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1. About that Epigraph

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An epigraph — neither an epigram or an epitaph — is that short quote that many authors use at the beginning of a book. It can be most anything: a song lyric, a line from a poem or novel, a familiar adage, whatever they want it to be.

It can be seen as a book’s North Star, both inspiration and aspiration. A source or a destination. It can be a joke, a statement of theme, or an obtuse and too-erudite dud.

An epigraph is one of those small parts of a novel that many readers (and some writers)  ignore. No problem! Like the spleen, an epigraph can be removed without any real loss of function.

Yet it can serve as a signal in the night, like an orange flare screaming parabollically across the sky.

It can be a thread to pull, a riddle to unravel, or a key to solving the book’s enigma.

A way inside.

Personally, I’m a fan. Epigraphs have become more important to my books as my career has progressed.

That said, I don’t think I succeeded, in retrospect, with the epigraph in my book Six Innings. It misses the mark. So we won’t talk about it. And I’m not sure that my epigraph for Bystander was particularly successful:

 

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Where you been is good and gone

All you keep is the gettin’ there.

— Townes Van Zandt,

“To Live Is to Fly”

 

I love that song by Townes and it lingered in my mind during the writing of that book. To me, those two lines represented the plasticity of the middle school years, that intense period of becoming, and of life in general. “The journey itself is home,” as Basho wrote. I think that’s especially true when we are young, trying to figure things out. Anyway, it’s a good quote, but perhaps not especially germane to the book. It doesn’t shine a ton of light.

Moving right along . . .

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For The Fall, I employed the double epigraph. Take that! Maybe it’s a matter being unable to decide, but I liked the way these two worked together. These quotes speak directly to the main ideas of the book, of responsibility and identity.

As an aside, I’ve been catching up with Westworld recently, and was pleased when Bernard asked Dolores to read the same passage from Alice in Wonderland.

“Who in the world am I?” Good question.

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In a eureeka moment, I found what I believed was the perfect epigraph for The Courage Test. The book was basically done — written, revised, and nearly out the door when I rediscovered this long forgotten quote while at a museum:

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I thought “Yes!” My book was about such a journey. The main character, couragetestfrontcvr-199x300William Meriwether Millier, was named after the explorers, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, who figured large in the story. And at the end of the book, Will returns home to the place where started with new insight, circle complete. The epigraph fit like a glove. The only problem might be, too pretentious? T.S. Eliot? The Four Quartets? In a book for middle graders? What can say, I gotta be me.

I also like the epigraphs to my upcoming book, Better Off Undead, (Fall, 2017). It’s a book that’s set in the not-too-distant future and features a seventh-grade zombie as the main character. It also touches upon climate change, spy drones, colony collapse disorder, white nose syndrome, forest fires, privacy rights, airborne diseases, beekeeping, crude oil transportation, meddling billionaires, bullying, makeovers, and the kitchen sink. There’s also a plot device that links back to “The Wizard of Oz,” the movie.

I don’t have a cover to share at this point, these are the two epigraphs:

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What a world, what a world.

— The Wicked Witch of the West,

“The Wizard of Oz”

 

and . . .

 

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

— Leonard Cohen,

“Anthem”

 

For this book, I’m also tempted to tell you about the dedication — which is also concerned with the future of the world. But let’s save that for another post.

Do you have a favorite epigraph/book pairing you’d like to share? Make a comment below. Please note that new comments need a moderator’s approval before the comment appears. This helps limit the whackjobs and crackpots to a manageable few. Cheers!

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2. 5 QUESTIONS with MATT PHELAN, Graphic Novelist and Creator of “Snow White”

 

Welcome to “5 Questions,” where the number 5 is conceptual rather than literal. Today we feature one of the most acclaimed graphic novelists working in children’s books today, Matt Phelan.

 

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Yo, Matt, I’m over here. Yeah, no, look this way. It’s just weird with you staring off into the distance like that. I’m literally right here. Fine, whatever, let’s just get through this. Take us back to the period before the idea came for this book. Is there a “between books” stage for you, when you are not exactly sure what’s next? Is that stressful? Are you walking around with your antenna up, hoping for lightning to strike? Or do you keep a spare file of “BRILLIANT IDEAS” by your bedside for just such occasions?

My mind tends to wander quite a bit, so I often have new ideas percolating when I should be focused on the book at hand. I have notes for Snow White going back ten years when I was pitching Storm in the Barn. I have a few ideas on low simmer now that I hope to get to eventually.

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That’s how I feel about painting my living room and front hallway (and upstairs bathroom, and guest bedroom, and). It’s all on low simmer. But for you that simmer reached a boiling point. Was there a specific moment, or an image, that came to you? Why that particular period in New York City?

I was thinking about apple peddlers in the Great Depression (as one does) . . .

Naturally.

. . . and my brain connected that with the stepmother in “Snow White.” I sketched an image of a busy street, people racing by, with a single young woman stopped in her tracks before an old hag holding out an apple. I liked that idea so much that I began to think of more parallels for elements in the tale if they were set in the early 1930s.

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Yes, that’s part of the book’s pleasure. It’s cool how you re-imagined the seven dwarfs, for example, as street urchins. In that case, you had to find a balance between making that clear allusion, but not turning those boys into clear stand-ins for Grumpy and Sneezy and Bashful, and so on.

The Seven came to me early on, inspired in part by the Dead End Kids from the movies of the 30s and 40s. But considering their situation –- orphans, runaways hiding in alleys and warehouses at night –- I realized that withholding their names would be of utmost importance to them. That was a clear contrast to the Disney film, where if you remember anything, it’s probably the names of the dwarves. I did give the boys some of the same personality traits in passing, so it would be fun for the reader to make those connections.

The Dead End Kids.

The Dead End Kids.

Those translocations are so much fun. The equivalencies aren’t absolute. It’s not, oh, this kid equals Sleepy. But, well, he does look a little tired.

Bringing the elements of the story like the seven dwarves into the time period started as an exercise, but the more I thought about it, the more I became invested in the characters and what I could maybe bring to this ancient story.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? The challenge in any retelling is to answer that essential question every artist must face, for any work of art: “So what?” In your case, I think you were able to explore a familiar story, turn it around, pull it apart, and discover new elements. Upon reflection, what did you learn about the story of “Snow White” in the process of your work? Did anything surprise you?

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I was surprised about how much it started to mean to me on an emotional level. The scene where the boys reveal their names to Snow became the whole reason to do this book. For me, the book is about how there is more goodness in the world than evil, that there is beauty everywhere despite how bleak things may seem. I wrote the story three years ago, but it sadly seems very timely and relevant today.

Wait, so the apple really is Steve Bannon and . . . nevermind, I won’t go there. My heart will explode. I recently wrote my first road trip book, and one of the best things about it, as an author, was that I knew when/where the story was going to end. It’s comforting to know where you are in terms of beginning, middle, and end. You enjoyed a similar luxury in this case.

Yes. I agree. It was refreshing to have a framework to the plot from the start. But the story is so solid that it also allows for invention within that framework.

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Your book benefits from our familiarity with the classic story. Everybody knows it. The known structure gave you more freedom to pick your spots, skip over the boring bits. You didn’t have to fill in every blank space. Would you agree with that?

Absolutely. I also use “chapter headings” which look more like title cards in a silent movie. That device acts as a dramatic shorthand. I could write “Late Night at the Butcher’s” and I’ve already set up not only the setting but an idea of what is going to happen there.

I agree, that was an effective device, a pause but also a jump-cut into the next scene. Hey, it had to be fun killing off the evil queen-slash-stepmother. In the movie that’s such a tense, dramatic scene. The seven dwarfs are not cuddly and cute in that surging, swelling scene; there’s murder in their hearts. The origin material was dark. That had to a challenge for you, to meet that big climatic moment head on. Were you particularly pleased on the day you figured out she’d not only get electrocuted . . . but she could fall off the building as well. Well done, sir!

My ending plays off the Disney one which I think they changed for good reason. In the original Grimm, the stepmother is invited to Snow’s wedding only to find that Snow orders her to dance to her death whilst wearing burning iron shoes (for the amusement of the wedding party). A tad sadistic for our heroine, I think. Disney used lightning, but I opted for her to go up in lights on the marquee of the Ziegfeld theater. The fall was probably a nod to King Kong now that I think of it.

How do you make these paintings? How many are there? I ask because my sense is that when I look at some graphic novels, many individual images appear rushed, unfinished. But in Snow White, I can see –- I think –- the deep care and commitment to every single image. It’s so impressive.

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I use traditional media: pencil, ink, and watercolor on watercolor paper. I’ve made it a rule since my first graphic novel to never ever count how many individual panels are in the book. Each panel is a painting, maybe three to six per page, more than two hundred pages . . . it’s a lot. 

Right, it’s one of those deals where if you knew in advance, if your really calculated the amount of work, it would be hard to get started. Like taking your kids on their first hike. “Don’t worry, kids, it’s not far. It’ll be fun!”

Yeah, the “hike” is not about the number of steps it takes. It’s all part of the greater whole. I wanted each panel to have the correct mood and atmosphere, but at the same time I never wanted one particular panel to cause a reader to stop and dwell on it. I want you to keep moving. Pace is important.

And pace is mostly a function of layout, right? The decision of multi-panel spreads compared to, say, a strong single image. At what point do you make those design decisions?

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The actual sizes of the panels are decided when I’m doing the first loose thumbnail drawings. You are correct about size and number of panels dictating pace. It’s like a musical score, in a way. For Snow White, I did try something a bit different, in that each page was drawn completely fresh on a blank sheet of paper. I had rough sketches to inspire me, but I did not enlarge the sketches and use them on a light-box as a guide like I’ve done before. By drawing it again fresh, I hoped to catch the energy and life of the sketches. If it was wrong, I just drew it again. Watercolor is also a great way to give your paintings energy and unpredictability. It’s hard to completely plan or fix a watercolor painting. You get what you get. That’s an exciting way to work.

I relate that to music. A belief in the positive value of raw performance — live in the studio — including the messiness of it. Rather than, say, polishing a song to perfection. Something vital gets lost in the refinement. The flawed version is somehow better.

I couldn’t agree more. I’d rather listen to something with mistakes played like the musicians’ lives depended on it than a supremely polished “perfect” performance. I’ll take the Replacements over Steely Dan any day.

I know you love music. Do you listen when you paint? Did this book have a specific soundtrack, or sonic influences?

I listen to music when painting and maybe during the writing (but only instrumental music). I do make playlists for the books. Snow White’s playlist had some leftovers from Bluffton, plus soundtracks like Bernard Herrmann’s score for The Magnificent Ambersons and Max Steiner’s great score for King Kong. I also included The Jazz Age, a recent record by the Bryan Ferry Orchestra that arranges Roxy Music songs in a hot jazz style. It’s brilliant.

Yes! I have The Jazz Age. At first I wasn’t too keen on the idea, but then I heard it. Good times. I’ll have to explore the scores by Herrmann and Steiner. Thanks for the tip, Matt Phelan!

 

614852MATT PHELAN does a great job with his website, which he stores somewhere on the interwebs. You can visit for free, but like the Hotel California, you may never leave. Matt splits his efforts between graphic novels (The Storm in the Barn, Bluffton, Around the World), picture books (Marilyn’s Monster, Xander’s Panda Party, and more), and whatever else inspires his attention. Like, oh, listening to Replacements records.

 

 

ABOUT THE “5 Questions” Interview Series: It’s a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. 

Scheduled for future dates, in no particular order: Bruce Coville, London Ladd, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, Matt Faulkner, and more. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES, and scroll till your heart’s content. Or use the handy SEARCH option. 

Guest so far:

1) Hudson Talbott, “From Wolf to Woof”

2) Hazel Mitchell, “Toby”

3) Susan Hood, “Ada’s Violin

4) Matthew McElligott, “Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster”

5) Jessica Olien, “The Blobfish Book”

6) Nancy Castaldo, “The Story of Seeds”

7) Aaron Becker, “Journey”

8) Matthew Cordell, “Wish”

9) Jeff Newman, “Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly?”

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3. 5 QUESTIONS with JEFF NEWMAN, illustrator of “Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly?”

Recently I had the chance to chat with an insightful, terrifically talented illustrator named Jeff Newman. We talked via email about the creative process behind his acclaimed 2016 book, Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly?

 

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Jeff, I want to approach our conversation from the perspective of your role as the illustrator of Dan Richards’ story. How did it come to you? And what was your reaction upon reading those bare words on a white page? There isn’t much text.

Dan and I were represented by the same agent, Paul Rodeen. I was looking for a book to illustrate, so Paul sent me some of Dan’s manuscripts, one of which was Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly? I liked several of them, but that was the one that really stood out. Dan described it initially as being a joke and a punchline, and that’s basically what it was. But there was a lack of sentimentality about it that was moving, especially in the relationship between Mom and Evan (she thinks he is asking about a toy elephant, when he’s actually referring to a real one), two characters who come to an emotional understanding, even though they never actually see eye-to-eye.

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Actually, that’s something I noticed in the illustrations. The two characters are often looking in different directions. They aren’t on the same page, so to speak. I guess the story depended on it.

Yeah, for story reasons they often couldn’t be looking at one another, but it worked on a symbolic level, too.

