Tag Archive for Jean Feiwel

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!

Dick Robinson, Chairman, President, and CEO of Scholastic (1937-2021): A Few Memories from the Wayback

I felt a pang when I learned of the passing of Dick Robinson, chairman, president, and CEO of Scholastic. Part of that was nostalgia for a long ago time in my life, but also that I had interacted with him, saw him in the halls and elevators, and respected him.

After a hazy period of cutting lawns and waiting tables, I got my first real job after college in 1985 at Scholastic, Inc., on 730 Broadway, two blocks east from Washington Square Park. I was hired as a junior copywriter to write the SeeSaw Book Club. I was also assigned the role of copywriter for the Text Division, run by Eleanor Angeles and Loretta Marion. I wrote the bulk of their catalog copy, plus ads and direct mail packages.

As it happened, it was a tradition for Dick Robinson to write an intro letter on the inside cover of the main catalogs. Only he didn’t write the letters. He rewrote them.

I was elected to be the guy — a young whelp earning a cool $11,500 a year — who would write Dick Robinson’s letters. I’d navigate the long hallway to his office on the 10th floor for a brief discussion. Just the two of us. I wasn’t nervous; curiously, he seemed more nervous than me. Dick Robinson wasn’t an easy conversationalist, nor did he possess a breezy charm. But he was always kind, authentic, never intimidating. There was nothing to be nervous about. We’d talk a bit — he had a deep love for the Magazines Division, and Scope texts, which his father pioneered, and the company’s overarching mission — and I’d go off and try to write something that wasn’t too terrible.

The next day I’d drop a couple of not-altogether-awful, double-spaced pages into his mailbox.

Then he’d rewrite the crap out it.

But he was decent about it, always with a smile, his pen moving across the pages, crossing out sentences, tweaking phrases, inserting a new introduction, gently cutting my work to ribbons. 

For my first few years with Scholastic — and this became a regular joke with my pals Holly Kowitt and Craig Walker — whenever I’d see him in the elevator he’d turn to me and say, “Hello, Jim. Writing lots of copy?”

I always assured him that I was.

Reams of it.

Out the wazoo.

So I got to know the man in that peculiar fashion. Not as the decision-maker at the head of the table. I wasn’t privy to that side of his business acumen. I only met the gentle, halting, vaguely ill-at-ease man who walked the halls like an avuncular school principal. He knew everyone’s name and, mnemonically, I believe, remembered what we did.

In my case, I imagine that his interior Rolodex read: Jimmy Preller, writes copy.

I remember overseeing a poster that showed a map of the world. It was another project for the Text Division. There was some copy in a sidebar and the poster was used as a promotional giveaway for a new Social Studies textbook. Unfortunately there was a typo in it and Dick was the one — of all people! — who found it. Turns out we spelled hungry wrong. The country. Ugh. (It’s Hungary, grrrr.) So that sucked. Dick wasn’t mean about it, he never raised his voice, but I felt bad and he wanted me to feel bad, too. I still do feel embarrassed by it, that dopey mistake.

I let the old man down.

Not long before I arrived at Scholastic, in 1985, there had been a tough profile on Dick in The New York Times Business Section. Scholastic struggled in the early 80s. There were missteps and miscalculations and significant losses. The company went all-in on computing a little too soon, and ineffectually. The Times article, as I recall, brutally summed it up as: He took over his father’s company and flushed it down the drain.

It was rough stuff.

I think about how that article must have devastated him. A knife to the heart. Public humiliation from the old Gray Lady, the voice of record, The New York Times. And what did Dick Robinson do? He quietly persevered. He made some great hires. He brought in Dick Krinsley, who in turn hired Barbara Marcus (my first boss), and Jean Feiwel, a dynamic combination, to take over Book Group. He leaned more heavily on Ed Monagle and Dick Spaulding. I’m sure there were other people that I’ve failed to mention who played instrumental roles. Together, that small, tight, smart group helped turn the company’s fortunes around.

Dick Robinson, justly protective of his family’s legacy, built a business that would have made any father proud.

He did good.

 

 

 

Revisiting THE FIVE CHINESE BROTHERS — A Chinese American Perspective with Phoebe Yeh, VP and Publisher at Crown Books

We recently witnessed the kerfuffle regarding Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ decision to no longer publish six titles that it deemed offensive. It brought to mind an experience I had back in the late 1980s when I worked at Scholastic. So I reached out to my old friend, Phoebe Yeh, to ask her about it. Like me, Phoebe was young at the time, an editorial assistant for our beloved friend, Craig Walker. These days Phoebe is kind of a big deal, a widely respected VP/Publisher of Books for Young Readers at Crown, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books.

