Conversation started 5 May 2014, 5:33 p.m.
I’m really glad you’re able to join us for this little project. You’re one of the people in this series that Erin and I know the least about. We’ve only met in person once, at ALA (Chicago?) in one of those awkward in-between-signings moments. ALA is full of awkward interactions—each one it’s own unique snowflake as I like to say. I once embarrassed myself to Lemony Snicket in a 15 second stop-and-chat that will live forever in my own personal Hall of Shame. But anyway, it’s always nice to meet another artist whose work you really like.
I asked Erin what I should ask you about first here, and she suggested we talk a little about Rabbit and Robot, and about Early Readers in general. Erin and I talk a lot about how few really good Early Readers there are out there. Rabbit and Robot is definitely one of our all-time favorites. The format seems like such a natural fit for you. Are more Early Readers in the works? What were the challenges/triumphs/frustrations/peculiarities of working in the Early Reader format?
I’ve considered dabbling in the Early Reader world myself, but I haven’t been able to get over some of my fears.
Hi Phil and Erin!
It’s funny you should mention those awkward moments with other authors. I’ve had my share. When I met you two, I’m pretty sure I fawned a bit too much (a bad habit of mine). Oh, well. My worst moment with a group of authors was at a karaoke bar. I couldn’t cut loose! I was Debbie Downer for sure.
Ah, the Early Readers. When they are good, they are sublime. There are quite a few good ones out there now, but my favorites are still Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series and James Marshall’s Fox series. (All of James Marshall’s books are perfect, in my opinion.) When I first started working on Rabbit & Robot, I looked to Lobel for inspiration, and I think it’s pretty clear to some readers that I did. I sometimes think I may have borrowed a little too much. But I can’t think of a better place to start for inspiration.
I was working solely in picture books when my editor at Candlewick, Sarah Ketchersid, decreed that Early Readers would be a good fit for me. She was right! I really enjoy working in this format, and it might be my favorite format (although I’m still trying to create that one elusive perfect picture book). With Early Readers, there are more opportunities to tell little stories with more words—in this case, four little stories—and these add up to a bigger story. I think I probably have lots of little stories in me, and less big stories. The graphic novel I recently finished is really just lots of little stories that together make a big story.
Here’s the thing about me and Early Readers: I love repetition. In design, in patterns, in speaking (Tom would tell you that I have a strong tendency towards echolalia). And repetition is what Easy Readers are all about! Repetition is the key to showing kids how to read, but you can’t just keep hitting kids over the head with “See Spot. See Spot run. See Spot pee” if you want to be entertaining. So you gotta mix it up a little. Stuff like having Robot say, in Chapter 2, “Observe your reflection” to Rabbit in order to show Rabbit where the remote is (in Rabbit’s ear), and then later having Rabbit say “Observe your reflection” to Robot in order to show Robot just how funny he looks wearing Rabbit’s pajamas.
There’s a lot of opportunity for parallel structure, another thing I love, almost as much as raccoon hands. And for keeping things in the same order. For example:
“Cheese pizza,” said Rabbit. “I have carrots and lettuce and snow peas to put on top of the pizzas. I am going to put all three on my pizza.”
“Oh,” said Robot.
“What is the matter?” asked Rabbit. “Don’t you like carrots?”
“I do not,” answered Robot.
“Do you like lettuce?” asked Rabbit.
“I do not,” said Robot.
“Ouch,” cried Rabbit. “That hurt! Turn down your Volume Knob!”
“I apologize,” said Robot.
See what I mean? Same order, same structure, but mixing it up a little because Rabbit’s questions, and Robot’s answers, become briefer as the conversation goes on.
All in all, writing an Easy Reader can be a very fun exercise for anyone who has a touch of OCD. And is a bit of a control freak. Like Rabbit…and like me!
The laughs can develop naturally in an Early Reader, too—a lot of good comedy is just masterful repetition. Like Abbott and Costello’s Who’s On First routine. The joke gets repeated over and over and over and gets sillier and sillier the more they mix it up. Good stuff. My prime objective with all my books is the laffs!
