Tag Archive for Alan Silberberg

One Question, Five Authors #3: “What influence have comic books had on your work?”

Welcome to the third installment of “One Question” — the world’s laziest interview series. Today the focus is on comic books, one of the great wellsprings of inspiration for so many talented writers and illustrators of children’s books.

Much thanks to our five guests below: Eric Velasquez, Bruce Coville, Matt McElligott, Charise Harper, and Alan Silberberg. Click on the “One Question” icon on the right sidebar, under “Categories,” to journey through time and space to visit past editions.


Eric Velasquez

As you know comic books played a huge part in life. Comic books basically taught me how to read. I found an interest in the characters and stories that I could not find in the reading material in elementary school. I was also fortunate to have a very smart mother that would direct me to the dictionary if I did not understand a particular word in any of the comics, this would later prove to be a key factor in my development. Today,  I am so happy that schools are  embracing comic books as legitimate reading material for students. This makes a big difference in the lives of reluctant readers.

Now, in terms of my work, as a result of my love of comics I wanted to become a cartoonist. I went to the High School of Art and Design to study cartooning. However, in my senior year I was introduced to painting and the rest is history. Because I still love comics there are many aspects of comic book art in my work today, mostly my use of panels and dramatic angles.


Bruce Coville

I was 11, and already an avid reader of comics, when Stan Lee unleashed the first issue of The Fantastic Four and launched what became a revolution in comics. That comic, and the cascade of newly created characters that soon followed, provided a real time example of how an art form (though calling comics an “art form” at that time would have generated howls of derisive laughter) could be reinvented and re-invigorated.

By the time I was in my mid-teens I was a devoted Marvel geek. In fact, my first published words were in Marvel letter columns. And, oh, how I wanted to write for them (much to my mother’s alarm).

Oddly, despite my devotion to Marvel, the very first money I made for something I wrote was the princely sum of ten dollars for a story concept I sold to DC’s The House of Mystery. Small change, yes . . . but as a first sale it helped give me confidence that I could be a writer.

Eventually I found my place writing prose for kids. But there is no doubt that comic books were a significant part of what put me on the path!


Matthew McElligott

I can remember trading an action figure for my first stack of comics in second grade, then the excitement of bringing them home and spreading them out on the living room floor. They were a mix of titles, tattered and worn, and out of sequence. Some issues began in the middle of a larger story, and others ended with thrilling cliffhangers. The door was opened to a living, breathing world that was not quite fantasy, not quite reality, and I moved in and never really left.

Now, decades later, I understand that there are specific, formal reasons why that world was so enticing. Reading the works of Will Eisner and Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud really blew my mind, and I began to appreciate the formal structures that allow comics to do things no other medium can. Here’s an example I love to show my class:



At first glance, this panel by Jack Kirby may not seem particularly noteworthy. In fact, it might seem kind of juvenile. But dig a little deeper and you’ll notice something really remarkable: this panel is showing us the past (the dialog), the present (WHAK), and the future (the recoil from the punch) all at the same time, and our brains don’t explode. How does that work?

I’m still trying to figure this stuff out, and it informs everything I do as an illustrator. Good thing I made that trade in second grade.


Charise Harper

Words and pictures together makes sense to my brain.  My father is French, and when I was eight years old, my French grandmother started to live with us for six months of the year.  My brother and I could understand French and speak a little, but this was a big change for us.  Our house was instantly one hundred percent French speaking only.  Not only that, but our parents wanted us to read and write in French too.  So what did they do?  They bought us French comic books — lots of them.  This was huge!  At that point, I personally owned maybe six books.  My family did not have a lot of extra money, and now suddenly, we had stacks of Tintin and Asterix comic books.  My brother and I struggled through the books, looking at the pictures, deciphering the words and understanding more and more on each subsequent read.  These comic books changed my life.  They gave me an understanding of French humor, enabled me to interact with my grandmother and imbued me with a love of comics.  Using words and pictures together is my literary comfort food — my happy place.


Alan Silberberg

Confession: I was an Archies comic book fan. When the whole Marvel vs DC argument comes up at polite dinner parties  (I know geeky people!) I shrink back into the world of redheads and jugheads. I think reading stories about (unrealistic) high school where bullies and blondes and friendships were the norm gave me an idealized vision of life — that I liked to skewer in my writing. When the underground comics scene became (sort of) mainstream I was drawn to Ralph Bakshi and R.Crumb and other far out cartoonists and their styles. Jules Feifer’s early work and later Lynda Barry’s personal comics gave me a sense that telling my own stories visually was acceptable. In the Publishers Weekly review of Meet the Latkes, my cartooning style is described as “if I drew the book hopped up on chocolate gelt.”  And to me . . . that says it all!

