The Horn Book » Talks with Roger Publications about books for children and young adults Thu, 30 Jul 2015 16:14:46 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Beth Ferry & Tom Lichtenheld Talk with Roger Tue, 14 Jul 2015 16:00:22 +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. A picture book manuscript can be a lonesome thing. You might even say the best ones generally are, still seeking a companion to bring sense and wholeness to their lives. Beth Ferry’s […]

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beth ferry and tom lichtenheld twr

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

beth ferryA picture book manuscript can be a lonesome thing. You might even say the best ones generally are, still seeking a companion to bring sense and wholeness to their lives. Beth Ferry’s text for Stick and Stone is particularly terse, even mysterious, taken on its own, waiting for pictures to complete it. Beth and illustrator Tom Lichtenheld here talk about how they turned Beth’s words into a book.

Roger Sutton: My first question is about the genesis of the thing. When you look at the words all by themselves, you think, “Oh, this is rather zen-like.” I’m curious to know, Beth, how you began?

Beth Ferry: It was a challenge I made to myself. I really like to write 500- and 600-word stories, so I made it a challenge to write one under 200 words. I wasn’t sure yet what it was going to be about. I think that was the first time I treated my writing as a job, like it was work — I’m going to write something with the intent of being published. And then I picked friendship as a theme because what I love about picture books is they truly do appeal to all ages. I get a lot out of my kids’ picture books. And friendship, finding and keeping good friends, is a challenge throughout your life.

RS: Tom, is this final text fairly close to Beth’s original manuscript? Is this what you first saw?

TL: Yes, I would say 99.5 percent.

RS: How did you know what to do?

TL: Well, I made a lot of mistakes first.

BF: Which were all brilliant, by the way. Every mistake was brilliant. I’m just saying.

tom lichtenheldTL: Thank you. I did a posting on the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog showing a bunch of my mistakes. After I went down all the blind alleys, I realized what I should be doing, and I did that. I always do a lot of preliminary work. Sometimes it goes somewhere and sometimes it doesn’t. But to answer your original question, the very thing that Beth just talked about, the succinctness, was the thing that attracted me immediately. In that zen-like atmosphere that it creates, I fell under the spell of the rhythm and the cogency. It’s spare, yet it’s rich. Everything dovetails together and fits. It’s still got a dynamic arc to it. There’s pathos at the beginning, and there’s drama in the middle, and there’s a resolution. It walks you through all those things seamlessly. I always know if I want to work on a book from the first reading, and the first time I start doodling. I’ll start doodling right in the margins of a manuscript, if I’m taken with it, and if my doodles actually feel good, then I know that I’m interested in the project. We changed very little editorially as I worked on it. There was one little thing I asked the editor and Beth if we could do at the end, and they were cool with that, so we made that little adjustment, and everything was there.

RS: It’s a very collaborative book. Of course in the theme of the book, the friendship between Stick and Stone, but also in the interdependence of the text and the pictures. Did you work together as the project went along?

TL: We really didn’t, which is unusual for me. I usually collaborate pretty closely with the authors I work with, but this was so figured out already. I could tell that even though it was simple, the simplicity was the result of a lot of work. Everything was just bolted together. There was a little bit of back and forth, but to be honest with you — and Beth, correct me if I’m wrong here — I don’t think there was a lot of it.

BF: No. I had seen some of the original sketches, and Tom did these brilliant puns. There was a lot of conversation between the stick and the stone, and a pinecone making little comments. My whole family and I were laughing out loud. But [editor] Kate O’Sullivan pointed out that when you read any type of conversation bubbles, or however it would have appeared, you lose the rhythm. So I think Kate was ultimately right in saying no dialogue.

RS: There are only a couple of moments when we do get an interjection, like the “boom” of the hurricane.

BF: Right. And you know what I find? When I read the book to kids I never read those words, but they do. I stay with the rhythm, and they’ll read the “boom” and “cowabunga,” which is really funny. And perfect.

TL: I’ve been reading the book quite a bit to kids in schools. Often when I read a book to kids I will stop along the way and talk about the visuals and talk about the story, but I learned pretty quickly with this book to just read it through. It’s that zen-like trance they get into with this story. At first I misinterpreted their silence as uninterest, but then when you really watch them they’re just transfixed. As soon as you get to page three, “Lonely. Alone,” you’ve got them. And it’s hard sometimes not to say something about the story or the pictures, but I don’t say a thing anymore, just read it.

