Tag Archive for Matthew McElligott

Frank Hodge, Remembered

When I learned that Frank Hodge had died, I immediately thought of all the people whose lives he had touched. Frank had that indelible knack. We quickly became entangled in his fiendish web of book people. Writers, teachers, readers, librarians: Hodge-Podgers, all. Somehow we were all mixed up in this beautiful community together. And it was fun. Full of laughter. Impromptu read-alouds. Mischievous zingers. Kindness. Frank made us feel not only validated, but gloriously celebrated, as if our work really, really mattered. You don’t see that much these days. But for Frank, it was like air. It was breathing. He represented something that feels nearly lost today, the way we hear stories about editor Ursula Nordstrom and think, oh gosh, that must have been something. 

I decided to reach out to different folks who knew Frank, to see if they would like to share a few words, a memory, a photo, something. The response was overwhelming but not surprising. Please forgive me if I failed to connect with you. Feel free to leave a comment. 

 

Cynthia DeFelice

When I was a young, aspiring author who didn’t believe in herself (that could still describe me, except for the “young” part), I came home to see my answering machine blinking. It was a long, effusive, incredibly affirming message from Frank Hodge — Frank Hodge! — telling me how much he loved my third book Weasel. I listened to it over and over again, and couldn’t bring myself to erase it. Eventually I had to replace that machine. But Frank’s words made all the difference in my brain and in my career. Those were heady days; Frank’s conferences were so full of joy and enthusiasm and positivity about ideas and books and the power of literature. I miss that, and I will miss him.

 

Mem Fox

Frank changed my American life and brought me to the attention of thousands of readers who would never have otherwise known me. I’ve been feeling lost and miserable since he died. I’m all by myself, as it were, down here in Australia, with a massive lump in my throat and no one to hug, i.e. no one who knew Frank.

I adored Frank. He was one of the world’s extraordinary people: outrageous, brilliant, and incredibly generous, occasionally difficult, with a wicked sense of humour and a love of salacious gossip—and a distaste for vegetables of any colour, much to my endless horror. Our conversations went far into the night but I never had to take my make-up off afterwards because I’d already cried it off, with laughter.

 

Bruce Coville

Reader’s Digest used to run a regular feature called “My Most Unforgettable Character.” For me, that would be Frank Hodge, who was a great force for good and joy in the world of children’s books. As anyone who ever attended one can testify, Frank’s conferences were one-of-a-kind events. An image that I still carry with me –- something I saw on numerous occasions –- is that of coming into the book area after Frank had done one of his presentations and not being able to see the sales tables at all because the throng of teachers and librarians trying to get at them was four deep. That was how good he was at getting people excited about books.

His conferences were always themed, and there is one that will always remain my favorite. I had been hanging around with him in the store on Lark Street, chatting about one thing and another, when we got to talking about how much kids loved scary stories. Frank promptly decided that he should focus a conference around that, and thus was “BOO!” born. An entire conference devoted to scary stories. How delicious! Without informing him of what I had in mind, prior to my presentation I dressed up as my “half mad twin brother, Igor.” When he introduced me this shambling, long-bearded, fur-coated hunchback came down the center aisle. He reacted perfectly, and I was never sure whether I had actually fooled him or he was going along with the fun. When I got up beside him I pulled aside my fake beard and said, “It’s me, Bruce!” We were still laughing about it years later.

Frank showed me innumerable kindnesses when I was just getting started, as I know he did to countless other writers and illustrators. His conferences were one of a kind –- and so was he. We will not see his like again.

 

Matthew McElligott

The field of children’s literature is filled with brilliant, generous people, none more so than Frank Hodge. He helped countless readers to find the perfect book, and countless authors (including me) to find their way in the world of publishing. He was warm, witty, and a raconteur of the highest order.

Frank had a big heart, although his love didn’t extend to technology. For years I was his tech support guy, and he always seemed to need an awful lot of support. It took me years to finally understand why; Frank preferred it when his computer was broken.

It was easy to drop by the store. I worked nearby, and told Frank to call whenever he had an issue, but he stubbornly refused to pick up the phone. Whenever something would go wrong—say, he forgot the icon to get back into his email inbox—he would sit down and write me a letter, then shut down his computer. Days would pass.

