Archive for Interviews & Appreciations

A Conversation with Marisabina Russo: Celebrating Her Graphic Novel Memoir, “Why Is Everybody Yelling?”

“I think you have to continuously challenge yourself
as an artist.
Learn a new vocabulary. Solve a puzzle.
Go down some dead ends.
Make discoveries.
Otherwise it gets boring.”
— Marisabina Russo

I admire the survivors in this business. The people who have carved out long careers in children’s books. Sometimes the light shines down brightly, other times they stand alone. And yet the survivors persist. They keep creating, keep making. Hey, it’s not like there’s a choice. Fun fact: Marisabina and I both published our debut books in 1986 — 36 years ago! — and exactly one of those books is still in print. (Clue: It’s not mine.) I first met Marisabina at the Hudson Children’s Book Festival some years back. We were wolfing down free food. I hope you give this interview some time. Marisabina is wise, perceptive, modest, kind, experienced. All the good things. Btw, does anyone have a better first name? Marisabina! It’s a joy to say out loud. Look! Here she comes now. 

 

Congratulations on a truly remarkable achievement. This new book feels like the summation of everything you’ve learned as a person and an artist — and yet, also, it shows that you are still growing, still learning new things. After a long and successful career, is this your most deeply personal work?

First of all, thank you! This book took me seven long years to complete and it only covers ten years of my life. I’m still recovering! It was the most challenging project of my career for several reasons. First, I had to dig deep to explore some pretty painful memories. Then I decided to tell my story in a graphic format, something I had never tried before. Next thing I knew, I was writing a script and teaching myself Photoshop! But I think you have to continuously challenge yourself as an artist. Learn a new vocabulary. Solve a puzzle. Go down some dead ends. Make discoveries. Otherwise it gets boring.

I love that. I think of it as: go to the thing that scares you. The project you aren’t sure you can handle. The challenges bring the best out of you. 

Absolutely. It’s a leap of faith. The hard part is taking the first step and then trusting yourself to figure it out.

My pal, illustrator/author Matthew McElligott, has a great expression for that. “You know how to land the plane.” It’s a reassuring thought when you are circling rough terrain, low on fuel. A benefit of long experience. It might be scary, but you are pretty sure that you’ll survive without too many civilian casualties. I was wondering: When did you start thinking about writing a memoir? That your story could become the story?

This madness all began back in 2008 when I was emerging from a harrowing year of cancer treatment. I did what I’ve always done in times of darkness — kept a journal/sketchbook. I took it with me every day; on the train, to the hospital for radiation, to the clinic for chemo, to my couch where I crashed every afternoon. I’d been reading a lot graphic books and it occurred to me that if I wrote about my cancer in a comic form, it would put this buffer of humor and art between my ceaseless anxiety and the deep unknown of my illness. I was doing it only for myself as a means of survival but then I happened to meet Mark Siegel of First/Second Books and he told me to be “brave” and send it to him. Obviously, the whole thing morphed from a cancer memoir into a coming-of-age memoir, but that’s another story. It was Mark who encouraged me to keep going. Then he offered to show it to Margaret Ferguson at FSG and to my great surprise, she took it.

You’ve said that if you realized at the time how much work it would be, you might not have done it. But now that it is done, you must feel immensely gratified.

Drawing a page or two of a comic is fun. Drawing over 200 pages is terrifying! I remember moments of despair as I looked at stacks of paper awaiting inking and painting. Would I ever finish? I felt as if I were running as hard as I could but staying in one place. Some panels took days to complete! But, yes, now that I can hold my book in my hands, I am thrilled. And in some ways, I really miss working on it. I still have a twinge of postpartum depression.

Well, if you really miss that feeling, I suppose you could hit yourself in the head with a hammer. 

Or maybe just start another graphic novel? Less violent.

As the youngest of seven children, I could really identify with the sense, especially early in the book, of listening in on conversations you didn’t fully understand. You are constantly trying to figure out what’s actually happening. 

