Tuesday, July 27, 2010

An Interview with Candace Ryan, Author of Animal House

I met Candace Ryan a few years ago at an SCBWI conference. She's an incredibly supportive and active member of the children's book community in Southern California. It's a pleasure for me to post this interview with Candace, in celebration of Animal House, her debut picture book that arrived this month.

How does Animal House reflect Candace Ryan? Why were YOU the person to write this book?

This is a really good question. I’ve always loved wordplay, humor, and animals. In the most basic sense, ANIMAL HOUSE is about the joining of these elements.

But the real reason that I, Candace Ryan, had to write this book is because the uncultivated mathematician/scientist in me is obsessed with discovering patterns. Of course, most of these patterns are meaningless in terms of having practical, real-life applications. Fortunately, children’s literature isn’t overly concerned with the "practical."

For this reason, I couldn’t just combine animals with furniture in a willy-nilly fashion. Anyone can do that. But by using the pun as my accomplice, I created a system of logic in a nonsensical world. As a result, creatures like a "refrigergator" seem improbable and inevitable at the same time. When nothing much makes sense in the real world, it can be strangely satisfying to discover the sense in an unreal one.

This book obviously has a sense of humor. Are you an inveterate punster? What about the rest of your family? Are you guys silly?

Punning has become a very important means of expression for me. I didn’t grow up in a punning household, although my father had a great sense of humor and was a talented writer.

It wasn’t until I was a ninth grader, studying Shakespeare, that I realized punning could be an art form. Later, when I discovered James Joyce, the fabric of space-time tore. I realized there was no limit to what the pun could do.

In recent years, after claiming my writer identity, I’ve indulged almost compulsively in the act of punning. But I’m not really much of a spontaneous punster. Most of my punning occurs when I’m thinking, daydreaming, or actively writing.

And my family? My husband, son, and I are just three silly kids looking for the next fun fix. There can never be enough laughter and hijinks in our house.

Did this book go through a metamorphosis, from the original concept? If there were any challenges, what were they?

ANIMAL HOUSE started as a list of animal/furniture objects in conjunction with a punny title. I knew early on that a story structure based on touring the house would make for the most natural and logical fit.

Whereas other authors might have made an outline to get a story flowing, I was busy drawing a floor plan. I wrote the names of the creatures inside the rooms where they would most likely be found. I figured that creating more rooms inside the gorvilla would translate to creating more action in the story.

I actually wrote the first draft in verse, but I knew I didn’t want it to stay that way. I had been hearing a lot of sing-songy verse read aloud that week in a writing course I was taking, and the rhythms were stuck in my head.

Writing in verse was the only way I could get it to come out. Once I had a first draft, I transcribed it into prose. Then, my agent helped me set riskier stakes for the main character, and my editor helped me raise them.

The biggest challenge ANIMAL HOUSE presented involved the issue of verisimilitude. I had written a story in which all the internal mechanics of how animal/furniture creatures moved and how they fit inside the gorvilla made sense to me.

The problem was (and oftentimes is), I had to realize that no one else lives inside my head. The book had to explain, either with words or images, how exactly a kangaroom bounces out of a gorvilla. Working with the great team at Walker, we figured it out.

Which children book authors are your influences or inspirations? Who are your current faves?

The children’s book authors that had the biggest impact on me when I was a kid were Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. My early exposure to books was somewhat limited, so I feel very fortunate to have read these two heavyweights during my formative years. My imagination found ample playroom in their books.

My current favorites are (in alphabetical order): Mac Barnett, Douglas Florian, Emily Gravett, Adam Rex, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Jon Scieszka, Laura Vaccaro Seeger, Shaun Tan, Jan Thomas, David Wiesner, and Mo Willems.

Which of the animal houses would you like to live in, and why?

The gorvilla is definitely my favorite. What better place to monkey around?

Animal House was illustrated by Nathan Hale. Publication festivities are ongoing at his blog. To be eligible for a free autographed copy of the book, go to Goodreads.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Picture Books For Hard Times: The Wrap Up

Finally, Spuds, by Karen Hesse.

The set-up: A mother and her three children (Maybelle, Jack and Eddie- in that birth order) live a hard-scrabble life in a rural area.

From the title to the last word, this book rings with authenticity. Hesse nails all the details- the speech, the setting, the emotions - beginning with sibling relations, and desire. One night when Ma is working Maybelle persuades her gullible younger brothers to do their own "tater harvest" on a neighbor's farm. As they pick the potatoes in the darkness, she "gooses" the boys on with mouthwatering descriptions: "Ma's gonna boil 'em and bake 'em. She's gonna slice 'em thin as fingernails and fry 'em up crusty brown with lots of salt sparklin'."

The key scenes are emotionally powerful. After the stealthy tater snatching, the children come home and spill their bags on the kitchen floor. "Them hard spuds rolled out, fillin' the room with the smell of dirt. I bent down to sort the muddy clumps. Then I knelt. Then I sat down in the middle of the cracked linoleum. And that's when I felt a hole open up inside my heart." The children have harvested mostly stones.

