Neil Gaiman: “Fiction Gives Us Empathy.”

 

A Conversation with Travis Jonker: Librarian, Podcaster, Instagram Star, Children’s Book Influencer, and Author of BLUE FLOATS AWAY

Maybe you know someone like Travis Jonker. He’s a popular podcaster, and a blogger, an Instagram star, an elementary school librarian, and an acclaimed author. In his spare time, he probably helps turtles cross busy highways. In other words, the type of overachiever I usually loathe. But that’s the trouble with Travis. He’s annoyingly likable. He’s warm, funny, kind, intelligent. I want to hate this guy, but I can’t. You probably won’t be able to, either. But please, for me, try. Travis has written a new book, illustrated by Grant Snider, and, yeah, you guessed it — it’s really good. Rats and snails!

 

Greetings, Travis! Nice to see you again. Sorry about the mess. Just shove those candy wrappers, beer bottles, and peanut shells aside. And I wouldn’t touch that green stuff if I were you. Sorry, I would have cleaned up if you were a bigger deal.

We all just live in our own filth now, right? But I am curious, who would I have to be in order for you to break out the Swiffer?

Cordell. Only because he’s so damn fussy.

Illustrators.

Agreed. They’re like Siamese cats. “Is this sanitary? What’s this green mold? Are you sure I can eat this?” It never ends with them.

Typical.

People ask me, “Jimmy, what did you miss most during the pandemic?” And I always say the same thing, “I miss Travis Jonker’s packing-for-ALA videos.” To me, that’s a sign that all is right with the world. 

Ha! Well, I’m sorry you’ve lost your North Star. Hopefully packing will return in . . . 2022?

Controversially, you are a roll-the-clothes-up advocate rather than a traditional folder.

I dabble in rolling and traditional layering. You gotta be flexible in your thinking on this. Don’t commit so hard to the life hack that you can’t employ traditional techniques if needed.

Any other packing tips?

Here’s the key, and I can’t state this strongly enough —

Travis, you don’t have to stand on the table. It makes me nervous.

This coffee table seems wobbly, but I’m going for it . . .

When traveling to a conference, pack almost nothing. Conference travel is very different than other types of travel. At a conference, you’re inside a temperature-controlled conference center most of the day. For men, if you have a shirt with a collar, jeans, and casual shoes (not sneakers) you’re ready for just about any situation the conference can throw at you. My motto for conference travel is No Options. Pick one outfit for each day you’ll be there and don’t pack anything else.

Okay, terrific interview. Thanks for stopping by. See you later!

Um?

Wait, did you actually think I invited you here to discuss your new book?

People always ask for packing tips under the guise of an interview, so I’m used to it.

Let’s pause for one moment while we view a historical perspective of your fabled packing exploits over the years . . .

Okay, I might be a stalker, but moving right along. I’m impressed by the warmth and simplicity of your story. You achieve something that I often struggle with — you distill this tale down to the essence. To me, that seems like one of the keys to writing a successful picture book.

That really seems to be the challenge — how to give the story enough pieces to work, but not to load it down.

Funny how this circles back to packing, isn’t it? We get in trouble when we try to cram too much into it.

You’re a master of theme, Jimmy — it definitely connects.

How did this book work for you? Do you write too many words and then whittle it down? An image, a sentence, an idea?

When I’m writing-writing a story, I tend to underwrite.

That’s not the usual answer. I’ll have to try that.

To be honest, I want to get the hell off the page as quickly as I can. I fear boring the reader. Maybe too much. In later drafts I realize, “Oh, yeah, I should probably add a little more character development and dialog here.”

How did this story begin for you?

The initial idea for Blue Floats Away came after an uncle of mine passed away. Because of my memories of him, I was thinking about how he was gone, but not really gone. I wondered if I could make a story where something like that happens, and then I thought of an iceberg melting into the ocean – gone but not really gone. In the first draft, the iceberg melts and that’s sort of the end. That was a real bummer, though, so my thinking on the story shifted to themes of independence and growing up. I like the idea that as we get older we change, yet we still feel the same on the inside, in many ways. So Blue returns at the end — different, but the same.

