Susan and Refe Tuma are the authors of the Dinovember books, including What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night and What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night: A Very Messy Adventure.
Parent Co. caught up with the creative couple, parents to four children under the age of eight. Here’s what they had to say about living the Dinovember life.
PARENT CO: The photographs in the Dinovember books are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Your dinos blow the Elf on the Shelf and the Mensch on a Bench away by miles, in my opinion, and also provide a secular option that allows any family to get in on the fun previously reserved for specific religious holidays (albeit tangentially, as much as such a product can be considered for “religious” purposes). Can you describe the genesis of Dinovember?
REFE TUMA: When our son was an infant, he had some minor health problems that kept him up at night for hours. Two years into this, Susan and I were exhausted. We’d get up in the morning and have nothing left for our older kids, and they were starting to notice. We needed some way to reconnect with them.
One night, after putting the kids to bed, we came across a box of dinosaur toys. On a whim, Susan decided to set them up on the bathroom sink and give them the kids’ toothbrushes. We figured it might give the kids a laugh in the morning. We went to bed without thinking much more about it.
The next morning, our daughter burst into our room and pulled us out of bed. The dinosaurs had come to life and she had caught them brushing their teeth! Her reaction was so unexpected and priceless. That’s when we knew the dinosaurs would have to come to life again. And they did, for the entire month of November.
PC: A Pinterest search for “Dinovember” ideas yields seemingly endless results. How did the month-long family activity become an Internet sensation and two-book deal with Little, Brown?
RT: In 2012, the very first year the dinosaurs came to life, we started taking pictures of the messes they were making. We put a few on Facebook for friends and family, and jokingly called it Dinovember. Everyone enjoyed it, and they were a bit of an inside joke.
In 2013, the dinosaurs returned—and we found out that our kids weren’t the only ones interested in what they were doing. Friends and family started sharing the photos, and on top of that our kids were telling anyone who would listen all about their crazy dinosaurs. We wanted an easy way to explain what on earth our kids were so excited about, so I wrote a quick essay describing what Dinovember was and what it was about and posted it on a new site, medium.com. I figured, whenever someone asked us what our kids were talking about we could point them to that essay and the photos, and it would make a little more sense.
Instead, Welcome to Dinovember was read [on Medium] more than 2 million times in 24 hours. It was syndicated by the Huffington Post and the story was picked up by the Washington Post, Metro UK, and others. I started getting emails from literary agents and editors who wanted to talk about expanding the essay into a full-length photo book. We were in complete shock (and excited out of our minds!).
We wanted to make two books, one for the adults who had started following along with Dinovember, and one just for kids. John Parsley at Little Brown shared our vision and, along with our wonderful agents Liz Farrell and Kristyn Keene, helped orchestrate a deal with Little Brown and Co. and children’s imprint Little Brown Books for Young Readers.
PC: From what I understand, your family’s home is truly the scene of the crime in these photos. What’s the worst mess the dinosaurs ever made?
SUSAN TUMA: That really is our house! As for the worst mess—the dinosaurs once created an avalanche from our refrigerator’s ice-maker. It stood 4’ tall and 3’ wide and took over 750 lbs. of ice. It’s in one of the final photos of What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night, but we also have a photo of two of our kids sledding down it. It was that big.
PC: Setting up the dinosaur scenes and seeing your kids’ reactions must be so fun. Who does the clean up?
ST: Not the dinosaurs, unfortunately—if only we’d gone with robots!
The kids will often play with whatever the dinosaurs got into the night before, so a lot of the clean-up during Dinovember isn’t all that different from any other month; if the dinosaurs do crafts, the kids do them too. It’s a mess either way. (Of course, if spray paint or broken eggs are involved, it’s going to be mom and dad doing the cleaning.)
PC: The Dinovember books are very art-forward, but they also tell a story. Can you describe the story writing process? Who does the writing? What’s the most important message the books send?
ST: We truly work together on every step of the process. That’s one of the benefits of doing projects like these with your spouse—we live this stuff together. Refe started out doing most of the writing since that’s a big part of his background, and I (Susan) took the lead early on in the photography department. Now there isn’t quite as much distinction—it’s almost entirely collaborative. It’s just more fun that way. We have different approaches, and so often one person’s idea is refined or informed by the other’s. It actually brings out the better work from both of us.
Our books are definitely about the importance of childhood imagination; the spark and the wonder of it. We hope they’re also an invitation to parents to engage in that wonder as well, with their children.
PC: Do the kids still think the dinosaurs come alive at night, or do they know it’s you? How did you explain this to them and what was their reaction?
RT: It depends on which ones you ask! Our youngest two are aged 2 and 4, and they absolutely believe. Our oldest (8) is in on it now. She likes to help the dinosaurs out from time to time, and has come up with some great ideas. So far, our 7-year-old has chosen to keep playing along ;).
PC: What’s interesting to me is how you created a family tradition that was all your own—I think that’s what many of us parents want for our own families. It’s more meaningful than a commercialized product bought at a store ever could be. What did Dinovember teach you as parents and as a family?
RT: I think we’ve learned that all good things in life are messy, especially when kids are involved. And that inspiration can be found in the unlikeliest places—even in a box of old toys.