From the category archives:

author interview

Aaron Becker

By Carter. JOURNEY. Copyright © 2013 by Aaron Becker. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

When I returned to the library this year, I did so in October – easily seven weeks into the school year. I had new-kid jitters, and felt the weight of welcoming students back to a library that had been dark for a bit. Of course, those kids changed all of that the second I met them, and we are in the process of building a vibrant community together. That notion that the space is ours, not just mine sent me searching for a keystone story for our new foundation. Aaron Becker’s Journey became that keystone, and I hope this glimpse into Journey and its brilliant creator is as thrilling for you as it has been for me and all of my new reader-friends.

1. What books grabbed you as a kid and never let you go?

All of Ed Emberley’s drawing books. They taught me that I could create the realms within my imagination with nothing but humble lines, squiggles, and circles.

2. Is there something about childhood that you try to capture in your work?

It may be a case of arrested development, but for me, it’s not a motivation to discover anything I might have once felt, but instead to express who I am now. The feelings of being a child are still very much alive and thriving inside me.

Just this morning, while playing Peter Pan to my daughter on our way to school, I heard the narrator say this: “It was then that Hook bit him. Not the pain of this but its unfairness was what dazed Peter. It made him quite helpless. He could only stare, horrified. Every child is affected thus the first time he is treated unfairly. All he thinks he has a right to when he comes to you to be yours is fairness. After you have been unfair to him he will love you again, but he will never afterwards be quite the same boy. No one ever gets over the first unfairness; no one except Peter.” As it is for Peter, this idea of always being surprised by unfairness is very much true for me. It’s what makes me an optimist and forever confused around jaded, cynical adults.

More Q&A, plus gorgeous glimpses of JOURNEY straight ahead!

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Interview: Françoise Mouly

November 13, 2013

Françoise Mouly

By Carter. Image by Sarah Shatz.

[ Note from Design Mom: Friends, you may have noticed that I paused our series of Author Interviews for awhile. But our resident children's book expert, Carter Higgins, is bringing the series back today in a major way! And with a bit of twist, too — today, you get to meet a publisher/art director, and one of my personal design idols. You'll love this interview. ]

I am so excited to introduce you to Françoise Mouly today! You might know her work as the art director of The New Yorker, but she’s also the founder and publisher of TOON Books, a collection of comics and graphic novels for early readers. Her vision for kids having access to well-designed comics is innovative and inspiring. It’s magical! And radical! On top of that, she’s a mom doing a fantastic job of infusing her career with the needs of her kids. What an honor to bring her words to you today. Enjoy!

1. You’ve said, “comics are a gateway into literature.” I love this! What can comics do for kids that other books can’t? And could you speak to the complex relationship between pictures and words within those pages?

In many ways, I’m working off of what I saw when our two kids learned to read. They’re both bright kids who were surrounded by books, with the same parents who love to read, but each child went about it in his or her own way, within his or her own timeline. They both loved comics, but it was clear to me that comics were what got our son hooked on reading — that’s when the lightbulb went on. I realized you can’t force someone to enter into the world of literacy. It’s far too complex a set of skills — the child has to want to make the story happen in his or her head. With comics, you provide a clear path to get through that thicket. Comics have a unique ability to draw young readers in through their visual narrative flow. In comics, pictures are acting as words, and those ‘words’ are instantly understandable to kids. They’ll follow the flow of the images, wanting to know why this character is angry, and why this one is crying. They move on the page from left to right, from top to bottom. They effortlessly read many elements of comics storytelling: the size and shape of the panels shows what’s important, the sound effects provide a parallel track; with the speech balloons, they see written dialogue as a transcription of spoken language. Most of the issues that emerging readers struggle with are instantly clarified by comics’ simple and inviting format. You’ll forgive me if I get excited, but for beginning readers, comics are pretty close to a magic bullet!

