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Feb. 27, 2021

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Hazel Dell natives’ board books don’t bore

Brothers behind Hazy Dell Press turn monsters into fun learning tool for kids

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
10 Photos
Creative Director Kyle Sullivan, left, and his brother, Design Director Derek Sullivan, pose together at Hazy Dell Press in Southeast Portland.
Creative Director Kyle Sullivan, left, and his brother, Design Director Derek Sullivan, pose together at Hazy Dell Press in Southeast Portland. Nathan Howard/The Columbian Photo Gallery

PORTLAND — Twin brothers Kyle and Derek Sullivan grew up in a dark, mysterious forest rich with magical beings. You probably haven’t heard of this place, but here’s a clue for the curious: It’s quite close to that sprawling suburban neighborhood just north of the city of Vancouver — you know, the one bisected by Interstate 5 and Highway 99.

Hazy Dell is the mythical overlay where the Sullivan brothers, who attended Hazel Dell Elementary and Jason Lee Middle School, still go hunting for magic and meaning. They’ve had plenty of success capturing those mysterious targets and hauling them into the light of day — in a series of board books for children, where weird creatures stand revealed as not all that scary. In fact, the stars of the Hazy Dell Monster Series are cuddly and comedic. They’re the strange beings that children, and all of us, can relate to sometimes.

“Everybody understands what it’s like to be misunderstood,” Kyle Sullivan said. “The monsters are hairy and uncouth. Everybody knows what it feels like to make mistakes, to not fit in.”

The bearded Sullivan brothers are 36 years old and truly identical; when The Columbian visited their small office in Southeast Portland, it was a little challenging to remember that Derek Sullivan, in dark blue shirt and brown hair parted on his left, is the illustrator while Kyle Sullivan, in light blue shirt and brown hair parted on his right, is the writer. (“Just say he’s my assistant,” one said about the other — we forget which.)

When the brothers were assisting one another to grow up in Hazel Dell, they said, creativity was what kept life juicy. They worked to make one another laugh; they wrote stories, drew pictures and made books with their nerdy friends. The identical brothers’ artistic roles gained definition in high school, and when they left to attend college, Kyle Sullivan earned a bachelor of arts degree in creative writing at the University of Washington and a master’s in English at the University of British Columbia, while Derek Sullivan attended the Art Institute of Seattle and then Western Washington University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in design.


Hazy Dell Press:

What always drew them back together, though, was their natural simpatico — and those hazy, inhabited childhood woods they never stopped loving. Despite a little brotherly competition they always wanted to work together, they said, so eventually the Sullivans rented a cabin on Camano Island in Puget Sound for a concentrated brainstorming session.

What emerged from that brainstorm was their mutual love of children’s books — and a mutual desire to make one that is as equally delightful for parents as for their children. If you’ve got to read the same book 100 times over, they figured, that book better contain clever gifts for grown-ups, not just simple delights for their children.

Therefore, their Hazy Dell Monster series, which launched in 2015, includes sly references to the works of Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and other classic purveyors of spooks, monsters and space aliens. The first Sullivan book was “Monster ABC.”

“Monster ABC” includes the chupacabra, who hails from Puerto Rico; the krampus, from central Europe; the Loch Ness monster, who is “sure he exists” in a lake in Scotland; and Xingtian, a Chinese warrior who “thinks with his gut” after he lost his head in battle.

“We had long lists of monsters” from all around the world, Derek Sullivan said. “Some letters have tons of monsters.” Others, hardly any. The alphabetical lineup in “Monster ABC” even includes one villain for the internet age: a troll — “who makes comments so rude.”

Smart, gentle lessons about life and behavior are always operating in the background in Hazy Dell books, Kyle Sullivan said. They’re not preachy or namby-pamby — there’s no “Be good like Dick and Jane, boys and girls” — but the Sullivans’ books have been endorsed by reviewers and early-elementary educators for building some very basic skills and concepts — new vocabulary words, cause-and-effect relationships — as well as more advanced behavioral lessons, such as conflict resolution, empathy, following rules, embracing diversity.

It takes months of brainstorming, storyboarding, script writing and illustrating to perfect a board book — a deceptively simple-seeming product, the brothers said. “Everything needs to be completely integrated, the words and the pictures,” Kyle Sullivan said.

“There are thousands of really crappy sketches behind every book,” Derek Sullivan said. “That’s part of the process.”

Future monsters

Hazy Dell Press has released five Sullivan board books since 2015 — the newest, just released this summer, is “Don’t Eat Me, Chupacabra! / ¡No Me Comas, Chupacabra!,” which includes some “digestible Spanish vocabulary” — and the brothers got those books stocked in a handful of stores in Portland and Seattle by walking in the door and asking nicely.
That led to enough success and good reviews to garner attention from Consortium Book Sales and Distribution, which now will attempt to get Hazy Dell’s books into bookstores coast to coast, the Sullivans said.

“Hazy Dell is blowing up right now,” Derek Sullivan said, and that’s allowing the product line to grow. The sixth Sullivan book, set for publication next spring, will be their first nonboard picture book. It’ll be 60 paper-thin pages long, instead of the usual 30 chunky cardboard pages they’ve been working with.

Meanwhile, they added, Hazy Dell will also add more talent. The brothers said they’ve already got a huge list of writers and artists who are eager to work for and with them in different formats, such as middle readers and young adult novels.

“We feel really lucky that we’ve created a platform for other writers and artists, other voices and perspectives,” Kyle Sullivan said.