The Horn Book » Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com Publications about books for children and young adults Wed, 25 Mar 2015 20:30:15 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.1 JonArno Lawson Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com/2015/03/talks-with-roger/jonarno-lawson-talks-with-roger/ http://www.hbook.com/2015/03/talks-with-roger/jonarno-lawson-talks-with-roger/#respond Mon, 16 Mar 2015 18:40:23 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=47549 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. Just prior to calling JonArno in Toronto, I posted to Facebook: “Interviewing poet JonArno Lawson in a few minutes about his new book Sidewalk Flowers. Which is wordless. A wordless book by […]

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jonarno lawsonJust prior to calling JonArno in Toronto, I posted to Facebook: “Interviewing poet JonArno Lawson in a few minutes about his new book Sidewalk Flowers. Which is wordless. A wordless book by a poet. My job is not easy here.” But it was.

Roger Sutton: Tell me about this wordless book you wrote. What does it mean to write a wordless book?

JonArno Lawson: That’s a good question. What I did sort of disappears into what Sydney [Smith, the book’s illustrator] did. Basically, I was walking with my daughter down an ugly street, Bathurst Street, in Toronto, not paying very close attention, when I noticed she was collecting little flowers along the way. When we got home, she decorated my wife’s hair with the flowers, and put some on the baby’s hat, and gave some to her other little brother, and then went off and did something else. What struck me was how unconscious the whole thing was. She wasn’t doing it for praise, she was just doing it. I thought that would make a beautiful little book, and it would be great without words. The person reading it would see things the way I had seen them, without any commentary.

RS: How did it occur to you to turn this into a book? Because normally for you, I would imagine, turning something into a book involves, you know, writing something down.

Lawson_Sketchbook cover300JL: I’d never thought about writing a wordless book before. I’m really not a very good artist. So I jotted the idea down and then I started sketching it out as a little dummy, just to see what it would look like. My editor, Sheila Barry, was intrigued. She liked the idea, and she had some very good editorial suggestions. She said it was too family-focused; there had to be some interaction with the world. She suggested having the little girl give a flower to someone outside the family, so that’s where that little sequence comes from — giving the flower to the dog, putting one on the dead bird—

RS: And the man on the bench.

JL: Yes. And Sheila was absolutely right. The story needed that. She also said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if she kept a flower for herself at the end?” I hadn’t thought of that, and it seemed perfect — that you should keep a little of whatever it is for yourself, too.

RS: I would think the initial impulse with a poet would be, “Okay, what are my words for this?”

LawsonSketches1_300JL: Usually when I write I’m driven by sound. Someone will say something, I’ll hear a few words together, and if I can work it into something sensible, great. (Most of the time I can’t.) Most of what I write doesn’t turn out well, but often enough it does. But this time there was absolutely nothing sound-oriented. The whole thing seemed very visual. Even the idea that you would have just a little bit of color at the start — the first part of our walk was a very gray street — and then as we got closer to home there was more color. It seemed symbolic. So the whole thing came to me in a visual way. It felt like to provide any words would take away, instead of add.

RS: What kind of work did you do with the illustrator? How did you find him?

JL: Sheila had seen Sydney’s work and thought he would be perfect. I didn’t know his work, really, but I was quite open to anything. When I saw the first pictures he did, I couldn’t believe it. They were just beautiful, beyond anything I could have thought of or hoped for. He had my storyboard, the little dummy I had made, and I gave him notes: “I’d like for there to be a little bit of color and then for it to build,” that sort of thing. But Sydney had so much freedom to pace the story, visually, and I don’t think he’d ever worked that way before. The little panel sections — they were his idea. Once Sheila and Michael Solomon, the art director, saw what he was doing, they just said to him, “Keep going. Whatever you do is going to be brilliant.” So that’s how his part evolved. It was almost as if I wrote a melody, and then he wrote his own melody that harmonized with it perfectly.

RS: Whose idea was it to put her into a little red riding hood?

JL: That was Sydney. I had said I wanted the color to start with the flowers, but it was Sydney’s idea to put the color also into her coat, which I think was brilliant.

RS: We’ve been having this discussion on Calling Caldecott about Marla Frazee’s The Farmer and the Clown. With a wordless book, there are so many different ways you can interpret what’s going on; the author has less control over what the viewer-reader is going to make of the story. In your book I kept seeing these “Little Red Riding Hood” allusions: “Oh, here she is, wandering off the path. Oh, the dad’s not paying attention.” And I thought of the Gunniwolf story, where she’s wandering through the woods and keeps seeing flowers and picking them, and the wolf comes out of the woods and surprises her. So it had all kinds of folkloric resonance for me. But is that me, or is that in the story?

JL: It actually didn’t hit me until a friend said, “Look, it’s like ‘Little Red Riding Hood,'” and I thought, “Wow, it’s so true. It really works.” Someone else said they thought of the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List, which also wouldn’t have occurred to me.

RS: Did you ever see Don’t Look Now? That Julie Christie-Donald Sutherland movie where they’re in Venice, and they see this little creature in a red coat constantly just around the corner from them?

JL: No.

RS: Don’t watch it at night.

JL: [Children’s literature scholar] Philip Nel said he saw a lot of Ezra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day, in Sidewalk Flowers.

RS: Yes, particularly in that beautiful picture of the girl embracing her mother, where she becomes almost abstract, held against the mother’s chest. You really see Peter’s hood from The Snowy Day, sure enough.

JL: Yes.

RS: How do you share wordless books with your children? Or any children? I never knew quite how to do it as a librarian.

LawsonSketches2_300JL: I have a son in grade one, and he really wanted me to come in and show the book to his class. I was quite nervous about it because I’ve always relied on words. So I just showed them the pages and I asked them what they made of it. That seemed to work well. They had a chance to tell the story, to give their own interpretation. A lot of them were quite fascinated by the dead bird. That really drew out a lot of comments and memories.

RS: How do you know when to turn the page with a wordless book?

JL: I tend to get nervous, so I probably turn the pages too quickly. There’s so much detail, so much to look at. Every time I’ve looked at the book I’ve seen something new.

RS: It’s an interesting view of city life in that it’s neither idealized nor is it completely spooky, but there are elements, I think, of both in the pictures. It’s a very real place.

JL: Sydney had just moved here, to Toronto, from Halifax, and I had wanted him to capture that part of the city [Bathurst Street]. There’s a railway underpass in the book that is exactly like the railway underpass my daughter and I walked through. There’s a scene with a bus stop, and the little girl is going up the embankment, and they’re about to turn a corner. Sydney has actually taken two places along our route and put them together. Up till then you’re really seeing something of Toronto, and a bit of its Chinatown. After that, I think it’s more Sydney’s imagination. The landscape, the background.

RS: How did you feel about his portrayal — or maybe this is your portrayal — of the dad, who is basically pretty inattentive through a lot of this?

JL: My wife said to me, “This being your story, you don’t come across very well. But on the other hand, the fact that you did notice what was going on, the fact that you were able to get it down, means that you must have been paying a bit of attention.” I kind of like how on the page where he gets home, the mother’s looking out back, the dad is just shown in shadow. He looks sort of like a failure, his head pointed downwards. It’s a bit dreary for the dad, I guess. I thought it was well done.

RS: But he’s always waiting for her. She dawdles over this flower or that flower, and it’s not like he moves on without her, forgetting that she’s there.

Lawson_bookpanels3_300JL: I love the scene where he turns back with his hand held out, right after the bird. He never goes too far. He’s aware of where she is.

RS: Do you find that your kids make you more aware of things in situations like this, while walking?

JL: Oh, yes. I couldn’t write for children until I had kids, and then they completely redirected me. Especially the way they use language. A kid learning language is using it for the first time, so they use it in such idiosyncratic ways, which has been very useful for me.

RS: It must really change your perspective.

JL: I don’t know what I would have done without my kids. Not just as a person, but also as a writer.

RS: What changed about your writing from before having kids to after (aside from it being for children)?

JL: I think it became more playful, seeing everything new through them and hearing language differently. And they ask really difficult questions from early on.

lawson_sidewalk flowersRS: Has your daughter asked you any difficult questions about this book?

JL: No, she was delighted. The book was rejected many times, and she would say, “Don’t worry. It’s such a beautiful story, I’m sure it will get picked up.”

RS: Such an old pro.

JL: She’s now thirteen, and she was seven in the story. But she’s delighted that it’s getting good attention.


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Floyd Cooper Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com/2015/03/talks-with-roger/floyd-cooper-talks-with-roger/ http://www.hbook.com/2015/03/talks-with-roger/floyd-cooper-talks-with-roger/#respond Tue, 03 Mar 2015 18:42:56 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=47101 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. In the midst of a classic Boston snowpocalypse, it was pure pleasure to talk to Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner Floyd Cooper [in 2009 for The Blacker the Berry, written by […]

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floyd cooper

In the midst of a classic Boston snowpocalypse, it was pure pleasure to talk to Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner Floyd Cooper [in 2009 for The Blacker the Berry, written by Joyce Carol Thomas; Amistad/HarperCollins] about his new picture book celebrating a jubilant summer’s day: Juneteenth for Mazie, published this month by Capstone.

Roger Sutton: You grew up in Oklahoma, right?

Floyd Cooper: Yes, born and raised. Around Tulsa, Oklahoma. Spent summers in Muskogee, Oklahoma. And Bixby, Mounds, Oklahoma, where my paternal grandfather had some land. He’s one-hundred-percent Creek Indian, and he had this allotment of land that was given to some of the Indians there. We would go and work some of the farms my folks had, to supply produce to the markets and things like that. It was a typical Midwestern kind of a lifestyle.

RS: Do you find that childhood making its way into your books?

FC: Yes. I’m trying to get more and more of it in there. I was just back there last week, actually, and I got to see some sights that awoke in me things I had forgotten about.

RS: Was Juneteenth something you celebrated as a kid?

FC: Well, we didn’t really celebrate it per se, but it was talked about by my older relatives. I never really understood it fully until much later.

RS: But you’d go to a barbecue and enjoy it even if you didn’t completely know what it was for, just like in Juneteenth for Mazie. Her grandfather tells her about the barbecue and that there are going to be treats and soda there, because that’s how kids connect with traditions.

FC: That’s right. They’re just there for the goodies. But those are the ways into their memory bank. Everything is attached to those fun parts. If we’re lucky we have older folks who talk to us and make sure we at least know some of the traditions. There was a lot of that with my family. I knew my great-grandparents.

RS: Wow.

