Welcome to the fifth edition of the “One Question” series.
My thanks to the five respondents below: Tanya Lee Stone, Jennifer Sattler, Lesa Cline Ransome, Barbara Dee, and Travis Jonker. For your answers . . . and for your fine work.
This is an issue that fascinates me, since it’s been the crucible for so many of us these past few years: How do we proceed under these conditions? As citizens, as artists, as storytellers, how do we respond? Does the job description, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, change?
Note: If there’s a published author or illustrator who’d like to participate in this series, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m also on Facebook. There’s a link to the previous ones in the series in the right sidebar under “categories.”
Tanya Lee Stone
For the past ten years, my work has focused on filling in some of the gaps in our histories; namely, true stories about women and people of color. Those stories have always been important, but perhaps now more than ever it is essential that they are more widely spread and that readers understand that we are all connected — in our pain and in our triumphs.
In Girl Rising, for example, which deals with the fact that 130 million girls globally are not being educated, I hope I have made it difficult for readers to ignore the fact that these are not “other” girls in “other” places — they are kids just like them — with similar hopes and dreams. And with this awareness of connectedness, I hope, comes increased activism. To that end, I structured the third part of the book around guiding readers toward activism without becoming too daunted by such large issues of slavery, early child marriage, and lack of access to education.
I have always enjoyed writing books that celebrate history, culture, heroic figures and the power of perseverance. When I began writing nearly twenty-five years ago, I was interested in finding the untold stories of everyday heroes—Satchel Paige, Marshall Taylor, and Pele, who rose above obstacles. Later I wrote about historic figures like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who had endured their share and more of injustices and hardships. My hope was that all children who read of these struggles would begin to understand how the pains of our past were met with fierce resistance.
And then the election of 2016 happened. And suddenly the distant past seemed not so far away as hate crimes rose and civil rights and protections of marginalized communities were rolled back. Each book I write now feels like less of a focus on history and more of a roadmap to how we must continue to have a voice. The word resistance has now taken on a new urgency, reminding young readers, not of our distant past, but of a world that continues to need voices to speak out against injustice. Now, more than ever, I am using the power of story to chart the progress we’ve made through the years, while reminding readers, there is still a mighty long way to go.
Right after the election in 2016, I was wondering, like everyone else I know, what on earth I could do to effect change. I can’t go door to door, or make cold calls. That’s not who I am. But then I read somewhere (I wish for the LIFE of me I could remember where) a woman saying, “Do what you do but with a new sense of purpose.” That really resonated with me. So, I wrote Bully. I needed it to still feel like one of my books. I didn’t want to preach or be overtly political. After all, my books are for young children, so I wanted to address something that a lot of them were now dealing with now more than ever. Most of the books on bullying that I’m aware of have this sympathy for the bully and, honestly, VERY unrealistic expectations for kids to deal with the situation. The bully always comes around and becomes a friend. This has not been my experience . . . ever. As a mother, as a kid who faced bullies, and as a woman. I want kids to feel empowered. And most importantly, not alone.
In January 2018 my publisher offered on a full manuscript of a middle grade novel — plus whatever MG I wrote next. I’d never had a two-book deal structured this way before, and it struck me as both a vote of confidence and incredible pressure, because at that point I didn’t even have an idea for another book. As I waited for my editor to send notes about Book 1, the news last winter was full of stories about sexual harassment (including some about prominent kidlit authors). These stories horrified me; and the more I researched the origins of such behavior, the more I was convinced that we needed a #MeToo story set in middle school. I began writing very fast, telling myself it was just a draft for Book 2. But before I got to the end, I knew that this story, both timeless and very much a product of the Trump era, needed to be out in the world as soon as possible. Fortunately, my publisher agreed to flip the order of the two books, releasing Maybe He Just Likes You next fall.
In my role as school librarian, the current divisive political climate has made me more vigilant about the books in our collection and the books I read aloud with students. Themes of inclusion, kindness, and diversity have become even more of a focus. And it doesn’t always have to be an overt, “Hey, kids, here’s a book with a lesson about kindness.” Usually the more subtle the better. Now as a newly published author, I feel stories that in some way talk about universal themes — and I know I’m not making news here — tend to be more engaging. My favorite line from an Andrew Smith book is that, “The best books are about everything,” which I think means that good books reach for universal topics — love, death, fear, etc. In the podcast interview I did with Mo Willems, he said that every Elephant & Piggie book was addressing a “philosophical question.” So I definitely think about how a story I’m writing connects to larger ideas. With The Very Last Castle, the rough plot came first, but it wouldn’t have become a book without the themes of community and courage that came later in the writing process and gave the story depth. But I honestly can’t say any of that is a direct result of the current political climate. However, I do think it’s made me more sensitive to themes of inclusion, kindness, and diversity in the books I read and share.