In my family, I was always the only child in the room. Nothing revolved around me. I was expected to be polite and quiet. So I listened. My mother sometimes spoke to me in Italian when I was young but never in German. That was the language of secrets in my family. Of course, I wanted to know what was going on especially when the conversations grew heated! So I listened like a little mouse with big ears. I watched their faces and body language and one day I discovered that I understood German! It was like that feeling you get when you’re a child and you realize you can read. Everything shifted. 

So . . . all that artwork. Did you ever count the number of images you had to produce? I asked a similar question to Matt Phelan, and he was like, “Oh no, you can never count!”

Ha ha! I agree with Matt. Sometimes my husband would try to estimate how many drawings I was doing and I would make him stop! 

Oh, wait, you’re married? Now this is awkward. I thought this was date?

So many years! We met in college. My husband is my rock. He helped me enormously on this book by scanning all the artwork. If that doesn’t sound like much, try scanning 200 pages just for fun.

I sometimes work with high school students on their college application essay. I tell them how much I love that essay, the opportunity to pause and reflect and find meaning in their lives. A memoir is much the same exercise. Did anything surprise you along the way?

When I was in high school, I often wrote about the things that were going on in my family. I don’t think I was reflecting on any of it. I was just trying to record the craziness and kind of tame it. I remember my favorite English teacher suggesting there was no way these stories were true, that I had a big imagination! I assured him I was not making it up but I’m not sure he ever believed me. 

Writing about some of these same events now, so many years later, I did find myself reflecting on my relationships with different family members. I think I was lucky to grow up in an era of letter writing. It was especially moving for me to reread my brother Piero’s letters. Each envelope is a work of art. The words are poetic. His love for me is so obvious. As the years went by, his mental illness took a toll on all of us. It was hard for me to shake the memory of seeing him homeless on the streets of New York. But as I reread his earlier letters, I was swept back to happier days when he made me believe in magical things and the possibilities that were awaiting me in life.

That’s beautiful and heart-wrenching. Did you have a full script and then illustrate? Or do the two elements — word & image — come simultaneously?

At first I wrote and drew pictures all at once. But when I started working with my editor, Margaret Ferguson, she asked me to write the complete script before doing any more drawings. It felt like I was writing a film script and I enjoyed it. Of course, later, as I started to lay out the drawings, I would ask myself, “Really? You had to set all these scenes in the Louvre?” 

Ha!

There was a lot of research I had to do for the pictures to be sure they were accurate, everything from the paintings and interiors of museums and churches to the advertising in the subway stations. 

Bernard Waber — something of a forgotten genius, IMO — once told me that the writer in him tries to please the illustrator. And vice versa.

I knew Bernard Waber from an annual author dinner we both attended for several years. (They were organized by a school librarian in Putnam Valley.) He always had a twinkle in his eye. I truly hope he’s not forgotten! 

I have a sweet story about him, an unexpected act of kindness. A good man. I interviewed him at a time when my oldest son, Nick, was very sick. He popped a Lyle plush toy in the mail along with a sweet card. I will forever love him for that.

My writer and illustrator selves sometimes have to duke it out. When you’re making your own picture book, you have the freedom to move between words and images, rearranging, cutting, and editing as you go. But your two selves may not always agree! If anything, I think my writing self is the bigger diva, never wanting to cut a word or phrase.

Besides the art — and we’ll get to that in a minute — what was the hardest part about it? I’d think that it requires a heaping amount of courage. 

It felt, at times, like I was putting myself through therapy. I relived some difficult scenes from my life like my mother yelling at me, yelling at my stepfather, and the general unpredictability of her moods. I didn’t want to overdo it and turn my mother into a monster so it was a delicate balance. I also found myself writing at length about my brother, Piero, and ignoring my own story. I was very lucky to have Margaret as my editor because she would reel me back in and remind me this was my story, not my brother’s. She consistently pushed me to be more introspective. It could be painful but I knew she was right!