FC: They still lived on the farm they built. They moved up from Texas in a covered wagon, and they built this house of stone there in Haskell, Oklahoma. They were quite old, and they’d share stories. In fact, Uncle Mose, the character in Juneteenth, is my great-great-grandfather. He was from a plantation in Georgia. He was an ex-slave. There was a photograph of him hanging in one of the rooms at the farm that we weren’t allowed to go into. As kids we had our limits. I couldn’t quite make out the features, so it’s always been a mystery to me what he actually looked like. I’m on a search for that picture now. Maybe it’s something that will turn up in one of my books. Those things, they really do come into fine focus as you get older. There’s always that regret that you didn’t know then what you know now.

RS: Right.

FC: As a child, I would have quizzed my great-grandparents a lot more, gotten even more stories.

RS: How do you connect your own children to those stories?

cooper_juneteenth for mazieFC: Telling the stories helps keep them in my memory. It’s funny how that works. The act of giving can also, in a sense, be a gift to you. You gain more insight and awareness as you pass the stories on. One of the beauties of the oral tradition is that it helps both the giver and the listener.

RS: Today if the slaves were freed, the news would be instantaneous. There’s no way the people of Texas wouldn’t hear it.

FC: That’s right. It would be all over Twitter. And that’s probably why it took two years for the news to actually reach Galveston. It traveled slowly, but it was deliberate, as much was in those days. With the culture of the black community, even before social media, there has always been this sort of a connection. It spanned geographic regions. It crossed social borders. I don’t know if you remember, in the days when they actually named dances, like you had the Twist? This was before your time.

RS: Do the Hustle!

FC: The Hustle and those dances. They were known instantaneously across the country by everybody. I don’t know how word got around. That’s just an example. Different things — the way of speaking, the slang, the verbiage, all of that was passed on. I can’t put my finger on how that happened. How would someone in Cincinnati, Ohio, know how someone in Oakland, California, would talk and act and walk, you know? It’s just amazing, that connection. I’m sure it’s like that with all cultures, there’s a sort of thread or a link that runs through, and it persists even with acclimation, with the sort of melting pot in which we all exist. Those ties — those cultural ties — remain true to that particular culture.

RS: To take the example of dances — you’d have DJs on the radio playing songs and saying, “Here’s the new Twist record.” And the DJ would listen to other DJs, so the record spreads, and of course the record company’s going around selling the record to the DJs, but then that doesn’t work unless the kids get into it. So Sally in Philly calls her cousin Sadie in Oklahoma —

FC: That’s right. It’s like a smoke signal, or like a drumbeat. Something very primordial. We find a way. And now we have social media.

RS: How do you think that will change things in terms of helping cultures to flourish?

FC: I think we’ll evolve into the medium, if we aren’t there already. It came on pretty quickly and caught us off-guard. I still know people who do not use Facebook. But I think we will evolve and take better advantage of it, and it will evolve along with us. Hopefully the internet will still be there, cleaned up and with the vision that we want it to be, as opposed to —

RS: The cesspool that it is today?

FC: Yes. I believe it’s going to get to where it’s supposed to be, but that’s just how I am, I guess. I’m a hopeful guy.

RS: And how do you see books surviving?

FC: It was put best by Stephen Roxburgh, an editor friend of mine. He was giving a talk about media, and he said books are just a bucket for words and thoughts and stories. The bucket can change, but the stories and the words, the expressions, the things that are in the bucket — that won’t change. You’ll always need that. So you have an electronic device that supplants a book, it’s just a bucket for these things. In that sense, it’s not that important as far as affecting the actual things that are in the bucket. We still need people to create for the bucket, whatever form it is. If it’s paper, or a bright light and a little flat tablet, we’ll still need content. That need that we have, as humans, to tell our stories and to hear stories will remain a constant through whatever technological change happens. We’ll carry that deep into the universe with us as we expand out further.

RS: Do you find yourself using digital tools more, as an illustrator?

FC: No, I still work traditionally for the most part. I have done some things just to experiment, but I still prefer the light in front of the painting, as opposed to coming from behind.

RS: It’s a big difference, isn’t it?

FC: Oh, it’s huge. Tremendously.

RS: I remember watching you demonstrate how you created a picture many years ago, in Hattiesburg.

FC: Oh, yes. So you saw that?

RS: Uh-huh.

FC: Okay. All right. Are you painting that way now?

RS: Who, me?

FC: Yes, did you go home and try it?

RS: No, I did not.

FC: Are you artistic?

RS: Hell, no.

FC: You’re very convinced. No hesitation there. That’s absolute, huh? Okay.

RS: But I love to look at pictures. You need people like me.

FC: Absolutely. You’re the linchpin of the whole thing. Without you, it’ll all fall apart.

RS: Gotta have readers.

FC: That’s right. And viewers, absolutely.

RS: You’ve had a remarkably consistent style over the years. Ever want to bust out and try something else?

FC: I do, and I have attempted to do that a number of times, but there are constructs in place that help to hold you in place. People who buy the art — they want the comfort, I guess, of knowing what they’re going to get, so they tend to want what they’ve seen you do, as opposed to taking a chance and trying something new. But I am expanding on my own. I’ve been experimenting with a lot of different media. Hopefully I’ll be in the position to just be able to produce that someday, and not have any other issues at hand like paying bills.

RS: Right.

FC: Social media, that will help me to have a platform, to just post something and see what happens. It may be something out of left field. I use melted chalks and some other mediums and a different palette. It’s a lot of fun, to balance what I do for books with what I play with in my down time.

RS: You know, one way you broke out years ago has always struck me — do you remember Laura Charlotte? [written by Kathryn O. Galbraith; Philomel, 1990] A book about a white child, illustrated by an African American illustrator.

FC: Yes, and I remember your statement about that. In fact, I still use it.

RS: What did I say?

FC: You said — I’m paraphrasing here — Ezra Jack Keats had done Snowy Day with Peter, and Floyd Cooper has sort of turned that around with Laura Charlotte.

RS: It really was something that was rare. Do you feel boxed in?

FC: Sometimes you do. Basically what we try to do, as artists and writers, we seek humanity first. That has no pigeonhole.

RS: Right.

FC: Publishers tend to hesitate when it comes to experimentation. But there are people who do allow it to happen. I’ve done some interesting books with Stephen Roxburgh. He’s quite a visionary. He told us maybe seven, eight years ago that the cell phone was going to be the center of the electronic universe. Everything was coming down to the cell phone and a cloud. And we didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. But it certainly has come to pass.

RS: I just walked by someone in the hall who was asking a security guard if he’d seen her wallet, and I thought, “Which would bother me more, to lose my wallet, or to lose my cell phone?” You’d think wallet, but I don’t know.

FC: I misplaced my cell phone in Nebraska once, and I couldn’t sleep a wink. I found it later, but it scared me to death, and I began to realize just how connected we are to that device. It’s like another hand. It’s scary, at the same time, to be so dependent on something.

RS: Do you read books on yours?

FC: I don’t read entire books. I’ll read the blurbs, and then I’ll get the book. I still like the book. I’d rather have the actual book and a little lamp.

RS: You know, your publisher wanted to make sure I saw the latest edition of Juneteenth for Mazie, because I only had the ARC and there were changes made to the finished book.

FC: They should ban ARCs. I’m setting a bonfire to my copies. Have you written any books yourself? I’m going to turn the interview on you.

RS: I wrote a nonfiction book for teenagers a long time ago. And then I’ve written mostly books for adults about children’s books.

FC: Is that first book still out? I’d like to see it.

RS: It’s out of print. It’s called Hearing Us Out: Voices from the Gay and Lesbian Community, and it was published by Little, Brown.

FC: What year was that?

RS: It was 1994, before I worked at The Horn Book.

FC: Wow. That’s ahead of the curve. Everything is so different now in the gay and lesbian community.

RS: Yes. The book would be completely dated. A kid would read it today and think I was talking about Martians. Because the world for gay people is completely different. Do you think that our latest diversity push — #WeNeedDiverseBooks — is going to open things up for you?

FC: I am not sure. I think there will definitely be ancillary benefits from anything in that arena, because it’s just coming down to having an impact, even secondhand, on what I do. But as far as affecting me personally, I’ll just continue to do what I do. I try to get involved in some of those things — We Need Diverse Books. But I haven’t had time to be as attentive to it as I should. I probably need to get a little bit more involved, pushing for that.

RS: Isn’t that more my job than your job, though?

FC: There you go. That’s it.

RS: Your job is to make the books.


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Patrick Jennings Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com/2015/02/talks-with-roger/patrick-jennings-talks-with-roger/ http://www.hbook.com/2015/02/talks-with-roger/patrick-jennings-talks-with-roger/#respond Tue, 17 Feb 2015 18:01:18 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=46640 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. After chronicling the adventures of Guinea Dog in three volumes, Patrick Jennings now turns to a cat who most definitely knows what he likes. Our amiable conversation about Hissy Fitz was sadly […]

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patrick jenningsAfter chronicling the adventures of Guinea Dog in three volumes, Patrick Jennings now turns to a cat who most definitely knows what he likes. Our amiable conversation about Hissy Fitz was sadly shadowed by some bad news received by Patrick earlier the same day, so let’s just get that out of the way at the top.

Roger Sutton: So here we are, having this conversation the day after your publishing company, Egmont USA, has decided it’s going out of business. What’s that like?

Patrick Jennings: Well, I haven’t had a lot of time to process it. Certainly one of my least favorite days as a published author, in my twenty years of doing this. I didn’t like hearing that my relationship with all these wonderful people is coming to an end.

RS: We do know that Hissy Fitz is still being published.*

PJ: Egmont has been so great. It’s a small house, but full of talent. I’ve been so happy about how much they’ve supported my stuff. This is the eighth book I’ve written for them. They stepped things up quite a bit with Hissy, doing a lot more publicity and blog tours and things. Hissy Fitz even has his own Twitter feed, which is the first time I’ve really tweeted. I’m writing in his voice. And I’m having fun with it.

RS: He does seem to have a voice made for that. Twitter is pretty snarky, as is Mr. Hissy Fitz.

PJ: You’re not supposed to do that, be an internet troll. But because he’s a mean insomniac cat, he can.

RS: Do you remember the Kliban cats?

PJ: Oh, so well. I used to love those little Kliban cartoons, because it showed the darker side of what cats were like.