I connect with this because I think what you are saying is that this book began with a feeling — rather than an intellectual idea. You experienced loss and were moved to write. To me, the feeling, the emotion, is the heart of almost all expression. Ideas come later.

It does. That feeling or emotion has to be there to create a meaningful book. I think sometimes you can reverse-engineer it at the beginning — having a great plot idea and then going back to find the feeling or emotion, but those always take longer and often don’t work out at all. Beginning with the feeling usually leads to more successful writing.

In your day job as an elementary school librarian, you have the opportunity to read aloud to groups of children. You get to see what works . . . and what doesn’t. That experience must be incredibly valuable to you as a writer/storyteller.

After reading so many books with kids, I feel like I’ve sort of internalized the picture book audience. I carry that with me. It comes in handy for later drafts, but can be a problem for first drafts, where I want to be loose and not care too much about how a reader might react.

You really do have to entertain yourself and, ultimately, trust your instincts.

Yeah, I think it’s important to notice your own initial reaction to an idea. If I have a story idea and it makes me laugh out loud or gasp or something, that’s a really good sign. Not that I’m just laughing and gasping at my own ideas all the time, but I think you know what I mean.

Huh, interesting. Laughing and gasping. In my case, when I have an idea, I get the hiccups. And gas. I even wrote a hiccups book once, an out-of-print classic. But I’ve left flatulence for the masters.

You gotta play to your strengths.

What do you see when you read books with kids? You must have times when you think, “They are going to love this!” And they just don’t. And vice versa.  Have you learned anything at all?

With read alouds, I’ve learned that the way the book is presented has a lot to do with how it’s received. And I don’t mean that if I tell kids “This is a great book,” they will think it’s a great book. If the reader can make a connection with kids about the topic or themes of the book right away, the chances that the story will be well-received are much better.

Picture books seem to have gotten younger, with fewer words. Is that your perception?

Definitely fewer words. In some ways this is a good thing – there were plenty of picture books in the past that were too long and could’ve used some editing. But I think there are some great longer picture books that might not be published today (or would be edited down to nothing) because of this trend, and that’s too bad. If the voice is strong, I think you can write just about any length picture book you want.

I sorely miss the words in picture books these days. The rich language. I’ve often wished there was a separate award for the writing of picture books, because it’s an under-appreciated skill. Just as —- obviously, to me —- there needs to be a separate award for the writing of graphic novels. It’s insane to expect Newbery committee members to compare the writing of a graphic novel to, say, a 300-page novel without any images.

I’ve had many a late night conversation at the American Library Association conference about everything you just mentioned. It seems like a common argument against it is that A) There are already too many awards, and B) The more awards there are, the more it devalues all the awards. Oh, and C) The current award categories are broad enough to accommodate graphic novels and picture book writing. But I’m with you — a graphic novel award and a picture book writing award make sense.

With a novel, a writer is painting pictures with words, bringing all his/her/their creative talent to bear on the language to create the “movie” playing in the back of the reader’s skull. With a graphic novel, the writer is painting pictures with . . . pictures. Often there’s no descriptive language at all. I’m not arguing better or worse — but surely — surely! — an entirely different animal.

A completely different reading experience.

And writing, too. Did you have any interaction with illustrator Grant Snider? Did your manuscript include parenthetical notes to the illustrator? Or did you leave that wide open?

This book didn’t follow the traditional path. Grant and I met a few years ago and had talked about possibly working together. When I saw his comic On the Beach [above], I thought the style would be a great fit for Blue Floats Away — it reminded me of the torn paper illustrations in Leo Lionni’s Little Blue and Little Yellow. I sent Grant the story and he liked it and decided to illustrate it.