Did you have any further contact with the Dan as you worked on the book? I guess I’m wondering, how much freedom did you have to make this your story, too?

We worked together on the book (the original text did include some parenthetical notes regarding setting and “stage direction”) pretty much from the moment that I became interested in illustrating it. Then we both worked very closely with our editor at Simon and Schuster, Justin Chanda, as a group, and individually, while developing it. There is a lot of unwritten story here, so I don’t think it could have been done another way. We had to make sure that our interpretations of that unwritten story lined up, or could at least co-exist. I had a lot of freedom to put forward my interpretation, and even more so in the final artwork, but it was a democracy. We all put forward ideas that were either dismissed or ratified. I’m sure it could have gone wrong in any number of ways. Sometimes it did. I made about half of the book in a completely different style before we decided to go with something a little more naturalistic. We always got back on track. 

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Ha, that could be a tough conversation: “Um, Jeff, about your crappy artwork. We were thinking . . .”

It was hard to hear, but Justin took the time to explain the decision, and even gave me the opportunity to refute it. It was another example of this feeling like a partnership instead of an employer/employee relationship.

It’s refreshing to hear about your process. The industry standard is to keep the author and illustrator separate, a strategy that 1) protects the illustrator from the overly-meddlesome author; and  2) gives the publisher/art director more control. Personally, as a writer, I find it a little sad to get shut out from the process. We don’t see that in highly successful books by Steig, Sendak, Lobel, Seuss, Waber, Keats (the list goes on) because they do both. Word and text comes together naturally.

Obviously good work can come out of that separation of author and illustrator. But it’s strange that this is an innately collaborative process, and most of the time, that collaboration is mediated or nonexistent. It can work, though. It should work. It did for us.

I got to do it once long ago, collaborating with an illustrator named Jeffrey Scherer in a book titled Wake Me In Spring. I think there are clear benefits in working together. I sense that we’re seeing a little more of it lately, those old rules breaking down. But I digress! The two characters in this story, a mother and son, are brown-skinned. How and why did you arrive at that decision?

An illustration, and a style, that did not make it into the final book. I have to say, I always fall in love with these "deleted scenes.

An illustration, and a style, that did not make it into the final book. 

I never considered any ethnicity for the characters other than African-American, except maybe once in conversation with Dan, and that was really just an acknowledgment that it was a choice, not a questioning of that choice. The only thing that I can point to that informed that decision was the initial setting of the story, which was the neighborhood/apartment building where the characters live; originally, the story began with Mom and Evan leaving the zoo and heading home. When I think of neighborhoods/apartment buildings in a city, I think of Ezra Jack Keats and A Snowy Day and Whistle for Willie, which of course feature characters of African descent. So, Mom and Evan are partially a callback to those characters. But we moved the setting completely to the zoo, and I think that connection was lost, for better or worse.

Oh, too bad, I really like that illustration, and it does have an Ezra Jack vibe to it. The book must have been challenging in that respect, since you were confined to a single location. Sort of a one-set play. It can get static.

Well, I’m actually drawn to a one-set, theatrical kind of approach and the repetition of imagery, so I think the change ended up being good for the story, and for me, too.

Early in the story, you show us something that’s been popping up a lot in children’s books. The parent on the phone, disengaged, and the child seeking interaction. It’s not a new dynamic exactly -– the child seeking attention has been going on since the days of Alley Oop –- but technology presents a powerful new wedge. It comes as a relief when Mom finally sees her son, turns and gives him her full attention: his face lights up.

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It took me a while to understand the phone’s significance to the story. I replaced it with a book early on, during the second or third round of sketch revisions, because it felt out of place; whenever this story is set, it does not feel like now.

No, it doesn’t. But isn’t that function of your illustrations? When I think of many of Mark Teague’s books, particularly his early work — and William Joyce, too — and Greg Ruth, while I’m at it — they achieve a sort of timelessness by setting their books in a quasi-50s America. Or maybe that’s where “childhood” exists for them?

Maybe. My illustrations definitely function to put the reader in another time, but that time isn’t necessarily the 70s and early 80s, when I was a kid. If they do achieve timelessness, it’s by not being too on the nose about the era they are inspired by, or when the story is taking place. I think that’s why I resisted the phone.

But ultimately, you ditched the book prop and returned to the phone.

The problem (which my editor pointed out, thankfully) is that a book implies an intention of neglect — if you bring a book with you, you probably plan on reading it. It made Mom less sympathetic. But everyone brings their phone everywhere, and I would venture to guess that few people plan on using it. We just do. I’m certainly guilty of it. So, while the phone may date the story a little, it ended up being the perfect choice. It made Mom relatable. We know that what’s she’s doing is wrong, but most adults in her situation have done the exact same thing at one time or another.

Well, I guess I’m more sympathetic to a person who can’t put down a book over somebody who’s super-involved with her phone. But that’s me. It’s interesting that you think of the phone “dating” the story, because it makes it current; you are thinking 20 years down the road, when we’ll all have implants. It’s like scenes in movies when the character pulls out one of those hysterically gigantic phones. That kind of dated.

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Exactly. I don’t know what phones are going to look like in the future. If this book exists in 20 years, will kids be asking what that little, black square is? I should be so lucky.

I feel like your art for this book in particular has a certain old-school quality to it. For some reason, the end papers reminded me of Virginia Lee Burton (The Little House, Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel). I’m not savvy enough to pinpoint why your work here gives me that sense; I just feel that tug.

I’m a huge fan of old picture books — the 30’s through the 80’s.

Did you think something went amiss in the 90s? Because I do.

No, I just left out the 90s because I didn’t really look at picture books when I was in my teens and early 20’s, and for some reason (maybe the reason you’re alluding to!) I haven’t spent much time with books from that era. The 90s were all comics and animation for me.

Who are you biggest influences in children’s books?

When I consider a stylistic approach to a book, I almost always look to the past for suggestions. Sometimes those suggestions coalesce into a unified look, and sometimes they stand out from page to page, and I’m okay with either as long as they convey the information the book needs them to. I don’t get hung up on visual consistency too much. There’s definitely some Virginia Lee Burton in Balloon, along with some Ezra Jack Keats, as I mentioned earlier. And some Robert McCloskey. And Roger Duvoisin. And some Sesame Street cartoons from the 70’s.

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The cover to your book is unusual and striking. The typeface seems perfect. I know that arriving at a final cover can be a tug-of-war with a lot of input coming from the publisher. How did you arrive at this cover?

The final cover illustration was one of three or so approaches that I presented to the publisher. That was pretty straightforward. The text was more of a back and forth. We started with the title taking up a much larger area, and I felt that it was competing with the singular image of the elephant’s trunk. So, I tried my hand at it, and that was the design we went with. The font — I think it’s called Rockwell — is one that I’d been using for placeholder text in the book’s interior word balloons (which eventually graduated from placeholder to actual text once the title was redesigned). It was challenging to fit all those words into a compact space, and still have it come across as legible, but our designer, Alicia Mikles, and editor, Justin Chanda, suggested a rearrangement of the colors so that the words “balloon” and “elephant” were the most eye-catching, and that certainly helped.

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What are you working on now?

I just finished illustrating a book for Candlewick Press called Gum, and that should be out next year some time. I’m also close to completing my next book (as author/illustrator), The Greedy Worm. And then I have another book called Missing Prudence that I’m hopeful will be in production by the time people read this. This is the first book that I’ve written, but not illustrated. A fantastic illustrator, Larry Day, is working with me on that. 

Oh, I love when that happens — illustrators surrendering that role to someone else. Brave of you. Cool, unexpected things can happen. In this case, maybe it’s good if you stay out of the  way. By the way, I recently discovered Larry Day on Facebook. He puts up these fabulous, closely-observed sketches of coffee shops, classroom scenes, garage sales. Crazy talent.

I admire his work so much. He’s a real draftsman. Our book came together very organically, similarly to One Balloon. I just sent Larry an email, and asked if he wanted to work with me on this idea I’d been tinkering with since about 2010. We worked pretty closely over the past year, developing it. And now, here we are. I’ve been very lucky to have had that happen twice.

 

51gcpoqbxqlReaders can find more information about Jeff Newman from his mother, who is happy to answer questions. Or, failing that, the interwebs can be a terrific source of fake news and real facts inextricably mashed together. It’s a tangled web we weave! Jeff’s other books include: Phoebe and Digger, Rabbit’s Snow Dance, The Boys, and more.

 

ABOUT THE “5 Questions” Interview Series: It’s a little project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. 

Coming later this week, Matt Phelan. Scheduled for future dates, in no particular order: Bruce Coville, London Ladd, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, Matt Faulkner, and more. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES, and scroll till your heart’s content. Or use the handy SEARCH option. 

Guest so far:

1) Hudson Talbott, “From Wolf to Woof”

2) Hazel Mitchell, “Toby”

3) Susan Hood, “Ada’s Violin

4) Matthew McElligott, “Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster”

5) Jessica Olien, “The Blobfish Book”

6) Nancy Castaldo, “The Story of Seeds”

7) Aaron Becker, “Journey”

8) Matthew Cordell, “Wish”

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4. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #236: Jigsaw Jones, Long Island, Getting Ideas, My Favorite Color, and More

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Let’s do this people!

Good afternoon,
 –
I am a 4th grade teacher in Ludlow, Massachusetts.  My students have been selecting books to complete projects on and share them with their 51o-ewktyll-_sy344_bo1204203200_peers.  Today, 2 students shared your books, The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster and The Case of the Great Sled Race.  As the students were sharing facts about you, we all learned that you are from Wantagh!  Guess what?  I am from Wantagh as well!  What a coincidence!  Did you attend Wantagh High School?  My parents still live there and I go back to visit quite often.  My class would love to hear from you!  They would like to know the following about you:
 
* How old were you when you started writing books?
* How did you get interested in writing?
* How do you get the ideas for your books?
* What is the title of your favorite book that you’ve written?  Why?
* What was your favorite childhood book and author?  Why?
* Do you have a favorite sport?  Hopefully you are a New York sports fan!
* What is your favorite color?
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We would love to have you visit our school!  If you are ever in Western Mass. please contact me!  Happy Thanksgiving!  We’re looking forward to hearing from you!
Elysa B, WHS class of ’91
 
I replied:
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Elysa,

Thanks for your note, and thanks for reading my books in your classroom.

Yes, Wantagh, that’s my old stomping grounds. I did go to Wantagh High School, class of ’79. My parents moved away when I was in college — don’t worry, they told me where they moved! — so I lost my reason for visiting “home.” One of my first jobs was working at Jones Beach, a job I later gave to a character in a YA book, Before You Go. In the book Bystander, I blended the towns Bellmore and Freeport to create “Bellport,” where the book takes place. Sadly, I later learned that there really is a town called Bellport on Long Island. That was mistake I regret, though I think very few people actually noticed or cared.
The alma mater, a little before even my time.

The alma mater, a little before my time.

 
Anyway, questions:
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1) I wrote, illustrated, and sold books to my neighbors at an early age. In second grade, I teamed up with a friend, William Morris, and we wrote a play together, which we performed for our classroom. It involved bank robbers, as I recall. I published my first “real” book when I was 25 years old, in 1986.
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2) I often say that all writers are readers, and that’s true. But even though I am a social creature, comfortable with people, I’ve always needed time alone. That seems significant to me today, because you can’t create anything unless you unplug and spend time alone with your thoughts. For whatever reason, I’ve always carved that out in my life. And during those alone times, I’d often find a pen and a blank page.

3) Ideas are never a problem. They are everywhere. It’s just a matter of opening your eyes and ears. I also read a lot and try to learn something every day. The world is an endlessly amazing place. There are many difficulties when it comes to writing, hard times indeed, but ideas are not one of them.

Cover art from the upcoming Jigsaw Jones book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE (August, 2017, Macmillan).

Cover art from the upcoming Jigsaw Jones book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE (August, 2017, Macmillan).

4) I’m usually most excited by my newest work. I’m very happy with the book that just came out, The Courage Test (grades 4-7). In addition, there’s a new Jigsaw Jones title coming out this summer, The Case from Outer Space (Macmillan) and I’m over the moon about it. I love those characters, and I’m proud of the kindness & gentle humor of those stories. 
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5) As a kid, I loved a book called Splish, Splash, Splush — about three ducklings who couldn’t swim. I also remember looking at the pictures in a big, fat collection of stories: there were evil genies, a cyclops, men with swords and other fierce creatures. I couldn’t read, but I’d look at those illustrations for hours. Maybe it led, in some subtle way, to my “Scary Tales” stories (just right for 4th grade).
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6) I am a big baseball fan, love the game with all my heart. My team is the New York Mets. In 3rd grade, I actually attended the 1969 World Series. I remember it vividly.
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7) Favorite color? The older I get, I find that I’m partial to . . . gray. Go figure.
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Going gray. Not old. Dignified! Right?

Going gray. Not old. Dignified! Right?

– 
My best, 
 –
James Preller

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5. 5 QUESTIONS with MATTHEW CORDELL, author/illustrator of “WISH”

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Today we hang out with Matthew Cordell, one of my favorite people in children’s books. Usually Matt and I can laugh it up with the best of them, just a couple of regular guys talking about our favorite books and rock bands, but today we got serious. In this edition of “5 Questions,” Matthew opened up his heart, and it got real.

