The Horn Book » Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com Publications about books for children and young adults Mon, 20 Oct 2014 18:37:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.4 Molly Idle Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com/2014/10/talks-with-roger/molly-idle-talks-roger/ http://www.hbook.com/2014/10/talks-with-roger/molly-idle-talks-roger/#respond Mon, 13 Oct 2014 19:18:42 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=41828 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. After winning a Caldecott Honor Award for Flora and the Flamingo, Molly Idle and her doughty heroine have jeté-ed from the ballet onto the ice, where Flora and the Penguin engage in […]

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molly idle twr header Molly Idle Talks with Roger

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


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

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

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

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

RS: What persuaded you to put Flora on skates?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: What did that flamingo do to her?

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

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

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

RS: What are they going to do?

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

RS: Threesomes are really complicated.

MI: Yeah, even when you’re a grownup.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: Right. And penguins do love fish.

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

RS: Flora has her moment of squeamishness.

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

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

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

RS: That’s what it looks like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MI: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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marla frazee twr header Marla Frazee Talks with Roger

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


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

Roger Sutton: This is a really amazing book.

Marla Frazee: Thank you so much.

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

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

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

RS: This idea.

MF: Yes.

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

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

RS: Me neither.

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

RS: The clown comes to town.

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

9781442497443 f3568 Marla Frazee Talks with RogerRS: We have that amazing scene of revelation where on the left-hand side of the spread, you see them getting to know each other. They’re talking. And then they’re eating. And then they’re washing up for the night, and the makeup comes off the clown’s face. And to the old man, at least the way I’m reading it — and of course, it being wordless, we can read it however we want to — it’s like a completely different person he’s now encountering. That he finally sees the clown as a baby, or a little child.

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

RS: It’s huge. Completely unexpected.

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

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

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

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

MF: Yes.

RS: I think you chose wisely.

MF: Thank you.

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

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

RS: That’s a great book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

MF: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Nancy J. Cavanaugh Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/talks-with-roger/nancy-j-cavanaugh-talks-roger/ http://www.hbook.com/2014/09/talks-with-roger/nancy-j-cavanaugh-talks-roger/#respond Thu, 11 Sep 2014 18:18:06 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=40767 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. Nancy J. Cavanaugh’s second novel, Always Abigail, is about a girl whose goal in life is to join the middle school pom-pom squad. Or so she thinks, but middle school turns out […]

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nancy j cavanaugh talks with roger Nancy J. Cavanaugh Talks with Roger

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: That’s all of us.

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

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

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

RS: But again, Nancy, not just kids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: That’s why it feels so bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: And the reading is like that too.

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

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

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

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

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

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Adi Alsaid Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com/2014/07/talks-with-roger/adi-alsaid-talks-roger/ http://www.hbook.com/2014/07/talks-with-roger/adi-alsaid-talks-roger/#respond Wed, 23 Jul 2014 16:30:27 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=39688 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. When I talked with Adi Alsaid about his first novel, Let’s Get Lost, which is about a road trip, he was, appropriately enough, on a road trip in San Francisco and headed […]

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


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

Roger Sutton: Where do you usually live?

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

RS: Kind of like your own personal road trip.

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

RS: Where do you most want to go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AA: It is not a sequel.

RS: Hallelujah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AA: Thank you.

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Ilsa J. Bick Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com/2014/03/talks-with-roger/ilsa-j-bick-talks-roger/ http://www.hbook.com/2014/03/talks-with-roger/ilsa-j-bick-talks-roger/#respond Sat, 01 Mar 2014 18:44:44 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=39320 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. After wrapping up the apocalyptic Ashes trilogy with Monsters last fall, Ilsa J. Bick returns with White Space, a fat thriller that finds its chills in the unlikely intersections of dreams, lives, […]

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ilsa j bick talks with roger Ilsa J. Bick 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.


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

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

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

RS: How much of this do you believe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: She’s to blame.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: What books scare you?

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

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

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

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Jeff Kinney Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com/2013/12/talks-with-roger/jeff-kinney-talks-roger/ http://www.hbook.com/2013/12/talks-with-roger/jeff-kinney-talks-roger/#respond Mon, 16 Dec 2013 18:51:19 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=33677 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. Greg Heffley is back, in Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck, the eighth in Jeff Kinney’s mega-popular novels about the middle-school antihero. The format, in which hand-printed journal entries on lined-paper […]

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jeff kinney twr header Jeff Kinney 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.


