Tag Archive for 5 Questions with James Preller

5 QUESTIONS with Robin Pulver, author of “Me First: Prefixes Lead the Way”

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I suppose it’s true of most authors, but it seems especially true of Robin Pulver. She’s a lot like her books: Funny, warm, inclusive, smart — and a little silly too. Today we talk about the latest in her “Language Arts Library” series, and William Steig, and Mrs. Toggle, and the hurt of going out of print, and more.

Robin, thanks for coming by. Normally I like to keep the “5 Questions” series focused on one title –- so we’ll spend time on Me First: Prefixes Lead the Way from your “Language Arts Library” series. But I also want to learn a little bit more about you in general. Sound good? I wonder: When did you first dream of becoming a writer?

I never dreamed of becoming a writer. In 8th grade, I had to write an autobiography. The story of my 13 years was LOOOOONG, because I liked to write. At the end, I was supposed to tell my ambition (i.e. dream?), so I said “art teacher,” because I loved art class. I still do love art, so now it seems miraculous to me that my love of writing somehow led to writing picture book stories that are illustrated by great artists. My being an author evolved from liking to write, studying journalism in grad school, then realizing my personality wasn’t right for the kind of investigative journalism I admire, writing a couple of newspaper columns, doing public relations for an insurance company, studying fiction writing for adults, selling some short stories, reading to my kids, loving the books, writing for children’s magazines, and then selling one of my intended magazine stories as a book: Mrs. Toggle’s Zipper!

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That unlikely progression actually makes sense. There’s continuity to it. It’s like sailing. You don’t get there in a straight line. On your website, you tell a wonderful story about a day in your third-grade classroom.

Yes! A formative moment, when I look back. I had a third-grade teacher I adored. She was only 19. Miss Hamrick. One day she sent me to the back of the room to write a story. No regular school work! I wrote “The Flowers that Talked” and at the end of the day read it aloud to my classmates. (Never since have I been able to write a story in one day!)  Maybe that was early prep for an author visit to a school.

Good old Miss Hamrick. God bless the teachers who recognize our strengths and say, “I believe in you.” Robin, I became a fan after your first book, Mrs. Toggle’s Zipper. She’s a kind, warm-hearted elementary school teacher who gets trapped inside her “big, puffy, fuchsia-colored” winter coat. The feeling of community in that school comes through loud and clear.

The story was inspired when my daughter’s zipper got stuck at school, and the nurse called me to say they were going to have to cut the coat off, so I should bring another coat for her to wear home that day. I wrote about a teacher’s coat because I thought kids would find that funnier. I used the word “fuschia,” because I liked the sound of it, not being sure what color that was! Recently, when I re-read “The Flowers that Talked,” (Mom saved it), the community of flowers reminded me of Mrs. Toggle’s classroom. Makes me wonder about my versatility! But I do have a basic belief that “it takes a village to raise a child,” and the school and classroom qualify as communities.

Mrs. Toggle is such a lovely character. And a great teacher. All four of the “Mrs. Toggle” books are warm, full of gentle wit and kindness, wonderfully illustrated by our mutual friend, R.W. Alley. I hope you are enormously proud of those books, they are an absolute triumph.

That is so nice of you to say. SO NICE.

It’s only the truth.

A teacher once told me that no teachers would like the Mrs. Toggle books. “They’re too sarcastic. The only smart person in them is the custodian. I decided you must be married to a custodian!” (I’m not. He’s an allergist.) He said that at one of my first school visits in a lunchroom full of guests! Funny, how those criticisms stay with a person, even though the book did so well. So, again, thank you!

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You experienced a professional writer’s full journey with that series.  The books enjoyed great success –- well reviewed, embraced by classroom teachers, beloved by countless readers. And then, over time, you had the painful experience of watching them go out of print. I know how that feels. It’s not death, exactly, but there’s definitely a sense of loss.

It’s hard! At book festivals and signings, I hear, “Mrs. Toggle is my favorite!” (One teacher even told me that her daughter named her blanket “Mrs. Toggle.”) And yet, those books have long been out of print, and the original publisher exists no more. Bob Alley has indicated that he’d love to re-illustrate them in his updated style (which is wonderful! See Mrs. Toggle’s Class Picture Day and Saturday Is Dadurday). Wouldn’t it be nice to have a 30th anniversary edition of Mrs. Toggle’s Zipper? I know that a lot of adult teachers loved Mrs. Toggle when they were children. Now I’m whining. Sorry.

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No need to apologize, I opened that door and I appreciate your honesty. We like to think of a book -– a good book -– as something that will endure. Not immortality perhaps, but something that lasts. It’s painful to learn that it’s not generally true except in the rarest of circumstances.

And the older I get, the more I realize that’s true. One of my favorites, Alicia’s Tutu, was out of print after 6 months.

Heartbreaking. I’ve been there. You look at your life’s work, your accomplishments, and poof. Like it never happened. Now it’s my turn to apologize for whining.

It’s confidence shaking and demoralizing, isn’t it, after so much trying, waiting, revising, finally getting a book accepted and waiting for it to come out. Then, as you say, poof!

Let’s shift gears. Rereading your “Mrs. Toggle” books, I was struck by the amount of story, the pure word count. Over the years, we’ve seen the picture book market get younger and younger. We don’t see many with a lot of words anymore. The emphasis has shifted decidedly to the pictures. Do you find that to be true in your experience?