RS: Beth, what surprised you most about the transformation of your manuscript into a picture book? When you look at this book now, what’s in there that you didn’t see for yourself?

BF: I’m not an artist at all, so I don’t actually spend a lot of time thinking about what the pictures are going to look like. I know I could never do justice to them. The characters aren’t full of personality when you’re writing them, especially in something so short, but you want them to be. Every time I see my characters now—every day, because I have a picture of them hanging on my wall — it’s a shock. I don’t know if this happens to other picture book authors who are not illustrators, but it’s truly joyful. It makes me beyond happy to see how they turned out.

RS: How come you made them boys?

BF: That’s a great question. You know what? I don’t know.

RS: I think of it because I had this long discussion with Marla Frazee when we did an interview about The Farmer and the Clown. We were both talking about the clown being a little boy, even though it’s a wordless book and you really can’t tell the difference when they’re that small and they have their clothes on, right? But we both decided it was a little boy.

BF: And I totally concur.

TL: It’s a fascinating phenomenon, Roger. I have this book called Duck! Rabbit!, and there’s a genderless character in it, okay, that’s either a dinosaur or an anteater. When I talk about the character with kids, I make it a she. And immediately, the boys protest, because they’re so accustomed to genderless characters being presumed to be male. It is just amazing, that she’s got her head up in the tree eating a leaf, or she’s got her nose on the ground. It’s really kind of dispiriting, but a fun experiment.

ferry_stick and stoneRS: Even here at the Horn Book, we’ll often initially default to male, even though we don’t know for sure. Luckily a fact-checker will catch that, if the character is not actually identified one way or the other.

TL: It’s built in, I’m afraid. And I’m afraid — this is not an endorsement, just an observation — I’m afraid that girls and women are so accustomed to it that they kind of accept it, maybe not even as a slight, but just as a fact.

RS: Right.

BF: You don’t even notice. I have two bulldogs. One’s a girl and one’s a boy. But to me, all bulldogs should be boys, because they look like boys. I know that sounds silly.

RS: Oh, Beth, I’m worse than you. I think all dogs are boys and all cats are girls.

All right, let’s talk about the gender-ambiguous pinecone. Do you foresee any further adventures of Pinecone?

BF: I don’t know, actually. That’s a great question. Kids do want to know what happens to Pinecone. I hadn’t actually thought about poor Pinecone after being swept away, so I think the way Tom brought the character back — Pinecone’s redemption — was really important for kids. And it does lead to a nice discussion about how you forgive someone who is mean to you. But so far, no, I don’t have a story yet about Pinecone.

RS: Do you two plan to do another book together?

TL: As soon as she sends me another perfect manuscript.

BF: No pressure at all.

TL: The Revenge of Pinecone.

BF: Exactly. We haven’t really talked about it yet. Maybe it would be fun to do another one.

TL: I would love to do another book together but I’m not a huge fan of sequels.

RS: Amen, brother.

TL: Number one, I like challenges. This book had so many wonderful challenges in it. And I feel like I would be repeating myself. I’m fine with a series, a book or a character that is designed from the get-go to be a series, and I’m actually working on one right now. But the difference is it’s built that way from day one, and you make sure there’s a lot of territory to explore with these characters. A sequel for the sake of a sequel I’m not really a fan of.

RS: Yeah, I like the idea of just letting Stick and Stone and their new little sidekick Pinecone walk off into the sunset. It’s our job to figure out what happens next.

TL: Right.

BF: Tom, when you drew the eyes in the cave, was that just for fun, or did you actually have in mind what creature was in there?

TL: I had no idea. I just knew that when you go to cartoon school, there are always eyeballs in a cave. If you’ve got a cave, there’s got to be eyeballs.

BF: It’s funny — when I look at it, I see some type of creature. Resoundingly the kids are saying, “Oh, it’s Pinecone.”

RS: Really?

TL: I never thought about that.

BF: I know. Me neither. The first time someone said it, the kid was like, “Yeah, he’s hiding, because he’s embarrassed that he was bad.”

TL: Wow.

BF: Brilliant, that kid. It never occurred to me.

TL: So smart.

RS: I think one of the neatest things that you learn when you share a picture book with young children is they really do look at everything in those pictures. You can’t let something slip by.