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

RS: Hi Jeff. You’re out on tour?

JK: Yes, I’m on tour, on a bus.

RS: You have a bus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: My mother would have called him fresh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: I’ll come and visit from Boston.

JK: Okay, good. Please do.


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Steve Jenkins Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com/2013/11/talks-with-roger/steve-jenkins-talks-roger/ http://www.hbook.com/2013/11/talks-with-roger/steve-jenkins-talks-roger/#respond Tue, 26 Nov 2013 19:30:09 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=32779 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. There’s no doubt that Steve Jenkins can do things with paper collage that are impressive and beautiful; perhaps less obvious to the eye is the scientific thinking behind every picture. From dinosaurs […]

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


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

Roger Sutton: Where do you get your paper?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: Right. Go crazy.

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

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

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

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

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

RS: The scales are different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SJ: We’re talking about living?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: Oh, there’ll be more.


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Cynthia Voigt Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com/2013/10/talks-with-roger/cynthia-voigt-talks-roger/ http://www.hbook.com/2013/10/talks-with-roger/cynthia-voigt-talks-roger/#respond Wed, 23 Oct 2013 18:15:12 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=31355 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. Cynthia Voigt’s latest book, Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things, is a largely comic Victorian mystery that seems miles away from the tough stories of Dicey Tillerman or the Bad Girls. […]

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cynthia voigt header Cynthia Voigt Talks with Roger

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: The mysteries will be manageable.

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

RS: Max calls himself the “solutioneer.”

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

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

CV: Yes, on hire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RS: Is Max ever going to leave home?

CV: Yes. Don’t you like his house?

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

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

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

CV: I love click, click, click.

RS: Things fit together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CV: I agree with you.

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

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

RS: Especially if you’re writing a mystery.

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

RS: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

RS: Those were the days.

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

RS: Real or virtual?

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


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Donna Jo Napoli Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com/2013/09/talks-with-roger/donna-jo-napoli-talks-with-roger/ http://www.hbook.com/2013/09/talks-with-roger/donna-jo-napoli-talks-with-roger/#respond Tue, 17 Sep 2013 17:00:23 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=29426 Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here. With more than fifty books published since 1991, I can’t think of a literary pool Donna Jo Napoli hasn’t at least dipped her toe into: picture books, biography, historical fiction, middle-grade mysteries, […]

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donna jo napoli talks with roger Donna Jo Napoli 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.


With more than fifty books published since 1991, I can’t think of a literary pool Donna Jo Napoli hasn’t at least dipped her toe into: picture books, biography, historical fiction, middle-grade mysteries, and, most notably, several young adult novels imaginatively drawn from folk and fairy tales. Skin moves Napoli into new territory once again, to the landscape of the contemporary problem novel. All seems to be going reasonably well for Sep (“there is no nice nickname for Giuseppina”), until she wakes up on the first day of her junior year with white lips. Neither metaphor nor fantasy element, Sep’s lips are instead the first sign of vitiligo, a disease characterized by the disappearance of pigment from the skin. Napoli skillfully stays true to her heroine’s problem while at the same time exploring a potent and persistent theme: every adolescent sees a freak in the mirror.

Roger Sutton: The first thing I have to tell you about Skin is that I felt like such a boy when I read it.

DonnaJoNapoli Donna Jo Napoli Talks with RogerDonna Jo Napoli: Oh. What does that mean?

RS: Well, it seems so female a book to me. Like the casual discussions of tampons and things. I felt like a fifteen-year-old boy going, “Ew, ew, ew, ew!”

DJN: I see. Yes, well, we are inside her head.

RS: We know that the audience for teen novels is generally young women. They buy or borrow and read most of the books. Did you have any consciousness of writing for a female audience?

DJN: You know, I usually don’t think about the reader when I’m writing. But I never give something to an editor until I’ve had my target audience read it. When one of those readers says, “I don’t understand this,” then I’ll think about what the reader needs to know. But otherwise I don’t think about audience; I just write.

RS: How do you find young people to read your works-in-progress?

