No matter how they may feel about the book overall, all book creators can point to at least one small moment that gives them outsized satisfaction. So I put that question to a few talented friends: Nora Raleigh Baskin, Eugene Yelchin, Nick Bruel, Erin Dionne, and Alan Katz.
Nora Raleigh Baskin
I recently wrote a scene about a girl who is mourning the loss of her friend but doesn’t quite realize that yet. Throughout the book, and throughout her journey during the course of one day, her grief finds form and then wings and then she is able to let it go. Without knowing why, as I was writing some dialogue between my character and a stranger, I saw, in my mind, a heron lift into the sky. As my character listens to someone talking about her friend, the heron rises from the water and into the sky, until it is nothing more than a dot against the blue.
“The heron hunches its shoulders, then spreads out its wings across the sky, past the sun, and lets its skinny legs dangle below.“
Finding Joy by Gae Polisner and Nora Raleigh Baskin (Knopf Spring, 2020)
The illustrated sequence that serves as the epilogue for The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, a book I co-authored with M.T. Anderson. On the surface, our book is a fantasy narrative, but even a young reader will easily discern the parallels between the world of goblins and elves and the world we live in.
The formal tension in the book is between the written chapters (penned by M.T. Anderson) and the wordless ones (illustrated by me). The written and the illustrated chapters contradict each other. They are “at war” until a crucial moment in the book when the two opposing points of view converge.
During the course of our collaboration, M.T. Anderson had this brilliant idea of goblins shedding and preserving their skins as mementoes of their lives’ passages. As a result, I drew the epilogue sequence, in which Brangwain Spurge, who initially finds this skin business repulsive, sheds his own skin. As a metaphor, this metamorphosis is a complete character transformation, a complete reversal of one’s initial belief system.
Nearly two years ago, I was driving to go pick up my daughter from school when a story on the radio came up referencing how the current administration had decided to cut the number of refugees allowed into our country to 45,000 (that number has since been reduced to 30,000), a moot number considering the literally hundreds of thousands of refugee applications this country receives annually. As the son of a woman who lived in constant fear inside war ravaged Shanghai and a man who fled from Belgium just prior to Hitler’s invasion, I took this personally.
Bad Kitty: Kitten Trouble tells the story of what happens when Kitty’s owner decides to bring three kittens into the house, and Kitty does everything she can to sabotage their presence. It’s my Bad Kitty take on the refugee crisis, conflict, and conflict resolution.
This is a single panel of a three page, wordless dream sequence Kitty has in which she essentially experiences the reality the kittens came from. The collar in the foreground belongs to Puppy, her constant foil in nearly every book, but his fate is uncertain albeit likely grim. To me, this is the moment she truly understands the severity of the conflict the kittens escaped. Meanwhile, a hardly discernible sound effect appears for the first time in the background, one that will grow with every panel over the next page. Telling my stories with both words and pictures affords me a lot of latitude in how I choose to depict drama. In this case, dialogue would have only interfered.
It’s so hard to choose just one thing in Captain’s Log that I love, because illustrator Jeffrey Ebbeler did an incredible job bringing the words to life via his art. But, since you’re forcing me…It’s this page. Part of the text reads:
Later. (Day 1.)
The first mate and I led a shore party onto the glaciers. The wind howled! Snow flew!…
Jeffrey took those words and created a dynamic, funny moment that captures the story’s sense of imagination and exploration in a way I never would have expected. The Captain is bundled up in his winter gear, riding his “sled” (a battered folding chair), pulled by his trusty first mate. His expression and position convey his zest in the moment, and even the dog is into the romp!
When I first saw this page, I gasped out loud. To me, it represents the best of an author/illustrator pairing–my words interpreted by his art combining to make a dynamic story. I’m so grateful to the Charlesbridge team, including editor Karen Boss, for putting Jeffrey and I together on this book.
I’ve written more than 35 books for kids, and I always tried to make them funny. I probably succeeded 14.34% of the time.
But for my two newest books, Awesome Achievers in Science and Awesome Achievers in Technology, humor was only half of the goal. I set out to write non-fiction profiles of unsung heroes; inventors and explorers whose accomplishments kids knew, but whose identities they probably didn’t. The inventor of Velcro, seat belts, the microwave oven, and more.
Frankly, I didn’t know if I could do that. But I did. Totally shocked and delighted myself. Wow, would Mrs. Furschmidt, who as you know was my sixth-grade teacher, be proud. Each profile is followed by several pages of funny; not mocking the achiever, but expressing creative ideas about how his/her work impacts my life.
My favorite marriage of non-fiction and humor came in the section about the inventors of Post-It Notes. Seems Arthur Fry had invented a slighty sticky glue, but had no market for it. Years later, he met a co-worker whose page markers repeatedly fell out of his hymn book. Voila… Post-It Notes!
Following their story, there’s a “letter I wrote to them,” offering up my inventions in need of partnership. Inspired by Mr. Fry’s non-sticking glue, I suggested…
Shampoo that won’t clean hair.
Scissors that don’t cut anything.
Dog food that dogs won’t eat…and more.