RS: One thing that interests me about Hissy Fitz is that although he has this unique voice, his grumpiness and his observations are very tied to what a cat would think. You put a cat on Twitter, or you look at the Kliban cats, a lot of that is using the animal voice to make a very human point. I thought you were really consistent in keeping Hissy Fitz attentive to what would matter to a cat.

jennings_hissy fitzPJ: Thank you. I’ve written about quite a few animals over the years. Most writers tend to make animals more human — things like Garfield holding a coffee cup — so they become more of a voice for people to vent their own ideas. I wanted animals to stay animals. I’ve had cats for twenty years and I’ve always watched the ways that they interact with people. I have a group of young writers who come here to write and they have to interact with my cats. There are certain things that you just don’t do to a cat. I’ve thought, “God, that must be so irritating to the cat.” I really felt for them.

RS: Jean Craighead George did those picture books in the ’80s about the differences between dogs and cats [How to Talk to Your Cat and How to Talk to Your Dog], and how their respective relationships to humans are fundamentally different. The dog is much more dependent upon you, the human. That’s how it has evolved to be. Whereas with the cat — it’s more like two independent creatures sharing a space.

PJ: It’s interesting. I did a book on wolves and learned a lot about canines. They’re pack animals. Their families are very tribal, and they look out for their own. They’re very territorial. Dogs were cross-bred runts, for the most part. We did everything we could to keep the canine from growing into a full-grown wolf and attacking us. We wanted to keep it docile. So we kind of bred adult puppies. That’s what dogs really are, adult puppies. Dogs look to us like we’re the pack leader. The cat, being a cat and not a pack animal, is this independent creature who wants to lord it over us. I think that’s one of the reasons why they love having places around the home where they can climb up high.

RS: Right, and look down on us.

PJ: Exactly.

RS: With dogs it’s the opposite. They get below us and they look up. Is this okay? Am I doing the right thing? Give me a cookie.

PJ: They’re on us before we even get in the door. I read a story about how dogs can detect when their owners are within about half a mile from home. They start salivating and whimpering.

RS: Not mine. I have to beg him.

PJ: Oh, really?

RS: I come in the door and he looks away like, “Where have you been?” I have to talk to him and pat his head, and then maybe… He’s got issues.

PJ: That’s the other thing I’ve realized. Each animal is an individual. We can generalize about a whole species as much as we like, but they are all very different. My book Guinea Dog was based on a cat I had that acted rather doglike. It would run to the door when someone knocked, and it tended to play and frolic like a puppy would, rather than a cat. It was really big and kind of oafish.

RS: When I was a kid, we had a Siamese who would play fetch.

PJ: That’s where the idea for Guinea Dog came from: a boy who wants a dog but gets a cat instead. Right before it was published I changed it to a guinea pig, because I thought that was even funnier. But it was technically my first cat book. My only one, until Hissy Fitz.

RS: Have you written a book from the point of view of the animal before?

PJ: Several times. We Can’t All Be Rattlesnakes was written from a gopher snake’s point of view. My first book, Faith and the Electric Dog, was about a Mexican street dog. It had that Henry Fielding voice, you know: “Dear Reader.”

RS: Are there rules for writing animal fantasy from the animal’s point of view? Do you have to think, “Oh, well, actually, would a cat think this?”

PJ: I stay within the cat.

RS: Right. Be the cat, Patrick.

PJ: I have rules for myself. A lot of it has to do with not projecting what I think a cat might do. Everything has to be based on something I’ve observed, not something I wish I had seen. Except, of course, for the final scene, where the cats play soccer.

RS: Right.

PJ: I’ve always wondered about that secret part of cats’ lives that we don’t see. I love Esther Averill’s Cat Club books. I read those books to my daughter when she was little, and she really loved them too, the whole idea that cats would get together at night and have a little club and go on adventures. That was the idea for the soccer part in Hissy Fitz. So I kind of broke my own rule there by injecting fantasy into a story that’s very much about a cat’s real-life, day-to-day existence. I’m a little squeamish about that. I hope it works.

Hissy’s insomnia is kind of a leap, too. I don’t know any insomniac cats. The idea came from a writing workshop I was doing with some kids. They thought it would be funny to tell a story about a cat who couldn’t sleep. When I asked them, “What’s the cat going to do to get to sleep?” a fourth grader raised his hand and said, “He should see a life coach.” I actually thought about that idea, and even pitched it. Instead of soccer, what if he goes to a life coach?

RS: Did you ever read One-Eyed Cat by Paula Fox?

PJ: Sure, a long time ago.

RS: It’s not from the point of view of a cat, but it ends in a similar way. It’s this very serious, literary kind of book, but it ends with this sort of magical-realism moment of cats dancing in the moonlight. I thought it was okay in Hissy Fitz because it was almost like a punch line to the book. I thought that worked.

PJ: The thing about writing fiction, for me, is I can be as realistic as I want, but at the end of the day, it’s still me inhabiting a cat or a snake or a dog. I always put in an element of the impossible, like a guinea pig that can catch a Frisbee. I think kids like that. It’s told from an animal’s point of view, but they don’t necessarily want the story to just follow the rules of nature, strictly down the line.

RS: So many of the children’s book cats we see today are these kind of wise, sweet, gentle, wrapping-around-your-leg-while-you-drink-hot-tea sort of mysterious creatures. That’s one thing I love about Hissy Fitz. He’s like, “Rawr!”

PJ: That is my experience with cats. I have a lot of ideas about pets and people and their relationships. I don’t just write a story about a boy who gets a dog and loves the dog and the dog loves him, and they have this great relationship, and then they separate, or the dog dies. By giving animals voices, I allow them to tell us what they think of this weird relationship between two species cohabiting when one really is setting the limits and rules.

I’ve always been in this for the kids. I really like kids, and I love telling them stories. I love their reactions, and I love hearing from them. I’ve always tried to write directly to them. And animals to them are like cousins. I often tell kids that I write animal stories because kids are animals. I think we kind of train the animal out of them over the years.

RS: You say that like it’s a bad thing.

[*A note from the publisher: Egmont Publishing is releasing their spring 2015 list. Hissy Fitz and Patrick’s backlist titles will remain available for ordering from Penguin Random House.]


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Mac Barnett & Jory John Talk with Roger http://www.hbook.com/2015/02/talks-with-roger/mac-barnett-jory-john-talk-with-roger/ http://www.hbook.com/2015/02/talks-with-roger/mac-barnett-jory-john-talk-with-roger/#respond Tue, 03 Feb 2015 17:38:57 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=46270   Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner Mac Barnett (for Extra Yarn, with Jon Klassen) and Jory John (All My Friends Are Dead, with Avery Monsen) team up for a tale about an […]

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mac barnett and jory johnBoston Globe–Horn Book Award winner Mac Barnett (for Extra Yarn, with Jon Klassen) and Jory John (All My Friends Are Dead, with Avery Monsen) team up for a tale about an equally formidable pair of pranksters, The Terrible Two. It’s kind of like the pots calling the kettles, er, pots. I caught up with them via phone between — literally between; they were driving — school visits.

Roger Sutton: So where are you school-visiting?

Mac Barnett: We’re in Houston, Texas. We’re visiting twenty-two schools in one week, Roger. It’s pretty insane.

RS: And what do you talk about?

MB: We’re talking about pranks and how to be a prankster.

Jory John: It’s an instructional presentation on pranking. How to make your pranking notebook, places to hide it, things to write on the outside, including boring words like form and business.

MB: You know, the secret language of pranking. What we actually do is come in disguised as two people with terrible mustaches who are going to give a presentation on healthy eating choices. The kids almost rioted this morning when the principal announced the pranking presentation was canceled and instead they would be listening to an assembly about nutrition. The kids really lost it. It was a nice moment.

RS: Just what kind of role models are you presenting yourselves to be here?

MB: I’m not sure we’re presenting ourselves as real role models. I don’t think literature has ever been a real place for role models. It’s sort of a refuge for scoundrels, isn’t it, Roger?

RS: Mac, you should know better. You should have seen the tongue in my cheek.

MB: I know. You should have seen the tongue in my cheek. My tongue was almost in your cheek, Roger, that’s how—

barnett and john_terrible twoRS: Oh, now it’s getting interesting. How did this book get started?

JJ: Mac and I have been friends for more than ten years. We met working at an educational nonprofit. And we have been pranking each other the whole time. It’s our own version of a prank war. We thought we would channel some of that energy into writing a book.

MB: The pranks were starting to take a toll on our friendship, so we said, “Why don’t we write a series of novels together? That’d be more productive.” But it turns out that it’s probably taken an even greater toll.

JJ: I would agree with that. Roger, I know I don’t know you very well, but I’m confiding in you.

MB: This isn’t getting published anywhere, is it?

RS: Thirty thousand people will be receiving this in their inboxes.

JJ: Okay, as long as it’s not 35,000.

RS: So how does the collaboration work?

MB: Well — and this wouldn’t have been possible even two years ago — we opened up a Google doc while we were in the same room sitting across from each other. It’s basically a live file that has two cursors. So Jory and I would be typing in the same document, sometimes working on different sections, but sometimes shaping the same sentences at the same time. It was really kind of mind-blowing. There were times when I would send a character to one side of the room, and then Jory would move him back to the other side of the room. It was the exact thing that character would do, and he seemed to be doing it of his own accord. We both knew these characters really well, so it was amazing to just kind of watch them do things in front of your eyes.

RS: How did you resist the temptation to mess with each other? Would you prank each other while you were writing the book?

MB: Well, no. When we were writing the book it was mostly hard work and then watching a lot of TV.

JJ: We would always ease into the writing by watching about three to six hours of television.

RS: You know, old guys like me can get cranky about you smart alecks taking over children’s books.

MB: I like where this is going, Roger.

RS: We are seeing a new kind of humor in children’s books. I mean, Jon [Scieszka] and Lane [Smith] started giving it to us about twenty-five years ago. Now it’s everywhere.

MB: Jon and Lane are a big reason I got into children’s books. I read The Stinky Cheese Man as an adult. I missed that book when I was a kid. I grew up mostly with books bought at yard sales, picture books from the fifties to 1975, which is really a lucky thing. But Jon and Lane’s book is the kind of stuff I was reading and loving in college. I love those adult writers with the pranking ethos, DeLillo and Barthelme and David Foster Wallace. I don’t see any reason not to bring those kinds of influences to bear on books for children. It’s a sort of patronizing idea that literature for children has to feature role models of exemplary behavior. I think not only is that bogus, but it leads to really boring books.

RS: True. So what envelope is this book pushing?

MB: I don’t think we’re trying to push an envelope. This is a book about pranking, which maybe carries with it subversion, but it’s rooted in the tradition of friendship books that I love.

JJ: Everybody in the book needs a friend. The two pranksters are basically loners up front. Mac and I both really like the character of the principal. Even though he’s a buffoon, even though he flies off the handle and plays favorites, we’re very sympathetic toward him.