It’s easier to write about someone else than to turn that same tough gaze inward.

Amen.

Is there a particular sequence, or page, or passage, where you think, Oh, that part there, I’m proud of that.

Well, about halfway through, Margaret left FSG and I got a new editor, Wes Adams. The first thing he did was ask me to expand the book. More writing! More pictures! He encouraged me add more full page illustrations and so I did. One of these was the last page of Chapter 10, the aerial view of my friend, Karen, and me on the corner next to my apartment building. It was a lot of work to get the perspective right and draw all those bricks, but I’m very happy with it.

It’s a wonderful illustration, especially effective after five consecutive six-panel pages. A refreshing change of pace. It also brings home your youth, your smallness — and, of my, that is a lot of bricks! Why don’t they make these buildings out of stucco?

Ha ha. We’re talking Queens in the 1950s. 

 

That’s a lot of bricks to color. Could you take us through one brief section in more detail. One image, or one page, or one sequence of images. Why do you think it works?

The image at the bottom of page three where I picture myself as a little nun walking with other nuns felt like such a funny scene sitting as it does below the picture of my family arguing in a mixture of Yiddish and English. I think the pages of my visit to the mental hospital (30 – 32) are successful especially where the text with the first mention of Auschwitz is boxed alone next to a close up of me looking at the numbers tattooed on my Tante Anny’s arm. It stops the chatter of everyone arguing for a moment and reveals how deeply confusing and scary the adult world can be for a child. 

Amazing work. This is a book that rewards scrutiny. The more a reader puts into it, the more depths that are revealed. 

Thank you. I’ve heard from several readers that they rushed through the book the first time because the words and story were compelling them to finish. Later they decided to read the book a second time so they could absorb the pictures.

Lastly, as a writer, I’m envious of illustrators who can listen to podcasts while they work. I need either silence or instrumental music for (rare!) times of Deep Thinking. What did you listen to while doing all that artwork? 

While writing, sketching, and even sometimes even inking, I prefer silence. When I start painting I need music. I especially like listening to jazz. Some days I prefer old school R&B. Of course, that can be risky if I have a deadline because I might find myself dancing around the studio instead of painting! When I got to the teen years in my memoir, I played a lot of the songs I used to listen to on my record player, stuff by the Supremes, the Temptations, the Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas. It’s amazing how music can transport you to a long ago time. There I was, back in my room in that small apartment in Queens, listening to music and starting to imagine my future.

One of my favorite ideas in Harry Potter — are we still allowed to talk about J.K. Rowling? — is the portkey. The object that transports you to another time and place. Those exist in our muggle world, too. And for me, albums, songs, have that same ability. 

That’s why my husband and I will never get rid of our albums or our turntable! We used to have a jukebox to play our big collection of 45s. It finally broke but we still play 45s. 

Marisabina, I want to thank you for this book, this long career of yours, and the time you gave us today. I enjoyed every second of getting to know you better.

Same here, Jimmy. And thanks for letting me blab on about my book! 

   

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE FABULOUS WORK OF MARISABINA RUSSO, THERE’S THIS THING CALLED “GOOGLE” . . .

Joan Didion . . . Thank You!

 

We lost one of our greatest writers today. She was in life, and remains in death, a treasure. Just a remarkable woman.

Regarding that quote up above, it is one of the reasons why I am often paralyzed by the idea of outlines. More and more, publishers require them. A box to be checked. I used to balk at that, because — of course! — how would I know what’s going to happen until I start writing? But I’ve learned that they don’t expect writers to doggedly follow the outline. Editors want a general idea — and, yes, managing editors certainly like to check off that box. A way to keep things moving along the conveyer belt. 

When writing, I always have a plan. At least for that day, that scene, that chapter. An idea of what I want to accomplish, the ground I need to cover. And I always have a more general idea of where I hope to end up.

