Tag Archive for 5 Questions interview James Preller

5 Questions with Dan Poblocki, Author of TALES TO KEEP YOU UP AT NIGHT

What can I say? Dan Poblocki is a scary dude. Though we’ve never met, Dan and I have been criss-crossing paths over the years. We’re both upstaters (Dan’s in Saugerties; I’m in Delmar) and we share an affection for suspenseful, scary stories. Dan’s been doing great work for years and more people are beginning to notice — I picked up Liar’s Room at a recent Scholastic Book Fair — and I thought it was time to put a focus on those chilling tales that keep readers turning pages late into the night. 


1. Can you remember the first time you were scared by a book or a movie? You must have liked it, right? 

I’m not sure if it was the first time I was scared by a film, but one that has stuck in my memory over the decades was an ABC Weekend Special called “The Red Room Riddle,” a half-hour short TV movie based on a 1972 middle-grade novel by Scott Corbett. I don’t think I ever picked up the book version, but I remember some moments of the movie nearly stopping my seven-year-old heart. Two kids lured into a haunted house, getting locked in a mysterious red room, a throbbing red orb that emits a siren sound, secret passages, see-through people, and lots of fire. I rewatched it recently and it’s relatively toothless, but it gave me some insight into how little it takes sometimes to freak out a kid. It’s funny because so much of what’s in this short TV movie has ended up in my own books. Secret passages, ghosts, getting trapped in places where you don’t want to be. Fun! So apparently, yes, I did like it. But it was a funny feeling. I didn’t understand why I liked being so scared. It certainly made me seek out more stuff like it. That’s how I ended up finding books by Mary Downing Hahn, Bruce Coville, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and John Bellairs at the local library and book fairs.

2. I’m curious to know your thoughts on horror as a genre. What do you think are the virtues of scary stories? And — same question, really — why do you think so many readers keep coming back for more? 

I think one virtue of the horror genre is that it holds our attention. So, if a young reader has a hard time sticking with books, a scary one might be a good suggestion. Horror novels act as a hook, so once you get a taste for turning those creepy, creepy pages, you’ll want to seek out that adrenaline rush again and again. That’s how it was for me, at least. There are many other reasons to seek out or play around in the horror genre. One reason that I heard recently was from Ally Malinenko, author of the Bram Stoker Award Nominee, This Appearing House. Ally wrote that we don’t necessarily write horror stories to scare children. We write them to help children become brave. I couldn’t agree more. 


Oh, that’s excellent. Acclaimed horror writer Peter Straub contends that “dread” is essential for a great horror story. And I guess dread is the evil twin of suspense. That anticipatory dread we feel as we watch our protagonists head down into the basement where danger lurks. Note: This technically does not count as a question. We’re just talking!

I can get on board that a sense of dread is a precursor to suspense. I suppose it’s all in how you formulate your story. Dread leads to suspense. Suspense grabs the reader, makes them want to find out what happens next. Is all of this necessary for a story to be considered “horror?” I’m not sure, but it sounds like it might help! I wish I had something more profound to say, but I find I’m not so good at deconstructing the magic behind all of this. But dread and suspense are probably not the only ingredients for “great” horror. For me, I usually have to care somewhat about the characters before the dread or suspense kicks in, so that when the author shoves them down a chute into the darkness, I really worry for them. But like, in a good way. 


3. People sometimes worry about a book upsetting a reader. So they ask, “How scary is it?” And I’m sure that’s valid, particularly with young readers. But would you agree that one of horror’s goals is to up/set a reader? To disturb a universe? Shake ‘em up a little? Or is it just good fun? 

I don’t really worry about whether or not I’m going to upset a reader. In fact, I think what makes my particular kind of scary story slightly unique is that maybe I do try to upset the reader? Maybe not emotionally, but . . . with their expectation of what can happen in a scary story? If that makes sense?

Is this the goal of all horror? Absolutely not. I think the ultimate goal is to entertain. But entertainment can disturb a universe and also be good fun. Based on emails I’ve received, I do know that I’ve upset some readers regarding what’s happened to certain characters I’ve written. But the readers seemed capable of handling what I did to them. Some even rewrote the ending to help them cope with my tragic decisions. If that’s what you’ve got to do, that’s what you’ve got to do, and I’m fine with it. 

4. I also think that many readers, on some level, actively seek out that sensation of disturbance. To me, when we think about life, I’ve always seen growth as something that results from periods of disequilibrium followed by equilibrium. Reading a scary story tips us over and sets us right again — and we’re the ones who get to turn the pages. The reader has control. Anyway, sorry, I digress. Tales To Keep You Up at Night is a collection of short stories woven within a larger structure: Amelia discovers a dusty tome in the attic. How did that book come together for you? 

