Tag Archive for James Marshall

13 Questions & Answers: On Childhood Memories, Writing Advice, Favorite Fictional Worlds, and More

One thing about being a published author is that every blue moon your publisher asks you to do things. For example, I was just called on to answer a series of questions which will be published in the back matter of the paperback edition of The Fall (coming in October, 2016).

This is not usually my favorite thing to do. I enjoy talking about the work, the writing, but I’m not a fan of questions that focus on personality. At the Albany Teen Con this past year, the day’s events got kicked off with questions from the audience addressed to the panel of authors. Almost every question focused on personality. What’s your favorite food, etc. I realized that readers like to know this stuff, and that I have to get over it (to the degree I’m able).

So here you go, Dear Nation of Readers, a sampling of some of the Q & A which will appear in paperback later this year. The complete version is simply more than any single blog reader should be required to endure.


When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

pen-and-notebookAs a young kid, ages 8-10, I used to invent these elaborate dice games that revolved around baseball. Roll a seven, the batter strikes out; roll a three, he hits a double. I filled entire notebooks with the box scores of these imaginary games. Looking back across the decades I realize that: 1) Dice games? OMG, I’m getting old; and 2) I was experiencing, and passionately seeking out, the core experience of being a writer. I was alone with an empty notebook and a pen in my hand. Later in life, those fictional baseball statistics became words and stories. The clear dream of desiring to become a writer happened in college.

What’s your favorite childhood memory?

There are so many and they come in such a disordered jumble, like the splatters of an action painting by Jackson Pollack. I have snippets and impressions. Overall, the feeling is of being small in a crowded household. Being safe, being loved, being entertained. One story: I shared a room with two older brothers, John and Al, when I was quite young. John had an electric guitar and at night, he would turn off the lights and scare me with it. He’d hit a low note, make creepy noises in a deep voice, and I would hide in the darkness under the bed –- shivering with fear and loving it.

What were your hobbies as a kid? What are your hobbies now?

Do kids have hobbies? It seems like the wrong word for it. I’m sure I was pretty sports obsessed; I was active and athletic. Music has always been a presence in my life. The accumulated family record collection was pretty incredible, and for some reason I really connected to those records at a young age. The thing I wish for every young reader is to have passions, interests, things that get your blood pumping. In general, for me, that’s usually connected to the arts in some way. Books, movies, music, paintings, etc. But I have to admit, thinking about my teenage years, we spent a lot of time hanging out. Getting together with a few friends and doing a lot of nothing much. When I look at the lives of my own children, that’s a part that seems missing in today’s world. There’s just not enough free time. I loved hanging out! Is that a hobby?

What book is on your nightstand now?

James Marshall's fabulous characters, Martha and George.

James Marshall’s fabulous characters, Martha and George.

I mostly read adult books. I just finished with Norwegian Wood by Haruk Murakami, who is a beautiful writer; the book before that was Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner. Now I’m reading a nonfiction book about the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963, Carry Me Home, by Diane McWhorter. On the children’s front, I just reread every “George & Martha” book by James Marshall. They are hilarious and perfect.

What sparked your imagination for The Fall?

After I wrote Bystander, I received many requests for a sequel. And I always thought, well, no. I felt satisfied with that book, finished with those characters. But I realized that I was still interested in the subject matter, the social dynamics of young people at that age. I began to feel a degree of sympathy for the so-called bully. I wanted to try to write something from the bully’s point of view, perhaps to show a fuller picture than I was seeing in other books and articles. When I read in the newspaper about a girl who had killed herself because of being “terrorized on social media,” I set down the newspaper and immediately started writing in my notebook. It was that direct. I knew I wanted to tell the story of a boy who wrote some terrible things on her social media page. I kept wondering, “Can we be defined by the worst thing we do?”

What challenges do you face in the writing process, and how do you overcome them?

I’ve published more than eighty books in my life. The gift that comes with that is an awareness that sooner or later, eventually, I do get around to putting words on the page. In the words of a writer friend, “I know I can land the plane.” Even so, part of my “process” is that I go through unproductive periods. I’m lazy, unfocused, distracted, a mess. A period of self-loathing eventually sets in. It happens every year, these creative lulls, and every time I grow to hate myself for it. And yet, every time, I fight my way out of it. I recently learned something from cooking (and I hate to cook). It’s the idea of marinating. The chicken tastes so much more flavorful after we marinate it for a period of time. Now I see those quiet, supposedly “unproductive” times as perfectly necessary and valid; it makes for a better, richer book at the end. Even when it looks like I’m not productive, hey, check it out: I’m marinating!

If you could live in any fictional world, what would it be?

