The Horn Book » Talks with Roger Publications about books for children and young adults Thu, 18 Dec 2014 17:38:42 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Naomi Shihab Nye Talks with Roger Wed, 17 Dec 2014 16:41:03 +0000 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 nye Naomi Shihab Nye Talks with RogerBorn 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.

RS: 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 Tue, 18 Nov 2014 18:55:29 +0000 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 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 amato Mary Amato Talks with RogerMary 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 happy Mary Amato Talks with RogerRS: 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 Mon, 13 Oct 2014 19:18:42 +0000 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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molly idle twr header Molly Idle 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.

molly idle Molly Idle Talks with RogerAfter 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 penguin Molly Idle Talks with RogerRS: 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 Tue, 30 Sep 2014 16:54:32 +0000 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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marla frazee twr header Marla Frazee 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.

marla frazee by james bradley 2 Marla Frazee Talks with RogerTwo-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.

9781442497443 f3568 Marla Frazee Talks with RogerRS: 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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Nancy J. Cavanaugh Talks with Roger Thu, 11 Sep 2014 18:18:06 +0000 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. Nancy J. Cavanaugh’s second novel, Always Abigail, is about a girl whose goal in life is to join the middle school pom-pom squad. Or so she thinks, but middle school turns out […]

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nancy j cavanaugh talks with roger Nancy J. Cavanaugh 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.

nancy j cavanaugh Nancy J. Cavanaugh Talks with RogerNancy J. Cavanaugh’s second novel, Always Abigail, is about a girl whose goal in life is to join the middle school pom-pom squad. Or so she thinks, but middle school turns out to offer a host of challenges — and even some new pleasures — that make (spoiler alert!) being named a pom-pom alternate seem of secondary importance.

RS: When I started Always, Abigail and read “The most important thing in my life is pom-poms,” my heart sank. I was worried that I was going to have to read a whole book about a girl whose goal in life was to be on the pom-pom squad. But in fact you’re doing something very tricky — and risky — here by starting out with a girl who sounds really shallow, then trusting your readers to eventually figure out that not everything she says is true.

NJC: That is the hugest compliment. As a former teacher who spent many, many years with children, I feel like I can understand them, but you often have to read between the lines.

RS: The narrative really is from Abigail’s perspective. It’s not an adult voice disguised as a kid’s voice, which is what we see more often. The perspective changes and grows as she grows.

NJC: I want kids to be able to read books in which they feel like, “Wow, that’s me” or “That’s my friend.” I work really hard at that, and yet at the same time the voices of my characters are where the ideas begin.

RS: It’s the voice you hear first, then the character comes from that?

NJC: Yes, and in this case, Abigail’s a lot like me. I always knew the right thing to do, but I often didn’t have the courage to do it. We talk a lot with kids about bullying, and I think almost every kid would be able to give you all the right answers about what they should or shouldn’t do, but I think we forget that knowing what to do is not the same as being able to do it. And we forget how hard it is — especially for kids, but even sometimes for adults — to make the right choice.

RS: If someone asked me what this book was about, I would never say it was a bullying book, because it isn’t an “issues” book. But when I think about it, there’s a whole range of bullying behavior that’s going on, and Abigail is a perpetrator as well as a victim as well as a witness.

NJC: Yes, definitely. This isn’t just a book about bullying. It’s about friendship and self-respect. It’s about the power of laughter to help take the sting out and get through. Sometimes you just have to move on.

RS: These days, children’s books that deal with bullying are more often about the victims than the perpetrators.

NJC: Realistically, not everyone is the bully, and not everyone is the victim. There are a lot of kids who are bystanders. If you would ask them, they would know that they should be doing something, but it’s finding that courage.

RS: That’s all of us.

NJC: It’s true. Even as an adult I don’t always stand up for the right thing when I should. Another idea from the book is that sometimes you want something so badly, and then you get it, and it’s not at all what you thought it would be. But you almost can’t let go because you’ve spent so much time wanting it. Abigail feels that way, and it’s just so disappointing. I think we have that in life all the time. Because you don’t really know what it’s going to be like when you get there.

RS: There’s no risk attached to wanting something. When it’s just in your head, everything’s wonderful, but when the actual thing is there in front of you, of course it’s more complicated than that.

NJC: And there can be extenuating circumstances. Sometimes it’s the other people involved, which is the case for Abigail with the other pom-pom girls. I taught middle school for only two years, but those two years gave me lots of material for many, many middle-school stories because the drama is there from the very first minute to the end of the day. A friend once told me: “Middle school kids — their goal is to get through the day without being embarrassed.”

RS: But again, Nancy, not just kids.

NJC: I agree. Some of us are stuck in middle school more than others. Maybe that’s why I write these books. I’m actually that girl. That big puddle Abigail falls into? I fell in that puddle. And it’s sort of a metaphor for my life. I sometimes fall in the big puddles.

RS: You can take these situations that, when you experience them, are horrible; but when you read about them, they’re bearable and even humorous.

NJC: Yes. And if you can learn to laugh at yourself, it’s a benefit to you. Abigail wanted to be friends with the popular girls because being popular was one of her goals. But she had a really good time with Gabby. I love the blossoming of their friendship, just doing fun, wholesome, kid kinds of things, and I hope it gives readers the feeling of, “Oh, that’s like my friends. We do that. We stay home and make frozen pizza and watch TV and that’s fun.” Those simple things can be a lot of fun if you’re doing them with someone you enjoy being with.

cavanaugh always abigail Nancy J. Cavanaugh Talks with RogerRS: It takes her a while to admit to herself that she’s having fun.

NJC: Yes, because then it changes everything. If she’s having fun with Gabby, then what is she having with her supposedly best friends, Alli and Cami (“AlliCam”)? A lot of kids go through that period, sometimes it’s in sixth grade, sometimes it’s seventh, where friendships shift because people change and grow up in different ways and take different paths. That’s really hard, especially for kids that have been friends for a long time.