There will be a second Rabbit & Robot, yes indeed. Second books make me extraordinarily nervous, especially if the first one was well loved. I’ve got some ideas, but are they good enough? Yikes. I’m also gonna be working on a fourth Sock Monkey book, since the first three are getting reprinted. What the what is that monkey gonna do next? Your guess is as good as mine.
Looking forward to the next round!
Well, we have a few things in common right off the bat. For starters, a love for both Frog and Toad and for James Marshall. The George and Martha stories are one big exercise in perfection if you ask me.
I borrow a lot from Lobel too. It’s never been intentional, but whenever I go back and read a Frog and Toad collection I realize how much I’ve copied his rhythms and cadences. People tell me sometimes that my writing feels old-fashioned. I think what feels “old-fashioned” to people though is just a few simple stylistic tendencies. My characters tend to speak politely, in complete sentences, without contractions. That’s pretty much it. And that’s directly reflective of the ways that Frog, Toad, George, and Martha all speak to each other. Politeness and kindness are important to me—more so than wit and intelligence. I never met them of course but I’ll bet that Lobel and Marshall felt pretty much the same way.
A Home for Bird is my best example of politeness/kindness triumphing over wit/intelligence. From the first spread the reader knows what my main character, Vernon, doesn’t—that the bird he’s discovered on the forest floor is wooden, not real. But it was very important to me that the book never be about Vernon’s dimwittedness. It needed to be about Vernon’s ability to succeed despite his lack of intelligence. If the book works then at some point the reader begins to believe that Vernon, through sheer force of kindness, will pull off the impossible. He will make Bird speak.
A Home for Bird is my most Early Reader-like picture book. In fact I’ve considered expanding the world into a Reader series. Like I said though, the form intimidates me. The great ones shine. But the ones that don’t can end up feeling (or looking), well, like homework. I’d hate to make homework for kids.
In general I think Readers would have a better chance if more picture book makers threw their hat in the ring. There are certain picture book writers that I think would be really brilliant Reader writers. Tao Nyeu comes to mind. Bunny Days is incredible, as is Squid and Octopus. Both are essentially Readers already, just in a different format.
Easy question: Have you ever seen/read James Marshall’s What’s the Matter with Carruthers?. I found it a couple years back in a used bookstore here. I love discovering lesser known books by my favorite authors. Even if the book stunk (which it doesn’t!) it would still be a 10 due to it’s amazing title.
I like that summary of A Home for Bird: Politeness/kindness triumphing over wit/intelligence. It is a fine book indeed, and you’re right in saying that it’s Early Reader-ish. Which means that you should totally be throwing your hat in the Early Reader ring! You’ve got the goods. Proof: on my shelf, you’re in between William Steig and Lane Smith—very fine company.
My picture book Bee-Wigged has a little bit of that kindness theme—Jerry Bee (who is really a quite enormous bee) wins everyone over simply because he’s a nice guy. With a dash of the yuk yuks, of course. And a twist!
To answer your question, yes, I sure do have a copy of Taking Care of Carruthers. My version looks a little different than yours. I love that it features Emily and Eugene from Yummers, which may very well be my all-time favorite James Marshall book. Do you have that one? Check out my stack o’ James Marshall books! Love ’em all.
I also included a picture of Lobel’s Grasshopper on the Road. Have you read this one? It’s almost like a psychiatry text book with animals acting out different diagnoses. It’s great stuff. As is Lobel’s Small Pig, a book my sister and I were absolutely nuts about when we were kids. When I found it again, I went nuts all over again. That book? Oh, to have written that book!
When I think about authors and illustrators that I wish I could have met, but can’t because they’ve passed away, Lobel and Marshall are at the top of the list. I picture them both being very kind, very funny—and even a little naughty when kids weren’t around.
Well this is fun! I had no idea there was more than one Carruthers book. I know that this kind of information is available on the internet, but it’s just more fun to discover things in the dusty basement rooms of Ann Arbor bookstores.
Sidenote: To my unofficial count there are currently 11 bookstores in Ann Arbor. Not bad for a town of 115,000!
Grasshopper and Small Pig bring back hazy, happy memories. I don’t think I’ve read those books since I was 8 years old. I really ought to go find both of ’em.