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You know I love this book, Matt. I read it again last night, over my 15-year-old daughter’s shoulder. I do that to Maggie, stick picture books under her nose. Anyway, at the end she turned to me and said, “I really like it.” And then, “Oh, you’re crying.”

And I was. This book gets me every time.

Oh, I really appreciate that, Jimmy, and thanks for sharing with Maggie! It’s interesting to hear from folks who let me know that Wish made them cry . . . I never imagined myself being an author of a book that would have that kind of an effect on a reader. I mean . . . when I was writing it and later illustrating it, I would occasionally tear up over the very personal nature of the thing. And I thought maybe it would have a similar impact on folks who would read it. That they would read Wish and see their own story or stories in it. So when I hear from folks who say it has struck an emotional chord, it’s just really, really rewarding.  

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It’s one of the counter-intuitive things about art: the deeply personal sometimes becomes the most universal. Yours is a book about, in part, a miscarriage. An extremely common occurrence –- sources estimate that up to 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage –- yet it’s a deeply private experience that isn’t widely discussed. We grieve in silence, and very few people are even aware of our loss. Tell me about the beginnings of this story. Did you draw a picture? Write a few words? Were you even thinking book?

You’re very right. Life after miscarriage is a very dark, very alienating place to be. On our road to parenthood, Julie and I found ourselves in this place more times than we ever would have expected. It never occurred to me at all that anything related to that experience would ever be made into a book, certainly not by me. But I had just put my book hello! hello! into the world, which had a family-oriented focus to it. So I found myself searching for the next story I wanted to tell. For another big moment as a parent. And I realized that one of my biggest moments of being a parent was the journey and struggle of trying to become one.

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I don’t know if you remember, but the one time I visited your home, you showed me an early manuscript. We obviously knew it would be a challenging topic, one that might be hard to make appealing for children, yet I strongly felt that this was an important book for you to create.

That was a terrific visit! After years of knowing each other online and having collaborated together, we finally met face to face. I wish we lived closer to each other so we could do more of that.

You and Julie drove me to Wisconsin to eat brats. It had to happen.

I do remember sharing the book with you and talking about it at length. I was grateful to have your input. When I was ultimately ready to show it to my editor, Kevin Lewis at Disney-Hyperion, thankfully he took to it right away. Kevin knew this story well, from someone close to him that had been down this road in some way. It affected him personally. And as he showed it around at Disney-Hyperion, more and more folks came forward with similar reactions.

Let’s discuss the editing process for this book. I recall that your early draft was more direct about the loss suffered. Sadder, perhaps. Now looking at the published work, it seems that aspect has softened.

When I first thought of making this book, it was to tell the story of how our daughter (and our son too) came to be. It was a kind of love letter to my wife and baby. A book I could read to this little one someday and say, “Look how much it took to bring you into the world. Look how much we wanted you, and how much we went through, and how incredible all of this is. How incredible YOU are. And how tremendously grateful we are to have you here.” A large part of this story was the waiting.

Tom Petty got it right, didn’t he? The waiting is the hardest part. Because of all those hardships — the obstacles, the disappointments — that come with the waiting. After a while, you wonder if the bus is ever going to come.

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Yes, the insufferable waiting for years for a successful pregnancy. Not knowing if it would ever happen. Seeing other people all around us get pregnant with little or no trouble. Wondering why that wasn’t happening for us. Wondering if something was wrong. And in that time, we did suffer some losses. Needless to say, that was a huge part of the story for me. Overcoming loss and starting over, it was all so terribly devastating and challenging to Julie and to me.

I’m just so glad that you can share that with the world. That’s the thing, Matt. You put it out there. Exposed, raw, real. And in the process, you turned it into something beautiful.

Initially, I felt like I really needed that tough part of the story to be in the book, to make it as honest as possible. I never used the words “death” or was too specific when I’d written it. But the art I’d proposed was very bleak and dark. Near absolute darkness, really. I remember I had a full spread of blackness surrounding a small spot illustration of the huddled together couple. An overwhelming darkness is how life felt after a miscarriage. When I showed it to my editor, he had some reservations, understandably.

The heartbreaking art that Matt had to make, but that didn't make it into the final book.

The heartbreaking art that Matt had to make, but that didn’t make it into the final book.

Such a powerful piece of art, Matt. I am moved by that spread. But in the final analysis, I think you and Kevin Lewis were wise to keep it out of the book. It was too strong. You didn’t want heartbreak to become the message.

Much of the book was about hope. It was about the heartbreak too, for sure, but I never intended the scales to tip more toward the darker side of the story. But it was feeling quite dark at that stage in the editing process. The waiting and not knowing was the all-encompassing struggle that this story tells. To add a death in there would be a significant — possibly overwhelming — moment for the book. In general, death in a picture book is never going to be easy, considering the age of many of its readers. But in Wish, we agreed, bringing in this moment of loss would be a stopping point for the story. After considering it, we let the sadness in the book become more ambiguous in the final manuscript and art. 

I think it succeeds beautifully. Were the characters always elephants? Why did that feel right?

wish_study_elephantsYes, the characters were always going to be elephants. I knew I wanted them to be animals and not people, so it would open it up to all different ethnicities. I wanted people of all races and walks of life to see themselves in these characters. A picture book with human characters can be more limiting in that respect. And very early on, I can’t remember the exact moment — I knew they should be elephants. Elephants are strong and smart and stoic. And they make lasting memories with the ones they love. I saw a nature program once about these two circus elephants that had become super close to each other, emotionally speaking. Sadly, they were eventually split up and moved to different circuses at different locations in the world. Many years later these two elephants were reunited at an elephant sanctuary. The caretakers weren’t sure they would remember each other. Or worse, they worried they might be defensive or aggressive toward each other. So they reintroduced them tentatively with fencing between the two. Even after years and years of separation, they instantly remembered each other and nearly broke down the bars to get to each other and be together again. That kind of emotion and devotion and breaks-your-heart beauty . . . I really wanted that for Wish.

You know, Matt, I see that you are enjoying great success of late, all of it deserved, and none of it surprising. But of all your books, this is the one that makes me the most proud of you. It sprang directly from the heart, as natural as a flower, and it shows on every page, in every illustration.

Well, thanks, Jimmy. That is really kind of you and you’ve played a big part of any success I may have stumbled onto. You’ve been a great friend and ally and I’ve loved being witness to your many great successes and accomplishments too, over these however many years I’ve been making books in this little world ours.

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I don’t think I’ve been a big part of your success, Matt, but I have been a big fan. So: okay, um, gee. I guess we’re supposed to hug it out now, my brother. Please give my best to your family, always.

 

457060MATTHEW CORDELL envisions Wish as part of a trilogy. Dream comes out in Spring, 2017, followed by Hope at a later date. He has made a great many books, and friends, along the way. I’m glad to among the latter, though I’d be tickled to be the former. His hilarious wife, Julie Halpern, was a school librarian and is now an accomplished author in her own right. She’s also a terrific mother.

 

 

ABOUT THE “5 Questions” Interview Series: It’s a little project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. 

Coming next week, Matt Phelan (Snow White) Scheduled for future dates, in no particular order: Jeff Newman, Bruce Coville, London Ladd, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, and more. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES, and scroll till your heart’s content. Or use the handy SEARCH option. 

Guest so far:

1) Hudson Talbott, “From Wolf to Woof”

2) Hazel Mitchell, “Toby”

3) Susan Hood, “Ada’s Violin

4) Matthew McElligott, “Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster”

5) Jessica Olien, “The Blobfish Book”

6) Nancy Castaldo, “The Story of Seeds”

7) Aaron Becker, “Journey”

 

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6. Prescient Maurice: Down In the Dumps

Witness this illustration from Maurice Sendak’s 1993 book, We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy. Yes, that’s Trump Tower in the background.

He knew.

 

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7. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #235: “Smell Me!”

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Okay, this is a first. A fan letter in odorama!

“Smell me!”

And I did.

Yum, black crayon.

Thank you, Finn.

Maybe next time you’ll include a pair of old socks.

 

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8. PHOTO ALBUM: 18 Real Places Featured in “THE COURAGE TEST”

I enjoyed compiling these images, which mirror the journey taken by the characters in The Courage Test. The only caveat I’ll add is that scrolling through the photos and reading the captions might give readers a false idea of the story. Though my focus here is on literal place, the book is not a travelogue. There’s a plot and everything. Really!

 

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Bismarck, North Dakota, page 20: “Are they fast at Denny’s? Good question. Yes, they are fast. You say your order out loud, and literally before you reach the end of the sentence there it is, steaming hot on the table in front of you. How is that possible? No one knows.”

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Page 30: At the Fort Mandan Gift Shop, Will buys a postcard and scribbles, “The soldiers on the expedition built a fort here, but it’s long gone. So the tourist board built an exact replica. Whatever! The tour guide told us it got as cold as 45 degrees below zero that winter. Brrrrr, chilly. The soldiers almost ran out of food, but fortunately the people of the Mandan tribe were super friendly. They had corn to spare! Otherwise those guys might have starved. We’d all be like, Lewis and Clark? Nope, never heard of ’em. Ha!”

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Floating east on the Missouri River in the White Cliffs region. Page 48: “I am glad to be on the river, pulling a paddle through the water.”

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Pages 50: “And then he lurches forward, his long, jerky strides eating up the trail in that falling-forward way of his, until we come to a plaque titled DECISION POINT.”

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Page 57: “I glimpse my first sight of strange rock formations. These are called the Breaks, rocks that have been folded, faulted, uplifted, and left here, like old, dead soldiers from another, long-ago war. White sandstone cliffs begin to rise higher and higher on both sides. It feels like we’re traveling through a great stone maze built by ancient gods.”

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Page 85: “That night, we camp where the Corps of Discovery camped more than two hundred years ago. Meriwether Lewis and his men. Under the same starry skies, staring into the same fire, beside the same chalky cliffs.”

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Page 91, Fort Benton: “As a treat, he decides to spring for the swanky Grand Union Hotel in the heart of downtown. It’s a beautiful old brick building near the river. I am grateful to have a television and a big, soft bed with sheets and pillows. A working toilet isn’t half bad, either.”

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Park in Fort Benton, near Grand Union Hotel. Page 96, Will writes another postcard: “This is a statue of Shep, an important dog in the town of Fort Benton. They say that Shep hung out at the train station every day for five years waiting for his master to return. Unfortunately, his master was dead, but Shep made it into Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Worst of all, Shep died when he got hit by a train. True fact! Old, weird America.”

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Dillon, Montana. Page 112: “I can see my father watching me through the Dairy Queen window. His expression is curious, alert. He’s seated across from Maria Rosa, who is biting into an enormous burger.”

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Lemhi Pass area, page 123: “My father says, ‘Lewis stood somewhere close to this spot. He looked at those mountains — remember, no white American had actually seen the Rockies up close before — and he knew without a doubt that unless they had horses to help carry their load, they’d all die, wandering in that maze of bare rock and stone. To make matters worse, he’s trying to find a tribe, the Shoshones, who prefer to stay hidden.”

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Page 125: “We return to the car and roll down a semi-terrifying, one-lane road — narrow and steep, with wicked, sharp turns — and we find an old campsite off Agency Creek Road.”

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The Lolo Trail in the Bitterroot Mountains, page 134: “The next few days should be tough. This will be my first time doing true backcountry hiking. There are no stores, no cozy hotels. We are carrying everything on our backs — food, sleeping bag, tent, clothes, and, oh yes, bear spray.”

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Page 150: “A bear cub is the worst possible thing anyone can find on a remote mountain trail. There’s movement in the thicket up ahead. Something big coming through, branches snapping under the weight. A black nose pokes through. Followed by the massive head and shoulders of the wildest, most dangerous beast I’ve ever seen.”

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Page 158, Idaho, Highway 12: “My father puts on the blinker when we come to a big red sign that reads, THREE RIVERS MOTEL: COCKTAILS, WI-FI, POOL.” [Note: I took a little creative license here.]

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Page 179: “The first hour is probably the most exciting sixty minutes I’ve had in my entire life. And then with a lurch the boat suddenly tips down, and there’s a bounce and a jostle, and Dan cries out, ‘Big bump! Lean in!’ Before I can react, I’m popped backward into the air like a rag doll.”

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Page 184: “Seaside is a beach town, with a long boardwalk, high buildings off the shore, and a stunning sand beach.”

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Page 187-188: “At the instant my first step reaches the water, I feel a bolt of ice-cold surge up my body. But I’m moving too fast; there’s no turning back now. And then I’m laughing — we’re both howling and screaming and yelping in shock and surprise — splashing and shivering.”

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Page 203: “Time passes. Autumn comes and goes, now winter lingers. We don’t mess around when it comes to winter here in Minneapolis, Minnesota.”

The Courage Test is a 2016 JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD SELECTION.