RS: Do you think there’s something gender-related in this? I see so many books about girls who have to leave old friends behind and make new ones as they grow. You don’t see that so much in books about boys, and I don’t remember it being so dramatic in my own childhood.

NJC: Well, I do think girls are more drama-infused. I taught third grade and seventh grade. Even some of the third-grade girls’ drama was way over the top. I would think, “Oh, lord, help these children when they get to middle school.” If the boys didn’t get along, they would go out on the playground and talk it over and figure it out themselves. With girls, that drama just keeps growing. They would take it personally and remember it longer. And then when they’d get to middle school it would be even worse.

RS: What drew you to middle school as a writer?

NJC: I have a lot of vivid memories about middle school, including that awkward feeling I always had, which is more universal than I realized at the time. Of course when you’re going through it you think you’re the only one.

RS: That’s why it feels so bad.

NJC: When I became a teacher I realized all the kids are feeling that way. You hit middle school and you’re more on your own. You’re breaking away from your parents a little bit and really having to find out who you are. What was interesting about my teaching experience is I had a lot of the same kids in third and seventh grades. It was amazing. These adorable little sweetest girls in the world who wrote me love notes and complimented me on my teacher outfits were completely different kids. They were fighting with their moms and having trouble getting along with their friends. It was interesting to see how even kids you wouldn’t think would have a hard time would get to middle school and experience such turmoil.

RS: I take it this is not a time in your life that you remember with particular fondness.

NJC: No. I mean, I had a good childhood, but it was a time when I was trying to do so many different things because I didn’t know, really, what I should be doing. “These kids are trying out for basketball, my sister’s a basketball player — I’ll do basketball.” But then I got onto the basketball team and realized “I don’t really like basketball. I hate when they throw the ball to me. I’m terribly nervous. I’m not that good.” I was much more of a follower than I wish that I would have been, and that’s also true of Abigail. Once she realizes that poms isn’t what she thinks it should be, she sticks with it anyway because she doesn’t know what else to do. I think a lot of kids are like that. And if good friends choose different things to do, it can be hard to keep that friendship going.

RS: Because the friend becomes so wrapped up in something else.

NJC: Right. I had a really close friend who was in band, and I wasn’t, and it took a lot of time away from our friendship, and that was really hard. So then you start thinking, “Well, should I start playing an instrument?” Even though I really didn’t want to play one and wasn’t good at it.

RS: Tell me about this unusual format that you use: lists, diary entries, letters…

NJC: The idea of trying to write a book like this intrigued me. I think it also appeals to the reluctant reader. I have a daughter who’s a reluctant reader, but even just as a former teacher I have a heart for those kids who look at a library book and think, “I cannot read this.” They’re probably right, because their reading level is very low. They see kids walking around with Harry Potter, and there’s no way they can read Harry Potter, even though everyone else in the class is reading it. So I wanted to write something that kids who aren’t such great readers can pick up and devour and enjoy the way other kids are devouring and enjoying books like Harry Potter. I am a very slow reader. I love telling kids this when I go to school visits, because I like to let them know that being a slow reader doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not a good reader. For me, as a child and even now sometimes, I would much rather choose the book that’s shorter, or choose the book with the quick, easy chapters, because it’s easier for me to read. I enjoy those books more.

RS: Did you write the pieces in Abigail in approximately the same order they appear in now?

NJC: I did write it sequentially for the most part. When I went back to revise after the rough draft, which really needed a lot of work, I didn’t always do it in order. One of the reasons writing in this format appeals to me is that if you don’t have big chunks of time to write, you can just sit down and write one section and feel like, “Oh, I just got something done. This is good.” When I was first writing it, my daughter was young enough to be taking naps. (She’s eleven now.) So during naptime it was easy to just knock off a few sections and be able to feel like I accomplished something and then just hope that I could get it all to work.

RS: And the reading is like that too.

NJC: It was easy for me to see a girl like Abigail scribbling away all her thoughts in notebooks as they came to her, just kind of blurting everything out.

RS: I love the way the teacher — Old Hawk — sees right through Abigail.

NJC: A lot of kids fly under the radar for a long time until they meet their Old Hawk. I’m a little bit like Old Hawk.

RS: Do you have the power to make kids afraid of you?

NJC: Oh, sure. I was a teacher for fifteen years. The old saying was: “Don’t smile until after Thanksgiving.” And if you have a really bad class: “Don’t smile until after Christmas.”

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Adi Alsaid Talks with Roger Wed, 23 Jul 2014 16:30:27 +0000 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. When I talked with Adi Alsaid about his first novel, Let’s Get Lost, which is about a road trip, he was, appropriately enough, on a road trip in San Francisco and headed […]

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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.

adi alsaid Adi Alsaid Talks with RogerWhen I talked with Adi Alsaid about his first novel, Let’s Get Lost, which is about a road trip, he was, appropriately enough, on a road trip in San Francisco and headed on up to Oregon.

Roger Sutton: Where do you usually live?

Adi Alsaid: I’m based in Mexico City. I was born and raised there. I went to school in Las Vegas, lived in Israel for a bit, lived in California for a bit, and I’ve been back in Mexico City for about four years now.

RS: Kind of like your own personal road trip.

AA: I’m aiming for a lifelong road trip.

RS: Where do you most want to go?

AA: I’ve seen very little of Europe. I’ve only spent some time in London, and I definitely want to see a lot more. You’re actually speaking to me in the middle of a road trip. After ALA in Vegas, I drove over to L.A. for a wedding. Now I’m in San Francisco, and I’m camping — all over the Pacific Northwest, up into Seattle. My next road trip is helping my sister move to Cincinnati from Las Vegas.

RS: Let’s talk about your book. I think it’s really interesting that when you begin reading it, you think it’s going to be about a different person than it actually is. You think it’s going to be Hudson’s story, but really, ultimately, it is Leila’s story. I’m wondering how you came up with this structure.

