Abigail speaks with children’s book author Artie Knapp about his latest book featuring a reluctant baby river otter.
In September, National Book Award winner Pete Hautman celebrated the release of his most recent novel, Slider ($16.99, Candlewick Press, 288 pages), with a hamburger eating contest at the Wild Rumpus bookstore in Minneapolis. The festivities were a fitting tribute to Hautman’s middle-grade story about David, a high-school competitive eater with a special-needs younger brother and a genius older brother. Stuck in the middle, David tries to balance family responsibilities with the general ups and downs that come with being a teenager.
Hautman’s crisp and nuanced prose offers great insight on doing what’s right while dealing with life’s slings and arrows. Whether he’s writing for young adults or middle-graders, Hautman has a knack for figuring out what his readers crave. When he’s not writing, he and his wife, the poet Mary Logue, hunt mushrooms with their dogs Gaston and Baudelaire near their home in Wisconsin. Earlier this month Hautman graciously fielded questions from Abigail and I about his research process, confronting uncomfortable truths, the judicious use of humor, and the challenges and pleasures of crafting great literature for readers of all ages.
Photo courtesy of Candlewick Press.
Abigail’s questions for Mr. Hautman:
What was your inspiration for writing Slider?
My family! I grew up in a family with seven kids, and it was crazy. I was the oldest, so in many ways it was easy for me to feel special. My younger siblings had to work harder—especially the middle kids. I wanted to write about the challenges of being a middle child.
Also, I think eating contests are bizarre, grotesque, and utterly fascinating. Eating 141 hardboiled eggs in eight minutes? Gross! But kind of amazing, right?
Before becoming an author, did you ever participate in a food competition? (Do you still complete if you do?)
I did not, although I did put myself to the test by eating ten White Castle sliders as quickly as I could, for “research.” It took me about two minutes, which sounds fast, but the top eaters can down about thirteen sliders in one minute.
What are you working on now?
A book called OTHERWOOD. It’s sort of a ghost story. Or maybe not! Mostly it’s about what happens when friends—and the universe—are torn apart. It will be published next fall.
Barbara’s questions for Mr. Hautman:
What did you read growing up? Did those choices influence your desire to become an author?
The usual suspects for the time: Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Jack London (my favorite!), The Hardy Boys, Jim Kjelgaard…there weren’t as many choices for young readers back then, and I was desperately afraid that I would run out of books to read. When I ran out of Hardy Boys books I moved on to Nancy Drew, and my dad’s “antique” Tom Swift books from the twenties, and then his westerns and detective novels. By age thirteen I was into James Bond and The Lord of the Rings (that sounds like a 1960s “B” movie!) and whatever adult bestsellers I could get my hands on (Peyton Place, Hawaii, Tai-Pan, I, the Jury, etc.) I don’t remember there being much distinction between kid books and grownup books—but then, I had very permissive parents.
Slider, Eden West, and Godless all deal in one way or another with confronting uncomfortable truths. Is there a tendency to avoid difficult topics in literature and in life? Why is it so important to write “uncomfortable” stories?
Yes, no, sometimes, maybe. Contemporary novels that deal directly with religion usually do not sell well, but books about other “uncomfortable” areas such as sex, drugs, abuse, racism, and so forth are gobbled up by young readers. They want to know! They need to know. Life forces us to face uncomfortable truths again and again, and literature can provide a relatively safe space for such encounters.
As adults we often avoid, ignore, gloss over, or blind ourselves to things that make us uncomfortable. Or we can face them head on. Children need tools to help them face the things they will encounter, and to understand things they have already encountered. Books can help.
Do you think David is a sympathetic character?
Yes! I think all my characters are sympathetic, even the bad guys. But David is, I hope, especially appealing to most readers, because in one way or another we are all David. We are all “stuck” in a situation, i.e., the circumstances of our lives. We all make bad decisions, we all live with those decisions, we all get confused, we all try, we all fail, and we all grope our way to small triumphs.
How important is humor when writing a middle-grade novel? How do you know you’ve struck the right balance between funny and over-the-top?
I don’t think humor is essential. Some excellent middle-grade novels are earnest and humorless. I don’t write those kinds of books. I need to laugh sometimes when I write, even if the book is not intended as a “funny book.” Eden West, for example, is a serious and earnest book with big themes and a surfeit of darkness. The funny scenes it contains kept me going, and I hope the same is true for my readers. The same was true of Invisible, a very dark novel with many funny scenes.
Finding an appropriate balance between funny and not-funny is, I think, one of the more intuitive parts of the writing process. It would be a hard thing to teach.
Why did you decide to become an author?
The short answer is that I love books, and I thought writing books would be something I would be proud to do.
