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Jon J Muth Talks with Roger

Jon J Muth Talks with Roger

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

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If there’s anyone who could bring out the Zen in car racing, I suppose it could be Jon J Muth (Zen Shorts, Zen Socks, Zen Ties…). And in Mama Lion Wins the Race, he certainly finds as much in the journey as in the destination. Or maybe the journey is the destination, so let’s go!

Roger Sutton: Did you draw cars when you were a kid? It seems like boys do that almost compulsively.

Jon J Muth: Yes, I certainly drew my share of them. I had an uncle who had a lot of cars, and my dad had interesting cars when I was growing up. I don’t think I realized quite how interesting they were until I got older.

RS: I see on the jacket copy that these are inspired by Italian racecars. Are they real, actual cars?

JJM: They are. I’ve made slight alterations, but they’re based on Italian racers from the 1930s up through the 1950s.

RS: You’re talking to somebody who doesn’t even know how to drive.

JJM: Fair enough. I love racers from that early vintage antique era. There’s just something about them. It’s the last romantic epoch of car-making. They were not efficient, necessarily. They were put together with intuition and enthusiasm, not with a formula. That’s as technical as I’ll get.

RS: I love that sequence in the book where after the race has begun and they’re heading out of town, at first we see them on the bridges and things, and then you turn the page, and whoosh, there they are in the countryside. Have you ever whizzed around the Italian countryside?

JJM: I have not. I’d really like to, but this is all armchair traveling.

RS: Well, you sure make it seem appealing.

JJM: Good. You visited the landscape of my imagination, with an Italian flavor.

RS: You’re known, of course, for your Zen Shorts books, and we have a rather gentle message in this book about how competition is not all it’s cracked up to be — but it is a race.

JJM: Well, yes. If you’re looking at winning objectively, winning is crossing the line first. It’s clear-cut, and I think that makes people feel safe. In this book the story unfolds the way an adventure might unfold when I’m playing with my kids in the living room. I don’t approach it like a teaching moment. That would kill the fun. If you’re not running through chaos together, you’re not really playing together.

RS: When you began coming up with the ideas for this book, did you know who was going to win the race?

JJM: I did not. I don’t write with the idea that “I’m going to tell this particular message.” I wish I were smart enough to do that, but I’m not. It’s just an unfolding of events, and this is the way this one went. The race is a construct to consider other ways of winning. Not objectively winning, but subjectively. I’m trying to help my kids understand the world. We’re all in this fast-moving, somewhat brutal era together. I think the characters demonstrate that the choices we make towards one another matter and make a difference.

RS: Do you think of yourself at all as a competitive person?

JJM: I must be in some sense, on a subconscious level. Like everybody else, I’ve got dark and light, trying to hold onto the civilized part and use it successfully. I’m sure that includes competition, but not in a way that I can recognize. Most of the games I like have more to do with the process of the game or the aesthetics. Racing’s really about the aesthetics for me, not particularly the idea of coming in first — though I certainly appreciate a champion, and I like watching people do something really well.

RS: Yeah. I’m thinking of a tennis player whose match went something like 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, so it was close all the way. And the loser said afterward, “I feel like I had won, because we both played so well.”

JJM: Right. You’re both bringing everything to bear. That’s why Mama Lion says to Tigey, “Just keep going. Do your best.”

RS: Do you compete with yourself? Do you say, “This book has to be better, bigger, smarter than my other books”?

JJM: More often I panic and go, “This book shouldn’t go off into a ditch.”

RS: Continuing our automotive metaphor.

JJM: I’ve got it stuck in my brain right now. But, no, I don’t think I compete with myself by trying to make a better book. I did this book thinking of my son Leo.

RS: How old is Leo?

JJM: He’s now ten, but at the time, he was about five. I was watching the way he was learning how to read, or the way he was struggling with reading, really. I tried to figure out what it was that he was responding positively to and negatively to. I found that unfortunately my picture books, which have a lot of negative space and suggested backgrounds, gave him unease. He didn’t quite know what to do with those spaces. But something like Where’s Waldo?, with many, many items to look at, got his attention, calmed down his reading. I decided that if I was going to do a book for him, I was going to have to shift gears a bit. I’m sorry, that’s terrible. Until I was talking to you, I don’t think I knew those puns were stuck in my head.

RS: I wonder if that’s something that illustrators and art directors and editors think about. If you have a lot of text on a page, the child is sort of stuck there until the adult reading it to them is done. Having a lot going on in the art gives them something to look at.

JJM: That’s a good point. I’m always conscious of the fact that a book starts, basically, with a kid in a lap, and a parent reading to them. If I’m not at least understanding that the parent’s got to be there, and the kid’s got to be there, together, then I don’t feel like I’m doing my job. I hope that the language or the dialogue or the way characters interact entertains parents — when I’m playing with my own kids, I’m entertaining myself too, as well as them.

RS: You’re also allowing the child listener to be an active participant in the book. For example, on that spread showing the town square being full of excitement, etc., you’ve got this enormous crowd scene of everyone waiting for the race to begin, and tucked up in the windows of an overlooking building — unmentioned in the text — are Willems’s Pigeon and Bridwell’s Clifford.

JJM: Yes. They like Italian road races.

RS: That’s exactly the kind of thing an adult isn’t even going to notice, necessarily, when reading it aloud because he or she is going to be so focused on the text. But the kid can say, “Look at my old friends here.”

JJM: That’s what I hope.

RS: Why those two?

JJM: I always loved the Pigeon, and Clifford is just wonderful.

RS: You did that heartbreaking book with Mo Willems. [City Dog, Country Frog]

JJM: I apologize.

RS: Heart. Breaking.

JJM: I didn’t start out to do that. I think Mo shied away from anything like that afterwards. That’s just where that one went. I loved working with Mo. He’s fantastic. But when I thought of putting the Pigeon and Clifford in that scene, it’s because my kids have stuffed animals of those characters. They’d be up there on the high shelf, and the kids would wave as they were going by. If some adventure was taking place, the stuffed animals would be part of it.

RS: I think kids do that very naturally. Characters in books aren’t held to their discrete volumes. They become an imaginary playmate of the child.

JJM: They’re persons.

RS: Right. They’ll wander from book to book. That doesn’t seem unusual to a kid.

JJM: Yes, only to trademark lawyers. It worked out nicely. Mo was very gracious.

Photo courtesy of Jon J Muth

RS: Your main characters are based on stuffed animals of your son’s?

JJM: Yes, they are. All the characters are roughly based on stuffed animals that my children, my nieces, and my nephews have. The character of Mama Lion is based on my son’s stuffed lion he’s had since he was very young. Mama Lion has been loved and repaired and lost and found so many times that I don’t know that any original stitch exists on that creature anymore.

RS: We visited our grandchildren a couple weeks ago. I took them to a toy store and said they could pick something out. The little girl, who’s four, picked out this stuffed puppy. Cute. I’m like, “All right, what are you going to name the puppy?” She looks at me like I have two heads. She said, “Puppy.” How did your kids name their stuffed animals?

JJM: That’s magic. Although the kids came up with really bad names, sometimes. I mean, Tigey is pretty simple, a variation and softening of tiger. Not particularly inventive, I don’t think.

RS: And is Tigey the name of the actual stuffed animal?

JJM: Yeah. And with Mama Lion — Leo barely had any words, so we thought he named it Mama Lion, but it may very well have been him calling his mother and asking for the lion outside the crib or something.

RS: Oh. “Mama? Lion!”

JJM: Exactly.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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