Tag Archive for The Big Book of Picture-Book Authors & Illustrators

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.

Remembering Vera Williams: Artist, Activist, Inspiration


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Vera Williams passed away at age 88 on October 16, 2015. I wanted to make note of it beyond a quick comment on Facebook, but her death came at an inconvenient time for me — though, I’m sure, it wasn’t the best timing for Vera, either. I can type that glib phrase because I’m confident that she would have agreed, and laughed out loud. Vera laughed a lot.

We never met in person, though of course I read and admired many of her books, most particularly “More, More, More,” Said the Baby, which I adore. It’s one of those rare things, a nearly perfect book about something as simple and profound as love. I had the pleasure of interviewing Vera over the phone, back in 1990. We chatted for an hour or so. She was lovely and warm and generous and completely genuine, just as anyone who had encountered her books would imagine.

21Williams-Obit1-SUB-blog427She was also, I learned, deeply political. No one had to scold Vera Williams about the importance of diversity or any such thing. Her politics were personal, and she recognized that the personal — as well as the creative — was always political. We are talking about values, really. The things that are important. Vera actively cared about the world and the children who inhabited it. She marched, she protested, she stood up for things. It’s on every page in every single book. For me, as someone who often looks around at this world in heartache and dismay, and who also writes for children, I find myself increasingly searching for appropriate ways to express those values in my own life and work. Vera, I think, helped show the way. You just go ahead and do it, as natural as breathing, come what may.

She will be missed.

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Below, here’s my two-page write-up as it was published in my book, the clumsily titled, The Big Book of Picture-book Authors & Illustrators. Like so many of my books, it’s long out of print, but I often spy it in tattered condition on school bookshelves during visits. I’ve been lucky enough to interview folks like Tedd Arnold, Molly Bang, Aliki Brandenberg, Norman Bridwell, Ashley Bryan, Eve Bunting, Barbara Cooney, Donald Crews, Mem Fox, Kevin Henkes, James Marshall, Barbara Park, Jerry Pinkney, Patricia Polacco, Faith Ringgold, Lane Smith, Peter Spier, Bernard Waber, Charlotte Zolotow, and many, many more. It’s sad to think how many of them are gone. Vera Williams was one of the best.

I will remember her with fondness and respect, forever grateful for the books she left behind.

Vera 1

Vera 2

Barbara Park: A Conversation Remembered

“I happen to think that a book is of extraordinary value

if it gives the reader nothing more than a smile or two.

It’s perfectly okay to take a book, read it, have a good time,

giggle and laugh — and turn off the TV. I love that.”

Barbara Park (1947-2013)

I was surprised and saddened to read that Barbara Park passed away on November 15th at the young age of 66. I never met Barbara in person, but I certainly got a strong sense of Barbara through her books. Every reader knows and feels this experience. When we read the best books, when we feel that electric connection, there is a communion that endures beyond time and space and even death.

In my career, I’ve had the opportunity to interview more than a hundred authors and illustrators. One of them was Barbara Park, who was genuine in every way. We spoke sometime in the late ’90s,  and a bunch of those interviews were later compiled in a Scholastic Professional Book called, rather klunkily: The Big Book of Picture-Book Authors & Illustrators.

Good luck finding it. The book is long out of print (big sigh), but there are treasures within. It’s worth seeking out on eBay or wherever. I seriously wish I could write another someday.

I enjoyed memorable, lively conversations with so many great artists. A few of my favorites were Molly Bang, Aliki Brandenberg, Ashley Bryan, Barbara Cooney, Mem Fox, Kevin Henkes, Karla Kuskin, James Marshall, Bill Martin, Patricia Polacco, Jack Prelutsky, Faith Ringgold, Lane Smith, Peter Spier, Bernard Waber, Vera B. Williams, Charlotte Zolotow . . . and, of course, Barbara Park.

Barbara was warm, and kind, and modest, and funny, and absolutely genuine, just as you’d expect.

Here’s what ended up in the book, which was intended to be shared with students:

Best-selling author Barbara Park did not take the usual path to becoming a writer. “As a kid, I didn’t even read much,” Barbara confesses. “I bought books from the school book club because I liked the smell of them. It was nice to have this pile of new books. But I really had no great desire to read them!”

Barbara was a lively, active child with a motormouth and a sharp sense of humor. She had a great many interests, but writing was not one of them. “To me, writing was an assignment, period. I was no particularly imaginative. I didn’t sit around and make up stories to entertain my friends. But I was always the class clown. In high school I was voted ‘Wittiest,’ which, let’s be honest, is just a nice way of saying ‘Goofy!'”

It wasn’t until after college, marriage, and the birth of two children, that Barbara began to think seriously about writing. “I wanted to see if I could put my sense of humor to work. Because, sad to say, it was the only thing for which I’d ever got any recognition. I thought, Maybe I can write funny.”

Working at home while her two boys were in school, Barbara concentrated on books for middle-grade readers. Barbara lists The Kid in the Red Jacket, My Mother Got Married (and Other Disasters), and Mike Harte Was Here as personal favorites. She considers her best work to be Mike Harte Was Here. Many readers agree. In a stunning achievement, Barbara addresses a boy’s tragic, accidental death with writing that is at once deeply heartfelt and — amazingly — joyously funny.