The longer answer has to do with my childhood. I grew up in a family where making things was highly respected, whether it be drawing pictures, building a birdhouse, making music, or baking cookies. We were always making. I thought when I was younger that making paintings and drawing comics would be a good thing to do. Eventually I focused on comic books, and I discovered that my favorite part of making comics was not the penciling or inking, it was the layout and the writing. In other words, the storytelling. So got rid of all my art materials and bought a typewriter. Now I make novels.
What goes into making books for a 9-12 year old audience that may or may not be as important for older or younger readers? What’s the secret to making your work chime with your readers?
Wow, good question! Kind of a scary question because I’m catching myself wanting to give self-serving answers such as “honesty,” “integrity,” “respecting the reader,” “being real,” and so forth. Not that those things are untrue, despite being rather trite.
I guess what works for me is doing the memory work—going back in time to when I was swept away by, say, Charlotte’s Web, or A Wrinkle in Time, or Jack London’s White Fang, and remembering what it felt like to step into those stories, to see through the eyes of a character who discovers in his or her self that it is possible to matter, to make a difference, to be a significant part of the world.
You might say that the underlying theme in most, if not all middle-grade literature is simply, “I matter.”
I understand you come from a large family–did your childhood in any way influence some of the themes you explore in your books?
Yes! Every book, in every way, is drenched in my childhood. Godless and Otherwood (fall, 2018) most of all. But all my books, in one way or another, spring from my childhood. Specific events in a book might be invented from scratch, but the emotional arc is utterly authentic.
As a young adult I tried hard to put all that “kid stuff” behind me. I was focused on reinventing myself a an adult. But when I started writing books for young readers I discovered that it never went away. As the author Alison McGhee says (I’m paraphrasing here), “I am ten, I am twelve, I am sixteen, I am every age I have ever been.”
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you?
I love what I do.
@BoxerBooks Author-illustrator Jane Ray talks about creative influences, fairy tales, and offers advice to budding artists. #JaneRay #art
British author-illustrator Jane Ray has over seventy children’s books to her credit, filled with plucky mermaids, fairies, and ghosts, while clever illustrations have earned her a spot on the shortlist for the Kate Greenaway Award five times. Ray was recently nominated for the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen award, an international prize often referred to as the “Little Nobel Prize.” Ray’s stories hail from all the corners of the world and are receptive to diverse creative influences. Her most recent book, The Elephant’s Garden (Boxer Books, $14.95), deals with hunger, greed, and temptation, but there’s no fire and brimstone here; Ray’s jewel-toned illustrations masterfully weave a beguiling tale set in a fantastical corner of India.
And that’s how it is with most of Ray’s books, wherein a deft master dazzles with lyric prose and illustrations to the point where the reader almost forgets that there’s a moral in there somewhere. Ray credits understanding parents and a lifelong love of reading and drawing for fueling her career. Ray kindly spoke with us via e-mail on March 22, 2017 about her early influences and artistic process, and extolled the virtues of toting sketchpads everywhere, because you never know when inspiration may strike.
You’ve written and illustrated over seventy children’s books, many of which focus on folk tales and fairy tales—your illustrations for Berlie Doherty’s Classic Fairy Tales put you on the shortlist for the Kate Greenaway Medal—what draws you to these stories?
RAY: I think it is the shape of traditional stories that I am attracted to. They are so familiar to us – you just start with “Once upon a time….” and we all know where we are! The archetypal scenarios of kings and princesses, three brothers or sisters, towers and palaces, poverty and wealth seem universal. I guess these stories relate to human concerns the world over – health, wealth, happiness, life and death.
What books did you read growing up? I understand yours was “a house full of books and music” and that you found school a distraction from your true calling. Did your parents encourage you to become an artist?
RAY: I was very lucky to have very encouraging parents – not to be underestimated. Important books were Alice in Wonderland, the Little House on the Prairie books, the Green Knowe Books by Lucy Boston, Tom’s Midnight Garden. I loved the illustrations of Beatrix Potter and Brian Wildsmith, Arthur Rackham and Jan Pienkowski.
What pulled you to the story of The Elephant’s Garden? Where did you first encounter this story?
RAY: I found the story when I was researching an anthology that I put together for Boxer Books, called The Lion and the Unicorn and other Hairy Tales. It came from a collection of Indian folk tales in my local library. The original story was about an ox and a monk, but I felt an elephant had more appeal, and I wanted a child protagonist. That is the beauty of such stories – they belong to everyone and can be retold in any way, to fit your audience. Nothing is written in stone.
The illustrations for The Elephant’s Garden remind me of various jungle scenes by Henri Rousseau—what influences did you draw upon for this book?
RAY: I had been experimenting with cut paper as a medium – there is a freshness and brightness to the technique which felt right for this story aimed at the very young. It is also a technique common to several different cultural traditions – Polish and Mexican to name but two….and Matisse of course!