“A middle grade winner to hand to fans of history, adventure, and family drama..”School Library Journal.

couragetestfrontcvr-199x300“Preller traverses both domestic drama and adventure story with equally sure footing, delivering the thrills of a whitewater rafting accident and a mama bear encounter, and shifting effortlessly to the revelation of Mom’s illness and the now urgent rapprochement between Dad and Will. Whatever young explorers look for on their literary road trips, they’ll find it here.The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

Preller stirs doses of American history into a first-rate road trip that does traditional double-duty as plot device and coming-of-age metaphor. . . . Also, along with helping a young runaway find a new home, Will survives a meeting with a bear and a spill into dangerous rapids — tests of courage that will help him weather the bad news that awaits him at home.”—Booklist, Starred Review

 

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9. 5 QUESTIONS with AARON BECKER, creator of “JOURNEY”

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Greetings, Aaron. Let’s talk about your book, Journey. You do a masterful job in that opening spread, making full use of the copyright page, establishing the core elements of the story to come. Journey begins with a bored girl on her front stoop. Inside her home, through a cutaway device, we see her father looking at the computer, her mother talking on the phone, her sister staring at an electronic device. The world is dull and monochromatic –- except for one red scooter and, off to the side, almost unnoticed, a boy with a purple piece of chalk. Is that how this story started for you? As a reaction against our hyper-involvement with technology?

Yes, to the extent that much of my childhood was spent hoping my Dad would get off the home computer. I never saw the computer as an answer to life’s biggest questions; to me it was clear that there was more value in my imaginary play than anything I could gain on a machine’s screen.

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Next comes what I consider the essential illustration to the story. And my favorite. The girl is alone in her room: bored, bored, bored. I love that critical moment, because I’m a huge believer in the positive value of boredom. Most people have an aversion to empty space –- on the radio, silence is called “dead air.” Thanks to technological progress, we can now pick up a phone and scroll through Instagram at the first momentary lull. Crisis averted. Many of us seem to have lost our ability to work our way through (and beyond) that boredom.

This is the crux of it. It’s interesting too, because during the lead up to the election, I depended a lot on the internet as a source of comfort to ease my concerns for the outcome that I feared. I was aware of this, and even went so far as to go on a writing retreat away from the news cycle the week before the vote. Now that we’re on the other side, I can see so clearly that these tools were a false comfort to begin with. It’s been much easier for me to stay off social media and news websites this past week, and not just because I don’t want to see evidence that we have a new President. It’s more that I realize there’s no use in building one’s sense of reality on something that is so removed from our actual physical existence on Earth. In a sense, I felt betrayed by technology once again. It’s a lesson I hope to remember.

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I’m sorry, what, were you talking? I was just checking my . . . [puts away phone]. It occurs to me that if you gave your central character an iPhone, she would have never gone on that journey. You would have lost an entire trilogy.

I do think there’s a loss. When I was a kid, I watched way too much junky TV after school (which, I would like to add was brought on by actual policy from Reagan’s FCC that allowed toy makers to create half hour commercials as entertainment for children) and I often think this hampered my brain’s ability to function as an adult. But I’m also not entirely convinced that we were that much better off before. People have a lot more access to different types of storytelling (and stories) than they ever have. It’s a busy landscape to navigate and I’d like to think that the children out there today that can manage the overload will come out with some pretty amazing stories to tell. That said, I’m not sure I could survive it. When my friends were all moving onto advanced gaming consoles, Pac Man was about all I could handle. One joystick and no buttons.

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I think when people are bored, they ultimately have two choices: 1) Stay bored (and become boring themselves), or 2) Get creative, do stuff, make things happen. Quick story: I witnessed this dynamic when we took our kids on vacations in the Adirondacks. We often rented a cabin on a lake with no Wi-Fi, no TV, no town, no stores. For the first half hour, every year, they were lost. What now? Then, you know, they got busy. They built forts, went fishing, swam out to the peer, played cards, explored the grounds, looked for frogs, read, drew. All thanks to that wonderful boredom!

I was bored for most of my childhood. School was excruciatingly boring. At home, my family was of the serious academic variety and I was the only one interested in play. So I had to figure it out on my own. I didn’t need the Adirondacks; it was like that for me 24/7. I was industrious. I used the Styrofoam from my Dad’s computer boxes to build stuff. And in 5th grade, I moved down into the basement to decorate my own universe. I should also add that three of my close friends from elementary school in Baltimore, who suffered the same boredom as I did on all fronts, have gone on to distinguished careers as writers including a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a New York Times staff writer, and a children’s book author. Go Baltimore City Public Schools!

Stuck in a room, another famous children's book character had to imagine his escape from boredom. Illustration by Maurice Sendak from WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE -- but everybody knows that.

Stuck in a room, another famous children’s book character had to imagine his escape from boredom. Illustration by Maurice Sendak from WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE — but everybody knows that.

In the girl’s bedroom, you scatter little clues about her character. The air balloon hanging from her ceiling, the drawings of the pyramids, the map of the world on her wall –- and even, very small, a plane flying outside her window. That’s important to you, isn’t it? The sense that we’re living in a great big world.

I think I’ve always been looking for a way out, and so to that end the world offered possibilities. It’s not that my home life was terrible. I just wasn’t getting what I needed so I looked beyond it for an answer. I’d imagine most of us can relate to that!

Obviously, your book owes a debt to Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon. The device, the crayon, is the same, but the execution could not be more different. Also, the basic plot is timeless: using the imagination as escape, as a way to explore new worlds. Were those books important to you as a child?

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Actually, I was never a big fan of that book! I think the drawings bugged me somehow. But I do remember that when I finished Journey someone mentioned the similarity and so I looked at it as an adult. I was amazed at the similarities in the story! I probably would never have made Journey if I was aware that there was something so similar already out there!

Yes, I hear that. I was talking about this issue with Jessica Olien recently. There’s a freedom in not-knowing. I mean, I’m aware of authors who avidly read Publishers Weekly and stay up-to-the-moment about what’s being published. But I’m the opposite, because my tendency is the same as yours: “Oh, rats, it’s already been done.” Creatively, I feel better off not knowing too much. A little bit goes a long way. I’m not a librarian or a publisher; I’m a maker. Our work has different requirements.

I’m a big fan of picture books and illustration in general, so I’ll often go to stores that do a nice job of curating their shelves (like the one at the Eric Carle Museum here in Amherst) and pick out a few books to take home that I like. But I’ve never been interested in following trends or trying to interpret the market of what sells or is popular with critics. I feel like I have this chance with the books I make to create something akin to actual fine art, in that I feel like I’m making something entirely fueled by my own curiosity and interests. The minute I start to create books that I think will sell well is the minute I might as well go back to working as a hired gun for advertising or film. 

Amen, brother! During her journey, our female protagonist experiences great beauty in the natural world. But there are also dark forces at work. The soldiers and guards who seek to capture and control. Are you saying, in effect, that there are forces that conspire against our imagination?

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I’ve always thought that the emperor and his soldiers are interested in capturing the purple bird because it represents something they can’t understand or access. They’re aware that the bird has some sort of magical quality to it and it frightens them. But the girl just wants to set it free. She doesn’t hesitate. The emperor represents that force inside of us that might more against that spontaneity of creation. Self-doubt, jealousy, envy, fear. We all have it.

We hate what we do not understand. Except for your art! I have no idea how you do it, Aaron, but I love your work. What materials do you use to create these illustrations? Smoke and mirrors and what else? Forgive me, I’m no Julie Danielson; I’m a little lost when it comes to talking about artwork.

Pencil sketch, opening spread.

Pencil sketch, opening spread.

I start with pencils until the story is working. Then I build some 3D models in the computer to aid in the perspective of the architecture; these models get printed lightly out onto paper and I do another, more detailed pencil drawing for each spread. Then I scan that pencil in the computer so that I can print it out very lightly onto watercolor paper as the basis for my ink drawing. From there, it’s just like a traditional water color painting. Journey took me about a year and a half to produce. It’s laborious but it’s the only way I know!

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This is a wordless book, and your very first. Congratulations on such a jaw-dropping accomplishment, for it is a debut book that announced the arrival of an exciting new voice. I enjoyed thinking about your story long after I first encountered it in the wild. Did it have words in early iterations? The wordlessness seems to open up the potentialities of story in ways that wouldn’t be possible if it included text.

Thanks. I do feel like I made the book I wanted to make and the success that has followed has been just one giant blessing. I didn’t plan on it being wordless. But my when I fished my first draft, which was literally a series of small thumbnail sketches on one big sheet of paper, I realized that adding words would only be redundant. The story was already there.

 

There are currently three books in Aaron Becker’s “Journey” Trilogy: Journey, Quest, and Return. If readers are feeling ignore or bored, you can find Aaron’s website by searching high and low on the interwebs. It might inspire your imagination.

 

ABOUT THE “5 Questions” INTERVIEW SERIES: It’s a little project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. I almost called it “Author to Author” but I didn’t want to push myself to the front of it, though that is part of what makes these interviews unique. We’re in the same leaky boat.

Coming next week, my great pal Matthew Cordell (Wish) You can hit the “SUBSCRIBE” icon and, hopefully, it will work. Scheduled for future dates, in no particular order: London Ladd, Lizzy Rockwell, Matthew Phelan, Bruce Coville, Jeff Mack, Jeff Newman, and more. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES, and scroll till your heart’s content. Or use the handy SEARCH option. 

Guest so far:

1) Hudson Talbott, “From Wolf to Woof”

2) Hazel Mitchell, “Toby”

3) Ann Hood, “Ada’s Violin

4) Matthew McElligott, “Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster”

5) Jessica Olien, “The Blobfish Book”

6) Nancy Castaldo, “The Story of Seeds”

 

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10. Six Critical Life Messages That Every Child Should Hear, by Barbara Coloroso

“You’re listened to, you’re cared for, and you’re very important to me — children need to hear that in lots of different ways every day.” Barbara Coloroso.

 

NOTE: I originally posted this about five years ago. Felt it was time to bring it back again. Carry on!

 

In previous blog entries, I praised this book by Barbara Coloroso . . .

. . . a title that has informed, enlightened, and guided my own work as a writer, coach, and father.

She’s awesome, that’s all there is to it.

I came across this short video this morning. In less than 90 seconds, Barbara delivers a message that every teacher and parent needs to hear and remember — so that the children in our world hear those same things from us.

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11. BANG: 30 Songs About Guns

I’ve made mixes all my life. Still do, though now we call ’em playlists. In this case I went thematic. I can’t say why, it just worked out that way. I’m passing it along for your (possible) enjoyment. And, of course, as document. Feeding the interweb’s gaping maw.

Note: As with any playlist, I created it for my own listening pleasure. There are some obvious songs I didn’t include here — “Saturday Night Special” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, for example — and entire genres that I ignored in the interest in continuity. Also, there’s simply a lot of songs I haven’t heard or didn’t think of. If you’d like to add a song, make a comment. Sonically, I think it holds together pretty well through the first 20 tracks, then it gets kind of wobbly after that. But it’s an interesting subgenre. Guns & America. Let’s get it started with a banjo . . .

 

Time To Get a Gun, Fred Eaglesmith

Miranda Lampert covered this song, which I gather was good news for Fred Eaglesmith and his bank account. For my mix, I’ll stick with the man who wrote the song.

“Time to get a gun.
That’s what I’ve been thinking.
I could afford one,
if I did just a little less drinking.

Time to put something,
between me and the sun.
When the talking is over
it’s time to get a gun.”

– –

Folsom Prison Blues, Johnny Cash

This song had to be here, so might as well get it out front.

“When I was just a baby
My Mama told me, “Son,
Always be a good boy/
Don’t ever play with guns,”
But I shot a man in Reno
Just to watch him die.”

 

The Devil’s Right Hand, Steve Earle

Another song that begins with a Mama’s warning, unheeded.

“My very first pistol was a cap and ball Colt,
Shoot as fast as lightnin’ but it loads a might slow.
It loads a mite slow and I soon found out
It can get you into trouble, but it can’t get you out.”

 

Put Down the Gun, Peter Case

He was the leader of the mighty Plimsouls for crying out loud. The man is a legend. And he’s a legend, too, for writing this song.

““I don’t want to swear it/ But it’s something that I’ve heard/ A gun in the first act/ Always goes off in the third.”

 

Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down), Nancy Sinatra

Written by Charles Harmon, Shaffer Smith, and Mr. Sonny Bono. To me, Nancy Sinatra forever owns this song. Quentin Tarentino used it to great effect in the film, “Kill Bill.”

“Bang bang, he shot me down
Bang bang, I hit the ground
Bang bang, that awful sound
Bang bang, my baby shot me down.”

 

Bang Bang Bang, Ellen Jewell

Ellen Jewell offers a new take on Cupid, who in this version has upgraded his weaponry.

“He fired off a few hot rounds
Right into the sorry crowd.
No blood, no gore, no one hit the ground.
They all just fell in love
With whoever they happened to be around.

It’s funny, till it happens to you,
But be sure you stay well out of his way.
Love is careless, random and cruel,
He don’t take aim he just —
He don’t take aim he just bang bang bang.”

 

Gun, Uncle Tupelo

More gun as metaphor than actual gun, but a great tune and one of Jeff Tweedy’s best Uncle Tupelo numbers.

“Don’t tell me which way I oughta run
What good could I do anyone.
‘Cause my heart, it was a gun,
But it’s unloaded now. . .”

 

That’s When I Reach for My Revolver, Mission of Burma

Punk anthem, 1981.