This, my friends, felt like the perfect blend of fact and humor, and I printed the pages with great satisfaction and stapled them together with my stapler that doesn’t hold staples.
I wanted to connect in my own head and then in the readers’ heads with the real people behind those beloved works — to briefly see the world and their process through their eyes, and so, hopefully, to help their readers gain insight into both process and result. I am still very interested in the point of tangency between creators and their creations.
I think for me, it’s so important in interviews to stay alive to the moment. You know, to hear what’s being said and to respond. That’s why I’m disappointed by so many blog interviews, which are obviously just somebody typing out answers to a list of questions. Which is fine and good, just don’t call it an interview.
What I love about writing is that well-chosen words can retain their liveliness even centuries after they are first put down.
Oh. I guess what I love about writing is the cash money bling. But we’ve always been different that way!
I have written a lot of books, both fiction and nonfiction, many of which draw upon the natural world. Years back I wrote a novel called Brewster’s Courage, a co-creation with my friend, illustrator Joe Mathieu, about a black-footed ferret who rides his bicycle from South Dakota to Louisiana to pursue his love of Cajun music. I’ve always had a soft spot for that book.
Can we talk about that a little bit? I mean, here’s a fine book that you’re immensely proud of, and now it’s out of print. It can be a disappointing profession, can’t it?
That was something I had to learn to accept. It happens to all of us. But whenever I engage one-on-one with kids through that book, or any of the others, really, it’s still a huge kick. My reasons for writing it and the reaction I get to it have always been consistent, so I try to get joy from the first-hand experiences and try not to let the bigger picture cloud my thoughts.
My personal coping strategy is to I cry myself to sleep, muttering “It’s not fair, it’s not fair.” But whatever works for you! Tell us more about some of your titles.
Another book I loved writing was Noises In the Night: The Habits of Bats, for which I spent some time in the jungle in Panama with a group of amazing tropical bat researchers. I wrote several books in conjunction with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, including one about exploring the deep ocean, another about the crazy glow-in-the-dark jelly animals that look like fireworks and nightmares (that one was called Beneath Blue Waters: Meetings with Remarkable Deep-Sea Creatures, co-authored with Kate Madin), and another about what it’s like to go to sea on a research cruise.
What’s so compelling about ocean life, anyway?
So unexplored (estimates vary but it’s commonly stated that less than 10% of the ocean has been explored). Imagine that. Central to earth’s climate. The source of life on earth. The greatest untapped sources of energy. Shipwrecks. Doubloons. Those incredibly weird fish that have fishing rods growing off the ends of their noses.
Not to mention some other fantastic ones like Opisthoteuthis agassizii, also known as “Dumbo.”
And probably my all-time favorite, Vampyroteuthis infernalis (loosely translated as “Vampire Squid from Hell”).
That’s disgusting, DJ, you’re like totally grossing out my Nation of Readers. So what are you writing right now?
My two most recent books channel the brain waves of a dog who hangs out at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston (Catie Copley and Catie Copley’s Great Escape). I’ve got two other projects underway, one a memoir, one a poetry project. They may converge at some point, or the memoir may spend its energy and then make room for something else.
There’s also a novel that’s been “in development” for a very long time. I’ve got some nonfiction ideas that I’m pretty excited about as well. I’m also READING like crazy, piles (virtual: Kindle) of manuscripts and books every week. And on the “side” I’ve also been reading everything Dickens wrote. This will, of course, occupy me for the rest of my natural born days. How did he do it?
He drank a lot of Red Bull. But it’s surprising: Dickens keeps coming up around here. Lewis Buzbee mentioned him in an interview, then Carmen Deedy sang his praises, now you. Who would have figured that he’d be today’s “It” boy. What have you learned from him?
I’ve become immersed in his characterizations, both those in his novels and those in some of his earliest published work. As an exercise and perhaps eventually something more, I’m experimenting with character sketches inspired by Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, his first published book.
I understand that you are now Editorial Director of Publishing at Walden Media. What in the world does that mean? Did they give you a nice chair? Free office supplies? What?
REALLY nice chair. Office supplies. Popcorn. Filtered water. Occasional Pelligrino. Our publishing group is a small division of the film studio Walden Media, which is based in Los Angeles, though our group is based outside Boston. I am Editorial Director of the group, so am responsible for the acquisition and publishing of a small but growing list of between 6-10 books a year mostly targeted to middle-grade readers. We worked on a joint-venture basis with Penguin Books for Young Readers for four years (2004-2008). We published a lot of great books with Penguin, the highlight being Savvy, a first novel by the incomparable Ingrid Law, which racked up a slew of honors and awards, culminating with a 2009 Newbery Honor.
Our movie colleagues are currently developing Savvy as a feature film. Since late 2008, we’ve been in partnership with HarperCollins, where we’re launching a joint imprint called Walden Pond Press in January. Our first book on the list is the heee-larious Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who is also the author of Millions and Framed. It was originally published in the UK, where it was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.
Last year, as I recall, you attended some kind of open panel discussion about the year’s best children’s books at ALA. I remember, because you kindly wrote to tell me all the nice things they said about my book, Six Innings. What was that like, sitting in on that process?