I’ve always been proud to share shelf space with William Steig through the luck of alphabetism. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble was my favorite book when I was a kid. We get to share shelf space with David Ezra Stein a lot too, which is another big honor. I love all of his books, Leaves probably being my most favorite. There’s a little bit of Lobel in David’s writing too. It’s nice to think of children’s book history like a family tree, with different people springing from the Sendak branch, or the Gorey branch, or Marshall, or Lobel.
Now that we’ve discussed our elders a bit I’m wondering who among today’s picture book makers do you look to for inspiration?
I like that idea of children’s book history being a family tree! I’m definitely of the Marshall/Lobel branch…with a huge desire to be of the Provensen branch, but that’s pretty much outta my league. Alice and Martin Provensen are my absolute favorites! My favorite book then, and now, is Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm. I can’t read it to the end without crying. Whew. And one more elder: Ed Emberley! That guy taught me how to draw, and then some. I love his book about animals and the Make a World one the best.
Today? I’m completely head-over-heels in love with Jon Klassen’s stuff. His stuff is the stuff I wish I could do. He’s on the Provensen branch for sure. Mac Barnett’s writing is aces and he really thinks outside of the box, forgive the cliché. Grace Lin is so adept at everything she puts her hand to: picture books, Early Readers, mid-grade novels. I have a soft spot for her because I once read that when she got started, she tried to get work illustrating other people’s stuff, but found it difficult to get the jobs. So she started writing the books herself. That is exactly what happened to me—and it turns out that I now love doing the writing, too. I also like dabbling in different genres. And I rarely like doing the same “style” twice, which might sometimes be a problem in that I don’t necessarily have a “look.” Hmmm. Who else? Oh! Mo Willems—I love that his stories are told in speech balloons—and Tom and I did something similar in Crankee Doodle, and I’m doing another book on my own that’s kind of like that, too. Peter McCarty’s books are just absolutely gorgeous, and pretty much perfect. His Hondo and Fabian and Henry in Love are so pure and gentle and full of love. Of course, Tom’s on my list, too. The little drawings that he does for his Origami Yoda series are beyond hi-larious to me, and I think he’s really captured so many kid voices—not an easy feat. His work ethic and his enthusiasm for what he does are so inspiring. And I’ll add that when I saw Erin’s work for the first time, all I could think was, Damn. So beautiful. I could go on and on. Maira Kalman! Lois Ehlert! Dav Pilkey! Sanjay Patel! Peter Brown! Dan Santat! Adam Rex! Probably a ton more, and I haven’t even listed all the graphic novelists who make me swoon. There’s so much incredible talent out there—folks are making stuff that’s leap years better than my stuff—that I am often surprised I’ve even made the teeny-tiny mark I’ve made.
Who are you digging these days?
Wow, it’s funny that you bring up the Provensens. Ever since art school I’ve wished that I belonged on that arm of the family tree. The Provensen’s Fairy Tales and What is Color? marked two very distinct and important moments in my own evolution as a bookmaker. Since then I’ve been a junkie (see: Provensen stack below).
Sadly I’ve always been terrible at figuring out how other artists actually make their art. So even though I love the Provensens I’ve still never made a book that looks very Provensen-y. The same is true for other illustration heroes of mine—Evaline Ness, Brian Wildsmith, Quentin Blake.
Like you, once I get going on the current author/illustrators that I love I can go on and on and on. I think there are two people though that I tout more than anyone else. The first is Tao Nyeu (already mentioned once in this conversation!). To me her work is flawless. The writing, the design, the illustration—it’s all perfect. Perfection isn’t necessarily something I normally even value (Marshall is far from “perfect” under normal definitions, but c’mon, right?), but Tao seems to pull off perfection with a level of humor and grace that is just amazing to me.
True Story: The morning that Erin got the call from the Caldecott committee she got off the phone and I asked, Did Bunny Days win!? Not my finest moment as a spouse.
The other person I always love to share is Matt Cordell. As a kid my favorite artist was Quentin Blake. I was a huge fan of Roald Dahl, and even to this day I can only picture Dahl’s worlds through the filter of Blake’s pen. Matt to me is a direct descendant of Blake. He’s got some Burningham and Steig in him too for sure, but he’s more Blake than anything.
Well, up till now Erin’s been silent. She’s finishing the very last page of a book she’s been working on for two years. Are you out there Erin? What should we ask Cece?