If you missed Part One of the Alan Silberberg Interview, it’s absurd for you to be here. I mean, really. Please follow the link to catch up.
Don’t worry, we’ll wait . . .
Late in the book, Milo gathers together a number of objects that remind him of his mother, that press the memory of her into his consciousness. Where’d you get the idea for that?
I think that comes from the fact that I really don’t have anything from my mother. Things did get thrown away or given away and it really was like she died and then she was erased. When I was writing the book I started to think hard about my mom and tried remembering objects that evoked her to me. That became a cartoon called “Memories Lost” which were all real objects from my childhood that connected me to her. After making that cartoon, it struck me that Milo would want to go out and replace those objects somehow and that’s why he and his friends hit up the yard sales.
There is a scene toward the end in one of my books, Six Innings (a book that similarly includes a biographical element of cancer), that I can’t read aloud to a group because I know I’ll start to slobber. It’s just too raw, too personal for me. And I suspect that might be true of you with certain parts of this book. I’m asking: Are there any moments that get to you every time?
I think there are two specific parts of the book that choke me up, though lots of little places make me reach for tissues. The chapter where Milo goes to the yard sale and finds a blanket that reminds him of the one his mom had will always get to me. My mom had that blanket, the “pea patch blanket” in the book — so as Milo wraps himself in it and remembers her getting sick — I am always transported to the image of my mom and her blanket. The second place in the book happens in cartoon form, when Milo remembers the last time he saw his mother, which was when she was already under anesthesia being prepped for surgery and she has had her head shaved and he can see the lines for the surgery drawn on her head like a tic tac toe board. That image is directly from my memory of my last time seeing my mother. It’s pretty heavy stuff.
And so powerfully authentic. Milo describes that period after his mother died as “the fog.” Was that your memory of it?
I think trauma at any age creates a disconnect inside us. I think the fog settled in for me slowly. As the initial shock of my mom’s death wore off a sort of numbness rolled in over me. It was a survival technique to cover all that hurt stuff with an emotional buffer and I think that’s what I mean about “the fog”. It’s like I knew there was a pain in me but I didn’t want to touch it or think about. It was just always there as a dull feeling deep inside. The Fog.
Speaking of fog, you watched a lot of TV as a kid.
Ha! My two sisters called me “the walking, talking TV guide” because I always knew what was on and what channel. I’d never be able to do that today with all the satellite and cable channels — but back then, I was an authority on the network TV schedule!
We never got it at my house, but I remember being jealous of families who had subscriptions to TV Guide.
Absolutely! We didn’t have a subscription either but I would read the one at my friend’s house up the street and just soak it all up so I could be the authority for the upcoming week back home! Even before my mom’s death I loved TV — but after she died it really became a safe place to get absorbed into the fiction of other people’s lives. I loved cartoons and comedies the most back then.
You’ve written for television in the past. In what way do you think that helped when it came time for you attempt a novel?
The best thing about being a reformed TV writer is I already knew how to structure a story and more importantly, thanks to my animation writing especially, I was already really good at setting the scene and making sure to also describe the action. Scripts rely on good dialogue so that was a skill I’d already started to hone. When I started Pond Scum (my first book) I thought of it as a long episode of a great TV show and I let the chapters drive the story as if it was a script.
When I talk to students on school visits, I’ll sometimes do a quickie “show, don’t tell” lesson, and I’ll describe it as creating a movie in the reader’s mind — in part because my skin crawls when I hear it described by authors as “painting pictures with words.”
Yeah, the writer as painter image doesn’t quite skew in my head either. And I bet the kids really relate to your idea of imagining a movie in their mind. That’s nice.
I wonder, what did the novel format allow you to do that, perhaps, you couldn’t achieve while writing for television?
TV is dictated by the time of each episode, whether it’s 30 minutes or 60 minutes the writer is being told how many pages to write and where the commercial act breaks appear. There are producer notes and network notes and it really is a bit of writing by committee. I am really thankful for my TV writing experience — but I so appreciate the freedom of writing a novel where I can do whatever I want and am not restricted by time issues or rules of what my characters can and can’t do. I am so much happier being in control of the world I create when I write a novel. Of course there are notes that must be worked with from the editor at the publishing house — but I have always found that to be a collaborative experience to make the book better. In TV — notes were usually a headache and lots of times they never even made sense! My book editors, Donna Bray on Pond Scum and Liesa Abrams on Milo — have made me a better writer and I am so thankful to them for that.
