Barrington’s Own Caldecott Honor Winner Christopher Denise on How Knight Owl Was Hatched

The New York Times bestseller evolved from a family dinner over pizza


For children’s book illustrator Christopher Denise, a family dinner just might turn into another award-winning title. His latest book, Knight Owl, a New York Times bestseller, recently won an American Library Association Caldecott Honor, and the initial concept began at a family pizza night. 

Denise, a Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) graduate, works from his home studio in Barrington. Born in Massachusetts but raised in Ireland, Denise always had a passion for art. He explains, “I was that kid who was always drawing. But the idea of being an artist or an illustrator never occurred to me. I didn’t even know what an illustrator was.” He briefly studied art history and archaeology before transferring to RISD and finding his creative direction. 

Denise has an acclaimed career in children’s illustration, but Knight Owl is the first book he wrote as well as illustrated. “Over the years, I’ve been so lucky to work with and learn from amazing authors like Brian Jacques (Redwall), Jane Yolen, Anika Denise, Phyllis Root, and Rosemary Wells. My first editor told me that when I was ready, I should start writing my own books. I guess I was finally ready,” says Denise.

Knight Owl features an unlikely hero who saves the day with his nocturnal strength and pizza. Denise recites how a chat over a pie inspired the story: “I was trying, unsuccessfully, to get a story together about an owl that stays up all night… a night owl. Then our daughter Isabel asked the magic question: ‘What if?’ She asked, ‘What if the owl was a knight?’ I immediately started sketching on my iPad. With that one question, I knew the character and a good part of the story.”

The book is filled with word play and enchanting digital illustrations. Denise works almost exclusively digitally and draws upon artistic influences such as N.C. Wyeth, Johannes Vermeer, and Hiroshi Yoshida; his technique lends itself to the moody images that immerse viewers into this storybook realm.

Within this world, little Owl dreams of being a proper knight and battling dragons. After completing knight school, he is assigned to the night shift and succeeds as the only knight to stay awake. The illustrations of the glowy castle scenes, fierce dragons, and wide-eyed owl enchant readers. 

“Many kids and adults have written to me about appreciating Knight Owl’s themes of bravery and friendship. I think those are universal themes any age reader can relate to, and I’m glad they see a bit of themselves in Owl’s story,” says Denise.

Through his distinguished career, Knight Owl is Denise’s first Caldecott Honor. “With Knight Owl, I knew I had created a really solid piece of work but never expected anything that happened after we published. The Caldecott Honor is just amazing and I am so grateful. I have no idea what it means yet… it’s still sinking in,” he shares. The American Library Association (ALA) announced the winners of the 2023 Youth Media Awards at its LibLearnX: The Library Learning Experience conference in January. The awards are selected by judging committees composed of librarians and other children’s experts, and per ALA, “encourage original and creative work.”

What’s next? Denise is always at work on a new project and plans to produce more Knight Owl books. “Owl will have a few new adventures, and make a few new friends,” he shares. Denise also illustrated a forthcoming book Willow and Bunny by Anita Rowe Schulte to be released in 2023 or early 2024.

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