Silly Lilly

2. Can you tell us a little bit about your mission and hopes for TOON Books?

We want to share our love of books with new generations as they come of age in an increasingly visual culture. The more there are digital assaults on our kids’ attention, the more they need books, good books. With comics, kids can take charge, can be at the wheel. Watching kids devour our TOON books should convince any skeptics left in the house of how entertaining reading can be. The TOON’s open a child’s eyes up not just to comics, but to any book’s pleasures, so it’s very important to publish books that will withstand repeated readings, books that are beautifully produced, and put them in young children’s hands. Years ago, I was passionately arguing that “COMICS — They’re not just for kids anymore!” But now that comics, in the guise of “Graphic Novels”, have acquired legitimacy — now that they are in libraries, museums, and bookstores — I’m just as passionately arguing that comics must not, in their bid for respectability, leave children behind. “COMICS — They’re not just for grown-ups anymore!” That’s my new slogan!

VIV.g.hires.spreads.cover_Page_02

3. Is there a cover of The New Yorker or a particular illustration that you would consider your favorite piece?

I take pride in the fact that the covers have not gotten predictable, that in the 20 years I have been in charge, it hasn’t settled into a “New Yorker” cover style. I’m proud of so many great covers, and of the range of artists we publish: David Hockney, Robert Crumb, Barry Blitt, Maira Kalman, Bruce McCall, so many geniuses. I get to work with the best artists of my time; it’s a real privilege. But still there’s one cover that’s more meaningful to me personally than most, and it’s the one I did right after September 11 with my husband, Art Spiegelman, the black on black silhouettes of the towers on a black field, a cover both simple and complex. It was a turning point for me because the stakes were so high. I felt I couldn’t possibly succeed, that no drawing could possibly capture what we were going through at the time. The image was born out of that negation. I accepted what I felt, my feeling of utter powerlessness and that’s what I sketched. The fact that my inability to come up with an image was the path to just the right image was a great lesson.

The New Yorker

Cover by Françoise Mouly & Art Spiegelman
First published in The New Yorker, September 24, 2001
© 2001 Françoise Mouly & Art Spiegelman, The New Yorker

4. What physical objects, places, or people inspire you to create art?

I treasure new ways to look at something I thought I knew. I love going to museums with Art, my husband; he’s such a good observer and explainer of what he sees. Looking at art makes me want to rush home to try something, anything with paints. Also sitting in nature, looking at trees, or at a brook. Anything can be a trigger, because when you do something you put all of yourself into it. You don’t partition and think: “This came from art school, this from this morning’s subway ride, and this from what my kid just did.” You simultaneously process everything you go through, so contemplative moments are good triggers. When I take in something in fully, I get so excited it makes me want to create something new. 

More questions ahead! And some especially inspiring words about parenting.

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By Gabrielle.

I’m going to tell you the truth. When Oliver Jeffers sent me his answers to my interview questions, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. I wished I had asked ten or even 20 more questions, because I wanted more of his words! There just weren’t enough! And then I recognized that I was feeling the same way I always feel when I finish one of Oliver’s books. Petulant, almost, like a child who wants just one more page, please! But isn’t it lovely when an author brings back the kid in you? I agree. Friends, I am pleased to share Oliver Jeffers with you today. Enjoy him!

Q: What’s your favorite memory from childhood? Are there any lessons your parents taught you that still stick in your head?

A: There are many memories, from staying out too late playing football on the street to day trips to the beach with my mum, dad and brothers. There are many lessons too, from ‘never sit with your back to the door’ to ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story.’

Q: Describe the moment you realized you were an artist. How much later was it when the rest of the world realized it, too?

A: I think I’ve always known, and deep down held a strong dislike for other types of work. The world recognized it when I sold my first painting when I was 18.

Q: What’s your view while you work?

A: I have a nice studio, lots of furniture I found on the street including drawers and cabinets where I label everything. I have three windows all overlooking a street in Brooklyn.

Meet the sweet characters in Oliver’s latest book!

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By Gabrielle.

Are the young readers in your house always looking for a new series to sink their teeth into? There was such angst in ours when Harry Potter ended, and then again with the Twilight series, and then once again with The Hunger Games. Next up? Ally Condie’s trilogy: Matched, Crossed, and the forthcoming Reached. They’re addictive. Friends, I’d love for you to meet Ally. If you haven’t already, you’re going to be hearing her name a lot!

Q: We always imagine a creative person’s childhood was surely magical, ridiculously happy, or tragically lonely! Please describe yours.

