Tag Archive for Aaron Becker

5 QUESTIONS with AARON BECKER, creator of “JOURNEY”

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Greetings, Aaron. Let’s talk about your book, Journey. You do a masterful job in that opening spread, making full use of the copyright page, establishing the core elements of the story to come. Journey begins with a bored girl on her front stoop. Inside her home, through a cutaway device, we see her father looking at the computer, her mother talking on the phone, her sister staring at an electronic device. The world is dull and monochromatic –- except for one red scooter and, off to the side, almost unnoticed, a boy with a purple piece of chalk. Is that how this story started for you? As a reaction against our hyper-involvement with technology?

Yes, to the extent that much of my childhood was spent hoping my Dad would get off the home computer. I never saw the computer as an answer to life’s biggest questions; to me it was clear that there was more value in my imaginary play than anything I could gain on a machine’s screen.

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Next comes what I consider the essential illustration to the story. And my favorite. The girl is alone in her room: bored, bored, bored. I love that critical moment, because I’m a huge believer in the positive value of boredom. Most people have an aversion to empty space –- on the radio, silence is called “dead air.” Thanks to technological progress, we can now pick up a phone and scroll through Instagram at the first momentary lull. Crisis averted. Many of us seem to have lost our ability to work our way through (and beyond) that boredom.

This is the crux of it. It’s interesting too, because during the lead up to the election, I depended a lot on the internet as a source of comfort to ease my concerns for the outcome that I feared. I was aware of this, and even went so far as to go on a writing retreat away from the news cycle the week before the vote. Now that we’re on the other side, I can see so clearly that these tools were a false comfort to begin with. It’s been much easier for me to stay off social media and news websites this past week, and not just because I don’t want to see evidence that we have a new President. It’s more that I realize there’s no use in building one’s sense of reality on something that is so removed from our actual physical existence on Earth. In a sense, I felt betrayed by technology once again. It’s a lesson I hope to remember.

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I’m sorry, what, were you talking? I was just checking my . . . [puts away phone]. It occurs to me that if you gave your central character an iPhone, she would have never gone on that journey. You would have lost an entire trilogy.

I do think there’s a loss. When I was a kid, I watched way too much junky TV after school (which, I would like to add was brought on by actual policy from Reagan’s FCC that allowed toy makers to create half hour commercials as entertainment for children) and I often think this hampered my brain’s ability to function as an adult. But I’m also not entirely convinced that we were that much better off before. People have a lot more access to different types of storytelling (and stories) than they ever have. It’s a busy landscape to navigate and I’d like to think that the children out there today that can manage the overload will come out with some pretty amazing stories to tell. That said, I’m not sure I could survive it. When my friends were all moving onto advanced gaming consoles, Pac Man was about all I could handle. One joystick and no buttons.

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I think when people are bored, they ultimately have two choices: 1) Stay bored (and become boring themselves), or 2) Get creative, do stuff, make things happen. Quick story: I witnessed this dynamic when we took our kids on vacations in the Adirondacks. We often rented a cabin on a lake with no Wi-Fi, no TV, no town, no stores. For the first half hour, every year, they were lost. What now? Then, you know, they got busy. They built forts, went fishing, swam out to the pier, played cards, explored the grounds, looked for frogs, read, drew. All thanks to that wonderful boredom!

I was bored for most of my childhood. School was excruciatingly boring. At home, my family was of the serious academic variety and I was the only one interested in play. So I had to figure it out on my own. I didn’t need the Adirondacks; it was like that for me 24/7. I was industrious. I used the Styrofoam from my Dad’s computer boxes to build stuff. And in 5th grade, I moved down into the basement to decorate my own universe. I should also add that three of my close friends from elementary school in Baltimore, who suffered the same boredom as I did on all fronts, have gone on to distinguished careers as writers including a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a New York Times staff writer, and a children’s book author. Go Baltimore City Public Schools!

Stuck in a room, another famous children's book character had to imagine his escape from boredom. Illustration by Maurice Sendak from WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE -- but everybody knows that.

Stuck in a room, another famous children’s book character had to imagine his escape from boredom. Illustration by Maurice Sendak from WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE — but everybody knows that.

In the girl’s bedroom, you scatter little clues about her character. The air balloon hanging from her ceiling, the drawings of the pyramids, the map of the world on her wall –- and even, very small, a plane flying outside her window. That’s important to you, isn’t it? The sense that we’re living in a great big world.

I think I’ve always been looking for a way out, and so to that end the world offered possibilities. It’s not that my home life was terrible. I just wasn’t getting what I needed so I looked beyond it for an answer. I’d imagine most of us can relate to that!

Obviously, your book owes a debt to Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon. The device, the crayon, is the same, but the execution could not be more different. Also, the basic plot is timeless: using the imagination as escape, as a way to explore new worlds. Were those books important to you as a child?

