Minh Lê and Dan Santat Talk with Roger

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It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s...The Blur? For their third collaboration, writer Minh Lê and illustrator Dan Santat provide an origin story for everykid.

Roger Sutton: You guys are both fathers, correct? How old are your children?

Dan Santat: Mine are sixteen and thirteen, both boys.

Minh Lê: Mine are seven and ten, also both boys.

RS: How do you feel that experience has played into the creation of this book?

ML: My wife and I are very much in that stage where, watching our kids grow up, we’re feeling time move fairly quickly. I see Dan’s posts about his kids on social media, and it’s like I’m getting a preview of what’s coming down the road. That definitely played into the idea for the book — how quickly things change and wanting to take the time to savor those moments before they fly on by.

Photo credits: Daniel Corey (L), Dan Santat (R).

DS: I do feel like we’ve gone through the whole gamut of experiences in the book: getting braces, playing Little League, learning how to ride bikes; now my sixteen-year-old is slowly starting to get behind the wheel and drive, and we’re looking at colleges. Those are little stories that I added to the art because most parents have to go through them at some point. It’s hitting me pretty hard right now, I’ll tell you that.

RS: Were you collaborators from the start on this one?

ML: Yeah, this one I wrote with Dan in mind. For me, the combination of the fun, zippy superhero-adventure side of things balanced out the more nostalgic, emotional side and seemed like a perfect blend of what I love about Dan’s art. So, it was a collaboration for the two of us from the get-go.

DS: We’re getting to a point in our partnership where I know what to expect from him, and I think vice versa. He has a pretty good idea of what I’m capable of, and he’s always left me very loose art notes. Our first two books, Drawn Together and Lift, were both fairly fleshed out. But when Minh presented The Blur to our editor, Rotem Moscovich —

RS: Wasn’t Rotem (a former grad student of mine, by the way!) the person who brought you together in the first place?

DS: Yes! Minh, Rotem, and I complement one another really well, and she understands what our strengths are. With The Blur, Minh just had the pitch, at first. I trusted that he was going to write something that would speak to my core, so I agreed. He turned in the manuscript, and it hit right where I thought it would. It’s been a fantastic partnership. He’s almost like an extension of my left hand now. It’s like he’s a part of me.

RS: Minh, what was the pitch?

ML: I think it was something very simple, like using the superhero origin-story template to capture universal themes of childhood and parenting. During those early years, time goes by really quickly, and parents do everything they can to keep up. When my wife and I had our first child, parents of older kids would tell us, “It’s going to go by so fast. It’s going to go by in the blink of an eye.” When you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to imagine what that means; you’re just trying to get by. Now that we’re a little bit removed from the very-young-children phase, we have a bit more perspective. My wife and I look at each other at least two or three times a week and say, “Oh, it’s The Blur,” the feeling that things move so, so quickly — now we have a phrase to use for that phenomenon. It’s been great to work on this book with Dan during the pandemic because it also gave me a reminder to stop and savor these moments, even when it’s so hard to keep track of the concept of time.

RS: Do you think kids have their own version of The Blur?

DS: Oh, gosh, absolutely. There is this perspective you have, especially when you’re younger, when what you know starts from a very small place. It starts at home. Your home is the whole universe. And then when you finally go to school, the town you grow up in feels like it’s so immense, and you haven’t even explored it all. Children’s perception of minutes and hours is so much more than what they actually are. But as you get older, speaking from my own experience, once you hit twenty or twenty-one, the years seem to move faster and faster and faster. I feel like I became forty-six in just an instant, compared to the amount of time it took for me to turn ten. Waiting to turn ten felt like an eternity.

RS: I also wonder if there’s a more prosaic reason for why time seems to rush by for adults, and that’s because we’ve had so much more of it. When you’re six years old and you’re waiting for Christmas, a year is forever, because it’s one-sixth of your entire lifespan. But when you’re sixty-five, my age, that’s sixty-five Christmases. You’ve experienced more time, so each discrete moment of it is a smaller piece.

ML: For me, I feel like the flip side of that is — for my kids, one of their favorite things to do is to grab our phones and scroll back to old pictures. Since time is more compressed for them, a picture from two years back feels like lifetimes ago to them. They’ll look at a picture from 2018, and they talk about it as if they’re doing a retrospective on World War II.

RS: You’re taking in so much when you’re a kid, and as adults we’re just maintaining a lot of the time.

DS: Seeing how much kids have to study for AP History stresses me out. Being a kid can be pretty stressful when I think back on it. The faster time comes, there’s more history that’s being lived, and more experiences to be had, there’s just more things that you have to consume in order to do something like take an AP History test. Being a kid sounds so rough now.

RS: I wouldn’t want to do it, myself.

DS: There are those questions about whether or not you’d relive your childhood. I just think about junior high and say absolutely not. Never.

RS: How do you perceive The Blur being read together by an adult and a child?

ML: That’s a great question. My hope is always that a book will operate on multiple levels. When you’re reading with a child, the child will get the adrenaline rush of seeing themselves as a superhero, running around the world, having madcap adventures. And there’s something about seeing frazzled parents that kids always get a kick out of. Adults will read it with another perspective, more the passage of time and nostalgia side of things. I hope that different people reading the same book at the same time will pull out different meanings and different experiences from it.

DS: I tend to think that a child will perceive this book differently over time. A young child will probably look at it more like a guide of what’s to come in the future. Oh, I’m going to get braces. I’ll probably take piano lessons at some point, driving lessons at some point. But as they get older, around the point of graduating from high school, they’re going to have a different perspective; they’ll reflect back with their parents. Books such as Oh, the Places You’ll Go! tend to celebrate post-graduation life; they say, “Go out there and be something great!” Our book circles back on the family and says, “Look at the beautiful journey we had.”

ML: That’s one of the things that drew me to children’s books in general. If you read and fall in love with a book like this when you’re a kid, that’s something I describe as a friend for life. You can revisit it every five or ten years and read it from a fresh perspective and use it as a marker against your own growth. You might not get all the layers of meaning when you’re a kid, but if it’s a book that you revisit over time, it does mean something to you, and different layers of meaning are going to reveal themselves to you as the years go on. I think that’s a beautiful thing.

RS: I was worried when I first looked at the book that it was going to be a Grandma-trap — you know, those books that look like picture books, but really they’re for adults. You seem to have avoided that.

ML: I was very much aware of that possibility as we were working on it and wanted to do what we could to avoid that. I think a big part of what makes it so appealing to young readers is the style and color and energy of Dan’s artwork — that tempers the Grandma-trap aspect of it. I think the hope is anyone can get trapped in this book! The reminder I gave myself was what I tell people about writing picture books: a great picture book can appeal to readers of all ages, but it always has to appeal to children. I think Dan’s art knocks that out of the park and is a big part of why the book avoids that trap.

DS: I think the other thing that really helps it avoid the trap is that little kids can see themselves as superheroes. That’s the appeal to kids. Oh, look, he has a super-screaming voice, the ability to hear faint whispers, and move with energetic speed. Those are kids’ everyday habits, but now they view themselves as superheroes. That definitely does help avoid that Grandma-trap.

ML: Also, if you’re reading this book at five or six years old and you see the baby thinking they turn invisible when they play peekaboo, you have enough perspective to reflect back on that moment and feel very grown up realizing how ridiculous that was. I think that’s something kids really get a lot of value out of. Oh, yeah, I have grown a lot since that time.

 

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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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