Any and all attendees of the midwinter meeting of the American Library Association are welcome to observe the deliberations of a group of librarians who determine the Best Books for Young Adults. They pull together a list of about 250 books, and discuss them all, then winnow down the list to their final selections. Your wonderful book was one of the titles under consideration, and it was a real thrill to hear all the great things they said about Six Innings. I figured you’d want to know what they were saying, so I took notes and sent them to you.
And I appreciated it, believe me. As you know, sometimes the universe seems indifferent to our best efforts. It’s so important to get that validation — even if, on some levels, we must proceed on faith when we don’t get it.
That’s one reason why school visits are really important. And you’ve got to admit, it’s pretty fun to be the “special visitor.”
I know that after a while those trips get old, but there’s nothing like it during the “proceeding on faith” phases.
Tedd Arnold told me that he felt it was important to keep in touch with young readers — what makes them laugh, what makes them tick — especially after his own kids got older. He said, “I don’t want to lose track of their squirmy little reality.” You must have been thrilled when Savvy was named a Newbery Honor Book.
Probably one of the best days of my life. It was such a powerful YES to all of us who believe in the book and in Ingrid Law, in her spectacular storytelling ability. I still get a lighter-than-air feeling when I remember the instant we got the news. I know that many of my friends and colleagues in the children’s book world have experienced such peak moments on more than one occasion, but I bet they would all agree with me that certain special moments are frozen in an amber glow forever. Having collaborated with you in interviewing so many living legends way back when, it has been a thrill to be part of the team bringing a brand new legend to the world.
Any favorites for this coming year?
I loved The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner and Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies by Erin Dionne. Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins is beautiful as well. Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine is incredibly moving. I recently read When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, and just thinking of it makes the theme song from the Twilight Zone play in my head. On the non-fiction side, I loved Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman.
You haven’t changed a bit, Deborah. You still have that same infectious enthusiasm for children’s books. I talk to you and I want to go read something. Where does it come from, do you think? Were you one of those little girls with your nose constantly in a book, dreaming of how one day you’d become an author?
Yes, I was. But the impetus to see myself as a writer as well as a reader goes back to a visit that Sydney Taylor (All-of-a-Kind Family) made to my school library when I was in fourth grade. I can still see her in my mind’s eye.
Reddish hair in an old-fashioned upsweep, long skirt, sitting on a tiny elementary school library chair, bookshelves behind her, awe-struck kids in front of her. I loved the books she wrote, and THERE SHE WAS. REAL.
A nice memory, and important for us jaded, gin-soaked authors to remember. Okay, lightning round. Five favorite children’s authors (note: you don’t need to list me, it’s assumed):
The list roves and changes, but here are current faves.
1. Ingrid Law because I love the way the people in her books connect with each other.
Could you expand on that thought a little bit?
The central family, the Beaumonts, are outsiders because they have a family secret which is that at the age of 13 each Beaumont comes into a Savvy, a special supernatural power, which has to be brought under control, or scumbled. They are a fiercely loving tribe, who watch out for each other and protect each other from the unkind japes of the heartless folks who surround them. They are shy outsiders, at least at the beginning of the book. But by the end, the family members at the core story learn how to trust others and open themselves up to possibilities of friendship and love.
Thanks. But you still have to finish your list.
2. Katherine Paterson because I love her dry frankness.
3. Ann Scott-Moncrieff, whose out-of-print classic, Auntie Robbo, is a book I reread often for its crisp and delicious characterizations. (JP Note: the entire book seems to be free online, here.)
4. Madeleine L’Engle because she gives young kids the tools to imagine worlds beyond.
5. Patricia Wrightson, an Australian author not well known in this country whose Nargun and the Stars was one of the scariest books I’ve ever read.
I heard the new Palin book is pretty frightening, by the way.
Oh, did she write a book?
Don’t you watch “The Late Show” with David Letterman? He’s mentioned it a few times, including some writing tips. Five favorite songs?
You could substitute many Beatles songs for #5, and this list does change, but CURRENTLY any one of these would do at just about any time.
1. “Waterloo Sunset” by Kinks
2. “Steal My Kisses” by Ben Harper
3. “Yellow Moon” by the Neville Brothers
4. “Moondance” by Van Morrison
5. “Run for Your Life” by The Beatles
Any favorite websites you could recommend?
I enjoy reading what those in the Kidlitosphere have to say.
It’s late at night, you are sitting peacefully. There’s a drink in your hand and you are rereading a favorite book. What’s the drink? What’s the book?
The drink is Cointreau.
The book is Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey.
Well, DJ, my producer is waving frantically and it looks like we’ve run out of time. I really enjoyed catching up with you. You worked at Sesame Street during the heady Don Music days, wrote a wide variety of books, chatted with the most respected authors in children’s literature, edited manuscripts, worked on movies, on and on — and at the absolute center of everything you’ve done is your love for children’s literature. If not quite fame and glory, it sure looks like a brilliant career to me.
As a parting gift, please accept this 6,000 BTU window air conditioner (with remote!) that typically cools 150-250 square feet — just in time for the holidays!