Tag Archive for James Preller 5 Questions

5 QUESTIONS with Bruce Coville, author of “Hatched”

 

Big day here at James Preller Dot Com. Nevermind the mess. Kick those balloons out of the way, pick the confetti out of your hair later. We’re thrilled for today’s visit from the nearly-legendary author Bruce Coville! Or should I say the impossibly prolific? The glistening-domed scribe? Words are so hard sometimes. Anyway, I’m glad to have Bruce here, an author of wit and wisdom and unfailing good cheer (so long as he doesn’t open a newspaper). 

Bruce Coville - credit Charles Wainwright

 

Bruce, welcome. I’m eager to discuss Hatched, the second book in your “Enchanted Files” series. I should let readers know that each title in the series is a stand-alone, they don’t have to be read in any order. Or at all, I suppose!

Hey, don’t let people off the hook that easily. Of course they should read them all!

I guess the literary term for this book is “epistolary,” in the broadest sense. Not limited to letters, but inclusive of documents, cell phone photos, newspaper accounts, journal entries, and so on: multi-textural. It’s a highly entertaining way to deliver a story. Tell me about what attracted you to this narrative device.

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Actually, I’ve been trying for some months now to remember how I first thought of it! I think what happened was that when I was working on the proposal for the first book in the series, which was originally titled Diary of a Mad Brownie (long story there!), I realized I had a lot of information I needed to convey that the main character would not put into his diary, for example things about his world that he would take for granted but that would not be common knowledge for a young reader. Once I started down that path, I realized what a good source of humor such documents could be, especially with ironic juxtapositions.

It seems like you are having fun. It comes through in the book. I can imagine you giggling to yourself as you typed.

Totally! When kids ask if I like writing, I always explain that there are days when my head feels like oatmeal, and I think the only way I can get something out of the keyboard is if I plant a geranium there.

Other days I’ll write something so fabulous it makes me laugh out loud and hug myself. Naturally, I have a lot more oatmeal days than I do scream and hug myself days. Thing is, you have to live through the oatmeal to get to the hugs.

Or something like that . . .

I think someone on the interwebs needs to create a meme right now with your face and the words, “You have to live through the oatmeal to get to the hugs.” Back to the book — the design is fresh, clean, and inviting. Fabulous covers, especially. As a hot-shot author, did you have input into that aspect of the publishing process?

In this case it’s rather a long story.

That seems to be a trend with you. Try to hurry it up, I rent by the column inch.

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The first book (born Mad Brownie, but called Cursed in paperback) got great reviews, but did not do as well as we had hoped. In retrospect, I think the title was all wrong for the audience. It made adults laugh, but mostly just baffled kids.

Random House, bless its collective heart, believed in the project enough that rather than drop it –- which some other publishers might have done -– they literally went back to the drawing board and came up with an entirely new look that everyone seems to love. (Which shows what I know; I thought the art for the first cover was great!)

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That original cover artist had actually already done a crackerjack cover for Hatched, but it was replaced with the cover you’ve seen, and quite rightly described as “fresh, clean, and inviting.”

Because of the “epistolary” aspect of the books, I have indeed been involved in the design aspects of the interiors, much more so than usual. Much discussion of typefaces has ensued. And the artist, Paul Kidby, has been wonderful at coming up with different illustration styles, as the documents are supposed to be from a wide variety of sources.

You’ve long been interested in the magical, fascinated by the fantastic, always with a healthy dose of humor and playfulness. Publishing trends may come and go, but that’s always been your sweet spot. You’ve been ahead of the times and you’ve been behind the times, inhabiting your own planet, yet always working away, doing your own thing. Writing Bruce Coville-type books.

As the great Popeye so often said, “I yam what I yam.”

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Where did that interest come from? Is it something that goes back to your childhood?

Oh, definitely. But, changing styles aside, I think the mix of a compelling story with goofy humor is something that all kids love, always. Whatever is currently in style has as much to do with publishers seeking the next big thing as it does with actual kids. Okay, that statement is less true for YA fiction, where there are definite trends and fads. But for a large subset of the 8–12 year audience fantasy, science fiction, and adventure –- all leavened with humor –- will never go out of style.