CourageTestFrontCvrI’m not really a “fictional world” kind of guy. The real world is quite enough for me. I am curious about the past, however, so if I could have a magical tardis like Doctor Who, and travel from place to place, and time to time, that would be great. The thing is, I believe that books do that for us. Books are the tardis, the magic portal into other worlds. I just finished a manuscript titled The Courage Test, and in order to write it I had to read in depth about the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06. What an amazing time, when America was new and wide-open and little known. When I want a fictional world, I read a book.


Who is your favorite fictional character?

I don’t make lists of favorites. First place, second place, third place, and so on. I’m just not built that way. Instead, they all sort of co-exist swimmingly in the gumbo of my mind. I love Gandolph and Hermione, Wilbur and Atticus Finch, the character in Hemingway’s Old Man in the Sea (did we ever learn his name?), that fabulous fat-bellied father in Hop on Pop. As a writer, I really enjoy slipping into the fictional world of Jigsaw Jones. He’s always a good time.

I do love writing about these two characters, entering their world.

I do love writing about these two characters, entering their world.


What’s the best advice you have ever received about writing?

Jane Yolen talks about “BIC.” Butt in chair! If you want to write, you have to sit down and do it. Talking about it won’t get the work done. Also, from other sources, write from the heart. And . . . the day you send out a book submission, start a new one. The worst thing you can do is sit around and wait for someone else’s approval. Be true to yourself, that’s another one. Trust that good work will find its way into the world. And lastly, you don’t have to write your book in order! You can bounce around. Write the scene that feels most urgent at that moment. You can always go back and fill in the empty spaces at

The new paperback cover to THE FALL (September 2016). Now available only in hardcover.

The new paperback cover to THE FALL (September 2016). Now available only in hardcover.

a later time. Every book is different, and requires different things from me as a writer. For The Fall, that was a book I very much wrote out of sequence. I think this was because of the journal format. By the end, I had a lot of separate piece I had to weave together, like sewing a patchwork quilt. The challenge was that Sam’s mind -– like any mind -– would bounce freely from the present to the past and back again in an instant. One minute he’s remembering something that happened a year ago, then he’s back in the present moment looking at the rain outside the window. Writing a book that offered up that time-traveling experience was a real challenge, since I didn’t want to confuse the reader in the process. Um, er, what was the question?


What advice do you wish someone had given you when you were younger?

I don’t know, I think life has to teach you through experiences as you go along. I’m not convinced that anyone can tell us the secrets, you know? We have to stumble along and fall and learn and grow. When I look at my own children, I wish for them to be open to new people, new experiences. Not be too judgmental. To greet the world with open arms and an open mind. But I can also see that part of growing up, developing into your own unique self, is to look at aspects of the world and think: “Not me, not me, not me.” In a sense, we need those walls to build a sense of our own home place. So do I have any advice? Be kind, be kind, be kind.

What do you want readers to remember about your books?

Every book is different, so is every reader. Simply to be remembered at all is the goal. To have somehow made a lasting impression, whatever it might be, is a huge accomplishment for any writer. I hope that my books are open enough –- porous, in a way -– that each reader is free to respond in his or her own way. It’s not a case of, “Here, this is the message.” It’s more like, let’s take this trip down the path. Keep your eyes and ears open, keep your heart open. The thoughts you have along the way are entirely your own.

If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?

Flawless grammar. Yes, I’d be the dullest superhero in the world (not the most dullest).

What would your readers be most surprised to learn about you?

chicken_lgI can juggle a chainsaw, a bowling pin, and a live chicken. Also, I didn’t know that I’d be a writer at an early age. I wasn’t even much of a reader. It came later. In my teens, as I said early, my main focus was on hanging out. I’m pretty good at it, by the way. So that’s what I’d say to you, Dear Reader: Hey, you never know!

AUTHOR TO AUTHOR: A Conversation with Audrey Glassman Vernick


I’m not exactly sure when Audrey Glassman Vernick became a blip on my radar, but suddenly she was blipping everywhere. I felt like one of those guys in the mission control tower, trying to determine if this green blip was a “friendly” or an incoming missile. Ultimately, I decided that Audrey was a rising star.

I had the chance to meet Audrey personally, as opposed to through her books, at the 2015 Princeton Children’s Book Festival (thank you, Alison Santos!). We were at a backyard gathering, tired and happy after a long day. I bravely introduced myself, and we enjoyed a brief, easy conversation. I liked her immediately.

Anyway, I invited Audrey over to my swanky blog for today’s conversation. Here she comes now . . .


AGV: Why, it is swanky!

JP: I know, thanks. It’s the Picasso poster, isn’t it? I saved it from college. 









That’s the definition of class. It’s not just a hand or flowers. It’s both! And thanks for having me.

Glad to have you. About a month ago I read a bunch of your books. I was especially taken by Edgar’s Second Word, illustrated by Priscilla Burris. I even wrote to tell you how much I loved it, calling it “a small masterpiece.” Do you remember your reply?

