October 26, 2009 | Comments Off
Dr. Kent: Welcome back to Sound Authors. It’s my pleasure on the show to welcome Peter Brown, who has written a gorgeous book, and the book is called, ‘The Curious Garden.’ Welcome to the show Peter Brown.
Peter Brown: Thanks for having me.
Dr. Kent: Your website is equally as fun and fascinating as your book. It’s at once retro and new. Tell me about this book, ‘The Curious Garden.’
Peter Brown: ‘The Curious Garden,’ was inspired by a real place called the High Line which is an elevated railway in Manhattan that was used for about 75 years to transport commercial goods up and down the west side of Manhattan, and then in 1980 they shut it down, and for about 30 years, what happened was all sorts of wildflowers, and plants and trees started growing there, all by themselves. It became this sort of strange urban wilderness area up on this elevated platform in the middle of Manhattan. So I was really inspired by that, and I began noticing other places like that, other examples of nature kind of surviving in unlikely places. So I decided to make a story about a boy who discovered nature living in a really unlikely place – in the middle of his gray, dreary city, and then he takes care of it.
Dr. Kent: It’s such a great word, ‘curious.’
Peter Brown: It means a lot in this book too because the boy’s curious. His curiosity leads him to discover the few scraggly plants in the beginning of the story. The plants in the garden sort of take on their own personality: they’re curious, and the plants begin exploring the forgotten corners of the city. The concept of curiosity is a big part of the story.
Dr. Kent: So you are both the author and the illustrator, which I love because I’m a huge fan of Doctor Seuss, and a lot of those early books kind of have the vibe that your book has. You’re looking at it, and it’s art, and it’s tangible, it’s simple, but it’s also got that level of complexity to it. Who were your role models in figuring out how to do all this, and how do you work in both text and artwork?
Peter Brown: Well, I’ve loved storytelling ever since I was a kid. I had a great time writing silly little stories and drawing pictures for as long as I can remember. Some of the books that really made me want to make picture books were ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ by Maurice Sendak, and a lot Dr. Seuss’s books, and later in life, when I was in art school, I discovered a book called, ‘The Stinky Cheese Man,’ by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith which was really inspirational to me. Those are some of my influences.
Dr. Kent: ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ is now a movie. I’m actually planning on checking it out tonight. I’m a kid at heart.
Peter Brown: I actually just watched it a couple of hours ago on the IMAX. It was really great. So you’ll have a good time.
Dr. Kent: It’s one of those books that, when I was a kid, I opened up that book, ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ and you’re transported to a new world. I’m just looking at one of the layouts from your book, and there are these scenes, scenes with all sorts of little fun details, and there’s the kid way in the background. How do you picture these scenes in your mind before you sketch it out?
Peter Brown: This book was a long time coming. I first discovered the High Line, the inspiration for this book, back in 2002, and was kicking around this idea for years. Over the course of about five years, I was visualizing all different scenes of the world that I was slowly solidifying in my imagination. In that period of time, I’d do everything, I’d do tons of different scenes, most of which never made it into the book, the best of which did make it into the book. I had a lot to work with when I actually sat down and sunk my teeth into this project. I had a lot of background material to work with at that point. I really just imagined what it would be like to be this kid, to be Liam living in his dreary, grey city, and there’s not much color, there’s really no parks or trees or greenery or anything like that. Then all of a sudden he discovers a few things that are just barely surviving. I pretty naturally slipped into that kind of perspective and the story began to unravel itself before my eyes once I really got into his mindset. The perspectives in the different scenes just sort of made sense to me. He takes care of the garden and the garden recovers and thrives and spreads down the railway, and then out across the city. It had its own logic to it, and a lot of the illustrations reflect that straight line that I saw from the beginning of the story to the big finale.
Dr. Kent: Do you picture your reader when you’re writing this? Do you go back to being that age – the age of your readers? How do you get into the mindset of writing these books?
Peter Brown: I definitely have a big imagination and I definitely enjoy trying to picture the world from the point of view of my audience. I don’t have tons of interaction with kids. Some people will either have their own kids, or they’ll go to some sort of place where they can read their stories that they’re working on to an audience of children. I actually don’t have that – at least not yet. For me, it’s more about just remembering my childhood and remembering how I saw the world, remembering what was really exciting to me, or mysterious, or confusing, or funny, or silly. I spent a lot of time thinking about the things that I did for fun when I was a kid.
Dr. Kent: In your bio, you talk about your grandfather, who loved to paint. How did you get into this? Of course, at a very, very young age, you crafted some books of your own, and you painted and drew. How did you get into all of this?
Peter Brown: I grew up visiting my grandparents and seeing my grandfather hunched over his desk, painting these little landscapes mostly from memory of places he’d seen on trips. Some things were more abstract as well. So I grew up realizing that making art was a good use of one’s time. I followed in his footsteps. He was never a professional artist, he was just an amateur artist, but I still learned that lesson. So I just drew, and I knew that that was a perfectly good thing for me to be doing. Like most kids, we wanted to be good at something, almost anything would be fine, so the thing that I happened to be good at was drawing. Once I got labeled as the artsy kid in class, I just went with it. I took that as permission to just be the art kid, and I just drew like crazy. That was how I started on my path to making art. A lot of the art that I would make would be telling stories, coming up with interesting characters, or interesting scenes that told a story. It was at a young age that I really fell in love with the storytelling, both with words and with pictures.
Dr. Kent: How do you do your final illustrations? Is it all on paper? Do you use your computer at all? What’s your method?