TL: Right.

BF: The details — until I saw your presentation about the dolphin in the logo, I didn’t get that, but I think it’s brilliant.

TL: Very subtle.

BF: Yes, but really smart. And kids love the dolphins, so it’s a double win.

RS: Wait a minute, what are we talking about with the dolphins?

TL: On the spread that says “laze by the shore,” where Stick and Stone are—

RS: Oh, it’s the Houghton Mifflin dolphins!

TL: It’s the old Houghton Mifflin dolphins. Which they abandoned in preference for what I call the drunken geometric shapes.

RS: Yes. Ahem! Tom, I interrupted you before. Do you remember what you were going to say?

TL: Oh, I was talking about the cave. I originally spent a lot of time sketching out scenes where Stick and Stone were wandering around the world, exploring. I did these visual jokes where Stone was sitting in the middle of Stonehenge, because I thought that would be funny, Stone going to Stonehenge. One of the reasons I abandoned that idea was I realized the reason for showing these characters doing some exploring was to enrich the relationship, rather than just make funny jokes about them going to Stonehenge and Easter Island. So when they’re looking into the cave, you notice that Stick is behind Stone. He’s sort of trepidatious and using Stone as kind of a safety net as he peers into the cave. And on the other side of the spread Stone is making a path for Stick.

BF: Every kid is like, “Look what he’s doing! He’s making a path.” They get it. It’s so great.

RS: And do they get the bouncing into the water, the physics of all that? You know, when Stone saves Stick, who’s drowning in the puddle?

BF: I don’t know. I mean, they get what’s happening. They all say, “How does Stone get out?” and I just say, “Well, he rolls out.” Because he can roll. They’re not questioning how that log is just conveniently in the right spot.

RS: It’s brilliant how clear it is — gathering speed on the hill, and then using the log for liftoff, plopping quickly into the puddle, and boom, out comes Stick. It’s a terrific demonstration of physics right there.

TL: Right. I just want to take this opportunity to thank Beth for throwing that one at me. The line says “Stone rescues him quick.” So thanks a lot for giving me a stick and a stone with appendages, and making one of them rescue the other out of a puddle.

BF: When I wrote that line, I thought, “I don’t know how this is going to happen, but the illustrator will figure it out.” And you did a magnificent job.

TL: I love those kinds of challenges. It’s not an unreasonable challenge at all. You just figure it out.

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Carol Weston Talks with Roger Mon, 18 May 2015 18:17:58 +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. In Ava and Taco Cat, Carol Weston’s second book about sisters Ava and Pip, fifth-grader Ava negotiates some of tweendom’s most essential relationships: with your sister, your best friend, and your parents. […]

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carol weston 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.

carol westonIn Ava and Taco Cat, Carol Weston’s second book about sisters Ava and Pip, fifth-grader Ava negotiates some of tweendom’s most essential relationships: with your sister, your best friend, and your parents. Put a much-longed-for cat into the mix and you’ve got middle-grade drama at its most appealing.

Roger Sutton: How are you, Carol?

Carol Weston: I’m well, thank you. How are you?

RS: Just fine.

CW: I’m glad you’re calling me on pub day.

RS: What’s that like, pub day?

CW: This is not the first time I’ve had a book come out, but I think for first-time authors, you expect it to be Christmas morning or something, and sometimes it’s quiet. The book is in the stores, but it doesn’t mean that everybody has just finished reading it.

RS: Did you ever read Anne Lamott’s essay in Bird by Bird about book publication day? Where she talks about getting up in the morning and thinking it’s going to be great, and how she practices aw-shucks stubbing her toe in the dirt, preparing to receive all the compliments, and of course no one pays any attention whatsoever.

CW: I loved Bird by Bird. I’ve actually had forty letters published in the New York Times. It’s always exciting, and people do see them, but it’s not as though your phone rings in the morning. A week later people will say, “Oh, I saw you had a letter in the Times.” So I guess it’s good that I planned today to wake up, read the paper, go to the gym.

RS: I think it can be hard these days, with social media, because there can be such quick response to things, and when you don’t get it…

CW: Oh, it is such a noisy world. It’s amazing any of us gets any attention. I’m probably better taking it in stride and having realistic expectations. That said, if I’m having a book event I work pretty hard to let people know. I don’t just hope that the bookstore will fill up all by itself. Bookstores appreciate it when authors know that they have to do their part. If you have a book event in your hometown, or a place where you have friends, and you let your friends know, then you’re probably good to go. But if you have a book event in Indianapolis and you don’t know anybody, then even famous authors have to hope for the best.