I hope my first response was thank you. And I suspect my quick follow up was that you were one of approximately six people who read that book.


Yes, you were gracious. But you also mentioned that I was one of the few people to have actually read it. Which just goes to show that this is a crazy business. Your book has so much heart. It’s expertly constructed, like a well-built cabinet. We learn Edgar’s first word, “NO!” early on, so there’s a built-in tension: What will his second word be? That curiosity keeps us turning the pages. I was worried that the second word might be a letdown, but you totally delivered.

Thank you! Tension (and the building up thereof) is my very least developed writer skill, so extra thank you!

I interviewed James Marshall back in the early 90s, and he maintained that a strong ending for a book was essential. I’ll always remember what he told me: “The ending is what people remember. If the book fizzles at the end, they remember the whole thing as a fizzled book. It’s important to have a very satisfying ending for the reader. They’ve entered a world and now they are leaving it.” Wise words, and again, I think you nailed it with Edgar’s Second Word.

Let’s stop right here so I can faint. James Marshall!

I know, I was bragging to impress you. He’s one of my children’s book heroes. I can vividly remember our conversation. Heck, I can remember picking up the phone. James was friendly, funny, genuine, completely unpretentious.

George and Martha are the two main loves of my life. They are quoted with solemnity in the Vernick home.


Do you have a favorite line?

A truth about me (which does not go over well with kids at school visits): I am unable to pick a favorite anything except sports team (Yankees). Unable. So I could write some great lines here but then, minutes later, I’d erase and replace. (It is not easy being me.) Also, you sort of have to be looking at George and Martha along with reading their words to get the full picture. All that said, an oft-repeated line that comes to mind (you won’t even believe how lame this is) is:


“Boo!” cried George.

“Have mercy!” screamed Martha.


Nice, subtle. His humor is always natural, never seems forced. You never get the feeling that Marshall is trying too hard. 

The blog I had and still kind of have was in large part an homage to those two, about literary friendships.

Oh, nice idea. There’s Frog and Toad, of course. Do you know the book Patrick and Ted by Geoffrey Hayes? It’s pretty perfect.

I do not. But I shall seek it out. Pronto!

I blogged an appreciation of it a while back. Let me see, it’s around here somewhere. Here you go, click on the link

A scan from PATRICK AND TED by Geoffrey Hayes.

A scan from PATRICK AND TED by Geoffrey Hayes.

Back to your question.

Wait, there was actually a question?  

The ending! You asked about the ending! It was the first, and only, thing I knew about the book when I started writing it. I received an email from a college friend whose young not-book-loving son (Edgar!) sat through his mother’s read-aloud of Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? and, at the end, said, “Again.” I shared that with my wise agent, Erin Murphy, who said, “Well obviously you’re going to use that in a book, right?”


I don’t know if this happens to you, but when a book fails to sell, fails to reach an audience, I tend to slowly, inexorably begin to think of it as a failed book. And by extension, I begin to see myself as a failed writer. Intellectually, I know that’s wrong, but that’s my reality. So that’s why I’m dwelling on Edgar a little bit here. I want to be sure that you know it’s a great blipping book!

That’s a very George-to-Martha thing to say (maybe not the blipping part). Thank you! I have my dysfunctions when it comes to this publishing business. I suffer some jealousies. I focus on benchmarks I have not achieved. But I am pleased to say that in this one particular case, I still really love this book. Priscilla Burris’ illustrations are unspeakably sweet and perfect.


Yes, she did a terrific job. The right tone. 

And the people who read it respond so well to it. It just didn’t find its people. That happens. It wasn’t the first time it happened to me. A nice side note is that it was named a highly commended title by the Charlotte Zolotow Award for Outstanding Writing in a Picture Book.

First Grade Dropout, illustrated by my pal Matthew Cordell, turns on a lovely mistake. A boy absent-mindedly calls his teacher, “Mommy.” Where did that idea come from?

Some years I take part in Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo), in which you try to come up with a picture book idea each day of the month. One day I wrote “kid calls teacher mommy,” something I know happens in my sister’s second-grade classroom with some frequency. (I’ve since learned it happens in nearly every classroom.)

Yes, it rings true. That’s probably why it’s funny.

FirstGradeDropoutIt sat on that list for years because it wasn’t a story yet, just an incident. One day I decided to give it a try. In my experience, you sometimes have to start writing a picture book to find the story. And that voice just came out. It happened again a few months ago, when I was looking for a follow-up to that book. I brainstormed ideas with my editor, but while we had fun and shared lots of embarrassing elementary-school memories, we didn’t hit upon anything usable for a book. Once I started writing, though, I found the idea for Second Grade Holdout, which is coming out next year (because Matt is F-A-S-T as well as fantastic).

