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A Conversation with Lori Mortensen: About Edward Gorey and the Craft of Picture Book Biographies

“As I delved into the research,
I couldn’t wait to write an equally memorable
picture book biography
about this curious,
whimsical,
one-of-a-kind artist.” 
— Lori Mortensen

I’ve been making an informal survey of picture book biographies of late, a favorite genre. So many great titles out there. One of the best is Lori Mortensen’s NONSENSE: The Curious Story of Edward Gorey. Here is an oddball, innovative, breezy, confident, utterly charming book that lives up to its subject. No small accomplishment: a book that Edward Gorey deserves. So I’ve set out a bowl of mints, fluffed up the throw pillows, put on my hazmat suit, and invited Lori over for a chat. Come, let’s say hello.

 

How did this book and subject come about for you?

Interestingly, I find picture book ideas in many different ways, from a title randomly popping into my head at the library (Mousequerade Ball), to my neighbors’ dogs escaping from their backyard and racing down the street (Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg). For NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, I was out on my morning walk and happened to catch a podcast about Edward Gorey on Stuff You Missed in History Class. As I listened, his name and dark style sounded very familiar, and I was sure he’d illustrated a memorable book from my childhood. When I arrived home, I searched my bookshelves and found The Man Who Sang the Sillies, a collection of silly poems written by John Ciardi and illustrated by Edward Gorey. One of the most memorable poems, “The Happy Family” began:

Before the children say goodnight,

Mother, Father, stop and think:

Have you screwed their heads on tight?

Have you washed their ears with ink?

The poem was accompanied by Gorey’s illustration of children scrambling around their bed trying to catch their floating heads. As I delved into the research, I couldn’t wait to write an equally memorable picture book biography about this curious, whimsical, one-of-a-kind artist.

 

Let’s pause here to give up a cheer for creativity and morning walks. So, Lori, how does one undertake a picture book biography? I mean, getting started. Just read everything, take lots of notes, and wait for genius to strike?

 

 

Once I’m intrigued by a subject, I jump into research and see what I can uncover. These days, there is a treasure of online resources right at our fingertips that include museums, historical sites, newspapers, experts, archives, photos, libraries, and books. As I research a subject, I copy links into a document along with the information I’ve found until I’ve gathered a firm foundation of information. Research takes time as I buy, borrow, and read as many books as I can about the subject. When my initial research phase is complete, I organize the information into chronological order, so I understand the information in the order that they happened. As I study the information,
an underlying theme or thread emerges. In the case of NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, the path seemed clear — how Edward Gorey, a child prodigy, created a sweet and sinister style that has influenced a generation of creators from Lemony Snicket to Tim Burton.

 

It seems like picture book biographies of late are more focused on “slice of life” storytelling, rather than a comprehensive cradle-to-grave treatment. The genre, perhaps once a little stiff, is bursting with creativity and freedom.

I love picture book biographies. Because they are a mere 32 pages, authors have a daunting, yet exciting challenge to shine a light on the most intriguing and meaningful aspects of the subject’s life for young readers. Sometimes that results in a “slice of life” approach, where writing about the achievement alone is key. Other times, it’s about the subject’s journey from birth to their achievement that shows how their childhood influenced their accomplishment (as was the case with my book about Edward Gorey), and lastly a biography that spans their entire life, from birth to death.

As you noted, picture book biographies are more creative than ever, and it was a delight and a pleasure to write NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, and share his unique story with today’s young readers.

At a certain point, you must have far too much material for a picture book. How do you reconcile all that great info that you didn’t include? Is it agony? I see so many books increasingly cluttered with back matter –- one recent title I came across had 8 pages of it! — and I’m not a fan.

You’re right! Picture book authors have to make tough choices and sometimes scenes that I would have liked to include just don’t make the final cut. That was especially true for my picture book biography, Away with Words, The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, about Victorian traveler, Isabella Bird, who was the first female member of the Royal Geographical Society and wrote 10 books about her exciting explorations. Talk about tough choices! Hopefully, I chose the best.