James Preller Interviews . . . Alan Silberberg, author of “MILO.” Part One (that’s right, there are “parts!”)

Readers can connect with Milo, by Alan Silberberg, in very different ways. I suppose that’s true of any book, we all bring our disparate selves to the text, but it seems especially true for Milo, a story for middle grade readers that embraces broad goofy humor on one end, and authentic, emotional grief on the other. Actually, that’s not true. Those qualities aren’t on separate ends, but are intermingled throughout. It’s a book where a boy can sneeze on someone’s neck in class, then return home to a house of fog and loss, where no one has quite figured out how to move forward after a death in the family. For me as a reader, it wasn’t the humor that hooked me. It was the humor combined with real emotional depth.

That rare thing in children’s books: a boy in full.

After I read Milo, I wanted to meet Alan because I sensed that he and I shared things in common. So I contacted Alan through his website and requested an interview. There was much I wanted to discuss, and our conversation flowed so naturally, that our Q & A went on slightly longer than The Reagan Years. I decided to break it up into two parts. I’m indebted to Alan for his time and patience and for the care he took in answering my questions.

(Whew. I’m relieved he’s not a Yankees fan.)

Alan! Hey, thanks for stopping by all the way from Montreal. Which is still in Canada, right? Could you please leave the soggy Uggs by the front door? Yeah, the moose, too. That’d be swell.

It’s true, Montreal is still in Canada. But you know, I’m from Boston (Go Red Sox!) so my heart — and shoveling technique — is from New England.

I gather that you didn’t initially set out to tackle this huge, daunting topic –- the death of a parent.

You are so right! When I started writing this book my goal was to write a pretty silly book that would include my cartoon illustrations. What started as a goofy look at a 7th grade kid starting a new school turned into something much deeper once I realized I had my own story to tell.

I know that this book grows out of your own personal experiences. Could you give us a little background on that?

My mom died of brain cancer when I was nine years old. It happened really fast too. It was a terrible time in my life and I guess I have always identified with that lost boy whose mother suddenly went away. In my family “death” never really got discussed so after she died we all just did our best to pretend we were okay, which on one level was comforting because I didn’t have to really deal with the grief and loss. With my sense of humor intact, I moved on from that life-altering event — but always dragging along a sad piece of me like a shadow.

A sad piece of me like a shadow,” that’s nice. I just finished a young adult novel that grapples with some of the same feelings, where things unsaid are more important than what’s spoken. But I don’t suppose you’d let me steal that “sad piece of me” line, would you?

Be my guest. Just buy me an iced espresso some time. And a cookie. Chocolate chip is always nice.

At one point in the book, Milo says, “I miss a dinner table that doesn’t feel lopsided,” and I completely understood that line.  I mean, you got me right there. My oldest brother, Neal, died of AIDS back in ’93. And after that, I often said that our family became like a ship that listed to the side. The ballast was off, you know. We never sat in the water quite right after that.

I think that’s what loss does to a family — even the most messed up families are a balanced whole. And the loss of someone we love just throws that balance totally off. And I think it doesn’t matter at what age we lose someone — that loss sets us adrift. I like your boat metaphor.

You attempt to do something that’s not at all easy –- balancing some traditional, goofy boy humor with a sensitive, heartfelt story about deep, deep loss.

Once I knew that the silly story I started out to write was drawing deeper from my life I made the decision to stay true to who I was back then. Life was suddenly sad — but I was still a funny kid. I think it’s important to have a balance in a story like this because life isn’t all one thing or another and a story about loss can also be a funny story. Of course the cartoons help to give the book a lighter tone, but to be honest, some of the cartoons are quite poignant and a bit sad too.

I have to say, I’m often frustrated when I encounter these limited notions about “what boys like” and, consequently, “what boys are and can be.” So we see books with the goofball stuff –- with varying levels of originality — but not very much in the way of emotion. Because I guess there’s this idea that boys don’t “do” feelings. And perhaps they don’t, I don’t know. But at the same time: it’s real, it’s true, this stuff happens to actual boys. As I’ve said before, it can’t all be farts and firetrucks.

I know what you mean. I hear it all the time that a book is a “girl” book or a “boy” book and sometimes I think that’s just marketing. Whether boys, or girls for that matter, will be drawn to Milo is out of my hands. I have gotten wonderful feedback from kids who have loved the book and have had the experience of knowing first-hand that the book has helped kids dealing with loss. At the other end of the spectrum — I know kids who have read the book because they love the cartoons and think the story is “real” but still made them laugh . . . and made them think. At the end of the day I want Milo to find its way into the hands of kids who like a good story and especially those kids who are ready for the real emotions that I wrote about.