I am crazy about Matt. I once slept in his guest room. He even drove me to the airport. Strangely, Matt insisted on dropping me off sixteen hours early, which was confusing.

You are wise to be crazy about Matt. He’s kind and funny and so talented. Immensely likable.

Well, let’s not get carried away, Audrey. He’s okay. But I’ll be hog-tied if I let Cordell hijack this interview! So, yes, you discovered the idea for Holdout . . . through the act of writing. Jane Yolen’s famous “butt in chair” advice. How do you actually get work done, Audrey? Do you have a time clock where you punch in each morning? Or do you wait for inspiration?

Somewhere in the middle. I am not disciplined. With picture books, I write when inspiration strikes, but with novels I need to force myself to sit and write. And I have to come up with sad little bargains to keep myself in the chair, writing.

Such as?

I’m only allowed to sit in the comfy chair with the heated blanket when I’m working on a novel. And once I’m there, it’s still a whole bargaining thing. If you finish the chapter, you can shower. Or eat breakfast. Or walk the dog.

Oh, that poor dog. Getting back to James Marshall, you share a great trait with him. You’re funny. And even better, you are able to write funny, which is a distinct and rare talent. There’s never enough of that in children’s books. Children’s publishing went through a biblio-theraputic period where every picture book had to be about something important. Laughter lagged behind.

I agree that there’s never enough funny. But there are so many more now than there used to be. The books that were considered funny when I was a kid and, for the most part, when my kids were little, were more amusing than genuinely funny. Lots of modern picture books are flat-out hilarious. It’s a really fun time to be writing them.

Can you name a few of your favorites?

See previous explanation of ever-changing favorites. That said, I believe the Pigeon books kind of burst the door open to a new kind of funny. Bob Shea’s books often crack me up and I have serious title-envy about his Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great. Like debilitating jealousy.


Deborah Underwood’s Cat is a brilliant new character.

I really liked Ryan T. Higgins’ Mother Bruce and Julia Sarcone-Roach’s The Bear Ate Your Sandwich.

Good to know. I understand that 2016 is going to be a big year for you.

I have four books coming out.

Wow. Girl is on fire. You realize I kind of hate you now? A little.

I can both understand and accept that and will just quickly add that it’s possible I have four books coming out in six months -— the pub date for the last release of the year has not been set.

Shoot me now. I mean: I’m sooooo happy for you!!!!!


I’m curious, how do you do it? I find that writing picture books can be so difficult. I’ve been seriously trying for the past year and everything comes out half-baked, half-finished, half-awful. There are times it feels like throwing darts in a darkened room. It’s so easy to go down the wrong path. I wonder if you can talk about your process a little bit. Do you begin with a character?

I write both fiction and nonfiction picture books, and for the nonfiction ones, I look for a subject, get obsessed, research and write.

Do you first clear the topic with an editor?

I float it more than clear it. Or maybe those are the same. I am not writing with a contract, to be clear.

And for your fiction titles?

Just about every one has been different. Sometimes, the title comes first and leads the way to the story. Teach Your Buffalo to Play Drums was the first of those for me. Once a whole first page came to me, unbidden:

“Zander was a monster. This wasn’t strange as his father was a monster. His mother too. Oddly, his sister was a fairy. And his dog was a skunk.”

That last sentence just killed me. (And then, as with many lines I love, I had to fight to keep it.) That’s from Unlike Other Monsters, coming out in June.


And his dog was a skunk. That’s a funny line. Comedy gold! Sometimes with the right sentence, even just a few words, or the right rhythm, a door seems to open. You can suddenly find your way in.

I don’t think any of my picture books has started with a character, which I didn’t realize until you asked. With novels, it’s always character. But it’s usually title/concept or incident that gets me started with picture books.

Getting back to what you said about going down the wrong path -— to me, that’s what is so great about picture books! If you do it in a picture book, you erase the last 100 words and go back to the fork. With a novel, hacking out 50 pages feels like pulling out a minor organ.

I maybe once cried when cutting 10,000 words from my book, Six Innings.

The first novel I wrote, Water Balloon, I wrote these extra 50 pages before the story really got going. I so wanted credit for those pages.

Even so, picture books have to be “just so.” You know? I feel like there’s more forgiveness in a longer work. More room to wander. With a picture book, basically 30 pages, there’s not a lot of space to get lost. That’s why I’ve concentrated on longer works, because I felt it gave me more control over my (and the book’s) fate. 

I adore picture books. I love writing them. I love the very fact of them. I enjoy every step of picture book writing and revising. But getting a first draft of a novel done -— the avoidance I have to fight is embarrassing. I’m in that place now. At least ninety percent through a novel I’ve been working on for years. I am looking forward to being done but not to what I have to do to be done.

