Michael Sampson Talks with Roger

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The late Bill Martin Jr’s longtime collaborator, Michael Sampson, has a new picture book written by the two of them — Armadillo Antics is based on a manuscript written before Bill’s death and is illustrated by Argentinian artist Nathalie Beauvois. When I spoke to Michael he was in Poland, having been relocated from Ukraine, where he had been working with teachers and professors of education as a Fulbright Fellow. Let us all join his hope to return there.

Roger Sutton: How did you and Bill Martin Jr come to be collaborators?

Michael Sampson: I was a PhD student in my late twenties at the University of Arizona. Bill was the keynote speaker at a conference, and I volunteered to pick him up at the airport. We became good friends over the few days he was in Tucson. I was also a teacher, and I used Bill’s books in my fourth-grade classroom. Later, he invited me to speak at a conference in North Dakota where he had teachers like me talk about how they work with kids in the classroom. I began doing those presentations with Bill, and they were so popular that we started the Bill Martin Jr Pathways to Literacy Conference. We had over a hundred thousand teachers do our workshops from 1980 to 2004. We caught the trend of the whole language movement and using trade books in the classroom. Bill worked with me on my first book, and then we started writing together. Simon and Schuster had asked us to do a sequel to Bill’s book Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, but Bill didn’t want to make Chicka Chicka again. We wrote Rock It, Sock It, Number Line, which was a counting book. It’s a great book. But Simon and Schuster still wanted another Chicka, and so we did Chicka Chicka 1,2,3. It took us about fifty drafts, because it’s harder to write numbers than it is letters of the alphabet. It still sells like crazy.

RS: And you later became neighbors, right?

MS: Bill had been living in New York in the theater district. I would travel to New York and work with him there. We’d been doing the Pathways to Literacy Conference for thirteen years, and we had developed a very close working relationship. On one trip, I showed Bill a map of some property I’d recently purchased in Texas — twenty-six acres of land, with a river and two ponds. Bill said, “Save this place for me. I’m ready to move to Texas. I’m from Kansas, and it reminds me of my childhood.” He loved the parcel he picked out and built his house there. It was just a marvelous experience. From 1993 until he passed away in 2004, we worked together every day. I taught at the university at night; every morning Bill would come over to my house, or I would go to his house. We’d have breakfast and coffee, and then work till noon. We created thirty or forty manuscripts over that time, and I still have a collection of them. I’m slowly releasing one book a year, so the books are still coming out. I really feel like when I’m working, I’m channeling Bill. He’s whispering to me, and I can hear his voice.

RS: So where did Armadillo Antics come from?

MS: When Bill moved to Texas in 1993, he was amazed at all the armadillos outside his house. One Saturday morning, Bill was filled with excitement about an armadillo visitor he had in the middle of the night. He took me outside to his backyard and showed me the hole the armadillo had dug by his shrubs. I said animal control could trap and release the armadillo elsewhere. Bill said, “NO. I want to watch to see if he comes back tonight. This will be our next book!” After researching this armored little creature, we started to write his story. Or, should I say, the story wrote itself: the little creature filled his night with mischief and danger and fun, ending the night with a feast of grub worms as he made his way back to his underground den for a good day of sleep! A bit of the story also comes from my childhood memories of armadillos, and some pranks we played as college students. We probably rewrote the story twenty times to get the cadence just right. In the end, it was fun to read aloud. Bill would be very pleased with Nathalie’s beautiful art, which really captures our zany little creature perfectly.

RS: My husband swears he saw an armadillo walking by the house, but I don’t think that’s possible.

MS: Oh, yeah, armadillos are always around.

RS: We’re in Boston.

MS: I don’t think you have them there. I think they’re more of a Southwestern creature.

RS: When you say that you wrote Armadillo Antics and many other books together, what does writing a book together, particularly a book this simple, look like?

MS: Well, they’re not that simple. I think the hardest kind of book to write is a picture book. Finding the perfect rhyme and making sense — the academic textbooks that I write for teachers are easier. Bill didn’t like to see the text, he liked to hear it. I liked to see the words. We were a perfect team. He would say a line, I would write it down, and he’d say, “Read it back to me.” I’d read it, and he'd say, “No, no, no, we need to get one less syllable there.” Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. We worked from eight to twelve, and then in the afternoon, I would go through our notes, and we’d start off with a fresh manuscript the next morning. Bill and I would often do twenty revisions before we thought it was right. And Bill didn’t want to send anything to the publisher until it was perfect.

RS: Do I understand you’re in Poland right now? I’m speaking to you in Poland?

MS: Yes, I’m in Warsaw. I was in Ukraine. It was going great. I was teaching education students and doing author visits in schools when the American embassy notified us that we were being relocated to Warsaw. I’ve been here about two months. So many Ukrainians here have people they’ve left behind; husbands and fathers are still there fighting. It’s just a sad situation.

RS: How are you finding your teaching skills, editing skills, writing skills, are serving you over there?

MS: I’m writing editorials and doing interviews to tell the American public what life is like in Ukraine and how tragic this war is. Recently, I had an op-ed in the New York Daily News where I flat-out said, look, we need to help Ukraine.

Also, I’m still teaching, believe it or not. I will keep teaching, because my students need to talk to someone. A lot of the teachers I’m working with had to get out of the country. I think there are five different families of Ukrainian teachers I’ve been able to help when they came to Warsaw. There are eighteen of us Fulbright Scholars who were working in Ukraine, in different cities. We’re doing critical work like raising money for medical supplies for wounded soldiers. I’m coming back to the United States for about two weeks to promote Armadillo Antics and then I’ll return to Warsaw to finish the term, and if the need is still here, I’ll stay longer than that.

RS: I wish you the best of luck with both the humanitarian work you’re doing now and with your writing career.

MS: Thank you so much. I’m really excited about it all.

 

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc. from 1996-2021. 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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