Peter Brown: I sketch the book out with pencil, and I’ll use the computer to cut and paste different little drawings that I might have done, to put them together in a single composition. Before I ever sit down to paint the final art, I’ll have each page printed out. I’ll have a computer printout of each sketch, but that sketch will be composed of different things that I cut and pasted all together. That’s the extent of my use of the computer. Although I do use the computer for color studies, so I’ll plan out the color for each illustration on the computer as well. Then when I sit down to make the final artwork, which is all done by hand with paint – with acrylic and guasch paint – I have these finished sketches; I have the finished color studies, so all the decision making is done, and really it’s just about me looking at those things as reference and putting paint on the canvas. I don’t paint on paper, actually. I paint on what’s called illustration board, which is essentially heavy duty cardboard with a really nice toothy paper surface to it.
Dr. Kent: How would you describe your style? It kind of has a little bit of – when you said your grandfather painted miniatures – it almost has a little bit of that feel to it, a little feel of American primitive. How would you describe your style in these books?
Peter Brown: I would say, my early books, ‘Flight of Dodo’ and the charter books, it was more dimension, it was more light and shadow and form. ‘The Curious Garden’ is a little bit flatter. For the earlier books, I was really trying to combine naive art, art by self-trained artists that have almost a childlike quality to them – I was trying to combine that sensibility with something like what you’d see in a Pixar movie: these realistic, detailed, rendered, dimensional forms of art. I thought if I could find a way to combine this really modern, hyper-realistic Pixar style with this childlike, naive art style, I could come up with something cool. So that’s what I was doing for the first few books. With ‘The Curious Garden,’ it’s similar to that, but as I said, this art is a little bit flatter, there’s not as much dimension to the shapes. Mostly because I knew there was going to be so much detail: so many flowers, so many bricks, and birds, insects, and flower stems, and all that kind of stuff. I wasn’t going to have time. It just wasn’t going to be practical for me to render every single detail as thoroughly as I had in some of my earlier books. So that’s why this book feels like my art, but with a little bit less dimension to it.
Dr. Kent: Tell me a little about your earlier books. It’s all great stuff. You’ve got ‘Chowder,’ and ‘Barkbelly’ and ‘Flight of the Dodo.’ How did you come up with these concepts? Are they still out there? Are you still promoting them?
Peter Brown: Yes. ‘Flight of the Dodo’ was my very first book. It was my first born, which is about a penguin who’s a flightless bird, obviously, and he gets pooped on by a flying bird, and decides that he’s had enough and he wants to see what flying’s all about, once and for all. So he gets his flightless friends together, and they build this hot air balloon. The fact of the matter is that I’ve actually, as silly as it sounds, I’ve actually been pooped on by a lot of birds over the course of my lifetime. One of those times just got me thinking. It was a pretty embarrassing incident: I was on a date, actually, with a girl. I remember being really embarrassed and humiliated, and for some reason I thought to myself: you know what would be even worse than what I’m going through right now is if I were a flightless bird being pooped on by a flying bird. As soon as that idea popped into my head, I knew I had something. So I jotted it down, and from there, that story wrote itself after that point. So that was a lot of fun.
Dr. Kent: You jotted it down on a napkin and impressed your date?
Peter Brown: I always bring my little notebook with me wherever I go. I was in the public restroom and [laughs], I don’t even think I’d finished cleaning myself up before I started jotting down these ideas. I think she was impressed that I was able to turn those lemons into lemonade, so to speak. There was not a second date, unfortunately.
Dr. Kent: [Laughs] At least you got something out of it, exactly.
Peter Brown: I really did. It was probably the best date of my life.
Dr. Kent: There’s a little spot on your website, it’s called, ‘My First Book,’ and then you’ve got this little how to build your own little book for kids. It shows a book that you actually put together at six years old or so.
Peter Brown: That’s right.
Dr. Kent: Were you digging through old materials, and there it was? Or was this something that your folks said, ‘Hey, do you remember you did this?’
Peter Brown: When ‘Flight of the Dodo’ first was published, my mom sent me a little care package, including a lot of artwork that I made when I was a child. One of the things was this book, ‘The Adventure of Me and My Dog Buffy,’ which was the first book that I ever made for fun when I was six years old. I had completely forgotten about it. As soon as I saw it, it really brought me back. The funny thing is, that books is about a tree-climbing dog, and that factors into the story, because he can see out into the forest. Peter and his dog get lost in the woods and Buffy climbs the tree and he can see their house far away. As I was discovering this book that I’d made when I was a child, I was working on ‘Chowder.’ The really weird thing was that at that exact moment I was actually working on this illustration of Chowder the bulldog in a tree, which is a weird coming-around-full-circle back to this idea I’d had as a kid, but I hadn’t even thought about it. So maybe somewhere in the back of my head I have this obsession with tree-climbing dogs.
Dr. Kent: That’s great.
Peter Brown: So, yes, that was the first book I made. I made other books after that, but that book has been really handy because I do quite a bit of school visits these days. I go to schools and libraries all over the country, really, and do these presentations and I brought that book with me, the first book I ever made, and it’s been a great addition to my presentation. The kids get to see this book that I made when I was their age, and it’s a fun little story, but it’s certainly not brilliant; it’s just kind of silly – the kind of things that they’re working on, so it drives home the point that if they like writing and drawing, they should stick with it, because they could really do something with it, the way I have. The teachers of course love that I’m teaching that lesson to their students.
Dr. Kent: Right. All of your websites are fun to play around in also. Your Chowder website is very simple; it looks like a normal webpage, the pictures aren’t moving, and then all of a sudden, Chowder of course is drooling. Do you do those Flash illustrations also?
Peter Brown: Yes, I make my websites myself. My knowledge of Flash is quite limited, but I know enough to add some fun little details to my website. So, yes, the drool coming off of Chowder’s tongue was a lot of fun. On my website, Peter Brown’s Studio dot com, there’s this windmill that’s turning.