 

“Tonight the sky is empty
But that is nothing new
Its dead eyes look upon us
And they tell me
We’re nothing
But slaves (That’s when I reach for my revolver)
Just slaves (That’s when I reach for my revolver)
That’s when I reach for my revolver
That’s when I reach for my revolver
That’s when I reach for my revolver
That’s when I reach for my revolver.”

Guns on the Roof, Clash

From the great “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” LP.

“Guns guns, a-shaking in terror
Guns guns, killing in error
Guns guns, guilty hands
Guns guns, shatter the lands.”

 

The Eton Rifles, Jam

Written by Paul Weller, who is awesome, in 1979.

“Sup up your beer and collect your fags,
There’s a row going on down near Slough,
Get out your mat and pray to the west,
I’ll get out mine and pray for myself.”

 

Bullet With My Name on It, The Dream Syndicate

I finally caught these guys live at Solid Sound, 2013, but I can still remember the first time a friend introduced them to me, on vinyl, in his East Village apartment.

“If you ever saw me
walking around
swear I’d try to disappear
I wouldn’t make a sound
Then something
got me on the run
it’s gonna be the last time
I let you hold my gun.”

 

Shoot Out the Lights, Richard and Linda Thompson

Thompson matches the gun’s menace note for note with his slashing guitar riffs.

“In the darkness the shadows move
In the darkness the game is real
Real as a gun
Real as a gun

As he watches the streets of the city
As he moves through the night
Shoot out the lights
Shoot out the lights.”

 

99 Year Blues, Hot Tuna

Originally written by blues musician Julius Daniels, this song appeared on the famous Anthology of American Folk Music box set. This “Burgers” LP was just huge with my friends and me back in high school. Jorma, man.

“Well, now give me my pistol, man
And three round balls
I’m gonna shoot everybody
That I don’t like at all.”

 

Bring Me My Shotgun, Lightnin’ Hopkins

Another “my woman done me wrong” song — with a nice twist at the end.

“Go bring me my shotgun,
You know I just got to start shootin’ again.
You know I’m gonna shoot my woman,
Cause she’s foolin’ around with too many men.”


Billy, Green on Red (Dylan Cover)

Nice cover by Green on Red of a minor Dylan classic off the underrated “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” soundtrack. Gillian Welch also covers this tune in a way that’s worth hearing.

“They say that Pat Garrett’s got your number
So sleep with one eye open when you slumber
Every little sound just might be thunder
Thunder from the barrel of his gun.”

 

Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, Bob Dylan

Live by the gun, die by the gun. Sticking with the same LP, here’s the tune everybody knows — and everybody, it seems, has covered.

“Mama, put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore
That long black cloud is comin’ down
I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.”

 

Me and Billy the Kid, Joe Ely

One more in our Billy the Kid trilogy. Here’s a classic take by the great Texas songwriter Joe Ely.

“Yeah, me and Billy The Kid never got along:
I didn’t like the way he buckled his boots an’ he wore his gun all wrong.
One day, I said to Billy: “I got this foo
lproof scheme.
“We’ll rob Wells Fargo, it’s bustin at the seams.”
I admit that I framed him. I don’t feel no remorse.
It was just my way of gettin’ even with the man who shot my horse.”

 

The Rifleman, The Minus 5

Scott McCaughey’s pop collective out of Seattle. Maybe it would have been brighter if I grabbed something of their 2006 release, “The Minus 5”, AKA “The Gun Album,” but I don’t know it that well. Sorry. So shoot me.

“Did you see the rifleman, did you see that episode?
Every Crawford in the country got to see his little head explode.
Just a loaded Texas tin star who tried to fill his boots
With bullets from a stocking Christmas morn'”

 

Shoot Out on the Plantation, Leon Russell

Another fallen legend, Leon died on 11/13/16. I’ll always love him best for his work leading Joe Cocker’s sprawling band, Mad Dogs & Englishmen.


“Yeah, the drummer’s got the drum, the colonel’s got the gun,
And Junior’s only got a knife, he’d better run.”

 

I Wanna Be Your Gun, The Mayflies USA

Sonically maybe not the best fit for this playlist, but I’ve long had a soft spot for this NC band’s melodic power pop and vocal harmonies. Their first two CDs were produced by the great Chris Stamey, so there’s your bona fides.

 

“I don’t want a shot, I just wanna be your gun.”

 


Tommy Gun, Clash

The only band that gets two songs on this playlist, breaking all the rules. Boy, they seem to matter now more than ever. We miss you Joe Strummer!

“Tommy gun
You ain’t happy less you got one
Tommy gun
Ain’t gonna shoot the place up
Just for fun
Maybe he wants to die for the money
Maybe he wants to kill for his country
Whatever he wants, he’s gonna get it!”

 

Hand of Fate, Rolling Stones

Pretty good band. They might make it someday.

“My sweet girl was once his wife
He had papers the judge had signed
The wind blew hard, it was stormy night
He shot me once, but I shot him twice.”

 

Jeannie Needs a Shooter, Warren Zevon

The man, the myth, the legend.

“The night was cold and rainy down by the borderline
I was riding hard to meet her when a shot rang out behind
As I lay there in the darkness with a pistol by my side
Jeannie and her father rode off into the night.”

 

With a Gun, Steely Dan

“I could be wrong but I have seen your face before
You were the man that I saw running from his door
You owed him money but you gave him something more
With a gun
With a gun”

 

Happiness Is a Warm Gun, Beatles

Another song where they are not really singing about a gun, but there’s a lot of shooting going on. “She’s not a girl who misses much.”

“Happiness is a warm gun (bang bang shoot shoot)
Happiness is a warm gun, mama (bang bang shoot shoot)
When I hold you in my arms (oh, yeah)
And I feel my finger on your trigger (oh, yeah)
I know nobody can do me no harm (oh, yeah)
Because, (happiness) is a warm gun, mama (bang bang shoot shoot)
Happiness is a warm gun, yes it is (bang bang shoot shoot)”

 

Ray’s Automatic Weapon, Drive-By Truckers

A man slowly losing it . . . with a gun in his possession. Songwriting Patterson Hood style.

“I got to tell you
You got to take that gun back
Cuz these things that I been shooting at are getting all too real
Don’t want to hurt nobody, but I keep on aiming closer
Don’t think that I can keep it feeling like I feel.”

 

Ten Cent Pistol, Black Keys

A scorned woman with a gun. That’s a combo for you. Hell, the song practically writes its darn self.

“There’s nothing worse
In this world
Than payback from a
Jealous girl
The laws of man
They don’t apply
When blood gets in
A woman’s eye.”

 

Pray for Newtown, Sun Kil Moon

Mark Kozelek was at his shambolic, idiosyncratic best on the 2014 CD, “Benji.” This is one of the songs on a weird, great disk.

“December twenty-fifth, and I was just laying down
I picked up a pen, I wrote a letter to the guy in Newtown
I said I’m sorry bout the killings, and the teachers who lost their lives
I felt it coming on, I felt it in my bones and I don’t know why.

So when Christmas comes and you’re out running around
Take a moment to pause and think of the kids who died in Newtown.
They went so young, who gave their lives
To make us stop and think and try to get it right
Were so young, a cloud so dark over them
And they left home, gave their mom and dad a kiss and a hug.

So when your birthday comes and you’re feeling pretty good
Baking cakes and opening gifts and stuffing your mouth with food
Take a moment for the children who lost their lives
Think of their families and how they mourn and cry.”

 

Shots, Neil Young

One of those great Neil songs it’s easy to miss, because this hidden gem is off the  1981 “Re-ac-tor” LP, which is about when I began losing some enthusiasm for Neil who wandered lost in the 80s wilderness until he surprised us with “Freedom” in 1989. I went with the electric version here, though there’s some really nice solo acoustic versions floating around the interwebs. If I was feeling clever, I could have started this thing off with the acoustic and then closed it out with the visceral noise of Neil and Crazy Horse kicking up a storm.

“Shots
I hear shots, I keep hearing shots
I keep hearing shots
I hear shots.”

 

Two Gunslingers, Tom Petty

Off the “Into the Great Wide Open” CD. My last song for this set, and I hope a fitting way to close it out.

“Two gunslingers walked out in the street and one said
“I don’t want to fight no more”
And the other gunslinger thought about it and said
“Yeah, what are we fighting for?”

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12. QUOTE FOR THANKSGIVING: For Teachers & Everyone Else

We’ve all heard a lot about the “echo chamber,” the perils of hearing only a narrow field of opinions, calcifying our unchallenged opinions into dogma.

On the other hand, there’s Thanksgiving dinner with the relatives!

“What was that you said, Uncle Frank?”

Yikes.

Anyway, I came across a great quote by journalist Walter Lippmann and wanted to share it. Actually, I had to track it down to its source, a book titled The Stakes of Diplomacy (page 51). When I first googled the quote, I kept coming across variations, all credited to Lippmann. It got to the point where I wondered, “What did he actually say?” No one seemed to care.

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A good thought for all of us to keep in mind. I actually saw it in an article I edited many, many years ago for a Scholastic educational catalog. It was about cultivating higher-order thinking skills in the classroom. Ideas about convergent and divergent thinking, and so on.

It was a good concept then, and necessary today. Public discourse — democracy — thrives when shaped by a variety of informed opinions.

 

 

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13. 5 QUESTIONS with NANCY CASTALDO, author of “THE STORY OF SEEDS”

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Nancy Castaldo, international jet-setter, thank you for stopping by. You know, I’ll be honest. I already read Ruth Kraus’s The Carrot Seed. I figure it’s one of the most perfect books ever created. When it comes to seeds, she pretty much said it all: dirt, water, sun, and hope. Then you come along and blow my mind. In all seriousness, I didn’t realize there was a much, much bigger story to tell –- and yet, you found it. How’d that happen?

Ah, The Carrot Seed! That’s a great one. My favorite as a child was What Shall I Put In the Hole that I Dig? I think the subject of seeds has been with me ever since. But, like you say, The Story of Seeds goes a little deeper. I was bombarded by a bunch of news back around 2008 about heirloom vegetables, seed banks, and GMOs. I started to become aware of a global concern – crops were going extinct. I had no idea that could even happen! Then I learned about seed scientists who have risked their lives to protect these valuable treasures. I knew I had to spread the word.

 

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Why is biodiversity important?

Let’s chat about potatoes. The Great Famine in Ireland occurred mainly because there was a lack of diversity. Once the potato crop died, there wasn’t any more food. Biodiversity gives us options. In the Andes Mountains in South America there are countless varieties of potatoes. If one suffers from a blight, another might still flourish. Biodiversity insures a healthier planet.

Your book has a decidedly global outlook. We hop around from Russia to Norway, India to Iraq, to places all over the United States. You must have put a ton of work into this – and it shows and all 136 pages. Tell us about your research. And don’t worry, we have all day here at James Preller Dot Com. Most of my readers are unemployed. I mean, both my readers.

pom-1-of-1Well, you might have all day, but I have to keep writing! LOL. But actually, I could talk all day about the research. I am a research junkie. It’s the best part — part scavenger hunt, part Indiana Jones. I wish I could have traveled to all of the places in my book, but some were off the table — like Iraq. Those places I had to visit by the magic of technology. I did, however, travel to Russia and many wonderful farms and seed banks. Russia was by far a place I never thought I would visit. Due to the seed scientists’ schedules and our calendar, and my deadline, I ended up visiting in the dead of winter when it is the coldest and darkest. I felt like I really experienced Russia! I was able to use that experience to understand more of what went on during the Leningrad Siege I was writing about.

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You put a spotlight on what you call “Seed Warriors.” Did you create that term? How did that narrative strategy come about?

I stole it from myself! I highlighted people who are champions of the environment in my book In Keeping Our Earth Green, by calling them scan-2Earth Heroes. I wanted something similar for this book and since this feels like a battle I used the word warrior to describe these scientists.

Here’s comes a two-parter, so I hope you’re sitting down. Who do you think reads a book like The Story of Seeds? And also, were you once that kid?

That’s a good question.

Finally!

I would hope that teens are my first readers. They can do great things when empowered. I have faith in them. I also have lots of adults who are readers.

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I loved reading books about the environment when I was a kid, like that picture book I mentioned earlier. When I was older I loved reading the essays and books by John Burroughs, Rachel Carson, John Muir and others who wrote about our world. I still draw inspiration from them. (Of course, I also read books about investigator, mystery-solver Nancy Drew!)

I loved that the book concluded with a five-page “Call to Action,” where you offer practical ideas for motivated readers who want to make a difference. I identified with that, because I recently wrote a fictional, middle-grade book set in that near future that touches on some of the negative effects of climate change. It can bring us, writer and readers both, to some dark places. Did you feel it was important to leave your readers with a sense of hopefulness? Or at least, purpose?

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Like I said — my readers can make a difference. I just want to give them some tools to help them do that!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your work with SCBWI. I know you are busy with that organization. First, how do I pronounce that word? Is it a kind of fish? Like scrod? I’m confused.

SCBWI stands for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and you are right, it’s a mouthful! I am the regional advisor for the Eastern NY region. So, that means that when I’m not writing, I’m planning events and meet-ups for other writers and illustrators. I love it! It’s a great organization for both published and aspiring children’s book creators. Just take a look at the website scbwi.org — it’s chock full of info on creating kids books!