RS: What do you find are the special challenges, both artistically and in terms of promoting the second book in a series?

CW: You know, it’s funny. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky and I, together, have decided that we’re not necessarily calling this a series, maybe because of those challenges. For instance, the New York Times gave the first book, Ava and Pip, a lovely review, but they may or may not mention a second book in a series.

RS: Right.

CW: Unless it’s Harry Potter. On the other hand, as we were just saying, it’s hard to get noticed at all, so if you can get your first book in the series to be noticed, to land, then it’s nice. Kids love series books. If they like the first one, they’ll gobble them up. Child and parent are both happy to see another one in the bookstore. I’m already very far along in the third book, which will be called Ava XOX. Each book needs to work as a standalone, but I love that I created this whole world, Ava’s town of Misty Oaks. I hope to keep writing brand-new books, but I also like finding my way back into the same characters, the same family.

RS: Do you find you have to do any particular kind of extra work, because there are going to be some readers who read the first book and some who haven’t? How do you balance the expectations of those two groups?

CW: Pretty carefully. I will have a few lines that are there to amuse the fans, but I have to be sure never to confuse the new readers. So I’ll say something like “My big sister Pip, who used to be so, so shy…” To somebody who’s read the first book, that’s practically the entire plot of it. You know, I met Sue Grafton before she became Sue Grafton.

RS: What letter is she up to?

CW: I think she’s up to — X has not come out. W Is for Wasted I definitely read, and I think X has not come out. We became friends back in Columbus, Ohio, and we’re still very good friends. I read A Is for Alibi in manuscript form, and now she’s up to W, so I have watched her deftly reintroduce Kinsey Millhone in each book. I’ve been able to learn at the hands of a master.

RS: She has it tough, too, because she’s got to finish the alphabet. She must have realized by about F or G that she was in it for the long haul, whereas you can keep going with Ava or not.

CW: That’s true. And even my editor — I love my editor; his name is Steve Geck — he and I both are thinking, well, maybe we’ll keep going, or maybe not, but I love that he’s given me the open invitation. I am under contract to write one more Ava book, and also one non-Ava book, but I said to him, “I love hanging out in Misty Oaks.” I love that he wants me to be taken seriously as a literary writer, so he doesn’t want me to get pigeonholed, but neither of us is going to leave Ava and Pip hanging if we’re both still enjoying working with them. I appreciate that it’s not set in stone.

weston_ava and pipRS: I think it’s very interesting the way you have these very standard, child-appealing motifs, like getting a new pet, dealing with your sister, and what happens when your best friend gets a new best friend. But those are all complicated in interesting ways in this book. Like the fact that the sisters are only two years apart. Often you’ll see more of an age difference in that kind of a story, so that one is clearly a teenager and one is clearly not. Here we see the way the sisters’ interests blend and diverge throughout the book. It goes back and forth. I thought that was neat.

CW: Thank you. Well, as you may know, I’m also the Dear Carol advice columnist for Girls’ Life magazine. I’ve been doing that for twenty-one years. And I’m the mother of two daughters (now grown up), so I happen to be acutely aware of what it means to be an eleven-year-old girl versus a thirteen-year-old girl versus a fifteen-year-old girl. If I were writing about boys, I’d probably struggle with that a little bit more. But with girls, I know every little step along the way. I like the idea of the girls who are in between, who aren’t kids, but they’re not teens. Ava’s sister Pip is still pretty darn young, but, yeah, she’s got herself a boyfriend. It’s pretty innocent, but it’s important.

RS: About the pet adoption — I wanted to thank you for showing how difficult the period of adjustment is. We got a dog a couple years ago — rescue dog — and he was very shy and scared in the shelter, and they said, “Oh, you get him home and he’ll warm right up.” Well, it took two years.

CW: Wow.

RS: Six months living in the closet. We’d go for walks and then come in and he’d march to his little closet and sit there and look at us. So I love that you show that it’s not going to be this wonderful bonding as soon as you get them in the door, which I think some kids expect.

CW: It does take a while. Everything’s gradual. Everything’s baby steps.