That’s how I feel about exercise.

Me too.

I could be wrong here, but it seems there are not many folks that are exclusively writers who have built a reputation in picture books. There’s Tony Johnston, Eve Bunting, Ruth Krauss, Mem Fox, Charlotte Zolotow. It’s not a long list. Mac Barnett, of course, is doing great work now. Though it was only last week when I first realized that he wrote Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. I had previously thought of it strictly as a Jon Klassen title.

Well, crap. I guess I knew that but I never knew it in words. Thanks.

You’re welcome! I like that you’re a big baseball fan. Where’d that come from?

When kids ask this at school visits I always give the super-articulate answer that goes something like, “It’s hard to say why you like what you like. For example, I love pizza. Why? Because it tastes good.” Note to self: Work on that response.


I was on a panel recently with a bunch of seasoned writers –- Todd Strasser, David Levithan, others –- and they all had such great, pithy answers to audience questions. I was like, “Damn, I have to raise my game.” The whole staring and stammering thing won’t cut it.

I don’t think anyone will ever say that about me. You know what impressed me about that Vernick? Pithy answers.

Pithy can feel too slick on some folks. I like your stammering authenticity.

My love of baseball -— sunny days (I will always take a day game over a night game); the fact that it’s a sport without a clock, with a lot of time for a mind to wander, to wonder, to draw connections; and it’s a sport with an immensely rich history (albeit one with very few women in it).

I associate baseball with my mom, who is still a huge fan at age 89. She taught me how to throw, how to catch. So there’s a lot of transference there: by loving baseball, I’m expressing love for my mother. Also, I loved playing, and still do. Now that I’m finished coaching (had a 15u travel team last season), I’ll probably return to a Senior Men’s Hardball team next spring. Read that as: Old guys clutching their hamstrings. We’re all still boys at heart. Did you ever get to play?


First I have to say I just love that, your connection to your mom there. Organized sports for girls didn’t exist when I was younger. I played softball at camp and was sometimes good. In my neighborhood, it was mostly punchball in the street. A neighborhood of girls. Seriously, I think there was only one boy and we were terrified of him because he once threw a firecracker at my sister.

He was probably terrified, too. Don’t we all throw firecrackers when we’re afraid? I know you are a Jersey Girl, and a mother, but outside of that, I don’t know much about your background.

Okay, first of all, no. I grew up in New York City -— in Queens. I’ve lived in NJ 19 years. Wow. That’s a long time. But I definitely do not identify as Jersey Girl. Strike that from the record!

Done. Both my parents were from Queens, so I like this better, anyway.

I live near the ocean. When I lived on eastern Long Island —- my home before this one, and Boston before that -— my house was a block from the Long Island Sound. I hope to always live near a big body of water. My present and future dogs probably hope so too.

Have you written a dog-and-ocean book yet?

I cannot sell a dog book. It kills me.

I hear hedgehogs are trending. Or was that five years ago? It’s hard to keep up.

I wrote literary short fiction for adults before writing for kids. It’s a very good way to learn to accept rejection.

So how did you get into children’s books?

It’s a sad story. You’ve been warned.

When I was in my early twenties, my mother was taking a children’s writing class at the New School in NYC and she sent the first novel she wrote to one publisher (Dutton) and it was accepted. She died two months later, a pedestrian on the sidewalk, hit by a car around the block from my childhood home.

200px-Morning-glory-C6295bMy family was reeling for years. And in that time, we had to work with my mother’s very patient editor. My mother hadn’t even received her editorial letter at the time of her death, so all the revision fell to us. As you might imagine, we didn’t want to change a single one of her words. So that was my first step, as the literary executor of her estate. (The book, The Morning Glory War, was published in 1990 and received a really nice review in the Sunday Times.)

Wow. You must have taken a deep breath before typing that out. Like, “Okay, here goes, you asked.” I know that feeling, Audrey, since my oldest is a two-time cancer survivor. I’ve lost two brothers. These are not happy stories to tell at parties. Oftentimes, it’s easier not to get into it. And you’re right, it is sad, but it’s also an incredible story.

Yeah, as I wrote that out, I could see clearly that my family led me here.

Years later, I fell in love with the art of an outsider artist named Tim Brown, showed his art to one of my sisters, and she said that it belonged in a children’s book. Together, we wrote that book.

Which book is that?

Bark and Tim: A True Story of Friendship.

Hey, um, Audrey, this is nice and everything but . . . are you going to leave? I mean, ever? Or am I supposed to feed you now? I guess I have a pull-out couch . . .

Yeah, maybe tomorrow I’ll start pulling my stuff together. I could walk your dog. Do you have a dog?

Daisy. And two cats. And three kids. And four . . . well, it all stops at four. I don’t have four of anything.