RS: Sure. We understand why he is the way he is.

MB: If anything, I think the envelope it’s pushing is to inject real character, warmth, and friendship into comedy. I don’t know how groundbreaking that is, but that would be the only agenda that I had in mind.

JJ: I also think about the fresh start. Mac and I both had times when we moved, started new schools, and we know how hard that was, figuring out your identity and who you’re going to be at the new school.

RS: What do you each think the other brought to this project that you didn’t have yourself?

MB: The narrative voice is so much a fusion of the way that Jory writes jokes and the way that I write jokes. It’s this hybrid of our two styles and a classic one-plus-one-equals-three situation.

JJ: Absolutely. And I learned so much from Mac. I had mostly been writing humor books, and my instinct is generally to go for the joke. Mac would say, “This is what Miles misses about his old life. Let’s talk about some of the things he loved about his hometown.”

RS: By putting that kind of flesh on the bones of the joke, as it were, you do give readers a stake in what happens to these kids.

MB: I sure hope so. They mean a lot to us.

RS: This is only the first in a series. How are you envisioning things going?

MB: The first draft of the second book is finished. The second book is dealing with two questions. One is, should we feel bad for Principal Barkin? And two is, who is Niles, and how did he get that way? We’re getting to spend more time with these guys and figure out why everybody’s brains works the way they do, and why they feel the way they do about the world.

RS: Is that smart girl Holly going to discover their identity?

MB: That’s a great question. It doesn’t happen in book two, but I would definitely say it’s on the radar. That’s another big thing these books are about: who we show to the world and who we are underneath, and the fact that the things we hide are often the most interesting ones.

JJ: Did you like Holly as a character, Roger?

RS: I did. For a while I wondered if she was the prankster.

MB: That’s exactly what we wanted. That’s great to hear.

RS: I figured it was Niles or it was Holly. But then of course the cover, I guess, gives it away. I hadn’t even thought about that. I feel stupid now.

MB: No, Roger.

JJ: No way. Never.

RS: How did you work with the illustrator? Because a lot of the jokes land in the picture rather than in the text, so you needed more coordination than is usual for an illustrated novel.

MB: Definitely. Kevin Cornell and I have worked together a bunch.

JJ: We knew Kevin was right from the start. It was no accident that Kevin ended up with us. We picked him and submitted a package with his art because he was just so perfect for the book. We worked on exactly the right sort of scratchiness that we wanted from him, to point him in the right direction, and then he just nailed it. We call it a grand slam.

MB: I think the trick of writing a good picture book manuscript is to leave that space for illustration. An illustrated novel can do the same thing.

RS: I have one last question: Can either or both of you offer a moral defense of pranking?

MB: Oh, absolutely. Pranking is a great way to indicate the underlying absurdities of the world. There’s so much effort put into creating order, an order that is not necessarily true order or justifiable order. Pranking exposes the truth that underneath this appearance of order is joy, laughter, and disorder.

JJ: We were just talking about this in our last school visit, actually. People were asking about the lines between pranking and other types of mischief. Pranking is ultimately turning the world upside down. It’s in good fun.

MB: That phrase, “a harmless prank.” I think this is the point. Not only is a good prank harmless, but, like a good story, it reveals an essential truth that would otherwise be hidden.

JJ: Mac and I prank each other during our presentation. We show baby pictures of each other looking completely ridiculous. I can’t believe the frilly shirt that I’m in, and Mac’s wearing a sailor suit and playing a toy piano. That’s a perfect example of a good prank, where we have three hundred people literally laughing in our faces, three hundred kids at every assembly. And it feels really good. It’s really fun.

MB: And it says to them: this could happen to you. We put authors on such a pedestal, and it’s a moment that humanizes the whole thing, and lends an absurdity to what otherwise is a “please sit with your hands on your lap” kind of event.

RS: Have either of you ever had a prank go awry? That is, it really did end up being hurtful in a way you didn’t intend.

MB: That’s another thing that the second book is about, Roger, that exact feeling. It hasn’t happened with pranks as much as with jokes. I definitely have made jokes and people have been offended and hurt. That feeling is the absolute worst. Even owning up to it and making amends is tough. There is a line, and that line gets crossed in the second book. Our characters are trying to figure out how they can right this wrong that they did.

RS: Looking forward to it. Enjoy Houston. You should take a ride through all the petroleum processing refineries on the road between Houston and Galveston. Have you been there at night? It’s amazing. The lights and the steam and the gas.

MB: Is this a prank?

RS: No, no. It’s beautiful.


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Stan Lee Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com/2014/12/talks-with-roger/stan-lee-talks-with-roger/ http://www.hbook.com/2014/12/talks-with-roger/stan-lee-talks-with-roger/#respond Wed, 31 Dec 2014 16:21:47 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=45023 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. Comic-book legend Stan Lee, who turns 92 next week, makes the move into children’s books with the publication in January of his novel Zodiac, written with Stuart Moore and illustrated by Andie […]

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


stan leeComic-book legend Stan Lee, who turns 92 next week, makes the move into children’s books with the publication in January of his novel Zodiac, written with Stuart Moore and illustrated by Andie Tong. Lee brings plenty of comic-book expertise to the story, which swiftly finds Chinese American teen Steven Lee (surely the name is not a coincidence) in trouble up to his neck. He discovers his super-powers just in time, but will even they be enough to thwart the evil conspiracy? Good thing he meets some super-friends, too, each one assuming the power of one of the animals of the Chinese zodiac. To say that action abounds is to put it very mildly indeed.

Roger Sutton: So, Stan, from comic books to children’s books. How do you like it here?

Stan Lee: Well, it was a lot of fun, and of course I was doing it with [coauthor] Stuart Moore. It was just like writing a comic book, only you don’t put dialogue balloons in. Instead you put quotes around the dialogue.

RS: What most surprised you about writing a novel? What did you have to learn?

SL: I wasn’t thinking about the differences. I was just thinking about how to make the story interesting, which is all you ever think about when you write anything, whether it’s a comic book, a novel, or a movie script. No matter what you write, it’s a matter of putting words in a certain order so that the reader will be interested in what you’re writing.

RS: How did it feel to not leave room for the pictures?

SL: Oh, it felt fine. But of course there are a lot of illustrations. The story doesn’t lead into the pictures, but then again, when I was writing comics, I would write an outline or a summary or a synopsis — a very long one, sometimes — of the story, before I even went anywhere near the artist to have him draw it. So this wasn’t that much different.

RS: How does that work in a comic? I’m really ignorant about this. Do author and artist sort of work in tandem, or is the artist given a text?

SL: There are two ways to do it. The standard way, which I didn’t employ, was the writer writes a script, just like you’d write a screenplay, then gives the script to the artist, and the artist then illustrates it. The way I worked was different. To me it was better. I would write an outline of the entire story, then I would give that to the artist, and I would say, “This story has to be, let’s say, 22 pages long. Now you do it any way you want, as long as you include all the details that I gave you.” The artist would do my story, but he would do it in his own style, in his own way, with the illustrations. Then the illustrations would come back to me, and I would put in the dialogue balloons, the captions, the sound effects, everything else. I think it’s the best way to work, because by looking at the illustrations, I could make the dialogue fit exactly with the drawings, whereas when you write a script and then give it to an artist, the artist may not draw the character looking just the way he should be looking with the dialogue that he’s saying, if you know what I mean.

RS: Sure.

SL: It’s easier for the writer to make the dialogue absolutely work with the illustrations under my style, which became known as the Marvel style.

RS: It sounds like you really have a lot of faith in people you collaborate with.

SL: Because I only collaborate with the best people.

RS: How did you work with Stuart on the novel? Who did what?

SL: We talked about it. He did a lot of the writing. I did a lot of the synopsizing, and giving him what the story should be.

RS: So you had the concept for the Zodiac superheroes?

SL: Yes, the concept started with us at POW! Entertainment. Stuart did a great job, I might add. And I think the illustrator, Andie Tong, did a great job. I was lucky. I always try to work with the best possible people, and this time I really hit the jackpot.

RS: That’s great. If my math is right, the Chinese zodiac says you’re a Dog.

SL: I’m a dog?

RS: You’re a dog.

SL: I hope I’m a cute one. What kind of dog am I?

RS: I don’t know. I just looked up your birth date on the Chinese zodiac online machine, and it said you were a dog. I’m a monkey.

SL: Well, I’d like a few more details. That doesn’t satisfy me. I mean, I could be a Chihuahua, or I could be a German shepherd.

RS: Yeah, but I’m not Barbara Walters, and I’m not going to ask you what kind of dog you are.

SL: Now, you can’t get out of it that easily.

lee_zodiac legacyRS: Stan, you sound cute. Okay, I want to quote a sentence from your very own novel, which I thought was telling. The character Ryan says pretty early on, “You and your heroes, Lee. They’re not real, you know.” Do you see any of yourself in your main character, Lee?

SL: Oh, I see myself in everything I write. All the good guys are me.

RS: Just the good guys?

SL: I model all the heroes after myself. Of course, it’s hard to make them quite as wonderful as I am, but I come as close as I can.

RS: That’s good to know. It seems that, both in comics — which as I’ve said before I don’t know very well — and certainly in fiction for young people, this concept of teams of superheroes has become huge. When I was a kid, most of the comics we read focused on a single superhero, with occasional jumbo editions about the Justice League or the Avengers, but you mostly followed one hero at a time. Why do you think we now have more heroes in groups?

SL: I think kids love superheroes, and the more you can crowd into a story, the more excited they get. I know I always used to get fan mail saying, “Who would win in a fight: the Hulk or Thor?” Or this one or that one. Who’s smarter, this one or that one? They always think of the heroes in relation to the other heroes. So if you can put them together in a team, and if the reader can see how they react to each other and get along with each other, I think that becomes very exciting to somebody who loves superheroes.

RS: I wonder also if it allows a whole range of kids to find someone to identify with in the comic or in the story.

SL: Well, you always try to make your hero somebody that a kid can easily identify with. Here we have a Chinese American teenager. I think everybody is going to identify with our hero.

RS: And there are also plenty of other characters in the book for them to follow.

SL: Of course. In fact, the whole book is crowded with exciting characters. The story, I think, is so complex, and yet easy for a youngster to understand. And that’s the best thing, when you can get a plot that moves in many directions with a surprise on almost every page, and yet do it in such a way that the youngest kid can follow it and enjoy it. Then you’ve really got something, and I’m hoping that we’ve accomplished that with our Zodiac book.

RS: Are you planning to do sequels to this book?

