Archive for 5 Questions

5 QUESTIONS with Bruce Coville, author of “Hatched”

 

Big day here at James Preller Dot Com. Nevermind the mess. Kick those balloons out of the way, pick the confetti out of your hair later. We’re thrilled for today’s visit from the nearly-legendary author Bruce Coville! Or should I say the impossibly prolific? The glistening-domed scribe? Words are so hard sometimes. Anyway, I’m glad to have Bruce here, an author of wit and wisdom and unfailing good cheer (so long as he doesn’t open a newspaper). 

Bruce Coville - credit Charles Wainwright

 

Bruce, welcome. I’m eager to discuss Hatched, the second book in your “Enchanted Files” series. I should let readers know that each title in the series is a stand-alone, they don’t have to be read in any order. Or at all, I suppose!

Hey, don’t let people off the hook that easily. Of course they should read them all!

I guess the literary term for this book is “epistolary,” in the broadest sense. Not limited to letters, but inclusive of documents, cell phone photos, newspaper accounts, journal entries, and so on: multi-textural. It’s a highly entertaining way to deliver a story. Tell me about what attracted you to this narrative device.

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Actually, I’ve been trying for some months now to remember how I first thought of it! I think what happened was that when I was working on the proposal for the first book in the series, which was originally titled Diary of a Mad Brownie (long story there!), I realized I had a lot of information I needed to convey that the main character would not put into his diary, for example things about his world that he would take for granted but that would not be common knowledge for a young reader. Once I started down that path, I realized what a good source of humor such documents could be, especially with ironic juxtapositions.

It seems like you are having fun. It comes through in the book. I can imagine you giggling to yourself as you typed.

Totally! When kids ask if I like writing, I always explain that there are days when my head feels like oatmeal, and I think the only way I can get something out of the keyboard is if I plant a geranium there.

Other days I’ll write something so fabulous it makes me laugh out loud and hug myself. Naturally, I have a lot more oatmeal days than I do scream and hug myself days. Thing is, you have to live through the oatmeal to get to the hugs.

Or something like that . . .

I think someone on the interwebs needs to create a meme right now with your face and the words, “You have to live through the oatmeal to get to the hugs.” Back to the book — the design is fresh, clean, and inviting. Fabulous covers, especially. As a hot-shot author, did you have input into that aspect of the publishing process?

In this case it’s rather a long story.

That seems to be a trend with you. Try to hurry it up, I rent by the column inch.

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The first book (born Mad Brownie, but called Cursed in paperback) got great reviews, but did not do as well as we had hoped. In retrospect, I think the title was all wrong for the audience. It made adults laugh, but mostly just baffled kids.

Random House, bless its collective heart, believed in the project enough that rather than drop it –- which some other publishers might have done -– they literally went back to the drawing board and came up with an entirely new look that everyone seems to love. (Which shows what I know; I thought the art for the first cover was great!)

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That original cover artist had actually already done a crackerjack cover for Hatched, but it was replaced with the cover you’ve seen, and quite rightly described as “fresh, clean, and inviting.”

Because of the “epistolary” aspect of the books, I have indeed been involved in the design aspects of the interiors, much more so than usual. Much discussion of typefaces has ensued. And the artist, Paul Kidby, has been wonderful at coming up with different illustration styles, as the documents are supposed to be from a wide variety of sources.

You’ve long been interested in the magical, fascinated by the fantastic, always with a healthy dose of humor and playfulness. Publishing trends may come and go, but that’s always been your sweet spot. You’ve been ahead of the times and you’ve been behind the times, inhabiting your own planet, yet always working away, doing your own thing. Writing Bruce Coville-type books.

As the great Popeye so often said, “I yam what I yam.”

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Where did that interest come from? Is it something that goes back to your childhood?

Oh, definitely. But, changing styles aside, I think the mix of a compelling story with goofy humor is something that all kids love, always. Whatever is currently in style has as much to do with publishers seeking the next big thing as it does with actual kids. Okay, that statement is less true for YA fiction, where there are definite trends and fads. But for a large subset of the 8–12 year audience fantasy, science fiction, and adventure –- all leavened with humor –- will never go out of style.

This may sound silly, since this is a book about an imaginary creature, but what kind of research went into it? You are writing within a tradition, after all. You can’t just make it up. Can you?

Oh, I do a vast amount of research for these books. Obviously studying the creature that will be at the center of the story is vital. And not just because you’re writing about a figure for which there is a lot of existing lore. The delicious side-effect is that the research actually sparks all kinds of plot ideas. A good example would be the armband worn by Alexander the Great that plays an important part in the resolution of Hatched. That whole strand of the story came about because in the initial research I learned that there is a story about Alexander harnessing a pair of gryphons in an attempt to reach the heavens.

But the research isn’t restricted to the magical aspects of the story. I needed a place for Gerald, the griffin, to stay where he could avoid being seen. Once I decided that the Catskills would be perfect for my purposes, I had to research the area and its lore.

And doing a backstory for the gnomes that are also key to the book led to studying some Dutch history. I was fairly amused when the translator working on the Dutch edition queried me about naming their colony New Batavia, since Dutch kids learn that Batavia was the original name for Jakarta. I was able to tell her in return that the reason that city was called Batavia to begin with was in honor of the Batavi, a tribe that led a revolt against Rome in the first century AD, and that in the 1500’s there was a movement (“The Batavian Revival”) to claim the tribe as the forebears of the Dutch people as part of a nation-building/myth-making effort.