AA: I’ve always been drawn to multiple perspectives, both as a reader and as a writer. I like telling one story from as many perspectives as the narrative will allow. And I thought it would be really interesting to tell a road-trip story through the eyes of characters who are stationary, who are going through their own issues, their own lives, when this girl comes crashing in. And then to tell her whole story through these little snippets from other teens. I think part of that actually comes from road-tripping and being interested in all these passing characters that I meet. Getting into strangers’ heads and imagining myself through their eyes.

RS: When you say you get into strangers’ heads, are you really getting into their heads, or are they, in fact, something in your head?

AA: Yeah, I’m sure I’m imagining things completely wrong from their perspective.

RS: That’s what makes good fiction, though.

AA: Last night I was at this dive bar in San Francisco. It was kind of like this open mic thing where people would sign up to sing and they would also perform with others, half open mic, half karaoke, a little bit of a fifty-person rotating band. The whole time I was wondering who these people are, how long they’ve played together, how many were there for the first time and how many are there every week. I’m sure I made a lot of wrong assumptions about them, but it was fun to do.

alsaid lets get lost Adi Alsaid Talks with RogerRS: It sounds like you get a lot of material this way. Which of the characters in Let’s Get Lost came first in your imagination?

AA: It was Leila. But the very first writing I did was Hudson’s, and then Bree’s. I wrote the book in order, so I didn’t really get to know Leila until after I started writing Hudson’s piece. Just as the reader gets to slowly find out about her along the way, I was doing the exact same thing while writing.

RS: So you didn’t know what was really driving her — so to speak — until you got to the end?

AA: I did have the whole book outlined so I knew, generally speaking, what her story was. But the way I think of it is that outlining is kind of architecture and writing is interior design, and you don’t really have a home until you get to that part. I had the architecture for Leila but none of the interior design.

RS: I’m wondering what you read as a teenager.

AA: Stephen King was one of my big go-tos. I started pretty early with Stephen King, seventh, eighth grade. And then I moved into Kurt Vonnegut. He was definitely my favorite throughout high school. I didn’t get into young adult fiction until the last few years.

RS: You’re in an interesting position, being a male author in this field, and also publishing with Harlequin. I think they’re doing a good job of breaking out of publishing just category romances. As you find yourself moving into this young adult world, what do you think of it?

AA: I love it. First of all, I think I have a skewed perspective because of how much Harlequin Teen has been doing for me, so of course I’ve been loving the whole experience. But in general, I think the young adult community is very tightly knit. There’s a lot of support among authors, bloggers, and readers. I’ve already gotten so much support from readers. I don’t know if people in adult fiction can be quite as enthusiastic as young adult readers are.

RS: I think teenagers love books in a way that sometimes as adults we forget. What is your reading like now?

AA: Right now I’m reading Vicious, by Victoria Schwab. She’s a young adult writer and this is her first adult book. I’ve been following her on Twitter for a while and we met at ALA. She once said something on Twitter about how books don’t happen in this insane moment of inspiration, they happen day by day by day by day. And I’ve been using that myself — day by day by day.

RS: Like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. What’s going to be your next book? Tell me it’s not a sequel?

AA: It is not a sequel.

RS: Hallelujah.

AA: I’m in the middle of the draft right now, doing revisions. It’s another young adult contemporary, multiple perspectives. I am fairly secretive about the early stages of my writing, so I haven’t let that cat out of the bag quite yet.

RS: It’s nobody’s business but your own. I have a question about Las Vegas. We were just there [for ALA]. What kind of a town is it like to live in?

AA: A lot of the notions people have about it are pretty limited to the Las Vegas Strip. And a lot of locals, in my experience, we stay away from the Strip. A lot of people work there and they don’t want to go back on their free time. They don’t want to see the drunken tourists and all that. The rest of the town — to me, it feels a lot like many other cities throughout the U.S. If you were outside the Strip, you probably wouldn’t even recognize it as Las Vegas if it weren’t for the desert landscape and the fact that there are slot machines. For a college student like I was at that time, it was extremely convenient, because everything is open twenty-four hours a day. I didn’t have money to go gambling. I wasn’t twenty-one yet, so I couldn’t go drinking either. But I could go to a twenty-four-hour Starbucks and play board games with my friends, or go write in the middle of the night. I could go bowling at midnight. I could eat Vietnamese food at three in the morning. It was pretty much the city where everything is available at all times.

RS: So where is the next place that you will actually live, if there is such a place?

AA: I’ve always had the urge to go visit the Greek isles. I think that would be a great place to disappear to for a few months, write a book while I’m there.

RS: All right. Groovy. Well, drive carefully.

AA: All right. Thank you so much for the call, Roger. I appreciate it.

RS: Sure thing. Good luck with the book. I really like it.

AA: Thank you.


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Ilsa J. Bick Talks with Roger Sat, 01 Mar 2014 18:44:44 +0000 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 wrapping up the apocalyptic Ashes trilogy with Monsters last fall, Ilsa J. Bick returns with White Space, a fat thriller that finds its chills in the unlikely intersections of dreams, lives, […]

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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.

ilsa j bick Ilsa J. Bick Talks with RogerAfter wrapping up the apocalyptic Ashes trilogy with Monsters last fall, Ilsa J. Bick returns with White Space, a fat thriller that finds its chills in the unlikely intersections of dreams, lives, and books as young people with latent extrasensory abilities find themselves colliding (sometimes literally!) with one another’s stories and darkest imaginings.

Roger Sutton: I have always believed that my dreams are in some sense true, and your new book, White Space, has made me scared.

Ilsa J. Bick: Good. It did its job. Yay!

RS: How much of this do you believe?