What is your philosophy when it comes to creating a well-crafted children’s book? How do you know when the text and art are in perfect pitch?
RAY: When I’m illustrating my own text, it’s a constant backwards and forwards process of balancing text and image. I always find that the story can be pared down considerably once I start on the pictures – visual action reducing the need for explanation in the text. But you also don’t want to sacrifice the poetry and balance and rhythm of the words – hence the to-ing and fro-ing, trying to find the right balance.
What’s your creative process? Does it vary whether you’re collaborating with an author or working on your own project?
RAY: Yes, very much. When I’m working on someone else’s text I have a ready-made frame work which, by and large, I will adhere to. There can be, hopefully, some give and take between author and illustrator, the author willing to be flexible about issues that arise in the illustration of the text, but ultimately I am always very conscious that I am entrusted with someone’s “baby,” their precious story, and I want them to be happy with my interpretation.
When I am working on my own text, it is a much less defined process, a more organic process, with text and picture developing alongside each other, constantly responsive to each other.
What kind of research do you conduct for your projects?
I’ll do some basic research into historical or national costume, though I’m never too hidebound by this. Similarly, I’ll look at cultural and national ideas to provide background and some sense of the story I’m illustrating and/or writing about. Ideas for books come from so many different places – current events, dreams, ancient stories, poems, conversations with children, my work as Artist-in-Residence at a London center for refugees – and these circumstances all bring their own references and backgrounds which serve as source material for each projects.
How do you create your artwork? What kind of materials do you use? I understand you used collage for The Elephant’s Garden.
RAY: Yes – I use a lot of collage. I love the variety of texture and pattern that it brings, and also the references – fragments of newsprint for example. I also use watercolor, water color pencils, inks, gouache, and I’ve done a series of books using scratchboard, which looks a bit like engraving. My work is multi-layered – I always have a struggle with providing roughs because so much goes into the actual making process that can’t be shown “in brief.”
I don’t use the computer at all – I just don’t have those skills. I also rather like the physical processes of putting paint on paper.
Could you talk about your work with the Foundling Museum? I read that you were recently working on a picture book for them.
This was a while ago now and was a part of another project, In The Picture, which aimed to get images of disability into children’s books. But the experiences I had at the Foundling Museum fed directly into the novel Heartsong, written by Kevin Crossley Holland, which I illustrated recently. It is set in 18th-century Venice and is about the foundling children at the Ospidale de la Pieta, where Vivaldi was priest and composer and taught promising young girls to sing and play music to astonishing standards.
Do you have any advice for budding artists? So many children enjoy art, then reach seven or eight years old and either love it or decide they’re no good and give it up.
My advice is to get the sketchbook habit – to get into the habit of looking and drawing, to note things down, to collect images and ideas, snippets and fragments that intrigue and delight, or even scare you…In a sketch book you can make mistakes and change your mind, you can turn the page and do it differently – it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. There is room to discover who you are as an artist and what you like and what makes you tick.
Have there been any projects that didn’t turn out as planned? (For better or worse?)
I always have a vision of how a book is going to be – and it never turns out like that! But that’s half the fun!
How has your work changed over the years?
I have got much more disciplined about producing the art work. I used to let things go that, looking at them later, I regretted. I have got technically more dexterous I think, simply through experience and practice. I am always wary though, of losing freshness and spontaneity – one needs to keep a childlike, open quality in one’s work.
Do you visit schools? What is that like? What kind of questions do children ask?
I often visit schools and find it both stimulating and exhausting! Children ask all sorts of things – from, “How old are you?” to, “How do you think of stories?”
What are you working on now?
A story about a unicorn – a Scottish folk tale.
Q & A with Princess Posey author Stephanie Greene @GreeneScgbooks @PutnamBooks
Stephanie Greene’s twenty-year career spans the arc of children’s literature; as the author of over forty early readers, chapter books, and middle-grade novels, and it’s fair to say she’s probably written something that appeals to nearly every young reader. From the Moose & Hildy series to the adventures of Owen Foote, Greene always strikes just the right tone to entice and encourage children to press on and turn the page. Her Princess Posey series has blossomed into eleven volumes, chronicling the adventures of a precocious tutu-wearing first grader as she faces various age-appropriate issues.
Greene’s own childhood was filled with long days spent reading, early tutorials for crafting compelling narratives. Last month, on the eve of the publication of her eleventh Posey book (Princess Posey and the First Grade Play; Putnam) Greene graciously discussed her formative years, the importance of cultivating empathy in children, and her conviction that a child’s imagination must be cultivated and nourished with great books. What follows is a transcript of our e-mail conversation from February 17, 2017.