DJN: There are a few ways. I used to just accost kids.

RS: Till you got arrested.

DJN: Yeah, right. I’d see them passing by in the mall, herds of people, and I would just ask, “Are you willing to read a story?” For little tiny kids, I’ll ask their mothers if they’re willing to read to them. But I found an easier way than accosting (although accosting I still do now and then). At Swarthmore College, where I work, we have an e-mail list where you can say, “I’m selling a table,” or “I need a dentist; who have you got to recommend?” I say, “I’m looking for readers, 14–18 years. Does anybody have a child who might be interested?” For Skin I said there’s explicit sex in it, so if you’re a censoring parent, know that before you ask your kid.

RS: Did you get any specific feedback from kids on this book?

DJN: I did. The younger readers (fourteen, fifteen years) were less critical. They were, I think, grateful to be reading something that handled how horrible you can feel about such intimate things. The older readers, who had a little more life experience, gave me comments about sex behavior, especially with respect to Sep’s boyfriend, Joshua. In the earlier drafts, I had Sep be much harsher toward Joshua. She just shuts him out like a brick wall, and they couldn’t bear that. So they had me soften her a little bit. But I wouldn’t go as far as they wanted. A lot of readers really wanted her to confide in Joshua, but I wouldn’t do it.

RS: That to me is one of the most interesting things about the book, in that you don’t have this put-upon heroine who everyone is picking on and making fun of or rejecting. That does happen, but she is very much complicit in her circumstances.

skin Donna Jo Napoli Talks with RogerDJN: You’re right. When you decide to finally deal with an issue — in this case vitiligo — you have so many choices about what to do. The studies on the psychological effects of vitiligo are few, but when you read what the kids say, it is devastating. But I also had my own reasons for wanting to deal with how she handled it, because I had my own problems when I was a teen. I basically cut off all friends; well, all friends were cut off from me, but then I did nothing to reach out to people. I just let myself be a pariah for a while. And I think it’s not that uncommon.

RS: Each of us grew up with at least one thing that we were afraid everybody could see and was judging us by.

DJN: Yes. So I think Sep’s situation is kind of typical of what you go through as a teen. It’s just that hers is extreme, and it’s right there on her face. So hard.

RS: Oh, I can’t imagine what that must be like.

DJN: It takes a while to realize, “That’s me. And it’s all right.”

RS: What brought you to this subject?

DJN: In 2006 I saw someone with vitiligo, and that’s when I wrote the first draft of my story. I’m pretty slow. I go through many drafts.

RS: You sure publish a lot for someone who’s slow.

DJN: Well, I work on many things at once. Not that I work on this today and that tomorrow, but I’ll work on this for a month and put it away for a year and then come back to it. I have no ability to see something when I’m too close to it. I need to get away and come back.

RS: You’ve been at this a long time and you’ve tried so many different things.

DJN: I love writing. It’s sort of like a lifeline. It’s somewhere that I can be very strong, and it’s fun to be very strong. I also use writing to further my education. I can just decide I want to learn about warthogs in Kenya and go off and work on it (Mogo, the Third Warthog). It’s wonderful fun.


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Kathi Appelt Talks with Roger http://www.hbook.com/2013/07/talks-with-roger/kathi-appelt-talks-with-roger/ http://www.hbook.com/2013/07/talks-with-roger/kathi-appelt-talks-with-roger/#respond Tue, 23 Jul 2013 16:45:52 +0000 http://www.hbook.com/?p=28452 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 a successful career of nearly two decades as a poet and author of books for younger children, in 2008 Kathi Appelt published The Underneath, an ambitious middle-grade animal fantasy that would […]

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kathi appelt talks with roger Kathi Appelt 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.


After a successful career of nearly two decades as a poet and author of books for younger children, in 2008 Kathi Appelt published The Underneath, an ambitious middle-grade animal fantasy that would go on to be a finalist for the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor book. She followed that novel with the equally original Keeper (2010), and this month brings us The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (all three books published by Atheneum), a story of two intrepid raccoons, a very human boy, some greedy wild hogs, and the Sugar Man, a much-rumored, perhaps mythical denizen of a richly complicated Texas swamp. Weather plays a big role, as do fried pies, yum. Kathi talked with me from Vermont, where she is a longtime faculty member for the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in writing for children and young adults.

