New Spin: The Picture Book Behind “What Does the Fox Say?”

by Wendy Lu
published in Reading

“Cow goes moo. Frog goes croak, and the elephant goes toot. Ducks say quack and fish go blub, and the seal goes ow, ow, ow. But there’s one sound that no one knows – what does the fox say?”

What started out as a comedic song for “Tonight with Ylvis,” the Norwegian television show hosted by brothers Vegard and Bård Ylvisåker, became an internet sensation as the response to “What Does the Fox Say?” exploded on YouTube almost instantly.

But fewer people know that just weeks before “The Fox” music video was released in September 2013, the Ylvis brothers approached Norwegian illustrator Svein Nyhus with plans to convert the song lyrics into a children’s picture book.

From Sound to Story Board

Although it usually takes a publishing company about one year to turn a simple story idea into a book, Svein Nyhus had only two months to create What Does the Fox Say?, which was published on Dec. 10, 2013 by Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers. The book made its debut first in Norway as “Hva sier reven?” one month before the English edition came out.

“As Ylvis was fully occupied with their media appearances around the world, I had to rely on my experiences from earlier works and make all decisions myself regarding motifs, style, technique, colors and book format,” says Nyhus, who has written and illustrated children’s books for 20 years.

With no time to lose, Nyhus immediately began to draw sketches for the book using a simple story board and the song lyrics as a guide. For the first time in his illustration career, Nyhus used a digital pen to draw his pictures directly into Adobe Photoshop on a graphic tablet. For four to five weeks, he worked on nothing but What Does the Fox Say?

While most of Nyhus’s work was done independently, Ylvis occasionally provided Nyhus with encouraging feedback on the finished artwork he’d shared with them.

“We didn’t know each other beforehand and didn’t meet in person until the book was printed,” Nyhus says of the Ylvis brothers. “Nevertheless, they trusted me, gave me total freedom, and made me very self-confident. The production time was just too short for worrying.”

The greatest challenge about making What Does the Fox Say?, Nyhus says, was learning to rely on his own professional instincts and not worryunnamed (2) or wonder too much about the creative process.

Much of that process involved a balancing act between making it as equally well-crafted, entertaining, and quirky as the music video, but with its own personality.

“I wanted to make something that matched the video and yet was also different – in other words, to repeat or recreate the energy and silliness into an independently visualized picture book version,” Nyhus says, adding that he’d hoped to “surprise the audience the same way the video did” and make it just as catchy – even if it couldn’t go viral online.

“I wanted to make funny characters and imaginative details for children as well as cool designs for young adults,” Nyhus says. “I also tried to make musical rhythms, variations and repetitions in the imagery.”

The Fox Reaches Unexpected Fame

When readers crack open What Does the Fox Say?, they won’t find the typical protagonist or illustrations of people or even cute animals, all of which are so often found in the “traditional children’s book.” Just as “The Fox” defies the stereotypes of a conventional dance song and music video, so does the book.

Perhaps that’s what has made both projects so successful since their releases. As of today, “The Fox” music video has garnered more than 378 million views on YouTube and placed No. 6 on the US Billboard “Hot 100” Charts in 2013. Similarly, What Does the Fox Say?, which was written for children ages four to eight, climbed to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List.

Ironically, Nyhus says the original intent of “The Fox” was to make it “a parody of a failure of a song.” Its success stems from the fact that the song was well-produced and highly entertaining.

“I don’t think Ylvis wanted to make great art, but just have fun and entertain their audience,” Nyhus says. “Likewise I don’t regard What Does the Fox Say? as great literature, but as a positive, jokey book that may bring some unpretentious joy into the world. I want life to have room for different kinds of emotions, art and culture – which also includes sheer and short-lived fun.”

What Does the Fox Say? is unlike most other books that Nyhus has written or illustrated, which often encompass more mainstream artwork and themes that are psychological or philosophical in nature. Now that What Does the Fox Say? is completed and out in the world, Nyhus has begun to illustrate a new children’s picture book that differs from the former’s lighthearted and playful tone.

“It’s about a girl whose mother is a fish,” says Nyhus, whose current project is for his wife, Norwegian writer Gro Dahle. “Grownups, and some children, will easily interpret the poetic, metaphorical story as dealing with children living with parents with mental disorders or drug problems. It’s fun and challenging to make serious books, too.”


unnamed (1)Author Bio: Svein Nyhus is a Norwegian illustrator and writer of children’s books. He has illustrated his own texts as well as books by his wife, Norwegian poet Gro Dahle. His own books, which have been translated into several languages, include Sånt som er (“Things That Are”, 2010), Opp og ut (“Up And Away”, 2008) and Jeg! (“Me!”, 2004). In 2004, Nyhus illustrated “Why Kings and Queens Don’t Wear Crowns,” a picture book written by Princess Märtha Louise of Norway. Visit him at his homepage:





Wendy-BioPicDIY MFA Columnist Bio: Wendy Lu is the print co-editor for The Durham VOICE and the managing editor of UNC’s Blue & White magazine. She is also a former publishing intern at Sleepy Hollow Books and a NaNoWriMo 2008 winner. Her work has appeared in The Daily Tar Heel, Raleigh Public Record and Chapel Hill Magazine’s The WEEKLY. Learn more about Wendy’s work at

Every month or two, DIY MFA’s Wendy Lu will be hosting “New Spin,” a column that covers everything that falls within alternative storytelling: literary mash-ups, books that put a new spin on classic stories, and “meta-books” that use new media, graphic illustrations, and interaction between words/design for an enhanced reader experience.

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