Honestly, I’m just grateful she answered my email. 

Jimmy? Jimmy who?”

 

 

Phoebe, thanks for taking some time out for this topic. I know that it’s close to your heart. We met in 1986, back when I was a junior copywriter at Scholastic and you were hired as Craig Walker’s editorial assistant. We were both earning salaries in the (barely) five figures. I remember talking with you about the 1938 book, The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop. It was your mission in life, it seemed, to produce a new, authentic retelling of that ancient Chinese folktale. You were deeply offended by Kurt Weise’s illustrations. Can you remember what your feelings were at the time?

Yes, indeed.  And even though more thirty years have passed, my opinion about The Five Chinese Brothers hasn’t changed. Full disclosure: I grew up reading this book. As a child, I took the illustrations for granted, the slanty eyes, the yellow skin tone.

Fast forward. I’m basically in my first real job after college. I think I must have had a lot of nerve. I marched myself into my boss’ office even though I knew I was going to complain about a book that sold like crazy for See Saw Book Club (kindergarten/first grade readers).

I shared my reservations with Craig Walker — also sharing that it wasn’t like the author, Claire Bishop, had even come up with the premise. I had read Chinese versions of the story about the brothers with the super powers but Bishop had added whipped cream or some such to her version. And everyone knows, many Chinese people are lactose intolerant so adding this detail made no sense.

 

Craig was incredibly supportive and felt that we should bring up the idea of publishing a new version with our editor-in-chief, Jean Feiwel.  The Seven Chinese Brothers by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jean and Mou-sien Tseng, became my first acquisition as an editorial assistant (still virtually unheard of -– usually you don’t start acquiring until you are, at least, an assistant editor).  And prideful though it sounds, this version is still in print.

What was challenging for me was that I LOVED that book as a kid. It was such a great story. One brother drinking the whole ocean! Another brother with the unbreakable iron neck! I read it over and over again. And I wasn’t the least bit offended by any of it! So talking to you, on one level, I could intellectually understand where you were coming from . . . but I didn’t feel you, if you know what I mean. It was a long time ago, I had a lot to learn (still do!), and I wondered at first if perhaps you might be over-reacting. What was I missing?

Jimmy, you weren’t missing anything.  How would you know?  How could you know? I didn’t know either, when I was reading the book as a kid.  But by the time I was at my first job, I had read Maxine Hong Kingston and Zora Neale Hurston, other women writers who weren’t “taught” in high school, poetry and novels about the European exploitation in African and Caribbean nations.  I subscribed to a weekly newspaper, Asian Week that enumerated crimes and other discriminatory incidents against Asian Americans.  My second encounter with The Five Chinese Brothers was informed by this context.

I knew that there was a way to retain the humor, the absurdity without ridicule.  And since I don’t have slanty eyes, there should be a way to show the brothers more authentically. To be fair, an educator colleague who was raised in Taiwan, doesn’t have the same issue with The Five Chinese Brothers.  But she also recognizes that Chinese Americans have a problematic history: we are the only immigrant group who had not one but two exclusion acts forbidding entry; the trauma of building the Transcontinental Railroad, etc etc so in the mid 80’s,  I was interpreting the Bishop book from a vastly different lens.

I’m curious. Do you think your version of Seven Brothers could be criticized by today’s standards for going with a white author from New Zealand? In today’s world, would you have worked harder to find an “authentic” retelling by a Chinese American author?

We signed up Margaret Mahy, a non-Chinese American author after a fruitless search to find a Chinese American who was interested in writing a children’s book. I tried everyone — Maxine, Bette Bao Lord, Nien Cheng, etc and I think this was before Amy Tan. I didn’t approach Larry Yep because I erroneously thought he only wrote MG. So I found an author who could do justice to the humor. To her credit, Mahy was worried about authenticity/sensitivity but I knew I could walk her thru it because of my background. I didn’t speak a word of English until I was 3. I took Chinese (language) classes in college and lived in Taiwan for a year after college. And I felt confident that I had context and resources if questions arose. So besides being a gifted writer, Mahy knew what she didn’t know, a key, I believe, to writing about a protagonist who isn’t from your background. The illustrators had enormous context and experience. This also made me feel that we could do justice to this new version.

I remember your great pride and deep satisfaction when you signed up a new, updated retelling. That was a book you fought for. And I can still see the pleasure on your face on the day when the Tsengs’ art came into the office. As a Chinese American, can you express what it meant to you then — and what it means to you today — to make that kind of difference in a children’s book?