Tell me a little bit about the father. He’s suffering, too, but because we see him from Milo’s point of view, we just get this sense that dad is basically out of it. For Milo, he has to find help elsewhere –- because dad’s not emotionally available.

Milo’s whole family has suffered a loss and though the story is told from Milo’s point of view he experiences his dad as being kind of absent. There’s one cartoon I did where Milo says that he misses his dad almost as much as he misses his mom, because his dad is having a hard time too. I think that’s what can happen when one parent dies. The child can lose two parents.

There are a few helpful adults in Milo’s world, and I think you handle them realistically. They don’t swoop in and save the day. In fact, well, nobody does. Nobody can. But they do help.

I guess it would have been too easy to have some adult be able to make everything “okay” for Milo. But that just isn’t realistic. What I did want to explore though is how Milo learns how to grieve his mom’s death with the help of his older neighbor. She doesn’t make everything right for him but she is the one who opens a door that leads him to say the goodbye he never said. It was a healing part of the book to write for me because I got to be Milo and say the goodbye I never said too. And that all happened through Milo’s relationship with the neighbor character, who was based on one of the moms in my neighborhood who took me in after my mom died.

That must have been a remarkable moment when you were able to hand her the finished book.

It was actually bittersweet because the real Sylvia passed away just after the book came out. I had told her months earlier how she had inspired a character in my new book and she was very happy about that. I was told by her family that they were able to read some of the book to her before she passed and that she was very touched by it.

I’m glad you were able to honor her with that gift of recognition after all these long years. I also really liked Milo’s friendship with Marshall. They are just boys, you know, going to the store, spending their money on junk food, sitting down on the curb, goofing around like a pair of glorious idiots.

And yet at the same time, Marshall is clearly not a total clod. I’m not sure what I’m saying, exactly, other than I think your book respects the complexity of boys –- and as an ex-kid myself, and a father of two boys, I really appreciate that.

Thanks. I really liked creating the relationship between Milo and Marshall. It just felt right that these two would know each other and get along so well. Marshall is a bit left of center, but I was hopefully not writing a geeky character, just someone who lives life in his own unique way. Milo is more of an internal guy and Marshall is an extrovert — so the combo really works. Thinking back to the friendships I had back at that age and being the father of a son who just lived it also helped me channel their relationship.

Alan, let’s pick up this conversation on Wednesday. I assume you can stay over, right? You can sleep on the cot. In the closet. With the Uggs.

And the moose.



Link Dump: Gift Ideas, Cosmic Knitting, Video Poems, Cool Books, Thoughts on Classroom Seating, and a Short Video That Will Make You Smile

* So nice to find one of my books mentioned in this way, and in this context. “The Gift of Reading,” by Charlie McCollum.

* Children’s author Alexandra Siy scribes a nifty piece for Geek Mom: “Thinking Is Cosmic Knitting:” How Making Mittens Helps Kids Learn. I have to share the awesome photo.

* This is a first. Somebody called me “renowned.” I would have gladly settled for affable. Or sinewy!

* Here’s a long article on the negative impact on the book industry by internet behemoth, Amazon. Worth a skim.

* I just ordered this book. It sounds wonderful. I want to talk to this guy.

* A way cool gift for the guitarist in your house.

* I think students would enjoy, and learn from, and maybe be inspired by this three-minute video poem, “Words.”

* A great idea for holiday gift-giving, if I don’t say so myself. Thank you, Mary Ann Scheuer for the kind review of Six Innings.

* For a baseball lover of a certain age, say around the half-century mark, I can recommend this book. This was from my formative, memorizing-every-statistic era.

* Teachers: What does it tell us about where students sit in the classroom? Some thoughts about seat “patterning.”

* I’ll admit it, even if it does make me look like a tool: At first, I was disappointed that A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade didn’t make this list of Children’s Books 2010100 Titles for Reading and Sharing. Two starred reviews, a glowing Wall Street Journal review, uproarious read-alouds in every school I’ve visited, and spectacular illustrations by Greg Ruth. But now, after chilling out for 24 hours? I’m still disappointed. Nonetheless: a great source for recommended reading, even if perhaps they might have (maybe) missed one. Arrrr.

* One minute and twenty seconds . . . and guaranteed to make you smile. I’d make that deal any day:

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