To make sure I couldn’t reply too quickly, Frank made the letters difficult to read. One letter was typed on the back of a paper napkin from Price Chopper. Another was typed in random chunks, scattered at odd angles across the page. His masterpiece was a long strip of paper tape with sentences that started and ended halfway through. It took the better part of an afternoon to figure that one out.

There was nothing quite like a Frank Hodge letter, just as there was nothing like a Frank Hodge bookstore, conference, or conversation. I’m blessed I could experience them all.

 

Joe Bruchac

Frank was such a wonderful, unquenchable spirit. It’s hard to think of him without a smile coming to my face. All those decades that he ran Hodge-Podge
Books, his teaching, the festivals he put together. For so many years it seemed as if his energy was everywhere in the world of children’s literature.

One story that I remember about Frank is an incident he told me about when he had to have surgery some years back.

Shortly after his surgery a nurse came into his room and said “It’s time for you to get up.”

“No,” Frank replied, “it is most definitely NOT time for me to get up. If I try to get out of bed now I will fall flat on my face.”

But the nurse was insistent, not realizing she was reading the wrong chart.

“All right,” Frank said he told the nurse. “If you insist!”

At that point in the story, Frank started laughing.

“What happened next?” I asked him.

“Well, what do you think happened?” he replied. “I got out of bed and fell flat on my face.”

And then he laughed even harder!

 

 

Loren C. Green

I first met Frank when I was waiting tables at his favorite spot. When Frank learned I was studying to be an English teacher, he invited me to Hodge-Podge to enjoy some of the new books. I was so intimidated that it took me almost two years to gather the gumption to take him up on his offer. I was terrified that Frank might wonder what I thought of a book and I had no confidence in my ability to recognize or articulate my thoughts.

On that first visit, Frank offered me a pile of books and ordered us lunch. We sat in his backyard sanctuary and by the time I left six hours later, I had a second stack of books to read and a new job helping to ship books all over creation.

Almost thirty years later, my friendship with Frank remains one of the singular defining ingredients of my life. Visits with Frank always morphed into adventures and his endless trove of stories was, reliably, equal parts mirth and tutorial. Like the books and the authors Frank championed, he was a master at imparting insight and emoting compassion while disarming with humor. He never did overcome his fear that his own writing might not measure up, but I was blessed with countless chapters of his story and their lessons have helped shape me.

These last two years, I struggled to visit Frank as often as I should have but when I could muster the courage, Frank would do his best to ask after the goings on in my world and he never missed an opportunity to tease me mercilessly, somehow stealing a narrow path through the closing fog to reprise his role, for another moment, as the perennial rascal prince.

 

Gail Denisoff

One quick story — Frank came to speak at my school (I was a school librarian in Schenectady and teaching at Woodlawn school at the time) and of course that required picking him up at the bookstore in Albany since he didn’t drive. We were talking in the car on the way to school and he was surprisingly unsure about how effective he would be working with the kids, especially at the middle school level. I assured him that they would love him.

He spent the day sharing books with classes and had the kids, grades K-8, enthralled as only he could do. A few weeks later, a mother stopped by the library to tell me that she had never been able to get her 7th grade son to read but after that day with Frank, he wanted her to get him several of the books Frank shared. She did and said he hadn’t stopped reading ever since — she even caught him reading with a flashlight under the covers when he should have been sleeping! She was almost in tears telling me this and Frank was so pleased when I shared that story with him.

 

Karen Hesse

Frank had the chutzpah to dig up my home phone number back in 1992 and call me after reading my second book, Letters from Rifka. I remember sitting on the stairs in my tiny old house listening to this complete stranger lavishly praise my writing while my children clamored in the background, longing for dinner. He flattered me for over an hour during that first phone call! When he was not complimenting my work we were discussing literature and writing and favorite books and authors. How could I help but fall in love with Frank. He championed not only my work, but the work of so many. He was funny and wry and sly and ironic and sensitive and bright and brave and a beloved friend to writers and artists everywhere. I will always be grateful to Frank and his early support of my work. But also his support of so many others struggling to find an audience for their unique and compelling voices. Frank made a difference in the world. He will be missed.

 

Daniel J. Mahoney

Frank was a wonderful guy. He heard of me when I published my first book. He said that he “wanted to meet a local boy who made it in the children’s book business.” He invited to his store, and to his famous “Let the Reading Begin” conference, where I met a lot of great people. I’m sad to hear of his passing.