RS: The other thing I wanted to ask you, both in terms of this book and your position as an advice columnist for girls, is why do you think we see so many middle-grade dramas for girls mining these stories of three-way friendships? I’m a guy. It didn’t really work for us like that as boys. But for girls, it’s huge.

CW: Do you mean why in real life, or why there are so many books about that?

RS: I guess both.

CW: It is so hard for girls. That first friendship: “We’re best friends.” It’s almost like being a couple. So when all of a sudden there’s somebody else, you’re kind of like, “Huh?” Most adults know how to navigate friendships, and if our friend makes another friend, well, that’s certainly fine. But when you’re a child, and your best friend makes another friend at camp or school, it feels like an earthquake. It shouldn’t be devastating, and eventually kids learn that you don’t have to like all of your friend’s friends. You and your friend just have to like each other. But that’s a lesson you have to learn. I get so many letters about it. When I write my fiction I don’t want it to be all laden with takeaway messages, but I know what kids think about because of the advice column, and I can’t help wanting to help them.

RS: So how do you keep on this side of the line, so that you’re not preaching or being didactic about how a person should be with her friends?

CW: You create realistic characters and add humor. In my advice column, I really can’t be very funny. I think adult advice columnists can be, but eleven-year-olds do not want humor about bras or boyfriends or anything like that. I’ve learned to just make it very sincere and earnest. But in fiction I can be funny, and that’s helpful.

RS: Why do you think that is? I think you’re right, but why do you think that kids can accept it in fiction, whereas they couldn’t in straight-on advice?

CW: With an advice person, they want somebody very safe, where they can say, “My right breast is smaller than my left breast” or “I like my best friend’s boyfriend. I’m a terrible person.” They don’t want to know whether the advice columnist has a sense of humor. It’s just too important. A kid finally admitting something — they just want you to give them the equivalent of a big hug and a bunch of wisdom, to tell them that it’s okay, and they’re not the only one, and here are some ideas.

With fiction, kids want to laugh. They want to learn, but they also want to laugh. They want to just turn the pages and have fun. It’s a different animal. As far as not preaching, I’m also lucky—and it’s a luck that I’ve worked for—in that I have a group of friends of all ages, kids and grownups, who read my work. If I’m getting a little heavy-handed about anything, they’ll say so. And this includes my husband and my kids. They will give me very honest feedback

RS: Do you find that these readers have pointed out something consistently to you so that you think, “Oh, yeah, I really need to work on this?”

CW: Yes. In the old days, because I’m an advice columnist, I would get my characters in trouble and then quickly help them out. By now I’ve learned that when I’m writing fiction, you get your characters in trouble, and you keep them in trouble for a long time. You throw more obstacles at them, and make them suffer. I hate making an eleven-year-old girl suffer. I try to help her out as much as I can. I surround her with lifesavers.

RS: That’s interesting, because that’s almost the same thing as what you’re saying about humor. That in real life, of course you want to help a child as quickly as you can, but in fiction, kids want to see other kids get in trouble, just as they want to be able to laugh at the characters they read about. Because there’s a distance between them and the character in the book. It’s not them.

Do you see a lot of yourself in Ava?

CW: I really wasn’t a big reader in fifth grade. I admired kids who were, and my best friend was a bookworm, but I was just a kid with a diary for the longest time. I would read the schoolbooks, but pleasure reading wasn’t something that I really did. I did read Aesop’s Fables, but they’re really short. There is a lot of me in Ava. I’m certainly a cat person. It’s funny: it’s my fourteenth book, but this is the first time I’ve written about a fifth-grade girl with a diary and a cat. You’d think I would have written that one already.

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Pam Muñoz Ryan Talks with Roger Thu, 26 Mar 2015 15:35:52 +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. Where to start? Echo begins in fairy-tale Germany but swiftly moves to the twentieth century, hopping from the German countryside to Philadelphia to Southern California, all settings tied together by…a harmonica? I […]

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pam munoz ryan 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.

pam munoz ryan

Photo: Sean B. Masterson

Where to start? Echo begins in fairy-tale Germany but swiftly moves to the twentieth century, hopping from the German countryside to Philadelphia to Southern California, all settings tied together by…a harmonica? I called Pam Muñoz Ryan to find out the origin of this unlikely story.

Roger Sutton: Echo is such an ambitious book. What was your point of entry? Where did you start?