Dr. Kent: I like the sheep.
Peter Brown: Yes, you can roll over the sheep with your cursor, and they ‘Baa,’ and they run all over the place. I have a lot of fun with those websites, but they always end up being a lot more involved than I imagine. I always think I can bang it out in a couple of weeks, and six weeks later I’m still sort of slavering away on these things.
Dr. Kent: The books are fantastic. ‘The Curious Garden’ is out there in stores. It’s for children from three to eight, but honestly, I’m a huge fan of children’s books. I think it should be three plus.
Peter Brown: Yes, I agree, thank you.
Dr. Kent: It’s called ‘The Curious Garden.’ Awesome illustrations in there. I hope to chat with you again some time.
Peter Brown: Oh, thank you so much. This has been great.
October 26, 2009 | Comments Off
From the JacketFlap website:
Peter Brown is a published author and an illustrator of children’s books and young adult books. Some of the published credits of Peter Brown include ‘Kaline Klattermaster’s Tree House,’ ‘The Fabulous Bouncing Chowder,’ ‘Snowbone,’ and now ‘The Curious Garden.’
October 9, 2009 | Comments Off
Dr. Kent: Welcome to Sound Authors. We have some great guests on the show today. It’s a brand new show format. This week, the featured guest is Peter Mulvey. I’ll be talking with him for upwards of half an hour later on in the show. He’s put out his latest album called ‘Notes from Elsewhere.’ Actually, ‘Letters from a Flying Machine.’ They’re both recent albums. I’ll be excited to talk to him and play some great music. On this show, I talk to both Sound Authors and Authors of Sound, so before that, I’ve got a couple sound authors indeed on the show, at the very beginning. Right after my first guest, I’ll be talking to Tom Edwards, who’s the author of ‘Blue Jesus.’ It’s an incredible folk tale. It explores faith, miracles and racial divides in Appalachia. That’ll be fascinating. But my first guest is the incredible author and illustrator Tony Fucile. He’s written a fantastic picture book called ‘Let’s Do Nothing.’ It’s absolutely hilarious and beautiful. Welcome to the show, Tony!
Tony Fucile: Thanks for having me.
Dr. Kent: How do you pronounce your last name?
Tony Fucile: ‘Foo-chili,’ like chili beans.
Dr. Kent: Fucile. I like that. Tell me about this book; it’s awesome.
Tony Fucile: Well thanks, thanks a lot. The idea of doing nothing didn’t come right away. That was kind of a product of two bored kids. I just sort of invented these two kids that were bored out of their minds, and then had them talk to each other. Out of that came this idea of trying to do nothing.
Dr. Kent: I can recall, when I was a kid, summer vacation was all about doing nothing, to my parents’ chagrin.
Tony Fucile: Oh, yeah. It’s one of those things where I feel like I discovered what I love because I had nothing to do. I was just sort of trying everything on a whim. Drawing was the thing (and eventually the animation) that I found. That may not have happened had I been overscheduled, like a lot of kids are.
Dr. Kent: Now you’ve worked on a bunch of big films, and some really cool stuff. One of my favorite movies ever is ‘The Incredibles.’ You were on that film as well. Now you’re a children’s book author: are there similarities, differences?
Tony Fucile: They’re amazingly similar in a lot of ways because you’re telling a story. In a sense, the picture book is more like a short film. You’re coming up with an idea, and you’ve got a beginning, middle and end. You’re staging everything, and you’re designing props. For me the comfortable part of course was animating the character. If you want, look at the book; you can see that it’s very similar to animation poses: key expressions; what we call ‘storytelling poses’ when we’re animating. Every scene in an animated film has a ‘key pose,’ that kind of describes what the character’s feeling or thinking; kind of a mix of a lot of emotions, a lot of the other drawings. So the book is a little bit like a bunch of key poses. So there are a lot of similarities. The one thing that I have to get used to is the solitude because animated film, a feature film especially, takes hundreds of artists. We all do our own thing, so it’s a bit of a shock for me to have to figure out color, because all these years I’ve been drawing basically in black and white. The experts, painters and color specialists, do all the other stuff. Also, staging, that’s something that an animator generally doesn’t do. Also designing the world; in this case, the room or backdrops, and the props and things. It was fun, but very different in that regard. You’re not really collaborating as much. There is collaboration with your editor and art director, but not nearly the same as being on a film.
Dr. Kent: When you’re writing for children, and when you’re animating for children, or drawing for them, what do you think about? Do you get yourself back in that summer vibe of not having anything to do? How do you get yourself back there? What do you do?
Tony Fucile: You know, I don’t have to do anything. I don’t think I’ve ever really left. I started really young; I started making films when I was 12. I knew I just wanted to be an animator early on. I even had the notion of making storybooks too, but animation was the thing that got me going. So I never really got out of that. I never had that thing where I would go to an animated film and feel all sheepish about it: you know, the 17 year old guy going into the Disney film and feeling a little embarrassed. It’s always been a part of my brain; it’s been stuck in that childhood way of looking at things.
Dr. Kent: Tell me a little about this book. What do you do as a children’s author to support it? Do you do readings for kids? How did you end up writing in the first place?
Tony Fucile: I had another idea for a film, for a storybook, that I wanted to do first. Then, while I was working it up, I saw that someone else had done it: Jules Feiffer had done it, ‘The Daddy Mountain.’ I was a little bummed about that. I had such a strong idea for this thing. Then this idea came to me one night in bed, and I told my wife; it was midnight, or whatever. She told me to write it down, and I said ‘I’ll remember it tomorrow.’ Of course, she kicked me out of bed and said, ‘Write it down, write it down.’ So I ended up writing the whole thing that night. The basic beats are pretty much what I came up with that night. I definitely wanted to do picture books; it’s something that I’ve been sort of quietly thinking about for a long time.