Spuds is about honesty, and forgiveness- even in the hardest times. Ma makes the kids return their catch, but she forgives them. (After all, Maybelle says she was only trying help her put food on the table.) The farmer tactfully thanks the children for clearing his field. With the potatoes he lets them keep, Ma makes a fry up that tastes like "all kinds of goodness." That goodness is sustenance, mother love, and compassion.


In the picture books discussed this week, the authors selectively use details to convey financial hardship. The characters need a way out, an escape or a different focus. Beauty, imagination, and self-expression offer release. Working towards a goal, being generous towards the even less fortunate- or experiencing someone else's generosity- also helps them transcend their condition. The characters may not solely solve their own problems (at least one loving adult is involved), but they're active and dynamic.

Fly Away Home and Tar Beach are two other moving, inspirational books about characters in hard times. If you discover others, please let me know, and if you're writing such a story...bravo!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Picture Books For Hard Times: Day 4

Today, a look at Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts, a hard times picture book with a spot-on child voice.

The set-up: Jeremy, who lives with his grandma on a limited income, dreams of getting a new pair of high top tennis shoes like all the boys are wearing.

On all fronts, Boelts has written a convincing socially realistic story. The dialogue is authentic ("There’s no room for ‘want’ around here- just ‘need’," says Grandma) and the details well-chosen (Jeremy is given outdated shoes from the guidance counselor that "have an animal on them from a cartoon I don't think any kid ever watched.") The boy's thoughts ring so true: "I'm not going to cry about any dumb shoes. But when I'm writing my spelling words later, every word looks like the word shoes and my grip is so tight on my pencil I think it might bust."

The character's behavior is plausible too- his envy, his guilt, his indecision and his final "sacrifice." Jeremy wants those shoes so bad he buys a pair that are too tight from a thrift shop. Then he notices a classmate with a taped up shoe, and feet smaller than his. At the park after school, he can help but notice that loose piece of tape smacking the concrete every time he jumps.

Jeremy solves his problem by solving someone else's. Unlike Lydia in The Gardener, he undergoes a crisis of conscience. Jeremy's generosity comes gradually, honestly, with difficulty...we experience his inner turmoil. I'm not going to do it, he thinks, over and over. The reader must infer what thought he's banishing from his mind. When Antonio comes for dinner, Jeremy can feel him "wishing those shoes were his." At night, he lies awake thinking about the boy, and tries the high tops on one last time. The next morning he races over to Antonio's doorstep to give him the shoes, before he can change his mind. It's so human, so childlike.

Those Shoes is realistic, but hopeful. All of Jeremy's classmates (except for Antonio) make fun of his unfashionable shoes. More important than this is the love from Grandma (who schleps him to the thrift shops and buys him the winter boots he needs), support from the guidance counselor, and friendship from Antonio. At the end of the book the two boys race off together in the newly fallen snow.

Tomorrow: one more book, and a wrap up.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Picture Books for Hard Times: Day 3

In which we continue our discussion of picture books about characters with financial difficulties. How do the characters transcend their circumstances? Let's look at How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz.

The set-up: a boy and his family flee their war-torn country and move, penniless, to a far off land.

With a few choice details, Shulevitz paints a bleak picture of the family's impoverished existence. The sun-baked houses are made of clay, straw and camel dung. The family shares a room with another couple. The boy has no toys, books, and little to eat.

A couple of telling scenes evoke the wretchedness:

One day his father goes out to buy bread, but instead returns with a map. He could only have afforded a tiny bit of bread, so they would have been hungry anyway. Mother is incredulous.

“No supper tonight,” Mother said bitterly. “We’ll have the map instead.”

The furious son goes to bed hungry and doesn’t think he’ll ever forgive his father. To make matters worse, his roommate is noisily eating:

“oh! how loudly he chewed. He chewed a small crust of bread with such enthusiasm, as if it were the most the most delicious morsel in the world.” The boy covers his head with his blanket so he won’t hear.

Can you feel the pain?

It's important that you do, because of what follows. The next day, Father hangs up a huge map, which floods the cheerless room with color. The boy is fascinated with it. He makes rhymes out of the strange sounding locations, and repeats them like a magic incantation. This carries him far away:

“I climbed snowy mountains where icy winds licked my face.” He goes on to wondrous temples, shady fruit groves, and cities of tall buildings (all lovingly illustrated by the author).

The book ends with: “And so I spent enchanted hours far, far from our hunger and misery. I forgave my father. He was right, after all.”

Even more poignant, the book is based on Shulevitz’ childhood. His family fled Warsaw after the 1939 blitz, and lived as refugees in the Soviet Union, Paris, and Israel. The Author's Note includes a photograph of the artist/author taken in Turkestan, a map he drew on an envelope, and a scene of the marketplace he later drew from memory.