I know that SCBWI has been a great source of perspiration — wait, strike that, inspiration! — for many aspiring authors and illustrators. As always, Nancy, I’m somewhat awed by all the good work you do. The Story of Seeds stands as an important, meaningful book. It’s what our world needs, now maybe more than ever.

Hey, thanks Jimmy Preller, for this great chat. It’s been fun. I can’t wait to read your latest eco-fiction title! Climate change is a big topic. It’s really frightening, but there’s hope!

Hope is not my strong suit, Nancy, but I’m working on it! If your comment makes any readers curious about that book, Better Off Undead, they can click here.

9780544088931NANCY CASTALDO is the author of several nonfiction books, including Sniffer Dogs, Keeping Our Earth Green, The Race Around the World, and many more. She lives in the Hudson Valley but she cares about the whole dang planet.

 

 

ABOUT THE “5 Questions” INTERVIEW SERIES: It’s a little project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. I almost called it “Author to Author” but I didn’t want to push myself to the front of it, though that is part of what makes these interviews unique. We’re in the same leaky boat.

Coming next Monday, Aaron Becker (Journey). After that, my great pal Matthew Cordell (Wish) You can hit the “SUBSCRIBE” icon and, hopefully, it will work. Scheduled for future dates, in no particular order: London Ladd, Lizzy Rockwell, Matthew Phelan, Bruce Coville, Jeff Mack, Jeff Newman, and more. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES, and scroll till your heart’s content. Or use the handy SEARCH option. 

Guests so far:

1) Hudson Talbott, “From Wolf to Woof”

2) Hazel Mitchell, “Toby”

3) Ann Hood, “Ada’s Violin

4) Matthew McElligott, “Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster”

5) Jessica Olien, “The Blobfish Book”

 

 


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14. POETRY FRIDAY: “Revolutionary Letter #51” by Diane di Prima

The righteously indignant poet Diane Di Prima. Photo by James Oliver Mitchell.

The righteously indignant poet Diane di Prima. Photo by James Oliver Mitchell.

It’s hard to say why we pluck one book from the shelf, a slim volume surrounded by so many others. In this case, for me, it was a book I hadn’t read in at least 20 years. A book I’d purchased new for $3.50, back in my college days, when that’s how I spent my available book-money: poetry, poetry, poetry. Building a collection.

A year ago, I was moved to post Wendell Berry’s fine poem, “The Peace of Wild Things.” Last week my blog blew up because somebody, somewhere, linked to that page on my blog. Berry’s poem expressed something that helps me in troubling times. I go back to it, as a reminder, time and again. And, oh yes, we are in troubling times, with irksome, fearful days ahead.

Cover design by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Cover design by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

During the week of the election, I took Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters off the shelf. Because as much as I needed solace and surcease, I also needed fire and gasoline. I needed the righteous indignation of di Prima’s shambolic, vexed, idealistic voice. While I don’t think of her as a supreme poet, or of this as a perfect poem, her spirit strikes chords in me, resounding and reverberating like a clanged bell. But I’m here today mostly for that good line: “We have the right to make the universe we dream.”

Be keep dreaming, dreamers.

We have that right, and that mission. Be strong.

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15. Today’s Word: Portemanteau

This is a portemanteau:

 

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That is, a large suitcase or trunk that usually opens into two separate parts.

However, the word “mansplaining” is also a portemanteau:

Ironic businessman boss. Business concept professional at work retro style pop art

According the Merriam-Webster, 1: a large suitcase; 2: a word or morpheme whose form and meaning are derived from a blending of two or more distinct forms. 

Our language has many portemanteaus, including: brunch, dramedy, carjack, Reaganomics, motel, snowmageddon, threepeat, gaydar, Brexit, sharknado, etc.

FUN FACT: “Chortle” is a portemanteau invented by Lewis Carroll, combining “chuckle” and “snort.

Carry on!

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16. 5 QUESTIONS with JESSICA OLIEN, author/illustrator of “THE BLOBFISH BOOK”

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Are we all good? Everybody set for another installment of our weekly “5 Questions” interview series? Because here’s Jessica Olien. Maybe she’ll stop signing books long enough for a friendly chat. Her blobfish book just might surprise you.

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Jessica, hey. There’s a great scene in “The Sunshine Boys,” starring Walter Matthau and George Burns, where Uncle Willy explains that “Words with k in it are funny.” He lists: pickle, chicken, Alka-seltzer. Uncle Willy adds, “’L’s are not funny. M’s are not funny. Cupcake is funny, tomatoes is not funny, lettuce is not funny, cucumber is funny . . . Cockroach is funny — not if you get ‘em, only if you say ‘em.” The idea is that certain words are inherently funny. Which leads me to Blobfish. How do you not smile when you hear that word?

Indeed. Poor lettuce, what a terrible dinner party guest. Blobfish is most definitely funny, but as with most comedians is also seriously misunderstood!

There’s a deeper layer to your book, slowly revealed, that leads the reader to an unexpected place. First, on the surface, there’s straight-forward science. From what I understand, there’s been significant advances deep ocean research, where we’re now getting glimpses of these incredibly weird fish. My favorite is Vampyroteuthis infernalis (loosely translated as “Vampire Squid from Hell”). It all gets pretty bizarre down in the Hadalpelagic Zone. All of that information in your book is conveyed in a fairly conventional photographic manner. Then we meet your illustrated Blobfish character. Which came first?

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Definitely Blobfish came first. I had this idea kind of whole — an attention-seeking fish looking to recognize himself in the pages of a dry textbook. To get the photos (which are mostly of the deep deep sea) I had to contact different scientists around the world, which was fun but challenging when they were off searching for Japanese Spider Crabs or whatever and couldn’t get back to me for permissions.

What I love about your book -– and there’s so much to love –- is that moment when it pivots about halfway through. We are yucking it up with an interrupting blobfish, thinking we’ve got this book figured out, when we learn, “The blobfish was once voted the world’s ugliest animal.”

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At that moment, you start tugging, ever so gently, on emotions. The book quietly sends signals from the deep about kindness and how we treat each other. Even blobfish have feelings! And words can hurt. I imagine you coming across that factoid and thinking, “Hmmmm.” Is that when you knew you had a book? Because that’s a real thing, isn’t it? We all have folders of half-baked ideas, snippets and notions and unfinished manuscripts, but not many books. Then there’s a moment when, yes, this is a book. Or as my friend Matthew McElligott puts it, “You know you can land the plane.”

Well thank you! I think I actually read that the Blobfish was voted the ugliest animal on BBC or something and that’s where the idea for this book came from. That and a bunch of really weird sketches of Blobfish — you should see one of the early ones, he looks kind of like Danny DeVito.

DeVito should play him in the movie. I can totally see that. He has the range. But continue.

I loved thinking about a lumpy fish with this child-like enthusiasm about his own worth. Blobfish craves validation and belonging and while he looks for it he finds out that some people have not very nice views of him. I think this is a defining moment for many kids too. When they realize people aren’t all on their side. It feels so unfair (it is unfair). Different versions of this happen our entire lives and it is up to the kindness of others and our own ability to recognize and embrace that kindness (as well as to forgive our own flaws) that keeps us going.

I see that you live in Brooklyn, as required by law for children’s authors and illustrators (I think it’s a five-year minimum, then you are free to move to Connecticut). Yet you are a native Midwesterner. Where’s that?

I was born in Michigan and raised in Wisconsin. I never felt like I fit in anywhere. All I wanted to do was explore the world and be a writer, an artist, an actor. Being from the Midwest you are taught to keep your expectations low and your ambition in check. I couldn’t wait to leave. I moved to Chicago to study photography, then dropped out of school and moved to Thailand where I worked as a journalist. I finished my degree remotely while studying Arabic in Egypt.

Right. Given that progression, writing and illustrating a children’s book about a blobfish makes perfect sense. Because: inevitable. Your voice strikes me as something new. How did you arrive at children’s books? It’s like you climbed in a window or something.

It does sometimes feel that way — “This is not my beautiful house.” I always say I didn’t do this until a few years ago, but recently I looked back at some of my sketchbooks that I kept while traveling and mixed in with these serious sketches of urban decay and poverty were these funny cartoon animals and people. I am so glad I didn’t pursue picture books right out of school though. Something about not caring as much what people think when I did start out made it easier to have an authentic voice. Also, I was lucky to have Alessandra Balzer buy my first book (and four after). If she hadn’t taken it I might not even know there was a window for me to climb into.

Thanks for visiting, Jessica. Keep up the great work.

wceggdunlca8rphoz66abhhs4ri12vqgoobrgbrkx2plcphekar3aiznsrpughkiodzcs4glrs3lnnbucm2t9tndb06zszzgaib6wpypvq5idkycbwtzawmsmq7pk-1JESSICA OLIEN is also the author/illustrator of Shark Detective! and Adrift. She has several books in pre-publication, but the one I’m most excited about it titled Right Now (2018). I guess we’ll have to wait for it. Hum-dee-dum, dee-dum-dum. Jessica keeps a fancy website that you can visit. Google’ll get you there.

 

Coming soon: London Ladd, Matthew Cordell, Lizzy Rockwell, Nancy Castaldo, Matthew Phelan, and more. You can look up previous interviews in this series by clicking on the “5 Questions” icon under the “categories” on the right sidebar.

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17. Talking: Writing Process, Roald Dahl, Works In Progress, Lewis & Clark, and the Danger of the “Info Dump.”

Illustration by the amazing Quentin Blake, from DANNY CHAMPION OF THE WORLD -- a book that helped inspire THE COURAGE TEST.

Illustration by the amazing Quentin Blake, from DANNY CHAMPION OF THE WORLD — a book that helped inspire THE COURAGE TEST.

Deborah Kalb runs a cool website where she interviews a staggering number of authors and illustrators . . . and she finally worked her way down to me.

Please check it out by stomping on this link here.

Here’s a quick sample:

Q: You wrote that you were inspired by Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World to focus on a father-son dynamic in The Courage Test. How would you describe the relationship between your character Will and his father?

A: Yes, I came late to the Dahl classic and was struck that here was a loving book about a boy’s relationship with his father — not the kind of thing I’ve seen in many middle-grade children’s books. I found it liberating, as if Dahl had given me a written note of permission.

In The Courage Test, William Meriwether Miller is a 12-year-old with recently divorced parents. His father has moved out and moved on. So there’s tension there, and awkwardness; William feels abandoned, and he also feels love, of course, because it’s natural for us to love our fathers.

I wrote about this at more length, here, back a couple of years ago. In the unlikely event you are really fascinated by my connection to the Dahl book . . .

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18. 5 QUESTIONS with MATTHEW McELLIGOTT, author/illustrator of “MAD SCIENTIST ACADEMY: THE WEATHER DISASTER”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In more ways than one!

 

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

 

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

* Hudson Talbott

* Hazel Mitchell

* Ann Hood

 

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19. FIVE QUESTIONS with HAZEL MITCHELL, author/illustrator of “TOBY”

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Welcome to the second installment of my “5 Questions” series. On a weekly or bi-weekly or completely random basis, I will interview an author or illustrator and focus on a specific book. In the coming weeks, we’ll spend time with Matthew Cordell, Jessica Olien, Matthew McElligott, Lizzy Rockwell and more. Why? I like these people and I love their books. Sue me. Today we get to hang out with Hazel Mitchell, who is as glorious as a glass of champagne at a good wedding. Drink deeply, my friends . . .

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JP: Greetings, Hazel. Thanks for stopping by my swanky blog. I hope you don’t find the vibe too intimidating. I put up the tapestry just for you. The lava lamps have been here for a while. Because nothing says “classy” quite like a lava lamp. Sit anywhere you like, but the milk crates are most comfortable.

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Hazel: Thanks, JP. This is certainly an eclectic place you’ve got here. Wow, is that a glitter ball? Next you will be wearing a white suit. Excuse me while I remove this stuffed meerkat from the milk crate . . . 

1c971b5bc7c4a067d09cad45ee38361cCareful with that meerkat, it’s expensive. Hey, do I detect an accent? Wait, let me guess! You are from . . . Kentucky?

No getting anything past you! Kentucky, Yorkshire, England. OK, just Yorkshire, England. I’m a late pilgrim.

We recently sat side-by-side at the Warwick Children’s Book Festival, where I got the chance to read your wonderful new picture book, Toby, and eavesdrop on your lively interactions with young readers. At times, alarmingly, you spoke in the voice of a hand puppet. So let me see if I’ve got this straight: Toby is a real dog, but not a true story, exactly? How does that work?

toby-realistic-sketchesYes, we did sit next to each other and it was a lot of fun to see you in action! I didn’t know you were eavesdropping, I’d have dropped in some of those Shakespearean ‘asides’ just for you. And I must watch that hand puppet voice, I even do it without the hand puppet . . .

OK, to the question: Yes, Toby is a real dog. I rescued him from a puppy mill situation back in 2013. He was so endearing and his journey from frozen dog to bossy boots captured my heart. I began drawing him, because that’s what illustrators do, and before I knew it I was weaving a story round him. But I didn’t want to feature myself as the owner in Toby’s story, that was kind of boring and I figured Toby needed a younger owner, one who children could relate to. So I gave Toby a boy who adopts him and a Dad who is struggling with moving house, looking after his son AND now a new dog. The fictionalized setting gave me lots of ideas and emotions to play with, but the stuff Toby gets up to in the book is taken from things he did in real life.