A few years back, I wrote a short story that I wanted to submit for an anthology. When that anthology didn’t work out, I realized I had so much fun with the shorter format, so I decided to write my own collection. Once I’d gotten a few more down on paper, I thought it would be cool to bind them inside the larger story of a girl who finds a mysterious book of scary stories in her grandmother’s attic. 

From there, Tales got more and more meta, especially when my editor suggested that the stories tie more directly into Amelia’s own history. After some rejiggering, Tales to Keep You Up at Night sort of turned into a novel, playing with themes of what a story can do, how a story can change over time, how stories can change us. What I think is my favorite thing about Tales is that you can read any of the stories on its own, and it stands alone and is satisfying (I hope). But if you read all the stories, they join together, telling a much bigger tale. So the reader is rewarded for sticking with it.  

Also, when I was young, I always longed to find myself inside a scary story, so this book was also a kind of twisted wish-fulfillment.


5. Could you tell us about the main character in your current work in progress, and maybe why that kid appeals to you as writer?

I’ve just put the finishing touches on More Tales to Keep You Up at Night, which releases in August of 2023. In More Tales, we follow a new character, a kid named Gilbert, who happens upon a trio of cassette tapes and an old Sony Walkman. On the tapes, someone has recorded a bunch of scary tales, and Gilbert must listen to them in order to save his big brother, Antonio, who’s been hurt in a strange accident. You don’t have to read the first book in order to understand what’s happening in the second, but those who do will discover connections between the two and see how the tales in both books open portals to a larger shared world. I had a blast writing it, and I hope readers will follow me through this next doorway.


JAMES PRELLER is the author of a wide range of books, including the popular Scary Tales series. An author of picture books and easy-to-reads, he has also written middle-grade and YA novels: Bystander, Upstander, Blood Mountain, Better Off Undead, and more. Look for the first book in his strange & mysterious EXIT 13 series for readers ages 8-12: The Whispering Pines. Book 2 comes out in August, which means that Dan and I ought to have a sequel party together at the Spotty Dog!

5 Questions with Raul the Third, illustrator of “Stuntboy” & “Lowriders,” and Creator of the “World of Vamos!”

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first met Raul Gonzalez, AKA, Raul the Third, at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival in November of 2022. I was aware of his books, knew he was riding high with a steady stream of successes (Stuntboy by Jason Reynolds had just come out), and I knew that his work was cool and contemporary. Yet that was pretty much all that I knew about him. That first night in Rochester, a small group of us gathered for dinner in a fine restaurant, graciously hosted by several of the RCBF organizers, led that night by the unsinkable Linda Sue Park.  I came away from that evening, and the entire weekend, hugely impressed by Raul’s gentleness, humility, warmth, intelligence, and humor. Nothing phony about him. Just a cool guy. And, best of all, I am happy to announce: a friend.



1. Hey, Raul. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in El Paso, TX and Juarez, MX in the late 70s, 80s and 90s. I really enjoyed growing up there. I spent the first twelve years of my life living with my parents and two brothers in an apartment complex where we would run wild with other kids causing all sorts of trouble. We also spent a lot of time in Juarez. My Mom’s side of the family lived and worked there and we had a great time playing with cousins at the Mercado Cuahtemoc and the house on Avenida Lincoln. It was an adventure-filled childhood!

2. You knew you wanted to be “famous” — whatever that means — at an early age. Where do you think that feeling came from? A desire to escape your surroundings? An inner sense of being destined for something bigger?

I wanted to be a famous cartoonist –- whatever that means –- just like the artists whose names I memorized and idolized whenever I would read them from the 75 cent floppies I would pick up from the spinner rack at the 7-11. By the time I became enthralled with comic book art and cartooning I was a teenager and life was not going very well for me. I was a terrible student, a ball of nervous anxiety, and the only escape I had from my surroundings I found in comic books and the process of trying to figure out how to draw them. I was also becoming aware that I hated all of the jobs that would be available to me if I didn’t become a “famous cartoonist” so it became my goal and what I strived to do with my life. It definitely lead to a lot of interesting adventures! 


There he is, just a kid with a dream, some talent, and a sense of humor.


3. I had the pleasure of actually hanging out with you at the 2022 Rochester Children’s Book Festival, eating dinner beside you, drinking beer, swapping stories, even driving you around in my car. At one point you made a comment that helped me make a connection between Richard Scarry and your VAMOS! series. I was like, “Oh, yes, I see it now!” Could you expand on that a bit?