Really, I become a fountain of useless information when I am working on something like this!

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It took you all the way to page five before your first “stinky fart” joke. I believe “unicorn poop” is mentioned on the same page. Get a hold of yourself, Bruce! How in the world are you going to win a Newbery with this kind of attitude?

Brief story: The late, great Paula Danziger was a close pal of mine. She once told me about a snot joke she had put in one of her Matthew Martin books. Her editor wanted her to take it out. Telling me about it, Paula said, “I told him it stays. And that’s why I’ll never win the Newbery!”

But she sure had a lot of readers!

Seriously, you are willing to go there. The facile answer is that you’ve never grown up. But I wonder if you have anything to say about the place of “low humor” in children’s literature? Besides uproarious laughter, you must have gotten a few complaints over the years.

Actually, I used to have an entire speech called “The Importance of Bad Taste in Children’s Literature.” The essence of it was that as a writer I believe you have to start where the child is, not where you want to take them.

urlLook, if you say to a kid, “This book provides a deep and meaningful meditation on the meaning of life, and will prove to be important to you and the person you are to become,” the kid’s response is likely to be “That’s nice, but I have an important video game to play.”  

But if you start the book with some slightly naughty humor, then catch them with the story, they will follow you anywhere. And that is when you can also provide something deeper and more meaningful. On the other hand, if you gain the gift of a child’s attention but don’t go on to also feed his or her heart, I count that as a failure.

I like that, Bruce, well said. If you gain the gift of a child’s attention . . . .

Another meme!

The book is built upon the relationship of Brad –- a human boy -– and a Griffin, Gerald Overflight. Obviously, characters from different worlds. You like to write about that nexis where the magical and the modern world come together.

Absolutely!

Tell us your thoughts about Brad. Are you an author who has it all mapped out beforehand, or are you discovering him as you write?

Oh, I was totally discovering Brad as I wrote. One day when I was only partway into the book the editor contacted me and asked for a description of Brad to give the cover artist. (This was before the style change.)

To be honest, describing the main character is not a strong point with me . . . I mostly like to leave room for readers to imagine themselves in the lead roles.

In Elmore Leonard’s classic phrase, you leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.

But it is important for most covers. They asked if Brad could have dark hair and eyes, and maybe despite his Scottish heritage (something that later changed anyway) be not too fair-skinned.

My reply was that as far as I was concerned he could be black. I was being a bit flip. But that email exchange led to me deciding to make Brad of mixed race, which in turn helped make him a much richer and more interesting character in the final version.

Ah, that opens the door an entirely different conversation about diversity and representation in children’s books — a topic we can’t possibly due justice to today. Maybe we can tackle it another time. Because look: we made it through to the end without you jumping on a chair and screaming about Donald Trump. You’ve shown admirable restraint.

That’s because I’m tired of having to replace keyboards after I pound out a message that sets them on fire!

51SX43Um+qL._AC_UL320_SR216,320_BRUCE COVILLE was born, raised, and still lives in the Syracuse, New York, area, where he is king of all he surveys. He has written many books and enjoys visiting schools, because that’s where they keep the kids.

 

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed in my “5 Questions” series include: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, London Ladd, and John Coy. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function. 

Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Matt Faulkner, Robin Pulver, and more.

5 QUESTIONS with JOHN COY, author of “Their Great Gift”


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I don’t know what it is with Minnesota, but there’s a lot of great children’s book people from that state, and John Coy is a shining example of all that is great and good in the land of lakes. Each year John quietly adds new quality work to an already outstanding career. Ask anybody in the business about John Coy, and you always hear the same thing: Big Respect. But on the basketball court, they say: No Hops. Today I’m happy to talk about his timely book, Their Great Gift: Courage, Sacrifice, and Hope in a New Land, featuring the photographs of Wing Young Huie.

 

John and Wing.

John and Wing.

 

Hi, John. In a way, this book began on a basketball court twenty-five years ago. That is, through friendship. Give us a little bit of background on your relationship with photographer Wing Young Huie and the genesis of this book.

Wing and I met each other playing pick-up basketball in St. Paul. We were often on the same team and he’s got a deadly outside shot. I learned quickly that getting him the ball with the game on the line was a good way to keep the court. Later I played with him in a weekly game for years and we’d go out afterwards as a group. I’ve been a fan of Wing’s extraordinary photography for a long time.

That’s great. I share that in common with you. I play in an old men’s baseball league — hardball, still — and I value so much that companionship of men from assorted backgrounds. It’s an escape and a release and a pure joy. But tell me. Why did this particular topic of immigration speak to you?

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This book had a much different process than any of the other picture books I’ve made where I have not known the artist. I was having lunch one day with editor Andrew Karre and he said, “I’ve always wanted to do a book with Wing Young Huie.” I told him that Wing and I were friends and that I’d love to do a book with Wing. Andrew suggested I write something that would work with Wing’s photographs. Wing has over 35,000 photographs, but I knew he had many of recent arrivals in Minnesota and I’d always wanted to do a book about arriving in a new land.

For Their Great Gift, the photos came first. It was your task to write something that pulled it all together. Is that right?

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Actually, the text came first. I wrote it thinking about the stories I’d heard of different people in my family coming here. After Wing saw the text, he and I got together and he suggested changes to make it broader and more inclusive. I talked with people who had come here from other countries and incorporated their suggestions as well. Our goal early on was to make the story open so people could bring their own thoughts, experiences, and questions to it.

