Author-illustrator Leo Landry, a twenty-year bookselling veteran of The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, Massachusetts, is the creator of picture books (Space Boy; Eat Your Peas, Ivy Louise!), as well as chapter books (Fat Bat and Swoop; Sea Surprise); newly independent readers should line up for Grin and Bear It, his latest offering. In this short (just forty-eight pages) chapter book, joke-writing-genius Bear dreams of making his friends laugh. He’s got some awesome material, but he’s also got a problem: stage fright. Enter hummingbird Emmy, gifted at performing but not at joke writing; together they pool their talents and realize their dreams. Young readers will be a receptive audience for Landry’s gentle illustrations, accessible text, and first-grader-funny jokes (“What do little girl cubs wear in their hair? Bear-ettes!”).
1. Who or what was the inspiration for the character of Bear, and does he bear (get it?) any resemblance to you?
Leo Landry: Years ago, I took a stand-up comedy class to get over my anxiety about public speaking. The final class was a five-minute live performance at a local comedy club! My bit was about the things you find yourself saying or overhearing as an adult working in a children’s bookstore (such as how many times you might say the word bunny in a day or, in one case, being told by a mother, “it’s only little girl pee!”). I got through the five minutes, but I’m not sure I could do it again. “Write what you know,” people have always told me. And so Bear was born.
2. Your illustration style seems perfect for early chapter book readers; the pictures are spare and entertaining without being distracting. How do you find illustrating a book for this audience differs from picture book illustration?
LL: First, thanks! With early chapter books and early readers, a child relies on the pictures as clues to deciphering words in the story as he learns to read. I discovered this with my own daughter. The Green Queen by Nick Sharratt was the first book that she read on her own, and it was so simply drawn, no clutter, no distractions. So I try to do the same. With picture books, illustrators have the freedom to expand on a story, and even create a story-within-the-story in the artwork that you wouldn’t know if you just read the text alone.
3. What did managing a bookstore teach you about what works (and what doesn’t) in books for new readers?
LL: It certainly gave me an exposure to the genre as it grew over twenty years! When I first started working at The Children’s Book Shop, there was a rack of I-Can-Read and Dr. Seuss books, a handful of Patricia Reilly Giff’s Kids of the Polk Street School books, and David Adler’s Cam Jansen series. And that was it. Now there are so many more great individual books and series for early readers. I’m still partial to Syd Hoff (especially Grizzwold, another inspiration for Bear), who wrote many I-Can-Read books when I was learning to read forty-some years ago. My most favorite has got to be James Marshall’s series of books about Fox. The dialogue is so snappy and full of wit, and he really does make you laugh out loud.
4. Did you write Bear’s jokes yourself or did you enlist the help of six-year-old joke writers?
LL: As a kid, I used to go the library every day after school, take all the joke and riddle books off of the shelves, and sit down and read for hours before going home. They were full of the classic “groaners” that six- to eight-year-old boys love, and I still remember most of them! The jokes that Bear tells are a combination of those memories and the classic “why did the chicken cross the road” variety that still survive today among the same age group. I particularly remember taking out one book dozens of times — Jokes for Children by Marguerite Kohl. It’s a must-read.
5. Who is Bear’s favorite comedian?
LL: Fozzie Bear from The Muppet Show, of course. Wocka, Wocka, Wocka!