Ah, yes! That was a fun evening of slurping down oysters and drinking cervezas with my new pal James Preller! Before I began the World Of Vamos! series (I can’t believe that I’m working on book 10!), I was drawing the Lowrider series written by my friend and writer Cathy Camper. That series had opened a lot of doors for me and I met many interesting people along the way. Two of which would set me off on a new creative adventure!  So I was sitting around my house minding my own business when I received a call from Arielle Eckstut who is a co-founder of the Book Doctors and Kwame Alexander’s agent. She wanted me to know that Kwame was starting his own imprint at Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt and that they wanted me to be a part of it. At that point I had never professionally written a book but Arielle was convinced that I would do a great job and that the book should be a picture book. I had never worked on a picture book before but it was something that I wanted to do. She then suggested that I make the book “Like Richard Scarry but on the border!”



. . . and that I had one week to come up with a pitch. A few days later I shared my pitch and a few sample drawings that I created with my wife Elaine Bay and we were off and running! 


4) You did an astonishing job on the first Jason Reynolds Stuntboy book (and presumably the sequel, which is coming soon). It’s sort of a hybrid between a graphic novel and a richly illustrated novel. There’s a surprise on every spread. Could you maybe tell us about how that process worked for you?

It has been an honor to collaborate with Jason Reynolds on the Stuntboy books. Jason called me up one day and asked if I could recommend a cartoonist of color to work with him on a top-secret project. Of course I recommended myself! He sent me a couple of chapters and a few hours later I had sent him back character designs and a few page layouts. It has been a wonderful experience.

I believe that I drew the first book in under two months. I just let Jason’s words guide my drawings. When you don’t have a lot of time to work on a project you let intuition guide you. I enjoyed not having the time to second guess myself and I think that the heartfelt immediacy of the drawings adds an extra level of realism that I am very proud of. 


5) I love that answer. I often think that tight deadlines can be a positive force creatively, like shopping for gifts on Christmas Eve, exactly for the reasons you articulate so well. You do the best possible work you can at the time and move on. It must be especially meaningful for you to return to Texas and visit with young Mexican-American students, those same kids who used to be you. What is your message to them?

Raul uses Bic pens to create his illustrations for the Lowriders graphic novels. That’s it, folks. Just Bic pens.


It is such a thrill to speak to kids with similar origins as my own. I love that I can make them laugh in the language that their relatives speak. I just want them to know that they can become anything they dream of. I want them to know that their experiences and origins are unique and important and that they should share them with the world and not shy away from them. I hope that my books bring comfort and pride to the kids and parents who flip through their pages. I love what I do and I can’t wait to meet the young artists I encounter on the road as adults artists making their books for the world to read. Good times lay ahead! 

JAMES PRELLER is the author of many books for young readers, including Bystander, Blood Mountain, Six Innings, All Welcome Here, and the popular Jigsaw Jones mystery series. Look for the first book in his strange & mysterious middle-grade series, EXIT 13: The Whispering Pines, available in stores in February 7th, 2023. 

5 QUESTIONS with Paul Acampora, author of “Danny Constantino’s First (and Maybe Last?) Date”

We’re back with the 3rd installment of “5 Questions 2.0” — the new & improved interview format that invites some of the best folks in children’s literature to answer five — and only five! — questions. 

My guest today is Paul Acampora, a wonderful writer and all-around funny guy. We’ll be focusing on his pitch perfect rom.com for middle-grade readers, Danny Constantino’s First (and Maybe Last?) Date


1. Hey, Paul. I loved Danny. This entire novel seems like your attempt to write a perfect “rom-com” for younger readers. What are the basic story elements of a romantic comedy anyway?

Thanks, Jimmy! I’m really glad you enjoyed Danny Constantino. I’ve always loved romantic comedies. Probably because my real-life attempts at romance are generally comedic.  Either way, I had a lot of fun writing the book. As far as rom-com structure, I subscribe to the model described by screenwriter Billy Mernit in his excellent book, Writing the Romantic Comedy. For basic elements, the “meet cute” –- when the inevitable couple crosses paths in a generally clumsy and slightly adorable way –- is a classic requirement. 

Before that, however, there’s got to be a set-up that shows how a protagonist’s deepest internal desires (e.g. true love) might be at odds with their external goals (e.g. fame, money, success). From there, the meet-cute leads down a slippery slope of tests, successes, failures, and embarrassments because characters won’t choose one thing or the other until they are humiliated, beaten, broken, and generally wrecked. But it’s okay because it’s all for comedy. I mean love! 

In the end, there is a “joyful defeat,” which means that at least one character will have to give up something of real value (e.g. fame and fortune) in order to earn an even more valuable prize (e.g. true love!). Of course -– just like in “Frozen” or “My Best Friend’s Wedding” -– romance is not always a necessary or final outcome, which makes me think… NO ROM, JUST COM would be a great title!