And as you noted, extra information is often included in the back matter. While you don’t want to go overboard, back matter often includes a more complete life-to-death narrative, author notes, timelines, and glossaries. Back matter is especially important element for today’s nonfiction books so they can offer as much as possible in the STEM/STEAM market for schools and libraries.

This book is written in free verse. Tell us about that decision.

Since Gorey was a unique personality, it seemed only right to tell his story in a unique way as well. I read a lot of picture book biographies and took special note of tone, structure, and arc. One of my favorites has always been Strange Mr. Satie, by M.T. Anderson. With each page, Anderson’s unique details drew me into this musician’s strange life, full of odd circumstance, eccentric decision-making, and controversial musical excursions. With all that input brewing in the background, I began writing about Edward Gorey.

 

It wasn’t long before a quaint, quirky voice emerged that seemed to already know where it was going. This was a happy occurrence because so often it’s a process of trial and error with many false starts. When I wrote this story, however, everything seemed to fall into place as if there was a sign pointing the way.

While writing it, did you have any awareness of how the book will be illustrated, or by whom? Chloe Bristol’s illustrations strike the perfect note. She’s just amazing. Lucky you!

Interestingly, even though I’m not an illustrator, I always have images in mind when I write. In fact, I write my manuscripts with scenes and page turns in mind because that’s what picture books are all about. When authors take these elements into consideration, it will make their manuscript even more appealing and effective.

In the case of Nonsense! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, I didn’t have any idea who would illustrate it, but it seemed likely that whoever illustrated it would have the same sweet and sinister style as the subject, Edward Gorey. I was delighted when Versify brought Chloe Bristol on board because her style was the perfect match to tell Gorey’s story.

What’s next for you, Lori?

That’s always a great question because one of the wonderful things about writing is that there’s always something exciting just around the corner. In 2021, I’m looking forward to the release of my humorous picture book, Arlo Draws an Octopus, inspired by the countless hours I spent as a child trying to draw at the kitchen table where I had my own share of crumpled “disaster-pieces” just like Arlo. In between releases, I’m tapping away at the keyboard, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding my next story to life, and waiting for good news that’s just around the corner.

Thanks for swinging by my swanky blog, Lori. Yes, the mints are free. Sure, of course, go ahead, take all you want — pour the whole bowl into your pockets. Okay, that’s fine. Anyway! Have a safe trip home, Lori. Thanks for inspiring us!

 

Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s author of more than 100 books. Recent releases include NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey; If Wendell Had a Walrus, illustrated by Matt Phelan; Away with Words, the Daring Story of Isabella Bird, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell; Mousequerade Ball, illustrated by Betsy Lewin; and many more. Coming in May, 2021, Arlo Draws an Octopus, illustrated by Rob Sayegh Jr. Please feel free — because, after all, you are free — to visit Lori’s unimaginatively-named website at lorimortensen.com. 

Camping Photo, John Muir Quote: Two for the Price of None!

“In every walk with nature,

one receives far more

than he seeks.”

John Muir

 

I enjoyed a weekend of camping with my wife and daughter and our incredible dog, Echo. We brought a canoe and two kayaks. And let me tell you, it got cold at night, close to freezing! I felt a twinge of guilt staring at our big roaring fires in the verdant Northeastern woods, while those devastating wildfires out west still burn. My heart goes out to all those people and living creatures that have been displaced, their homes destroyed, landscapes (temporarily) ravaged. My wife had a childhood home burn to the ground. She’d been out at basketball practice, only to return to a worried crowd gathered outside, her father in tears. So many people must be experiencing that same tumult of emotion and loss. 

So, yes, a moment for that.

But also for John Muir, and the value of getting out into nature, feeling it, hearing those owls at night, the coyotes surprisingly close, and the ghostly calls of the loons across the lake. 

 

Like-minded readers might enjoy my middle-grade wilderness survival story about siblings, Grace and Carter, who are lost in the mountains. A 2019 Library Guild Selection.