Roger Sutton: What do you find about teaching that helps in your writing?

KathiAppelt 200w Kathi Appelt Talks with Roger

Photography courtesy of the author.

Kathi Appelt: Oh, gosh, well, I think it makes me more observant. I learn so much from my students. I love to challenge them, and I draw from their courage when they step up to the plate. It makes me more thoughtful, because often when I’m looking at their manuscripts, I see what’s going on in my own story. I also learn from their insights. Our students have to do quite a bit of critical work on craft issues and whatnot, and I always take something away from what they’re writing in their critical essays. I’m fully conscious of the fact that I wouldn’t be the writer that I am without this place, without Vermont College.

RS: How long have you been teaching there?

KA: A little over ten years. It’s funny — I started out here as a picture book person. The two people who interviewed me for the position were Tobin Anderson and Norma Fox Mazer, and I remember being on the other end of the line thinking, “Oh my god, I’m talking to Norma Fox Mazer.” After I got the job, I started feeling like, well, now I’m on the faculty, but you know what? I have to earn my place here. Because when I first started teaching with Norma and Marion Dane Bauer and Susan Fletcher, people whom I considered heroes, it made me want to be a better writer. I feel indebted to them.

RS: What do you think gave you the courage, or the impetus, to go from being a picture book writer to writing such an ambitious first novel, The Underneath?

KA: I had tried writing novels for many years, and they always escaped me. For a long time I thought, it’s just not in me to write a novel. It’s not something I’m able to do. It seemed like everything I wrote naturally ended at the bottom of page three. A picture book, three pages; an essay, three pages. So many of my students were writing novels, and I could teach writing a novel—but I couldn’t seem to crack that nut myself. It became a matter of honor: “Okay, if I’m going to continue to teach here, I should be able to do this.” And then I figured out that if I did it in tiny small bits and honored my own three-page nature, that I could get there writing three pages at a time.

Also, I had a crisis moment, probably in 2003 or 2004. For years I had worked with the same four people. Marilyn Marlowe was my agent and Meredith Charpentier was one of my editors, along with two others. They were my support team. Then in the space of a year, one of the editors left the industry, Meredith died, and Marilyn died, and I had to go to New York for back-to-back funerals, one on a Thursday, the other on Friday.

I had been writing picture books and a few other things, and it wasn’t like my career was dead in the water or anything like that. I was doing fine; the books I was writing were getting some respect. But I felt like I needed to do something different. I felt kind of stuck, and I felt sad, and I felt like I needed to change things up and do something more important than another rhyming picture book. Not that there’s anything wrong with rhyming picture books, for Pete’s sake. I’ve got another one coming out next year.

RS: But for you, you needed to do something.

KA: For me, for my soul, I had to do something different. I found a new agent, Holly McGhee, and she asked me where I wanted my career to go. I sent her an e-mail saying, “I want to write something that will crack open the heart.” And she said, “Okay, that’s a good answer.” But then I couldn’t write anything. For about two years all I could do was fret and stew and think, “I’ve really set myself up here.” I was terrified that I wasn’t going to be able to achieve my goal. One day I was whining about it to Tobin and he said, “You should always write what you think you can’t.” There was something so freeing about that. So I started writing. While working on The Underneath I realized I was never going to finish it if I wasn’t held accountable, so I sent a note to Holly saying, “I’d like to send you twenty-five pages per week. You don’t have to read them. You can hit delete as soon as my e-mail hits your inbox. But if I don’t have some accountability, I’m not going to finish this.” I made Tuesday morning my deadline, and I can’t tell you how many Monday nights I was up, trying to crank out that twenty-fifth page.

RS: Like you’re back in school with a term paper.

KA: Yes, kind of. I didn’t hear from Holly, so I assumed she was hitting delete. And then about four weeks into it she sent me a note that said, “Kathi, we haven’t ever read anything like this, and we just hope you’ll keep going.” That was the little nudge I needed, and so I finished it. Of course, I rewrote that sucker about thirty times.

true blue scouts Kathi Appelt Talks with RogerRS: You said before that you were used to writing three pages, and there are lots of chapters in The True Blue Scouts that are only three pages. You’re approaching this story from so many different perspectives — the raccoons’, Chap’s, Gertrude the rattlesnake’s…Where did it actually start?