2. If you can think back to Paul as a kid — say the 5th grade, 6th grade version of you — did you have a lot in common with Danny, the main character in your book?

You are asking about a time and a galaxy that’s long ago and far away. We’re talking about a pre-Star Wars era. I was already a huge sci-fi fan (I still am!), and I was obsessed with things like NASA and Starlog Magazine and missions to outer space (STILL AM!) In addition to my nerdy geek vibe, I played the piano several hours a day, read voraciously, enjoyed science and math, and loved hanging out with my grandparents. I remember that some of my classmates –- especially girls –- started to seem confident and knowledgeable and attractive. Like Danny, I did not think that I was any of those things. I could barely walk across a yard without tripping over myself. I did not feel like much of a catch. At the same time, I had several really great friends -– both boys and girls –- and we all just kind of accepted one other for whatever we were. In retrospect, we were kind of awesome. But, like Danny, we didn’t know it.

Oh, I loved that answer. Now this doesn’t technically count as a question, but: It must have been a good day when you decided the bus driver’s name was Shad.

Definitely yes! One of my daughter’s high school friends was a kid named Shad. His name went into my notebook the very first time I met him. I was just waiting for the right character to arrive so I could press Shad into service. Thanks, Shad!



3. You timed this book’s release just right the for world wide pandemic. Do you have any other marketing tips for us in the biz?

My biggest marketing success came with a novel I wrote a few years ago called I Kill the Mockingbird. It’s about a group of kids who sabotage their summer reading list. The story revolves around Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. Not long after my book came out, Harper Lee died. My sales rocketed up the charts. Her passing was a marketing coup. Please note that the marketing department at the publishing house had nothing to do with this effort.  

4. Ha, yes. Let’s keep a close eye on that scarily ambitious intern in publicity! You have so many gifts as a writer — humor, warmth, decency, pace, a sense of family &community — plus crackling, clever, unforced dialogue. There’s a lot of chatter in your books. It reminds me of that great writing tip by Elmore Leonard, “Avoid the parts that readers tend to skip.” What do you try to keep in mind when you are writing dialogue? I mean to ask, I guess: How do you do it?!

Thanks! Dialogue is my favorite thing to write. A long time ago I wanted to be a playwright. I think I learned about dialogue from reading scripts and then hearing the words come to life in performance. And with actors, they really do come to life. The difference between Shakespeare on the page and Shakespeare on the stage is like the difference between sticking your hand into garbage versus pushing your fingers down a garbage disposal. 

Um, puke.

Okay, that might not be the best metaphor. There is garbage in Shakespeare (“What rubbish and what offal!” – Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 3; “Let it alone, thou fool. It is but trash!” – The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1), but his work is mostly painless. Mostly. 

My point is that the page is not always a friend to drama. Even if you’re Shakespeare. Which I am not. (In case anybody’s wondering.) But since novels rely on a cast that lives inside a reader’s head, I think a lot about how I can control the drama within every scene. For me, dialogue provides the best opportunity to do that. Rhythm and pacing and the sounds of words and sentences are just as important as whatever a character is talking about. I think there’s a lot to learn from pop songs (both words and music), stand-up comedy, and also the unbelievably tight writing that television (both comedy and drama) requires. 

As far as techniques and strategies, my first drafts are often nothing but dialogue. I try to write them really fast so that characters can just talk without thinking. That back and forth is where conflict and plot come from.

Oh, that’s actually a great tip.

After that, I revise about a million times so that the story can have things like settings and inhaling and clothes. (Pro tip for aspiring middle grade writers: Middle school teachers and librarians prefer characters who are clothed.) 

One day I’d love to write something like Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments in which dialogue pretty much carries the entire storytelling load –- action, conflict, characterization, pacing, plot, plus tons and tons of humor. Being Irish might be a requirement for pulling that off. See “Derry Girls” for confirmation.

An aside: Funny coincidence with the mother as a high-powered real estate agent. I gave that job to the Adrian’s mother in Better Off Undead. It’s the perfect profession for a distracted, not-always-there mom. And it struck me as funny for a kid to keep seeing photos of his absentee mother on lawn signs everywhere. Danny’s mother hands out coffee mugs with the slogan, “Everything I touch turns to SOLD!” 

But that’s not a question either, technically, so let’s move on. Forget I said anything.

My Uncle Joe was a very successful –- and very intense –- real estate agent. My soapbox derby car was a rolling billboard for his agency. I also promoted the firm by wearing a sandwich board while riding a pony in the annual Bristol Connecticut Mum Festival Parade. There is photographic evidence.