Pam Muñoz Ryan: Like with many of my books, I set out to start one book, and along the way I get diverted. I was doing research on the nation’s first successful desegregation case, in 1931. It’s a little-known case, Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District; people don’t know much about it because he won in a lower court, so precedent wasn’t set. I was at the historical society in Lemon Grove, which is east of San Diego, with this wonderful docent who was helping me go through all these yearbooks. I came across a picture of a country school from the early 1930s. On the steps are integrated classes of children, and each one of them is holding a harmonica. The docent tried to kind of flip past it, saying, “No, no, that was before the segregation issues,” and I said, “Wait, wait, wait, what is that, exactly?” And she said, “Oh, you know, that was our elementary school harmonica band. Everybody had one in the twenties and thirties. You know, during the big harmonica band movement.”

RS: Absolutely.

PMR: Of course. Why not? Well, that was just dangling a carrot. I asked her more about it, and she said, “Oh, yeah, if we flip forward, you’ll find my brother.” I went home and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I started doing research and found out that there were over 2500 elementary school harmonica bands in the United States during that time, including Albert N. Hoxie’s then-famous Philadelphia Harmonica Band of Wizards. They played for Charles Lindbergh’s parade, and for three presidents, and at FDR’s inauguration.

I love historical fiction. I don’t always write it, but I have a huge affection for it, and when I find some little nugget that’s a different angle, or something people don’t really know about — especially something as endearing and quirky as a harmonica — I’m really taken with it. Two characters started coming to the fore: a girl in this little country school band, maybe in a school that was integrated and then segregated; and a boy in Hoxie’s band — through my research I had discovered that the band was full of orphans. So these two characters, Mike and Ivy, started taking shape, and then I started wondering if the same harmonica could have traveled from one character to the other. And then I wondered who had it before them. In the meantime, I was doing all this research on a particular model of harmonica, the Hohner Marine Band, because it was in both photographs — the picture of Hoxie’s band that I found and the one of all the kids in the country school (they’re all holding that same model). So then I contacted Hohner in the U.S., and they put me in touch with people in Trossingen, Germany, who run a harmonica museum, and they were just wonderful and gracious. I flew to Germany, and the museum was remarkable. Hohner was a master of marketing, and for every world event, there’s a commemorative harmonica.

RS: After reading your book I went to the Hohner website to look at the history of some of their models, and there are some really beautiful pieces.

PMR: It’s amazing. The museum was very complete. They have models of what the factory looked like at the time of my book. That’s where I learned about the young apprentices who worked there, and about the demise of the six-pointed star engraving. And so the character of Friedrich started taking shape. Now I had these three characters, but I didn’t want the book to just be episodic, having a harmonica that just travels from person to person to person. I wanted a richer thread to hold it all together, so that’s how I started imagining the harmonica’s backstory. These three characters are living through some of the darkest and most challenging times in history. Friedrich is in Nazi Germany, for Mike it’s the Great Depression, and Ivy is living through the era of segregation. There was something in me that wanted to give them some beauty and light that would give them the impetus to carry on. Something that lifted their self-esteem, or gave them some sort of strength and confidence.

ryan_echoRS: And then how did you get those three sisters in, in the fairy tale that opens the novel?

PMR: I have always been intrigued by fairy tales. I was one of those obsessive readers as a young girl, very much able to suspend disbelief in whatever I was reading, so I really loved fairy tales. I’d always wanted to write one, but I didn’t want to write one just for the sake of it. I wanted it to be organic to whatever it was that I was doing, so I set out to write an original fairy tale where magic became imbued into the harmonica. I studied the genre, and I reread a lot of fairy tales. I also reread Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. I love all of his analysis. I think what I love most about fairy tales is that the genre is very different from a novel. In a fairy tale, you tell instead of show. In a novel, you show instead of tell. I had to really adjust my way of thinking, but it was also freeing on some level. I created the fairy tale element so that the harmonica could have the magic it needed, so that each character could feel this euphoric sense of well-being.

RS: Did you write from page one to page six hundred, or were you concentrating on different parts at different times?

PMR: I had started working on it, on some level, before I even went to Trossingen, before I had that third character, so I didn’t work on it chronologically. But I did understand the chronology that I wanted in the end.

RS: So you knew you were going to bring two characters together, you just didn’t know about the third?