A metaphor: I’m in a sailboat, I’m aiming for an island in the distance, but the currents are strong and the wind is kicking up. I might get blown off course. And even in the best circumstances, I’ll have to tack back and forth; I won’t get there in a straight line.

Just today, in fact, I was finally ready to begin outlining the final chapters of a book that’s two-thirds finished. So rather than blasting out a lot of words, I spent the day plotting in detail that final sequence of events. It took that long for me to reach that level of clarity, far different from anything I might have imagined, or “outlined” to my editors, three months ago.

I noticed how much of the original outline didn’t make the final draft. Some ideas (and characters) got crowded by other (hopefully) better ideas.

Writing as discovery. A way to find out. A path into the deep, dark woods. For me, it’s impossible to plan in advance what exactly I might find there. 

If you have not read The Year of Magical Thinking, that’s a terrific way to meet Joan Didion. But there are many avenues of entry. You can’t go wrong. Just pick up something/anything that she’s written . . . and start reading.

Homer Simpson’s Hands

There is a key character named Homer Simpson in Nathanael West’s 1939 Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust.

Yes, d’oh, a name familiar to most.

 

Did Matt Groening name his Homer after West’s original? The information is somewhat contradictory, though Groening did state in interviews that he lifted the name from West’s novel. However, Groening’s father was also named Homer (Matt’s younger sisters were named Lisa and Maggie, not coincidentally), and he has stated in other interviews that the name was derived from his dear old dad. 

My guess is that both reports are true — influences and inspirations often arrive in layers, filtering in from a variety of sources. 

I recall reading Nathanael West as a very young man: A Cool Million, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Day of the Locust. He made a strong impression at the time, an original mind with an absurdist’s sense of satire. He was wickedly funny and intensely dark about the human condition. That appealed to me, too. 

I recently went back and reread those books, some 40 years later. My feeling is that if you read a book at a much earlier time in your life, it’s like you’ve never read it at all. That is, the reader’s perspective has been so transformed that it’s like encountering a brand new book (even though, of course, the book hasn’t changed a bit). The relationship between text-and-reader is made anew. 

While I enjoyed reading West again, and still consider myself very much a fan, there were passages that haven’t aged well. This is true of a depressing number of books, as we know. Time is not always kind. Values change. We’ve learned some things along the way. There’s an unsettling streak of misogyny here and there. Perhaps a function of the time, a flaw in West himself, or just part of his eviscerating, take-no-prisoners satire. He’s tough on everybody. Rape comes up: the word, the desire, the act. As a social satirist, West doesn’t judge, just presents. Those are not comfortable sections to read. Am I being too sensitive? Well, to be honest, that’s not a complaint, too sensitive, I often receive. In any event, West seems neglected today. 

Let’s call his work problematic and leave it at that for now. Others can sort out where West fits in the canon. (The Modern Library ranks Locust at  #73 in its list of the 100 Best Novels.)

Mostly, I want to highlight Homer Simpson’s amazing hands.

Here’s a snippet from possibly my favorite passage in all of West’s work. He provides us with some genius descriptions of this awkward, ill-at-ease, deeply repressed character who seems almost detached from his own hands:

“He lay stretched out on the bed, collecting his senses and testing the different parts of his body. Every part was awake but his hands. They still slept. He was not surprised. They demanded special attention, had always demanded it. When he had been a child, he used to stick pins into them and once had even thrust them into a fire. Now he used only cold water.

He got out of bed in sections, like a poorly made automaton, and carried his hands into the bathroom. He turned on the cold water. When the basin was full, he plunged his hands in up to the wrists. They lay quietly on the bottom like a pair of strange aquatic animals. When they were thoroughly chilled and began to crawl about, he lifted them out and hid them in a towel.”

I can still remember encountering that section decades ago, that bizarre disconnection from his own body — a powerful metaphor for a character’s discomfort in his own skin, his own vibrating self.

He carried his hands into the bathroom.

God, that’s brilliant.

Nathanael West.