A: One of my favorite quotes is the first line of Agatha Christie’s autobiography: “One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life, is, I think, to have a happy childhood.” The dream of my life is to help my kids have a happy childhood. I certainly did. I had wonderful parents, a beautiful place to grow up (the small town of Cedar City, Utah), and lots of books to read.

However, I think most creative people have a place for loneliness inside, even with a happy upbringing. I have always felt that — and I think part of being creative is acknowledging and exploring that loneliness, letting it be a part of you, and accepting it as much as we accept happiness and magic.

Click here to learn more about Ally!

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By Gabrielle.

He is not that Barney, as Mr. Saltzberg’s home page quickly informs us. Instead, this Barney is a children’s book author, illustrator, singer, songwriter, and all-around outstanding person spending his life encouraging others to find their own stories and songs. Read any one of his books (there are over 30 from which to choose!), and you’ll leave it feeling a little more confident about life and the circumstances it often throws at us. Like all of a sudden needing eyeglasses. Or making mistakes. Or mixing up School Picture Day with Crazy Hair Day! Valuable lessons, all, and in such enjoyable, happy-making packaging. You’re going to love Barney Saltzberg. I promise.

Q: What is the one childhood memory that still seems as clear as the day it happened? Were you creative even then?

A: Ask my wife or my children. I remember most of my childhood rather vividly. I’m always telling them stories.

My mother liked to paint and sculpt. She didn’t believe in coloring books. She wanted me to ‘make up’ my own drawings to color. She bought me lots of sketch books which I filled up from as far back as I can remember. One memory that seems to be refreshed on a regular basis, is standing on a step stool in kindergarten, wearing one of my father’s old dress shirts as a smock. I loved to clean my paint brushes in the sink and watch the colors swirl as they circled the drain. Now, when I am painting a book, I clean a lot of paint brushes so that memory stays fresh.

The rest of Barney’s words and a peak at his studio!

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Peter Brown would make the best dinner party guest. He’s witty with even a minimum of words, has charming stories from his childhood (The first line of his entertaining bio reads: “I was born and raised in Hopewell, New Jersey, which is a great place to live especially if you like mosquitoes and poison ivy.” Ha!), and would be the absolute best teammate for a post-dinner game of Pictionary. These same qualities make him a pretty wonderful children’s book author and illustrator, too. When he describes his process — “I say as much as possible with my paintings, and whatever I can’t say with the art I say with words. My stories don’t have many words, but it takes me a long time to think up the words that I use.” – it makes me want to choose my words more thoughtfully. I’ll start with Peter Brown’s ever so thoughtful ones! Please enjoy them.

Q: What’s the one childhood memory that still seems as clear as the day it happened?

A: I’ll be honest. I don’t have a good memory. But my childhood memory that stands out most has to be during one of my family’s summer trips to a little island off the coast of Maine. I was returning to the house from a morning spent picking wild blueberries. I used my shirt as a basket to carry the berries when a deer walked out of the woods (the deep, dark, scary woods) and right up to me. The deer just stood there looking at me, a few feet away, so I grabbed a handful of berries and reached out. The deer licked the berries right out of my hand, and then walked back into the woods. I was about five years old.

Q: What qualities do you think contribute the most to your success in children’s book publishing?

A: I think my ideas for stories are unusual enough to be interesting, but familiar enough to be relatable. I’ve had good luck creating characters that people seem to really enjoy. My pictures don’t make sense without my words. And my words are useless without my pictures. This makes for an engaging reading experience.

Click for more Peter Brown!

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Raise your hand if you’ve read every single Skippyjon Jones book aloud to a little one. Keep it up if you did so in a truly authentic cat-who-believes-he’s-a-Chihuahua voice! We can all thank Judy Schachner for these unforgettable moments and, with every new Skippyjon Jones book she releases, our well-honed and probably pretty hilarious Spanish accents! Friends, I loved getting to know Judy. Her understated response to my first question floored me, and I’ve since softened my tone when reading Junebug Jones’ words out loud. I hope you enjoy her, too.

Q: I always ask about childhoods. For some reason, we all imagine that a creative mind like yours was inherited! How would you describe your upbringing and early family life?

