The righteously indignant poet Diane di Prima. Photo by James Oliver Mitchell.
It’s hard to say why we pluck one book from the shelf, a slim volume surrounded by so many others. In this case, for me, it was a book I hadn’t read in at least 20 years. A book I’d purchased new for $3.50, back in my college days, when that’s how I spent my available book-money: poetry, poetry, poetry. Building a collection.
A year ago, I was moved to post Wendell Berry’s fine poem, “The Peace of Wild Things.” Last week my blog blew up because somebody, somewhere, linked to that page on my blog. Berry’s poem expressed something that helps me in troubling times. I go back to it, as a reminder, time and again. And, oh yes, we are in troubling times, with irksome, fearful days ahead.
Cover design by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
During the week of the election, I took Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters off the shelf. Because as much as I needed solace and surcease, I also needed fire and gasoline. I needed the righteous indignation of di Prima’s shambolic, vexed, idealistic voice. While I don’t think of her as a supreme poet, or of this as a perfect poem, her spirit strikes chords in me, resounding and reverberating like a clanged bell. But I’m here today mostly for that good line: “We have the right to make the universe we dream.”
Q: You wrote that you were inspired by Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World to focus on a father-son dynamic in The Courage Test. How would you describe the relationship between your character Will and his father?
A: Yes, I came late to the Dahl classic and was struck that here was a loving book about a boy’s relationship with his father — not the kind of thing I’ve seen in many middle-grade children’s books. I found it liberating, as if Dahl had given me a written note of permission.
In The Courage Test, William Meriwether Miller is a 12-year-old with recently divorced parents. His father has moved out and moved on. So there’s tension there, and awkwardness; William feels abandoned, and he also feels love, of course, because it’s natural for us to love our fathers.
I wrote about this at more length, here, back a couple of years ago. In the unlikely event you are really fascinated by my connection to the Dahl book . . .
– Welcome to the second installment of my “5 Questions” series. On a weekly or bi-weekly or completely random basis, I will interview an author or illustrator and focus on a specific book. In the coming weeks, we’ll spend time with Matthew Cordell, Jessica Olien, Matthew McElligott, Lizzy Rockwell and more. Why? I like these people and I love their books. Sue me. Today we get to hang out with Hazel Mitchell, who is as glorious as a glass of champagne at a good wedding. Drink deeply, my friends . . .
JP: Greetings, Hazel. Thanks for stopping by my swanky blog. I hope you don’t find the vibe too intimidating. I put up the tapestry just for you. The lava lamps have been here for a while. Because nothing says “classy” quite like a lava lamp. Sit anywhere you like, but the milk crates are most comfortable.
Hazel: Thanks, JP. This is certainly an eclectic place you’ve got here. Wow, is that a glitter ball? Next you will be wearing a white suit. Excuse me while I remove this stuffed meerkat from the milk crate . . .
Careful with that meerkat, it’s expensive. Hey, do I detect an accent? Wait, let me guess! You are from . . . Kentucky?
No getting anything past you! Kentucky, Yorkshire, England. OK, just Yorkshire, England. I’m a late pilgrim.
We recently sat side-by-side at the Warwick Children’s Book Festival, where I got the chance to read your wonderful new picture book, Toby, and eavesdrop on your lively interactions with young readers. At times, alarmingly, you spoke in the voice of a hand puppet. So let me see if I’ve got this straight: Toby is a real dog, but not a true story, exactly? How does that work?
Yes, we did sit next to each other and it was a lot of fun to see you in action! I didn’t know you were eavesdropping, I’d have dropped in some of those Shakespearean ‘asides’ just for you. And I must watch that hand puppet voice, I even do it without the hand puppet . . .
OK, to the question: Yes, Toby is a real dog. I rescued him from a puppy mill situation back in 2013. He was so endearing and his journey from frozen dog to bossy boots captured my heart. I began drawing him, because that’s what illustrators do, and before I knew it I was weaving a story round him. But I didn’t want to feature myself as the owner in Toby’s story, that was kind of boring and I figured Toby needed a younger owner, one who children could relate to. So I gave Toby a boy who adopts him and a Dad who is struggling with moving house, looking after his son AND now a new dog. The fictionalized setting gave me lots of ideas and emotions to play with, but the stuff Toby gets up to in the book is taken from things he did in real life.
I can see it’s a work that comes from your heart. And by “see” I mean: I could feel it. A heartwarming story for young children living in a cynical age. The book is beautifully designed. I especially admire the pacing of it, the way you vary the number and size of the many illustrations. Please tell me a little about that decision-making process.