This may sound silly, since this is a book about an imaginary creature, but what kind of research went into it? You are writing within a tradition, after all. You can’t just make it up. Can you?

Oh, I do a vast amount of research for these books. Obviously studying the creature that will be at the center of the story is vital. And not just because you’re writing about a figure for which there is a lot of existing lore. The delicious side-effect is that the research actually sparks all kinds of plot ideas. A good example would be the armband worn by Alexander the Great that plays an important part in the resolution of Hatched. That whole strand of the story came about because in the initial research I learned that there is a story about Alexander harnessing a pair of gryphons in an attempt to reach the heavens.

But the research isn’t restricted to the magical aspects of the story. I needed a place for Gerald, the griffin, to stay where he could avoid being seen. Once I decided that the Catskills would be perfect for my purposes, I had to research the area and its lore.

And doing a backstory for the gnomes that are also key to the book led to studying some Dutch history. I was fairly amused when the translator working on the Dutch edition queried me about naming their colony New Batavia, since Dutch kids learn that Batavia was the original name for Jakarta. I was able to tell her in return that the reason that city was called Batavia to begin with was in honor of the Batavi, a tribe that led a revolt against Rome in the first century AD, and that in the 1500’s there was a movement (“The Batavian Revival”) to claim the tribe as the forebears of the Dutch people as part of a nation-building/myth-making effort.

Really, I become a fountain of useless information when I am working on something like this!

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It took you all the way to page five before your first “stinky fart” joke. I believe “unicorn poop” is mentioned on the same page. Get a hold of yourself, Bruce! How in the world are you going to win a Newbery with this kind of attitude?

Brief story: The late, great Paula Danziger was a close pal of mine. She once told me about a snot joke she had put in one of her Matthew Martin books. Her editor wanted her to take it out. Telling me about it, Paula said, “I told him it stays. And that’s why I’ll never win the Newbery!”

But she sure had a lot of readers!

Seriously, you are willing to go there. The facile answer is that you’ve never grown up. But I wonder if you have anything to say about the place of “low humor” in children’s literature? Besides uproarious laughter, you must have gotten a few complaints over the years.

Actually, I used to have an entire speech called “The Importance of Bad Taste in Children’s Literature.” The essence of it was that as a writer I believe you have to start where the child is, not where you want to take them.

urlLook, if you say to a kid, “This book provides a deep and meaningful meditation on the meaning of life, and will prove to be important to you and the person you are to become,” the kid’s response is likely to be “That’s nice, but I have an important video game to play.”  

But if you start the book with some slightly naughty humor, then catch them with the story, they will follow you anywhere. And that is when you can also provide something deeper and more meaningful. On the other hand, if you gain the gift of a child’s attention but don’t go on to also feed his or her heart, I count that as a failure.

I like that, Bruce, well said. If you gain the gift of a child’s attention . . . .

Another meme!

The book is built upon the relationship of Brad –- a human boy -– and a Griffin, Gerald Overflight. Obviously, characters from different worlds. You like to write about that nexis where the magical and the modern world come together.

Absolutely!

Tell us your thoughts about Brad. Are you an author who has it all mapped out beforehand, or are you discovering him as you write?

Oh, I was totally discovering Brad as I wrote. One day when I was only partway into the book the editor contacted me and asked for a description of Brad to give the cover artist. (This was before the style change.)

To be honest, describing the main character is not a strong point with me . . . I mostly like to leave room for readers to imagine themselves in the lead roles.

In Elmore Leonard’s classic phrase, you leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.

But it is important for most covers. They asked if Brad could have dark hair and eyes, and maybe despite his Scottish heritage (something that later changed anyway) be not too fair-skinned.

My reply was that as far as I was concerned he could be black. I was being a bit flip. But that email exchange led to me deciding to make Brad of mixed race, which in turn helped make him a much richer and more interesting character in the final version.

Ah, that opens the door an entirely different conversation about diversity and representation in children’s books — a topic we can’t possibly due justice to today. Maybe we can tackle it another time. Because look: we made it through to the end without you jumping on a chair and screaming about Donald Trump. You’ve shown admirable restraint.