I confess that I’m pretty sure I tried to rip that off somewhere along the line, the idea of carrying one’s hands into the next room, etc., but I can’t for the life of me remember where it might appear. A Jigsaw Jones mystery for 2nd-grade readers? I don’t exactly recall. If I did borrow it, or quietly paid tribute to it — and I certainly hope I did — I had forgotten the source material at the time. It was just that remarkable idea lodged in my skull from a nearly-forgotten book.

Hands as strange aquatic animals.

The first time I read The Day of the Locusts, the animated Homer Simpson did not yet exist. It wasn’t until I came back to it that I realized, Oh, wow, Homer Simpson! I guess that’s where Groening got it.

“The Day of the Locust” was also a 1975 film starring Donald Sutherland (as Homer), Karen Black, William Atherton, Burgess Meredith, and other fine actors. I’m going to rent it on Amazon Prime sometime soon. Sadly, Nathanael West’s promising career was cut short at the age of 37, when he died in a car crash just one short year after the publication of Locust

A tragedy that his work prepared us for.

 

 

 

A CONVERSATION WITH AUTHOR JAN CARR: Celebrating Her New Picture Book & Recalling the Good Old Days at Scholastic (1980s)

In this interview with author Jan Carr, I wanted to celebrate her new picture book, Star of the Party: The Solar System Celebrates!, illustrated by Juana Medina. But I confess that I mostly wanted to catch up with an old friend. We shared some time together at Scholastic in the 80s. It was a time of great change in publishing — and we were just getting started.

 

Jan, it’s so nice get reacquainted with you. We first met back in 1985, I believe. I was a newly-hired junior copywriter at Scholastic pulling down $11,500 a year and you were . . . I don’t know exactly what you were.

I was an Associate Editor in the book group, first on Lucky Book Club, and later in trade books. At that time, the clubs published some of their own books.

Eva Moore was the editor of Lucky at that time, right? Maybe it was always true, but there was a real changing of the guard taking place at that time at Scholastic. Those older, wiser, more experienced editors working side-by-side with much younger people and their new-fangled ways.

Yes, Eva was editor of Lucky. And she herself had gotten her start under the famous Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, founding editor of Lucky.

Craig Walker used to tell Beatrice stories, truly from a quieter age in children’s publishing. I remember starting at Scholastic when we didn’t yet have computers. I had a typewriter and about six bottles of Wite- Out. After a few months, I was learning about MS-DOS and floppy disks.

Oy, those typewriters. I was a hopeless typist.

So was that your dream at the time? Children’s books? I seem to recall . . . leg warmers. Maybe I was mistaken, but I had the sense that you were an aspirational dancer.

Leg warmers? Ha! In true 80s style, they were probably ripped. When I left Scholastic at the end of the day, I’d zip off to ballet class, but since I hadn’t started studying until I was an adult, there was no chance of a professional career. But I definitely loved, and continue to love, kids’ books, and literature in general. I’d been taking a writing class, and trying my hand at fiction, and was also writing articles about theater and dance for Stagebill, Playbill, and other arts publications. One weekend, I’d been assigned an article about someone –- Martha Clarke? I spent the whole weekend researching in the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and writing the article. On Monday morning, I arrived at Scholastic feeling proud, and showed it to Regina Griffin, who immediately corrected some fact I’d gotten wrong. And I remember feeling deflated. When you write about the arts in NYC, you’re writing for a wildly knowledgeable audience. Regina and I ended up working together later as editor and writer when she moved to Holiday House, and she acquired some of my picture books.

Those were very happy days at Scholastic. There was a certain amount of looseness and creativity. When I wasn’t busy counting all that money I was earning — my rent was $200 a month for a railroad apartment in Brooklyn that I shared with two other slobs guys — I would sometimes look around at all the creative young people in the room. Just a lot sharp, caring, creative people carving their own path in the world of children’s books. Ellen Miles, Phoebe Yeh, Holly Kowitt, Bethany Buck, Brenda Bowen . . . a lot of them with big jobs still today . . . Hey, wait a minute. Was I the only young, male heterosexual on all three floors of that 730 Broadway office?!