SL: Oh, absolutely. I’m one of the biggest sequel guys you know.

RS: What’s the plan?

SL: Can’t tell you.

RS: One? Four? You don’t know?

SL: I don’t know, but I know we’re going to have at least one. As soon as this book becomes the nation’s number-one bestseller, we will plunge into the sequel. And even if it doesn’t, we’ll say, “Okay, the sequel will be the bestseller, then.” But I don’t know how this book can miss, because it really has everything. See, it’s not just superheroes. People like stories that are bigger than life, about characters with unusual powers. And when you get all the characters in the zodiac, it’s so colorful, and it’s so rich in different attitudes that the characters have.

RS: There’s definitely a lot going on.

SL: I just judge by what I like, and I like that kind of story.

RS: Well, you do seem to have your finger on the pulse of the popular imagination, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

SL: Right, and I’m not going to let go.

RS: Uh-oh. Sounds like a threat. Do you see the Zodiac heroes moving into other media? Comics, movies, theme park rides?

SL: No reason why not. One thing at a time. First we have to make this a bestselling book, and then it could go in any direction. It could be a big major motion picture, a TV series, toys, dolls, games. It could be a whole theme park. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

RS: Think big, Stan.

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Naomi Shihab Nye Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com/2014/12/talks-with-roger/naomi-shihab-nye-talks-with-roger/ http://www.hbook.com/2014/12/talks-with-roger/naomi-shihab-nye-talks-with-roger/#respond Wed, 17 Dec 2014 16:41:03 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=44483 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. Born of Naomi Shihab Nye’s childhood fascination with Oman and a visit there five years ago, The Turtle of Oman is that rare thing in current children’s book publishing: a deliberately low-key […]

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naomi shihab nyeBorn of Naomi Shihab Nye’s childhood fascination with Oman and a visit there five years ago, The Turtle of Oman is that rare thing in current children’s book publishing: a deliberately low-key story in which the climax is — well, read below. After Naomi and I swapped sympathies for how old we were now after our many years of acquaintance, we settled in for a good talk about her new novel.

Roger Sutton: How do you keep your enthusiasm?

Naomi Shihab Nye: I think it’s hanging out with kids all these years. I was visiting a school last week, and they were so incredible. Just being with them for the whole day and listening to their questions and looking at their writing and going into their art classes and seeing the pots and photographs they were making, I thought, “It’s okay to get old if you can still hang out with young people and feel that great energy. Because we still have it. It just gets sort of muted.”

RS: What do you think that does to your writing? Or for it?

NSN: We hear a lot of voices every day, but for me the most touching and tender voices continue to be those of kids. They’re the most direct, the most unadorned. It calls forth your own kid voice. It keeps it alive. It nourishes it. I agree with people who say you never lose that kid spirit in yourself no matter what age you are.

RS: Oh, hell, I never had it.

NSN: I think you have it right now.

RS: Making up for lost time. The Turtle of Oman is a story about a boy who’s moving. Was moving a big thing for you as a child?

NSN: It was, but I really did not think of the boy, Aref, as me, ever, when writing the book. Its source was my childhood fascination with the country of Oman. I saw a National Geographic story about it when I was around eight. At the time it was a closed country; no one could visit. I talked to my father. Did he know about it? Had he ever been there? He, too, was interested, so it was a topic we talked about together. And also, as I told kids in Oman when I did go there, my first name, juggled, becomes “Omani.”

RS: Huh.

NSN: As a child, I was always juggling words and names. So a fascination with a place. And then when my father died seven years ago, I remember thinking that I was not only going to miss him so incredibly much, but I was really going to miss the relationship he had with our son. They had a very precious bond. My father could walk in and my son would light up, and they would just take off. I wanted to honor that bond between a boy and his grandfather.

RS: It really made me wish I had known my grandfather.

NSN: That’s touching, Roger. A couple of adults have written to me that this book carried them back to their own relationship with a grandparent. So those were the two impulses. Not moving. Moving just kind of came on. When I was in Oman it was staggering to learn how common it was for Omani kids to do what Aref does in this book. I talked to a bunch of them. They said, “Oh, yeah, I lived in England for two years while my parents got their graduate degrees. I lived in the U.S. for three years. I lived in Australia for two years.” It was interesting because they’d all gone away and come back. Education is highly valued, and they don’t have — or they didn’t have, five years ago when I was there — graduate degrees. You had to leave the country to get one. But Oman has a very fine style of life, a very good economic stratosphere, so people want to go back after their schooling. And it’s a very gracious, hospitable place.

RS: It does seem very gracious and hospitable from your book. When I look at the details in the story, I think, “This is such an alien landscape to what I know.” But they’re so comfortable in it, the boy and his grandfather.

NSN: I’ve sent a few friends to Oman, people who are on their way to India. They’ve all had fascinating reports afterwards.

RS: Oh, I’d love to go. Even before your book, I knew it from childhood stamp collecting.

NSN: So did I! The Tourism Bureau of Oman has a new slogan: “Beauty has an address. Oman.” It really is a beautiful place in a striking and rather odd way, because of the mountains being tones of brown, and the city being pale colors. White, butter yellow, beige buildings; and they’re all low, because the sultan does not like skyscrapers. And then the sea is so intensely turquoise. So you have these three stripes of color, and then sunrise and sunset above that — it’s gorgeous.

RS: Let’s just bag this talk and go.

NSN: Yes, let’s. And we’ll stay at the Chedi Hotel. Look that up.

RS: You did a really good job of letting us know these kid-focused details about that landscape, but in a way that wasn’t touristy. It felt like it was coming from the inside.

NSN: That’s nice. Thank you for saying that.

nye_turtle of omanRS: Do you know how revolutionary this book is?

NSN: No. What do you mean?

RS: Here we have a book about a kid who’s going to move. And by the end of the book he hasn’t even moved yet. It’s so quiet.

NSN: I was speaking about The Turtle of Oman to some kids at the school library a beloved friend runs, and I said to them at the very end, “You realize who the turtle is?” They all just stared at me. And then afterwards my friend said, “Aref’s the turtle! I didn’t realize that.” I said, “Yes, he’s the turtle.”

I really long for the slow time of childhood. I think most of us who live in this era do. I wanted Aref to live in slow time, for the book to feel as if it was almost in slow-motion. Like, oh my God, we’re back to the suitcase and there’s still only two things in it? I wanted it to be weird that way. The head of the Academy of American Poets said, “Poetry is slow art.” To me that poetry of daily life that we yearn for is the slow artfulness of movement. I keep this little German quote on my desk: Weniger, aber besser. “Less, but better.” Less stuff, less clutter, less things in a day, but better relationships with those things. I wanted there to be some sense of that with Aref and Sidi.

RS: How do you think we can convince our publishers and librarians that there is room for this kind of slow book? Everything now is super high-concept.

NSN: Yeah, there’s all this melodrama and vampire stuff. There’s a lonesomeness that human beings exhibit sometimes: I have all this stuff, I have everything at my fingertips, I’m going in all these different directions at once, and I’m lost. Whereas children have a willingness to pause and turn something over and over in their minds. I worry about what happens when you bombard children with too much stuff all the time, too many activities, too many events, too many things. I remember my kid, when he was young — he’s now a professor — coming home from school one day when he was in about fifth grade, and I asked him about a certain friend of his. I said, “Do you want to have so-and-so come over after school tomorrow?” And he looked at me, and he said, “Oh, Mom. He’s ruined.” And I said, “What do you mean, he’s ruined?” And he said, “He’s just scheduled all the time. He has no free time anymore.” I think of that sometimes when I’m feeling frustrated or frazzled, when I haven’t spent enough time with something to make it feel meaningful. That’s something that teachers, librarians, parents know kids need.

RS: The climax of the story is that they catch a fish and throw it back.

NSN: The little things that happen are really little. The threads are delicate, but they’re also strong. I did thirteen drafts, Roger. In the first draft, the baby pillow that Sidi throws into Aref’s suitcase was the star of the book. In my second draft, Aref’s house and Sidi’s house were the stars. Virginia, my editor, told me, “I don’t want a book about a relationship between two houses. They’re not even on the same street.” So I had to bring people into the book.

RS: Oh, God forbid, Naomi.

NSN: In talking to kids at schools I’ve visited, they all seem to have had experiences similar to Aref’s, even in the second and third grade. They’ve moved, their friends have moved, their grandparents have moved, they’ve changed schools. I often do events with refugee resettlement communities. In some cases I ask people to bring a poem from their country, or just a few lines from a story, or to tell us a story and then translate it. So I hope that readers would feel somewhat at home with Aref, somebody who is being challenged to face this whole new culture and who wonders: where do I find my gravity in it?

RS: That gives you a narrative line throughout. He is dealing with anxiety. It’s not just a pleasant little wander with Grandpa. There’s this fear of what the new place will be like, and as a reader you want that to be resolved.

NSN: Right. And the metaphor of going away and coming back, which so many creatures do in their lives. There’s this essential tug of home gravity. Aref is going to come back, but it’s still scary to think about being gone.

RS: Right.

NSN: My favorite line in the book is when Aref asks Sidi: “What if they make fun of my hat?” The hats of Oman are so distinctive, and so beautiful. And Sidi says, “Then you can let them try it on.” Become me, and then you won’t make fun of me.

RS: When you’re writing a novel, do you ever have to say to yourself, “Wait, I’m being too much of a poet”?

NSN: Probably when I overwrite a passage and make it too descriptive. But my poems have always been fairly plain, I would say, and always had a narrative thread in them. My poems enjoy conversation, and they try to incorporate it. But I did end up cutting back a lot of description and then trying to build up conversations or scenes with a little more velocity or energy rather than some kind of dreamy metaphor.

RS: I read poetry so differently from the way I read prose. I read a poem through quickly, then look more closely, then go back, and then look at the thing at the end and the thing at the beginning. It’s a much more singular moment than the chronology that you involve yourself in when you’re reading a piece of fiction.

NSN: Right. I wanted there to be little chunks in every chapter that feel poem-like somehow, that carry your mind in that same way, deeply, into a focus, into a moment, and then kind of drift around and blur. But I try to keep it also moving a little bit, even if it’s slow-moving.

RS: Have you seen any slow TV? It’s my new passion.

NSN: I have never even heard of it. What is it?

RS: It’s from Norway. There are these shows — there’s one I really love. It’s a train. It’s nine hours long. They just mounted a camera on the front of the train.

NSN: Oh my God. This is amazing.

RS: I’ll send you a link.

Your book kept reminding me of Little House in the Big Woods.

NSN: Oh, that’s interesting.