Lionni’s Frederick might be my favorite children’s book. 

I made a few illustration notes in the manuscript, but I kept it as brief as I could. I didn’t talk with Grant at all as he was illustrating the book. I knew Grant was a pro, so I got out of the way as much as I could. I’m amazed with his art in this book. I think if you hold your story too tightly, problems arise.

These days, we’re seeing more and more books with back matter, author notes, etc. This is partly a function, I would submit, to the “fear of words” we’re seeing in today’s picture books. They all get crammed in at the end on a rather dull page or pages. Your book has an Author’s Note. Was that your idea, or something that came from editorial?

Editor Courtney Code and I talked about adding an author note very early on. I don’t remember who brought it up first, but I was all for it. Since the story has such a clear connection to scientific topics – climate change and the water cycle – it just made sense to me that I talk a little bit about those real-world connections. I tried to write the author note with the audience for the book in mind.

Yes! I liked that aspect of it, especially when you advised them not to drive their trucks. You weren’t talking to only the educators in the room.

I really don’t understand why author notes often talk to grown-ups instead of kids. Many times I’ve read a book with kids and there’s an author note and I’m like “Oh, hey – this will be great I’m going to read this part to kids now and they’ll know more about what went into the book.” Only to slam the breaks because I realize it’s just a bunch of blabbing to grown-ups. 

I view it as a convention of our times, a trend driven by the library market (certainly not by actual kids), and also the standards of the nonfiction world crossing over into fiction. In some cases, back matter represents (to me: again, I haven’t heard anyone else complaining about this) a failure of the book itself. A successful story doesn’t need it. I don’t think your book needed it. There’s no back matter in Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books or, say, Where the Wild Things Are. Nobody needs to know what Maurice Sendak was really thinking or how he got inspired or what web sites we should all go visit to save the planet. The story is the book and the book is the story. It is enough. That said, if an editor asked me to do it, I probably would (grumblingly).

[Jimmy pauses; climbs off wobbly table.]

Sorry, I don’t mean to become THAT GUY complaining about the state of the world. But I yam what I yam.

I hear you on the assertion that a successful story doesn’t need it. Fortunately, an author note is just hiding back there after the story is already done. But now I want someone to write a fake author note for the back of Where the Wild Things Are, because that could be pretty funny.

Pretty sure that hot sandwich was a tuna melt. Anyway, hey, Travis Jonker, my friend. I want to say that I have admiration and respect for the work you do in the world of children’s literature. I know that the “celebrity librarian” is a thing these days, and you were an early part of that influencer wave, but you have always kept the focus on the books. And more than that, the core has always been about inspiring young readers. And now I’m glad to see you finding your voice as a writer.

When we did our chat way back in 2009, you asked if I wrote fiction. Do you remember that? I do. That was really meaningful for me. To have a pro like you ask that question, it gave me courage to try it. Thank you for that.

A pro? I prefer the term, grizzled veteran. But was it twelve years ago? Wow. I actually do remember. And I’m happy if I encouraged you in any way. Seriously, you know books — you care about kids — and you are a terrific writer. I’m sure there are many more books to come. Where else can teachers find you?

I write four posts a week at 100scopenotes.com. And I put all my secret drawings on Instagram: instagram.com/100scopenotes. Oh, and the podcast! blogs.slj.com/theyarn.

Thanks for coming by. I love the simplicity and warmth (sly climate change reference there) of Blue Floats Away and I root for your continued success. Sorry that I went on that jag about back matter. I’m kind of a dope that way, these clumsy, passionate feelings. The truth is, I know you are a smart guy who engages with a lot more books than I do. Safe travels, my friend.

Next time I’m bringing Cordell, so I expect this place to be tidied up.

For a hotshot like Cordell, I’ll even buy one of those automatic robot vacuum cleaners — but I’ll do it grumblingly. It’s how we roll here at James Preller Dot Com.