 

Recommended: Three Haiku Books for Young Readers

I’ve written about my own haiku journey of late, how the past few years have seen me writing increasingly in that short form. The deeper I get into it, the more I learn — but also, the more I realize I have yet to learn. It’s a deep, deep well and I love diving into it.

In children’s books, which is my home as an author, there’s a great many haiku collections available. I’ve read a great number of them recently and wanted to highlight a few that I felt were particularly worthy of your attention. My apologies if I’ve overlooked some worthy additions; I didn’t try to be comprehensive. Feel free to leave a comment if you’d like to mention one of your favorites.

 

ONE LEAF RIDES THE WIND

by Celeste Davidson Mannis

illustrated by Susan Kathleen Hartung

 

This book is essential for anyone who wishes to explore the origins, depth, and sensibility of the haiku. Written in a conventional 5-7-5 format, the haiku here are easy to read and accessible, while showing a far deeper sophistication and appreciation of nature than most children’s haiku collections. The poems are set in a Japanese garden and do much to honor the origins of this beautiful art form. “Just as each element of a Japanese garden contributes to a calming, satisfying whole, the elements of this work . . . all meld together into a lovely whole that both entertains and educates.” — Kirkus Reviews.

One leaf rides the wind.

Quick as I am, it’s quicker!

Just beyond my grasp. 

 

 

COOL MELONS — TURN TO FROGS!

The Life and Poems of Issa

by Matthew Gollus

illustrated by Kazuko G. Stone

 

This book is a marvel, and a magnificient next step for any young reader wishing to learn more about haiku. Matthew Gollub masterfully blends a picture book biography on the Japanese haiku poet, Issa, juxtaposed alongside side a number of Issa’s own poems, translated by Gollub. Here we gain an insight into the sense and sensibility of a haiku poet. The illustrations deserve special mention for they convey the culture and lyricism of traditional Japanese artwork. Gollub demonstrates a rock-solid knowledge of the haiku and its history. His translations, like most these days, do not adhere to the conventional 5-7-5 syllable scheme.

A withered tree

blooms once again —

butterflies holding fast.

 

GUYKU

A Year of Haiku for Boys

by Bob Raczka

illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds

 

This third book is not at all like the others. For starters, this 2010 collection hinges on a dubious conceit, that the haiku here is “for boys.” Whatever that means. Moreover, the haiku here are senryo (SEN-ree-yoo), a poem that is structurally similar to haiku, that highlights the foibles of human nature, usually in a humorous way. A more formal haiku is almost always written in the present tense, focuses strictly on nature, contains a kigo or seasonal word, and includes a pause or grammatical break (often between lines 2 and 3). As always, Peter Reynolds’ illustrations are warm and inviting; and Raczka writes with wit and whimsy and lightness, completely winning me over by the end of the book. It pairs nicely with the above titles.

Lying on the lawn,

we study the blackboard sky,

connecting the dots.

James Preller is the author of All Welcome Here,  a book of linked haiku that celebrates the diversity, kindness and community of the open classroom. It is written in traditional 5-7-5 format, mostly in senryu, and illustrated by Caldecott Honor-winning Mary GrandPre. 

 

 

“Caldecott Honoree Grandpré captures the day’s variable moods in pictures of absorbed, interacting kids of various skin tones and abilities. … a cheery take on the joys of camaraderie.”Publishers Weekly

Lively haiku pairs with vibrant art to showcase various facets of the first day of school. Cartoonlike, expressive mixed-media illustrations are an eye-catching blend of bright colors, patterns, and perspectives; the multicultural kids and adults further the sense of inclusiveness. With its reassuring and upbeat elements, this may also help alleviate first-day fears as it highlights the many positive opportunities that await.”― Booklist

“This is a back to school book, during a year when back-to-school is anything but normal. However, this year is the exception. Next year, or the year after that, back to school will be the same with dozens of eager young five-year-olds nervously getting on the bus, going to school and wondering the same things. This book is for them and it’ll still help them this year as they go into the dining room or living room.”―Daddymojo.net

Pro Tips: Finding Inspiration at Home & Across the Street

Every once in a while I talk “writing process” in the hope that educators or readers might find it remotely interesting. I even include Pro Tips! Anyway, ahem, there’s two paragraphs in Upstander (Macmillan, Spring ’21), a sequel to Bystander, where I can directly trace my inspirations. One inspiration comes from artwork by my daughter, and the other is from my neighbor across the street. For our purposes, we’ll call him Bill LaDue.