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In order to write this, you had to think deeply about the nature of America, and the role that immigration has played in our country’s development. What did you discover in the process of writing this book? Did anything surprise you? Did you feel sadness? Inspiration? Pride?

This is a subject very close to me. My uncle didn’t speak any English when he started school and I was brought up hearing stories about how difficult it is to give up a life in one country and start anew in another one. I also heard about
how hard the immigrant experience could be and how some people were not welcoming to new arrivals. As I got older I read more about it and realized this is a very old story in the United States — who is welcome and who is not. I also became interested in how often aspects of being an immigrant are passed down in families, often without us even being aware of them. In terms of emotions, yes sadness, inspiration, pride, but most of all a deep appreciation of the struggle so many people go through to get here, so often so the children and grandchildren will have greater choices. Just typing that sentence about sacrifice brings tears.

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I don’t think most people can fully appreciate how difficult it is to write simply about a topic of great complexity. What was the process of winnowing down like for you? I mean, after you removed your forehead from the plasterboard.

I’ve been thinking about this story for twenty years. I’m sure some of that winnowing was going on in my mind, but I also knew the power of Wing’s photographs.

You had that ace up your sleeve.

Right away, I knew the less text the better so that people could bring their own family stories to the topic by seeing the photographs.

Same spread.

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Interesting, so the text had to be sparse, leaving an open space for readers to enter with their own stories. But even so, you still had to try to arrive at the essence of the immigrant experience. And that means throwing away a lot of images and pages and pages of text.

Yes, that’s exactly the process. Wing and I would discuss a single word for over an hour trying to get it right. Once Wing and I settled on text, he began the process of choosing images for particular pages. We had a wonderful team with his gallery director Stephanie Rogers and editors Andrew Karre and Carol Hinz and designer Danielle Carnito at Lerner. Since we all live in Minnesota, we could get together and discuss text, images, fonts, and design. Together, we went through many discussions before arriving at the place that felt right.

There’s a great power to Wing’s photographs, the simplicity of just “giving face” to the contemporary immigrant experience. Do you think that’s the ultimate takeaway for this book? A recognition that these are real people seeking the same basic things for their families?

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I always want readers to choose their own takeaways. I will say that when I read this book, I have never had kids and adults pay more attention than I do with Their Great Gift. Wing’s images are so powerful that they speak directly to us and cut through so much of the noise around us.

Okay, let’s address it. Were you ever concerned, in this time of heightened sensitivity to “cultural appropriation,” that this wasn’t your story to tell?

Yes, this was a discussion that Wing and I had from the beginning. I started out telling the story from my own personal experience and then tried to move outwards to make it as broad and open as possible so that others could see themselves in the story. I am very grateful to all the people who shared their stories in the process.

Did you any have specific sources you went to for inspiration? Books, speeches, images? I’d guess that you started writing this book . . . by reading?

This book started in listening to people’s stories. The more we’re able to listen to other people’s stories, the more we’re able to understand who we are.

As a writer, I had this experience only once, when I wrote Bystander. I could imagine the book being discussed, to the point where I thought of it as a “talking book.” I saw the novel as a means rather than an end, sensing that the conversations after would be more important than reading the book. I feel that way about your book too, John — a good way to begin an important conversation.

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I think that there are a number of conversations happening that are long overdue. Sometimes the conversations aren’t easy, but that’s what happens when there are things we haven’t been talking openly about for a long time. I’m appreciative of people who’ve made their own sacrifices to bring these conversations forward.

Your book ends with a question. Did you always know that’s where you were going to end up?

That question was there in the first draft. I’d given a talk at a young authors’ conference and discussed the people who’d come before me that allowed me to be in the position I was. I asked students to think about who in their family had made a significant sacrifice to provide them the opportunity they had. And then I asked them to think about what they were going to do with this gift.

UnknownYou’re a good man, John Coy. Before I let you go, could you please tell us a bit about Gap Life, your new book for YA readers?

Thanks for asking. It’s the story of Cray Franklin whose parents will pay for college but only if he studies what they want. That’s not what Cray wants and he struggles to find his own way. I’ve been fascinated by how many people have told me stories about not being able to study what they wanted and how deep this goes. Cray meets some remarkable people who help him get to places he didn’t expect.

I’ll add it to the reading list. And again, congratulations on Their Great Gift.

Thanks for asking me to answer these questions. I really enjoyed thinking about it. Very glad to be on the same team with you making books.

 

The “5 Questions” Interview Series is a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function, which works swimmingly. 

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed include: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, and London Ladd. 

Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, Robin Pulver, and more.

 

 

 

5 QUESTIONS with LONDON LADD, illustrator of “Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglas”

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Today we’ll meet London Ladd, the supremely talented illustrator behind Frederick’s Journey (2015), written by Doreen Rappaport. In the process of this interview, you’ll discover what I’ve already learned — that London is a soft-spoken, modest, quietly determined artist with a bright future ahead of him.

London I’m so glad to have you here. Now I can shine my full 15-watt bulb on your awesome talent. I hope you’re wearing sunglasses. Are you ready for this?

Thank you very much. I’m honored to talk to you and share. I’m ready!

As an illustrator who does not write his own books (we’ll get back to that later), you depend on quality manuscripts coming your way. What was your experience first reading Doreen Rappaport’s manuscript for Frederick’s Journey? She’s such an excellent writer and researcher. Are you visualizing images right away?