You, Greg Holch, and R.L. Stine!

Old “Jovial Bob” Stine was a little before my time. And he wasn’t exactly young — even back then. I wonder what ever happened to him?

Dropped into obscurity, poor fella.

I hope he’s still jovial.

Photo taken from a 2003 reunion gathering. Many of these faces were at Scholastic during the late 80s. JP not present. So, yeah, maybe a Diverse Books movement was a necessary idea!

 

I love your characterization of the people, sharp and creative. I recently had dinner with Holly Kowitt and we were talking about that very thing, that we were so lucky to be in a place that gave us a bit of creative room, both professionally and otherwise.

Holly was the funniest person in that building. I’m so glad to see that she’s putting out books that feature her twisted humor and illustrative talent. I’m a huge fan, love her. Holly had a basement apartment on East 7th next door to those great Ukranian dive bars. When asked to describe where she lived, Holly would often say, “You probably urinated on my bedroom window at 3:00 in the morning.” Ah, New York in the mid-80s!

       

Scholastic tolerated and was accepting of a range of employees, including those of us who were a little more oddball or out of the mold. Before Scholastic, I’d worked at Children’s Television Workshop (now called Sesame Workshop) and it was similarly accepting. At CTW, some of the assistants were aspiring actors, and on days they had auditions, they used to come to the office wearing curlers. It was a more forgiving time.

That was another fertile training ground for future children’s authors and illustrators. Susan Hood, Deborah Kovacs. There must be dozens.

So, so many!

Can you tell me any stories from the Scholastic days?

This isn’t strictly publishing related, but it definitely fits with your description of the atmosphere of “looseness and creativity.” I had a birthday one year, and I hadn’t yet told my Scholastic friends that I’d recently started dating someone. So Holly and others, for fun, placed a personal ad in the Village Voice to get me dates. It described me as wearing red high tops or something. When the responses started pouring in, we tacked those hard copy letters up on the outside of the cubicles, dividing them into categories: Cream of the Crop, Fat Chance, etc. And every day, everyone would file by to read the letters and see if there were any new ones. We were curating an evolving exhibit! I remember one incarcerated guy who responded and charmed us all by introducing himself saying: “I live in a big house with a big yard.”

Hilarious.

I think I remember people adding Post-It notes with comments? So it was kind of performance art-y? Musta been cuz we were in the East Village.

One of my favorite stories features Ed Monagle, who was a chief financial officer instrumental in helping to turn the company around in the 80s and early 90s along with the leadership of Barbara Marcus, Jean Feiwel, Dick Spaulding and Dick Krinsely. Ed was a sweet man, very kind, but, you know, a numbers person. Not really a book guy. Well, I moved upstate in 1990 and started freelancing. One day Ed stopped me with some advice: “Jimmy, you know what you gotta do. You need to make up a character like Clifford the Big Red Dog. I see the royalty checks we send out to Norman Bridwell twice a year. He’s not complaining, let me tell you. That’s what you need to do. I mean, come on: he’s a dog, he’s big, he’s red. How hard can it be?”

Ha ha, so how hard can it be? And why haven’t you and I come up with a Clifford-level idea? Ooh, I just had a cringe memory involving another Scholastic book that was popular at the time, not nearly as popular as Clifford, but the art was simple and bold. One day, we got final art in, but it was so simple and rudimentary that I thought it was sketches, so I fed it through the copy machine to make copies. Whoops. I was just lucky that the final art didn’t rip!

We recently saw the passing of Dick Robinson, President and CEO of Scholastic. The end of an era. Did you feel a pang at the news? Dick was a guy who, whenever he saw me in the elevator, would ask: “How are you, Jim? Writing lots of copy?”