In all of her books, no matter the seriousness of the theme, Barbara’s humor spontaneously bubbles to the surface. In fact, Barbara has made something of a career out of focusing on funny, irreverent, wisecracking kids who, like her, just can’t walk away from a punch line.

Though Barbara’s books are moral in the truest sense of the word, she steers clear of heavy messages and “life lessons.” Says Barbara, “I happen to think that a book is of extraordinary value if it gives the reader nothing more than a smile or two. It’s perfectly okay to take a book, read it, have a good time, giggle and laugh — and turn off the TV. I love that.”

In the early 1990s, Barbara was approached by Random House with the idea of writing a series for younger readers. It scared her half to death. Barbara admits, “There was some question as to whether or not my dry sense of humor would be picked up by younger kids.”

In the end Barbara decided that she’d have to write to please herself, to be true to her own sensibilities. “I can’t change my sense of humor,” Barbara explains. “If I did, it wouldn’t even be me trying to write this book. It would be me trying to write like somebody who didn’t think like me!”

Barbara soon created the irrepressible character Junie B. Jones. This best-selling children’s character, who often said and did all the wrong things, elbowed her way into the spotlight. Barbara didn’t have to look far for inspiration. “Junie B. is me in an exaggerated form,” Barbara admits. “I think the core of most of my characters is me. I mean, where else is it going to come from? It’s got to be from you.”

Though Junie B. is in kindergarten (with a move to first grade coming soon), Barbara has an uncanny knack for inhabiting her world. She says, “I’ve never had a problem becoming five years old in my head. I really think that you basically stay the same person all your life. I fell the essence of me hasn’t changed.”

Junie B. is by no means perfect. She acts out in class, she’s not always respectful, and she tends to massacre the English language whenever she opens her mouth (which is often). An ideal role model? Forget about it. Junie B. is much more than that — with her foibles and mistakes, she is as genuine as her readers. Junie B. is a pretty terrific kid doing her best to get it right — and happily succeeding most of the time.

Hills Gleam Dimly: Karla Kuskin (1932 – 2009)

I put it down and I begin to understand it better. Karla Kuskin.

Karla Kuskin died in late August, 2009. I was away on vacation at the time, off the grid, not even looking at newspapers, so I missed it. I’d like to spend a few minutes today in appreciation of Karla Kuskin, to note a poet’s passing with due respect. At a time when much of children’s poetry aspires only to imitate Dr. Suess, here was a woman who wrote with sophistication and depth — feeling, heart, soul, and wit. Poems for children, yes; but she did not pander, she was not writing down; she lifted up.

I interviewed Karla many years ago, almost decades, for a profile that was eventually collected in this book, which I gather you can still find in some dark, dank corners of cyberspace. Worth checking out, I think: dated somewhat, but with golden nuggets inside. Awesome insights directly from Vera B. Williams, Aliki, Cynthia Rylant, Kevin Henkes, Eric Carle, Tony Johnston, Carlotte Zolotow, Barbara Park, James Marshall, and many, many others (75 in all). Anyway, I liked Karla immediately. She was unpretentious, yet serious about her craft; easy to talk to, genuine and funny. My highest compliment: She was a true artist.

The main challenge of the book was that my editors at Scholastic wanted the short profiles to work on two levels. For adults, as well as for children. In remembrance of Karla, here’s an excerpt from that book:

Though sense and silliness, bouncy rhymes and flowing rhythms, Karla shares her love of poetry with young children. A mood, a memory, a sound — anything can spark a poem. And anyone can write one, Karla believes. “Poetry can be as natural and effective a form of self-expression as singing or shouting,” she says.

Karla has always loved listening to the rhythm of words. She states, “I am a firm believer in reading aloud because, I suppose, I loved it so much as a child.” Grateful for a childhood in which reading was an everyday family activity, Karla believes that “when you are exposed to poetry when you are little, it stays with you for the rest of your life.

“When I am working on a book of poetry,” Karla says, “I jot down everything on any scrap of paper at hand; I pay attention to what’s going through my head. I’m much more aware of language, words, rhythm, description. I try to hang on to these ideas, because if I don’t write them down, they’re gone forever.”

It is Karla’s hope that readers of her poems will, in turn, write poems of their own. As she says, “If you read, you write.” Karla realizes that most children will not grow up to become professional writers. “The important thing about writing is that it helps the writer discover his or her own thoughts and feelings.

“In difficult times,” Karla confides, “I’ve always found that to write out what I feel is very helpful. I put it down and I begin to understand it better.”

Nice, right?

The New York Times ran a leisurely obituary, it wasn’t in hurry to be over, and it touched on highlights obvious and some less so. They concluded with this untitled poem by Karla, from Near the Window Tree, and I loved it.

Write about a radish

Too many people write about the moon.

The night is black

The stars are small and high

The clock unwinds its ever-ticking tune

Hills gleam dimly

Distant nighthawks cry.

A radish rises in the waiting sky.