 

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian and creator of 100 Scope Notes, a kidlit blog hosted by School Library Journal. He was a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. Jonker lives with his wife and two children in Zeeland, Michigan.

 

 

 

 

Hey, folks. If you made it this far — congratulations! We’ll be sending you a $20 gift certificate to Blockbuster Video! You might know me from my Jigsaw Jones mystery series. As it happens, I also have a new book coming out tomorrow, May 11th. It’s called Upstander, a stand-alone novel that also serves as sequel/prequel to Bystander. It follows Mary’s experiences, enters her home life, and includes a strong Substance Use Disorder (SUD) storyline. I’m proud that both books were named Junior Library Guild Selections — ten years apart. You can click here for more info. 

 

This Fancy Chart Explains the Intersecting Timelines for BYSTANDER and Its Prequel/Sequel, UPSTANDER

Everybody loves a fancy chart, right? It gives any project gravitas. 

This one visually explains the intersecting timelines for my books Bystander and Upstander

So here we go, fresh from the Chart Factory in Gloversville, NY . . . 

And if perchance that makes no sense to you, know this:

The timeline for Upstander (coming May 21st) begins before Bystander, but ends at the same time, at the same basketball game (which was clever, I thought, and, hey, still think). 

About halfway through Upstander — page 112, chapter 21 — the story catches up to the first chapter of Bystander. From that point on, the world of those two overlapping novels gets bigger, richer, deeper. Maybe even better!

Anyway, that’s what’s going on with this follow-up book. 

 

         

BOTH TITLES WERE NAMED JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD SELECTIONS.

Coming In One Week!

 

The big box of books finally arrived. Pub date is only a week away (May 11th). I’m proud of it; in this case, mostly for the Substance Use Disorder storyline. Mary’s older brother has problems with drugs and it’s tearing the family apart. There’s even a scene where a librarian administers Narcan. This book is a prequel/sequel to Bystander.

It’s a strange feeling when a book goes out, especially in the last few years, met by a distracted & indifferent world. The collective shrug. My hope, as always, is that readers find it and enjoy the reading experience. Upstander is a 2021 Junior Library Guild Selection.

May one good book lead to another.

PC Culture or Fair Criticism? A Reader Complains, A Writer Replies

I recently received a letter that made me think. And without disclosing my own conclusions, I thought I’d share that letter here, then pass along my reply, as well as provide an excerpt of the offending scene.

If you’d like, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. 

I almost titled this, in part, “a writer listens.” But that sounded far too pretentious and self-satisfied. Yet it is what I hoped to convey to Cathy in Nova Scotia. That her thoughts are worth hearing — these are good conversations to have — that Cathy’s feelings are valid and valued. I’m happiest with the talking and the listening. We need more of that in our world, less about who is “right” and who is “wrong,” fewer assignations of blame. 

It’s worth noting, too, that Cathy wrote to me with a question rather than an accusation. More than anything, that’s what started us off on the right foot. 

 

Hi James,
 
I am a literacy coach working in Nova Scotia. I have been putting several of your books from the Scary Tales series in the hands of students. They are really enjoying them. I have the task of compiling a list of books to be purchased for schools. In preparation, I am reading and completing a bias evaluation tool on each book. I am currently, “Scary Tales: One-Eyed Doll”. On page 59, I encountered the sentence, “No, thanks, Malik thought. He had bigger dreams.” This was in response to the custodian saying Malik may take his job one day. I question how this line could be interpreted by the reader and does it imply that a custodial job is less than?
I thought I would bring this to your attention as I was enjoying your book but this sentence made me stop as it makes me feel uncomfortable. 
Kind regards,
Cathy
I replied . . .