It was amazing because Douglass is one of my favorite historical figures so this was a dream come true for me as an illustrator. Doreen is great!!! My first time reading her script, images and scenes immediately popped into my head — and as I read it again and again, more would come up. Some would end up in the book, some didn’t.

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Okay, so you accepted the job. What’s next? Do you freak out for a week, filled with self-doubt? Or are you a guy who rolls up your sleeves and dives right in? I mean, you are staring at words typed on a bare page. How do you start? Sketching with a pencil, or what?

I wouldn’t say freak out, but take a deep breath, exhale so I can could be focused and determined to do an outstanding job. First I read the script from beginning to end without stopping. Then I read a second time while quickly writing notes and sketching in pencil rough ideas. I’ll repeat the process a few more times. Usually 1/4 of the pages roughly sketched before the next phase . . . research.

In the illustrator’s note at the back of the book, you describe going to places where Frederick Douglas lived, visiting his grave in Rochester, New York, even growing your hair long like him. It sounds like you employ similar techniques to a method actor who seeks to inhabit the character he’s portraying. Tell us about your process of –- I don’t want to say becoming Frederick Douglas -– but your effort to get inside this very strong, historic figure.

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Since I look a little like him — I have spots of gray in my hair and facial hair — I decided to grow it out. While my hair was growing I read his powerful autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and watched documentaries of him and the slave era.

So your first big move was to wait for your hair to grow?

Well, while that was happening I also traveled to various important landmarks during his life like his home in Washington DC, Fells Point in Baltimore, and his grave in Rochester. Everything about the book was a magical experience. I’ve never enjoyed working on a project as much as Frederick’s Journey. That’s why I was so immersed.

Tell us a little about the materials you used to create these paintings. And, um, for the sake of my Nation of Readers, just pretend that I’m a complete idiot and –- I know, that’s a huge leap! –- try to use small words.

LOL . . . it’s pretty simple. 

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I use acrylic paint with touches of colored pencil and pastels on primed illustration board. When sketches are approved by the publisher I put the drawings on board, then start painting with thin layers of acrylic paint while adding thicker layers while applying colored pencil and pastels for desired effects. I’ve been illustrating books for 10 years but I’m still developing my artistic look with each project. I really enjoyed the challenges painting them.

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Oh, yeah. “Pretty simple.” Sure. Do you work from models?

Always!!! Besides using myself I use family members, friends, anyone who fits the character. I might ask you if necessary!

Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Do you have a favorite moment in the book? I love the contrast from Frederick’s younger days, when he is vulnerable and hungry, forced to eat from a trough, to when we see him later, hunched over a newspaper -– a reader can sense the power he’s acquiring in that moment.

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We see him later in a classic heroic pose, with our perspective looking up at him. He grows in stature as the book progresses. I’m also impressed by that huge, tight head shot that occurs late in the book. You turn the page and it’s like, wow, very stark and effective. There he is, the man. When you finished that painting, that must have been a good day.

Thank you! Yeah, it took me a week to paint that page because I would paint it for a few hours, stop, work on other image from the book then continue working on it the next day or two or three until I was happy enough with it.

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There are so many images I love but I would have to say the first three pages: Frederick being taken from his mother (the agony of his mother’s guttural scream as he’s taken), fishing in the river (the comfort of being with his grandmother peacefully fishing, soothing sound of the river and warmth of the sun setting), and separating from grandmother (the sadness in his eyes and his low volume sobbing as young Douglass realizes his grandmother is gone, possibly forever and surrounded by strangers). I see them as linked together as one range of feelings, emotions and sounds.

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Yes, enough for a life’s journey in just three pages. It’s amazing what he accomplished after that. Do you have plans for writing your own books, too? I really hope you do. You seem like a quiet guy and, of course, those are the ones who surprise people. Any areas of interest you might want to explore?

I’m usually quiet but sometimes I can have a playful personality. Believe it or not when I was younger I wasn’t quiet . . . . I blame the deadlines for that.

I know you are working really hard right now, London, holding down two jobs in addition to your work as an illustrator. It’s impressive. All I can say is keep it up, keep pushing hard, because you are on the cusp of even greater success.

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Thanks, I have a few ideas brewing. I presented one to my agent, Lori Nowicki at Painted Words, and she really liked it so we’ll see where it goes. I don’t want to share anything until a contract is signed. Also my daughter is studying illustration in college so it’s my ultimate dream to work together. She’s so creative I know it will be a lot fun.

I am so glad to hear that. I know it’s a difficult jump for many illustrators to make, a leap outside of your comfort zone. But I push you in particular, London, because we are now in a much needed corrective phase in children’s publishing. We are hearing the call for diversity, and it’s been answered in all sorts of ways. Which is well and good. However, a cautionary note: it’s not nearly enough for white people to write inclusively. It can’t stop there. The diversity movement must be about power. About control and author-ity. Children’s literature needs your story; we need to hear your voice in full. It’s not enough, in my mind, for you to illustrate a white person’s story about slavery, regardless of the integrity of the writing. We need children’s literature to embrace your living story — your sense of humor, your playfulness, your experience, your thoughts and feelings. The good news is that I believe the publishing industry has never been more receptive than it is today. So, yes, I wish you luck with that manuscript. And how nice for you to share that experience, fingers crossed, with your daughter.