I’m sure you have four readers of your blog!

Oh, dozens more. Dozens! We’re basically talking to ourselves here. It’s like the Cone of Silence in “Get Smart.” But before you go, is there anything you can share about your upcoming books? 

Okay, since you asked:

The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton, illustrated by Steven Salerno, nonfiction about a Philadelphia girl playing professional baseball from age 10.


The real Edith Houghton.

The real Edith Houghton.


I Won A What?, illustrated by Robert Neubecker, about a boy who hopes to win a goldfish and ends up with something a wee bit bigger. And better.

Unlike Other Monsters, illustrated by Colin Jack, with the opening page mentioned above. And a novel, Two Naomis, written with my dear friend Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich.


How did you co-author a book? It’s seems difficult, fraught with peril. How did you handle it?

I have co-authored four books. Two Naomis was the first novel. We each wrote from the point of view of our own Naomi. So my chapters were the even-numbered ones — individual writing of separate chapters. When I co-wrote picture books, first with my sister and most recently with Liz Garton Scanlon, we just back-and-forthed a lot. Both experiences were really freeing and so much easier than doing it alone.

So what’s for dinner?

Get out! 

But before you go, by way of thank you, please accept this set of steak knives as a parting gift. I wish you all the luck in the world, Audrey. Keep up the great work.


Good, Clean Fun: ANOTHER BROTHER Book Trailer

I first learned of Matthew Cordell when he was hired to illustrate my picture book, MIGHTY CASEY. Despite Matt’s great artwork, the book never really found an audience, and I guess it sort of died on the vine, as they say. But there are two great things that came out of that book. First,  my ongoing friendship with Matthew and his amazingly talented wife, Julie Halpern. Someday I hope we’re all in the same room! In my opinion, Matt is a hugely gifted illustrator, and a true artist, and an heir in his approach and dedication to Arnold Lobel, who is one of my all-time heroes. He’s also got a touch of William Steig.

Look, I’ll say it. A lot of children’s book illustration, while technically spectacular, isn’t very appealing to kids. Matt’s work, on the other hand, is loose and inviting and draws readers into the story. Like Lobel, and Steig, and James Marshall, and all the best. I really think Matt is that good, and he’s just scratching the surface.

Secondly, I’m gladdened by the consistent pleasure I experience when on odd times I pull out MIGHTY CASEY and read it aloud to large groups of students. I’m telling you, it works every time. We laugh, we have fun, and by the end these kids are right there, leaning in, eager for the play at the plate. Sales or not, those experiences tell me that Matt and I did good together — we made something, you know, put it out into the world. It’s all we can do.

Anyway, Matt created a homemade trailer for his new picture book, ANOTHER BROTHER. Now on sale on every street corner, car trunk, haberdashery — and independent bookstore, too!

Enjoy . . .

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Mighty Casey: Editorial Letter Excerpts

I’ve been doing a lot of school visits, book signings, and book fairs over the past two months. It’s been a lot of fun, distracting, joyful, happy, hard, and humbly rewarding. One of the highlights of my act — between juggling chain saws and wrestling live bears — has been reading Mighty Casey, illustrated by Matthew Cordell, to audiences up to 200 (squirming, wriggling) children. The book really goes over well (if I don’t say so myself), especially when I stop and go into great uproarious detail about Ronald the Runt, who has to pee, “and decided left field would do.” Kids love that part, and it’s absolutely true to my coaching experience. Happens every year. Some of those little boys just want to play and play until the lastpossiblesecond, not missing a thing, and they don’t always make it all the way to the bathroom.

When Ernest Thayer wrote the original “Casey at the Bat,” published in a San Francisco newspaper in 1880, he considered it a mere doggeral. He even used a pen name, to disassociate himself from the poem that would later (ironically) define his career.

I never really thought of Mighty Casey as a poem, per say. It rhymes and bounces along well enough, but it’s not, to me, poetry. Like most published books, it went through various drafts and revisions. And it was definitely made better through the help of my editor at Feiwel and Friends, Liz Szabla. As a rule, anybody with two z’s in their name has to be awesome. Name your child Buzzy and you are guaranteed a terrific kid. Anyway, here I am digressing once again, suggesting names for your children, which, let’s face it, is probably a personal decision and none of my business. But: Buzzy. Think about it.

I just came across an editorial letter from Liz, with comments and suggestions in response to the first draft of Casey (that is, the first  draft that Liz saw; not the first draft I wrote). The way this works for Liz is like this: We’ll talk on the phone, go through things in a general manner, and she’ll follow that up with a more detailed “formal” letter. Most editors seem to work this way. Below you’ll find the bulk of that letter, with only a few passages removed to save the author from further embarrassment. I should also note, for those interested in the publishing process, that I didn’t see that first draft as a finished piece. It needed work and I knew that. But I had reached the point where I needed another eye, another point-of-view. I needed, that is, HELP! And Liz was there to catch me.