5) You’ve published 7 novels and still maintain a full-time job. Smart! What does the writing life mean to you, just in terms of being a person in this world? Why bother? Wouldn’t it be easier to, you know, not? What does it give you, do you think?

There is certainly a part of me that dreams about having “the writing life” as my primary career, but if I’m being honest I’ve always been a little afraid of walking away from the security and freedom that a regular paycheck provides. Plus, I’ve always had a good time at my different day jobs, which have been challenging and rewarding in their own unique ways. That said, a day job definitely takes great gobs of time and energy away from writing, and I am occasionally tired and cranky. 

In theory, life might be easier if I stopped writing, but life never follows my theories. I’m sure I’d fill the time with some other obsession. I already dabble in music, photography, podcasts, film making, hiking, cooking, gardening, board games, brew pubs, and, of course, tons and tons of reading. All of those exercises and activities give me a chance to look closely at the world in different ways. Writing gives me a reason to look closely at the world in all the ways. If I do it well enough, I get to share what I see and, even better, be in a conversation with other people who are curious about the world. Of course, staying committed to this one particular passion requires giving up on other things. So far, it’s been a worthwhile trade-off for me. 

In truth, every successful writer I know is in the middle of one long trade-off. Some might call it a “joyful defeat.” So basically, the writing life is a rom-com. I hope Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn will play me and my wife in a Wonderful World of Disney+ streaming version (Working title: 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT FONDUE). You’ll get Colin Firth and Charlize Theron on HBO Max when they do you (Working title: JIGSAW IN LOVE). I hope you’ll invite me to the premiere!


JAMES PRELLER is the author of many books for young readers, including Bystander and Blood Mountain, as well as the popular Jigsaw Jones mystery series, along with the “Scary Tales” and “Big Idea Gang” series. Look for his strange & mysterious middle-grade series, EXIT 13, on Scholastic Book Fairs and Book Clubs. It will be available in stores in February, 2023. 

5 QUESTIONS with Nina Crews, illustrator of “Seeing Into Tomorrow”



The first time I met Nina Crews, I was eating on the hallway floor of a school in Albany, NY. Just sitting there on the tiles, catching a few minutes for lunch during a book festival. Nina sat down across from me and, putting two and two together, I asked, “Are you the daughter of Donald Crews?” We had a nice chat that afternoon; a number of years passed; and now with the publication of her quietly remarkable book, Seeing Into Tomorrow, I reached out to Nina again. She’s an easy person to like, an artist with a deep commitment to children’s literature. I don’t have a powerful spotlight here at James Preller Dot Com, but this is an artist who merits our attention.

Here comes Nina now . . .


Congratulations on your new book, Seeing Into Tomorrow. I’ve been waiting for this one since we first discussed it via Facebook about a year ago.

Thanks so much! I am so happy to have it out in the world!

Lately I’ve been on a major haiku kick of my own, reading and writing a little bit each morning. I’ve been reading through a collection of more than 800 of Richard Wright’s haikus. I enjoy taking them slow, savoring each poem, just a few pages before I start the day. I originally took Wright’s book out of the library, but soon realized that I needed to have my own copy, write in it, keep it on my shelf. How did you select the poems included here? That seems like an impossible process.

shoppingI know the Wright book very well! It was the source for the haiku included in my book. I read through it numerous times and also used a lot of post-its. Each review brought new discoveries, and also helped me clarify the direction of the project. There were really two main criteria that a poem had to meet for me to add it to my shortlist. First, I looked for poems that could resonate with children emotionally and second, for poems that could be portrayed through relatable everyday scenes.

I’m moved by the idea of Richard Wright turning to haiku late in his life, at a time when he was struggling through a long illness, sliding toward death. I sense that the process of writing these poems –- and seeing the world through them — comforted him. There’s terrible beauty in these poems.

Yes. I know what you mean. It was also a period of mourning for him. His daughter writes in the introduction to the haiku book that two close friends passed away in 1958. Even more significantly, his mother died in 1959. I imagine these losses put him in a very reflective mindset. His daughter calls his writing of haiku “self-nurturing.”

That’s a nice phrase, much better than “self-medicating.” With haiku, like yoga in a way, I believe the experience of writing them, of being present in the world, is more personally meaningful than the end product. Anyway, Nina, tell me about your cut-up approach to the photographs. I’m not a visual artist, but I used to fool around with that technique years ago, inspired by the work of David Hockney. It’s a lot of fun.


