Quirky rhymes paired with hand-painted illustrations: Could You Hug a Cactus? is the newest collaboration by Phillip Van Wagoner and Spencer Smith. Friends for over ten years, with Michigan roots, these Los Angeles transplants recently self-published their first book, funded by a Kickstarter campaign.
Could You Hug a Cactus? was written for young readers (6-9), appreciated in new ways by older readers, and the book size combined with Spencer’s incredible full-color illustrations makes it a big hit as a bedtime read by parents of younger children too.
I recently interviewed Phillip and Spencer about this book. Q&A below!
Q&A with Phillip and Spencer
Q. You describe the themes in Could You Hug a Cactus? as accepting one’s flaws, and thinking twice about how you treat others. You are both L.A. transplants from Michigan. Do you see a stark difference between the two locations and how (much more) important do you think it is for Angelenos (of all ages) to embrace these values?
Spencer: Even Ryan Gosling can appreciate a book about embracing the flaws inside and outside of each and everyone of us. I do think LA residents who endure the physical-perfectionist culture of LA (and also aspiring model/actors) can learn a lesson or two about the power of being themselves (and loving that person) within the pages of Could You Hug a Cactus?
Phil: Hahaaha, why Ryan Gosling? Spencer and I are lucky to have a good friend group from Michigan that made the transition easy. I definitely see a difference between the two. Michigan feels like a place where you can “just be”, Los Angeles feels like a place where you’re expected to “just be your best.” No matter where you live, accepting who you are and embracing what makes you unique is the only way to do it right.
What is your favorite (if you can pick one) poem in Could You Hug a Cactus? and why?
Spencer: Robots are my jam. The poem “Buttons” speaks both to the theme of the book and gave me a reason to imagine a super sweet robot buddy.
Phil: “Words Are Words” – it’s the only poem in the book where Spencer’s art doesn’t steal all my thunder. 😉
Do you have kids, nieces or nephews? If so, what are their favorite poems?
Spencer: While I don’t have any nieces and nephews yet, the youngsters in my life seem to like the variety of the poems and finding something new each time they pick up the book. I have been told that “Alone,” a poem about being stuck in the toilet, is oddly reminiscent of a recent scenario involving one of my cousin’s children, so naturally, that one is both a favorite and a cautionary tale for them.
Phil: I have the incredibly rewarding opportunity to present the book at elementary schools, and the range of favorites includes Alone, like Spencer mentioned, Could You Hug a Cactus?, the title poem, Words are Words, Buttons, and The Grossest Things That Don’t Exist – which is exactly what it sounds like.
Could You Hug a Cactus? was a Kickstarter project. Do you plan on funding your second project on Kickstarter as well?
Spencer: We do! Kickstarter has been an amazing tool for us. It allowed us to do something that only 10 years ago would have been impossible. Our backers have shared the experience thus far and we would love to have their support on the next project. The publishing industry is ever-changing and Kickstarter has given us an opportunity to create a printed book that will endure for many, many years to come.
Phil: We initially looked to Kickstarter because we wanted to raise money for the book, and we did, but we gained something so much greater. It allowed us to bring in teammates! People who are invested in the success of the book and willing to spread the word, and feel (rightfully) like they were the ones to make it happen. Reaching out to ask for help can make you feel vulnerable, but the love you feel when the world reaches back is indescribable. It would be a shame not to keep the team together!
Where can I buy Could You Hug a Cactus?
We’re offering Westside Mommy readers a 20% discount at our online store while the giveaway is going on (discount code: WestsideMommy).
We’re beyond excited to have it available at amazing independent bookstores like Skylight Books in Los Feliz and Hennessey + Ingalls in downtown LA for anyone on the east side and we’re working to get it into even more around LA.
It’s also available on Amazon with Prime shipping.
About Phillip and Spencer
I grew up in Michigan, though I don’t really call one city home as we moved, and I changed schools, a lot. In Farmington Hills, in the third grade, I came across a book in my school library called “Where the Sidewalk Ends”. It’s likely you’ve read it yourself. I had never seen anything like it before – reading it made me swell up with joy (and still does). While I had grown up on Dr. Seuss, and am still a huge fan of his work as well, it was the simple yet detailed black & white line drawings and the fearlessness with which Shel Silverstein approached some relatively dark subject matter. People got eaten and turned in to televisions. Children bought themselves new parents. And yet, the heart of his work was always about kindness, love, silliness, and sticking together in the real world. That book made a lasting impression on me.
I graduated from Holly High School, and went to Michigan State. I first met Spencer in 2004 while in school at MSU, and we became good friends at that time, and remained friends after I left the area.
At the age of 25, I found myself writing my own little poems. It was just a hobby at first – I’d find myself laughing at a few rhyming lines in my head and pull out a notepad to jot them down. Well, the hobby grew, and soon I was writing more and longer stories and sharing them. That’s when I realized that I was never going to stop.
In 2008, I finally listened to Spencer’s persistent advice and moved to Los Angeles – one of the greatest decisions I ever made. I’ve worked in television production since coming to California, including shows for both Disney and Nickelodeon.
In 2014, Spencer and I decided to partner together to begin work on our first book. Could You Hug a Cactus? is a 40 page collection of my poetry paired with Spencer’s original acrylic illustrations and we’re incredibly proud of it. We wanted to make a book that reminded us of the books we revered as classics. For me, Cactus (and all of my poetry) is an opportunity to share the lessons I’ve learned about growth, learning to love ourselves and others, and finding our place in the world, no matter how silly.
In addition to this book, we’ve also worked together to create greeting cards, postcards, video Christmas cards, and we’re working on a book #2 that we’re really excited about (Spencer may be waiting patiently for me to finish some poetry right now but you can ask him.)
I was born in Saginaw, Michigan and raised in the greater Lansing area. I moved to Los Angeles in 2007 when I was 20 years old. During that time I was working in the television and film business and doing art as a hobby. In 2010 I went back to Michigan to get a certificate in Graphic Design at Specs Howard in Southfield, Michigan and realized that professional illustration was an option for me to make a living on the side and maintain a day job in the entertainment industry. I was able to make my way back out to Los Angeles and have been working in Post Production at Nickelodeon ever since. Art and illustration was slowly becoming more of a part of my professional life and when Phil asked me to see what I could do for Could You Hug a Cactus? I was very excited to see what we could come up with. I was also inspired by Shel Silverstein‘s work and wanted to create a book that would inspire the same sort of thoughtfulness that my favorite books inspired in me when I as young. This is my first professionally illustrated book, and it has really opened a door to illustration for me, as we have continued to create media outside of the book (greeting cards, posters, etc.). Phil and I are chock full of ideas and have plans for a second book. It has been a pleasure working with Phil and I hope many books follow Cactus.
Could You Hug A Cactus? Links
We are giving away two signed copies of Could You Hug A Cactus?
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Images in this post are owned by and used with permission from “Could You Hug A Cactus?”
Disclaimer: My family and I contributed to the Kickstarter campaign for “Could You Hug A Cactus?” and my husband personally knows and worked professionally with Spencer. All opinions in this post are my own. I appreciate and support homegrown projects and creative people.