PMR: I knew I needed a third story arc, and I found it when I went to Germany. Once I knew the framework, that it would be three stories framed by a fairy tale, then I was able to begin each story. You have to remember this is six years in the making, so it’s hard for me to remember precisely the order. I did work on it in chunks, and of course went back and forth with my editor, but there was so much weaving and reweaving that it’s hard to distinguish, especially in the last few years. I am sort of a recursive writer anyway, always going back to the beginning and pulling that thread. I bought a huge seven-foot-long, four-foot-high whiteboard and put it in my office. I wrote the months for each year in which the characters’ stories took place, and I had all the leitmotifs—the recurring themes, people, places, and things—in long lists of words and phrases that echoed in each story. Some of them I think the reader will be able to pick out, but many of them I just wanted more on a subconscious level. And then there are these threads of warehousing: in the fairy tale the warehousing of women, in Friedrich’s story the warehousing of the Jews, and the warehousing of children in Mike’s story, the warehousing of the Japanese and the Mexican Americans in Ivy’s story. There were these odd little threads that were woven through the whole book, so it helped me to have this big diagram on the whiteboard, and it helped me to have this visual.

RS: Did I make up the shout-out to Holes?

PMR: You know, you are not the first person to see that. But if I did, it was completely — you mean Louis Sachar’s Holes?

RS: Yup. There are peaches.

PMR: What?

RS: You have a jar of peaches in there.

PMR: Oh my god. That is really interesting. I guess as a writer there are so many things you do subconsciously.

RS: Well, I thought of it because you have the same kind of mythic base, and then these braiding stories coming together.

PMR: And I do have that jar of peaches. I didn’t do it consciously, though, to be honest.

RS: I think of a book of yours I love, The Dreamer, which is really beautifully contained, kind of gemlike. And now with Echo we have this huge canvas. How was it different to work on?

PMR: Number one, it takes a lot longer. The Dreamer was about one person’s life, Pablo Neruda, and it was more linear. This one was just bigger. It’s three stories and they needed to have some threads that held them together. Also, because The Dreamer is illustrated, I knew in the back of my mind that Peter Sís was going to say things in his art that I didn’t need to say in the book.

RS: It’s funny, you keep saying three stories, and I’m thinking about the three stories in the book, but I’m also thinking about the three stories of a house, because they’re really built on top of each other.

PMR: Oh, interesting!

RS: The three stories aren’t working at the same time. Each one depends upon the one before.

PMR: Right. That’s very true. I love that. Whether I ever accomplish it or not, as a writer I want all of that to happen, but I want it to feel organic and integrated. At the end, more than anything, I think my most ardent goal is I want the reader to turn the page.

RS: I remember when Lizette Serrano [from Scholastic] handed the book to me at ALA, and I thought, “Oh, it looks so long.” And I started on my diatribe about long books, and Lizette said, “Don’t worry. It goes really quickly.”

PMR: Did you find that it went quickly?

RS: I did.

PMR: Oh, good. I was happy when I saw the book, because the leading is easy on the eyes, too. There’s enough space. It doesn’t feel really burdensome.

RS: We old folks bless you.

PMR: Do you want to ask me if I play the harmonica?

RS: Do you play the harmonica?

PMR: I kind of learned how to play some of the songs in the book. It’s very easy to do, but I’m not really a musician. I will tell you something interesting that has happened after writing this book. Everywhere I go, I am almost always asked if I still play the cello. It took a long time to figure out why people were asking me that. I think they thought because of how I wrote about the cello music in Friedrich’s story that I play the cello.

RS: You’re a very accomplished woman. Harmonica, cello, writing.

PMR: Maybe I should say, “Oh, no, I gave that up years ago.”

RS: “I gave it up for the harmonica.”

PMR: Yes. But I will say this: the wonderful thing about music is you don’t have to be a musician to love music, and you don’t have to be a writer to love and appreciate books, and you don’t have to be an artist to love and dedicate your life to art. That’s what I wanted for the story. I wanted that beauty to illuminate my characters’ tasks.

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JonArno Lawson Talks with Roger Mon, 16 Mar 2015 18:40:23 +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. Just prior to calling JonArno in Toronto, I posted to Facebook: “Interviewing poet JonArno Lawson in a few minutes about his new book Sidewalk Flowers. Which is wordless. A wordless book by […]

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: And the man on the bench.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JL: No.