I am a fan of David Hockney’s photocollages and studied them closely while I was working on this book. For the most part, my images were not created by cutting up a single image, but by closely cropping the scenes as I photographed. I’d start at one end of a scene and move my camera, over bit by bit, up and down, to the left or to the right to cover the entire area. I liked the movement that this technique created and wanted the additional variation that would come from shifts in perspective or focus as I moved around. If you look closely at Hockney’s images, you’ll see that he does this, too. I think it gives the final image a bit more “breath.”

Oh, I get it now. I assumed it involved scissors, a lot of cutting and snipping and pasting. Why did you feel that approach was right for this book?

I read a great essay about haiku that talked about how the poems should have a sense of movement in them. There are a number of ways one can show movement in photography –- motion blurs or sequential images for instance. This approach is another way of showing movement and I liked how shapes of the collage could create a gesture on the page with the child portrayed acting as an anchor.

I appreciated how the book begins with a haiku about a name written in the snow, which to me is a declaration of existence, “I am” . . . and how a signature returns later in the book . . . and you close with a hopeful vision of, or for, tomorrow. Nicely curated, Nina.


You focused your camera exclusively on African American boys for this book. Why boys?


There were a few things that factored into this decision. Early on in my work on the book, I read Black Boy, Wright’s autobiography. In it, he describes how he experienced nature as a young child and the language he uses in those passages is similar to the language in his haiku. My exploration of shopping-1these poems became an exploration of Wright’s biography and photographing African-American boys made sense to me. It also struck me that there are not a lot of “nature” books with children of color, in general, and African American boys, in particular. I am pleased to give this “picture space” to young brown boys.

Am I right in recognizing Prospect Park, in Brooklyn, in some of these images.

Yes. I did photograph some scenes in Prospect Park. It is really an extension of my studio. Because the images for this book really depended on the right light and the right weather, I took advantage of every opportunity I had to get shots I might use. I also photographed extensively in upstate New York – Bear Mountain and the Hudson Valley.

You dedicated this book to your family. You certainly have talented parents, in Ann Jonas and Donald Crews. No pressure, Nina, just be amazing!

51Lz8Nj7V+LYes, they set a high bar. They also provided a lot of support and have been great role models. But beyond my parent’s role in my development as an author illustrator, I feel a great deal of gratitude to my family for many less tangible lessons. For instance, I am thanking my grandparents who told me about their childhoods on farms in the South and my parents for taking my sister and I on many walks in nature.

That’s your father, isn’t it, admiring the freight train. I see what you did there, since his book, Freight Train, was a Caldecott Honor Book. He always brought a great sense of design to his work.

Yes, I asked my father to do a cameo for this page. It’s a nod to his work -– Freight Train and Short Cut and also inspired by the fact that he enjoys watching trains with his grandchildren. That’s my son with him.


I actually interviewed your father many years ago, in the early 90s, for a book I did with Deborah Kovacs, the out-of-print classic, Meet the Authors and Illustrators. He struck me as a calm, gentle, elegant, highly-cerebral kind of guy. I picture him in a bowtie.

He owns many bowties, though does wear standard neckties as well. He’s very stylish and one of my favorite people!

Well, Nina, I’m really glad we were able to share this time together. You have a lot to be proud of with this beautiful book. Well done!

Thank you! I have enjoyed our chat!


To learn more about Nina Crews, visit her website. Nina’s book includes substantial biographical information on Richard Wright, adding depth and layers to a reader’s experience of the poems. 

To explore more interviews in the award-winning (not really) 5 QUESTIONS series, click here and scroll, baby, scroll. You’ll find interviews with London Ladd, Matthew Cordell, Bruce Coville, Lizzy Rockwell, Aaron Becker, Elizabeth Zunon, Robin Pulver, Jeff Mack, and many more.


5 QUESTIONS with Hannah Barnaby, author of “Bad Guy”



I think Hannah Barnaby can write anything. I first read her remarkable young adult debut, Wonder Show, and Hannah then followed that up with Some of the Parts. But now she’s pivoted with the bang-bang publication of two new picture books. Today we’ll focus on Bad Guy, illustrated by Mike Yamada. You’ll like Hannah. She’s thoughtful, perceptive, articulate and inspiring — even if I kind of hate her. What can I say? Jealousy is an ugly thing. I’ll try to be a better person next week.

View More: http://skipperphoto.pass.us/hannah-barnaby

Hey, Hannah. Thanks for coming by. I immediately noticed that your new book, Bad Guy, is a lot shorter than your previous works. And it comes with pictures. What’s going on?

Well, the thing about novels is that they take so long to read, and I know people are busy these days, and . . .