Cathy,

Thank you for this note, and for sharing my books with struggling readers. It was always in the back of my mind with this series, that older readers — thanks to the sophisticated look of the artwork — would embrace and succeed with these high-interest, easy-to-read stories.
Yes, I believe that I did intend for Malik’s thought to be exactly that: He had bigger plans.
But I can see where the phrasing of that might have given you pause. If I had the chance of a do-over today, I’d make a simple change: He had other plans.
That would remove the unfortunate (embedded) value judgment.
It is complicated. Because if we are honest, not many people “dream” of becoming custodians, service workers. This doesn’t mean that they are “less” than anyone else or unworthy of our respect. It’s just not where Malick hopes to end up; he’s dreaming big. Writers put thoughts into the minds, hearts, perceptions of invented characters — but at the same time have to be vigilant about what we (they/I) put out into the world. I wish I found a different way to express Malik’s ambitions without making the comparison. Still, there’s “truth” in his thoughts and he treats the custodian with kindness and respect.
I am grateful for the sensitivity of your reading. I’m glad you pointed that out to me. I’ll try to do better in the future.
James Preller
HERE’S AN EXCERPT FROM THE SCENE IN QUESTION (Chapter 9, One-Eyed Doll)
It was a quick bike ride to the nursing home — if you pedaled like your hair was on fire.
Malik made it in six minutes flat.
His mother had worked in the kitchen since he was a baby. Malik was a familiar face to the nurses on staff. When he was little, before he could fend for himself, Malik spent a lot of time in the back rooms. Drawing pictures, building with Legos, eating snacks, looking at picture books. It was cheaper than hiring a babysitter.
The home was a curious world, full of odd smells and old people. Most folks were frail, like glass figurines on a shelf you shouldn’t touch for fear they might break. Some still had sharp minds. They played cards, watched tv, and carried on conversations. Then there were the folks who seemed . . . finished. Like burnt-down candles. When Malik walked the halls, he would sometimes glimpse them sitting in their rooms. Alone and silent, waiting for a bus that would never come.
It was sad, and Malik tried not to think about it.
“Say, Malik! What are you doing here today?” Curtis the custodian chirped. He stopped pushing a mop around the floor and, instead, leaned on it with both hands. Happy to pause and chat. 
“Just thought I’d stop by,” Malik said.
“Getting big!” Curtis observed. “If I don’t watch out, you’ll be taking my job.”
No, thanks, Malik thought. He had bigger dreams. But he said with a grin, “I just might.”
He started to walk away, then thought twice. “You’ve been here a long time, right?”
Curtis looked up, as if the answer was written on the ceiling. “Twenty years, next September.”
Malik whistled. He decided to take a shot. “You remember the old place on my block. Right? The one nobody lives in.”
The brightness left the custodian’s eyes. “I know it,” he said. “That place is bad business. Bad voodoo over there.”
“Do you know anything about . . .” Malik said, stepping forward. “I mean, can you tell me about it?”
“It’s not my place to say,” Curtis said.
“It’s important,” Malik said. “It means a lot to me. Please.”
Maybe the old man was in a talkative mood that day. Maybe there was something in the way Malik asked. The look in his eyes.
“There’s a patient here,” Curtis said. “Miss Delgado. She was the last person who lived there — but that was, oh, thirty-something years ago. She used to be in the mental hospital, you know, the asylum. But she’s no trouble anymore.”
“She’s here?” Malik asked.
“Room 17, just down the hall,” Curtis said. “I don’t think she can help you, Malik. She hasn’t said ten words in all the time she’s been here.”
“Can I see her?” Malik asked.
Curtis looked up and down the empty hall. “She been through enough. Leave an old woman alone.”
“Please, I’ll be respectful,” Malik said. “Just for a minute?”
“If you get caught,” Curtis said with a sigh, “I don’t know anything about it. Understand?”
He turned in the opposite direction from Room 17 and pushed the mop down the hall. The conversation was over. Malik was on his own.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: ONE-EYED DOLL, captured by iPhone (so forgive the poor quality).

THERE ARE 6 TITLES IN THE SCARY TALES SERIES, MOST POPULAR IN GRADES 3-5 . . .