- I read that your childhood influenced your decision to become a children’s book author—could you talk about that?
I suppose it was the combination of having been the middle child of five, which caused me to pay a lot of attention to all of the family dynamics around me, and the fact that I come from a family of readers. My parents read, my siblings read … we weren’t allowed to watch TV during the week and there weren’t computers yet, so reading was one of our main sources of entertainment. I grew up with, and on, books.
- What did you read as a child? Which books were the most memorable? Why?I read everything: Nancy Drew and Louise May Alcott and Frances Hodgson Burnett. The Madeleine books, Barbar, Eloise at the Plaza, old-fashioned books like Little Lord Fauntleroy and Little Women. As I mention these, it feels as if most of the books from my childhood were classics. My all-time favorite was The Secret Garden because I cared about Mary from the start. It taught me about the power of an empathetic protagonist.
- Princess Posey and the First Grade Play is the eleventh in the Posey (Congratulations!) How did the series come about? Why did you decide to focus on first grade readers?Thank you. I wrote the first book as a one-off idea after I saw a sign in front of an elementary school that said: KISS AND GO LANE. My immediate reaction was that that could be hard on a child: to have to say good-bye to a parent and walk into the school by herself. I heard a little voice in my head say, “You’re leaving me.” (Seriously, writers do hear those voices – if they’re very lucky.) The original character was called Megan. She wished she could wear her pink tutu to the first day of school because it made her feel like a princess who could go anywhere, and do anything, all by herself. I never dreamt it would become a series. Susan Kochan, my editor at Putnam, saw the potential of Posey’s pink tutu and her feelings about it to act as a hook that could carry a series. It was all her idea. I didn’t decide to focus on first graders. Posey was in first grade and I was focusing on her.
- Posey encounters many of the same issues and adventures as children reading the books—is there a real-life inspiration for Posey?Posey is all the little girls I’ve ever known, and also myself, my two sisters, my son’s friends. I raised a boy, so I didn’t have a daughter at home to spy on for material but I didn’t need it.
- Why is it so important to teach young readers about kindness and empathy?Empathy is the mortar of life. It’s the basis for a good life for each individual; one in which you care about and try to understand other people. If you can’t do that, and your attentions are only turned inward, you’re leading a pretty paltry existence. Bullies run rampant in such a world. Things fall apart.
- What is your work process like? Do you read the book out loud as you go? How do you know when the story is just right?No, I don’t read a book I’m working on out loud. I know it’s right from my gut instinct. Or at least, I know I’ve taken it as far as I can, based on my intentions for it, and will then let my editor determine whether it’s just right. But my instincts are fairly sound.
- Do you visit schools? What’s that like? Do you read aloud? What kind of questions do children ask you?I love visiting schools. It’s exhausting, but terrific fun. In today’s world, it’s become more of a necessity to entertain them, which can be tough, but most of the time they’re excited to listen to me because they’ve read my books and like them. The books are the star in any visit. They ask how I write my books, where I get my ideas, which book is my favorite, about my writing habits, how old I am (that’s usually a boy question), if I have pets … they’re interested in a lot of things.
- Stephanie Roth Sisson’s illustrations are a marvelous match for your text—do you collaborate during the creative process?No. Stephanie and I have never even met. We’ve become friends through emails over the twelve books, but we’ve never discussed a book she’s illustrating. I write the manuscript and once the editor approves it, she sends it to Stephanie, who does her wonderful job with it. I’d love to meet Stephanie in person someday.
- Any tips for dealing with reluctant readers?It never fails to amaze me how many parents don’t seem to know what their children are interested in. They like to read about the same things they like to do in life. Ask them what they like to read about. What interests them. What they do at home. What sports they play. Anything, to get some sort of insight into what might interest them in a book. And then, don’t give them books that are too hard for their reading level. And let them read the same book a thousand times, if they want. The patterns of the words and the flow of the sentences are getting into their brains and making the act of reading more familiar.
- What are you working on now?A picture book biography about a wonderful physicist of the last century. He made science fun! That’s a message today’s children need to learn. We need scientists.
- What do you think is the key to good storytelling?
Character, pacing, action, conflict, and an ending that satisfies.
- What else would you like our readers to know?If they’re teachers and parents, tell them authors love to hear from the children who like their books. If a child gets in touch, I’ll always respond.
Photo of Stephanie Greene by Amy Stern Photography.
To one generation, the name Henry Winkler is a reminder of the 1970s hit sitcom “Happy Days,” where he portrayed the fast-talking Fonz. To a much younger generation, he is the author of a series of early-reader chapter books starring a goofy yet lovable boy named Hank Zipzer. Along with writing partner and co-founder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Lin Oliver, Winkler has written dozens of stories in the Here’s Hank series. The critically acclaimed books appear regularly on bestseller lists and even inspired a television series on the BBC. Children gravitate to Winkler’s Hank, an endearing boy with learning difficulties but whose determination and spirit provide inspiration and courage to face any obstacle.