MIGHTY CASEY is mighty charming and we’ve enjoyed the time we’ve spent with it. I’m delighted now to be sending you our thoughts as well as a line-edited manuscript. You and I haven’t worked together before – please know that all my suggestions are open to further discussion if anything doesn’t feel quite right.

First and foremost, the Delmar Dogs are hilarious! Casey, as the unlikely hero, is wonderful. And the echoes of “Casey at the Bat” make Casey’s final triumph all the more satisfying, of course.

Let me break in here to comment that all editorial letters begin with a compliment. It’s a trick they teach you early on in Editorial School. The editor opens your ears by saying something positive. I tell this to kids who do peer writing in school: Always begin by saying something nice. Find a part in the story that you like and praise it. That way, you increase the chances of the writer hearing any critical suggestions you might later make. I’m saying: Liz didn’t fool me; I knew there was a big “but” in there somewhere.

You’ll see that I’ve make some suggestions and tweaks on the manuscript to fine-tune the rhythm or syntax in places. I won’t detail those suggestions here, but do let me know if I’ve fouled anywhere (heh, heh). Now onto a few issues to keep in mind as you consider the line-edit….

Note: the “line-edit” is the marked up manuscript, with more detailed comments and suggested changes in the dreaded red pencil. The general editorial letter comes along with a marked-up manuscript, which can be a cold thing, almost painful. Thus, the editorial letter serves as fabric softener to the line-edit’s starch. (Oh dear me, a laundry metaphor? Move on, people, there’s nothing to see here, nothing at all . . . .)

4th stanza
Although the “enjoyed…destroyed” rhyme is marvelous and unexpected, I can’t help but wonder if, in the fourth stanza, the parents’ feelings about the game are at odds with the Dogs’ pride at trying their best. To say that the adults don’t “enjoy” the games is a bit of a disconnect with the spirit of the Dogs. Still, I certainly see how it might be tough for the parents to see their kids trounced, and if this is what you intend, then let’s leave it. But if you want to work on another layer of subtlety – that is, the kids’ pride being stoked by their parents’ empathy, then I believe it’s worth exploring.

This is an example of an editor forcing the writer to think. I had to go back and look at what I was attempting to achieve in that stanza. I suspect Liz’s motherly instinct was to keep the parents cheerful and positive, whereas I wanted the recognition of how tough it can be to sit in those stands sometimes. In the end, I pretty much kept this stanza as is, but Liz made me to think about it and justify those words in my mind.

13th stanza
I’m a bit confused about why so few spectators notice or cheer when Jinn Lee bloops a double and later scores a run. Here’s where I see the Dogs and the parents on their feet, pumping their arms in the air!

Liz was right — and she was right in many places — so I changed it. The revision now reads: “When Jinn Lee clubbed a homer/The crowd stood and cheered.”

18th stanza
As Casey steps up to bat, there are a few things readers should know: How many outs are there? That is, is he the team’s last hope? If he strikes out, do they lose? If the situation is clarified, then you’ll really ratchet up the suspense in this last section.

Again, just some essential details that I completely neglected to add. Or perhaps assumed. The facts were there, but I didn’t make them clear, clear, clear. This is a common kind of editorial suggestion — to “pause a beat” — forcing the writer to slow down, to really set the scene for the reader. Sometimes we’re in such a rush to get to the next thing, we don’t always properly build up to that Big Moment. It’s a Hitchcock trick. Once you’ve built up suspense, it’s time to slow things down. Think of those movie shots when we see close-ups of the killer climbing the steps, footfall by footfall. The doorknob slowly, slowly turns . . . or Casey taps his cleats.

The finale
I suspect the ending could have more zing to it…. The mother crying and the father’s heart bursting with pride seem stereotypical amid all the other fresh action and description. The fact that they’re stereotypical does fit the tone and conclusion of “Casey at the Bat,” but I believe descriptions that are as fresh as the rest of the story will complement the tone and mood you’ve established and make for a stronger ending. Also, the “bursts with pride” description echoes the language of the 3rd stanza (“bursting pride”). Would you consider echoing some of the language in the ending for “Casey at the Bat” instead? “[H]earts are light…men are laughing…little children shout…”?

The very last line is also in need of some zing. “Three cheers” feels predictable and “our side” seems too general and not exciting or punchy enough for a conclusion. Perhaps you can work “Delmar Dogs” into the final line, so that it appears in the opening and conclusion, just as “Mudville” does in “Casey at the Bat.” What do you think?