 

I was thrilled (and relieved) when The Seven Chinese Brothers received critical attention. And that it sold, proving my point that a new version would resonate. I loved seeing it in bookstores. But even better, finding it in libraries and school classrooms.

Fast forward to a midpoint in my publishing career, when I signed up Ellen Oh to write her first children’s book, Prophecy (Ellen  later became a co-founder of WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS). But guess what book was the first time she saw Asian characters: The Seven Chinese Brothers.

 

Recently I had a similar moment with another Asian American who was creating children’s books for MOMA.  Unlike Ellen, who grew up in Brooklyn, this gentleman was raised in New England.  He told me the same thing.  Until The Seven Chinese Brothers, he hadn’t seen a children’s book with Asians depicted without mockery.  Who knew that one book could have this kind of impact?

Things are so much better now but in the mid-80’s when I started in children’s publishing, there was a dearth.  I’m profoundly grateful to Craig and Jean for giving me a chance, one that has pretty much informed the rest of my children’s book career.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Phoebe — and for the  meaningful, important work you continue to do. Proud of you!

 

FUN FACT: The food at Phoebe’s wedding, somewhere in Chinatown, was amazing. On long winter nights, I still think about that meal thirty years later. But also: Jigsaw Jones has a best friend and a partner named Mila Yeh. So, yeah, that’s where I borrowed that name. A direct lift from Phoebe — because I was seeking something that evoked for me the qualities of tough, smart, loyal, fierce, kind.

Joanna Cole (1944-2020), Remembered: How the Magic School Bus Got Started

I was sorry to read that Joanna Cole has passed away at age 75. I have memories of her, met her a number of times over the years. Always a gracious, friendly, kind person. To me, at least!

Joanna was what I think of as a children’s book person. The genuine article. She worked for years, wrote many books, before “getting lucky” and hitting it out of the park with Bruce Degen and the Magic School Bus series.

I interviewed Joanna for The Big Book of Picture-Book Authors & Illustrators, published back in 2001. My intro paragraph:

What’s Joanna Cole interested in? Well, just about everything! And when Joanna Cole is interested in something, she usually writes a book about it. She’s written about fleas, cockroaches, dinosaurs, chicks, fish, saber-toothed tigers, frogs, horses, snakes, cars, puppies, insects, and (whew!) babies.

THE BACKSTORY TO THE MAGIC SCHOOL BUS

Fresh out of college (and after a year of waitering at Beefsteak Charlie’s), I got a job as a junior copywriter at Scholastic for $11,500. I stayed on there in the second-half of the 1980s — the money was so good! — then moved upstate, and continued in various freelance capacities for years after that. There was a time when those folks at Scholastic were my publishing family. My very best pal from those days was an editor, Craig Walker, working under the direction of Jean Feiwel. Craig was hilarious and brilliant and we ate lunch together several times a week for many years. We loved eating chicken and rice at the deli next door. Delicious, inexpensive, and a little seedy, we way we liked it. Ah, those were happy times. Anyway, it was Craig, assisted by Phoebe Yeh, who came up with the idea for the Magic School Bus series.

The standard science books for children at the time were usually dull, dry affairs. Just deadly. Straightforward facts accompanied by black-and-white photographs. Craig had the idea of trying something bold and new, bringing humor and full-color, cartoon-styled art into the science curriculum. The first writer he called with Joanna Cole.

At the time, Joanna was respected for her well-researched nonfiction books. She was smart and accurate. In 1984, she had published a well-reviewed book, How You Were Born. But what really caught Craig’s attention was that Joanna had another side to her work; she also wrote silly, funny, playful books for young readers. Most notably, she created the “Clown-Arounds” (a precursor to Dav Pilkey’s “Dumb Bunnies” and in the same vein as James Marshall’s “The Stupids”). And that was the genius of Craig’s idea: he brought together the two sides of Joanna Cole into one book series. The science and the silly. It was as if Joanna had a split personality and Craig helped make her whole again.

As a fun fact, Bruce Degen was not the first illustrator that Craig called with the series offer. No, he phoned Marc Brown first. But at the time, Marc was busy with the Arthur books and felt he couldn’t sign up for another project. So Craig, a fan of Jamberry and the Commander Toad books, flipped through his Rolodex and found Bruce’s number. That call worked out pretty well for all concerned, including Marc Brown.

What I remember and most respect about Joanna is that she was simply an old-school children’s book writer. Making books, and more books, and more books. Plying the craft, fighting to earn a decent living. All for the love of children’s literature.