That’s because I’m tired of having to replace keyboards after I pound out a message that sets them on fire!

51SX43Um+qL._AC_UL320_SR216,320_BRUCE COVILLE was born, raised, and still lives in the Syracuse, New York, area, where he is king of all he surveys. He has written many books and enjoys visiting schools, because that’s where they keep the kids.

 

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed in my “5 Questions” series include: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, London Ladd, and John Coy. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function. 

Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Matt Faulkner, Robin Pulver, and more.

5 QUESTIONS with JESSICA OLIEN, author/illustrator of “THE BLOBFISH BOOK”

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Are we all good? Everybody set for another installment of our weekly “5 Questions” interview series? Because here’s Jessica Olien. Maybe she’ll stop signing books long enough for a friendly chat. Her blobfish book just might surprise you.

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Jessica, hey. There’s a great scene in “The Sunshine Boys,” starring Walter Matthau and George Burns, where Uncle Willy explains that “Words with k in it are funny.” He lists: pickle, chicken, Alka-seltzer. Uncle Willy adds, “’L’s are not funny. M’s are not funny. Cupcake is funny, tomatoes is not funny, lettuce is not funny, cucumber is funny . . . Cockroach is funny — not if you get ‘em, only if you say ‘em.” The idea is that certain words are inherently funny. Which leads me to Blobfish. How do you not smile when you hear that word?

Indeed. Poor lettuce, what a terrible dinner party guest. Blobfish is most definitely funny, but as with most comedians is also seriously misunderstood!

There’s a deeper layer to your book, slowly revealed, that leads the reader to an unexpected place. First, on the surface, there’s straight-forward science. From what I understand, there’s been significant advances deep ocean research, where we’re now getting glimpses of these incredibly weird fish. My favorite is Vampyroteuthis infernalis (loosely translated as “Vampire Squid from Hell”). It all gets pretty bizarre down in the Hadalpelagic Zone. All of that information in your book is conveyed in a fairly conventional photographic manner. Then we meet your illustrated Blobfish character. Which came first?

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Definitely Blobfish came first. I had this idea kind of whole — an attention-seeking fish looking to recognize himself in the pages of a dry textbook. To get the photos (which are mostly of the deep deep sea) I had to contact different scientists around the world, which was fun but challenging when they were off searching for Japanese Spider Crabs or whatever and couldn’t get back to me for permissions.

What I love about your book -– and there’s so much to love –- is that moment when it pivots about halfway through. We are yucking it up with an interrupting blobfish, thinking we’ve got this book figured out, when we learn, “The blobfish was once voted the world’s ugliest animal.”

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At that moment, you start tugging, ever so gently, on emotions. The book quietly sends signals from the deep about kindness and how we treat each other. Even blobfish have feelings! And words can hurt. I imagine you coming across that factoid and thinking, “Hmmmm.” Is that when you knew you had a book? Because that’s a real thing, isn’t it? We all have folders of half-baked ideas, snippets and notions and unfinished manuscripts, but not many books. Then there’s a moment when, yes, this is a book. Or as my friend Matthew McElligott puts it, “You know you can land the plane.”

Well thank you! I think I actually read that the Blobfish was voted the ugliest animal on BBC or something and that’s where the idea for this book came from. That and a bunch of really weird sketches of Blobfish — you should see one of the early ones, he looks kind of like Danny DeVito.

DeVito should play him in the movie. I can totally see that. He has the range. But continue.

I loved thinking about a lumpy fish with this child-like enthusiasm about his own worth. Blobfish craves validation and belonging and while he looks for it he finds out that some people have not very nice views of him. I think this is a defining moment for many kids too. When they realize people aren’t all on their side. It feels so unfair (it is unfair). Different versions of this happen our entire lives and it is up to the kindness of others and our own ability to recognize and embrace that kindness (as well as to forgive our own flaws) that keeps us going.

I see that you live in Brooklyn, as required by law for children’s authors and illustrators (I think it’s a five-year minimum, then you are free to move to Connecticut). Yet you are a native Midwesterner. Where’s that?

