear very approachable and fun. In whatever situation he was in, there was always something humorous that I could imagine Cy doing that maybe the kids would pick up as they were looking at it. So, on almost every page you can get some sort of expression or funny reaction or situation that Cy’s in.

You’ve both given Cy kind of a new back story and shown us a side of the mascot we haven’t seen before.
Kate: I really liked the idea of having Cy start as a baby and grow up and learn some of the lessons that I think most parents hope their kids will learn as they explore the world.

Tara: I really wanted him to be curious, because he’s discovering all the things that he can do at Iowa State. He’s kind of naïve. He’s exploring Iowa State and he doesn’t know exactly what he’s getting into, and so it’s like an adventure for him. He’s growing up; he’s kind of discovering these things and these different places on campus. In one of the scenes he’s walking in the middle of all the students and all of a sudden it just dawns on him: Where are all these people going? So then he follows them and then starts observing and looking a little closer at what they’re doing. And then the story just picks up and all of a sudden he starts either doing these things or imagining, “Oh, at Iowa State you can do all these different things!” And it’s like an explosion of pages of all these things that he’s doing and it’s pretty funny, watching him do all these things.

I started out with familiar places, like Jack Trice Stadium and Hilton and Lake LaVerne and the Campanile, but then he realizes all these things that he can do and it’s quite the adventure for him. On the last spread, where he’s running down the football field, that’s the way we often think of him, and so on that spread it talks about how you can be what you dream of at Iowa State. And that really meant a lot to me personally because we all have dreams.

How do you feel, now that the book is getting so close to being published?
Tara: Just seeing my work published in a book is very exciting. I’ll feel sad because I’ll kind of miss working on it.

Kate: I’m so excited about how Tara took the text and just ran with it and made these beautiful, adorable, funny images that I just think are going to be really appealing. My own son, I read him the story and he loved it but after I showed him one of the pictures he got extra excited about it because he really could see that being a book he would like. So I’m just looking forward to reading the final product to him.

How do you think you would have felt about Cy’s Surprise if you had it as a kid?
Tara: I guess I probably would have wanted to go to Iowa State! I wish I would have had it when my kids were little.

Kate: Oh, it would have been my favorite book.


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