IJB: That’s a tough question, because remember, you’re talking to a shrink. I’m old enough that I did the whole Freudian thing. I stared at acoustical tiles in my analyst’s office for years as I recounted my dreams and free-associated. Dreams are your brain’s way of trying to catalogue your memories and experiences and relating them to who you are. So in terms of the truth that they can tell you about yourself, your dreams have as much validity as anything you might say. And sometimes I think they’re actually truer than you think, because when you’re dreaming you’re not applying a lot of conscious control. The only thing that protects you in a dream is you’ll wake up before the monster kills you.

RS: But you don’t generally know that while you’re dreaming.

IJB: Exactly right. It’s like they say in Inception (only I think Freud said it first): you don’t know a dream until you realize you’ve been asleep. But then even when you wake up, how do you know that’s really waking? I certainly have had the experience of thinking that I’m awake, only to realize that I’m now in a second or a third dream. It’s a very freaky experience because you have this moment of jolting awake and thinking “is this real?” Everything I write in a book I believe at the moment that I’m writing it. So sure, I think dreams are true.

RS: I think as far as our brains are concerned, or our souls, depending on how far you want to go with this, writing, like dreaming, like reading — those things do happen to us. If you dream you’re being chased by an ax murderer, you have the experience of being chased by an ax murderer.

IJB: I’ve always been interested in the breakdown in what we call reality. When I was in forensic psychiatry, for example, I’d talk with different people about the same incident. Everybody’s recollection of what they think is real was colored by who they are.

Often I would see kids who’d say, “I’m not sure if what I’m talking about or what I’m feeling is my idea or my parents’.” Like when somebody says, “I’ve always wanted to be a doctor.” Whose idea was that? Was that really yours, when you were eight or whatever, or was it something that your parents suggested, and then through repetition it becomes yours? And so then what is your reality? Is it only what’s constructed by your parents? Kids are intensely interested in that sort of thing, even if they can’t quite say it that way. They wonder, “How am I separate from my parents?” And they want to be separate from their parents, but they’re also terrifically frightened about being separate from their parents. That’s why dystopias work so well for adolescents. Whether parents like it or not, all kids live under dystopian regimes. They’re called parents and school. And kids just can’t wait to break free. It’s a necessary task of adolescence. But in fact breaking free is also really, really frightening.

RS: Why do you think it’s only in the last ten years or so that dystopia has become such a hot topic in books for teenagers? Do they know something we don’t?

IJB: I don’t think kids know anything we don’t know. I really don’t know why there’s an explosion in the literature now, except that kids keep reading it. Part of me thinks it’s going to then move to the next thing, because how many messed-up societies can you find? Now on the other hand, the reality is that the sort of righting the dystopian wrongs of the parents is, as I said, part of adolescence anyway. Go out, find love interests, destroy your parents’ world, build your own world, and start your own family. But thank god there are, what, 200,000 books published in the United States a year? And not all of them are dystopias.

bick white space Ilsa J. Bick Talks with RogerRS: One thing that’s really different about White Space — and there are a lot of things that are different about it, but as an artifact of publishing — is that if you think back to young adult literature even fifteen, twenty years ago, you’d never be able to publish a book this long.

IJB: I guess you’re right. I keep thinking, “Well, tell that to J.K. Rowling.”

RS: She’s to blame.

IJB: In fact, the first version I turned in for White Space was 150 pages shorter, because I was worried about length. And my editor came back and said, “I’m kind of wondering about this and this and this,” and those are all the things that I had cut out. So I put them back in, and wrote in even more, and he said, “This is the story it has to be.” So I’ve been very fortunate with my editors. I also think back to my own reading — I mean, let’s face it: Dune was a monster of a book. But I read it. And I didn’t even think about the fact that it’s thick. In fact, if anything, having a longer book meant I could have more fun for a longer period of time.

RS: And Dune — I think a lot of the appeal there, like the Lord of the Rings books, was that it created this world that you wanted to be in. So the longer the better.

IJB: Exactly right. Some reviews look at length as something that is bad. This brick of a book, or Gee, it’s kind of long. I say, “And? And?”

RS: But some books are long for the sake of being long. I can think of fantasy novels where the feisty heroine and her friends are on their horses, and they have to cross a country to get to their goal. Fine. So they have an encounter with this monster. They have an encounter with that monster. They have an encounter with this other monster. Really you just needed one of those.

IJB: The second Lord of the Rings movie seemed to be the actors running from one side of the picture to the other, repetitively. I do have a confession. I have never read the Lord of the Rings books. That type of fantasy has never appealed to me. I liked the movies okay, but never read the books. I’ve never been a big fantasy buff.

RS: You seem to have a darker imagination than those books would feed.

IJB: Yes. My dad is a Holocaust survivor. He lost his entire family in Auschwitz. He was seven or eight when the Nazis came knocking at his door. It’s not something he talks about, it’s this kind of void. When I was younger, he used to tell me, “You need to know how to protect yourself. You need to always be watching out,” conditioned by his past. This is a guy who still, when he eats, puts his arm up to guard his food. He’s a traumatized guy. I read a fair number of concentration camp memoirs and things like that when I was younger. It’s not just me imagining, it’s me knowing all the evil that the world is very capable of. So it’s hard for me to think of writing a light romance, for example. Or a fantasy novel where everything ends with a kiss. Or where there are little trolls running around. I think it’s probably the old saw about shrinks: you’re either really, really normal, so that you know troubled people when you see them, or it takes one to know one. I have a good sense of humor, but my writing is dark.

RS: I saw on your website you quoted another writer who taught you to “try something new with every book.” What would you try? What’s next for you?

IJB: Right now I’m in the beginning throes of writing a standalone. How do you talk about victimization in a way that isn’t weepy or angry? After that I have another standalone that’s actually more of a murder mystery. I’d like to actually see if I can pull off a murder mystery with no woo-woo.