Dr. Kent: How about the characters themselves? You look at the front cover of this thing: I feel like I know these two kids.
Tony Fucile: Sal is sort of based loosely on me and a little bit of my son, Eli. So it’s kind of a combo. It’s really based on me and my friend, Steve Kerr, who’s my buddy. He’s almost a year younger than me, and we were neighbors. We grew up together. I remember he and I going through moments like that, where we felt like we were losing our minds; we were bored. You just sit there and you lay on the ground and writhe in pain because it’s so awful. So it’s really based on him. He was always much smarter than I was. He was kind of like Frankie; he was always a little bit ahead of the curve. I was maybe the enthusiastic one, but he was a little bit ahead. So they are loosely based on him and I.
Dr. Kent: Cool. Are you the one with the goofy glasses, or the one with the cowlick?
Tony Fucile: I have the cowlick: the skinny guy. He has a little paunch on him. He didn’t have the glasses, though. I added those. I needed a prop for him.
Dr. Kent: You’ve got these characters. In your brain, do you know what they look like from every angle? Because a weird thing for children’s illustrators is of course that as he goes through the book, when you look at him from different angles, he’s got to look like the same guy, right?
Tony Fucile: Yes. Especially the little square-headed guy, Frankie. So I sculpted their heads; I did little sculptures. Starting with a square, and I put some yellow hair on it. Yes, so it was rough. I needed that reference to figure out how to draw him from various angles. We had that in animation a lot, especially the hand-drawn animation. We would have mockups that would help us draw particular angles.
Dr. Kent: You actually sculpt the head, like out of clay, or on the computer, or what?
Tony Fucile: I sculpt them with clay.
Dr. Kent: Wow.
Tony Fucile: Then I’d stick them on top of a pencil. Then I would grab the pencil, and if I was having trouble with an angle, I would use it as a prop.
Dr. Kent: So every character you’ve ever created, do you have little pencils with little heads on them?
Tony Fucile: In the studios we had professional sculptors come in and do work with us and do our characters for us. Then we referenced those during production. It’s one of those things that they’ve been doing since ‘Snow White.’
Dr. Kent: Really?
Tony Fucile: Yes, because when you’re trying to get something, you can get away with it with a children’s book because things aren’t moving through space as much. You want it to feel solid and that it looks like it’s fairly substantial and it’s dimensional quality there. With animation you have to actually move through space. You really have to pay attention to where things are attached, and the perspective of the head. It’s one of those really tough challenges for hand-drawn animation especially.
Dr. Kent: So you do draw by hand? You’re not one of the folks that does the digital animation part of it?
Tony Fucile: Do you mean digital drawing?
Dr. Kent: Yes.
Tony Fucile: Well I do a mix. Strangely, I started this on the computer, on a tablet. I like that because you can maneuver things around quickly, shrink things, and then organize things which is good. But the final art, I like to draw it as much as I can. ‘Let’s Do Nothing’ is drawn and painted: painted with acrylic and ink.
Dr. Kent: This kind of has the vibe of the old Dr. Seuss books. It’s got the real tactile feel of real illustration.
Tony Fucile: Well, thanks! Thank you.
Dr. Kent: Cool. It’s a pleasure to chat with you about this. Where can folks pick up this book? Are you doing any kind of traveling around? I know Candlewick Press put it out, and they’re a great children’s publisher. The book, of course, is called, ‘Let’s Do Nothing.’ What are you doing to back it up?
Tony Fucile: I did a couple of school events, and that’s really about it. I went to the ALA last summer; that was interesting – that was fun.
Dr. Kent: Fun. What kind of feedback are you getting?
Tony Fucile: Pretty good. A lot of Internet blogs are reacting to it well. It’s been reviewed fairly well.
Dr. Kent: Any angry parents who are saying, ‘We don’t want our kids to do nothing!’
Tony Fucile: [Laughs] I haven’t had that yet. Kids, it’s so fun to read it to them. I’ve learned how (well, I’ve only done a couple of these now), but I’ve learned to let them kind of do the page turn. When you see that the dog’s about to take a pee on him, and all that stuff, they really like to get in there and yell at me: ‘Hey, wait a minute! The dog’s in the corner!’ So I kind of play dumb when I read it, and they tell what’s going on. It’s really fun. So that’s a blast seeing the kids react.
Dr. Kent: You actually see your audience, yes.
Tony Fucile: They get the whole idea that you can’t do nothing. There’s no way to do nothing. It’s a lot of fun to see that.
Dr. Kent: That’s awesome. I’ve been chatting with Tony Fucile and his book’s called, ‘Let’s Do Nothing.’ It’s out on Candlewick Press. Thank you so much for chatting with me.
Tony Fucile: Thanks for having me, thank you.
Dr. Kent: I can’t wait to see what he does next. This is a great little book: ‘Let’s Do Nothing.’ Check it out.
October 9, 2009 | Comments Off
From his website:
Tony Fucile has spent over twenty years designing and animating characters for cartoon feature films. During the first fifteen years, he put pencil to paper to help bring life to characters from The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King, and The Iron Giant. And in the last six years, he put mouse to mouse pad for the Oscar-winning Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, for which he was a Supervising Animator. Tony’s first picture book for children, Let’s Do Nothing!, was released by Candlewick Press in Spring 2009. He’s currently working on a chapter book series by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee about two friends named Bink and Golly. He’s also excited to begin work on Mitchell’s License, a picture book by Hallie Durand to be published by Candlewick Press. Tony was born in San Francisco and currently resides nearby with his wife, Stacey, their two kids, Eli and Elinor, and two Chihuahuas (Pedro and Kahlua).