Shulevitz’s writing in How I Learned Geography is spare, honest, and selectively descriptive. The utter dreariness of his life at the beginning of the story sharply contrasts with the sensory richness of the map passages later.

In this hard times book, a loving parent initiates the “solution." It’s the boy’s vivid imagination, however, that transforms the map into something magical. The map offers colorful destinations for his mental journeys, an escape from his deprivation. Like the books discussed in my previous posts this week, “beauty”- whether real or imagined- relieves the child of the sadness of his condition.

Tomorrow: another character, and very different circumstances.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Picture Books for Hard Times: Day 2

Today, a look at The Gardener by Sarah Stewart (illustrated by her husband, David Small.)

Like all the hard time books I’ve chosen for this week, The Gardener is told in the first person/lyrical voice, though it’s in the form of letters. The narrator writes in the present tense about past events, giving us immediate access to her feelings.

The set-up: While her father looks for work in a rural area, Lydia is sent to live with her undemonstrative baker/uncle in the city.

Lydia devises a secret plan to win over her uncle (the outward goal is to make him smile). Suspense builds til the end, when we learn that she has covertly grown scores of flowers to transform the bakery's dirty unkempt roof into a lovely oasis.

We feel Lydia's excitement as she hatches and executes her secret plan. Her letters home bubble with enthusiasm: “My heart is pounding so hard I’m sure the customers can hear it downstairs!”

At the end of the book, the shop is closed so Lydia, her uncle and the bakery workers can have a party in the rooftop garden. The uncle brings out a cake covered in flowers, a cake that “equals one thousand smiles.” It turns out there’s more to celebrate, for Papa has found a job and Lydia will be going home.

Stewart uses just a few telling details to show Lydia’s circumstances at the beginning of the story. In her letter to her uncle she writes, “Did I tell you that Papa has been out of work for a long time, and no one asks Mama to make dresses anymore? We all cried, even Papa.” She wears one of her mother’s dresses, made over for her, on the train.

David Small's exquisite illustrations pack emotional wallop in the scenes, while dramatically evoking the Depression era setting.

The Gardener has much in common with A Chair For My Mother (see yesterday's post). In both books, the main characters have supportive environments (in the former, friends and neighbors bring Lydia plants and containers). Both girls are positive and singlemindedly focused on their goal- they're both working towards something concrete, and beautiful. But Lydia- a rural girl who knows all about growing things- takes pleasure in using her talent to benefit someone else. The goal involves expressing her own identity (her parents have taught her about beauty. Neighbors call her “the gardener.”)

Tomorrow- another predicament, another solution.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Picture Books For Hard Times

Happy Birthday, America, and may the next year be a healthy and prosperous one.

Especially for the less fortunate among us. With those people in mind, the TC&TF devotes this week to picture books about characters with economic hardships.

Each day we’ll look at a hopeful yet authentic story. The subject matter presents many challenges: Which details can be used to evoke the setting? How can the characters transcend their circumstances? Is it possible for the characters to solve their own problems? How will emotion be conveyed?

One of my all-time favorite realistic picture books is Vera Williams’ A Chair For My Mother.

The set-up: a child, her mother and grandmother are saving spare change to buy a chair, because their possessions have been destroyed in a house fire:

“When we can’t get a single other coin into the jar, we are going to take out all the money and go buy a chair Yes, a chair. A wonderful, beautiful, fat soft arm chair. We will get one covered in velvet with roses all over it. We will get the best chair in the whole world.”

Ah, feel the desire in those few sentences. The repetition and lush description that creates emphasis. And note the choice of the first person/lyrical voice- for a story about healing, after a traumatic event.

An upbeat attitude prevails throughout the book. The chair becomes a symbol of hope, renewal and comfort. It provides the family with an achievable, concrete goal. The community is supportive- the boss at the diner where mother works gives the child coins for helping out. After the fire, friends and relatives donate food, furniture and other necessities.

The story is optimistic, while also vividly real. The author uses a few well chosen details to describe the aftermath of the fire, and scenes of everyday life. When mama comes home her feet hurt, and sometimes she’s so tired she falls asleep while the child counts the money into piles. Some days mama has only a little money and she looks worried. When grandma wants to sit back and hum and cut up potatoes, she has to get as comfortable as she can on a hard kitchen chair.

One of the more interesting things in ACFMM is the use of flashback, uncommon in picture books. It starts in the present tense as the family saves money for the chair, goes into the past for back story about the fire, returns to the present …when mom and child are still saving up coins. Why? Because this re-creates the feeling of desire in the main character. We can feel her wanting that chair, feeling the pain of the past, anticipating it more as the jar fills up and then….

the story moves forward in time. The family goes furniture shopping and finally find the chair “they were dreaming of.”

The story ends in the never-ending present, leaving the reader with a cozy, reassuring scene. “Now” grandma sits in the chair during the day, mama rests in it at night, and after supper the child joins her, sometimes falling asleep.

The watercolors are lovely. The plump cozy chair is covered with roses. No wonder this book is still in print!