RS: I taught a class in book reviewing this semester, and one of the assignments was for each of the students to read and review a book in a genre that they detested. Someone said, you know, “I hate chick lit.” So someone else in the class who loves chick lit said, “You’ve got to read…” and then she recommended, I think, a Sophie Kinsella book. It was very interesting to make people confront these genres that they hated.

IJB: I remember this one writers’ workshop I went to. It was a two-week-long we’re-going-to-tear-you-down-and-then-build-you-up-again thing. I just want to say shrinks and surgeons have nothing on writers when they’re tearing you apart. The floor was bloody. They made us read a bunch of things before we came, and one of them was a Nora Roberts book. God, gag me with a fork. I thought I would die. But in fact it ended up not being such a terrible book, although I got really pissed off that everyone was a size four and wore strappy sandals without breaking their ankles.

RS: What books scare you?

IJB: None. That’s kind of a problem for me. I actually haven’t read a book yet that really scared me. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t get scared. I might get grossed out… There have been some books that I think “ew,” but then I think, “That’s a nice effect. I’m going to write that down.”

RS: Do you ever get scared when you’re writing?

IJB: Nope. I don’t get scared when I’m writing either. Scary movies also don’t bother me. Except Alien, a movie that did scare my pants off and made my date scream like a little girl. But no, books don’t scare me. Not even the ones I write. Which is unfortunate but true.

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Jeff Kinney Talks with Roger Mon, 16 Dec 2013 18:51:19 +0000 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. Greg Heffley is back, in Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck, the eighth in Jeff Kinney’s mega-popular novels about the middle-school antihero. The format, in which hand-printed journal entries on lined-paper […]

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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.

jeff kinney Jeff Kinney Talks with RogerGreg Heffley is back, in Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck, the eighth in Jeff Kinney’s mega-popular novels about the middle-school antihero. The format, in which hand-printed journal entries on lined-paper pages are expertly punctuated by cartoons, has proven irresistible to ten-year-olds everywhere and of every stripe, a meeting place for eager and reluctant readers alike. While kids must hope that they would demonstrate more grace under pressure than does Greg, his problems — what do you do when your best friend gets interested in girls? How do I fit in when my mom makes me wear a sweater vest? — are their own. Jeff has been very busy this month touring in support of Hard Luck, but I finally managed to catch up with him on the Wimpy Kid bus via phone.

RS: Hi Jeff. You’re out on tour?

JK: Yes, I’m on tour, on a bus.

RS: You have a bus?

JK: It’s a giant lime-green Wimpy Kid bus, with something like eight bunks and eleven televisions. It’s pretty fun.

RS: You’re like a country-western star.

JK: I think this bus was actually used by Willie Nelson.

RS: I saw on Twitter that you were at the Charles Schulz Museum, and I was wondering what your Greg would say about Charlie Brown.

JK: They’re kindred spirits, in a way. All cartoonists owe a debt of gratitude to Charles Schulz.

RS: I find myself doing the same thing with Greg as I do with Charlie Brown, which is you’re reading along, and something happens, and you think, “Oh, God, what a loser.” And then five minutes later something else happens, and you think, “Oh, God, that’s me.” So then you think, “Am I a loser?”

JK: Yes. A lot of protagonists in children’s literature are on the heroic side, and I wanted to create a character that was more like I was.

RS: One of the measures of Wimpy Kid’s success — and there are many — is that its enjoyment by kids is matched by its disapproval from adults. I’m not saying universally, but you do get these people who say, “Oh, it’s too nihilistic. It’s too snarky.”

JK: I always thought that anyone who felt that way wasn’t in on the joke. You don’t want to be too heavy-handed when writing for kids, because they pick up on that. If you moralize they’re going to reject it. So I let my readers make up their own minds about Greg Heffley.

RS: Greg’s actions speak for themselves. Sometimes he’ll do something foolish, but more often than not, things seem to work out for him.

JK: Right. There have been moments in my books when Greg does the wrong thing, even when he knew that he was doing the right thing. There’s a reason there’s a frown on his face on every cover. He’s an unhappy kid, just because of his own actions.

RS: Do you think he’s essentially an unhappy kid?

JK: Yeah, I think he feels put-upon. I never like it when somebody describes him as whiny, because that’s not at all how I feel about him.

RS: My mother would have called him fresh.

JK: That’s a good word. He’s a kid who’s in middle school, and a kid who’s in middle school is, generally speaking, not that happy.

RS: Yes, middle school is miserable. I assume you drew upon your own experiences to create Greg’s persona and situation?

JK: I spent about four years trying to remember exactly what it was like to think like a kid, to rationalize like a kid. I really wanted the character to feel authentic. In a way, how a kid behaves is just the way an adult behaves, but an adult has learned to mask it. Greg is sort of the worst version of myself, or the side of myself that I’m not so proud of.

RS: Who do you think of as the typical Wimpy Kid reader? It does seem to be the kind of series that non-readers enjoy as well as readers.

JK: I would say the average fan that comes to a book signing is eleven years old, fifth grader, maybe 60 percent boys, 40 percent girls. It’s exactly who I’d like to be writing for, so I’m happy about that.

kinney hard luck Jeff Kinney Talks with RogerRS: What’s the secret to writing for boys? Everyone’s trying to crack that.

JK: I lucked into the secret to writing for boys, which is that I didn’t write for kids to begin with. I wrote the Wimpy Kid books for adults. I wasn’t thinking of kids as an audience at all. It was my publisher who made that decision. So by not having a kid in mind when I was writing, I didn’t try to impart some sort of lesson. I think I would have written quite differently if I were thinking about the audience.

RS: Did anything have to change when the publisher said, No, Jeff, this is really for kids?

JK: Maybe one or two jokes had to change. And even so, they didn’t have to change much. My sensibilities are really G- or PG-rated.

RS: How do you know when to leave a joke to the picture and when to put it in the text? I think you do that brilliantly.

JK: Thank you. The DNA of these books is in comic strips. In comic strips there’s a setup and then a payoff, and I like it when I can pay the joke off in the image.