Then, yeah, one day she got a phone call from Craig.

A treasured snap of Craig and I from 1986, the year the Magic School Bus was first published.

A lucky break? Sure was! But Joanna got that call because of all the work she had accomplished before that point. She had earned her good fortune by very quietly putting in years and years of hard work. The foundation was already built. When opportunity came knocking, she had all the skills to take a loose idea and turn it into a groundbreaking series.

5 QUESTIONS with Matt Faulkner, creator of the graphic novel “Gaijin”

Today we visit with Matt Faulkner. His award-winning graphic novel, Gaijan, has never been more darkly relevant than it is today. It’s a good time for middle-grade readers to know this powerful story, and to become aware of this chilling, “round ’em up” period in American history. 

GAIJIN cover

Welcome, Matt, thanks for visiting my blog today. You might appreciate this: I first became aware of you with the publication of The Amazing Voyage of Jackie Grace in 1987. I loved that book –- so richly imagined and, I still think, an accurate depiction of a child’s imagination. Bath time has never been the same for me.

You’re very welcome. I’m happy to spend some time talking with you and happy, too, that we can share our conversation with your blog readers.

Oh, you mean Chet and Gladys? They’re awesome.

In regard to Jackie Grace, thanks, that’s very kind. It was my first author/illustrated book and only the second book I’d worked on. It was tremendously exciting to get that manuscript purchased and also very misleading to me. The misleading part was that I actually sold that manuscript to Jean Feiwel over the phone back in 1985. She really dug the illustrations I’d just done on my first book — a version of Jack and the Beanstalk — and was enthusiastic to get me moving onto another project. We started talking about blackrotarygif2Jackie Grace over the phone and she indicated that I’d have the contract if I just send in a few sketches. And that’s what happened. I can assure you, James, I’ve never sold a manuscript to anyone, ever again, over the phone.

Yet I keep expecting it to happen. My bad.

I agree, phones aren’t what they used to be. So you’ve been at this business a long time. I published my first book in 1986. I think we are all confronted with different ideas of success, but lately I’m most proud of simply having survived. You know, just hanging around all these years through the ups and downs. It can be a tough, cold business. As I recall the line from an old PW article, “children’s publishing is a bunny eat bunny” world. But we’re still alive and kicking.

Oh yes, survival is sweet.

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The fact is — for us to be here, doing what we started doing over thirty years ago is a victory. There have been more than a few times over the past 30 years that I wondered how in God’s name I was going to move forward — how was I going to make enough money, how was I going to stay inspired, how was I going to stay sane within the pressures of being a husband/father while working as a freelance author/illustrator (and all that that implies). So yes, to have this discussion right now — this is a good thing.

Congrats to the both of us.

Speaking of congratulations, I’m so impressed by your graphic novel, Gaijin, which I believe is not only a terrific book, it’s an important book. Tell us about the origins of that story. I gather it has personal significance for you.

 

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Thank you.

Gaijin: American Prisoner of War came from an experience I had as a child and from the experiences my relatives had during WWII. During the summer after fifth grade I read a bunch of books about children who’d survived the Holocaust. It just seems that the librarian who handed me the first book kept right on handing them to me when I’d complete one. Eventually, my mom placed a piece of paper with a name and address before me — a return address from an envelope. She told me that our family had been in a concentration camp in California.

 

Early character study, sketch, from GAIJIN.

Early character study, sketch, from GAIJIN.

I imagine that I was incredulous — after all, concentration camps were something horrible in Europe, not America. Not so, my mom said. She helped me to understand that my great aunt, Adeline, along with her daughter and grandchildren, had been placed in the Japanese American internment camp called Manzanar, during WWII. This was because Adeline, an Irish American, had married a gentleman of Japanese descent and hence, their children were part Japanese. At that time in America, this was enough to send a child to a prison camp in the desert.

At what point did you decide that this story would be best told as a graphic novel?

Fairly early in the process of developing the story I realized that the format of the graphic novel would help me best express the way I felt about the material.

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You didn’t begin your career as a graphic novelist. What attracted you to that medium?

Of late, I feel more and more that this — the graphic novel — is my medium. I don’t feel that I am in any way a rigorous student of this medium. However, I know that I tell stories best in a visual format. For me, a story flows far more readily when the images and text are free to roam across the landscape of the spread, as they can in a graphic novel. It’s far more film-like. The format feels more like the experience of watching a film and to me, creating the frame work of an imagined film for my readers is what I reach for in any book, but most especially in creating a graphic novel.

I can see that, and agree about the cinematic qualities.