RS: Again, very small dramas, just “here’s what it’s like to live in my little house in the big woods.” And the anxieties of oh, Pa’s gone, is he coming back? That tends to be the climax of a lot of the chapters. It has so much respect for those small moments that do make up a kid’s life. So many books now are trying to distract kids from those moments.

NSN: That’s right. And I think they’re distracted enough, and there’s enough that will distract them. Sometimes kids will say to me, “What is the one thing that made you a poet as a child growing up?” And I would say it was an apprehension that there was so much around us that we could easily overlook, it would just slip by. I felt really haunted by that as a child. And by the way, Roger, did you know I grew up in Ferguson, Missouri?

RS: No, I didn’t know that.

NSN: I was born in inner-city St. Louis, and when I was almost three my parents moved out to Ferguson, because it was a suburb, with more trees and little parks, and a quieter pace. So all of this news and all of these images from Ferguson are very haunting to me, because in the time of childhood where I grew up, the whole town of Ferguson belonged to kids. We rode our bikes everywhere. We were really curious about what this black-white line was. It was very, very invisible, but very well known to adults, and we didn’t understand it at all. Anyway, that’s just a digression. But it has made me think a lot about slow time and that need as a child to be in spots that feel as if they will outlast you, outlive you, be there in some physical way.

RS: I like the way that the end of the book makes us wonder what it’s going to be like for Aref in Michigan. You can carry this story forward in your head because you get to know this boy really well and hope that things will work out. It’s almost as if you can write your own sequel.

NSN: A couple of people have bugged me already about writing a sequel, in first-person, of Aref in Michigan, but I thought, “Wouldn’t that undercut all the possibilities for him?” I don’t know if I would want to do that. People are still bugging me to write a sequel to Habibi.

RS: Get busy, girl. It’s been a while.

NSN: I don’t want to write a sequel. I want you to write a sequel. You figure it out.

RS: I’m really into standalone books these days. There are too many sequels.

NSN: I am too. I’m really into everyone else’s capacity to imagine what happens next. I like standalone books. There’s something intact about them. And I think poems try to trust us in that way too. It’s why poems don’t like explanation. What happens next? Where does it go? Poems have that subtlety of ending in air, hinting, suggesting, but now you take it and you go with it.

RS: And those are the poems you keep going back to. When you find the one that creates that story inside yourself, that won’t let you alone, that’s the poem that speaks to you.

NSN: It keeps living.


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Mary Amato Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com/2014/11/talks-with-roger/mary-amato-talks-roger/ http://www.hbook.com/2014/11/talks-with-roger/mary-amato-talks-roger/#respond Tue, 18 Nov 2014 18:55:29 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=43248 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. Mary Amato follows up Guitar Notes with…a novel about a ukulele? Not exactly — while Get Happy‘s protagonist, Minerva, does pine for one as a sixteenth birthday present, a ukulele is just […]

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mary amato 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.


mary amatoMary Amato follows up Guitar Notes with…a novel about a ukulele? Not exactly — while Get Happy‘s protagonist, Minerva, does pine for one as a sixteenth birthday present, a ukulele is just one of the things her life is missing. How about a guy? And what’s the deal with her much-reviled, long-absent father?

Roger Sutton: What is the significance of place in Get Happy? I see a lot of books where, unless it’s New York, the setting tends to be vaguely sketched. Whereas here, Chicago plays a big part in the story.

Mary Amato: I grew up in Illinois, and I love the Chicago area as a setting for this novel. It’s landlocked, yet you have this beautiful large body of water. Minerva is wrestling with her absentee marine-biologist father and her (half) Hawaiian roots, so I really wanted to have her live in a place that was landlocked but has some connection to water. I’m also playing with allusions to The Little Mermaid. And of course the Shedd Aquarium is a place every kid who grows up near Chicago visits.

RS: Chicago is my favorite city. When I arrived in Chicago for graduate school and saw the lake for the first time — I’d only known lakes from New England, where you can see across them — I didn’t have any idea that a lake could be so big.

MA: Yes, and I see Minerva’s mother as a real Midwesterner. I grew up with the Midwestern Protestant view of not expressing your feelings, keeping everything locked inside. You just work hard and be a good person.

RS: You say you’re a stoic Midwesterner, but you write this book in which the climax is a girl screaming at her father in a lecture hall. What does that say about you, Mary?

MA: The notion of finding your true voice and allowing it to come out is, to me, a central theme of not only this book but also of adolescence. The poignancy of Andersen’s Little Mermaid, of the girl essentially sacrificing her voice, always stuck with me. I was haunted by that as a child, growing up in a household, and in a time, when we were taught not to speak our true voice. It was really in books that I discovered life could be different. There were characters who yelled and cried and screamed. In almost all of my own books, there is that moment when the main character finally says what he or she has been bottling up. That, for me, is a moment of great relief.

RS: Neither Minerva nor her parents could be described as role models in the way we tend to think of them. Each one is deeply flawed.

MA: Adolescence is when you start to discover that the adults around you are flawed. You start to notice, hey, that adult just lied. Or, that adult is lying right now by hiding his or her true feelings. It’s a pretty big moment when teens begin to understand that adults are not infallible — in fact, they’re people, and they have struggles. At first there can be anger and resentment, but goodhearted teens do come to empathize with their parents. That’s a moment of growing up.

RS: But Minerva can be pretty mean, too.

MA: She makes a lot of mistakes. To me, the saddest mistake she makes is letting her best friend, Fin, kind of fall off the face of the earth. But you know, Roger, I’ve been thinking a lot about mistakes and about this kind of culture we’re in right now, which is all about being perfect and achieving — getting those high test scores — and we’re forgetting that mistakes are the way you learn, that mistakes are essential. I don’t think we’re teaching kids that mistakes are not only things you occasionally have to suffer through, but that they’re your opportunities for growth. For me, it’s important that the characters make mistakes and then they have to face them. And hopefully grow from them.

RS: Mistakes are so much more public now than when we were kids.

MA: Absolutely. That adds a level of anxiety that our generation didn’t really have to deal with, which could also make teens less inclined to take risks. It’s funny — my father-in-law, bless his heart, he didn’t really understand children’s literature. He would read my books and say, “But Mary, why did the character have to misbehave?” I would try to explain, “Don’t you see that the character has to misbehave? Otherwise, where is there any opportunity for growth and learning?”

RS: Or story.

MA: Yes. But getting back to childhood and the issue of speaking your voice, Harriet the Spy was my breakthrough book as a kid, as a reader. It was the book that I always say made me into a writer. The thing that was astounding to me about Harriet the Spy was that she was horribly mean. She had tantrums, and she locked herself in her room, and she wrote these nasty things about her friends, and she learned from it. To me, that was just so revelatory.

RS: There are readers who hate Harriet, but I think most of us maintain our empathy with her. Your book is in the first person, and I’m wondering how you keep the reader empathizing with your protagonist — and rooting for her — while at the same time exposing her flaws.

MA: This might sound really corny, but I think there is love at the root of the writing process. And I really do love my characters — I’ve never said that out loud before! If you love someone, you see through their foibles to their better self, to who they really, truly are deep down. That’s my attitude toward my characters. I don’t think, “Gee, I wonder if the reader is going to empathize with and keep rooting for Minerva.” It’s more just that I am doing those things as I’m writing.

RS: And you think that empathy communicates itself to the reader? If you’re in love, they’ll be in love?

MA: There’s a lot of subjectivity involved, so my guess is there are going to be readers who hear Minerva’s whining about not getting the birthday present she wants and just decide that they’re not going to like her and not even bother to hear her story. Part of it has to do with personality. Does this personality resonate with you at all? If it does, as a reader, then you’ll stick with that character as she makes mistakes.

RS: Do you ever wonder about how much you can trust your readers? Do you think, “Oh, I’ve got to make sure they get this,” and underline something in one way or another?

MA: I don’t think that comes into my mind. I get a lot of messages from teens and preteens via my website. Their letters and comments are so profound. They never really talk about anything minor, or anything that has to do with writing, really. What they talk to me about is what from the book inspired them, what has changed them. What I try to do as a writer is make sure I’m speaking an emotional truth. I don’t worry, is the reader going to get this? I just hope that if it feels real to me, it’ll feel real to my reader.

amato_get happyRS: In some ways, this book is what we used to call a problem novel. You have this kid, and there’s this problem, and then things get more or less resolved in some way. I’m not putting down the genre (or your book) by any means. In an era where there’s so much fantasy, and so much romance-fantasy, it’s refreshing to read such an unassuming story in which ordinary life can be the subject.

MA: I think ordinary life is an amazing subject. In your teen years there is a kind of emotional tsunami. You’re doing this new job of trying to figure out who you are, and it’s also all about connection. It’s a very scary, very turbulent time. It has to do with separating from your parents, and with peer influences, and with juggling all of the things that are happening in your life. And these big emotions like jealousy. And you’re also doing things like getting your first job.

RS: A lot of teenagers have jobs, but rarely is much attention given to that in fiction we write for them.

MA: First jobs are a fascinating topic. First jobs can really shape you. It’s the first time you’re doing something outside of the household. There are different rules, different adults you have to deal with.

RS: Minerva’s job — children’s party entertainer, dressed as the Little Mermaid — is unusual.

MA: Didn’t you love her job? My niece, many years ago, told me about her new job: “Aunt Mary, I’m a princess at children’s birthday parties. I put on this Cinderella costume, and all the little girls fawn over me.” I thought that was a hoot and a half. When you’re a writer all these things go into your brain, and when you least expect it they pop out in a different form. So when Minerva’s life started to unfold before my eyes, and I knew that she really wanted a ukulele, it emerged very naturally that this would be her first job. It’s funny how fiction and the subconscious work. What happens to Minerva when I put the Little Mermaid costume on her? There’s this extra layer of resonance. To me, that’s the thrill of writing.

RS: It must be hard when you have a realization like that late in the process. I would imagine you’d have to change a lot.

MA: Everything. You can’t imagine how many times I go back and rewrite a book. I am what I call a radical reviser, in the sense that if I do get an idea late in the process, I really try to force myself to be open to going back and starting all over. When I teach writing, I talk about how not-attached you have to be to your work so you can embrace something new. It’s a slog to have to go back to the beginning, but it’s also really, really exciting.

RS: When you started the book, did you already know how to play the ukulele?

MA: No, but I hinted to my family, and they very kindly got me one for my birthday. Have you ever played one?

RS: I haven’t.

MA: The minute you hold a ukulele in your arms, you just start smiling.

RS: They’re so tiny.