RS: Which do you think you are more naturally, a writer or a drawer?

JK: I think I’m more naturally a cartoonist. I don’t consider myself to be a good writer or a good illustrator. But I think I’m a pretty good cartoonist.

RS: How far do you think you can take Wimpy Kid? How many volumes can we expect?

JK: I’m not really sure. I was just having this discussion with my editor. We reached number one on all the bestseller charts for this week — thank you very much — and I think that’s the sixth year in a row. It’s very hard to walk away when you feel that there’s an audience, or you feel like you have something to say. I think I’ll know because the interest will start to wane, but for now it feels pretty good.

RS: Does Greg age at all, or is it this perpetual middle-school time?

JK: He doesn’t age. The best cartoon characters don’t ever age. They stay the same. I made that decision with the fifth book, The Ugly Truth. Greg is frustrated that he can’t seem to get older when his classmates are going through puberty. What he doesn’t know is that he’s a cartoon character. He can’t move on.

RS: Sadist. Do you get suggestions from kids about any particular behavior that he might exhibit or situations he should be in?

JK: Kids are always wondering if Greg will get a girlfriend. I’m not so sure that’s where I want to take the books. In fact, I really strive for sameness between books. I want them to be very even. There’s some innocence lost, in a way, when your beloved characters change.

RS: What kind of recreational reading do you like to do?

JK: I listen to a lot of biographies, some autobiographies. You can always learn from somebody else’s life experience.

RS: One thing you can learn from Greg is empathy.

JK: A lot of parents of kids who are autistic reach out to me and say that the Wimpy Kid books are very important for their kids. I think it’s because they learn a lot about emotions by reading the text and seeing what plays out in the images.

RS: I have one last question, from the young woman who transcribes all my interviews. She said: “Ask him if he’s going to open that bookstore.”

JK: We’re planning on opening a bookstore. Hopefully it will all work out. It’s in a small town that can’t really support it on its own, but that’s our plan.

RS: I’ll come and visit from Boston.

JK: Okay, good. Please do.

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Steve Jenkins Talks with Roger Tue, 26 Nov 2013 19:30:09 +0000 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. There’s no doubt that Steve Jenkins can do things with paper collage that are impressive and beautiful; perhaps less obvious to the eye is the scientific thinking behind every picture. From dinosaurs […]

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

steve jenkins Steve Jenkins Talks with RogerThere’s no doubt that Steve Jenkins can do things with paper collage that are impressive and beautiful; perhaps less obvious to the eye is the scientific thinking behind every picture. From dinosaurs to deep-sea creatures, dogs to cats, and even a stopover on Mount Everest, which won him a Boston–Globe Horn Book Award in 1999 (The Top of the World: Climbing Mount Everest, Houghton), Jenkins’s books encourage us to look at the natural world around us in new and frequently startling ways. The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest — and Most Surprising — Animals on Earth, is more than a gorgeous compendium. While pictures and information are packed into each topical spread, the book is carefully organized to provide a structured understanding of the animal kingdom, its origins and breadth, and the myriad behaviors and relationships it contains.

Roger Sutton: Where do you get your paper?

Steve Jenkins: Multiple places. The single largest source is a funky little art supply store in Manhattan, in the East Village, called New York Central. Anytime I travel, I look for stores that have paper. I’ve ordered some from Asia on the internet. Sometimes I just use things like wrapping paper or butcher paper.

RS: Do you ever find paper that suggests a subject for a book?

SJ: Yes. For example, bark paper — I believe it was made in Mexico and dyed a variety of colors. It has this sort of fiber-y texture, which has suggested any number of furry creatures. Or one time my son ordered a pizza, and the wax paper in the box was burned in this kind of interesting pattern.

RS: I guess people in your house know better than to throw things away.

SJ: Unless it’s a shiny silver paper, something that I could never use.

RS: I was trying to think if there was a color that you couldn’t use, but I’m guessing there isn’t.

SJ: I don’t think there’s a color I can’t use, no, because if you start doing coral reef creatures—

RS: Right. Go crazy.

SJ: The limitation is anything reflective. I’ve found some nice papers with gold streaks in them, like a marbled paper with a metallic component, but there’s no way to predict how that’s going to photograph. It depends on how the light is reflected. So those are pretty much unusable, which is a shame.

RS: You reused some art for this book. When you went to reuse a picture, or a part of a picture, are you going back to the original art? Or do you scan the pieces when you create them and save them electronically for possible use later on?

SJ: In this case, both. About seven or eight years ago the production process changed. Now I make the collage, then I do a desktop scan to put it in place, just to see how it’s going to work on the page. Then I send the actual art off to the publisher who has it professionally scanned and photographed. I get that digital file back and do any little touch-ups, like if there’s a torn place or a shadow that doesn’t look right. At the end I have a copy of the digital file that was used to print the book. But some of the older images had to be rescanned for The Animal Book, and I had to go back to the original art.

animal book Steve Jenkins Talks with RogerRS: How did The Animal Book come about?

SJ: My publisher originally approached me and said, “We want to package four or five of your books in one volume.” And I thought, well, that sounds interesting, but then I realized it really wouldn’t work. The books are in different formats…

RS: The scales are different.

SJ: And they have different reading levels. The subjects didn’t necessarily make sense put together. But I was intrigued by the idea of this large volume, so I said, “Let me use some of the existing art, but basically create a new book.” It was a long, kind of convoluted process. For a long time I wasn’t sure what the unifying theme was.

RS: To me, the unifying theme is one of our great contemporary bugaboos, which is evolution.

SJ: Well, of course. That sort of underlies all of it. It would have to underlie any book about survival.

RS: You think that and I think that, but what do we do with the large proportion of people that don’t agree with us?

SJ: That’s quite a dilemma. I don’t know. There was a point in time — you were there, actually, one of the times when I did a fairly aggressive presentation.