September 25, 2009 | Comments Off
Dr. Kent: Hello, and welcome to Sound Authors radio. We’ve been off the air for a little while this summer. It’s great to be finally back in the beautiful days of almost-autumn. About three days away from fall; I’m excited for that to roll around. I have two guests on the show today. I’ve got Kathryn Lasky, who’s the author of ‘Daughters of the Sea.’ It’s the first book in the series called ‘Hannah,’ and she’s a New York Times bestselling author. At the end of the show will be a fantastic musician. His name is Wayne Gratz, and he’s a wonderful solo pianist. We’re going to talk to him at the end of the show. But I’m excited at the very beginning to be speaking to a Newbery Honor winner, and bestselling author, Kathryn Lasky. Welcome to the show.
Kathryn Lasky: Oh, thanks! Glad to be back.
Dr. Kent: Well, tell me about this book, ‘Daughters of the Sea.’ It’s such a spooky cover. There’s a young lady, halfway into the sea. Tell me about this book.
Kathryn Lasky: Well, this book came to me a long time ago, and I’m not giving away anything when I say she is part mermaid. In other words, she’s not quite all human. But it’s not like ‘Little Mermaid,’ at all, although I totally admired the original story, by Hans Christian Anderson, and I love the Disney movie as much as anybody else, and watched it with my daughter when she was young. But I wanted to do something very different. So, first of all, it’s set in the late 19th century, and it’s quite dark. I wanted to avoid any of those, sort of, candy-colored, Disneyesque tones, so it’s set largely on the coast of Maine, and also in Boston. I think it’s a story that kids can relate to, particularly girls, because it’s really an identity quest in a way. So that’s what I can tell you.
Dr. Kent: Kids are more able to deal with dark topics these days. It seems like kids have a lot more difficulty than we do, a little bit. Actually, the other day, I was at a children’s movie, I believe, or a family movie. And the previews before those movies, gosh, they’re incredibly bombastic, and there’s guns and thunder, and it’s like they’re marketing to kids with this really dark stuff. So I guess it’s good that the book has some sort of dark overtones to it.
Kathryn Lasky: Yes, I don’t like to think of it as dark in terms of guns so much. There was a movie out six or seven months ago that didn’t have any guns or anything in it, that was incredibly dark. It was a children’s movie, and that was ‘Coraline.’
Dr. Kent: Right.
Kathryn Lasky: And I think the book’s brilliant, ‘Coraline,’ (I guess I should be plugging my own books), and I thought the movie was too. So there’s darkness and then there’s other kinds of darkness.
Dr. Kent: Right. You’ve got so many books. I remember, the last time I talked to you it was about ‘One Beetle Too Many,’ which is about Darwin, which is an amazing topic. But you have so many books. You’ve got nonfiction, you’ve got fiction, you’ve got books for small kids, for larger kids, and then for the largest kids of them all: for people like you and me. So, what is it like sitting down and then turning out a book like ‘Daughters of the Sea,’ which is very much aimed at that young market?
Kathryn Lasky: Well, for me it was wonderful. This was something I was longing to do for quite a while. There’s parts that you wouldn’t identify as being with the young market. I don’t like to think of them as “market,” I like to think of them as “readers.”
Dr. Kent: Right.
Kathryn Lasky: But, for example (and they might not get this, and I don’t even care if they don’t get it), but often when I describe this book to my friends (and I’m not trying to pat my own back, or anything like that, because I don’t think I measure up to this at all), but I say, “Imagine Edith Wharton doing mermaids.” Edith Wharton is one of my very favorite authors. One of my favorite books of hers, which I’ve read at least five times, is ‘The Age of Innocence.’ I love that elaborate, socially stratified world that she paints, or writes about: the ‘Gilded Age’ of New York. I tried to capture some of that in this book, and that was really fun for me. There is a darkness to that, in spite of it being the ‘Gilded Age,’ and there’s actually a kind of violence too, but it’s not obvious. I saw the movie, ‘The Age of Innocence,’ and Martin Scorsese directed it; I love the movie, it was one of those movies that I felt really lived up to the book. And I remember an interview where he said it was the most violent film he’d ever made. This is the guy who did ‘Raging Bull.’ I kind of tried to capture that sort of repressive atmosphere, and that kind of subtle violence in this book. I’m always plugging everyone else’s book: Edith Wharton’s and Martin Scorsese’s movies [laughs].
Dr. Kent: Well, I’ll help to plug your book, ‘Daughters of the Sea: Hannah.’ You know, as a child I always thought mermaids were such placid, sweet, and beautiful creatures, but it’s really a fascinating creature. It’s not something that’s necessarily as Disney-like, as you said at the beginning; it’s not quite as Disney-like as we think, the mermaid. What kind of research did you do on mermaids in preparing for this?
Kathryn Lasky: I read a lot of literature; there are a lot of mermaid websites where people, real crackpots actually, think they’ve seen mermaids. That wasn’t the kind of research that really helped me. See, the thing about ‘Daughters of the Sea’ and ‘Hannah’ and the next three books (because each of these is the three girls who are sisters, and separated at birth; I don’t want to give anything away). These are very powerful, young women, and powerful women were not exactly evident or omnipresent in that era, 1899, that I write about. As a matter of fact, women were said to be high strung, nervous, all this. Of course, all the diagnoses were made by men. They were sent for cures and all of that. Well, most of us would have been high strung and hysterical if we had to live in that world. What Hannah and her sisters represent is an alternate universe to that rigid, stratified, chauvinistic society. They are powerful, these girls, but they have to struggle to find it.