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Thank you!!!  I definitely understand what you’re saying.  Also it’s vital to have more diversity with the decision-makers in publishing like art directors, associate art directors, editors, graphic designers, etc.  
 
Exactly right. And CEOs, too, while we’re at it. Somewhere I read that you loved comics as a kid. It’s amazing how often I hear that from illustrators, the singular importance and impact of those old comic books. But I don’t really see that visual influence in your work. Am I wrong about that? Or is that something you might try down the line?

True, visually my books don’t look like comics but what influenced me about comic books was the storytelling, emotional depth, and action sequences. I try to bring those elements into my books. Some of my favorite comics were graphic novels, so I would love to illustrate one down the road.

I’d like to see that, too. Hey, London, before I let you go, I see you are a Syracuse guy, born and raised. Do you always wear that orange sweatshirt? And also, favorite Syracuse basketball player of all time. I’m guessing . . . Sherman Douglas. Am I right?

No love for the Shermanator? Here's Etan Thomas instead. Yes, London, big dude.

No love for the Shermanator? Here’s Etan Thomas instead. Yes, London, big dude.

Lol, no I don’t wear the sweatshirt anymore because it can get really warm in the studio and I’ve built up so many layers of paint from cleaning my brushes on it. Sherman Douglas was an amazing player but actually one of my favorite all-time players at SU was Etan Thomas. He wasn’t a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school, but during his four years he worked hard developing his game, earned his degree, and had a productive NBA career and is currently involved with community work. What I admire about him was how he worked hard to overcome any challenge. I can relate to that. Plus when I was a student at SU I saw him on campus one day and he was a big dude.

People sure do love the Orangemen in upstate, New York. My good friend went to Syracuse and tells a story about waitressing for some of those players. Let’s just say that she will forever hate on Derrick Coleman. Anyway, what are you working on right now?

I’m working on Midnight Teacher: The Story of Lily Ann Granderson by Janet Halfmann. It’s about a woman who was born into slavery during the mid 19th century who learned to read and write. She secretly taught other slaves to read write at the risk of her life. After the Emancipation Proclamation she started a school to teach former slaves to read and write. What’s so exciting is illustrating such an amazing woman many people might not be familiar with.

I’ll look forward to it.

Thank you, James, this was a lot of fun.

 

The “5 Questions” Interview Series is a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function, which works well. 

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed include: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, and Jeff Mack. Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, and more.

 

 

 

5 QUESTIONS with JEFF MACK, author/illustrator of “Look!”

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Jeff Mack, nicest guy in the room! Thanks for stopping by. I’m so glad you’re here to discuss Look!, a picture book that uses only two words, “look” and “out.” Before we begin though, I have three words for you: “Wipe your feet.” Sorry, new carpeting. 

Oops. Sorry about the mess, Jimmy. That rug really tied the room together.

Nothing says classy quite like orange shag carpeting. I just did up my van with the remnants.

Nice.

As a writer — as a professional counter of words — I’m envious. I keep having this image of you dressed in a red satin robe, sitting down at an old-fashioned typewriter, cracking your knuckles, and typing with one finger the word “Look.” At which point you sit back, hand on your chin, and muse thoughtfully. Your manuscript is half done. Is that about right?

Yes, that’s right.

For Look!, try to take us back to the beginning. How did this book start for you?

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In 2006, I sketched out a story about a fruit-juggling bear who accidentally scares a bunch of cub scouts. Believe it or not, that turned into a sweet bedtime book called Hush Little Polar Bear. No fruit-juggling. No cub scouts.

Years later, I was cleaning my studio, and I found my original sketches of the fruit-juggler. A new idea popped into my head: what if the bear juggles books instead?

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That was in 2013. Who Wants A Hug? was about to be published, and it also has a bear in it. I wanted the books to stand apart, so I made the book-juggler a gorilla. And now he only juggles on one page.

In the end, pretty much everything changed from my original idea. You wouldn’t even recognize it. Now that I think about it, I should probably write a book about a fruit-juggling bear.

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Frank O’Hara has a great poem about that same dynamic, titled “Why I Am Not a Painter.” Readers should click that link to check it out.

Sorry, I digress . . .

Jeff, I think you create the deceptively simple picture book about as well as anyone working in children’s books today. The challenge, I suppose, is creating an age-appropriate story that isn’t simple at all –- that’s distilled to its essence — that has depth. Or at least humor. Is that something that comes naturally to you? Because for many of us, it’s why writing picture books is so hair-pullingly impossible. There’s so little room for error.

Certain parts of the process might come naturally. I always start out by scribbling a series of stick figures. That feels pretty natural. I don’t think deeply or critically while I’m scribbling. I just go with my gut and see what comes out.

It starts to feel exciting if I notice a deeper meaning taking shape. Then I’ll play around with the words, making sure they add something interesting to the mix. I don’t want them to just repeat what you already see in the pictures.

After that, there’s a long, difficult process of editing and revising. This is the hair-pulling, hand-wringing, axe-murdering part of writing. I’ll sketch parts of the book over and over again until the sequence feels exactly right to me. I might do a thousand sketches for a 32-page book. Remember Jack Nicholson in The Shining? I can relate.

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The most poignant illustration in the book, for me, comes midway through the book after the boy kicks the gorilla out of the room. The palette darkens. And he sits close to the television, lured by its glow. That spread is horribly sad, or sadly horrible, in a book that is ultimately filled with light and good cheer.