Evaline Ness!!! Her covers for Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series are my favorite by far.
I shoulda put Matt Cordell on my list too, for the same reasons you listed. I’ve attached a picture I got from him at ALA of a frog family. It’s so good. He is such an enthusiastic guy, so supportive. I’m certain that he is someone that publishers love to work with. Heck, I’d like to work with him!
I didn’t think I knew Tao Nyeu’s work…but it turns out I do! TOTALLY!!! I saw her books at the library and fainted on the spot. Her stuff astonishes me.
Is my Provensen stack bigger than yours? Rats, I don’t think it is. Check it out and see what you think. Funny Bunny belonged to my mother-in-law. It’s got a cool pop-up at the very beginning, and a cool bookplate that shows my mother-in-law’s name. So neatly typed! Probably by Tom’s grandmother. I love that the Provensens went from a Golden Book style to the funky lines they use in Aesop’s Fables (another one from my mother-in-law that I took when she wasn’t looking—I think she may have gotten it for Tom when he was a kid). Those chunky lines rocked my world and I keep hoping that someday I’ll have lines like those. The illustration of Max the cat from Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm is probably my all-time favorite illustration from childhood. I must’ve looked at that thing forever. I’m starting to sound like a broken record! In a nutshell: the Provensens are the greatest.
Let me ask YOU a question. You and Erin pretty much do the same thing for a living, and Tom and I do, too. Do you ever get jealous of each other, or envious of talent/skill/jazz hands? That’s a topic I could also go on and on about; fortunately I’m on the other side of it (finally). But I always like to hear how others deal with these feelings, which can really get in the way when the person that generates these feelings is the very person you married—in many cases, your favorite person!
Talk amongst yourselves, as Linda Richman would say.
Have you ever seen this Alexander/Ness book? It’s one of the used bookstore finds that I’m most proud of. A jewel in our collection.
Before starting this conversation I actually asked another illustrator friend what I should ask you and he suggested the whole working-with-the-spouse angle. Of course it’s a perfectly relevant question, but I think I balked at it a bit. I think I’m especially sensitive to this line of questioning for a few reasons. Unlike say, the Provensens, or the Dillons, or the Petershams, Erin and I don’t draw together. We just draw near each other. Sometimes it can be emotionally taxing to always have your work compared to and combined with the work of another person. Of course this is made more complicated when one person in the relationship has garnered big attention. You and I have something in common in that we both married rocket ships.
I don’t think I’m prone to jealousy when it comes to actual art skills though. Erin can draw in a way that I cannot and I admire that. But I think too that I’ve developed skills of my own that she may not necessarily have. In general I think we’re both trying to impress each other all the time and the result is better work from both of us—and that’s a good thing.
There has been one unexpected side effect of Erin’s early success that I’ve had to navigate. I don’t think I’ve ever really discussed it in a public forum like this. Because most people who know us know us because of Amos McGee, most people only recognize me as an author. This was, and is, weird for me. I have always been an artist in my mind. I grew up drawing, not writing. I went to art school. I took up writing really as a way to have more control over my art. It can be a blow to the ego at times to have people say, Oh, you illustrate as well? My own editor, who I love dearly, told me once that he considers me an author who illustrates and not an illustrator who writes. Maybe he’s right. But adjusting your perception of yourself is not the easiest thing in the world to do.
How about you, Erin?
Well, that was a fascinating answer! Thanks for sharing all of that. I had always wanted to ask you about this, because, as you said in your email, we are not the rocket ships. Our spouses are. And it’s a unique position to be in.
I, too, have never been jealous of Tom’s actual (and astounding) writing skills (though I am admittedly jealous of his performance skills—more on that later). But I was (but not anymore) terribly jealous of his rapid rise. It was all so sudden! And I had been writing and illustrating books long before he had! AHHHH!!!! Seriously, though. When Origami Yoda started to really take off, I was reading a novel by Lionel Shriver called Double Fault (not for the kiddies, I can tell you that). The main character is a female semi-pro tennis player who meets a male amateur tennis player and falls in love with him. They get married, but soon he is a better tennis player than she is. He manages to get all the way to Wimbledon, while she can’t seem to get out of her semi-pro rut. Her jealousy grows and grows as the book continues, and it makes her so cruel to him during his rise—and he is such a nice guy! Reading that book at that time saved me from being a total arse (feel free to edit that out) to Tom—it helped me keep my jealousy in check. I didn’t want to be as mean to my husband as that character was to hers! But whew, it was rough. At one point, it seemed like he was winning an award a day—for weeks. I said to him, “you know, this is gonna sound terrible—but you gotta stop telling me about all these awards. It’s eating me up alive!” So he stopped telling me his good news, and I felt like an arse anyway, because now I wasn’t able to share with him all this great stuff which he totally deserved.