I know DR had a reputation for knowing all of his employees, but once, when I got a promotion, he announced it in a group of others, and it was very clear to me he had absolutely no idea who this Jan Carr from the Book Group was.

Don’t feel too bad, all the mail room workers certainly knew who you were — all those love letters from the Big House!

But I have another funny story about that promotion, which wasn’t actually a promotion. I was moving from book clubs to trade books, but staying at my title, Associate Editor.

Same glorious cubicle?

Of course. And when Craig Walker heard, he stopped me in the hallway, and fixed me with one of his signature sly smiles that signaled he was about to zing one at you, and said, “Jan! I want to congratulate you on that incredible lateral move!”

Craig, sigh. I still get teary thinking about him. That warm pressure behind the eyes.

Scholastic, 1986.

We all miss the one and only Craig. This is a good spot to recall the editorial meeting where he actually pitched the idea for The Magic School Bus series to Jean Feiwel. I was there! I was witness! In editorial meetings, we’d all perk up when it was Craig’s turn to present because he was so entertaining, even when he was proposing something as ordinary as a classic tale for the 8×8 paperback picture book line. He could make me laugh just by saying, “And then, of course, the fox eats the Gingerbread Boy!”

I wasn’t in those meetings, since I was in the marketing department, but Craig and I ate lunch together 2-3 times a week. Hilarity ensued. 

And as for historically significant editorial meetings, I also remember being at the one where The Baby-Sitters Club was proposed.

And you thought to yourself, “Yeah, that’ll never fly.”

Obviously I had no idea it heralded the arrival of the phenomenon that would be BSC!

That’s how Scholastic worked at its best. One random book with “babysitter” in the title did exceptionally well on a Lucky Book Club offering. So Jean Feiwel zeroed in on that word and said, “Let’s create a series.” Then Jean was smart enough to give the idea to Ann M. Martin and get out of the way. 

That’s right, Ann did an amazing job.

So, please, catch me up. Have you stayed in children’s books all this time?

I have. Though I’ve had various side jobs. Some of my additional work has been kid-book related – work-for-hire novelizations, ghostwriting for series. Interestingly, on my original projects, I’ve ended up working with a number of the people I met when we all worked together at Scholastic. Andrea Cascardi, now of Transatlantic Agency, is my agent. And years ago, when she was an editor at Hyperion, Andrea acquired my very first original picture book, Dark Day, Light Night, illustrated by James Ransome. And the editor of my latest picture book, Star of the Party: The Solar System Celebrates!, was Phoebe Yeh. I think you’ve ended up working with some Scholastic folks, too?

Most of them won’t return my emails. There’s been legal action. These editors play fast and loose with the term “stalker.”

The squeaky wheel gets the book contract.

Today we’re celebrating your most recent book, Star of the Party: The Solar System Celebrates! Where did this book begin for you? I mean, what was your initial idea?

I’d read that the sun was 4.6 billion years old, and I thought, that star deserves a birthday party! What if the planets in the solar system planned one in appreciation? This book is, of course, in the category of informational fiction, not non-fiction. So though I had to understand the facts, and get them right, I also got to anthropomorphize the planets and give them speech balloons, and build a story around them. Sometimes, when I read about astronomy, it seems vast and complicated. Do young readers ever feel that way? I thought it might help to make the story cozy, limit it to our solar system. In certain ways, our solar system is not unlike a family. And the personality traits ascribed to the planets might help readers remember some of the facts. Jupiter? He’s a bulky braggadocio. Because he’s the biggest planet, a gas giant!

Yes, I was proud to see that you were able to work a fart joke into the book.

I put it in for you, Jimmy. And for all the fart-joke lovers out there.

To be clear, I don’t believe anyone has ever farted in one of my books. Or burped. My characters do projectile vomit from time to time. That’s been known to happen. Always hilarious, the gushing firehouse of spew. So, hey, Pluto didn’t get an invite to the party?