RS: Yes, we published an essay based on that speech.

SJ: I really was never dismissive of religion. That wasn’t the point. I did say something implying that it was foolish to believe the earth was only six thousand years old. I was kind of surprised at the reaction. I do use the e-word in this book. But I realized I could talk to children, and to adults too, and describe “descent with modification.” For anything living, the next generation varies, and some of its members survive better than others, and those traits are passed on. You can describe the process of evolution and nobody gets upset. It makes perfect sense.

RS: Right. It’s the word that sets them off. But I would imagine that there are a lot of people out there who wish you would do an animal book that was just gorgeous pictures of animals. We see series like that all the time here at the Horn Book. Library sets of mammals of the world. But because each one is treated discretely, there doesn’t have to be a discussion of how they got to be the way they are.

SJ: It’s just as easy to imagine that they were created on the spot.

RS: I don’t really know how we’re going to win this battle.

SJ: I’m focusing my hopes on the children, because I think the adults are too fixed in their worldviews.

RS: As you point out in the book, a huge percentage of the animal kingdom is bugs. How can we get people as interested in bugs as they are in those animals that are more like ourselves?

SJ: Yes, the charismatic megafauna. I think just showing them is one way. Interestingly, I don’t think that too many adults who aren’t entomologists are particularly interested in bugs, but I think a lot of children are. Maybe because they’re experiencing life more at that scale, at that level. They’re the ones who are sitting in the dirt and noticing the things crawling around. But it’s not just bugs. In the oceans, for instance, there are millions of fascinating little creatures that are really extraordinary if you look at them, if you enlarge them. Hopefully if children become interested in reading about the natural world, about one kind of creature, then that opens their eyes to the possibility of thinking about other kinds of creatures. Some that aren’t as immediately obvious as pandas and great white sharks.

RS: That’s a neat thing that this book does, because it does bring them all together, and it shows how one either leads to another, feeds from another, or is in some way related. They — we — are all related to each other.

SJ: Yes, which I think is one of the single most extraordinary concepts. Trees and bacteria and beetles — we are all related.

RS: Which part of the natural world secretly bores you the most?

SJ: We’re talking about living?

RS: Yeah, let’s say plants and animals. Like, “If I ever have to make another picture of a…”

SJ: I would probably say molds and algae. Single-celled plants. I’m sure they’re incredibly fascinating if you study them — the whole world depends on oxygen produced by algae — but I can’t really express that visually with my technique.

RS: How have you found your technique to have evolved over the years?

SJ: It’s gotten more detailed and more accurate. Originally one of the things that drew me to collage was a personality flaw of mine, which is that when I was working with, say, pencil, which I used to do when I was in art school, I would spend more and more time on a smaller and smaller piece of an illustration. It was really hard for me to step back and do the whole gesture and the whole form. Cut-paper collage makes that really hard to do, because you can only cut pieces of paper so small. If you look at some of my earlier books, you’ll see that the illustrations are much simpler. As I’ve gotten more adept at cutting out pieces of paper, I’ve succumbed to that tendency to try to become more and more detailed. But there’s still a limit. I can’t do individual hairs on a creature’s coat.

RS: Has the technology improved? Have knives gotten smaller, or sharper?

SJ: No, they’re pretty much the same. The only big difference is that I used to use rubber cement, but after a few years I realized that all the pieces of paper eventually fall off the board. I started working with an adhesive film that’s archival, which makes them permanent. But other than that, no. X-acto knives are still X-acto knives.

RS: They scare me. They’re so damn sharp.

SJ: I know. Inevitably, even after the hours I’ve spent using them, I end up stabbing myself. Never seriously, but enough to hurt.

RS: How did you ever get a grip on such a large topic?

SJ: I realized it made sense to make the book into kind of an encyclopedia, to cover things like reproduction and predation. But the landscape of those books is pretty intimidating. There are a lot of really comprehensive animal encyclopedias that have hundreds of people working on them. This couldn’t be that kind of book. It couldn’t be comprehensive. So that’s where the introduction came from. I wanted to explain that this book is idiosyncratic and eclectic and it’s just based on my personal interest in a lot of these creatures.

RS: I think it does a really good job of giving the reader a through-line, so that it does make a particular kind of sense if you go page by page. But at the same time it’s extremely browsable. You can open up to a spread and then go back or forward or just skip around. It really hangs together in both ways.

SJ: I never imagined anybody would go from beginning to end. I just assumed it would get opened up somewhere in the middle.

RS: Often I think reading starts that way, but then if the material is good enough, someone will say, “Okay, I want to see how this whole thing works.” A lot of the questions I had while reading the book, and I read it through, were about your organization and about your technique, and you take those on in the appended material. I thought that was pretty brilliant.

SJ: Thanks. That means there’s at least one other person besides myself and my editor that read it all.

RS: Oh, there’ll be more.

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Cynthia Voigt Talks with Roger Wed, 23 Oct 2013 18:15:12 +0000 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. Cynthia Voigt’s latest book, Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things, is a largely comic Victorian mystery that seems miles away from the tough stories of Dicey Tillerman or the Bad Girls. […]

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cynthia voigt header Cynthia Voigt 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.

cynthia voigt Cynthia Voigt Talks with RogerCynthia Voigt’s latest book, Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things, is a largely comic Victorian mystery that seems miles away from the tough stories of Dicey Tillerman or the Bad Girls. But as I talked to Cynthia, and as I thought more about Mister Max’s redoubtable grandmother, I realized some things don’t change.

Roger Sutton: We’re seeing lots of vaguely Victorian-set mystery series for middle-grade readers, but most of them come accompanied by these unctuous narrators winking at us, winking at the characters. We don’t know if we’re supposed to take this seriously or not. But you’re very straightforward.

Cynthia Voigt: I am. I don’t think I can be ambiguous. I’m essentially a very earnest person. I can’t write that complicatedly.