Thank you. I love that you say ‘feel.’ I wanted this book to be about emotions and feelings and bring the reader into the internal dialogue of the boy and dog’s fears and frustrations. Just small things you know, but life is full of small things that make up the big things. And again, thank you for your kind words on the design, working with Candlewick, my editor (Liz Bicknell) and art director (Ann Stott), was a joy. We did a lot of drafts at rough sketch stage and as the layout of the book evolved a lot of graphic novel style panels crept in and then the wide double-spreads to open out the story. I like how it flows. The choice of colors really adds to the story I think, moody blues and beiges that reflect the emotions and then brighter colours when things are going well. The boy and dog are connected by the colour red –- Toby’s collar and the boy’s sneakers.
Oh, thank you, Hazel, for sharing those behind-the-scenes details. I appreciate seeing the black-and-white sketches, too. I think even when readers don’t consciously notice those subtle details, they still manage to seep into our unconsciousness. It’s fascinating how much thought goes into the work that most readers probably don’t think they see.
I like that your book doesn’t gloss over the challenges of owning a dog. It’s not always cuddles and sunshine. Why did you feel it was important to include the downside of dog ownership?
Because that is the reality of life and children are very capable of dealing with realities and working through problems. Sometimes it’s adults who want everything to be cuddles and sunshine, and try to save youngsters from the real world. Well we can’t do that, because it comes at us fast. I never get tired of seeing or hearing about a child responding to a book and saying, “Yeah, that happened to me,” or “I know that feeling.” It’s like you’ve been given a gift.
I see that you live in Maine. You must get this question a lot, but why isn’t Toby a moose? Do you see many moose up there? Can we please just talk about moose for a little while? And what goes on in Maine? Do you eat lobster all the time? While reading Stephen King? Or do I have some misconceptions? How did you end up there?
Toby channels his inner moose at times, which is scary in a poodle. There aren’t so many moose around our way, but drive a little North and there is moose-a-plenty (that could be a good name for a snack?).
I once drove home from a school visit in the FAR NORTH at twilight (that was my first mistake), it was misty and I was driving down a road where I swear there was a moose every 5 yards. I drove 30 miles at 5 MPH. I got home after six months. These moose were SO darn big and SO close to the car I could literally see up their nostrils. Man, moose need help with superfluous hair.
Wow, you really did see up their nostrils. You are scaring me a little bit, Hazel. Eyes on the road. Speaking of scary . . .
Stephen King lives in the next town over, but you know, he’s a recluse. I eat lobster with lobster on top. Delish. When I moved to the US of A from over the pond I landed in the South. Then moved to Maine. I like the cold much better! (And the lobster).
Do you have ideas for any more Toby stories? I think readers will want more.
I do have more ideas about stories for Toby. But we will have to wait and see. Readers! Write to my publisher!
I’m so glad you visited, Hazel. It’s nice spending time with you. I hope Toby enjoys a long and mischievous life in children’s books.
It’s been fun. Best five questions anyone asked me all morning. Thanks for having me drop by … oops … there goes a lava lamp!
Six bucks down the drain. We’re done here.
In addition to Toby, Hazel Mitchell has illustrated several books for children including Imani’s Moon, One Word Pearl,Animally and Where Do Fairies Go When It Snows? Originally from England, where she attended art college and served in the Royal Navy, she now lives in Maine with her poodles Toby and Lucy and a cat called Sleep. You may learn more about Hazel at www.hazelmitchell.com.
I’m kicking off a new, recurring series of posts where I interview one author or illustrator, limiting our conversation to 5 questions, with a focus on a specific book. I’ve got a terrific list of talent planned for upcoming visits — they just don’t know it yet.
Today we get to hang out with Hudson Talbott. And come back next week for a visit with Hazel Mitchell and her dog Toby.
Hudson (left) and I got to catch up at the Warwick Children’s Book Festival.
JP: Hudson, I love your new picture book, FROM WOLF TO WOOF: THE STORY OF DOGS. You manage to deliver a lot of information within the context of “story.”
Hudson: Thanks, James. I love research and the process of absorbing as much as I can and then distilling it down to its essence. I come from Kentucky. We’re known for distilling.
And God bless Kentucky for that! But let the record show: I haven’t asked a question yet. I feel like one of the poor fisherman bargaining with a magic fish. I still have three wishes left –- or in this case, five questions!
I don’t think that was a question either. But thanks for calling me a magic fish.
Now that you mention it, you do look a little green around the gills. Maybe it’s the light in here. Anyway! I remember long ago reading Desmond Morris’ classic book, The Naked Ape, and in it he speculated about the first dogs. How they might have come to be domesticated. Which is a poor term for it, as I type those words. Because we’re talking about these wild animals that, over time, became intensely, passionately interconnected with human beings. The beginning of a long relationship. I’ve always found that a fascinating subject, so I was immediately drawn to your book. How did that story begin for you?
