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Five questions for Jesse Klausmeier

Photo: Alicia Bozewicz

Jesse Klausmeier received a 2013 Boston Globe–Horn Book Picture Book Honor for her debut Open This Little Book (Chronicle, 2013). Horn Book reviewer Julie Roach wrote of this metafictional tale, “Lively art and text come together with clever design to make this ode to books and reading a delight to open and pore over.” We talked with Jesse about challenges presented by Open This Little Book‘s unusual design, her favorite meta-narrative stories, and the book’s surprising dedication page.

Ms. Klausmeier will be accepting her Boston Globe–Horn Book Picture Book Honor at the ceremony on Friday, October 4th, and speaking at the Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium on Saturday, October 5th. Register for Horn Book at Simmons now to see her at both events!

1. How do children first react when they “open this little book” — and find another little book inside?

Jesse Klausmeier: It’s amazing. Most kids look up at the other people in the room with this expression of “whaaaaat?” They turn another page, smile, and then get down to business finding out how small the books actually get. As the books become smaller and smaller, the children physically draw closer and closer towards the book. When they’re all smooshed up close and turning the Little Rainbow Book’s pages, I send a mental high-five to illustrator Suzy Lee.

2. How closely did you work with Suzy on the art and structure of the book? Did the cumulative (and then de-cumulative) nature of the story create any surprising challenges?

JK: When Suzy became attached to this “book-within-a-book” project, she ran with it. She laid the foundation for the structure and design of Open This Little Book. When I got the first sketches, I was thrilled with the layout, and overjoyed at a note she had written about the book being a dream-within-a-dream, like Alice in Wonderland. This was exactly what I had envisioned, and I knew we were completely on the same page with what our book could become and where we wanted to take it. So, down the rabbit hole we went along with Victoria Rock, our editor, and Sara Gillingham, the book’s designer.

The most challenging part of the process was puzzling out where the pages would start to decrease in size, and doing the page-breakdown math to make sure that everything stayed consistent. Once that was set and the text was final, it was like playing a game of “show, don’t tell.” How could we use the design and illustrations to convey as many themes as possible to the readers?

The cumulative and then de-cumulative nature of the book made it so easy to show illustrations of each character before and after they read their book. This allowed us to explore themes such as how reading changes our perception of the world, the way we see ourselves and others, and what we bring and take away from each story we read. With each pass, we added more and more layers (“what if the characters switch objects when they close the books!?”) until finally it felt complete. And, man oh man, doesn’t that last illustration of the tree library in all its glory show the joy and beauty of books and reading?

3. Did you have other meta-narrative picture books in mind while you were writing?

JK: Two of my favorite meta-narrative picture books are Jan Brett’s Berlioz the Bear and David Macaulay’s Black and White. Both of these books came out when I was in elementary school and they fascinated me. My younger brother Travis and I would read Berlioz the Bear together. I’d read the text about the band trying to get to town to play their gig, and then say, “meanwhile…” and he’d tell me the story of what was going on in the town based on the illustrations that weren’t accompanied by text. This picture book made me realize that the text doesn’t tell the whole story.

Black and White was a beguiling book I returned to again and again. I honestly don’t think I would have returned to it without the enticing “WARNING” at the beginning. That warning engaged me as a player in the story. Are the four stories linked? Absolutely! How? Hmmm… let’s see… I was a detective with many theories, but never quite solved the entire puzzle. (I still haven’t.)

These books changed the way I thought about what books are and what they can do. When writing Open This Little Book, I absolutely thought about what exists beyond the text, how to push the boundaries of what a physical book can do, and how to engage the reader as an integral character in the story.

4. Your dedication reads, “For my parents and grandparents: my first teachers and librarians. And for LeVar Burton.” What’s the story there?

JK: Both my parents were teachers (my mom still is), and my grandfather is professor emeritus in educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Needless to say, my childhood was filled with books and gentle prompting to explore, question, and create. My family took seriously the responsibility of being my librarians. In those formative years, every book I had was selected with thought and care. My grandmother Iyla made me books to write in from file folders and paper. In fact, the very first version of Open This Little Book was written in one of these folder books when I was five years old.

LeVar Burton has been a role model to me my whole life. His commitment to literacy and the empowerment of young people through reading is contagious, and I got the bug the first time I saw Reading Rainbow. The themes explored in Open This Little Book and the fact that the book creates an exuberant rainbow as it is read make it a lovely homage (in my humble opinion) to LeVar and his cause.

5. Open This Little Book is your first picture book. What’s your next project?

JK: My next project is another metafictional picture book that uses the physical book to underline its theme and push the boundaries of design. I’m extremely excited about it, and can’t wait until I can share more!

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