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I can see it’s a work that comes from your heart. And by “see” I mean: I could feel it. A heartwarming story for young children living in a cynical age. The book is beautifully designed. I especially admire the pacing of it, the way you vary the number and size of the many illustrations. Please tell me a little about that decision-making process.

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Thank you. I love that you say ‘feel.’ I wanted this book to be about emotions and feelings and bring the reader into the internal dialogue of the boy and dog’s fears and frustrations. Just small things you know, but life is full of small things that make up the big things. And again, thank you for your kind words on the design, working with Candlewick, my editor (Liz Bicknell) and art director (Ann Stott), was a joy. We did a lot of drafts at rough sketch stage and as the layout of the book evolved a lot of graphic novel style panels crept in and then the wide double-spreads to open out the story. I like how it flows. The choice of colors really adds to the story I think, moody blues and beiges that reflect the emotions and then brighter colours when things are going well. The boy and dog are connected by the colour red –- Toby’s collar and the boy’s sneakers. 

Oh, thank you, Hazel, for sharing those behind-the-scenes details. I appreciate seeing the black-and-white sketches, too. I think even when readers don’t consciously notice those subtle details, they still manage to seep into our unconsciousness. It’s fascinating how much thought goes into the work that most readers probably don’t think they see.

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I like that your book doesn’t gloss over the challenges of owning a dog. It’s not always cuddles and sunshine. Why did you feel it was important to include the downside of dog ownership?

Because that is the reality of life and children are very capable of dealing with realities and working through problems. Sometimes it’s adults who want everything to be cuddles and sunshine, and try to save youngsters from the real world. Well we can’t do that, because it comes at us fast. I never get tired of seeing or hearing about a child responding to a book and saying, “Yeah, that happened to me,” or “I know that feeling.” It’s like you’ve been given a gift. 

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I see that you live in Maine. You must get this question a lot, but why isn’t Toby a moose? Do you see many moose up there? Can we please just talk about moose for a little while? And what goes on in Maine? Do you eat lobster all the time? While reading Stephen King? Or do I have some misconceptions? How did you end up there?

Toby channels his inner moose at times, which is scary in a poodle. There aren’t so many moose around our way, but drive a little North and there is moose-a-plenty (that could be a good name for a snack?). 

Sounds delicious.

I once drove home from a school visit in the FAR NORTH at twilight (that was my first mistake), it was misty and I was driving down a road where I swear there was a moose every 5 yards. I drove 30 miles at 5 MPH. I got home after six months. These moose were SO darn big and SO close to the car I could literally see up their nostrils. Man, moose need help with superfluous hair.

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Wow, you really did see up their nostrils. You are scaring me a little bit, Hazel. Eyes on the road. Speaking of scary . . .

Stephen King lives in the next town over, but you know, he’s a recluse. I eat lobster with lobster on top. Delish. When I moved to the US of A from over the pond I landed in the South. Then moved to Maine. I like the cold much better! (And the lobster).

Do you have ideas for any more Toby stories? I think readers will want more.

I do have more ideas about stories for Toby. But we will have to wait and see. Readers! Write to my publisher! 

I’m so glad you visited, Hazel. It’s nice spending time with you. I hope Toby enjoys a long and mischievous life in children’s books.

It’s been fun. Best five questions anyone asked me all morning. Thanks for having me drop by … oops … there goes a lava lamp!

Six bucks down the drain. We’re done here.

 

imanismooncvr_300-819x1024In addition to Toby, Hazel Mitchell has illustrated several books for children including Imani’s Moon, One Word Pearl, Animally and Where Do Fairies Go When It Snows? Originally from England, where she attended art college and served in the Royal Navy, she now lives in Maine with her poodles Toby and Lucy and a cat called Sleep. You may learn more about Hazel at www.hazelmitchell.com

TOBY Copyright © 2016 by Hazel Mitchell. Illustrations reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, Massachusetts

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20. You Are So Welcome!

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Yesterday I cleaned out one of the bags I use for school visits. It’s surprising what I find in there. Old electric bills, paper scraps with hastily jotted-down ideas, Donald Trump’s taxes, lint-covered cookies (still delicious!), plus random notes and drawings that are handed to me by students mid-flight. As I rush down the hall seeking a bathroom, usually. The shy kid — with a friend, for bravery! — comes up and silently hands a paper to me. I am grateful, I am thankful, but I gotta go, so I stuff it into the bag, shake hands, and hurry to the next thing.

Thank you, sorry, gotta go.

Here’s one I wanted to share, because it’s all any of us ever really want. To feel noticed. To feel appreciated, recognized for our worth and our work. I am fortunate to enjoy a career where I am given notes like this one. Everyone should have that experience.

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21. A Writer’s Dilemma: The Challenge w/ Cell Phones

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Let’s start by looking at this clip below. The illustrated video, created by Steve Cutts for Moby’s new song, “Are You Lost in the World Like Me?” is dark and disturbing. You can even watch it with the sound off, since my interest is almost entirely with the story told by the visuals.

 

 

Wow, right? A bleak look at cell phone addiction. Or maybe it’s just a slightly exaggerated look at our world?

Contemporary cell phone culture presents unique challenges to any children’s book writer. Not the phones themselves, of course, but the way in which so much of contemporary teen life is spent on those phones. A quick Google search reveals reports that claim young adults will take more than 25,000 selfies during their lifetimes. More than 93 million selfies are taken each day; and so on and so on. You get the picture.

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In that regard, cell phones must be considered central to any telling of realistic fiction. It’s where so much of their lives are played out. But, confession: that’s not the version of life I’m personally interested in exploring. Maybe this reveals me for what I am — an old guy who grew up in a time before cell phones and personal computers. Their world is not my world. Maybe it’s beyond me. And yet I’m typing this on a laptop with an Apple phone at my side.

None of this was an issue for Mark Twain or Zora Neale Hurston.

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How do writers of children’s literature deal with phones? How do we tell contemporary stories? One way, of course, would be to embrace the phone fully. Make it a central character — that’s where the drama plays out, so dive right in. That’s a legitimate approach, but feels gimmicky. I also suspect that technique would quickly become dated.
In my books, I’ve dealt with phones in a number of ways.
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Here are a few:

* I recently wrote a new Jigsaw Jones, The Case from Outer Space. The characters are in second grade, so cell phones are not an issue. Nice!

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* In my “Scary Tales” series, phones present a different sort of challenge. The phone makes the world less scary. I don’t want a kid who is trapped in a cave to be able to pick up her phone and call 911. And the inverse is especially true — any sense of isolation, of disconnectedness, raises their discomfort. In I Scream, You Scream, the phones are confiscated before a thrill ride (no photos). Other times, the Wi-Fi is mysteriously down (Good Night, Zombie). I’m often trying to get the phone out of the way.

img_1992* In The Fall, a book that deals, in part, with teenage cyber-bullying, there’s no way to pretend that phones don’t exist. My characters send and receive texts, and “cell life” is inherent in the story. Interestingly, while the phones enhance our ability to connect electronically, they can also limit our real-time connections. Here’s a moment in the story when Sam recounts his second meeting with Morgan. They are both walking their dogs off-leash behind the middle school. They talk a little bit, thanks to the dogs. And then, this:

I stared at my phone, scrolled.

Morgan pulled her cell out of a coat pocket.

We stood there in awkward proximity, alone on a field, playing games with our phones. Silence drifted over us like clouds.

I pocked the cell.

“Bye,” I said.

I don’t remember if she answered me, but Morgan called to Max, “See ya, boy!”

* For The Courage Test, a father and son go on a long camping trip together. It would have been perfectly valid for them to lose a signal at different points in the story (and they do). But I still had the problem — if you can call it that — of a kid with his phone. Rather than ignore it completely, I wrote a scene where they are driving along in Montana. William is playing a game on his phone, not, to his father’s mind, fully appreciative of the landscape. They argue about the phone. The argument escalates.

He holds out his hand, gesturing for the phone.

Now, this next part is funny.

Hilarious, almost.

And it’s also incredibly, fabulously stupid, because I can be such an idiot sometimes. My father has pushed me into a corner. We are in the middle of nowhere. Wi-Fi is spotty at best. Back home, at Puckett Field, there’s an All-Star practice tonight — a practice that I’m missing, for a team I can’t play on, because my ex-dad wants to haul me across the universe. 

My right index finger pressed the button on the armrest. The window slides noiselessly down and I immediately feel it, the wind and whoosh of summer heat.

I turn and can’t resist, so with a flick of my wrist I pitch my phone out the window. 

Problem solved.

* In Before You Go, possibly my only true YA, Jude has a phone and uses it. But at the same time, I mostly write around it — to a point that might present a picture that’s somewhat untrue to life as it is currently lived. Again, it’s hard to move a story along if people are constantly staring at Youtube videos and Snapchat. Or maybe you can? But yuck.

* Picture books, where characters can be talking pigs or pogo-sticking hyenas, offer another way for a writer to sidestep phone culture. Just create an alternative world and write for very young children. Though lately I’ve seen a few picture books where kids are dealing with parents who won’t stop looking at their phones.

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* Write Historical Fiction. Set stories in a time before cell phones. The same is true for dystopian novels and science fiction. “Electricity’s out, folks, you’re going to have to talk among yourselves!” Maybe that’s why we see so much of it these days?

I share these musings not because I have the answers, but because I think it’s an issue which confronts contemporary writers. Phones are awfully tedious, and people staring at phones — while super realistic: just look around! — is even worse.

What do you think? Can you think of books that dealt with phones in an innovative or effective way? In our efforts to be realistic, do we need to incorporate more phone-drama in our books? Thoughts?

The idea of writing that Civil War story never looked so good.

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22. In Which I Answer the Question: “What Are You Working on now?”

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I recently completed a series of interview questions at Deborah Kalb’s “Book Q&As” blog (not posted yet, or I’d share), and thought I pass along a brief sample. One of the unexpected challenges to writing a book comes after the book is finished — now you’ve got to figure out how to talk about it. How do you explain it? How do you make it sound good in two sentences? How to summarize 42,000 works into pure pith?

Obviously, I’m still trying to figure that out.  Read below and you can flounder along with me!

 

What are you working on now?

I am finishing up the revisions for a middle-grade novel, Better Off Undead, that I began seven years ago. It started as a misfit story, in this case a boy who survives his own death only to be told that, well, he might as well go back to middle school. I figured that “zombie” made him the ultimate outsider. But I didn’t feel satisfied writing just a zombie book, so the work stalled. As time passed, I became increasingly interested in a host of environmental issues, “climate change” in particular, even attending a huge march down in NYC. I kept looking at young people today and felt the caretakers of the planet had failed them. At the same time, I didn’t believe that many of today’s young people had fully grasped the severity of the situation. The book (Macmillan, 2017) casts a wide net, sprawls and morphs into a mystery/thriller hybrid, and touches upon bees, bats, droughts, wildfires, makeover shows, corporate greed, consumerism, politics, bullying, and, yes, zombies. If there’s a theme, it’s this: Everything connects. It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever written. I’m glad that I can still surprise myself — and consider it a good sign.

Here’s some more images from the spectacular “People’s Climate March” in NYC referenced above, attended by more than 400,000 citizens of the globe.

I traveled down alone -- but not alone -- by bus. So this is me on that great day, seeking attention to a cause that matters. In many ways, this march affected and inspired the book I wrote.

I traveled down alone — but not alone — from Delmar, NY, by bus. So this photo is me, taken by a stranger on that great day, seeking attention for a cause that matters. In many ways, this march affected and inspired the book I wrote.

People's Climate March, 092114Some of hundreds of thousands take part in the People's Climate March through Midtown, New Yorkscreenshot-2014-09-10-131902_550x322climate-march-9_3000019b10_medium140921_climate_change_rally_nyc_ice_cream_earth_msm_605_60520140921-dsc_0050imagesA protester carries a sign during the "People's Climate March" in the Manhattan borough of New Yorkslide_389314_4706504_freeslide_370038_4261286_free140921_pol_peoplesclimate_11-jpg-crop-original-originalimagemarch-for-climate-changeimrspeoples-march-newam-crew-537x366

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23. 5 QUESTIONS with SUSAN HOOD, author of “ADA’S VIOLIN”

 

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Welcome to my interview with author Susan Hood. This is part of an ongoing “5 Questions” series, where the discussion revolves around one specific book. On a weekly basis, we’ll be hearing from Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Lizzy Rockwell, Matthew Phalen London Ladd, Matthew Cordell, and more. That’s a lot of Matthews! This is a gift that I’m giving myself, forcing myself to spend time and thought on some terrific books. Hopefully I’ll learn something along the way. Oh, look. Here comes Susan Hood up my walkway. Not a bad view out my front door, you think?

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Greetings, Susan. Tell us about finding this story. Did you immediately see it as a potential picture book?

Hi, Jimmy. Thanks for having me. I can’t take credit for discovering the Recycled Orchestra. All kudos go to the late great Bob Simon who did a fantastic story about it on 60 Minutes and to my editor Christian Trimmer who saw the segment and the story’s potential for a picture book. I’m so grateful I’m the author who got to write it.