KA: Oh, it started with the raccoons. Absolutely. I always wanted to write a raccoon story. I don’t know why. It’s not like I want to own a raccoon or anything like that. I’m just fascinated by them. It definitely started with the raccoons in a car. I have always been interested in abandoned cars. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a car, driving, and there’s a car sitting in a pasture, totally abandoned. Or on the edge of a creek or something. I always wonder: why did somebody park it in the pasture and leave?

RS: Like those upended-car sculptures in Amarillo.

KA: Cadillac Ranch. They’re all half-buried in the dirt. I love that. Well, I was born in a car.

RS: You were born in a car?

KA: Uh-huh. My mother had me in a car. And so I see a car, and I’m like, “Home!”

RS: I love the way you make the car the sort of home, or locus of the book. And that as the story goes on, we realize more and more that the car means a lot to a lot of the different players in the story. It reminded me in a way of Holes, where the huge structure of the story becomes only apparent slowly as things build.

KA: That’s one of my favorite books. When I finished reading it I remember thinking, “That is as close to a perfect book as they come.” The way Louis Sachar tied it all together — there were moments when I would go, “Where is he taking me here? Why are we going down this road?” And then at the end, the way it all came together, I thought was brilliant.

RS: How do you keep readers’ trust that you are taking them someplace worthwhile?

KA: Well, for one thing, I do have a deep respect for my audience, and I trust that my readers are going to follow along with me as long as I keep it interesting. I try hard to keep the action moving forward and hope that they’re going to be curious enough to follow me. I think that’s one of the beauties of small scenes. I call them “SSSes” (that stands for “small significant scenes”). The little chapters. I try to keep the amount of transition down, moving from one place to another. I try to avoid too much telling.

RS: It’s also your narrator. He has such confidence in what he’s saying. That helps a lot. I felt like I could trust him.

KA: I’m glad to hear it. I had a lot of fun with that narrator. In fact, there were a couple of times when he was way over the top and I had to tamp him down a little. He could have taken over the story, easily.

RS: I noticed that on one page you have a shout-out to Stanley Kubrick (“‘Nothing like the odor of alligator at sunrise,’ she thought”) and six pages later one to Judith Viorst (“The radio kept going … and then they heard words like … ‘terrible’ … ‘horrible’ … ‘no good’…”). How do you decide how far you can go with something like that?

KA: I just try to make sure it fits, that it’s appropriate. One of the problems with injecting something like that into a story is it can take you right out. I had to be careful to make sure I wasn’t overplaying my hand or using the references to be cute or something, so I try to keep it at a minimum.

RS: But it also brings the reader in. That’s the teetering point, isn’t it? Because when I read those two jokes, I laughed, and I thought, “I want to hear more from this person. There’s a very sly narration going on here that’s sucking me in.” The other thing I would imagine you have to be aware of is that some people are going to get it and some people aren’t. Is it going to get in the way of the people who don’t?

KA: Right. Especially with young readers. But my hope is that if they don’t get it, they’ll just let it go and move on.

RS: Is that sugarcane pie a real thing?

KA: Not to my knowledge.

RS: Because it sounds really good. You should come up with a recipe for the paperback reprint.

KA: Maybe I should.

RS: I have one last big cosmic question. How do you think people — and I mean humankind — made the leap to tell stories in which animals talked?

KA: Oh, wow, that’s a big question. I’ll tell you just from my own personal experience. I have always lived with cats. I have one especially smart cat — she’s Gifted and Talented — and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sitting next to her, looking at her, and realized that it would not surprise me one bit if she broke into language, if she told me, “You’ve got to go scoop my litter box,” or whatever she had to say. I feel like we communicate anyway, so I don’t think it’s a huge leap to think animals can talk. When I go into schools I always remind kids that we’re the story animals, the only ones who tell stories, as far as we know. Other animals communicate, but we don’t think they get together at the bottom of the elm and say, “Guess what happened at that oak.” And I always then remind them that one of the great things about being a story animal is that we get to make stuff up. We’re the great imaginative beasts.


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