Actually, the truth is slightly more self-serving that that. While my second novel (Some of the Parts) was out with my editor, I went on a writing retreat. I knew I was supposed to be working on whatever novel would come next, but I had all of these picture book ideas jotted down in my notebook and in a fit of rebellion (or possibly laziness), I decided to work on a few of those instead. It was such a relief to think about story structure on that smaller, more concentrated scale! By the end of the retreat, I had three different stories that were in good enough shape to send to my agent. One was Bad Guy, another was Garcia & Colette Go Exploring (which comes out on June 6th). And the third . . . never sold. But two out of three ain’t bad!

Two out of three is fabulous. I think I’m 0-17 this year with a sac fly. When you write a picture book, do you page it out?

Not at first. I like my first drafts to be more open than that, so I can take few wrong turns and get a little messy. That’s usually how I find the less predictable path. But once I have a draft that works, I will often storyboard it to make sure that the pacing is steady and that I haven’t gone on too long with one particular part of the story. I think of picture books like stand-up routines—they have to be well-balanced and very structured, you have to leave room for the audience to laugh, and you have to know when to get off the stage.

Stand-up routines, huh? I think of my attempts at picture books as tragedies. There’s a lot of sobbing and snapped pencils. Anyway, did you interact with the illustrator, Mike Yamada? Or do you include art suggestions in your manuscript?


Mike and I didn’t have any direct contact at all. People are often surprised to hear that—I think they like to picture authors and illustrators having coffee together, collaborating like Lennon and McCartney. But it’s pretty typical for all of the work and communication to go through the editor and the art director, and that’s a good thing. It protects the illustrator from being penned in by the author’s vision of the story, and allows him or her to construct the visual narrative without being unduly influenced. That’s where the magic is in picture books, for me: that alchemy between words and pictures that are created independently and produce an entirely new experience.

I did include a few illustration notes in the manuscript, but only so that Mike would be clued into the staging or the jokes that weren’t spelled out in the text. When Bad Guy describes his library books, for instance, and then says, “I had big plans,” I wanted to make sure it was clear what I meant.

Did your manuscript change a lot from earlier versions?

Looking back at earlier versions of the manuscript, you’d see that the text barely changed at all from submission to publication—maybe because it’s so spare (only 215 words), there weren’t a lot of editorial changes along the way. Well, except for one. Originally, Bad Guy’s woodworking project was a guillotine. My editor, Christian Trimmer, has a great sense of humor, but at some point he said, “There’s some concern around the office that a guillotine might be . . . too much.” I pointed out that Pepito builds a guillotine in Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline and the Bad Hat, but it was a non-starter. So we changed the woodworking book to a magic book, and Bad Guy builds a box to saw his sister in half instead. Still pretty edgy. But not as sharp.


So the art finally comes in and you did . . . what?

Squealed, jumped up and down, et cetera. Art delivery days were always my favorite part of working as an editor at Houghton Mifflin—we would spread everything out on the conference table and walk around it, oohing and aahing. So I did that in my kitchen. And I made my kids do that, too.

There were a few rounds of email and a phone call or two with my editor, between sketches and finished art, to make sure all the details were right and to cut out a few extraneous words. Paring down a picture book text any further always seems impossible, but once the illustrations are in place, there are almost always a few spots where the editorial scalpel can be applied.


People have always been fascinated with “bad guys” – and these days with shows like “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos,” we’ve even come to root for the bad guys. They are our favorite characters. Why do we like bad guys so much?

Because they’re complicated. Because they get to do things we never would. Because they break rules and embrace their id and make things interesting. Ever since Milton wrote Paradise Lost, the devil’s been the character that throws complications and color and energy into the story. But the trick is making sure your villain is complex—just as every superhero has a vice, every bad guy must have something they love. Even something as simple as orange Popsicles.


This book turns on a joke -– spoiler alert: a gender assumption –- was that element there from the beginning?

The twist was always there, but it took me a while to figure out the phrasing. Because the story has so few words, I knew that whatever the “punchline” was going to be, it would have to be snappy. What I’ve loved most about sharing the book with groups of kids is their reaction to that moment—when I first hold up the book, all the boys hoot and holler, but when I read that final bit of text, the girls go wild.


So you knew how it would end?

I did. I never want to moralize in my books, but I’m very aware of the responsibility of writing for kids and the power of stories to shape their worldview. So even though I set out to portray this little boy who fully embraces playing the villain, I knew all along that he would have to face the consequences. And I wanted them to come from Alice, his sister, rather than from his mother (who is up to a few tricks of her own).

I’m usually good with writing the first 2-3 pages of a picture book, the opening. But the middle, oh boy. That’s rough. What was hardest for you?

Oh, middles are the worst. Beginnings are fun and endings are thrilling, but middles . . .