What got me out of it? Two things. First, I realized that his success meant that I could keep on doing what I was doing, even if I wasn’t all that financially successful at it. The other? I got a little award myself, and that was enough. Someone out there said that my work was good enough for a shiny sticker, and even though it really shouldn’t matter, it did. But really, Tom works so hard and is so good at what he does, which is ultimately so different from what I do, that I shouldn’t be jealous at all. He is awesome, his stuff is awesome, and I am extraordinarily proud of him. Like you said, we are constantly trying to impress each other, which makes the work better. And when it’s Tom Angleberger you’re trying to impress, you work really hard to do so. Getting a laugh out of him is hard, but when you get it, you know that you’re good to go.
You mentioned that you see yourself as illustrator first, and writer second. I do, too. But the weird thing about Tom and me is this: in college, where we met, I was the English major, and Tom was the art major. I was a miserable English major, though, who took a few art classes and really enjoyed them. Tom’s the one who convinced me to drop the English major and come on over to the art building. I did! Oddly enough, Tom’s the one who became the writer (first as a reporter), and I’m the one who became the illustrator (though Tom illustrates a lot of his stuff, and really well, at that). We both do both, and we never would have gotten where we are today without the other.
Like you, we don’t illustrate together like the Dillons and the Provensens. (We don’t even share the same space when we work.) The one project we did together—Crankee Doodle—was thought up by both of us on a car trip. Tom wrote it up, I did the illustrations. I didn’t let him get too involved in the illustrations, because we tend to argue a bit when we work together too closely. We agreed to let the editor be the judge of the artwork, and that was the best way to go for us. I did make sure he liked the way Crankee and Pony were looking, but that’s about it. I’m getting ready to illustrate a new series by him, and I think we’ll use the same strategy. The marriage is more important than the artwork, ultimately.
And oh, yeah. If you ever get a chance to see Tom present a book, do so. The dude has magic jazz hands that come out of nowhere. He undergoes a transformation much like the Clark Kent/Superman one—I think he flips a switch and turns into someone completely different. Maybe it’s more like the Latka Gravas/Vic Ferrari transformation that Andy Kaufman undergoes in the TV show Taxi. It’s amazing to watch, and probably one of the main reasons he is successful. I am me no matter what the situation—quiet and inhibited, wishing I was back at home writing and drawing. Give Tom a reason to turn it on, and he’ll absolutely go for it. Crazy. NEVER follow Tom Angleberger if you can help it. That’s the one area where I’ll always be jealous of him. But he sure earns that jealousy.
Whew! That got a lot off my chest!
This is turning into a therapy session. You’d be a great therapist, clearly. Ditch the drawing/writing gig and switch careers, eh?
I do know that Evaline Ness/Lloyd Alexander book…and we own a copy, too! I got ours for Tom for Christmas one year. Alexander is probably in his top five favorite authors list, for sure.
Ahhh! You guys are too fast for me. I am currently trying to finish a book I have been attempting to finish for almost two years, so email is mostly my enemy right now. This conversation obviously doesn’t count.
Regarding your question about jealousy…
First, if you both married “rocket ships” I feel like I am the one 10 year olds build in their backyard and Mr. Angleberger is the one that has actually broken through the atmosphere. This is not to say I haven’t been unreasonably lucky, but no one has asked me to write Return of the Jedi.
Whether or not that clarification needed to be made doesn’t have any bearing on my answer, though. I am often envious of Phil. He is a more natural artist than I am. It seems to come much easier for him than me most of the time (this is not always true, but the grass is always greener and whatnot). I struggle with basically all of it, except editing. I think I am a pretty good editor. I trust my instinct in knowing about picture books and their rhythms. But with Phil, I don’t know, he’s just supposed to make books. I can get envious of that. I also am on a mission to get better and not fight the art process so much.