Winkler was diagnosed with dyslexia at age thirty and understands firsthand the difficulties children face with learning. The Here’s Hank series grew out of Winkler’s desire to encourage kids to embrace their differences and realize that there’s more than one way to achieve success. On January 31st, Penguin released the latest Hank adventure: Always Watch Out For Flying Potato Salad. Winkler and Oliver kindly answered a few questions about the origins of the Here’s Hank series, best practices for building self-confidence, and the influence of good storytelling on reluctant readers.
The questions below were edited from an e-mail conversation on February 6, 2017.
- The Hank series deals with dyslexic child. Could you talk about what made you decide to become a children’s book author of a series with a dyslexic protagonist?
Winkler: The idea of writing a children’s book about my learning challenge was suggested to me by my agent. I was incredulous at the thought. It took a few months for my courage and the idea of my writing anything to merge in my brain, and very simply, I wrote what I knew. The emotion of Hank Zipzer is very true. The humor Lin and I create is exaggerated.
- You have been collaborating since the early 2000s. Could you talk about your work process? How do you come up with storylines?
Winkler: Lin and I meet every morning and we write in her office. One of us brings up a story idea and either spark to it right away or we throw the idea out. If the idea really hits us, we come up with a hundred possibilities in a matter of minutes, and then we know we’re on to something. I talk, Lin types. Lin has an idea, and she types, I wait, and then we argue over every word.
- How did you discover the Dyslexie font used in the Here’s Hank books? Have you, Henry, noticed a difference in your own comprehension when you read in this font?
The font was brought to us by our publisher who thought it would be an excellent addition to Here’s Hank, which is our younger series for second and third graders. [The Hank Zipzer series follows the protagonist through elementary school.] And yes, when I read the books out loud in classrooms and bookstores, I find the font helps my eyes and the words on the page become friends.
- In this installment, Hank goes with his mom to her deli for Take Your Child to Work Day and discovers what he’s good at and where he could use a little more practice (taking sandwich orders, for example.) It’s an important message—that it’s OK to make mistakes and we all have special gifts and talents. Where did the idea for this storyline come from?
Oliver: The story started with the sentence, ‘Take your child to Work day.’ The deli seemed to be the perfect cauldron of situations to highlight Hank’s challenges.
- I’ve read that many of the storylines in the books come from your own life experiences. True? Which Hank stories hit closer to home?
Winkler: Not being able to spell, to take orders, to play sports, to write a report, to use a dictionary, to figure out how a robot works, to reading cold from a page of a script, to organize, just to name a few.
- Were there any teachers who encouraged you not to give up?
Winkler: Actually, Mr. Rock, my music teacher in the 11th grade, who appears throughout the Hank Zipzer series. I am so proud that I got to play him in the BBC television series for the last four years.
- Were there any teachers who were insensitive? What was that like?
Winkler: When Hank Zipzer gets to the fourth grade, he has Ms. Adolf as his primary teacher. She is the worst teacher on the planet AND she was mine.
- Describe what it’s like actually writing a book as someone who never read as a child.
Winkler: Writing this series of 34 novels with Lin Oliver makes me so proud, so happy, so amazed, so triumphant, and so aware of my learning challenges that never disappear.
- Henry, you’ve said that you didn’t read when you were a child because of your undiagnosed dyslexia. What do you read now? Do you still find reading difficult?
- Do children and parents ever write to you with feedback on the books?
Winkler: Children have written to Lin and I all the time since 2003. The same two comments find themselves into so many of those letters: 1) How did you know me so well? 2) I laughed so hard my funny bone fell out of my body. Parents always write how much they appreciate that their children enjoy reading now because of Hank.
- Do you travel to schools and speak with kids about Hank?
Winker: Lin and I, together and separately, love speaking to students. I have spoken in schools all over our country and in Canada, England, and Italy.
- What are some best practices for children to build self-confidence in the face of dyslexia?
Winkler: A learning challenge can make a child’s self image plummet like a stone to the bottom of the ocean, so it is vital for every adult in a child’s life to help them hold on to the concept that no matter how difficult learning is, it has NOTHING to do with how BRILLIANT they are.
- What do you hope children take away from the Hank books?
Winkler: I hope kids read about Hank and realize that their cup is half full, too; that there is greatness in every reader and the child’s job is to figure out what that greatness is, and give it to the world as a gift.
- What is the key to good storytelling?