 

 

Jerry & Eileen Spinelli

Eileen and I have long been happy and proud to count ourselves among the first of Frank’s anointed “Hodge-Podgers.” We have little pins to prove it. Personally, Frank was there at the birth of my first novel. I remember getting a call at work (somehow he’d  tracked me down) and hearing him say nice things and wondering, Who is this guy? Next thing I knew we were having dinner in Albany and Lark St. had already begun to sound magical.

Frank’s “Newbery Corner,” a photo taken at one of his conferences: Kate DiCamillo, Linda Sue Park, Karen Hesse, and Jerry Spinelli.

 

Linda Sue Park

Frank Hodge’s conference was the very first one I was ever invited to. It must have been 2001; I had two books published with a third coming out…. That ‘third book’ was A Single Shard, which won the Newbery Medal in 2002. Frank invited me back again that year, which is when the photo was taken.

I don’t seem to have a photo of Frank and me together, which I sorely regret. It meant so much to me to be invited to speak at that conference so early in my career, and I will always be grateful to Frank for that boost.
Patricia Reilly Giff

So many memories…

One night, at the beginning of our friendship, Frank introduces himself and asks me to speak to his class. Frank, a legend; I a new writer, unsure of myself.

How does he know this? Somehow he does, somehow I speak in his class, not once, but whenever he asks me.

We sit in his backyard one lovely summer afternoon talking about books and writers, and rarely, but sometimes, we disagree. I close my eyes, thinking. Is he ever wrong? I learn so much from him. I bask in our friendship.

Our family opens a bookstore in Connecticut. On opening day, a bus pulls up in front of the door. Frank has come all the way from Albany bringing friends, bringing readers, to cheer us on.

Even now as I write, I think of him. I wonder if he’d think my idea is worthwhile, if the characters come to life.

How grateful I am for Frank, lover of books, of story, of friendship.

Eric Luper

Of the 28 books I’ve written, two of them are dedicated to Frank Hodge. The first time we met, I was an aspiring writer. A friend suggested I introduce myself to a local kidlit luminary she described as a mix between Garrick Ollivander and Winnie the Pooh.

I printed my manuscript and headed to Hodge Podge Books, his tiny shop huddled beneath a brownstone on Lark Street.

Frank seemed delighted to meet me until he asked his first question: “What are your favorite children’s books?”

I knew this question carried weight. After all, this man literally ensconced himself with books. Unfortunately, the only characters that popped to mind were Garrick Ollivander and Winnie the Pooh.

“Right now, I’m reading Harry Potter.”

He flipped through my manuscript. “And you’d like me to read this?”

“If you have time.”

Frank tossed my pages into the trash. “Talk to me after you’ve read some good books and revised.”

Then, this curious, little man shuffled around his store gathering books from the shelves–books by Coville, Sachar, Anderson, DeFelice, Lubar, Gardiner, DiCamillo and Spinelli. “Talk to me after you’ve read these.”

The weeks that followed were the greatest writing lessons of my life, and the beginning of a great relationship with a brilliant mentor and friend.

 

Franki Sibberson

It is always a treat to visit independent bookstores when I visit new cities. I was fortunate enough to visit Hodge-Podge Books when I visited Albany many years ago.  I quickly understood that Hodge-Podge Books was a special place because of Frank Hodge.  He not only knew books but he came to know people and make him part of his book community quickly. He was committed to everyone in the book world. His love of books brought people together and those of us who visited his bookstore that day felt lucky to be a small part of all that he created at Hodge-Podge Books.

 

 

 

Suzanne Bloom

If only I could find it. That single-spaced two sided letter from Frank; densely woven with appreciation and well-considered comments. Something I could wear like a warm winter scarf.

Let’s get the guilt out of the way. I didn’t call or drop a line. I thought there would always be next week. A quick visit to Frank’s store might only last 2 hours. And I made too few trips. But each one was a master class in the art of picture book making, plus some gossipy asides. Don’t ask me what the gossipy asides were; long forgotten now. The book-lined walls brought the space in closer with just enough room to open a large volume or two. You could explore or, better yet, let Frank find a work, just for you; then Frank-splain the beauty of it. He gathered, curated and matched books to readers. It was like a book/dating site.

He built bridges between writers and readers, and grew a community of devotees. I daresay we all made new friends because of Frank.