RS: When you’re writing a light mystery, how do you balance the need for danger with the security that this kind of series has?

CV: This book is not about horrible things that happen. It’s a book about the kid and the world he lives in, and I just never wanted to go where there was death and disaster. Not for Max.

RS: And we feel assured, as we’re reading it, that you’re not going to go in that direction.

CV: That’s true. You’re probably pretty sure I’m not going to kill him off. Which I’ve been known to do.

RS: The mysteries will be manageable.

CV: Yes. And they’re not so much mysteries, they’re problems. Which is one of my messages, over and over, it seems, in my books: you can solve a problem.

RS: Max calls himself the “solutioneer.”

CV: The solutioneer, yes. It’s a good attitude to life.

RS: Man, I’d like to have one of those.

CV: Yes, on hire.

RS: This book is planned as first in a trilogy. You’ve written several series before, but they weren’t planned as such, were they?

CV: No, all of the other ones were accidental. You’d write one book and then the next one would be in your head.

RS: When you wrote Homecoming, you thought it was originally going to be two books, and that you thought of Dicey’s Song as the third book.

CV: Yes. I thought of Dicey’s Song as Homecoming Part III.

RS: But from the start you didn’t say, “Okay, I’m going to write about this family of kids that’s going to travel down the coast to Grandma.” What’s different when you do have something planned out to begin with, as this series is?

CV: Interestingly enough, the original contract was not in place until I had drafts of all three books, which was not like things had been before. Of course when you write a mystery of any kind, I find it always requires a lot of revision, because it’s the hardest thing I know to write. To write a mystery, for me, is so anti-intuitive. You have to be so much more self-conscious at the typewriter than I often am when I’m writing.

mister max book of lost things Cynthia Voigt Talks with RogerRS: With a mystery you have to have a certain amount of calculation in your writing.

CV: Yes, and if I’m writing by intuition, generally that calculation works itself out. But if I’m writing a mystery, and somebody has to have a reason for doing what he’s doing, and it’s not anything I can imagine myself wanting to do, things get a little more difficult to write, and careless mistakes are made. Thank God for editors. I knew where the book began and I knew where it ended, and it turned out I couldn’t get it done in one book. So I thought of three, and that seemed to work out. And then I thought of four, and then I thought of three. Three is a good rhythm for this particular story. Mister Max is the book of lost things. The next is going to be the book of secrets. I get to play around with a lot of patterns. It’s just a different way of plotting things.

RS: Is Max ever going to leave home?

CV: Yes. Don’t you like his house?

RS: I do like his house, but I’m worried about his parents.

CV: I know. We should be. But not too much, right? It’s not haunting you.

RS: Right. Well, as we said, it’s not that kind of book. But it’s nice to have these overarching questions — where are my parents, what’s going on? — along with the solvable problems that Max takes on very methodically, or sometimes accidentally, but that he manages to fix. And you can watch them go click, click, click?

CV: I love click, click, click.

RS: Things fit together.

CV: Yeah. Clearly, I’ve had a very good time.

RS: When you’re writing a book like this, as opposed to — oh, to be extreme, When She Hollers, which was this horrifying novel for older kids about abuse — does the writing feel different? Are you happier?

CV: It’s less painful to be considering what you might be doing in the next scene. But on the other hand you feel less urgent about it. To write with a firebrand in your hand, to feel the utter importance and rightness of every word you’re putting on the page — When She Hollers was, in a way, easier to write, because it had all this emotion behind it. But it wasn’t as much fun. Even the bad books I write are satisfying. I’m my least critical reader.

RS: So you enjoy sitting down and doing it. You’re not like Judy Blume, who hates to write but loves to revise, for example?

CV: I love to write. I love to revise. I don’t love to reread. But that’s okay. I’m not a suffering artist.

RS: Have you found that your attitude toward your writing has changed over your career?

CV: Yes, my attitude has changed. I no longer have any hope to write the book that will save the world.

RS: I think reading can save the world. It’s not writing that saves the world.

CV: I agree with you.

RS: So what’s different now for you about writing?

CV: I consider myself plotting-impaired. That’s hard.

RS: Especially if you’re writing a mystery.

CV: I got used to being a writer. To compare it to teaching — I taught for twenty-five years; Horn Book executive editor Martha Parravano was one of my students! — for the first two or three years it was heady. I was discovering that I could do something and do it well. Be useful to people. It was exhilarating, sort of like the first two weeks of being in love with somebody, and then it becomes like the third bite of pizza. The first bite is wonderful. The second bite is not disappointing. The third? Meh. You get used to it. You know how to do a lot of the stuff. Some things, like the joy of being in a classroom, or teaching Hamlet, never fade. But some things are not so exhilarating. It’s what happens when you get accustomed to something.

RS: Right.

CV: So that’s what’s changed. Nothing essential, I don’t think, but the periphery.

RS: I also think that even in those things that you get used to, even though the newness is gone, that exhilaration, there’s the satisfaction of knowing what you’re doing.

CV: Right. And there’s the deep-rooted relationship you have. You become more and more the work that you’re doing, in a way that you can rely on and trust. The honeymoon ends, but then in a way love begins.

RS: This is all very philosophical and well reasoned. In the book, your hero Max likes to paint to sort things out. What do you do?

CV: I used to lean back in my chair and light a cigarette, but —

RS: Those were the days.

CV: Those were the days. Now if I just need to sit back and rest or keep a scene from going entirely awry or discover something I’ve done wrong or right, I might pull up a game of Freecell on my computer screen. Or I might walk around. I’ll walk around, or do a jigsaw puzzle. I have a jigsaw puzzle thing that I’ve taken up recently.

RS: Real or virtual?

CV: Real. Wooden pieces. I’m not messing around here. You set them out on the table and you spend five minutes with your fingers doing things. It’s like having a dinner party where you serve lobster. Your hands are busy and the talk flows.

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