French children's book author/illustrator Herve Tullet was sitting on a New York City park bench one day recently when a man walked up to him.
"Are you Herve Tullet?" the man asked.
Startled, Mr. Tullet replied that he was. The man put out his right hand and said, "I'm Mo Willems."
Such was the first meeting between two picture-book superstars, who later that day appeared together at a special discussion of children's books at Books of Wonder, a Manhattan children's bookstore. (First, however, they played petanque, a French bowling-type game, for a half-hour in the park; Mr. Tullet delightedly beat Mr. Willems, but they plan a rematch this fall in Mr. Tullet's home city of Paris.)
Mr. Willems, author of such best-sellers as "Knuffle Bunny" and "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus," is an American phenomenon whose books are beloved by millions of young readers. He's won two Caldecott Honors, a runner-up prize to the Caldecott Medal.
Mr. Tullet is Mr. Willems' French counterpart. In France, Mr. Tullet (whose name is pronounced Air-VAY Too-LAY) is called "the prince of preschool books," and his books are hugely popular with young children and their parents. His appearances at schools and bookstores in France and other countries draw crowds of ardent young fans.
While Mr. Tullet isn't nearly as well-known in the United States as Mr. Willems, that may be changing as his work is translated into English and eagerly discovered by American children and adults.
So far, his best-known work in English is "Press Here" (Chronicle Books, $15.99, ages 2 up), a work of sheer genius. In "Press Here," he shows how books aren't static objects but can be used interactively by the reader.
In "Press Here," readers are urged by the text to shake and tilt the book to make things happen to the dots; by clapping at the dots, for example, they "grow" huge when the reader turns the page.
"Press Here" has been been a major financial success in the United States, ranking (as of April 17) in the top 200 for all books on Amazon.com.
In recent years, a number of Mr. Tullet's other books also have been translated into English and published by Phaidon Press. They include: "The Game of Light" ($8.95); "The Game of Patterns" ($8.95); "The Game in the Dark" ($12.95); "The Game of Sculpture" ($12.95); and "The Game of Mix and Match" ($9.95).
All of these books either have die-cuts or flaps to encourage young readers to play with them and make them their own. In fact, "The Game of Sculpture" has die-cut pieces that can be pushed out and used -- together with the book itself and other objects collected by young readers -- to create different kinds of sculptures.
Now, Phaidon has just released "I Am Blop!" ($19.95), a sturdy trapezoid-shaped book of 110 pages, each of which features some form of a butterfly-shaped figure that Mr. Tullet calls a "blop." There are blops of different colors, blops with animal patterns, blops "in flower," blops in the museum, blops at a party -- even a blop that has been "scribbled" on.
Incredibly whimsical and endlessly inventive, "I Am Blop!" takes a simple, friendly shape and shows readers how -- with some imagination -- that shape can become a seemingly inexhaustive means of creativity. Along the way, children learn some basic concepts, such as "up" and "down," and what happens when you mix pink and yellow.
First published in France in 2005 as "Moi, C'est Blop!," the book was a hit with children and their parents and catapulted Mr. Tullet to a new level of celebrity in his home country. He regularly gets letters in which readers show the blops they have created or found; one recent letter-writer sent a picture of a pregnant blop.
"For me, this book has been the most incredible experience," he said in a recent telephone interview from Phaidon's New York offices during a brief U.S. tour. "From what I put into the book at the beginning and what the book has provided after that, I couldn't have expected it."
It was in this interview that he recounted the meeting and game of petanque with Mr. Willems.
In the book, he explained in his charming French-accented English, "I work with sounds. At the beginning, I didn't know that the word 'blop' provides so many sounds." Then, he found that "I could talk with children just using 'blop,' " saying it with different inflections and tones.
"There are so many stories like that," he marveled. "I try always to provide a surprise in my books, but in this case I think I'm the one receiving the surprises!"
That's typical of a Tullet book. As Lolly Robinson of The Horn Book Magazine wrote in a recent blog post after seeing Mr. Tullet in action: "He relinquishes control over what he wants the book to be and leaves it to children to decide what they want it to be."
Mr. Tullet, 54, grew up in Paris and earned an arts degree. He spent about a dozen years as an art director at an advertising agency before turning his talents to creating children's books.
His first children's book was published in France in 1994. Since then, he has created several dozen children's books, several of which have won awards, and many of which have been best-sellers.
Over the years, he said he has been struck by the way his books take on new life each time they are read.
"I have discovered that there are no limits to my books," he said.
Mr. Tullet already is working on several new books, including "The Big Book of Art," which he describes as a "kind of [picture dictionary] for babies." The book will be published by Phaidon in September.
He's also excited to see that a book that was just published in France as "Sans Titre" ("Without a Title") will be published in English in August as "Help! We Need a Title."
Asked how long he expects to publish books for children, Mr. Tullet responds enthusiastically: "Forever!"