Tell us about that one picture.

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In a different story, maybe this picture would look comforting. It’s dark. It’s quiet. Maybe he’s binging on The Good Wife or something.

But, no. Not here. The boy just kicked the gorilla out of the room. He rejected a friend. So his solitude seems kind of pathetic.

This is what I love about telling stories with pictures. I can guide readers how to feel about a certain image by putting certain others before it. If I get the sequence right, I barely need words.

Studies, sketches.

Studies, sketches.

 

There’s also deciding what to get rid of. Sometimes I have to cut a favorite image or sequence because it distracts from the focus of the book. That can be heart-wrenching too. I have to keep an open mind. There’s always a ton of stuff left behind on the “cutting room floor.”

I’ve been dabbling as a writing coach with high school students on their college essays. I’ve had that conversation several times already, the idea that during revision we sometimes have to “kill our darlings” — deleting those passages we’ve come to love that, alas, don’t serve the greater cause. Cut, slice, destroy. It’s a painful process.

It’s why I start with stick figures.

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You enrich this story with a subtle, understated device. From a design perspective, it’s a book inside a book. Or at least, you drew inspiration and texture from the visuals of a battered, old library book. Why did it make sense for this story?

A couple of years ago, I made a book called The Things I Can Do. I just used random stuff from around the house: construction paper, bandaids, bubble gum, a piece of wood, ketchup. It was fun. It was messy. It looks like a four-year-old made it. Every page came out differently depending on what I used that day.

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When it was time to make LOOK!, I started doing the same thing. Except complete chaos didn’t really suit this story. Sure, it has some intense parts, but it also has plenty of calm moments. I needed a style that would give me a range of moods to work with. Since the main character is a gorilla who learns how to read and share books with a boy, I limited my collage materials to a variety of book covers and torn pages. That way, I was able to make a dynamic book where all of the visual elements connect directly to the plot.

You really work the whole page, Jeff. Nothing is accidental or tossed off. There’s great care, for example, even in the typeface.

Oh right, the typeface. I don’t use “he said” or “she said” in LOOK!. Instead, I attribute the characters’ voices by making typefaces that tell us something about their personalities. When the gorilla speaks, it looks like a little kid scribbled in the book with a crayon. When the boy speaks, it looks like an adult carefully pasted in letters from magazines.

I put a lot of care into choosing and arranging each element. But chance also played a huge part in the process.

After I collected the books and pages that I wanted to use as backgrounds, I matched them up with the characters one by one. I did this randomly, without any planning.

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If the images didn’t merge in an interesting or convincing way, I moved on to the next combo. When the images did work together, it was often because of some surprising good luck, like the way a tear in the page intersected with a crashing object, the way random pencil scribbles added manic energy to a scene, or the way a border around a character suggested a pause in the action.

A big challenge when I’m working on these little details is finding the right balance. I want readers to notice them, but they have to stay subtle. Otherwise, they could distract from the plot.

At the Rochester Children’s Book Festival, you and I had the opportunity to talk a little bit about the importance of endings. When it comes to a picture book, you absolutely must nail the ending –- or else it’s not a successful book. I once interviewed James Marshall and he was adamant about that. He said, “A fizzled ending is a fizzled book.” Do you struggle with endings?

I think every part of the book has to be successful. It might be easier to hide a flaw somewhere in the middle. But it’s pretty much impossible to ignore a flawed ending. It’s like getting a zit on your nose instead of someplace else.

But nailing the ending means something different for each book.

For instance, some books call for a loud, obvious punchline at the end. I’m thinking about that book with Grover, The Monster at the End of this Book, where all of his troubles build up to a surprise twist on the last page.

Others work better when the ending slowly creeps up on you and then makes you think. You can see it coming, but when it does, you can’t believe it’s over. The Giving Tree is like that. And some, like Goodnight Moon, have endings that just drift beautifully away.

I wrote a few endings for LOOK! before I finally decided on the one that’s in the book. An earlier draft ended with the word “out” written above a smashed tv in a garbage can. It was a strong point, but it wasn’t the one I really wanted to make.

 

 

Rejected ending.

Rejected ending.

On the surface, LOOK! is about a battle of books vs. tv. But on a deeper, more important level, it’s about paying attention to each other and not tuning out the world around us. Throughout the story, the boy and the gorilla struggle to connect. I wanted to see them finally get there. So I ditched the garbage can and showed them falling asleep together. That felt like the most satisfying moment to end with because it directly and completely solved their problem. At least until the sequel.

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You seem to have a natural sense of young readers, what makes them laugh, and generally how they interact with a book. It’s a cliché to say that you tap into your own “inner child.” But I wonder, Can you think of any other explanation?

Honestly, I just write about the stuff I like. I have been writing and illustrating stories ever since I was a little kid. My activities haven’t changed. I’m still in touch with my childhood feelings and interests, except now I’m motivated by adult feelings and interests.

Look at it this way: in the early 1980’s I watched a lot of sci-fi on tv, especially drwhoDoctor Who. As a ten-year-old, I loved the monsters because they were scary and cool. Now that I’m a forty-four, what I love about those old monsters is how cheap they look. I love that a slimy monster arm is really just bubble-wrap with green spray-paint on it. It fills me with happiness. It’s the same feeling of happiness I felt when I was ten, but now I feel it for a different, more complicated reason.