Oliver: I think good storytelling starts with a deeply felt truth, which is then dramatized and amplified by the story teller. In Hank’s case, we feel that this child has to deal with the frustration and low self-esteem that learning challenges can bring. That is the deeply felt truth. Then, we add drama and high stakes to that truth to make a story. In our most recent Always Watch Out for Flying Potato Salad, Hank wants more than anything to be successful during Take Your Child to Work Day; he wants his mother to be proud of him. When he can’t help but mess up, the story emerges that is full of both laughter and emotion.
- Do you have plans for subsequent books in the series?
Oliver: In the Here’s Hank books, we plan to follow Hank throughout his school year. We hope that this series of what will likely be twelve books will sustain our chapter books readers until they are ready to move on to the Hank Zipzer novels, which follow upon the chapter book series. We want Hank to become a friend and trusted companion to our readers throughout their grade school careers.
Warren is an unusual protagonist: squat with bulging eyes, he doesn’t make the cutest first impression. He’s the homely heir to a family hotel in a forest full of witches, talking trees, and other fantastical beasts. But what he lacks in looks Warren makes up for in charm and wit, much to the delight of his devoted fanbase. Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye landed on bookshelves in 2015 to great acclaim, and readers have been chomping at the bit for the next installment. The wait is almost over: Warren the 13th and the Whispering Woods (Quirk Books, $16.95, 240 pages, ages 11 and up) goes on on sale March 21.
Warren creators Tania del Rio and Will Staehle are bewitching readers and shaking up the children’s picture-book world by blurring the lines between comics and traditional storytelling.
Del Rio is a comic illustrator at heart: her work has appeared in the Archie series, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Marvel comics, and manga. While pursuing her BFA at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, del Rio met Staehle, also an art student there, and they remained friends after graduation. Staehle is considered by many critics to be one of the most exciting young illustrators today, and his work has graced The New York Times and bestselling book covers.
Del Rio and Staehle kindly answered a few questions via e-mail in late January about working with friends, early influences, and why middle-schools are forever pulled towards the macabre. (Make it all the way to the end for how kids can contact del Rio with their own questions!)
1. Warren seems to be follow the Lemony Snicket genre, that is, geared to middle-grade readers and appealing to the quirky, slightly macabre sensibilities of the tween set. How did you come up with the idea for this series?
Tania: Will is probably better suited to answer this question as he originally created the character of Warren back when we both attended the Minneapolis College of Art and Design over 13 years ago. Even back then, the character ignited my imagination, and I began writing an early novel based on Warren and his hotel, and revisited it over the years. A lot has changed plot-wise since the earliest draft, but the creepy Victorian vibe, and the mysterious riddles have been there from the beginning.
Will: As Tania mentioned above, I created Warren during art school many years ago. This was before A series of Unfortunate Events burst onto the scene, so at the time Warren was inspired more by Edward Gorey and Victorian dime novels of yesteryear. Add to that a touch of Poe, some Jules Verne, and healthy dose of Tim Burton, and you have Warren the 13th!
2. Tania, how did you make the leap from cartooning (Archie, Sabrina, Manga, My Poorly Drawn Life) to Warren?
Tania: Even while I was drawing comics, I was also writing them, so it wasn’t actually much of a leap at all to write a middle grade novel. This age group has always been my favorite audience to write for, and I enjoyed having more space to expand on my story using prose as opposed to being confined to speech balloons. I let Will focus on the art and I focused on the writing.
3. What was the collaborative process like?
Tania: We’ve been creative collaborators for many years, and so we’ve formed a really comfortable working relationship with a lot of brainstorming over the phone, and sending ideas back and forth throughout the entire process. Luckily, we both see eye-to-eye on many things, and have a similar aesthetic and sense of humor.
Will: It’s pretty seamless at this point, we tend to fight about the small stuff more than anything–new character’s names, neighboring towns, etc. But more often than not things run pretty smoothly.
4. Tell me why you went with the two-column layout.
Will: The two-column layout was originally based on Victorian dime-novels and turn-of the-century newspapers. While traditionally illustrated novels leave full pages open for their art, the two column approach allows for me to have full-page images throughout while adding many small inset illustrations into the text, creating a unique look.
5. Will, what’s the medium for the illustrations? The images feel like engravings, but after having gone through some kind of digital processing, like a mashup of steampunk Victorian with a dash of Tim Burton and Edward Gorey for good measure.
Will: The illustration is a little bit of everything. But I generally say that it’s collage-based. It’s a mixture of original drawings, some custom 3-D models, and vintage engravings that I’ve collected. It’s a hodgepodge of sources, really, but the goal is to have all of those pieces come together in a uniform way.
6. Warren is an odd-looking child, but hard-working and well-meaning. Do you hope readers will connect with him? (Don’t judge a book by its cover sort of thing?)