Can you think of anything specifically that they taught you?
I think one of the best lessons I’ve gotten was to stay true to the kid voice of the story. Sometimes I let my characters talk the way I’m thinking and the situation is all kid, but the language comes out too adult. Maintaining the kid POV is always in the back of my head thanks to my editors.
Yeah, I have that struggle, too. Once I created a second-grade character with rheumatoid arthritis who had a fondness for lemon cakes, Jay Leno, and bargain-priced resort wear. I had to rethink it. Question: How do you know when something’s funny?
That’s the million dollar question! I wish I knew that answer. I think I have a good sense of humor so if something strikes me as being funny — it usually is at least amusing. I’m not too big on dissecting jokes or looking for rules of comedy (with the exception of “the rule of three” and “words with a “k” sound”).
Yes, the classic scene from Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” with George Burns and Walter Matthau. I can’t find the exact quote, but the basic idea: Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. L’s are not funny. M’s are not funny. Lettuce is not funny. Cucumber’s funny. Cab is funny. Taxi, not so much.
I saw the play version on Broadway and wish I could remember the cast but my mind is a blank. But it was funny. Very funny. As far as knowing when something is funny or not — I also like to run things by my wife and son — if they don’t at least crack a smile I know I am way off base!
I have this memory from college. This guy Dave used to introduce me to people, saying, “This is Jimmy. He’s really funny.” And I hated that. I finally had to say, like, Dave, dude, you’re killing me here. First, the pressure was ridiculous, and secondly, I didn’t want to play the clown. I can be funny at times, but it has to come in naturally. That’s how I feel about writing, too. I think I’m in trouble when I try to be funny.
Yeah, I was that guy at times but thankfully I can’t tell jokes so no one puts me on the spot anymore. I’m more of the guy who stands in the back of a group listening and then I add a zinger to the conversation — I’m a punch line guy who then shrinks back into the shadows!
Well, then feel free to say something funny, Alan. I’ve been waiting pretty patiently. Zing away. I sense that my Goofball Devotees are becoming restless.
No, really. This is when I bomb. The pressure to be funny will always result in the most un-funny thing possible, which I think I just proved with this last sentence.
No, that was hysterical, I laughed just watching the sweat pore off your head as you tried to think of something funny. Like the great scene with Albert Brooks in “Broadcast News.”
There’s a great line by one of the camera crew in that scene: “Nixon didn’t sweat this much.”
Back to Milo, did you worry that maybe you’d be blowing the appeal of your funny story by including the grief aspect. I mean, did some voice whisper in your ear, “Man, this is not the way to sell books to boys.”
Yes! As I mentioned, the initial goal was to just write a “funny book.” But once I realized what Milo’s story was — that he was the boy whose mom had died — it became a challenge to tell the story in a way that was both touching and funny. I stopped thinking about whether it would sell or not and concentrated on telling the story from a true place inside me. I had some deep seated confidence that this book would find its place and it was meant to find its way to Liesa Abrams at Aladdin. She embraced Milo immediately from her heart. I think that trying to write a “commercial” book is the worst way to go about it anyway.
So you think I should scrap the Geek Supernatural Romance I’ve been trying to write?
What? No vampires or zombies in it?
NOTE TO SELF: More vampires, jump on zombie craze.
Now, where were we? Oh yes, Alan Silberberg! Haven’t you gone home yet? How important are the illustrations to the book’s appeal?
I think it was important for me to add my cartoons to this story, in other words, be able to write and illustrate a book. Though I think the story could stand just fine as a text-only book, it’s clear that cartoons help get the book into certain young hands. But apart from that, I really felt the cartoons could add a dimension of story-telling to the book (not just funny eye candy).
You’ve said elsewhere that the words usually come first, that you are truly illustrating the story. But how does it affect you as a writer, knowing that you’ll have those illustrations? I’d think it would help with, say, a joke or funny moment. You’d be delivering the punch-line two different ways.
Exactly. I find that when I know there can be a cartoon anytime I feel like it — the writer part of my brain and the cartooning part kind of team up. I get a voice inside my head telling me, “Hey, you could punctuate that joke with a great doodle!” Certainly I found with Milo that there are parts of the book where I was having a hard time writing until I imagined how a cartoon would help the chapter be lighter or in some cases the opposite, where a cartoon could tell the sadness of the story in a visual way. I guess the writing was a little easier because I always had my cartoons to fallback on if I got stuck.
Any new books from you on the horizon? Or have you gotten up the courage to finally pursue that career as a catwalk model?