I’ll find it. It made me feel like I might be a real writer and exhorted, encouraged and expected me to carry on. Perhaps you too, earned his approbation. Even if you didn’t get a letter, in the spirit of Frank and his love of the world of children’s literature, carry on!

 

Simon James 

Making books can be a lonesome experience, locked away in a room somewhere, wrestling with projects for months on end, but Frank always knew how to let the sunshine in. A phone call or a letter from Frank was a moment when the pressure lifted off and the very reason why you were struggling with those projects immediately came into sharp focus. His love for what you created always broke through your own moments of despondency or doubt. Often, we talked for several hours on transatlantic calls, joking at each other’s expense. We both enjoyed a deprecating humour that led us to insult each other with as much good nature as humanly possible.

Despite his gift for reaching out to others through books, Frank was a very private man. Perhaps there was a price to pay for his selfless enthusiasm and running the bookshop below his home. I stayed with him many times on my visits to schools around Albany. His personal living quarters above the shop were modest and unpretentious. His bedroom back door led outside to a wooden stairway above the backyard. Frank kept a long piece of string tied to that door, it ran to a safety pin attached to his pillow. This was for Crisis, his beloved cat, to be able to go outside in the night. When sufficiently cold, Frank would wake up and pull the string to swing the door back to be almost shut, until Crisis wandered back in again. This went on all through the year whatever the weather. I can remember trying to sleep in his spare room in the loft wondering why it was so utterly freezing at night. One Winter, I ended up with bronchitis. I could hardly speak. Naturally, I wanted to cancel some school visits, but Frank would hear nothing of it!

Frank was a superb presenter of books. He knew how to bring out the best from a text he loved. His warm, inquisitive voice and exquisite timing instantly held audiences spellbound. He held the book in one hand whilst gesturing with the other, like some high priest. He was a master at this, yet completely self-effacing at the same time. He was also openly opinionated; as vocal about the books he didn’t like, as he was about the books he loved. He made every book he read aloud urgent and desirable, one that you simply had to add to your collection.

Yet another talent of Frank’s was his gift for the lost art of letter writing. I am very glad I still have the many letters he wrote to me. When I read them they make me laugh, principally because of the way we mercilessly took the mickey out of each other. Nothing was too serious, except our friendship. I will miss him.

 

Cheryl Harness

Boy oh boy, how I hope that, in the blue beyond, somewhere off in the Afterlife, that ultimate hodgepodge, the joyful souls of book lovers and writers are gathered ’round their newly-arrived soul mate, their oh-so-kindred spirit, that of Francis Hodge.
At least, I’m trying hard to envision the scene, as well as the time way back in the early 1990s when I first visited Albany, New York’s swellegant little bookstore on Lark Street and met Frank Hodge, its greathearted proprietor. How did I, a shy, newbie author-illustrator from Colorado, come to be there? Because Frank had taken an interest in my first historical picture book, Three Young Pilgrims — talk about Thanksgiving! Little did I know then that the charming, soft-spoken gent with whom I’d shaken hands was one of the truly great champions of books for young readers. What did you want to know and/or need to learn? He could tell you. What lies beyond that ultimate veil? Now, if he could, he’d tell us that too. So we mortals are left to speculate. And read, thank goodness. And imagine — trying to envision, for instance, all of those word lovers who’ve gone on ahead, saved a place for Frank, now taking him by the hand.

 

 

A page from Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Ghostwriter, featuring Hedgehog Books and an owner named Frank. It even includes his cat, Crisis. I dedicated the @ 2000 book to Frank — but then again, it seems like we all eventually got around to dedicating something to him. Just that kind of guy, I guess. — JP.

 

A Few Frank Facts . . .

Frank’s famous store may have been only 240 square feet –- yet it’s impact was enormous. The business hummed along, built around Frank’s close connection with hundreds of teachers and librarians. He enjoyed a lively and jocular relationship with the UPS drivers that daily sprinted in and out the door, burdened with boxes of books. The first “Let the Reading Begin” conference began in 1985 and ran for 17 years. These were always insanely elaborate and over-the-top events. Frank believed authors and illustrators were royalty, and treated them lavishly. Expenses be hanged! After a pause for double-bypass surgery, Frank briefly revived a downsized version of the old conference, but it became too much, even for indefatigable Frank Hodge. The store logo was created by Mark Teague.

 


 

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!