Tania: I always hope readers will connect with the characters I write, because otherwise they won’t be invested in the story. I see a bit of myself in Warren, and I hope my writing feels like it’s coming from an authentic place. When I was his age, I was a bit of an ugly duckling, and got bullied quite a bit. Despite that, I tried really hard to make friends and do well in school and I took pride in areas of my life that I excelled at.
Will: As a book cover designer, I can vouch for that “don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” thing. Everyone goes through an awkward phase, and hopefully Warren is no different. But I think the hope is that people see past that, and just like Warren for who he is. Tania, Jason (our publisher), and I often speak about how Warren is a cute lad to us now. I think as people live out these adventures with him, that eventually they won’t even think twice about his appearance.
7. Bunion, Sketchy, Mr. Friggs, even Beatrice–how did you come up with the names?
Tania: Some of the characters have been around for so long I can’t even remember! Will came up with some of the names, and I came up with some others. I’ve always been inspired by Roald Dahl’s books and the fantastic names of his characters: Trunchbull, Wormwood, Bogtrotter. I wanted to evoke some of that feeling when brainstorming names for the odd characters in the Warren universe.
Will: I do have a bit of a particular sense when it comes to names. For me it often becomes a visual thing. How does this name look when typed out…or how does it look when it’s set in giant lettering, and being screamed out in a word balloon?
8. What do you hope kids take away from the Warren books?
Tania: I just want them to be entertained, and to leave them wanting more! I’m a big advocate for young readers, especially in an age when we have so many digital distractions. I don’t write to “teach” kids or preach to them. I just want them to have a great time reading, and to feel like they’ve stepped into another world when they open my books. Warren has been touted as a good book for reluctant readers, thanks to the great visuals, and nothing makes me happier than hearing from parents who tell me their kids are reading Warren for the second or third time!
Will: Entertainment, and hopefully inspiration. I drew pretty much every day of my life growing up, and if we can inspire students to make that leap and draw their own comics, or write their own short story, it feels like it’s a huge win. Tania and I have been busy doing school tours for book one, and more are scheduled for the second book, and there isn’t much better in life than talking to 200 kids about being creative for a living, and answering their questions about story-telling, magic, and monsters!
9. What do you think about danger in children’s literature? Can there be too much menace? Not enough?
Tania: I think kids can handle a lot more than we give them credit for. I mentioned Roald Dahl earlier. He had some really dark themes in some of his books. But they thrilled me as a child, and they stuck with me over the years. The same is true of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, which are also a big influence in my work. In this day and age, especially, I don’t see the point of trying to hide the dangers that exist in the world from kids. Better to give them stories where they can face, and triumph, over those threats in a safe and imaginative way. Of course, it’s always up to parents to decide what their children are ready to be exposed to, but as an author, I choose not to avoid darkness in my work.
Will: I think every kid is very different. We’ve had everyone from elementary school kids to senior citizens read Warren and love it. Every once and while I’ll hear that it was too scary for a certain reader, I think the imagery probably adds to some of that intensity, but the goal is always to hopefully leave Warren in a better place at the end of each book than he was at the beginning of it, and I think if kids go into it knowing that, it makes the experience a little less concerning.
10. What were you two like as kids?
Tania: I was extremely shy, and a constant daydreamer. I was also voracious reader, but when I wasn’t reading you could find me busy writing stories or drawing. I used to get in trouble for doodling too much during class, and I tried to incorporate storytelling into every homework assignment I got. As for my hobbies, I was obsessed with comic books, Super Nintendo, and Disney animation. I didn’t get outside too much!
Will: I grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, and was the “artsy” kid who was raised by two artist parents. I loved comics and yard sales (and actually, I still do). I guess some things never change!
11. What kinds of books did you read growing up? What kind of comics did you read?
Tania: As I mentioned, I loved Roald Dahl, but I also read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi – The Dragonriders of Pern and Dune series were favorites of mine. I also loved historical fiction about ancient civilizations. I’m grateful that my parents were heavy readers themselves, and so there were always books aplenty to be found in the house. I’m also grateful they never tried to stop me from reading whatever I wanted to, even if it wasn’t entirely “age appropriate”! As for comics, I was crazy about ElfQuest, X-men, and Sonic the Hedgehog.
Will: I read mostly comics when I was a kid. I used to go to the local pharmacy and stare at the spinner rack, checking out the week’s newest comics. I didn’t get into “real” books until a bit later when I read some of Ray Bradbury’s books, which opened the doorway for me into literature.
12. Will and Tania, are there any things you find hard to illustrate?
Tania: When drawing comics I pretty much hate drawing anything that isn’t a character. I’m not a fan of backgrounds, and I really find drawing cars and other machinery really difficult. But just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean I don’t still have to do it if the story calls for it!