Hey, I knew the ending wasn’t right (to put it kindly). I probably even said so when I handed in that first draft to Liz. I was struggling with it. I remember interviewing James Marshall, tape recorder rolling, back in the early 90’s. He said something that always stuck in my head, simple and profound: “It’s always the ending that gives me the most trouble. The ending is what people remember. If the book fizzles in the end, they remember the whole thing as a fizzled book. It’s important to have a very satisfying ending for the reader. They’ve entered a world and now they are leaving it. So it’s a puzzle that has to be solved. I remember with one of the Miss Nelson books, it took us [the author Harry Allard and I] two years to come up with an ending we liked.

Liz concluded her letter:

This is already so much fun – I believe that with some fine-tuning, it will be an even more dramatic and satisfying experience. Jean and I look forward to seeing what you come up with, Jimmy.

Please call or email me if you have any questions, or want to discuss any of these issues further.

Aren’t I fortunate to have such a warm, insightful, supportive editor? Liz made me think. She offered ideas and suggestions, but always made it clear that it was my book, my decisions. She got me to get back to work, keep hauling those rocks — but without feeling bad about myself, or my book. Instead I was energized, enthusiastic, ready to roll up my sleeves. Now you can see why so many authors dedicate books to their editors. We know we couldn’t have done it quite so well without a lot of help from the unseen hand of a talented editor.

Every time I read Mighty Casey out loud to a group of kids — when they laugh in the right parts, when they lean in to learn what happens next, when they burst into applause at the end — I always think of Liz and my publisher Jean Feiwel, and wish that they could be with me to share in the moment. The applause is also for them.

James Marshall: An Appreciation

“For me, as an illustrator, it often comes from what will look funny. The idea of a character pouring soup into his loafers is a funny kind of thing. It’s visually funny. The words come to me later.” — James Marshall.

I’ve been hitting the links lately, discovering and embracing this vast community of children’s book fanatics. I encourage you to check out the links on the right sidebar, there’s so much energy and insight. One of my recent discoveries is “Read Roger,” a pithy platform for Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of The Horn Book, Inc.

On Friday the 7th, he announced that he’ll be “moderating a panel honoring James Marshall’s contributions to children’s literature.” For full details of the event, which will be held in Cambridge, Mass., click here. Sutton continued:

Panelists include author-illustrators Susan Meddaugh and David Wiesner, former HB editor and Houghton publisher Anita Silvey, and Cambridge school librarian Susan Moynihan. We will be reminiscing about Jim (my own favorite story is unprintable but perhaps not unspeakable) and talking about his place in the canon, his legacy to children’s literature, and how his books have fared among children. Hilarity, I hope, will ensue.

I wish I could be there, because James Marshall is one of my all-time favorites. So many great books: George and Martha, The Stupids Step Out, Miss Nelson Is Missing, Three By the Sea, and his many adaptations of classic folktales.

Now I don’t know if I’m erudite enough to discuss his place in the, cough-cough, canon, but damn, his books are funny. I miss funny in children’s books. There isn’t enough of it. Marshall was that, and more. He was the real McCoy.

I interviewed James Marshall over the phone in the early 90’s. I can remember exactly where I sat when we talked. I got all the quotes I needed within a few minutes, but we happily chatted for more than an hour. He enjoyed talking about the business and the people in it. And because it couldn’t be any other way with James Marshall, we laughed and laughed. I didn’t want it to end. He told me how much he hated toast when he was a kid. “Instead of eating it, I would hide it,” he confessed. “The closet in my bedroom was stacked with toast!”

We talked about the difficulty of ending stories well — “If the book fizzles at the end,” he said, “they remember the whole thing as a fizzled book.” He recalled his friendship and great admiration for Arnold Lobel. His working habits: “The later, the better,” Marshall said. “My ideas are usually fresher and funnier at night.”

One of the things we discussed — the thing I’ll always remember — was what James called “the cool technicians” in children’s literature. We commented on the extraordinary technical skill that had been appearing with increasing frequency in recent children’s book illustration. It was as if surface gloss, however expertly rendered, was threatening to overwhelm story itself. So many slick books, sniffed at in stores and purchased, yet yawned at in the home and hands of young readers.

He told me:

I’m glad that I never went to art school, because I would have ended up copying the style of other illustrators. People love a Maurice Sendak or an Arnold Lobel book because of the special, very individual vision they bring to their work. This is why the artists I love are not the cool technicians but those who have a vision to share with others.

As Maurice Sendak recalled in a beautiful essay, the forward to George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends: “James the perfect friend was indistinguishable from James the perfect artist. The voice, the pulse, the heart of his words and pictures were always pure, authentic Marshall. You got the whole man.”

Note: If you enjoyed this appreciation, click the links for passing thoughts on other favorites: William Steig, Arnold Lobel, Raymond Chandler, and Bernard Waber.