I was born in Michigan and raised in Wisconsin. I never felt like I fit in anywhere. All I wanted to do was explore the world and be a writer, an artist, an actor. Being from the Midwest you are taught to keep your expectations low and your ambition in check. I couldn’t wait to leave. I moved to Chicago to study photography, then dropped out of school and moved to Thailand where I worked as a journalist. I finished my degree remotely while studying Arabic in Egypt.

Right. Given that progression, writing and illustrating a children’s book about a blobfish makes perfect sense. Because: inevitable. Your voice strikes me as something new. How did you arrive at children’s books? It’s like you climbed in a window or something.

It does sometimes feel that way — “This is not my beautiful house.” I always say I didn’t do this until a few years ago, but recently I looked back at some of my sketchbooks that I kept while traveling and mixed in with these serious sketches of urban decay and poverty were these funny cartoon animals and people. I am so glad I didn’t pursue picture books right out of school though. Something about not caring as much what people think when I did start out made it easier to have an authentic voice. Also, I was lucky to have Alessandra Balzer buy my first book (and four after). If she hadn’t taken it I might not even know there was a window for me to climb into.

Thanks for visiting, Jessica. Keep up the great work.

wceggdunlca8rphoz66abhhs4ri12vqgoobrgbrkx2plcphekar3aiznsrpughkiodzcs4glrs3lnnbucm2t9tndb06zszzgaib6wpypvq5idkycbwtzawmsmq7pk-1JESSICA OLIEN is also the author/illustrator of Shark Detective! and Adrift. She has several books in pre-publication, but the one I’m most excited about it titled Right Now (2018). I guess we’ll have to wait for it. Hum-dee-dum, dee-dum-dum. Jessica keeps a fancy website that you can visit. Google’ll get you there.

 

Coming soon: London Ladd, Matthew Cordell, Lizzy Rockwell, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker,  Matthew Phelan, and more. You can look up previous interviews in this series by clicking on the “5 Questions” icon under the “categories” on the right sidebar.

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

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Welcome to the second installment of my “5 Questions” series. On a weekly or bi-weekly or completely random basis, I will interview an author or illustrator and focus on a specific book. In the coming weeks, we’ll spend time with Matthew Cordell, Jessica Olien, Matthew McElligott, Lizzy Rockwell and more. Why? I like these people and I love their books. Sue me. Today we get to hang out with Hazel Mitchell, who is as glorious as a glass of champagne at a good wedding. Drink deeply, my friends . . .

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JP: Greetings, Hazel. Thanks for stopping by my swanky blog. I hope you don’t find the vibe too intimidating. I put up the tapestry just for you. The lava lamps have been here for a while. Because nothing says “classy” quite like a lava lamp. Sit anywhere you like, but the milk crates are most comfortable.

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Hazel: Thanks, JP. This is certainly an eclectic place you’ve got here. Wow, is that a glitter ball? Next you will be wearing a white suit. Excuse me while I remove this stuffed meerkat from the milk crate . . . 

1c971b5bc7c4a067d09cad45ee38361cCareful with that meerkat, it’s expensive. Hey, do I detect an accent? Wait, let me guess! You are from . . . Kentucky?

No getting anything past you! Kentucky, Yorkshire, England. OK, just Yorkshire, England. I’m a late pilgrim.

We recently sat side-by-side at the Warwick Children’s Book Festival, where I got the chance to read your wonderful new picture book, Toby, and eavesdrop on your lively interactions with young readers. At times, alarmingly, you spoke in the voice of a hand puppet. So let me see if I’ve got this straight: Toby is a real dog, but not a true story, exactly? How does that work?

toby-realistic-sketchesYes, we did sit next to each other and it was a lot of fun to see you in action! I didn’t know you were eavesdropping, I’d have dropped in some of those Shakespearean ‘asides’ just for you. And I must watch that hand puppet voice, I even do it without the hand puppet . . .