Otherwise, yes, there is an effort to impress one another. I think the motivation behind it is sincere, and doesn’t come from a place of oneupsmanship. I just want Phil to like what I draw.
The other thing of note is that I often feel guilt. My little bottle rocket has caused Phil a lot of work, because, unlike Tom, I am not great at the public stuff. I am okay. Not great, though. Phil has to do a lot of the talking. This is just one example of things Phil has had to pick up my slack for.
Anyhow, what greatly outweighs any of this is that I can’t imagine doing this job alone. I can’t imagine not having someone to try to impress and to make sure my drawings don’t look terrible.
I think you guys covered most of the good stuff so anything else I could say about the Provensens or Evaline Ness would be repetitive (though not unwarranted due to their supreme mastery of illustration).
Can we talk about your studio for a moment? When I saw the pictures I went to Home Depot and looked at barns. What a good idea! That’s really all I have to say about it. It’s not really a question.
Something Erin said really stood out (and thanks for such a lovely, thought-out answer to what is probably a nosy question from me)—
“Anyhow, what greatly outweighs any of this is that I can’t imagine doing this job alone. I can’t imagine not having someone to try to impress and to make sure my drawings don’t look terrible.”
She totally hit the nail on the head with that one. It could be a very lonely job if only one of us were doing it. It’s so nice, at the end of the day, to discuss what we’ve accomplished, or what our frustrations were, and have the other person totally get what you’re saying and respect it. Since we don’t share the same work space, it really is like we’re “home from work” in the evenings (when we’re not frantically trying to meet a deadline, that is), talking about our respective days.
And also, I gotta say that Tom works way harder than I do at maintaining a web presence (his website is something else), and is much more willing to travel than I am. Both of these are truly work (in my opinion) and I’m not good at either one of them. Tom is champion at these things. He’s earned his success for sure!
Ah, so the work space! My studio is indeed a Home Depot barn. I hired a guy to “finish” the inside of it for me—I’ll send pictures soon. The main reason I needed it is because I was having a very hard time letting go of things that needed to be done in the house. If there were dishes to be done, I felt like I had to do them. Laundry? Gotta do the laundry. Bills to pay? Gotta pay the bills. And I never could get to work! I needed to be able to be in a place that was totally separate from the house. Once I’m in the studio, I’m able to forget about the dishes, the laundry, the bills—simply because I can’t see them. Also, we do have youngsters that love art supplies as much as I do. I gotta keep my art supplies for me, right? (Tom and I once got into a big fight because I wouldn’t let him use my paintbrush. OMG.) I like my workspace to be very neat, because my brain gets overwhelmed with clutter easily. The house is not so neat (cue Sanford and Son music here), but I don’t work there, so no problem, right? Every morning I get up and go to work by taking a few steps next door. Best commute in the world.
It’s got everything I need, which seems to be tables. I think there are six downstairs, and two upstairs. Gotta have tables. Shelves. Books. Paints. Brushes. Pencils. Fairly decent lighting. Computer. Cintiq tablet that is my best technological friend. Rulers! X-acto blades! Sewing machine! Thread! Rickrack! Googly eyes! Etc.!
It was the best investment I ever made. Too bad the floor buckles a little bit. I gotta fix that thing.
Our own working environment has evolved over the last few years. When we first started out we shared a small bedroom as a studio. Having two people in a 10′ x 10′ studio can lead to a sense of claustrophobia pretty quickly, especially when one of the those people is a printmaker. A few years ago we moved to a bigger apartment inside of a renovated barn. We had two floors which made it possible to use the first floor as a studio. That seemed really luxurious for a while, but there was one thing that still nagged at us. Like you said, when your studio is in your house it’s really hard to walk away from other house chores. Dishes, laundry, etc., always seem to trump real work. A funny thing starts to happen. You start to feel simultaneously like you’re never at work and like you’re always at work. A year ago another apartment in our barn—the hayloft—came available and we decided to rent it as our studio. That way work would always be work, and home would always be home. The commute is up two flights of exterior stairs. When people ask me why we left New York to move back to Michigan I ask them right back, And where in New York would you have me rent two apartments in a 100-year-old barn? And at what cost? The Midwest can be very agreeable both spatially and financially.