MA: And they’re so easy to play. I wish I had had one as a teen. I would have loved it. I tried and failed to play the guitar when I was a teenager, because it’s big, and it’s hard, and wow, maybe if I had had a ukulele, my whole life would have been so much easier. I’d been doing all this thinking, and this character began to emerge, a girl who thinks: “If I can just get a ukulele, I’ll be happy.”

RS: Little does she know. Ukuleles are hip again.

MA: They are. We’re going to see all these kids playing the accordion next.

RS: Is that your next book?

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Molly Idle Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com/2014/10/talks-with-roger/molly-idle-talks-roger/ http://www.hbook.com/2014/10/talks-with-roger/molly-idle-talks-roger/#respond Mon, 13 Oct 2014 19:18:42 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=41828 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. After winning a Caldecott Honor Award for Flora and the Flamingo, Molly Idle and her doughty heroine have jeté-ed from the ballet onto the ice, where Flora and the Penguin engage in […]

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


molly idleAfter winning a Caldecott Honor Award for Flora and the Flamingo, Molly Idle and her doughty heroine have jeté-ed from the ballet onto the ice, where Flora and the Penguin engage in an impressive pairs routine.

Roger Sutton: Let’s talk about your very wintry book. Have you ever been ice skating?

MI: Yes, twice. Both with terrible results. My mom took me when I was tiny, and I just remember that feeling of the ice being so cold on your hands when you fall that it would burn. The other time was with my best friend. I’m a good roller

skater, and she said, “We should try ice skating.” I managed, just, to hold on to the edge of the rink to get myself around. When the session was over I was on the opposite end, and the rink referee thought I was playing for time. She pulled me away from the wall, sort of swung me out into the middle of the rink, and let me go. And I promptly fell down. And I’m crawling on my knees, trying to get across the rink as the Zamboni is slowly, slowly coming. It was like a terrible horror film.

RS: What persuaded you to put Flora on skates?

MI: It was my art director, Amy Achaibou. We were working on Flora and the Flamingo, talking about how I was going to treat the water that they were dancing in, and she said, “You know, the way you’re handling it makes me think of ice.” I said, “If it were ice, she’d be dancing with a penguin.” And we looked at each other and went, “Oh! I think we are going to make another book.”

RS: It’s really amazing to me the amount of movement that you get in here — not only within each picture, but then from one page to another, and then with the flaps. You’re balancing an awful lot of elements.

MI: For me, these books are all about movement. I’m very conscious of trying to keep the poses moving, and to utilize the flaps for times when one pose just isn’t enough to convey what’s happening.

RS: How do you decide between a flap and a page turn?

MI: I tend to use flaps when there is a moment of choice for both characters. With page turns, the characters are more in sync. They’re — this is a terrible pun — I was going to say they’re on the same page. So it seems natural that we turn the page and we find them together. I tend to use the flaps when the characters are making choices that may put them at odds with each other, or when I want the reader to be able to make a choice as to how the story progresses. It’s like this tightrope of control. I want the story to go a certain way, but I also want the readers to be able to play a very active role.

idle_flora and the penguinRS: With any wordless book each reader has to make a choice about what “this happens” actually means. You’re giving up an awful lot of control by not directing the narrative with words.

MI: But I also think it’s really powerful to give up that control, and that’s something that I struggle with — I think all artists struggle with — in their work. It’s a collaborative process, making books. It would be so easy to keep hold of this little idea that is precious to you. But in sharing it, collaborating with editors and art directors, it becomes something even more. And hopefully better than you could ever have come up with if you had just kept it all to yourself. And that happens again, exponentially, when you give it over to the reader. You’ve controlled how it started, and where it’s going to end up. How you get there, give that to the reader. It’s tremendously empowering for them.

RS: They get to make their own choices. Certain actions are on the page, and you can’t really argue with the actions, but you can argue with the motivations for the actions.

MI: The motivation and your interpretation. I love watching kids, or listening to kids, tell me the story. Sometimes it’s totally different than what I imagined.

RS: Flora has run away from her horrible mother. She finds herself…

MI: …alone, in the Arctic tundra. Yeah, I haven’t stopped to think about the backstory.

RS: What did that flamingo do to her?

MI: She left the tropics and went someplace to cool off.

RS: Do you think you’ll take her anyplace else?

MI: Right now I am working on Flora and the Peacocks.

RS: What are they going to do?

MI: They are going to deal with the dynamics of relationships of three. It’s tricky, because often somebody feels left out. How do you keep everybody happy, or at least working along together?

RS: Threesomes are really complicated.

MI: Yeah, even when you’re a grownup.

RS: How did Flora and the Penguin evolve? You said you had the idea while you were still working with the art director on the last book?

MI: With the first book I brought a complete dummy. There was no background, no flowers, it was just the characters and all their poses. And that was very much the same with this one. We started with a brief conversation. I said, “I think it would be nice if we had Flora be a bit of the antagonist this time.” Then I went back and worked on the poses. We knew we wanted to use flaps again but in a different way. That was really important to me. These are double-sided, and they move back and forth. We knew the characters were going to be on ice, but how was everything going to be divided? And in fact the entire book was run through once before we ever had the idea of having the schooling fish go around underneath.

RS: That’s a great parallel story going on underneath there.

MI: Thank you. That was many hours spent, wondering about the motivation of fish.

RS: They go this way. They go that way. Then they change direction.

MI: We just wanted them to be fish, and we had very deep conversations — were the fish characters, or were they more of a background element? Did we want to become terribly attached to the fish, given how it ends? But I think, thanks to Jon Klassen, the way has been cleared for fish being done away with.

RS: Right. And penguins do love fish.

MI: They do. And I didn’t feel bad about letting him get one in the end, because that’s what they do. It felt very natural.

RS: Flora has her moment of squeamishness.

MI: Unfortunately I don’t like to fish, and I projected that onto her.

RS: How do you get this really beautiful sense of movement from our two characters? It’s amazing.

MI: I’m heavily influenced by my background in animation. After I figure out (using thumbnail sketches) what the choreography is going to be, I take all the actual drawings, even the ones that don’t have flaps, and lay them one on top of the other or flip them, like animators do, to make sure that they can move. So you could — well, I couldn’t, because I can’t ice skate — but if you could ice skate, Roger, you could actually do this whole dance.

RS: That’s what it looks like.

MI: Pose to pose. It’s like a puzzle for me. I’m sure we could skip steps, but I enjoy trying to figure out how to move the story along while actually physically moving the characters into different poses. I block it out like an animated scene in my mind. Dance and choreography really lend themselves to the wordless picture book in that way. You can strike these wonderful, exaggerated, slightly theatrical poses, but it still feels genuine in a way it wouldn’t be if your character was just standing in the middle of, I don’t know, a classroom, and suddenly jazz hands. When the story’s about movement, somehow that movement feels more sincere than if you just slap it on top.

RS: What are the different freedoms and limitations of working in animation as opposed to creating a page-turner, so to speak?

MI: The upside of animation is that there are all of these drawings per second to flesh out a film — something like twenty-four drawings per character per second. There are a lot of drawings that you have to make to get you from point A to point B that aren’t really too beautiful — they’re called “in-betweens.” For a picture book you have to pick just those really important moments to illustrate. But then when you have it, I think it’s more powerful visually. When something is playing for you on a screen, you only get one person’s vision of how that story plays out. In a picture book, the reader gets to be the director. You get to choose how long you’re going to linger on that page, in that moment, before you turn.

RS: And a reader can go back and forth, too.

MI: Yes, exactly. To your heart’s content. With Flora and the Penguin you can have them skate back and forth for an hour if you like.

RS: I’m intrigued by what you’re saying about the in-between sketches. One thing you do really well is get from one big moment to the next. How do you choose?

MI: It comes down to thinking about how the characters would react. There are no words to bridge the gap, so I have to put myself in the mind of this penguin. How does he feel? When you step through it this way, emotionally, that also helps with stepping through the poses. Inasmuch as this is a book about ice skating, it’s really about body language, which is something we’re all familiar with on an instinctual level. There’s one pose near the end of the book — I don’t want to give anything away — but when Flora’s taking off her skates, and the penguin is totally dejected. I wanted very much for it to feel like they were done, finished. I said that to my art director, and she said, “I didn’t think that at all.” And I asked, “Why not? Is it the pose? The composition?” And she said, “No, I just know Flora’s a nicer person than that.” So that was her interpretation. That gives us a choice. Even though I was thinking something totally different, she felt like when we turned the page, it was anticipatory of the solution, and I felt that it was instead building up the tension, and it turned out that we could both be right. And I thought, “Well, that’s good, because no matter how kids are feeling when they’re reading it, they’re going to be right when they turn the page.”

RS: Right. When I first went through the book, on that spread I thought the penguin was just worn out.

MI: Oh, see, there’s another good one.

RS: But if you look closely, he does have this mean little look in his eye, grrrrr, like he’s frustrated and irritated with her.

MI: Yes. Then she comes along on the next page. “I’ll help you. You’re tired. You’re angry, I’m here to say I’m sorry.” I’m anxious to see what kids think when they turn the page.

RS: Have you shared, in a storyhour kind of setting, either of the Flora books with kids?

MI: Yes.

RS: How do you do it? When I was a librarian, wordless books were always tough.

MI: I generally just say, “This is a wordless book so I’m not going to talk. We’ll all just look at it together.” It works best with small groups, no more than fifteen or twenty, so they can all get up close. But then suddenly everyone feels like they need to be quiet, and that’s no fun. You want to hear what they’re thinking. You want them to be able to laugh if they want to. So sometimes I’ll turn a flap and go, “Oh!” and raise an eyebrow, and suddenly they’re doing it too. It’s really wonderful to see — or hear, actually, because almost nobody voices anything with words. It’s all a lot of sound effects, like aw or oh or ha ha ha. And when it’s over they usually clap, which is interesting to me, because that doesn’t normally happen at storytimes. I think it’s viewed as more of a number, which ends in applause. I love that they’re so excited when none of us has said anything — it’s all the story in their heads. Each kid could be totally excited about a whole different thing having played out.

RS: Well, if you wanted words you would’ve put in the damn words.

MI: I want these books to be about something so big that any words you would add couldn’t be enough; it’s a feeling we can’t necessarily put into words.