The good news is that most picture books are built on reliable structures, with reliable patterns. I have done classroom workshops on story-building and it’s amazing how many different scenarios you can construct out of a character or two, a problem, and three (increasing) attempts at a solution. Once you get comfortable with that formula, you can mess around with it a little and twist it in different directions to get that unexpected angle editors are so often looking for.


Could you expand on that? I mean, the formula part. And I wonder: Did you take creative writing in college?

Sure—so, most picture books that tell a real story (versus the “character portrait” books like Olivia and the conceptual/emotional books like Goodnight Moon and Love You Forever) are built on a pretty simple structural progression: a character has a problem and attempts to solve it in a series of escalating actions. The first try doesn’t work but informs the second; the second doesn’t work but informs the third; and the third does work, though perhaps not in the way the character intended. Along the way, the character grows and develops through these efforts, and maybe there are some other characters who help or hinder, and it helps a lot if there’s something funny like a banana or a sloth.

Or a sloth eating a banana! (Just brainstorming here, Hannah. Please continue.)

I only did one semester of creative writing in college, and it was an independent study with a children’s literature professor who also happened to be a picture book author. He was a storyteller, really, and working with him allowed me to dip a toe into the writing pool but still take an academic approach, which kept me in my comfort zone. (What I wrote was a pretty terrible first draft of a middle-grade novel about a boy whose voice is stolen by a witch. A silent main character is . . . not the best.)

Ha, yes, wrote yourself into a corner with that one. So what else is in the works? And try, Hannah, while answering this, to not make the rest of us feel too much like slugs on a couch. We feel bad enough about ourselves already.

Well, my second picture book—Garcia & Colette Go Exploring, illustrated by Andrew Joyner—releases on June 6th from Putnam. Two picture books coming out within a month of each other was a total fluke. I swear.

The tricky thing about this publishing business is that there are always things in the works that we’re not allowed to talk about, right? But I can say that I have a third picture book under contract with Houghton Mifflin—it’s called There’s Something About Sam, and it’s the story of a boy named Max who is convinced that there’s something odd about the new kid at school. (And he is right!) That will be illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf and published in 2019.

Novel-wise, I have shifted my focus from YA to middle grade and I have plans to work on a new manuscript this summer. For the record, this is a story that I’ve drafted twice before, but I still haven’t found the right path into the project. I have faith that it will reveal itself, but I also know the importance of showing up for the work. I invoke the spirit of Jane Yolen, who says, “BIC. Butt in chair. There is no other single thing that will help you more to become a writer.”


Jane is so right about that. And what I like about that famous bit of advice is the demystification of the process. For example, on school visits kids often ask about “writer’s block.” I tell them that my father was an insurance man from Long Island with seven children. He never had insurance block. He just went to work.

Well, he might have had insurance block if he’d tried to make selling insurance feel more like being a rodeo clown. I tell kids that the thing we call writer’s block happens when we try and make a story or a character fit into the hamster tunnel that we think they should take, instead of letting them run all over the place and explore the whole Habitrail set-up. Forcing the story rarely works, and it definitely robs you of the unexpected surprises that make writing actually fun. But you only get those surprises if you’re in the chair, because they only happen at a certain velocity.

I find that I get my best ideas in the shower. Standing up. Often while shampooing. Also, I have discovered that I experience that thing called “writer’s block” when I am bored. I am writing something and I have bored myself. Not a good place to be. So then I have to figure out why that happened and move the story in a different direction. Sometimes that direction is the garbage can, unfortunately. One sure-fire solution — my first step — is to eat ice cream. It always makes life better, don’t you agree? I see that you also teach workshops. Do you enjoy teaching writing? I don’t even like giving advice.

There are two things that I really do love about teaching: the first is that I almost always find that I know more than I think I do, and the second is that I always learn something new. I don’t go into a classroom thinking of myself as an expert—more like a hobbyist who’s been doing this for a while and has some stuff to say—and I’m always determined to keep my mind open to what the students have to say.

9780399176753Oh, and there’s a third thing, which is that I sometimes get to teach with other writers who are really, really good at what they do. I’m slated to teach a class with Nicole Griffin at The Writing Barn in Austin next October, which I’m tremendously excited about. It’s called “Boys and Girls, Beasts and Ghouls,” and it’s all about how to create fully-realized, memorable characters.

Teaching helps me avoid getting too deep into my own head while I’m writing, and to externalize/vocalize the process to keep the mental pipes from getting clogged. It’s invaluable to me.

Plus, I love a captive audience!

Thanks, Hannah. And good luck with your work.

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed here: 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, John Coy, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, Susan Verde, Elizabeth Zunan, Robin Pulver, Susan Wood, and Florence Minor. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function.