OK, to the question: Yes, Toby is a real dog. I rescued him from a puppy mill situation back in 2013. He was so endearing and his journey from frozen dog to bossy boots captured my heart. I began drawing him, because that’s what illustrators do, and before I knew it I was weaving a story round him. But I didn’t want to feature myself as the owner in Toby’s story, that was kind of boring and I figured Toby needed a younger owner, one who children could relate to. So I gave Toby a boy who adopts him and a Dad who is struggling with moving house, looking after his son AND now a new dog. The fictionalized setting gave me lots of ideas and emotions to play with, but the stuff Toby gets up to in the book is taken from things he did in real life.

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I can see it’s a work that comes from your heart. And by “see” I mean: I could feel it. A heartwarming story for young children living in a cynical age. The book is beautifully designed. I especially admire the pacing of it, the way you vary the number and size of the many illustrations. Please tell me a little about that decision-making process.

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Thank you. I love that you say ‘feel.’ I wanted this book to be about emotions and feelings and bring the reader into the internal dialogue of the boy and dog’s fears and frustrations. Just small things you know, but life is full of small things that make up the big things. And again, thank you for your kind words on the design, working with Candlewick, my editor (Liz Bicknell) and art director (Ann Stott), was a joy. We did a lot of drafts at rough sketch stage and as the layout of the book evolved a lot of graphic novel style panels crept in and then the wide double-spreads to open out the story. I like how it flows. The choice of colors really adds to the story I think, moody blues and beiges that reflect the emotions and then brighter colours when things are going well. The boy and dog are connected by the colour red –- Toby’s collar and the boy’s sneakers. 

Oh, thank you, Hazel, for sharing those behind-the-scenes details. I appreciate seeing the black-and-white sketches, too. I think even when readers don’t consciously notice those subtle details, they still manage to seep into our unconsciousness. It’s fascinating how much thought goes into the work that most readers probably don’t think they see.

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I like that your book doesn’t gloss over the challenges of owning a dog. It’s not always cuddles and sunshine. Why did you feel it was important to include the downside of dog ownership?

Because that is the reality of life and children are very capable of dealing with realities and working through problems. Sometimes it’s adults who want everything to be cuddles and sunshine, and try to save youngsters from the real world. Well we can’t do that, because it comes at us fast. I never get tired of seeing or hearing about a child responding to a book and saying, “Yeah, that happened to me,” or “I know that feeling.” It’s like you’ve been given a gift. 

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I see that you live in Maine. You must get this question a lot, but why isn’t Toby a moose? Do you see many moose up there? Can we please just talk about moose for a little while? And what goes on in Maine? Do you eat lobster all the time? While reading Stephen King? Or do I have some misconceptions? How did you end up there?

Toby channels his inner moose at times, which is scary in a poodle. There aren’t so many moose around our way, but drive a little North and there is moose-a-plenty (that could be a good name for a snack?). 

Sounds delicious.

I once drove home from a school visit in the FAR NORTH at twilight (that was my first mistake), it was misty and I was driving down a road where I swear there was a moose every 5 yards. I drove 30 miles at 5 MPH. I got home after six months. These moose were SO darn big and SO close to the car I could literally see up their nostrils. Man, moose need help with superfluous hair.

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Wow, you really did see up their nostrils. You are scaring me a little bit, Hazel. Eyes on the road. Speaking of scary . . .

Stephen King lives in the next town over, but you know, he’s a recluse. I eat lobster with lobster on top. Delish. When I moved to the US of A from over the pond I landed in the South. Then moved to Maine. I like the cold much better! (And the lobster).

Do you have ideas for any more Toby stories? I think readers will want more.

I do have more ideas about stories for Toby. But we will have to wait and see. Readers! Write to my publisher! 

I’m so glad you visited, Hazel. It’s nice spending time with you. I hope Toby enjoys a long and mischievous life in children’s books.

It’s been fun. Best five questions anyone asked me all morning. Thanks for having me drop by … oops … there goes a lava lamp!

Six bucks down the drain. We’re done here.

 

imanismooncvr_300-819x1024In addition to Toby, Hazel Mitchell has illustrated several books for children including Imani’s Moon, One Word Pearl, Animally and Where Do Fairies Go When It Snows? Originally from England, where she attended art college and served in the Royal Navy, she now lives in Maine with her poodles Toby and Lucy and a cat called Sleep. You may learn more about Hazel at www.hazelmitchell.com

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