Might this have to do with shortening attention spans in all ages? Including parents? But I’ve heard that there’s movement toward longer-text books again. I hope so. While I greatly admire authors who can write in such spare text, often way under 500 words, my natural word count seems to be 1000-1250 words. Hey, picture books are for all ages. Often these books use challenging vocabulary, and younger kids absorb that during read-alouds (an adult reading to a child inspires the child to learn to read herself). Older children — adults too — enjoy the story and the fine art in a good picture book.

I sometimes wonder what would happen to William Steig today? I mean, I’m sure he’d triumph in any era, but I wonder if the response from editors might be, “too many words.”

Oh, I love that you wonder that! William Steig was my first inspiration. Amos and Boris! The characters! The fantastic vocabulary! I bought that book for myself before I ever “dreamed” of writing books for children or had children of my own. (I learned from your pal, Matthew Cordell, that Amos and Boris was his early inspiration as well.)

Steig was amazing. He published his first children’s book at age 60. You got an earlier start. Then about 15 years ago, you hit upon an idea to write a story about punctuation, titled Punctuation Takes a Vacation. And now here we are here, celebrating the sixth title in the “Language Arts Library,” Me First. These books are about grammar, yes, but each one is playful, exuberant, and even a little wacky. How do you make a book about prefixes so lively and lighthearted? Where do you even begin?

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It took me three intense years to write Punctuation Takes a Vacation. A huge stack of attempts and fumbling approaches. (I persisted!) When I told my editor, she said, “It’s so light-hearted, I thought you wrote it in a day.”  NO. They’ve all been a struggle for me.

Whenever an author talks about how a book “wrote itself,” I want to scream. My books don’t ever write themselves. I do all the work!

I keep at it because I love language and word usage. For Me First!, I did tons of research. Not only about prefixes, and what prefixes are taught at what level, and how they’re taught, but also about Abraham Lincoln, to find appropriate nuggets to use from his life. (I HAD to use the fact that he stored reminders to himself in his stovepipe hat.) When I learned that Leadership Day is observed in schools, I felt I’d found the connection to make between prefixes and the qualities that made Lincoln a great leader. Then I set out to write a story using lots of words with prefixes! I hope these books share my love of language with kids.

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What’s your relationship with illustrator Lynn Rowe Reed? It must have evolved over the years. At what point is she brought into the process?

We have a strong on-line friendship, but I’ve only met her once, when we presented together at a conference. She waits ever so patiently (well, not really, she spurs me on!) for me to come up with a story and gets to work on it once it’s been revised and edited. Her illustrations are bold and lively and colorful. They’re the reason I’ve been told that toddlers love these books and carry them around! The first editor who rejected Punctuation Takes a Vacation said, ”Who on earth could illustrate this?” Luckily Lynn could.

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Yes, Lynn does a rather incredible job with those books. Her sense of playfulness is a big part of the overall appeal.

Which is another reason kids of all ages enjoy these books. They’re used in nursery schools and all the way through college.

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I understand that you meet with a writer’s group. Tell us a little bit about that, why you like it, how it works, and so on.

The writers’ group I’m in now has lasted for 20 years, with some comings and goings. Shall I name names? Bruce Coville, Kathy Coville, Vivian Vande Velde, Ellen Stoll Walsh, MJ Auch, Patience Brewster, and Cynthia DeFelice. (We meet once a month, centrally at Cynthia’s home.) Our relationships are deep, supportive, and inspiring. We read from our work aloud and then critique (usually going around the room). I spend each meeting wondering how I got so lucky and privileged to hear their works in progress. There is all kinds of hilarity as well.

Thanks for coming over today, Robin. You just made a rough year a little kinder, a little softer. Keep up the great work!

Wowee zowee. Maybe not as beautiful as the real Mrs. Pulver, but hopefully a fair approximation of her kindness and spirit.

Jigsaw flashes his business card. “Wowee zowee.” Maybe not as beautiful as the real Mrs. Pulver, but hopefully a fair approximation of her kindness and spirit.

It was fun to think about these kind and thoughtful questions. Thanks so much, Jimmy. I look forward to seeing you again and to reading your next books (including the one I have a special interest in, Jigsaw Jones: The Case from Outer Space).

Yes, I modeled a secondary character after you, the charming “Mrs. Pulver.” Jigsaw questions her as a witness in a case that concerns her Little Free Library. She’s lovely and kind, just like you, and I was glad to sneak that sly tribute into my book.

ROBIN PULVER is the author of many wonderful books including Thank You, Miss Doover; Axle Annie, and Saturday Is Dadurday, and many more. 

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, John Coy, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, Susan Verde and Elizabeth Zunan. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function. 

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”

 

 

 

5 QUESTIONS with HAZEL MITCHELL, author/illustrator of “TOBY”

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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 . . .

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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.

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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 . . . 

1c971b5bc7c4a067d09cad45ee38361cCareful 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?

toby-realistic-sketchesYes, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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?). 

Sounds delicious.

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.

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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.

 

imanismooncvr_300-819x1024In 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

TOBY Copyright © 2016 by Hazel Mitchell. Illustrations reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, Massachusetts

5 QUESTIONS with HUDSON TALBOTT, author/illustrator of “FROM WOLF TO WOOF”

 

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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.

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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.