Dr. Kent: In creating characters like this, it’s so interesting that you bring up almost the political issue. Do you think of the stratified society when going into a book like this, or do the characters sort of paint their own picture?
Kathryn Lasky: No, I thought of that going into it, very much. First of all, that’s why I set it when I did, when things were a lot more rigid.
Kathryn Lasky: Well, I talk with my publisher. I don’t have to write the whole book. I had a lot of talks with the publisher, the late Craig Walker, who was a real mentor of mine at Scholastic, and he died two years ago. He was the one who really encouraged me to go darker. My other series is the Guardians of Ga’hoole (which has been really popular) about the fantasy world of owls. That’s for younger kids. He said, “No, I want this to be older,” and, as you say, “darker.” He said, “But Kathy, I don’t think you realize how dark I want this to be.” And I said, “Oh, wow! I can’t believe it.” So I was very excited by this. When he said “older,” I can deal really honestly about issues of emerging sexuality, and all that, and I don’t have to do it in a graphic way at all. I think it would be spoiled. You have to face these realities. This is the kind of reader I’m writing for, and she is often battling with this. It doesn’t matter whether it was 1899 or now; harder then, probably, than now, but still. So I hope it’ll have resonance, because I’ve tried to be very honest about that, but I don’t think you need to be super graphic about it. I don’t think there’s anything distasteful in that sense.
Dr. Kent: In what way do you picture your reader when writing for different age groups? How do you picture your readers?
Kathryn Lasky: Well, I don’t know whether I exactly picture them. It’s sort of going into myself and where was I when I was that age, and what was compelling me. I think that I get a sense of urgency about my writing, I guess you’d say. Because if I just, say, looked outward, to picture a reader, well it’s just sort of like an anonymous figure. I saw something in the New York Times this morning about how they are training airport security people to figure out who might be a terrorist getting on a plane or whatever, and they set this sort of mannequin dummy up there; I understand that they didn’t want to do any sort of ethnic stereotyping, racial stereotyping, anything like that, but it was this just sort of figure. And if I would try to picture a reader like that, mine too would be this sort of a-sexual, androgynous, no-age person [laughs]. So I have to kind of dive into myself and remember where I was at 14 or 15, or 7 or 8. So, it’s a projection of myself, I hate to say.
Dr. Kent: What is the difference for you between 14 and 7 or 8 in writing the books? I noticed, just for example, in ‘Daughters of the Sea,’ which is a gorgeous book by the way -
Kathryn Lasky: Oh I know, I just think it’s so beautiful.
Dr. Kent: I wish they would print adult books this way: the print is nice and big, the pages are beautiful, and you can actually read it. Whereas the books that I usually pick up are printed so small. You’re immediately drawn into the world; I remember when I used to read books just like this. How do you write to an age group? I still don’t understand. So, you put yourself into the mindset of where you were?
Kathryn Lasky: Yeah, I have my little inner 8-year-old, or inner 14-year old, all worked in this very old body of mine, which I’m not going to admit on the air how old. I just sort of consult with that. I remember how I felt, feelings of disenfranchisement, embarrassment, yearning, trying to figure out things. For all age groups, for any age group I wrote for, the world is really a confusing place. These children are trying to figure it out. I’m still trying to figure it out as an adult, but they don’t still admit that the world is a confusing place, they just kind of bulldoze ahead and pretend that it’s not. And maybe that’s good, but kids are more honest. I don’t know whether I’ve answered your question.
Dr. Kent: But let me go back to you as a 7- or 8-year old. Did you read kids’ books?
Kathryn Lasky: Oh, sure!
Dr. Kent: What kind of books do you remember?
Kathryn Lasky: Well, of course picture books. I remember a lot of fairy tales. I remember we had a volume, I think they were Chinese fairy tales, and I can still just picture the illustration. There was one called ‘Little Peachling.’ I wanted to change my name to Peachling Lasky. I loved the Wizard of Oz books; I read them all. I loved Peter Pan. You have to realize, when I was a kid, there weren’t wonderful people writing like Lois Lowry or S.E. Hinton. YA fiction, which is what this is called, ‘young adult fiction,’ hadn’t really quite been discovered yet, so you read maybe ‘Little Women,’ that kind of classic stuff; you read ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ I loved ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. That’s what I read. I do remember in the eighth grade (I came from a family of readers, so you’d see them all sitting around with books, not too much television at all), I started reading the books my parents were reading, and they were sort of mildly shocked when I was reading things like ‘The Naked and the Dead’ by Norman Mailer, which I adored, and I was only 13. I once had the great opportunity to meet him about a year or so before he died. I told him, “You know, I read ‘The Naked and the Dead’ when I was 13 years old” and he said, “You WHAT? Your parents must have been crazy!” Maybe, but I read it! I also remember reading ‘Exodus.’ Leon Uris’s books, I loved those.
Dr. Kent: Wow.
Kathryn Lasky: I loved WWII books.
Dr. Kent: I grew up reading in a very similar way; my parents would be shocked because of the books I would pick off their shelf. I think for some of the most voracious readers that is part of the experience, but the world has changed so much. I don’t know if my folks had allowed me to be in front of the television more hours, or to have a video game player, or, now a’days to text all day long. There is this Harry Potter craze, they’re buying your books, and they’re buying lots of people’s books. But how have things changed, what do you see?