My legs are my best asset! Actually, I am almost done with the first draft of a new book for Aladdin. It’s another book that will include my cartoons but it is much more of a silly book than Milo. It’s a buddy story about two friends who want to be the school cartoonists and get more than they bargained for when their wishes come true.
Lightning round: Adam Sandler or Chris Farley?
Gonna have to go with Sandler.
Ouch. Okay, chin up: Ali or Frazier?
I’ll go with the Kelsey Grammer guy. Never liked Ali McBeal.
Separated at birth?
I think that’s Ally but . . . let’s move right along. The Halloween treat that makes you go back to the house a second time?
Has to be Nestles Crunch!
Top of your head, five favorite books?
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and Walker Percy, Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend(any and all), Half Magic by Edward Eager and N.M. Bodecker(it was the first book I remember loving as a kid), The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott.
Five favorite movies?
The Big Lebowski, Memento, Back To The Future, Monsters Inc, Defending Your Life.
First album you ever bought as a kid?
The Who’s Quadraphenia.
Five most played songs on iTunes? No cheating.
“This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” Talking Heads, “I’ve Had It” Aimee Mann, “New York City Serenade” Bruce Springsteen, “Generator (Second Floor)” Freelance Whales, “Into The Woods” Soundtrack.
Nice list. It’s often a surprise what floats up to the top. Full disclosure, my five most played includes four Dylan tunes (“Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Positively 4th Street,” “Tell Me That It Isn’t True”) and Van Morrison’s, “And It Stoned Me.” So: you live in Montreal, which surprisingly is still in Canada. Five favorite places in the city?
1) Schwartz’s has the best smoked meat sandwiches on the planet. 2) Westmount Library lets me fall asleep in their cozy chairs. 3) The Old Port of Montreal for the relaxed tourist ambiance of Europe with a Canadian twist 4) Shaika Café, where I like to write and watch the other people write while they watch me 5) This chair in my house. Love it!
Alan, thanks for stopping by. I’m glad we got a chance to meet. I’ll be watching your career and rooting for your success. Please accept this set of bamboo flatware as a parting gift. You’ll love giving your meals a tropical twist with real bamboo-like handles! The complete set serves one (and might be missing a fork). Shipping not included.
Some links to more interviews conducted by yours truly:
In addition to the relentless snowbooking, I’ve been putting in time over at my new blog, FATHERS READ, which is dedicated to 1) fun photos of men reading; and 2) the importance of positive role models for boy readers.
Note: I want to pause for a moment to emphasize that these gender issues often devolve into an “us” versus “them” scenario, the boys against the girls, with advocates for each side lined up in opposition. This is unfortunate and counter-productive. What we want is readers, boys and girls. Yes, I wrote: the importance of positive role models on BOY readers. Because that’s my focus here, the statistical fact that boys do not read as much as girls. But on a larger scale, the fathers read movement — ha! — benefits boys and girls. I’m not pitting one against the other.
Please check it out, spread the word, send in photos. Things are eerily quiet over there, it’s the proverbial tree falling in the forest. It’s a new blog and generally these things either take time or die on the vine. Right now, it’s too soon to tell.
Over the past two weeks:
* Author Lois Lowry tugged at my heart;
* Author Lewis Buzbee stopped by to contribute, “Five Things About Me as a Young Reader.”
* Peter Lerangis, author of many outstanding books, got fierce about reading.
* I’ve linked to useful, provocative articles on tips for boy-friendly educational approaches, the culture of low expectations, research that suggests how video games might actually boost brainpower, super dad seminars, 14 literacy strategies for boys, and more.
* Identified some pretty excellent father-based blogs.
* And for as long as supplies last . . . photos. Really great photos.
Please do what you can to amplify this important message.
Here’s the info from the corporate Scholastic blog, On Our Minds:
Book-loving people from far and wide have converged upon New York City this week for Book Expo America — and along with it is probably the largest-ever gathering of book bloggers!
Several of them have put in some long hours organizing the first ever Book Blogger Convention (#bookbloggercon), scheduled for Friday, and we were excited to have about 20 of them here at Scholastic HQ on Monday for a tour of our home!
So, essentially, we’re looking at a sampling of 20 children’s book bloggers. Too bad we couldn’t have flown in, say, Travis Jonker, just to represent.
When we wring our hands over the gender reading gap, wondering what kinds of books will turn boys into readers, I always think: It’s not the books. The books are fine and plentiful. We’re missing the male role models, the fathers with books on their laps, the male teachers and librarians and editors and bloggers.
That the gatekeepers are overwhelmingly women naturally reflects a somewhat distorted perspective (good intentions aside) on books. We need more men — and no female blogger, book-lover, or reading advocate can be blamed for that.