McElligott & Preller Join Forces for a Super “Team Up” at The Open Door Bookstore: 12/2 @ 1:00 – 2:30

It’s two for the price of none! Matt McElligott and I are teaming up for a unique book signing at Schenectady’s Open Door Bookstore on 12/2 at 1:00 – 2:30. Come say hello and take care of that holiday shopping with signed books!

Matt is the big brain behind the ground-breaking “Mad Scientist Academy” series, which brings scientific fact to young readers in a fresh, graphic, fun-filled format. The latest title is The Space Disaster.

msa2-jacket-green-mockup     Dinosaur-cover

“McElligott has concocted a winning formula for learning as entertainment.”Kirkus Reviews.

I’ll be there to celebrate the publication of my own space-themed Jigsaw Jones book, The Case from Outer Space, along with the return-to-print of eight “classroom classics.” In addition, I’ll be signing my hot-off-the-presses release, Better Off Undead, for slightly older readers (grades 4-8).

Outer Space_FC     {FE179E59-DB84-4875-A683-EAA5722C0587}Img400

“The latest early chapter book in Preller’s long-running Jigsaw Jones Mystery series has plenty of appeal for young independent readers.”Booklist.

“This uproarious middle grade call to action [Better Of Undead] has considerable kid appeal and a timely message. A strong addition to school and public library collections.” — School Library Journal.

 

 

 

5 QUESTIONS with MATTHEW McELLIGOTT, author/illustrator of “MAD SCIENTIST ACADEMY: THE WEATHER DISASTER”

msa2-jacket-green-mockup

Here we are, oh sunny day, the latest installment of my “5 Questions” interview series with luminaries of the children’s book world. Here comes my friend, Matt McElligott!

msa2-author-portrait

 

Matt, I’m looking at the second book in your “Mad Scientist Academy” series, The Weather Disaster. And all I can think is, Boy that looks like a lot of work! Seriously, I’m exhausted. So I’m just going to take a brief nap and, yawn, we’ll pick this up later. Zzzzzzzzzz.

You’re not the first person to tell me my books put them to sleep! 

Okay, I’m up! For readers who might be unfamiliar with this science series, you are essentially taking a nonfiction topic and giving it a fresh, contemporary spin. All told in an appealing format that’s a hybrid between the graphic novel and traditional picture book. As someone who has admired your work for many years, it strikes me that this series –- which is spectacular in every way — represents a culmination for you, a distillation of your many and varied talents. I don’t think you could have done this ten years ago. All of your past work informs this one book: your intellectual curiosity, your love of comic books and old Hollywood movies, your silliness, your experience with book design and storytelling, plus the signature McElligott sense of what kids genuinely like. How did this series begin?

The sentiment is much, much appreciated. And I agree completely -– I don’t think I could have done this ten years ago, and I’m not sure I could even do it now without the tremendous help of my wife Christy. It really is a lot of work. Not only does the story have to be compelling, but it also has to deliver a lot of real science along the way, hopefully while still captivating the reader. Finding that balance has been, by far, the trickiest part of putting these together, but I can honestly say I enjoy every part of it.

msa-weather-spread

The idea began with a suggestion from my longtime editor, Emily Easton, who felt that there was a real opportunity for a new series that could make science accessible for kids. We spent about a year and a half trying out various ideas and approaches until it finally started to gel. The graphic novel format came from both my love of classic comics and a practical need to fit all the information into thirty-two pages.

There must have been a point, early on, when you thought to yourself, “Uh-oh.” Just that pure terror of, What have I gotten myself into? Can I actually do it?

Boy, you nailed it with that question. The feeling of terror hit me a couple weeks into the first book and has lingered ever since. There are roughly a hundred illustrations in each book, and the thought of how long it will take to draw the next book keeps me up at night. I’ll spend about a year, maybe a little more, researching, plotting, sketching, and illustrating pretty intensely until it’s finished. But the good thing is that I’m not in it alone. I happen to be married to a very talented woman who’s a whiz at both researching and drawing (we met thirty years ago in art school) and we can divide up many of the tasks to keep everything manageable. Three books in, and we’re still married!

msa-weather-balloon

Now correct me if I’m wrong, but your cruel editors don’t allow you to just make up stuff for this book? Is that true? So you’ve actually got to know what you are talking about? What’s the research process like? In this book you thank an actual weatherman, Jason Gough. Otherwise known as a, cough-cough, “stratospheric meteorologist.”