Looking into the story, there was a lot of press about Favio Chávez, the conductor of the orchestra. But for a picture book, I wanted to shift the focus and talk to a kid in the orchestra. That’s how I decided it was Ada’s story I wanted to write.  

This book is such an accomplishment. I’m in awe of what you’ve done. Big respect. I mean, wow, you’ve done it; you made a great, great book. I’m actually standing up and clapping right now, while typing with my toes.

Ha! I always knew you were a man of many talents. (The secret to writing so many books?) But seriously, thank you. As I’ve told you, writing this book was one of the best experiences of my life. I fell in love with these kids and I guess it shows.


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Yes, your affection for this story comes through loud and clear. It’s such a challenge to take a story this big -– with so much depth and detail – and find a way to condense it into a picture book format without losing the heart and soul. What a struggle that must have been. How did you even begin? Sometimes writers will find a sentence, or an image, or even a word that sort of lets them enter the story through a side door. Does that make any sense to you?

I wrote many, many drafts of this book, but the first sentence was always: “Ada Ríos grew up in a town made of trash.” The kid in me knew that that was a killer statement; just imagine growing up in a place where everything in your life — houses, beds, toys, clothing — comes from other people’s trash. And then imagine taking that trash and transforming it into music. Pure magic.

 
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Obviously, for Ada’s Violin, there are real people involved. It’s a true story. So that had to be an added weight, this huge responsibility to do justice to their story. Tell us about your research, and your interactions with Ada in particular.

Yes, I worked hard to get it right. In the beginning, I decided I could tell this story in one of two ways: the easy way and the hard way. The easy way: use the news reports as background, make up a kid, and tell a story “based on a true story.” But why would I make anything up when the true story is so astonishing?

Um, wild guess, but: because it was the easy way?

No, I knew I had to do it the hard way: find an actual kid, do interviews, and tell a true story.

Yeah, I suppose that also works.

The obstacles seemed daunting. I couldn’t afford to go to Paraguay; Cateura has no postal system and little electricity; I don’t speak Spanish and no one in the orchestra speaks English. When I talk to kids about the story, I tell them, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.” I hired a translator and asked 60 Minutes if they could put me in touch with Favio Chávez. The producers loved the idea of a picture book and were incredibly generous and supportive.

It turned out that Favio had access to email and Skype so I did several rounds of interviews with him and later Ada online. The tricky part was that they were on tour so much, it might be months between questions and answers. My editor was extremely understanding about extending deadlines.

For picture book authors, we write the words and then we wait, and wait, and wait. Then there’s always that remarkable, heart-in-your-throat moment when the art arrives. Tell us about your reaction to seeing Sally Wern Comport’s work for the first time.

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Jaw on the floor! Sally sent us color sketches and I was stunned at her use of found objects and mixed media that so perfectly mirrored the bits and pieces of landfill, the houses, the recycled instruments. And as hope comes to Cateura, her palette moves from dark shadows to light-infused scenes of gorgeous color, sprinkled with musical notes that take to the sky. I’m still in awe of what she’s accomplished.

I love every blessed inch of this book. But I’m especially moved — transported — by a spread two-thirds of the way through the story. The visual focus is tight on Ada playing her violin. The words are few and absolutely perfect: “With her violin, Ada could close her eyes and imagine a different life. She could soar on the high, bright, bittersweet notes to a place far away. She could be who she was meant to be.” The language is clear and direct, but also there’s the uplift of that poetic phrase -– “the high, bright, bittersweet notes” –- where the sentence soars right along with Ada. And we, as readers, soar with you. That right there is some fine writing, Susan.

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That makes me so happy because that’s my favorite spread in the book, too. The art is simply spectacular. I listened to a lot of violin music as I was writing and it was that word “bittersweet” that rang true, both in the sound of the music and in Ada’s thoughts of leaving Cateura. While her town is undeniably “a noisy, stinking, sweltering slum,” it’s where Ada’s friends and family are, where she’s grown up. It’s the only home she has ever known.

I understand that you worked at “Sesame Street.” I’ve always wondered: Was Oscar really that grouchy? Or was that only when the cameras were rolling?

Funny that I’ve gone from Oscar’s trash can to Ada’s landfill. As Carroll Spinney has said (and I’m paraphrasing) the only thing that kept him sane playing Big Bird was that he got to play Oscar, too. So yes, he was always grouchy…unless he was revelling in trash.

And when Cookie Monster went on the Paleo Diet, that had to cause tensions on the set, yes?

Cookie Monster, during happier times.

Cookie Monster, during happier times.

It was brutal! No cookies, no milk.

An experience like the one you had at Sesame Street must have had a profound impact on your work. What do you think was your single, great takeaway from those years?

You’re right. We still need diverse books, but Sesame Street has been nurturing diversity since 1969. There’s a great big world out there and that’s always informed what I want to write about. Another takeaway for me was the idea of layering. Sesame Street jokes and stories work 100 percent for little kids and yet there’s an extra layer for their parents, which encourages families to watch together. A win-win for everyone. The best picture books give that same 100 percent. And finally, Kermit and friends taught me the exquisite joy of making a little kid laugh.

 

 

SUSAN HOOD is the author of Spike, the Mixed-Up Monster; Rooting for You; Leaps and Bounce; Mission: New Baby, and many others. Her new book, Mr. Fix-It, will soon be published. Susan keeps a tidy blog that’s easy to find.

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24. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #234: Featuring Secret Codes from Vivien!

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First of all, wow, this is letter number 234 that I’ve shared on this blog. I started this feature late in 2008, I think. I don’t put every letter on the blog. These represent only a small sample. Here at James Preller Dot Com, we share only the freshest, the funniest, the best. This one is from Vivien. She qualifies!

 

Dear James Preller,                                                                            
I really like your Jigsaw Jones books.  They are really fun!  I think it is cool how Jigsaw and Mila send secret codes to each other.  Jigsaw is really smart.  I don’t think I would have been able to solve The Mystery of the Perfect Prank.  I would like to ask you some questions.  (I am going to write in a code!)  Why you writing Jigsaw books, did start the Jones?  What your color, is favorite?  Which your are favorite, of books your?  Are going write books, you to more?  Please answer these questions (if you can!) and please write back soon. 
 `
Sincerely, Vivien
 
I replied:
 

Vivien,

Thank you for this lovely note. And may I also say how much I love your name: Vivien. It’s even fun to say. It also reminds me of a favorite word: convivial.
Vivien is convincingly convivial!
 ‘
You are the first person on the planet clever enough to ask me questions in code. I did manage to figure it out. Confession: My first thought was that you were lousy at typing. But then I recognized that you had some kind of alternate word thing going on. I like it! Does it have a name? A Word Skip Code?
 
On to the questions!
 
I began writing these mysteries back in 1997. At the start, I was just messing around with words on paper. I had a character, named Otis, who had an extremely active imagination. He’d pretend to be a space explorer, a mad scientist, and a hard-boiled detective (like in the old movies). An editor at Scholastic, Jean Feiwel, read what I had written and said, “I like the part where he’s a detective. Do you think you could write a mystery?”
 
My favorite color? Well, the older I get, I have to admit — it’s gray.
 
Illustration by R.W. Alley from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE -- coming in the summer of 2017!

Illustration by R.W. Alley from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE — coming in the summer of 2017!

There are different scenes in each Jigsaw Jones book that I enjoy. A line that’s funny, a clue that might be particularly ingenious, or a moment of real heart. And I suppose there’s a few books with which I’ll never feel satisfied. 

I’m super excited about my new Jigsaw Jones book, The Case from Outer Space, which is coming out this summer, published by Macmillan. I hadn’t written one in several years, and I was so happy to re-enter that familiar world. It really might be the best Jigsaw Jones book I’ve ever done — and that’s saying something, because it’s the 41st book overall.
 ‘
Thank you for reading my books, Viv!
 ‘
Oh, by the way, I think I figured out a new code the other day. I made a note and stuck it in a folder. Maybe for the next book. Do you mind if I try it out on you?
 
Wait, before you leave the house — get dressed!
Most animals are fabulous dancers.
At first, the hippo appeared bored and soporific, but then he perked up.
The single best thing anyone can ever do is pour soup in their shoes.
I believe Vivien is actually a frog.
 
Stumped you, didn’t I?
 
Here’s a hint: I think I’ll call it a Third Word Code. And it’s harder to write than it looks! Whew. I’m gonna take a nap!
 
Your pal,
 
James Preller

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25. Donald Trump and “The Courage Test”

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I owe a debt of thanks to Donald Trump. His campaign rhetoric helped inspire parts of my new middle-grade novel, The Courage Test (Macmillan).

No book is written in isolation. There is always a personal and historic context, and it’s only natural for outside influences to leak into any manuscript. For this book, Donald Trump — as the emergent Republican frontrunner for the presidency of the United States — became the inescapable buzz and background to my thoughts.

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Back in early 2015, I set out to write the story of William Meriwether Miller, a 12-year-old boy who travels with his father along parts of the Lewis & Clark Trail. They drive, hike, backpack, and paddle through some of the most beautiful parts of America. Along their trip, they experience new places, new people, and (we hope!) gain new insights into themselves and each other.

Young Will’s experience parallels that of the original quest of Lewis & Clark and the “Corps of Discovery,” explorers who sought the Northwest Passage, the hoped-for water passageway from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. The more I learned about that expedition, the more fascinated I became. I’d accidentally hit upon a rich pathway into the American soul. The scope of the book shifted under my feet. The Trail was no longer merely convenient metaphor; it became essential fact, a way into the messy heartland. So the book also became an expression of my awe at the exploration made by Lewis & Clark from 1804-06. Theirs was a military journey into uncharted territory — the old maps employed that great phrase, “Parts Unknown,” to label vast areas — the first epic and fateful push west that came to define the American pioneering impulse, for better and for worse. It was a story of discovery and nation-making, of personal bravery and perseverance, of ignorance and arrogance. Most profoundly, their exploration inevitably precipitated the cruel clash of cultures between the American government and the indigenous people who had lived on that land for centuries.

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And so I set a father and son wandering along that same path to discover parts unknown. They learn something of themselves, but also this: that we are forever remaking our nation in a thousand different ways. How we respect the land, how we treat each other. Each day, we define ourselves anew. The idea of America is not fixed in time. It is a fluid, ever-changing thing.

Lewis & Clark are guiding spirits that haunt Will’s journey. The other specter that haunted my writing journey, if you will, was Donald Trump. I was hearing his words on a daily basis. And it struck me that what he represented seemed to strike against the spirit of this nation’s core. He boasts about building a great wall, he stokes fear and distrust of immigrants, he promises deportations. On the day of his campaign announcement, June 15, 2015, Trump said:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

And Trump promised:

“I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me —and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

He hasn’t stopped denigrating people since. Just yesterday calling the Somali immigrants of Minnesota a “disaster” for the state. It is one thing to lead a thoughtful discussion about immigration standards and practices; it is something altogether different, and more hateful and fear-mongering, to broadly disparage a culture and a community of immigrants living in our country. It’s also counter-productive.

In The Courage Test, I weave in details throughout the book that echo and mirror the explorers’ original experiences (an incident with a bear, adventures in the rapids, encounters with the Nez Perce tribe, etc). To cite one example: protagonists in both time periods meet up with a vulnerable, pregnant 15-year-old girl. For Lewis & Clark, her name was Sacagawea. She grew up with the Shoshones and was kidnapped by the Hidatsa tribe at roughly age ten. A few years later she was sold to a fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau, who made her his wife. Sacagawea famously joined Lewis & Clark on their journey to the sea. Correspondingly, in the main narrative, Will and his father meet Maria Rosa, also 15 and pregnant. It is strongly intimated that Maria came into the United States illegally from Mexico, a runaway seeking a new life.

 

Painting by Edgar Samuel Paxson.

Painting by Edgar Samuel Paxson.

 

To me, it became very important how Will and his father responded to this girl. Because it would not only reveal their character, but it would say something about America, at least a vision of America in which I still believe. In that sense the book became in part my response to Donald Trump. A story about morality, and compassion, and the courage to face the coming challenges with open, generous hearts.

—–

THE COURAGE TEST is a 2016 JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD SELECTION.

“Preller traverses both domestic drama and adventure story with equally sure footing, delivering the thrills of a whitewater rafting accident and a mama bear encounter, and shifting effortlessly to the revelation of Mom’s illness and the now urgent rapprochement between Dad and Will. Whatever young explorers look for on their literary road trips, they’ll find it here.The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

Preller stirs doses of American history into a first-rate road trip that does traditional double-duty as plot device and coming-of-age metaphor. Will is initially baffled and furious at being abruptly forced to accompany his divorced father, a history professor, on a long journey retracing much of the trail of Lewis and Clark. The trip soon becomes an adventure, though, because as the wonders of the great outdoors work their old magic on Will’s disposition, his father and a Nez Perce friend (who turns out to be a Brooklyn banker) fill him in on the Corps of Discovery’s encounters with nature and native peoples. Also, along with helping a young runaway find a new home, Will survives a meeting with a bear and a spill into dangerous rapids — tests of courage that will help him weather the bad news that awaits him at home.”—Booklist, Starred Review

“A middle grade winner to hand to fans of history, adventure, and family drama..”School Library Journal.

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