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Actually, I was never a big fan of that book! I think the drawings bugged me somehow. But I do remember that when I finished Journey someone mentioned the similarity and so I looked at it as an adult. I was amazed at the similarities in the story! I probably would never have made Journey if I was aware that there was something so similar already out there!

Yes, I hear that. I was talking about this issue with Jessica Olien recently. There’s a freedom in not-knowing. I mean, I’m aware of authors who avidly read Publishers Weekly and stay up-to-the-moment about what’s being published. But I’m the opposite, because my tendency is the same as yours: “Oh, rats, it’s already been done.” Creatively, I feel better off not knowing too much. A little bit goes a long way. I’m not a librarian or a publisher; I’m a maker. Our work has different requirements.

I’m a big fan of picture books and illustration in general, so I’ll often go to stores that do a nice job of curating their shelves (like the one at the Eric Carle Museum here in Amherst) and pick out a few books to take home that I like. But I’ve never been interested in following trends or trying to interpret the market of what sells or is popular with critics. I feel like I have this chance with the books I make to create something akin to actual fine art, in that I feel like I’m making something entirely fueled by my own curiosity and interests. The minute I start to create books that I think will sell well is the minute I might as well go back to working as a hired gun for advertising or film. 

Amen, brother! During her journey, our female protagonist experiences great beauty in the natural world. But there are also dark forces at work. The soldiers and guards who seek to capture and control. Are you saying, in effect, that there are forces that conspire against our imagination?

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I’ve always thought that the emperor and his soldiers are interested in capturing the purple bird because it represents something they can’t understand or access. They’re aware that the bird has some sort of magical quality to it and it frightens them. But the girl just wants to set it free. She doesn’t hesitate. The emperor represents that force inside of us that might more against that spontaneity of creation. Self-doubt, jealousy, envy, fear. We all have it.

We hate what we do not understand. Except for your art! I have no idea how you do it, Aaron, but I love your work. What materials do you use to create these illustrations? Smoke and mirrors and what else? Forgive me, I’m no Julie Danielson; I’m a little lost when it comes to talking about artwork.

Pencil sketch, opening spread.

Pencil sketch, opening spread.

I start with pencils until the story is working. Then I build some 3D models in the computer to aid in the perspective of the architecture; these models get printed lightly out onto paper and I do another, more detailed pencil drawing for each spread. Then I scan that pencil in the computer so that I can print it out very lightly onto watercolor paper as the basis for my ink drawing. From there, it’s just like a traditional water color painting. Journey took me about a year and a half to produce. It’s laborious but it’s the only way I know!

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This is a wordless book, and your very first. Congratulations on such a jaw-dropping accomplishment, for it is a debut book that announced the arrival of an exciting new voice. I enjoyed thinking about your story long after I first encountered it in the wild. Did it have words in early iterations? The wordlessness seems to open up the potentialities of story in ways that wouldn’t be possible if it included text.

Thanks. I do feel like I made the book I wanted to make and the success that has followed has been just one giant blessing. I didn’t plan on it being wordless. But my when I fished my first draft, which was literally a series of small thumbnail sketches on one big sheet of paper, I realized that adding words would only be redundant. The story was already there.

 

There are currently three books in Aaron Becker’s “Journey” Trilogy: Journey, Quest, and Return. If readers are feeling bored, you can find Aaron’s website by searching high and low on the interwebs. It might inspire your imagination.

 

ABOUT THE “5 Questions” INTERVIEW SERIES: It’s a little project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. I almost called it “Author to Author” but I didn’t want to push myself to the front of it, though that is part of what makes these interviews unique. We’re in the same leaky boat.

Coming next week, my great pal Matthew Cordell (Wish) You can hit the “SUBSCRIBE” icon and, hopefully, it will work. Scheduled for future dates, in no particular order: London Ladd, Lizzy Rockwell, Matthew Phelan, Bruce Coville, Jeff Mack, Jeff Newman, 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”

 

5 QUESTIONS with NANCY CASTALDO, author of “THE STORY OF SEEDS”

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Nancy Castaldo, international jet-setter, thank you for stopping by. You know, I’ll be honest. I already read Ruth Kraus’s The Carrot Seed. I figure it’s one of the most perfect books ever created. When it comes to seeds, she pretty much said it all: dirt, water, sun, and hope. Then you come along and blow my mind. In all seriousness, I didn’t realize there was a much, much bigger story to tell –- and yet, you found it. How’d that happen?

Ah, The Carrot Seed! That’s a great one. My favorite as a child was What Shall I Put In the Hole that I Dig? I think the subject of seeds has been with me ever since. But, like you say, The Story of Seeds goes a little deeper. I was bombarded by a bunch of news back around 2008 about heirloom vegetables, seed banks, and GMOs. I started to become aware of a global concern – crops were going extinct. I had no idea that could even happen! Then I learned about seed scientists who have risked their lives to protect these valuable treasures. I knew I had to spread the word.