Oh, no. I make most of it up. (That part about how rain forms? That totally came to me in a dream.) Seriously, there’s a ton of research for each book, and meeting real scientists has been one of my favorite parts. For The Weather Disaster I worked with Jason Gough, and for the Dinosaur Disaster I worked with a man named Carl Mehling, a paleontologist who’s in charge of all 32,000 fossils at the American Museum of Natural History. For the upcoming Space Disaster, I worked with the astronomer Bob Berman, who you may know from his work on the radio station WAMC.

All of these scientists were so helpful, patient, and fully willing to engage my strange questions. (“Say, Jason, if you needed to create a tornado from scratch, how would you do it?”) Best of all, they embodied a perfect combination of science and imagination, and I was really lucky to find them. I’ve posted interviews with Carl and Jason on my website, and will be posting more soon.

Matt, you and I are both active with school visits. And I always recommend you to media specialists. The funny thing is, they usually say, “Yeah, he was already here.” At which point I figure out that I’ve been invited because they are working their way down, down, down the list. Not that I mind playing second fiddle –- I’m happy to be in the orchestra! But talk to me a little about your experience in schools. I mean, there you are at home, slaving away on these impossible books. Then you get out of the house! What do you hope to achieve when you visit a school? And also, if you don’t mind me cobbling questions together, what do you think that you get out of your school visits?

Don’t sell yourself short –- you have quite a reputation in the schools! I suspect you’re there because the teachers are actually working their way up the list. (Preller? Why not? Anyone’s got to be better than McElligott.)

I get paid in Ramen Noodles and old Lotto tickets. I think that’s a big part of my appeal.

I love your questions about author visits. The first is pretty straightforward: I hope the kids see that authors are real people, that making books is a thing that real grownups do, and that the writing and illustrating process can be hard, but is totally worth it. (Authors, after all, get to control the world.)

On school visits, Matt always shows readers the joy of . . . the thrill of . . . nevermind!

On school visits, Matt always shows readers the joy of . . . the thrill of . . . nevermind!

As for what I get out of the visits, I’m not sure anyone’s ever asked me that. I know I get to share my love of books –- that’s a big part –- and get to meet future authors and illustrators, as well as terrific librarians and teachers. But I also get to represent something bigger than myself, a duty I take very seriously. When a school hosts an author, and when they present the author/illustrator as someone of importance, the school is sending a message about the value of the arts that kids are almost certainly not getting anywhere else. I’m honored to be that representative, if even for just a day.

I like that, we are ambassadors from a distant land. I’ve never been comfortable with the “rock star” aspect of being a visiting author. Sometimes we get put on a pedestal. But when you view it as beyond the self, that we are representing something bigger than “Jimmy” or “Matt,” then it makes more sense.

Ambassadors is such a great word for it. We may be the only authors some of those kids will ever meet. If we’re funny, if we’re engaging, if it shows that we love our jobs, they’ll assume that all authors are that way. Those kids will come away with the idea that reading and making books is something they want to do too.

I recall Tedd Arnold telling me in an interview that he enjoyed checking in with their “squirmy reality.” That phrase always stuck with me. You get to look at those faces, and interact, and reconnect with the fact that, hey, a second grader in October is still really, really young. The visits land us in their world. You know what? It’s like going on a safari! You drive the jeep, Matt. I’ll grab the pith helmets!

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Exactly! It’s field research, and we can learn so much from studying the indigenous population of the elementary school.

You’ve tackled dinosaurs, you’ve wrestled with weather. What’s your next topic?

I can tell you that next up is The Solar System Disaster, out next summer. After that, maybe the ocean? Or maybe the science of belly-button lint. It’s probably between those two.

Well, I think we’ve all learned something today. Every book in this series is a disaster.

In more ways than one!

 

MATT McELLIGOTT keeps a terrific website which you can visit by clicking, madly, here

 

AND IF YOU’D LIKE TO READ PREVIOUS “5 Questions” interviews, thank you — just click on the names below. Coming next week: Jessica Olien and her blobfish! And after that: London Ladd, Matthew Cordell, Lizzy Rockwell, Nancy Castaldo, Matthew Phelan, and more (but not necessarily in that order).

* Hudson Talbott

* Hazel Mitchell

* Ann Hood

 

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