A: I grew up in an Irish Catholic working class family where money was as tight as our apartment was tiny. My brother Kevin, who was six years older than I, was the funny-bone of the brood. My brother Ted, who was eight years my senior, was always considered the family artist. My Dad, a man as decent and honest as they come, was a machinist, and my musically gifted Mother was a homemaker. She was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer when I was eight.

Anxiety was always the elephant in the room and my way of not getting trampled was to escape through my imagination. I sketched thousands of characters on long sheets of shelf paper taped to the wall of our one and only bathroom. But as I’ve come to realize, it was never really about the art; it was more about being able to morph into every creature that I put down on paper.

Many of my characters’ stories began in orphanages or convents. I loved drawing nuns in their habits…I loved rags to riches stories with incredibly happy endings…it’s what I wanted most for my own life. Other potent themes in my secret world of morphing centered around beautiful women of questionable virtue, with exotic accents, tragic lives, and fabulous wardrobes. On the other side of that bathroom door, little Judy was smoking her pencils and drinking water like it was champagne.

Q: We would love to hear about your studio and where you’re most creative; what’s your view while you work?

A: I have a brand new studio in my home which for me is a dream come true. It has great windows and plenty of storage. I have a large drafting table and several work tables that are usually covered in projects, reference materials, and art supplies. There is also a floor-to-ceiling bulletin board wall which doubles as a painting area for larger works.


I am surrounded by things that inspire me: toys, textiles, books, and taxidermy (somebody’s got to love those poor creatures). My studio is on the second floor, up in the trees, and it’s beautiful during a snowstorm. I listen to all kinds of music, including my daughter Sarah’s compositions, which she scores for film and television. I’m a huge fan of all things NPR, as well.

Don’t miss the rest of Judy’s interview! Just click to see it.

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When I send off the questions for my favorite authors to answer, I do so with my fingers crossed. Will he be as creative as I imagined? Will she be as whimsical as her words? Magical? Witty? One-of-a-kind wonderful? Oh, I have impossibly high hopes for all of them, and yet they somehow always turn out to be true! Children’s book authors are a very cool breed! So here is my latest revelation: Liz Garton Scanlon is just as open-hearted, just as joyous, and just as imaginative and charming as her books. More so. I know you’re going to enjoy her answers. Her response to where she’d choose to live for one year touched me so…and made me miss my sister even more. Please enjoy Liz!

Q: I always ask about childhoods. For some reason, we all half-believe that a creative mind like yours was inherited!

A: I grew up in Colorado with a lot of wild space and what we now call “unstructured time” at my disposal — both of which feed the creative imagination, I think. While neither of my parents are artists per se, my mother is a lover of the arts — she introduced us to music and dance and theater — and has a highly developed and enviable aesthetic. And, she could make anything — strawberry jam, candles, clothing, curtains. My dad is an adventurer, a risk-taker, a man of strong passions. I think some combination of those influences translated into art being a viable choice for me, which is a really lucky thing. I don’t know if they’ve been surprised by what I’ve chosen to do, but they’ve been immensely patient, supportive and proud.

As for my own kids…wow. Their creative chops far exceed my own. They’re both musicians (thanks to hard work and their dad’s genes), they both sew beautifully (and fearlessly), one knits, one is becoming a terrific photographer, they make these amazing stop-motion videos. And, I know I’m biased here, but they’re both becoming very fine writers. I’m totally inspired by my daughters.

Click to read the rest of this lovely interview.

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I’ve been a huge fan of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith for many years – I wrote about The Stinky Cheese Man back in 2007 – so I’m more than a little star-struck that their words are now gracing the virtual pages of my blog! Creative collaborations, when done right, are so perfectly intertwined that it’s difficult to identify when one artist ends and the other begins. That’s the way with Jon and Lane; to me, The Stinky Cheese Man, as well as their other collaborative projects, make sense only when you’re looking at Lane’s illustrations while you’re reading Jon’s words.

So naturally, I couldn’t interview them separately! Friends, I’d love for you to meet Jon and Lane. Enjoy!