 

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Why is biodiversity important?

Let’s chat about potatoes. The Great Famine in Ireland occurred mainly because there was a lack of diversity. Once the potato crop died, there wasn’t any more food. Biodiversity gives us options. In the Andes Mountains in South America there are countless varieties of potatoes. If one suffers from a blight, another might still flourish. Biodiversity insures a healthier planet.

Your book has a decidedly global outlook. We hop around from Russia to Norway, India to Iraq, to places all over the United States. You must have put a ton of work into this – and it shows in all 136 pages. Tell us about your research. And don’t worry, we have all day here at James Preller Dot Com. Most of my readers are unemployed. I mean, both my readers.

pom-1-of-1Well, you might have all day, but I have to keep writing! LOL. But actually, I could talk all day about the research. I am a research junkie. It’s the best part — part scavenger hunt, part Indiana Jones. I wish I could have traveled to all of the places in my book, but some were off the table — like Iraq. Those places I had to visit by the magic of technology. I did, however, travel to Russia and many wonderful farms and seed banks. Russia was by far a place I never thought I would visit. Due to the seed scientists’ schedules and our calendar, and my deadline, I ended up visiting in the dead of winter when it is the coldest and darkest. I felt like I really experienced Russia! I was able to use that experience to understand more of what went on during the Leningrad Siege I was writing about.

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You put a spotlight on what you call “Seed Warriors.” Did you create that term? How did that narrative strategy come about?

I stole it from myself! I highlighted people who are champions of the environment in my book In Keeping Our Earth Green, by calling them scan-2Earth Heroes. I wanted something similar for this book and since this feels like a battle I used the word warrior to describe these scientists.

Here’s comes a two-parter, so I hope you’re sitting down. Who do you think reads a book like The Story of Seeds? And also, were you once that kid?

That’s a good question.

Finally!

I would hope that teens are my first readers. They can do great things when empowered. I have faith in them. I also have lots of adults who are readers.

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I loved reading books about the environment when I was a kid, like that picture book I mentioned earlier. When I was older I loved reading the essays and books by John Burroughs, Rachel Carson, John Muir and others who wrote about our world. I still draw inspiration from them. (Of course, I also read books about investigator, mystery-solver Nancy Drew!)

I loved that the book concluded with a five-page “Call to Action,” where you offer practical ideas for motivated readers who want to make a difference. I identified with that, because I recently wrote a fictional, middle-grade book set in that near future that touches on some of the negative effects of climate change. It can bring us, writer and readers both, to some dark places. Did you feel it was important to leave your readers with a sense of hopefulness? Or at least, purpose?

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Like I said — my readers can make a difference. I just want to give them some tools to help them do that!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your work with SCBWI. I know you are busy with that organization. First, how do I pronounce that word? Is it a kind of fish? Like scrod? I’m confused.

SCBWI stands for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and you are right, it’s a mouthful! I am the regional advisor for the Eastern NY region. So, that means that when I’m not writing, I’m planning events and meet-ups for other writers and illustrators. I love it! It’s a great organization for both published and aspiring children’s book creators. Just take a look at the website scbwi.org — it’s chock full of info on creating kids books!

I know that SCBWI has been a great source of perspiration — wait, strike that, inspiration! — for many aspiring authors and illustrators. As always, Nancy, I’m somewhat awed by all the good work you do. The Story of Seeds stands as an important, meaningful book. It’s what our world needs, now maybe more than ever.

Hey, thanks Jimmy Preller, for this great chat. It’s been fun. I can’t wait to read your latest eco-fiction title! Climate change is a big topic. It’s really frightening, but there’s hope!

Hope is not my strong suit, Nancy, but I’m working on it! If your comment makes any readers curious about that book, Better Off Undead, they can click here.

9780544088931NANCY CASTALDO is the author of several nonfiction books, including Sniffer Dogs, Keeping Our Earth Green, The Race Around the World, and many more. She lives in the Hudson Valley but she cares about the whole dang planet.

 

 

ABOUT THE “5 Questions” INTERVIEW SERIES: It’s a little project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. I almost called it “Author to Author” but I didn’t want to push myself to the front of it, though that is part of what makes these interviews unique. We’re in the same leaky boat.

Coming next Monday, Aaron Becker (Journey). After that, my great pal Matthew Cordell (Wish) You can hit the “SUBSCRIBE” icon and, hopefully, it will work. Scheduled for future dates, in no particular order: London Ladd, Lizzy Rockwell, Matthew Phelan, Bruce Coville, Jeff Mack, Jeff Newman, 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. 

Guests so far:

1) Hudson Talbott, “From Wolf to Woof”

2) Hazel Mitchell, “Toby”

3) Ann Hood, “Ada’s Violin

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

5) Jessica Olien, “The Blobfish Book”