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Marla Frazee Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/talks-with-roger/marla-frazee-talks-roger/ http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/talks-with-roger/marla-frazee-talks-roger/#comments Tue, 30 Sep 2014 16:54:32 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=41383 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. Two-time Caldecott Honor recipient (for A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever and All the World) Marla Frazee’s newest picture book The Farmer and the Clown is already garnering talk […]

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


marla frazee by james bradley 2Two-time Caldecott Honor recipient (for A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever and All the World) Marla Frazee’s newest picture book The Farmer and the Clown is already garnering talk of award recognition. Wordless, but rich with narrative and emotional resonance, The Farmer and the Clown portrays an unlikely friendship in which one party seems to rescue the other — but maybe that’s exactly backwards.

Roger Sutton: This is a really amazing book.

Marla Frazee: Thank you so much.

RS: The emotional quality of the story is incredibly powerful. So many of the pictures choke me up — they would probably have me sobbing right now if I didn’t have a reputation to maintain.

On your website you ask yourself a bunch of questions that you say people always ask you, and one of them is, “What is more important, style or concept?” Your answer: “I think the most important thing is emotional engagement.” How does an artist create that? As you’ve certainly done in this book.

MF: For me, I think it’s through time. If I’m sort of hooked into an idea, I try to play it out in my mind to see whether there’s something there to follow — what I would call the beating heart of that idea. If I can’t find it, I won’t be that engaged in the idea anymore. Even if I do find it, I often don’t know until many years later why it was compelling to me. As an example, when I started working on the Santa book [Santa Claus: The World’s Number One Toy Expert], in the beginning I just thought it was really funny that Santa would be a toy tester. That was how the book started in my mind, and I played with the idea for years. It wasn’t until maybe seven years down the road, when I was on a long drive, that I realized he would have to know children really well, and know toys really well, in order to match the child and the toy, and that it was about gift-giving. It was about something we all aspire to know how to do — to give the right gift at the right time. Once I had that, the book started to make sense to me. Before that, it was just…

RS: This idea.

MF: Yes.

RS: What was the genesis of The Farmer and the Clown, emotionally?

MF: This one was very interesting, because I don’t know if you like clowns, but I don’t like clowns.

RS: Me neither.

MF: Most people don’t like clowns. But for whatever reason, I went to this clown show performance at my kids’ high school. The performers had worked on their clown personas for weeks, at least, and then acted in skits. It was set to music (there was no speaking), and it was really compelling and evocative and sublime. I loved it. I couldn’t get clowns out of my head afterward. So I thought maybe I should do a book about a clown town. Everybody’s a clown. They shop, they go to school. But somebody moves in who isn’t, who’s a serious person — what would happen? And then I reversed it out. Maybe it should be a serious town and funny neighbors who move in. There’s something funny about the new neighbors, and it’s a clown family.

RS: The clown comes to town.

MF: Yes. But then I was watching a Modern Family episode where Cam is a clown, and all his clown friends cram themselves into a Mini Cooper after a funeral. And I thought, “Well, there goes that idea.” Then I was playing with the idea of a little clown who was teaching a yoga class, but there was no story. And there wasn’t a story for a really long time. Then I thought of two characters — a serious, Amish-like farmer holding the hand of a very smiley baby clown, and they were walking together. It just hit me, that image. That’s where it started. And I thought, “There they are. Those are my characters.” Then it was a question of why are they together? What is the story that brought them together? It came from the fact that they both had such different personas, really, from what they truly were. We think: the clown has a big smile so that means he’s happy, and we maybe think the farmer’s a grump, but there’s more to him than that.

farmer and clownRS: We have that amazing scene of revelation where on the left-hand side of the spread, you see them getting to know each other. They’re talking. And then they’re eating. And then they’re washing up for the night, and the makeup comes off the clown’s face. And to the old man, at least the way I’m reading it — and of course, it being wordless, we can read it however we want to — it’s like a completely different person he’s now encountering. That he finally sees the clown as a baby, or a little child.

MF: I am so glad that’s how it struck you. Because to me that spread was the pivotal moment in the book.

RS: It’s huge. Completely unexpected.

MF: The thing that freaks me out about clowns is that they look a certain way, and they maybe act a certain way, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily feel a certain way. Underneath it all there might be something else going on. That’s true about everybody at times in our lives, and I wanted it to be a revelation about the farmer as well. This obviously isn’t what he expected his evening to be like.

RS: Right, and the farmer transforms from being dutiful to actually having an emotional stake in this child.

MF: I was originally thinking maybe it would take a few days for the circus train to come back, so there would be more time for their relationship to deepen and change. But there were issues about that, because I wanted it to be a real child who’s lost and scared. Once the child and the farmer got too comfortable with each other, a couple days in and we’d have a different relationship, and that wouldn’t work.

RS: It seems like you need to have either a 32-page picture book or a 148-page novel.

MF: Yes.

RS: I think you chose wisely.

MF: Thank you.

RS: You talked about the emotional engagement that brings you into a book, but then how do you create that emotional engagement for the reader? Or do you just cross your fingers and trust they’re going to have the same feelings you do?

MF: I don’t just cross my fingers. But I feel like that’s the big question when it comes to illustration — how do you convey emotion in a picture? Not only over the span of the book, but in each individual image, each spread. What are you trying to say emotionally, and how do you show that emotion? An incredible book that has inspired me on that topic is Molly Bang’s perception and composition book Picture This.

RS: That’s a great book.

MF: I also think of Trina Schart Hyman’s image on the back of the jacket of her Little Red Riding Hood, where she’s leaving the forest. It’s an incredible example of how the emotion of a scene can hit before the content does. We feel relief that this character — who we may not even see at first as Little Red Riding Hood — is leaving a dark and oppressive place. And then we start to see the elements. Oh, it’s Little Red Riding Hood. Oh, it’s the woods. Oh, it’s the village. I think she was trying to build the image so the emotion hits first. You feel either the loneliness or the joy first, and then you start reading the picture — ah! The emotion kind of smacks us, the viewer, before our brain engages. That’s something I aspire to. I don’t always get there, but I’m always trying to get there.

RS: Well, you certainly do here. Your ending is a killer. You pull us in with a warmth that keeps increasing as the book goes, but when we get to the end we realize, “Oh my god, these two are going to part.” It’s horrible!

MF: I know. In an early dummy, I had the farmer on page 32 walking toward us with the clown hat on, kicking up his heels, but that was not a true moment. This is not how he would feel. So I started to draw how I thought he would really feel, which was devastated, and I thought, “This is just a real downer.” It took a while to get to the idea of that monkey. I hope it feels somewhat inevitable, but it really did take a lot of soul-searching to figure out the feeling I wanted to leave this farmer with. I didn’t want it to be a devastating story.

RS: And it would be, without that monkey. The way the monkey is looking out at us and telling us, “Don’t tell the farmer I’m behind him,” pulls us into the story, so we feel like we’re part of something.

MF: That’s really important to me, because I wanted the reader to be part of the understanding of these two characters. It’s one of the reasons the book is wordless. I wanted us to perceive the characters a certain way, and to realize over time, after reading the book, that our perception was skewed as well, as maybe the farmer’s initially was toward the clown. We don’t know exactly how the clown perceives the farmer, but that was an element too.

RS: With the clown — you’re really honest about how a child would be when he realizes his family’s coming back. The long spread with the two of them and the approaching train, toot-toot, up there in the corner, where the clown is jumping up and down, and he’s all excited, and the farmer is protectively holding his hand, and watching out for him, making sure he doesn’t run onto the tracks, but the emotion of the kid, who’s so — you know, they don’t think about other people’s feelings, really.

MF: Right.

RS: And he’s just excited: “My parents are back!” But in the farmer’s posture, and in his little dot eye, you can see the sadness of the impending separation. Then the clown gives him a gift. He races back to say goodbye to the old man. And there’s that beautiful hug. And then they kiss. And I’m going to start crying.

When I look at wordless books today, they seem to mostly be becoming more and more elaborate. And this book is really stripped-down.

MF: I didn’t set out to do a wordless book. I set out to tell a particular story, and as I was telling it I realized it would be more powerful without words. It’s about impressions and misunderstandings of appearances. You get a slow understanding of who these characters are based on their behavior. I don’t necessarily think there was a whole exchange of language between these two. It was more about how they were acting with each other, and for me that was somewhat of a wordless exchange. This paring-down was how I arrived at doing the book in a wordless way.

RS: Did you create any kind of a text at all?

MF: In the very beginning I wondered if there should be one, but no, not really. That’s not unusual for me. When I did the book Roller Coaster I drew it out in thumbnails without words, and then the words came at a later point in the process. I think I was expecting that to happen with this book, and then I realized it wasn’t going to. I truly didn’t set out to do a wordless book, although I love them, sometimes.

RS: Sometimes they feel too much like a puzzle, on purpose. The challenge is to figure out what’s going on. Whereas this, to me, is more immediate: you don’t have to work at deciphering the action, which allows you to just become invested in these characters and their situation. There’s no plot puzzle to solve here.

MF: I first came up with these two characters then wondered: How did they end up being in the same place, holding hands like this? As I was thinking about it, it almost offered a little film to me. The beginning pages of the book were very clear, to the point where the farmer walks across the field and sees that clown.

RS: The farmer kind of looks like the long arm of the law as he’s approaching.

MF: And I thought, “I have to get this down on paper. I don’t want to lose it. But I don’t know what’s going to happen after this moment.” So I worked on thumbnails and little dummies, trying to nail down the story so it didn’t disappear. There’s something about it operating like a film but then having to freeze. I love animation, and I’m very inspired by it. Sometimes I think certain ideas that I’m playing with would be better done as animation than in a picture book, where you have to choose that exact moment to portray. And you have the page turn, which is unique to the picture book — it’s such an incredible tool, but it can sometimes get in your way. I always spend a lot of time in those initial explorations trying to figure out: is this form the right form for this story to be in, and if so, how do I tell it? I feel like those initial explorations are really the architecture. I think that’s why I said in the beginning it takes time. I can’t imagine doing it any faster. Because some of those realizations just take so long to come to me. It’s not immediate.

RS: You just have to let them wander around in your head for a while.

MF: I do. This book was very dreamy. Once I had the picture story in place and it was just a matter of executing it, it was also a really dreamy experience for me to sink into the actual time of making the pictures. The world was so spare.

RS: It’s a very dreamy landscape as well.

MF: Thank you. I really wanted it to feel like that. That’s how I was feeling about it. There’s just something about those two characters being so by themselves, in their own world for that short time

RS: It’s kind of amazing when you think about what we can get away with in picture books. If you just described this situation — a child gets tossed off a train, in the middle of the desert, and there’s this old man, and he comes and takes the child to his house.

MF: Trust me, I know. Those closest to me will ask, “What are you working on?” and I’ll say something like what you just said, and they’ll say, “Oh my god. Are you serious?”


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