Having that feeling helps me remember what I enjoyed as a kid. And those memories inform all of my books whether they are 32-page picture books like LOOK! or 250-page chapter books like Clueless McGee.

The best books seem to work on both levels, for children and adults.

Yes, I think so. That was my goal for Clueless McGee. On one level, it’s about a bumbling fifth-grade private eye who repeatedly ignores facts because they challenge his false beliefs. It’s full of meaning and real-life human problems. At the same time, the stories are also absurd and slapstick. Hopefully jokes about inflatable pants and cosmic boogers lead kids into deeper levels of understanding. It’s like a candy coating that gets them to eat the healthy apple inside.

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One of my goals in life is to make books that readers form strong relationships with. At the same time, they have to come from a place of deep, genuine, personal interest.

I just feel lucky that enough readers enjoy my books to keep me busy doing something I care so much about.

Thanks for the deep thoughts, Jeff. Now let’s go for a ride in my van, I just got a full tank of gasoline.

 

whowantsahugJEFF MACK keeps a clean, well-lighted blog and travels the world — it’s true, the actual world — visiting schools. Jeff not only writes picture books for very young readers, but also the longer “Clueless McGee” chapter books. Be sure to check them out.

 

The “5 Questions” Interview Series is a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES, and scroll insanely down. Coming soon: London Ladd, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, and more.

5 QUESTIONS with LIZZY ROCKWELL, author/illustrator of “Plants Feed Me.”

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There’s not a person in all of children’s literature whom I respect more than Lizzy Rockwell. She’s the real deal, the genuine article. We haven’t been friends for long, but every time I get a chance to speak with Lizzy — when we’re invited to the same book festivals, fortuitously — I am struck by her kindness and intelligence. I find myself wishing I was that nice, or that smart. Oh well! The truth is, children’s literature is in Lizzy’s DNA. And so she quietly puts good work into the world, day by day, book by book. I know you’re going to like her.

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Lizzy, thanks for coming. In honor of your visit, I’ve set out a delicious array of snacks. Let’s see, here’s some tinned corned beef; a bowl of cheese puffs; a plate of tilefish –- rich with mercury; microwaveable popcorn with bags lined with perflourooctanoic acid (you don’t want to know), and some Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli! Pretty sure that’s every food group. What’s the matter, Lizzy, not hungry?

Oh Jimmy, you shouldn’t have. No, I mean it, you really shouldn’t have.

Okay, fine, more perflourooctanoic acid for me! Lizzy, you know I’m a big fan. I have so much respect and admiration for your work. Your books are always clear, concise, and uncluttered. You strip away the superfluous, anything that might confuse or complicate. I think that’s your great, under-rated gift — your unique ability to hone in on the essence of a book. You make it look easy.

I don’t always share this with adults, but do readily with kids, I struggle a lot to get to that simplicity. My first writing project, edited by Phoebe Yeh at Harper, was Good Enough to Eat: A Kid’s Guide to Food and Nutrition. We worked on it for about four years. I did three entirely different book dummies, different texts, different illustrations. Getting a book to the point where it rings true and clear is not easy. But it should look easy.

Plants Feed Me also went through a major overhaul. Shortly before I was to start on finishes, my editor at Holiday House, Grace Maccarone, decided that it would be an even stronger book as a level D easy reader. Simple sentences, phonetic words, and 24 pages instead of 32. This affected nearly every sentence and picture in the dummy. After I wiped away my tears, I set to work, and was able to enjoy the challenge and learn from it.


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Wow, you are killing me with these names. I worked with both Phoebe and Grace at Scholastic, back in the 80’s. I named a character in Jigsaw Jones after Phoebe — Jigsaw’s partner, Mila Yeh. And Grace edited two Hello Readers of mine, quite popular for a time, both now out of print: Wake Me In Spring and Hiccups for Elephant.

I’m sorry, I interrupted. I think you were wiping away tears . . .

Explaining science in as few words as possible brings you to essential truths. It reveals a poetic simplicity to the universe. Science books, and all good children’s books, give readers a way to find clarity, pattern, and some predictability in their world, which can often feel chaotic.

The calm reassurance of the picture book.

Yes. My style of illustration is very direct and literal. I like lines around things, simple backgrounds and white space wherever possible, minute legible details when needed, and clear expressions on faces and in body language. I love early renaissance paintings and children’s art. Both teach me about getting to the essence of a thing.

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How do you even begin, when the topic is something as vast as plants? What’s that process for you? I’d think you’d be in danger of drowning in all that information.

Yes, the research phase of writing and/or illustrating a nonfiction book is delightfully distracting and open-ended. I would happily spend my whole life doing this part, if I could afford to. You read and look at fascinating books, you go fun places like farms, and zoos and museums, you sketch, you let your mind expand.

So deadlines are a good thing. And so are the perimeters of the picture book format: trim size, number of pages, limited word count. Unlike a lot of artists, I’m my most creative when I have limitations.

In this book, you both wrote and illustrated. Are you seeing it first? Or writing it?

With Plants Feed Me, I wanted to write a younger nutrition book recommending an unprocessed, plant-based diet. So I started with this message, but I also knew the botanical art would be fun to paint. When the words came to me, the pictures were implicit.

fe140b_daa93be0b256405991e8f41bddef5082-jpg_srz_493_608_85_22_0-50_1-20_0A Bird Is a Bird started with a desire to make pictures of beautiful birds. But it wasn’t a book, till the line, “A bird is a bird, because a bird has a beak,” floated into my head while I slept. Then I realized it would be a book about animal classification. All these birds look different, but they have these certain traits in common, most definitively, feathers. Noticing alike and different, is an essential skill in early science learning. A book is a fun way to make pretty pictures, but unless it has a point, that is an indulgence.

