From Button to Book: The Evolution of All My Friends Are Dead

When you’re strolling through your favorite mom-and-pop bookshop and you see our new book, All My Friends Are Dead, and you immediately buy a copy for yourself and four more for your best friends, you might not immediately realize that that little book has been in the works for a long time.

Yes, it’s a story as old as time itself, full of intrigue, mystery, two births, an intervention, and at least one unsolved murder.

Just kidding. But it’s a pretty decent story. And it all starts with a button.

Here we go…


We met while working as counselors at Camp Winnarainbow, a performing arts camp in Northern California. It’s the kind of camp that teaches you how to juggle, where to put your compost and how to get along with each other in 110-degree weather.

In the summer of 2003, on the drive up to camp, we decided to buy a button-maker from a mail-order catalogue. It’s hard to say exactly what we were thinking. For some reason, in the car, it made so much sense. We’d sell the buttons to other counselors for $1 each and the button-maker would pay for itself!

Then we realized no one brought any cash to camp, and our entrepreneurial aspirations were momentarily crushed. We were $300 in the hole. That hole, however, didn’t stop us from gleefully button-making the days away, as the children placed in our care went largely unsupervised. (Note to anybody from camp: just kidding!) (Note to everyone else: we’re absolutely not kidding. It’s a wonder those kids made it out of there alive.)

All day long, we’d make buttons of little drawings and clippings from old magazines. We knew we’d struck gold when we cut out a dinosaur from a National Geographic and wrote “All my friends are dead” on it. The button was quickly bartered to another counselor for the price of one deep-tissue back-rub. Remember: nobody had cash. Also remember: we carry a lot of tension in our shoulders.

Here’s a blurry, faded photo of that original button, provided by its owner:


Everyone seemed to like the button. At night, people would gather around it, giggling until the sun came up.

We thought, aloud: “Heeeyyy … if people like this image on a button clipped to a shirt, maybe we can eliminate the middleman and just put the image directly onto a shirt!”

Presto! “All My Friends Are Dead” t-shirts were born. They were black & white and they looked like this. (Remember: this is 2003, when Avery hadn’t yet figured out how to draw a dinosaur.)

Much to our surprise, all 50 sold out within a couple weeks. So we printed some more, this time in color and in different designs!

Like a giraffe, demand for the shirts was high and tall and with a long, disgusting tongue. (That last part may only apply to the giraffe.) People connected to this sentiment and they wanted our shirts, using actual currency (no more back-rubs!) to purchase them. Soon, most of our friends had gotten one, and then their friends wanted one. And so on.

It started getting to the point where we’d be sitting in a restaurant and we’d see somebody we’d never met sporting our shirt.

“We made that!” we’d shriek. “That shirt you’re wearing! We made that! You’re wearing it and we made it! Where did you get it? Did you buy it? At a store? What’s your name?”

We’re really very charming.


So the shirts were selling regularly, and all was well. We decided to expand our clothing line, and tossed around ideas. This was where we had a gentlemanly disagreement that eventually altered the course of our lives.

One of us (to remain unnamed) decided that it would be a good idea to make a new shirt with a talking tree, saying, “All my friends are end tables.” The other one of us (Avery Monsen) thought that the idea didn’t work out of context. Without the original dinosaur, he thought, the tree wasn’t funny.

Imagine 15 phone calls where that was the only item being discussed. Welcome to our lives. Seriously.

Somehow, this all led not to another shirt, but to a 12-page book that we made by hand at Kinko’s, a book called (any guesses? anybody?) All My Friends Are Dead.

We’d hunker down in our local copy shop, jittery from various energy drinks, hands twitching and gyrating over the nation’s finest copiers and computers and cutting instruments, emerging hours later with 50 little books which we carried in a shoebox. We sold them on our website and at Little Otsu, a swell little paper-goods establishment on Valencia St. in San Francisco’s Mission District.

This led to something that probably doesn’t happen too often…


An editor at Chronicle Books happened to be shopping at Little Otsu and happened to see one of our mini-books and happened to buy it and happened not to lose it on the walk home. Everything was going our way! Like the end of “Serendipity” starring John Cusack, where he meets his soul mate at an ice rink and it starts snowing!

Anyway, to make a very long blog entry slightly less long, Chronicle came to us, one day, in the form of three beautiful editors. As far as we can remember (it’s hazy) they were all wearing white robes and one of them carried a harp.

“How about making this 12-page mini-book into a 96-page mega-book?” they asked in unison, as doves flew out of their robes, and we said “yes” on the spot.

And the rest was history.

So, what’s the takeaway from all this? It’s simple:

If you buy a button-maker, you’re absolutely guaranteed to get a lucrative book deal with Chronicle Books. It’s simple math:

Summer camp + buttons – focusing on your campers + brainstorming + magazines + dinosaurs = a book deal! Always!

Got it? Now get out there, and buy our book! (Please, please buy our book. We’re terrible with money, and this is sort of the only thing we’ve got going on right now. In a very real sense, our student loan payments depend on you.)

Your best friends for life,
Avery Monsen & Jory John

Comment on this blog post for a chance to win an All My Friends Are Dead t-shirt! 3 lucky winners will be chosen at random on Friday, August 6, 2010 and notified by email.

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