The love of animals, the love of dogs, the love of history. Not facts-and-dates history, but the how-did-we-get-here? kind of history. So it was bound to happen. You and I have this privileged platform to address and explore things that we think matter, or at least, things we’re curious about. That look in a dog’s eyes of knowing, of asking and loving, of aligning him/herself with us had to come from someplace. Plenty of theories about where and when — I like to think that the two species found each other useful and could see the advantage of throwing their lots in together to survive. Like two kids finding each other in kindergarten and growing up together in a rough neighborhood. At some point we both stepped across that magic threshold of trust and realized that we have each other’s backs.
Well said. Do you self-identify more as a writer or an artist? Does one always come before the other? Responding to a similar question, Bernard Waber, who also wrote and illustrated his books (Lyle, Lyle Crocodile, and many more), replied that “The writer in me tries to please the illustrator.”
I think of myself primarily as a storyteller. Whatever serves the story best is my priority. That said, I am a visually-oriented person so usually if I come up w/ an idea for a book I first look at what points in the story would be good “photo-ops” or actually illustration ops. While I’m doing sketches for the plot points I’m also getting ideas for the text, the plot, the characters, etc. It’s not uncommon that something I’ll stumble onto while writing some text will lead to changing the picture, or even the whole story line. So it goes back and forth a lot between art and text. Art is much more expendable to me because there’s always more where that came from. But when I have to throw out a paragraph that I’m attached to but no longer serves the story — that’s painful! Picture books actually have more in common with making movies than they do with chapter books.
Yes, especially when we consider the storyboarding tradition. After all, movies are simply “moving pictures.” Back to your book, I have to say there’s just a beautiful moment that comes right in the middle. It floored me, because it was such a deep and yet profoundly simple moment to capture. Just masterful storytelling. Before that moment, I was intellectually engaged. But on that double spread, the book stole my heart. I was all in. We’ve been watching the boy slowly gain the trust of this wild creature. They draw closer and closer. Until one day . . . everything changes. Tell me about the thought process that went into that illustration, that pivotal turning point in the book?
Wow, I should’ve read ahead to this question because I think I already answered it a couple of questions ago. It makes me happy to know that you really got the book, and felt what you felt from it. I started this book with a whole other concept, even another title: The Wolf Who Cried Boy. But when my editor, the brilliant Nancy Paulsen, saw the sketches I had at the end of the book showing where dogs evolved to, she immediately said, “More of that! More of that!” So it got re-balanced to a shortened fictional story leading to an extended nonfiction portion. But that was good because it gave me a chance to get in a plug for saving the wolves today, as well as my own theory that dogs played a strategic part in the development of civilization (with their help we could stay in one place with domesticated herds rather than having to constantly roam in search of wild herds).
Wow, Nancy Paulsen: legend! I was wondering, Do you have a wolf at home?
I have two cats. One does his best to be a dog for me because he knows that’s what I would have if I didn’t travel so much. I had dogs growing up and usually spend more time with dogs at friends’ houses than I do with the friends.
You’ve been at this business for a while, and I guess that’s part of the reason why I connect with you. We’ve both been around the block a few times. Let’s just confess to the world that we still have our AOL email accounts. Can you point to any primary inspirations in your work? Do you have heroes in the business? And tagging on to that question (I’m cheating here, oh Magic Fish), how do you keep your work fresh?
Primary inspirations: my apparently insatiable curiosity keeps me alive. It also drives me crazy sometimes but at least it keeps me from being bored. My first book [We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story] was a hit and it would’ve been easy to build a career on it but I wouldn’t have lasted long — I’m too restless, there’s too much other good stuff to fall in love with. A quote from Leonardo da Vinci captures it for me: “For in truth, great love is born from great knowledge of the thing loved.” That’s how I remember it anyway.
Yours in AOL, Hudson Talbott
Hudson Talbott is the author/illustrator of many outstanding children’s books, including River of Dreams, O’Sullivan Stew, United Tweets of America, and more. He lives in upstate New York, not far from the town Hudson, not from from the Hudson River. It’s pretty much Hudson, 24/7, when it comes to Mr. Talbott. For more info, please visit his website. Readers might also enjoy clicking on this thoughtful review at Librarian’s Quest.
Blogs are dead, everybody knows it, the tweet spread the news long ago. Nobody reads blogs anymore. These days it’s all Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and short, short, short.
I get it, I do. We’re all feeling the time squeeze.
But because I’m childishly oppositional, I refuse to give up my blog. And I’m keeping my 8-Tracks, too. I started this blog back in 2008, so we’ve become attached. I like to have readers, but I’m not sure I really need them. It wouldn’t stop me from writing. There’s something about the open-ended blog format that offers room to spread out and say things, however long it takes. Whether anyone listens or not.
