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Five questions for Patrick McDonnell

Where many picture book biographies give a few pages to a subject’s childhood and quickly skip to the more noteworthy adult years, Patrick McDonnell’s Me . . . Jane devotes itself to primatologist Jane Goodall’s youth. Through a powerful synthesis of simple text, artless paintings, and collaged regalia from Jane’s own hand, McDonnell demonstrates two kinds of inspiration: how childhood dreams can become real and how a book can help readers find their own. (4–7 years)

1. From comic strips (MUTTS) to picture books, what’s the biggest difference in creating the two kinds of art?

Patrick McDonnell: Children’s books certainly have a unique magic but are similar to comics in that they rely on a combination of words and pictures, and on getting to the essence of the story.

In the comic strip, I’m confined to the daily deadline and to using the same size space and medium (pen-and-ink) every day. With children’s books I have room to tell little complete stories that have a life of their own. It’s a luxury to be able to spend time creating and refining. I also have more freedom to play with and explore different art styles, formats, and new characters.

2. As a little kid, did you have a friend like Jane’s Jubilee?

PM: Coincidentally, I also had a stuffed toy chimpanzee, Zippy (who, I’ve since learned, was based on a real chimpanzee). And yes, I still have him. I briefly considered including a photo of me as a small boy with Zippy for the back flap of the book, but it seemed a little too self-serving and corny.

Me...Jane3. Have any of your childhood obsessions followed you into adult life?

PM: Like Jane, my life unfolded in a seemingly predestined way. From a very early age, I dreamed of being a cartoonist and children’s book author. For as long as I can remember I loved drawing, and spent many hours with paper and pencil.

4. Picture book biographies for younger children are a newly flourishing genre. Why do you think this might be?

PM:That’s a very interesting question. For me, important aspects of children’s books are that they can teach life lessons and inspire. And what better way is there to inspire a child than to have them learn that their beloved book is based on a real person?

Me… Jane came to me when I was rereading Dr. Goodall’s autobiography Reason for Hope. Jane Goodall exemplifies how one person can help change the world. I took one look at the photo of young Jane with Jubilee and knew her story was a real-life fairy tale.

5. The Hugo van Lawick photo that closes the book is one of the most famous images of the twentieth century. How did you come to use it?

PM: That photo is powerful. Similar in imagery to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, with the hand of God reaching to man, in van Lawick’s photo Jane is reaching out to the animal kingdom. It’s symbolic in many ways. Ending the book with this photo illustrates a truth of Jane Goodall’s life: her childhood dream came true.

The opening and closing of the book is a completed journey. I wanted to start the book with young Jane reaching out to receive a stuffed toy chimpanzee (a gift from her father, but I like to think it was from the hands of fate). In a way, that moment set her on her life’s path. The van Lawick photo closing the book with an adult Jane reaching out to the baby chimpanzee is as if her toy Jubilee came to life.

From the May 2011 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

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

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