Kathryn Lasky: Well, I’m not really sure. My kids are now in their late 20s and their late 30s, and they were really always voracious readers, and they watched TV more than I did. There is this whole mass/pop-culture thing, and I think that has impacted kids an awful lot. Because I think it gives them heroes who are not really heroes. I mean, Paris Hilton, what the hell has she ever done? Oh, I didn’t mean to say a swear word. Or Britney Spears? So pop culture has had an unfortunate impact on us. Maybe I’m getting off here, but these three events that have happened in the last ten days with the congressman, Joe Wilson, blurting out at the president; Serena Williams, that was really vile; and Kanye West. I think these false heroes have been so fortified by the press that they’re invulnerable, and you notice none of them has really apologized in what I would call a significant way. And yet, they are all over television. Kanye West, he was on the Jay Leno show the first night. I haven’t seen any of Serena’s endorsements being cut yet; she was fined $10,000.
Dr. Kent: Right, and the senator’s comment actually made his points known.
Kathryn Lasky: Exactly! People have been pouring money into his campaign. Now, they have been pouring money into the opponent’s campaign, but they’ve kind of drawn even. I find that really peculiar. So, I think, is it because of television? I don’t know, but there were magazines when I was around as a kid, and they didn’t lionize people like this.
Dr. Kent: One thing I like about a book so much is that, for example, I look at the cover of your book, with ‘Hannah’ and here’s this character, and I can, as a child, or as a young adult, page through that book and for a week or for a month, or for a couple days, depending on how quickly they read, they are connected to that character. Tthat’s one amazing thing about books that you don’t get with video and those kind of things.
Kathryn Lasky: Yes, the relationship with a character is a lot more intimate with a book because you are not provided with the images of the people. It’s much more of a collaborative experience between the reader and the author. You build that character in your mind, and that’s part of the fun of it. Even though this girl, whose absolutely beautiful, on the cover of ‘Daughters of the Sea,’ even though that’s her image there, you can have that in your mind, but you are going to start to build on that as the reader if you’re really a good reader. You’re going to see how she moves her head, or how her eyes glint, or something; you have to kind of fill that in as the reader. Now I help them of course through my writing, but it’s just so much more active on the part of the person, an immediate experience, if we can call a book that, then it would be on television where it’s just all spoon fed to you.
Dr. Kent: So, what other projects are you working on now? You’ve written so many books, I’ll bet you couldn’t even list them all.
Kathryn Lasky: No, I can’t, I’ve written a lot. I don’t like to talk about what I’m writing at the present ever. Because, like right now, I’m thinking, “Gees! I was so smart four months ago when I wrote that book,” and now I feel so dumb; I’m trying to get through these hurdles. I’ll only go so far as saying it’s a historical novel.
Dr. Kent: Great. That takes a totally different brain, it’s like, a marathon and a 1-mile or something. They’re completely different kinds of books, right?
Kathryn Lasky: Yes, but they’re all marathons in my mind [laughs]. They’re different; the problems, oddly enough, turn out being the same. For all of the books I do, people say, “Oh, fantasy, you can just make it up” or something, like with Guardians of Ga’hoole, or even mermaids. There’s an enormous amount of research I have to do. For ‘Daughters of the Sea,’ for ‘Hannah,’ she starts out as a scullery maid in a very wealthy Boston household. I had to do enormous research to learn about the household staff in that era. Part of my research, I have to admit, was rewatching ‘Upstairs Downstairs,’ one of my favorite public television shows ever. I got a hold of laundry manuals from that era. I had to find out what the salaries were for these people, all that kind of stuff. Luckily I enjoy research. It’s a lot of work.
Dr. Kent: Wow. What is your advice for up-and-coming writers? I know there’s something like 400,000 [books] published every year, and yet, I’ll bet a lot of the fiction writers aren’t doing the hard work behind some of this. How does an author go about doing the research?
Kathryn Lasky: I have to admit it really helps with the Internet now. The other thing I have to admit is, I live in
Dr. Kent: They collect them.
Kathryn Lasky: The Fish and Wildlife Department calls up universities and says, “Hey, do you want this snowy owl?” or whatever. And they say, “Sure!” and then they fix them up and they stuff them and stuff like that. Or they accidentally might get shot during hunting season, but this is a treasure trove for me. That’s one way I do research.
Dr. Kent: I’m excited to hear about the film coming out. In just looking at that series, it’s become a part of your identity, and a part of your life. It makes me think of people like J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. How do you feel when you write these books? Now you know these characters, now you know what their world is like, and how they interact with one-another. Is there a point where you get tired of it, or you’re taken over by it? Or do you just enjoy going back to that world when you write these books?
Kathryn Lasky: No I never get tired of it. I guess in a sense I am taken over by it, but I know when a series is finished. The owl series is finished. I don’t want to beat a series to death. It came to a logical conclusion. I go on, I find new things to do. I have an off-shoot from that series called ‘The Wolves of the Beyond’ that will be coming out; I think the books will be in the bookstores in December. So, life goes on. One of the things that I thought about when I first got into writing children’s books are there are certain authors, illustrators, who keep doing the same book over and over again. Not a whole lot, and I won’t mention any, but I just thought, what’s the point of that? If I ever make it as a children’s book author, the big attraction is in not pushing a time clock; you don’t exactly have a boss, and you get to get up every morning and reinvent the world, so why would you want to keep doing the same book? I don’t know.
Dr. Kent: So you get a rush off of being able to, sort of, recreate the world.
Kathryn Lasky: Yes! So I just don’t want to keep doing the same things. I want to try new things. That’s why I like doing nonfiction.
Dr. Kent: So how do you recreate a world using nonfiction? You sort of take the events and then shape them a little bit?
Kathryn Lasky: I think I just look at the world. My husband does the illustration for the nonfiction books; they’re photographs. We’re doing one now on spiders, it’s really neat. He was a National Geographic photographer.