It’s interesting that you mentioned my first author/illustrated picture book, Jackie Grace, because that was seen as a bit of a risk in 1986. Why? Because it didn’t follow the traditional picture book form and was, actually, a graphic novel for 6-to-8 year olds. This was kind of a big deal back then and I recall editorial discussions which addressed this risky thing — a graphic novel picture book. It was simply not done in 1985. However, it is done now. And I’m going to do as much of it as I possibly can in my allotted time.

When I look at many graphic novels, I often think, “Wow, that’s a lot of work.” Can you take us through to process of creating this book? How it began? How long it took?

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The idea for the Gaijin began to take a more concrete form following 9/11 when I started to hear the talk of various pundits who were advocating internment for another minority group, American Muslims. That pompous, paranoid talk got me to nail myself to my desk and begin the sketching. But it took another 9 years before Gaijin was sold to Disney/Hyperion and it wasn’t published till 2014.

The book was created in traditional materials — graphite, water color and gouache. I used a brown/blue palette (reminiscent of the olive drab and khaki uniforms) for scenes set in the day time. The hero’s dream sequences were created in a hot, acidic palette.

I spent a a good deal of time doing visual research — visited the sites of both the Tanforan and Manzanar internment camps etc., and created three variations of the sketch layout.

Wait, what?

Yes, that’s right, three separate layouts for the 130-page graphic novel. A little crazy, yes, but I think this was something that had to do more with my inexperience of creating a graphic novel than anything else.

 

Sample of an alternative sketch.

Sample of an alternative sketch.

 

It was fascinating how you introduced the news of Pearl Harbor. Koji and his mother don’t at first realize how it will affect them personally. But the next day they begin to learn, in ways large and small, that the world has changed.

From my research I learned that Pearl Harbor in 1941 simply wasn’t a place that every American was aware of the way it is today. There was so much that was left unexplained and therefore became the source of fear for both Japanese Americans and white Americans. It was important for me to express as best I could this sense of surprise, looming terror and dread.

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One thing that stood out for me in my research was learning that the racism as expressed by whites on the west coast toward Japanese Americans following Pearl Harbor was more than just a response to the attack. That racism was very old and very deeply rooted within California laws. There were many, many whites who were simply waiting to take advantage of the fear that the attack engendered and couldn’t wait for the removal of Japanese Americans so they could take possession of their farms, their homes and shops. From what I’ve learned, as much as it was about fear and racism, it was also greed that fueled the Japanese American internment.

That’s a great point, and I think it’s something we are seeing today. The old hatreds have existed all along, waiting for the right atmosphere in order to emerge. Like Voldemort’s followers, the Death Eaters, waiting for the signal in the sky. Suddenly it’s “safe” to haul out those repressed prejudices into the light of day. But my comments aside, I think you admirably refrained from imposing any obvious editorial judgments in your book. You let the story speak for itself.

Yes, I did try to refrain from inflaming what is already a hot issue. I didn’t think any editorial refinements or judgment on my part would do much to make the point any clearer. In short — we, as a nation, failed on a vast scale. We grossly mistreated over 120,000 people — half of whom were children — because of their race.

It’s shocking and heartbreaking that this moment in American history –- a troubled, dark, confusing time –- is still so relevant to today’s America. What are the lessons to be learned here, in your opinion?

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Lessons?

It’s best to keep it this simple: They’re all our children.

The Japanese American children which we, as a nation, imprisoned in Manzanar and over twenty-five other remote prison camps from 1942 till 1945 were all our children. Similarly, the Syrian child that drowned and whose body was photographed on that beach was our child, too. As a species, we are either going to accept and work with this reality or we’re going to continue to suffer.

Thank you for those thoughts, Matt. I know I asked a lot of you today, but only because I think we need to hear your voice now more than ever. What can we look forward to from you in the future? Have you got a new book in the works?

Thanks for asking. I’m currently working on illustrating a four picture book series about American ideas, ideals and people, written by Ruby Shamir and edited by Jill Santopolo at Philomel.

In addition, my agent, Abi Samoun of Red Fox Literary, is currently shopping two graphic novel ideas for me right now — one is called Burrito Fever, which tells the tale of the annual march of 10,000 crazed bunnies in search the perfect burrito.

The other story is about a young Japanese American who joins the army during 1944 and fights in France with the all Japanese American 442nd Combat team — the unit most decorated for it’s size in U.S. army history.

Again, thanks for inviting me to talk about my work with you, James. I wish you all the best with yours.

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

Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Robin Pulver, Hannah Barnaby, and more.