Will: I don’t hate drawing anything in particular, but there are certainly more time-consuming elements of art. Hands and fingers are always a bit of a time-drain!
13. Will, as the former art director at HarperCollins, how did you make the leap from cover design to children’s book illustration? (Is there a leap?)
Will: Well, it wasn’t exactly intentional… I worked at HarperCollins straight out of college, and worked my way up to be the art director. I worked with and designed covers for some amazing authors, like Michael Crichton, Michael Chabon, and Christopher Moore. After HarperCollins, I moved westward to take a job as the art director of JibJab, an art + animation studio based in Venice, CA. I continued to design freelance book covers, and a friend of mine at Harper became the new art director at Quirk Books. He suggested to [Quirk publisher] Jason Rekulak that they should try to do a project with me. That introduction spun into two postcard book projects, and the Warren the 13th series, and I couldn’t be happier to call Quirk home.
14. Will and Tania: You took the first Warren on the road to middle schools around the country, and I understand you plan on doing that again. Can you tell me what your presentation is like? What kinds of questions do kids ask you?
Tania: We’ve had a great experience speaking to middle school kids. We try to keep our presentation entertaining with a lot of visuals and humor. We start with a keynote presentation introducing ourselves and some of the art we made when we were in middle school, and we talk about what we do now. We introduce the world of Warren the 13th and the main characters, and then I read a portion of the book out loud. To cap it off, Will shows the kids the long and painfully arduous process of designing the book cover, which always gets a laugh.
The Q and A at the end is one of my favorite parts. A lot of the kids want to know where we came up with our ideas, and why Warren looks the way he does. Often, they want to know what the “All-Seeing Eye” is. Of course, we can’t give anything anyway, but we encourage them to read the book and solve the riddles to find out.
Will: Tania covered most of the main points, but I’ll add that the whole tour was exhilarating, and exhausting, but so very rewarding to to speak directly to the students. Walking into these schools where the kids had created original drawings of the characters on poster-board hanging all around the school nearly melted my heart! It is so much fun. And then I go home and sleep for a week straight!
15. What else would you like our readers to know about you and the Warren books?
Tania: I want readers to know that we have a lot of ideas for future books in the Warren series, so we hope we’ll have the chance to write even more adventures for them. I also love hearing from readers and I do my best to respond.
My address is: P.O BOX 70801 Pasadena, CA 91117 I can also be reached at email@example.com, and on twitter @taniadelrio.
Children’s picture-book creator Ashley Evanson talks with Literary Features Syndicate about her craft and the magic of childhood.
Hello, World! series author Ashley Evanson is back with This Book is Magic! (Grosset & Dunlap, $14.99 32 pages, ages 0-4) an interactive picture book-board book hybrid for emerging readers. Evanson’s clearly got a knack for getting kids interested in reading and she kindly answered a few of our questions about her craft and the magic of childhood.
Below is an edited transcript of our question and answer session from January 17, 2017.
- What was the inspiration for this book?
A couple of years ago my little brother called to ask a few questions about the first Harry Potter book, which I happily answered since I’m a huge fan of the series. The phone calls continued and I decided to read the books along with him so we could call each other every night to chat. Over the next year we read all seven Harry Potter books, Lord of the Rings, and the entire Sherlock Holmes series. I looked forward to our “book club” with great much excitement. These nightly discussions had me constantly thinking about magic, which is why I dedicated my book to my little brother.
- Why focus on magic? You have a whimsical, bright style that youngsters gravitate towards.
I think childhood is its own element of magic, and everything in this book is something I imagined as a child or see my own children imagining.
- Your Hello, World series is adorable–I have all 4 titles here–do you have plans to add to that series?
I would love to create more Hello, World books! But first I’m publishing a companion book for This Book Is Magic.
- What’s your medium?
Everything I do is on Adobe Illustrator.
- How do you approach a project? What’s your process?
My approach is pretty primitive. I mean, my rough drafts contain stick figures! The concept always comes first and the art follows, but I only include concepts of things I know I would love to draw. I have inspiration boards of my favorite artists, color palettes, and photographs of the images I’m drawing.
- Do you work solely in children’s picture-book illustration?
I feel like if I tried to illustrate anything else it would still end up looking like a children’s book illustration. It’s just who I am.
- Could you tell me how you think your work is helping shape and excite young minds.
I feel like the most unqualified person to be publishing books so I tell people if I can do it, seriously, anybody can do it!
- What are you working on now?
I’m in the brainstorming phase for the companion book to This Book Is Magic, but it feels a little more like the writer’s block phase! I’ll get there!
- What else should I have asked you that I didn’t but that you would like our readers to know about you?
My occupation may be an author-illustrator, but my number one job is being a mother. There is nothing more magical or important than childhood and raising your little ones.