He did get an invite, but he’s at the kids’ table. Is Pluto a planet? There’s still disagreement. One of the challenges of writing about the solar system is that the information is always changing and shifting, and will continue to do so after the book gets published. After this manuscript was acquired, astronomers discovered more moons for both Jupiter and Saturn. And since that information figured prominently in the story, I not only had to update the numbers, I also had to fiddle with the story. Thankfully, that happened before publication. But that’s the challenge when you’re dealing with non- fiction content. Years ago, I wrote a book about punctuation, Greedy Apostrophe: A Cautionary Tale. Regina was my editor and she corrected one of my punctuation facts in her notes. I challenged her and referred her to Chicago Manual of Style. But she pointed out that a newer edition had recently been published. So even punctuation rules change!

Uh-oh, let’s hope that Regina never comes across this blog! We’re a little lax with typos and minor errors here at James Preller Corporate. Tell me, Jan. When you wrote Star, did you have a vision for how in the world someone would illustrate it? Or did you just think, “Not my problem!”

I love to envision the art, and love seeing the list of illustrators the art director and editor come up with, being invited into their conversation. I usually have confidence in their ultimate choice, since they have so much more experience pairing manuscripts with illustrators. And I was ecstatic with the choice of Juana Medina for Star, since I’m a huge fan of her Juana & Lucas books. She’s a charming writer as well as illustrator.

Who were the writers — or the books — that you most admired early on? For myself, I still think my sense of a picture book comes from those early years. Writers like Arnold Lobel and James Marshall, Ruth Krauss, Bernard Waber, Vera Williams. So many.

I have so many favorites. I feel so much affection for kids’ books old and new. You have to love a form to write it. You know what amuses me? How picture book fashion has changed over time. Books are now spare, very little text. But some of the old ones have full pages of very tightly packed text. For instance, Mike Mulligan and The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. I only recently realized that the author of Country Bunny, DuBose Heyward, was also the book writer for “Porgy and Bess.” I mean, Wow! Country Bunny has so much heart, and was ahead of its time in pushing forward a mom of 21 for an important, high-profile job –- Easter Bunny! Lots of illustrators have fun sprinkling their books with “Easter eggs,” but that book has actual Easter eggs!

I miss the longer texts. The role of the writer feels diminished. Picture books have gotten younger, with fewer words. I wonder how someone like William Steig would manage in today’s climate.

I know. I see the beauty of the spare, airy texts, but as a writer I like words. And I know that when I was a young reader, that’s how I acquired my love of language, from the rich texts I was reading.

What’s up next for you?

Something really fun! But I can’t announce it yet. I hate it when people say that, don’t you? But I have to. Because… Publishing made me do it! What’s up next for you?

Thanks for asking. I have a middle-grade novel coming up with Macmillan (just need to, you know, actually get it done), some work with the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure people, and an upcoming series with Scholastic, “Exit 13,” which I’m thinking of as a mix between Stephen King, “Schitt’s Creek,” and “Stranger Things.” I also keep writing picture book manuscripts that no one wants to publish. Just because!

Ooh, those all sound great! Exit 13 sounds amazing!

We shall see. It’s my first book with Scholastic in more than 10 years, so a coming home for me. Thanks for your time, Jan. I guess I’m getting at the age when nostalgia tugs at my sleeve. I’ve enjoyed being back in touch with you. Here’s to many more books in your future.

Thank you, Jimmy. It’s a pleasure to have this conversation, and so fun to be back in touch. Here’s to many books in your future, too! Thanks for the interview!

Pro Tip: Eudora Welty

“The first act of insight is throw away the labels.
In fiction, while we do not necessarily write about ourselves,
we write out of ourselves,
using ourselves;
what we learn from, what we are sensitive to,
what we feel strongly about —
these become our characters
and go to make our plots.”
Eudora Welty
Wow, Eudora Welty explains it so simply with one clear distinction.
We don’t write about ourselves . . .
we write out of ourselves.
Exactly!
So well expressed that it clangs like a bell in the skull.