My pal, illustrator Matthew Cordell, used to blog with enthusiasm. One of his recurring features was his monthly-ish “Top Ten” lists, where Matt randomly listed some of his recent enthusiasms. It could be a song, a book, a movie, or a type of eraser (Matt was weird about erasers). It was always fun to read.
So I’m stealing it.
Here are ten things I’ve recently loved:
THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM
I visited Cleveland with my son, Gavin, to check out Case Western Reserve University. The following day, we headed over to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was spectacular in every way. (Except for: The Red Hot Chili Peppers? Really?) I’m a huge music fan, so it was perfect for me. I found the museum strangely moving in parts, my heart touched. I could see that rock music was big enough, and diverse enough, to offer a home to people from every walk of life.
CARRY ME HOME by Diane McWhorter
Amazing, fascinating, and at times brutal Pulitzer Prize-winning book that’s stayed with me long after the last page. It provides a dense, detailed account of the civil rights struggle centered in Birmingham, Alabama. Martin Luther King, the Klu Klux Klan, Fred Shuttlesworth, George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover, Bobby Kennedy, Bull Conner, and more. One of those books that helps you understand America.
FAN MAIL . . . WITH ILLUSTRATIONS!
I’ve been ridiculously fortunate in my career, in that I’ve received a lot of fan mail across the past twenty years. But I have to admit, I especially like it when those letters include a drawing. There’s just something about children’s artwork that slays me, every time. This drawing is by Rida in Brooklyn.
BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This book has been on my list almost since the day it came out — the buzz was instantaneous, and huge — but on a tip from a friend, I waited for the audiobook to become available through my library. Here, Ta-Nehisi Coates gives a powerful reading. It’s poignant to listen to an author reading his own words, particularly since this book is essentially a letter to his son.
We’re not here to bash Jack Prelutsky. Because, after all, Jack Prelutsky is hilarious. But, but, but. There are times when I worry that too many people think children’s poetry begins and ends with Mr. Prelutsky. That a poem for kids always has to be bouncy and fast and slight and funny, i.e., Prelutsky-ish. Well, here’s a poem I came across while reading Oh, No! Where Are My Pants? and Other Disasters: Poems, unerringly edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. I admire the heartfelt, beautiful sorrow of Comora’s poem. “I thought of his last night alone/huddled in a wire home./I did not cry. I held him close,/smoothed his fur blown by the wind./For a winter’s moment, I stayed with him.” The illustration is by Wolf Erlbruch. Click on the poem if your eyes, like mine, need larger type.
EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT
I’m so grateful that I live near a cool, little movie theater that makes room for small foreign films such as this, a mind-blowing look at life on the Amazon, spectacularly filmed in black-and-white. Click here for more details.
My wife Lisa and I don’t watch hours of TV together, but we do like to have a show we can share. We’ve been a loss for a few months, but recently discovered season one of “The Americans” on Amazon Prime. We’re hooked.
DAVID BROMBERG: “SAMMY’S SONG”
We have tickets to see Bromberg this coming weekend. He’s an old favorite of mine, first saw him in 1980 on Long Island. I’ve just rediscovered “Sammy’s Song,” which I haven’t heard in decades. What a chilling coming-of-age story, brilliantly performed. Oh, about that harmonica part? That’s Dave’s pal, Bob Dylan, with an uncredited guest turn.
I just finished writing my first Jigsaw Jones book after a long time away. For many years, Scholastic had allowed the series to die on the vine, with book after book slowly going out of print. It’s been a crushing thing for me to stand by helplessly and watch. But with the help of my agent, I got back the rights, and now Macmillan has plans to relaunch the series. I am thrilled. There are more than 10 million copies of those books out there in world, and it seems like every second-grade classroom in America has a ragged copy or three. Writing the new book, The Case from Outer Space, was such a pleasure. It felt like being home again.
THE DAY THE ARCS ARRIVE
For an author, it’s a special day, always, always. That book you’ve been toiling over for months, years, finally arrives in book form. Uncorrected, unfinished, but for the first time you can hold it in your hands — a book! — and think, “I did that!” Note: Arc = Advanced Reader’s Copy. The Courage Test, a middle grade novel, will be out for real in September.
BONUS SELECTION . . .
THE BARKLEY MARATHONS
I love documentaries of almost any nature, but I can’t recommend this one highly enough. A pure joy, with twinkling mischievous wit and surprising heart, too. If you like running at all — or not! — see this movie. About the toughest, wildest, and weirdest race in the world. Catch it on Netflix Instant!