But anyway, now we’re contending with a new problem. We’re starting to think that we have too much space. And too big a separation between work and life. When we worked right on top of each other it was crowded, but there was a kind of energy that’s sort of lost in the big hayloft studio. It’s a cavernous 900 square feet, and it can feel a little, well, lonely. So now we’re thinking pretty seriously about downsizing and putting the studio back in our original apartment.
By the way, we actually have done some public speaking in close proximity to Tom. You’re right, he’s incredible. While he was onstage bringing the house down, we were a few hundred feet away looking ridiculous. It was at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival. Book festivals are great, but certain types of people and certain types of books just don’t work well in that kind of setting. We were onstage strapped to headset microphones reading (shouting, really) Amos, a bedtime story, to a crowd of 200-300 sweaty and confused people. On other stages nearby were Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and Rodney King. Tom went on shorty after us, and looked like a natural. For us the whole thing was traumatic. I end up doing most of the speaking which really frays my nerves. After events we’ll get people that come up and say how nice it is that I’m an extrovert because it balances Erin’s introverted energy. I AM NOT AN EXTROVERT!!! After events, extroverts don’t replay in their minds for the next three weeks every dumb word that came out of their dumb face. Extroverts do not google: “Sensory Deprivation Tank” when they get home. I am not an extrovert. I am just an introvert who can fake extroverted energy in times of need.
Do you and Tom ever have to present together, or are you always solo? How do you get through public speaking? Public speaking is one side effect of this job that I never considered in art school.
Wow! I love the pictures of your studio/home online. Swoon. I wouldn’t dare try to downsize if I were you, but that’s just me. Tom and I do better when we aren’t working together, because we distract each other. I especially want to talk talk talk too much, and that’s no good! I’ve attached some pics (some a little blurry, sorry!) of my studio for your amusement. Something to note: I totally keep meaning to paint that white area on the outside of the building. In another 25 years, I guess.
Public speaking? Bleh. Tom and I have done stuff together, which I loathe. I now pretty much request that we don’t do any public speaking together if we can help it. He’s just so good, and I get so overwhelmed by it all. Tom’s public persona is so dynamite, that I just keep feeling like I’m fizzling out every time I open my mouth or do anything. It’s difficult. My problems are further compounded by my severe hearing loss. Yes, I wear hearing aids, and yes, I’m an excellent lip-reader, but it’s hard to involve the kids in a presentation (the way Tom and other successful kid’s book author/presenters do) because it’s difficult to lip-read from far away, and doubly difficult to figure out where a particular voice is coming from (from within the crowd). If I ask a question to the audience, I’m greeted with a jumble of noise and no real handle on who said what, or even what was said. So I rarely ask for a lot of audience involvement, and that’s too bad, because that’s where the fun could be had. I wish so much that I could turn my back on a crowd and have kids shout out suggestions of stuff to draw, and I just draw it. That would be a dream! But anyway, my solution is that I usually do a slide show, letting the art/pictures do the talking for me, and I often have one or two kid volunteers come up—that I can handle, because I’m talking one-on-one with the kid and I can actually see the kid’s mouth when he/she talks. It all makes me very anxious. But I have had some amazingly good shows when I guess the stars lined up and my head wasn’t swimming with self-loathing the whole time. I’m gonna be trying out some anti-anxiety meds for an upcoming airplane flight (I haven’t flown in 25 years, pathetic); if they help, I might try ’em for public speaking, too. I much prefer talking to a room full of adults (like librarians and teachers), which sounds lame, since the books are for kids, but whatever. I get a lot of laughs from the adults and there’s just more of a connection. I’m not so afraid that I won’t be able to understand them, I guess. That being said, so many of the kids I meet are A+ great and I’m just sad I can’t make more of connection with them in that kind of environment.
Like you, I never ever pictured public speaking being part of this gig. It’s my least favorite part. Obviously.