In Upstander, Mary is struggling with a number of challenging issues. A minor arc is her relationship with her mother’s boyfriend, Ernesto. Of greater importance to the novel is her older brother’s substance use disorder, its impact on the family, as well as Mary’s shifting friendships at school.

Here’s the unedited scene, just two paragraphs that will appear in the middle of the book. I don’t think you’ll need additional setup:

On the day before her brother moved out, Mary sat in the backyard at a reclaimed picnic table that Ernesto had “rescued” from someone’s garbage pile. He did that a lot. Drove around in his pickup truck on garbage day, often returning with curbside items of questionable quality. A riding lawn mower that “only” needed a new fuel pump and starter switch; a boat that leaked; a set of ancient, rusted golf clubs; a battered ping pong table that lacked a net. He has a weakness for broken things, Mary mused. The thought sank down into her belly, like a small stone dropped into a well, and it made her appreciate Ernesto just a little more.

Mary set out her art supplies. Paper, brushes, watercolors. She painted a seated female figure, facing away, balancing a stack of rocks on her head. It was a strange, almost magical image and it pleased Mary to make it. An hour passed. Very quietly, Jonny sat down beside her. He wore pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. His hair was wet from the shower. Mary didn’t comment, but she felt surprised. He didn’t usually show much interest. Why was he here?

 

It’s important to me that even minor characters are, to the best of my ability, fully realized. It’s a source of pride, actually. Who was this Ernesto guy, dating Mary’s mother and spending time in her house? Finding the answer was deceptively simple: Make something up! After all, that’s what writers do. 

I looked across the street at my neighbor’s house, the fabulous LaDues: Bill, Erin, and Charlie. Bill is a good man, a friend, funny and kind. And he has a thing for curbside “garbage.” He’s constantly pulling over for discarded curbside items, seeing value where the original owners did not, and hauling the derelict items home. Bill’s pals gently tease him about this affliction. The boat that doesn’t float, the four riding lawn mowers all in some state of disrepair, and so on. Just today, Bill posted this on social media:

He wrote, with more than a little self-awareness:

Cleaning out the camper. I kind of feel like I absolutely need each and everyone one of these things: 2 extra sets of golf clubs, 8 or 9 coolers, a bevy of beer brewing equipment never used, 2 ironing boards (Erin’s), cushions for a hanging chair (we no longer have the chair). Hey, you never know when this stuff might come in handy.

 

So that’s Bill. And now, because Bill lives across the street from me, that’s Ernesto, too. And as Mary comes to understand it: He has a weakness for broken things.

Yeah, that’s the key to whole character. It’s all you really need to know about Ernesto. I love him for that quality. Ernesto sees the potential, the upside, in everything and everyone. It made Mary appreciate Ernesto just a little more. And it’s something I admire about my neighbor Bill, too; he’s a romantic at heart, an old softy, bless his soul.

Mary, like my own daughter, Maggie, likes making things. She draws and paints and sews and creates. When it came time to describe one of Mary’s paintings, since that’s what she was doing in this scene, I thought of one that Maggie made last winter, which now hangs in her bedroom:

 

I guess I didn’t have to “make something up” after all!

Funny how that works.

So that’s today’s Pro Tip, young writers. Take a look around, be a sponge, soak it all up. As my neighbor Bill attests, “Hey, you never know when this stuff might come in handy.”

Maybe writers are junk collectors, too.

 

Check List for the School Year

 

Good luck, educators — and thank you once again for the important, essential work that you do. My thoughts are with you.