RS: Don’t watch it at night.

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

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

JL: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: It must really change your perspective.

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

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

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

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

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

RS: Such an old pro.

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

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Floyd Cooper Talks with Roger Tue, 03 Mar 2015 18:42:56 +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. In the midst of a classic Boston snowpocalypse, it was pure pleasure to talk to Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner Floyd Cooper [in 2009 for The Blacker the Berry, written by […]

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

Roger Sutton: You grew up in Oklahoma, right?

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

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

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

RS: Was Juneteenth something you celebrated as a kid?

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

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

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

RS: Wow.

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

RS: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

RS: Do the Hustle!

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

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

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

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

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

RS: The cesspool that it is today?

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

RS: And how do you see books surviving?

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

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

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

RS: It’s a big difference, isn’t it?

FC: Oh, it’s huge. Tremendously.

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

FC: Oh, yes. So you saw that?

RS: Uh-huh.

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

RS: Who, me?

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

RS: No, I did not.

FC: Are you artistic?

RS: Hell, no.

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

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

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

RS: Gotta have readers.

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

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

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

RS: Right.

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

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

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

RS: What did I say?

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

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

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

RS: Right.

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

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

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

RS: Do you read books on yours?

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

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

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

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

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

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

FC: What year was that?

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

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

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

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

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

FC: There you go. That’s it.

RS: Your job is to make the books.

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JonArno Lawson sketches from Sidewalk Flowers Thu, 26 Feb 2015 19:44:28 +0000 The post JonArno Lawson sketches from Sidewalk Flowers appeared first on The Horn Book.

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Patrick Jennings Talks with Roger Tue, 17 Feb 2015 18:01:18 +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 chronicling the adventures of Guinea Dog in three volumes, Patrick Jennings now turns to a cat who most definitely knows what he likes. Our amiable conversation about Hissy Fitz was sadly […]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: Do you remember the Kliban cats?

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

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

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

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

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

RS: Right, and look down on us.

PJ: Exactly.

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

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

RS: Not mine. I have to beg him.

PJ: Oh, really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PJ: I stay within the cat.

RS: Right. Be the cat, Patrick.

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

RS: Right.

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

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

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

PJ: Sure, a long time ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mac Barnett & Jory John Talk with Roger Tue, 03 Feb 2015 17:38:57 +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. Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner Mac Barnett (for Extra Yarn, with Jon Klassen) and Jory John (All My Friends Are Dead, with Avery Monsen) team up for a tale about an […]

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

mac barnett

Mac Barnett

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

Roger Sutton: So where are you school-visiting?

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

RS: And what do you talk about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: Oh, now it’s getting interesting. How did this book get started?

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

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

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

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

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

JJ: Okay, as long as it’s not 35,000.

Jory John

Jory John

RS: So how does the collaboration work?

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

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

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

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

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

MB: I like where this is going, Roger.

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

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

barnett and john_terrible twoRS: True. So what envelope is this book pushing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MB: No, Roger.

JJ: No way. Never.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MB: Is this a prank?

RS: No, no. It’s beautiful.

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Stan Lee Talks with Roger Wed, 31 Dec 2014 16:21:47 +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. Comic-book legend Stan Lee, who turns 92 next week, makes the move into children’s books with the publication in January of his novel Zodiac, written with Stuart Moore and illustrated by Andie […]

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stan lee twr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: Sure.

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

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

SL: Because I only collaborate with the best people.

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

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

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

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

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

SL: I’m a dog?

RS: You’re a dog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: Just the good guys?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: What’s the plan?

SL: Can’t tell you.

RS: One? Four? You don’t know?

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

RS: There’s definitely a lot going on.

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

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

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

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

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

RS: Think big, Stan.

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Naomi Shihab Nye Talks with Roger 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 twr

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

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

Roger Sutton: How do you keep your enthusiasm?

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

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

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

RS: Oh, hell, I never had it.

NSN: I think you have it right now.

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

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

RS: Huh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: Let’s just bag this talk and go.

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

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

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

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

NSN: No. What do you mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: Oh, God forbid, Naomi.

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

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

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

RS: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NSN: Oh my God. This is amazing.

RS: I’ll send you a link.

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

NSN: Oh, that’s interesting.

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

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

RS: No, I didn’t know that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NSN: It keeps living.

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