Well, at this point we’ve taken up a week of your time, and you probably have books and/or small children you’re neglecting. Before we sign off though I really want to talk a little about your new graphic novel, El Deafo. I read the first few chapters in the sampler that you sent along and even without seeing the rest it’s pretty clear that this is a special book. It has the same easy, cheerful, effortless qualities that I think define your other works. What’s amazing to me though is that it has that cheerful effortlessness despite the fact that it deals with some pretty heavy material. The end result is a book that has the ability to speak directly to a 6-year-old or a 60-year-old with equal effectiveness. It’s quite a balancing act. What was it like for you to make a book like this? I can’t imagine working on a book this personal and then sending it out into the world unsupervised. Terrifying.
Wow. I’m flattered, and so pleased you liked what you read so far. Cheerful effortlessness sounds good to me! It may look effortless, but I never worked so hard in my life on one single project. You’re right. It IS terrifying. The book is about my early hearing loss at the age of four, and is sort of a love letter to my mother and to the high-powered hearing aid I used in school. I’m terrified of several things. First is that the friends who are featured in the book will read it and be mad. I admittedly did not always portray certain friends fairly, because I was trying to write from the perspective of third-grade me and not from the perspective of adult me, who is able to look back retrospectively and understand where those friends were coming from way back when. But I had to be honest. The second thing that terrifies me (and it’s an even bigger thing) is that some folks in the Deaf community will read this book and get upset. The deaf/Deaf debate is too complicated to get into here, but due to circumstances that I couldn’t control, I ended up more a member of the hearing community than of the Deaf one. I have, for example, a chapter in the book that talks about my not-too-positive feelings about sign language (when I was a kid), which I am loathe to admit I had. That chapter may cause me some trouble! But again, I had to be honest. I’m also a bit terrified that finally admitting to the world that I am deaf will mean that well-intentioned people will tell me I am “special” and then over-enunciate when they talk to me, which will actually make them harder to understand. Who knows what it’s repercussions will be. OR, it just may fizzle out early on and no one will read it and I won’t have anything to worry about! Hopefully, though, the right kids will find it (deaf kids, any kids who feel a lot different from their peers) and get something good out of it. And maybe the right adults will find it, too. I’m excited about it, that’s for sure. But again, I agree with your feeling, too. TERRIFYING.
Well, rest assured that if anyone gives you any trouble the Steads have got your back. Just send the riffraff this way and I’ll let ’em know what’s what. I think this book is very special and has the potential to reach a really broad audience in a meaningful way. We’ll definitely be rooting for it all year.
Is the cover on the El Deafo sampler the final art? Or is there another image we can post for folks here as a final send-off?
It’s so good to know that the Steads got my back! I really appreciate that, and your very generous assessment of the book.
It’s been so much fun chatting with both of you. I think we are kindred spirits—there’s nothing we want more than to write, and draw, and spend hours and hours gazing in admiration at our Provensen books. We could all use a little more swagger in the public speaking department, but oh well. We try!
I look forward to seeing you two again, and maybe, since I feel like I know you a little bit better, I won’t fawn all over you….Any chance you’ll be at ALA? Vegas, baby. If ever there was a place I’m pretty sure I—and you—don’t belong, it’s Las Vegas. Fortunately, my Elvis wig is at the shop getting fluffed up for the occasion. Seriously, though, I’m gonna have to take meds just to get on the plane. Ai yi yi.
Attached is the cover of the book! It’s just a little bit different now.
xoxoxo to you both! I’ve really enjoyed this.
Oh man, Raina was the perfect person to ask to blurb your cover. I love her work for a lot of the same reasons that I love yours. I would put Sara Varon in that group too—but I should stop before this whole thing runs on forever.
Alas, we are missing Vegas this year. Sigh. But we will see you around eventually I’m sure. We’ll hop ourselves up on Xanax and go out for some karaoke.
Thanks again Cece, this was great!
P.S. FROM CECE:
Raina is the most amazing storyteller around, eh? And do NOT get me started on Sara Varon. Her work just makes me weep, it’s so beautiful. Shoulda put her on that initial list of current people I admire. It’s a love-fest, for sure.
Thank YOU for this experience. So much fun. Looking forward to seeing the Steads again!
Conversation ended 16 May 2014, 4:02 p.m
Thank you for reading. We leave you today in Pennsylvania, riding the rails along the Youghiogheny River on the historic B&O line. Until next time…