You seem to have a sense of how the mind of a child works when he or she encounters a book. Or is that an intuitive sense? I mean, okay, let me try to approach this question a different way. It’s become a cliché for many writers to say that they don’t think about audience. They only serve the story and blah, blah, blah. I’ve personally never felt that way. And in your case, you also strike me as an artist who is exceptionally aware of your intended audience.

I think exclusively about my audience. I don’t think that’s a compromise or hindrance to my creativity. I was a child once. That part of me gets to live on through this work. And it’s a profoundly interesting way to continue to look at the world. Childhood is when our brains are at their most agile and expansive. Language emerges, we start to give names to things and feelings, we begin to remember and predict, we start to notice others, we develop theory of mind.

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Your work is marked by sensitivity and inclusiveness. You have always included children of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. On a personal level, why is that important to you?

Because I do think a lot about my readers, I know that they like to find themselves in a book. And this is the most diverse country in the world. The “school-days” series (Career Day, Presidents’ Day, 100 School Days, etc) I did with my mom, Anne Rockwell, at HarperCollins has a multicultural classroom of kids. There are hints about cultural heritage, but mostly they are just friends at school, where they have shared experiences and a shared culture. This kind of natural diversity is important in books. Books that are about culture and heritage are important, but so are books that simply model the diverse and inclusive world that was Dr. King’s dream. It’s mine too.

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My husband, Ken Alcorn, and I have raised our family (two grown sons, now 24 and 27) in diverse communities. For 11 years we lived in Norwalk, CT. one of the most diverse cities in the country. The schools are filled with kids from all levels of economic status, and a multitude of ethnic backgrounds. Even though I now live in Bridgeport, CT, I am still involved in after-school arts programming in Norwalk, working with kids (mostly young teens) from low income households. Doing this work made the abstractions of injustice and poverty, especially as they manifest along ethnic lines, very real to me and activated me politically. I hope you wouldn’t know it to look at my work, but I am keenly aware of the responsibility I have creating media that may affect how people make assumptions, and behave towards one another.

In a world where the gritty, innovative, and “cutting edge” gets most of the attention, I think you possibly create the least edgy books in children’s publishing. There’s a refreshing innocence to your books.

I am going to take that as a compliment!

Please do. It’s totally a compliment.

fe140b_8e4b7616f5420c93d7ec569d9e084241-png_srz_153_145_85_22_0-50_1-20_0My eyes are wide open about the ills of the world. But I think for the age reader I am reaching, there is a need for books that model social ideals, and books that make knowledge as accessible and inspiring as possible. For a young child facing great hardships in the real world, a book can be the respite that is deeply needed. Books for older children, like you write so well, can and should present a more complex world view.

I believe we first met in a hotel lobby a few years back. And I might have exclaimed something like, “Is Anne Rockwell your mother? I love her books!”

Yes, I get that a lot! I love her books too! Another thing we have in common. And my father, Harlow Rockwell. illustrated many of the books she wrote. Their small studio was off the dining room.

So you are in the family business. Do you ever wake up relieved by the fact your parents weren’t, say, morticians? Or claims adjusters?

Well, it was certainly more fun to look over their shoulder and see what was in the works.

You’ve illustrated quite a few books for your mother. It’s always a huge responsibility to illustrate any writer’s books -– but your own mother. What’s that like?

Yes, we’ve collaborated on 17 books, the most recent are with Simon & Schuster, Library Day (2016) and Zoo Day (January 2017). They are about commonplace real world experiences, edited by Karen Nagel.  But library-day-9781481427319_lgwhen a trip to the library or the zoo, is your first trip to those places as a child, there is nothing commonplace about it.  My mom is great at recognizing how epic every new experience can be for a young child.  They are great fun to illustrate. Of course, illustrating my mom’s texts is humbling, and can even be intimidating. She is the only writer I have worked with who is also an illustrator (and one of my favorites to boot) so in the beginning, I could be hindered if I let myself worry if this is how she would have done it, or how my dad would have done it. But when I read a text of hers, I know the point of it, and understand better than usual how to proceed. I grew up with her books as some of my favorite bedtime stories, and I observed and even participated (doing color separations) in the production of them as a young adult. This has been a huge privilege. I don’t take it lightly.  

Thanks for coming by today, Lizzy. Hopefully I’ll see you again in real life!
 

ABOUT THE “5 Questions” Interview Series: It’s a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. 

Coming soon: Bruce Coville, London Ladd,  Jeff Mack, Matt Faulkner, and more. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES, and scroll till your heart’s content. Or use the handy SEARCH option. 

Guest so far:

1) Hudson Talbott, “From Wolf to Woof”

2) Hazel Mitchell, “Toby”

3) Susan Hood, “Ada’s Violin

4) Matthew McElligott, “Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster”

5) Jessica Olien, “The Blobfish Book”

6) Nancy Castaldo, “The Story of Seeds”

7) Aaron Becker, “Journey”

8) Matthew Cordell, “Wish”

9) Jeff Newman, “Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly?”

10) Matt Phelan, “Snow White”