Dr. Kent: You’re OK with him getting up and close with spiders?
Kathryn Lasky: I had to, too! I was not a big science buff when I was in school. It was taught in such a stupid way. Even the books, the nonfiction books back in my year, were really boring; they were like textbooks. I just took a whole different approach. It’s not that I have to manipulate the facts and the science. You said, ‘shape’ them, but I know you didn’t mean ‘manipulate’ them. I just look at it in a different light from the way, perhaps, people who used to write nonfiction forty years ago did. First of all, I think that it was the texts were always so cut and dry. They’d say something like, ‘The wonderful world of asteroids.’ Well, as soon as they say, ‘The wonderful world of asteroids’ (and there were a lot of these books that said, ‘The fabulous world of volcanoes,’ or whatever), you already know that this person is not that enchanted with this world of asteroids or volcanoes, cause why do they have to blab about it in that way on the cover of the book? I want the kids to discover the fabulousness without me using an adjective like that. Also, in my nonfiction books, I don’t like to necessarily answer every question. I think that’s false, because I don’t know all the answers. To me, it’s much more successful if I can provoke the kid to raise questions than if I can answer questions.
Dr. Kent: Absolutely. I’d like to go back to the point when you talk[ed] about things that have been going on in the media, and you brought up Paris Hilton. What can books do, like ‘Daughters of the Sea?’ We’re all very grateful to the Harry Potter series for bringing kids back to books in some ways. But, why should we keep books on the shelves? Why should we keep having our kids read?
Kathryn Lasky: Reading makes us human. I think that’s the best answer. I’m quoting a critic that I just adore, George Steiner; he used to write a lot for ‘The New Yorker. Language is a human thing, and he said, “To read well is to take great risks.” It’s making ourselves vulnerable to new ideas; it’s connecting us in a way that media, television, that kind of stuff, can’t. Popular culture can’t. So, I think it’s allowing us to explore our humanity and reinforce it. I got a kind of disturbing letter today from a parent. I have this new book, a picture book for very young kids, and it’s called, ‘Two Bad Pilgrims.’ It’s about these two little boys who were on the Mayflower: Johnny and Francis Billington. They were pretty rotten kids, and so were their parents. I discovered them when I was writing a longer historical novel in the ‘Dear America’ series, about the Mayflower and all of that, which I did years ago. I found the Billington boys, and they were really bad. They almost blew up the Mayflower; they got bored, they started playing with matches in a cabin where all the gunpowder was stored, so you can imagine what that would have been like. Anyhow, they were caught. Then they went on and did other rotten things. They were rude and impious. Everybody thinks that the pilgrims were such goody-goods, but they weren’t. Some people did not come for religious reasons, they just came to start over, and the Billington family was the 17th century equivalent of a most dysfunctional family. I thought, these kids, they are really engaging; they’re naughty little pilgrims. So I did this book. And it’s funny, this guy writes this letter to me today and he’s appalled that he had to sit down and read this book to his kid, because I use such bad language. Now, I didn’t. I don’t consider when Johnny Billington tells somebody to “Shut up” [bad language], but that was what he said: “Shut up. Why would you ever use that word in a book?” Or, when he calls one of the pilgrims a stinky old geezer. He felt that I was doing a disservice, wait, I’ll find it here. “I became very uncomfortable reading to my 8-year old content like ‘shut up,’ ‘no fair.’” Has this guy been around kids? Here’s another one, ‘stupid old geezer pilgrims,’ or ‘if I have to mind these brats’ as one of the ladies says about these awful guys, and so on. “I had to tell my daughter how inappropriate the behavior and language was after each page.” Now these were the only things I said in this book. There are no curse words at all. “I understand the point you were trying to make, but couldn’t it have been done in a more tasteful manner? Don’t you think children are exposed to enough of this?”
Dr. Kent: Kids are exposed to much worse.
Kathryn Lasky: They are, and my first reaction is, I love this! I love that this guy sat down with his daughter and had a discussion about a book. So I’m not that mad at the guy, to tell you the truth. Now I’m not going to change what I did because of it, and I think he’s not a person who reads very much. I don’t think he knows about writing too much. It’s his right to think or say that it’s inappropriate, but it’s my right as a writer to practice the craft to the best of my ability. And that’s a big part of that.
Dr. Kent: You had a very important point which is it is so important that parents sit down with their children and talk to them. What a wonderful thing that is.
Kathryn Lasky: Yes, I wish more would do it. I think that this guy’s sort of a hero.
Dr. Kent: I’m looking at the cover of that book, ‘Two Bad Pilgrims,’ and it looks awfully fun to me. I would’ve loved to read that as a kid.
Kathryn Lasky: Yes, I think it is pretty fun.
Dr. Kent: As a kid who wasn’t necessarily the best of the kids, I was always looking for one of those books that spoke to me as one of the bad kids. It’s been such a pleasure talking with you, and I hope we do this again. You have so many fun books, I imagine every two or three weeks we could talk about a brand new book, right?
Kathryn Lasky: Sure! I’ll do it. No, not every two or three weeks, I don’t have them coming that fast.
Dr. Kent: Not quite that quick, but it’s an exciting array. ‘Two Bad Pilgrims’ is available, that just came out. And of course, at the beginning, we were talking about ‘Daughters of the Sea: Hannah,’ and that’s just the first of how many? Three?
Kathryn Lasky: There will be four in all.
Dr. Kent: Four of them, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful book, just to pick it up. Do give it to your kids. Looks like a gorgeous book, and it reads the same way. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you.
Kathryn Lasky: OK! Good talking to you too, thanks so much.
Dr. Kent: And I’ll look forward to the next time.
Kathryn Lasky: OK! Bye bye.