Q: What’s your earliest memory of being creative? (And did you get into trouble for it?)

Lane Smith: My brother Shane and I were always making little books, building forts, making music. Unlike today’s kids we never called it Being Creative, we called it Goofing Off.

Jon Scieszka: That would have been the time I melted a vinyl record in the oven, bent it into a fluted bowl shape, then spray-painted it gold. And I did not get in trouble because I did it in Cub Scouts for Mother’s Day. And because it was so beautiful.

Click for more of Jon and Lane’s words. They’re so good! I promise.

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I don’t read Nikki McClure’s books. I absorb them. Her art is precise, thoughtful, and every other synonym for exquisite. I could probably effuse about her elegant mastery until next Thursday, but her sweet interview below says it all far better than I ever could. Friends, I’d like you to meet Nikki McClure, the author and illustrator of a few of my favorite books. Enjoy her words!

Q: Nikki, I’m fascinated by your art and utterly floored by its intricacy. How long is the process, from concept to finished papercut? And what’s your favorite part of the process?

A: Thank you, Gabrielle. The process takes as long as it needs to. But I also tend to wait until the last minute! So I usually give myself a week per image. Sometimes the papercuts take longer, but I don’t like having half-finished work around.

Click for more Nikki McClure goodness.

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Author Interview: Mem Fox

February 6, 2012

I love Mem Fox’s books. If you haven’t been lulled to sleep by Time for Bed or wishing for a moment or two of invisibility like Hush does in Possum Magic, you are definitely missing out! Her website is wonderfully full, too. And entertaining! I was so tickled to read Ms. Fox’s list of Loves and Loathings. Among her loves are green paper clips, world peace, and a clean kitchen sink. Among her loathings are cleaning up dog vomit, racial intolerance, brown clothes, and mobile phones in airport lounges. Agreed. Friends, I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did.


Q: If you close your eyes and think back on your earliest memory of your youth, what’s the one image that springs to mind?

A: Playing a game with stones, a game that included a chanting rhyme, with other little girls on the mission I grew up on in Africa. The others were all African. None of us noticed.

Click here to read the rest of the interview.

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I’ve long thought that Dallas Clayton is pretty awesome, but I was still completely floored when he answered my questions with the most staggeringly thoughtful answers and observations. Awesome doesn’t even begin to cover it. If you enjoy this interview half as much as I did, you’re in for a wonderful day! I promise.

Q: For some reason, we all think the most creative writers had either ridiculously happy or tragically lonely childhoods! How do you remember yours?

A: Having a child has made me realize how much of our youth we don’t remember at all. My son is eight years old, which is right around the age my real memories of my childhood start to kick in. This means I’m missing eight whole years of experiences that were probably super fun from my memory banks. If someone created a service to help explore those memories via Universal Studios’ virtual reality simulator, I’d certainly sign up for that! Maybe there would be some good creative-writer back stories locked away in those forgotten years. Otherwise, the rest of my youth was great. Lots of climbing things and throwing things at other things, and then in my teens lots of angry music about the government, and also spray painting.

Click here to read more of Dallas Clayton’s magical words…

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The best children’s books are the ones that parents love to read to their kids, don’t you think? No matter what time of day or how many chores seem to be in the way, there are a few books that beg you to take a break and put an instant smile on your face. Those are exactly the kind of books that Hervé Tullet makes. Just watch:

Q: How would you describe your childhood?

A: I grew up in Paris. My childhood was boring, and I was a bit afraid of the world around me. My parents were from Normandy, and they didn’t explore the city so much; we lived quite exclusively in our neighborhood just like they had in their small village in Normandy. So I started exploring on my own, step by step, the city of Paris.

Click here to read the full interview.

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Author Interview: Mo Willems

November 7, 2011

Your bookshelf no doubt contains at least one or two of Mo Willems‘ infectiously happy books, doesn’t it? Hopefully more! I love how every one of his stories has wonderful lessons to share in a simply enjoyable way, whether you’re stifling giggles while reading one of the Pigeon’s hilarious lines or just marveling at the heart-breaking, grown-up generosity of Trixie. Without exception, they’re all so much fun to read aloud, even though I personally find it difficult to compose myself when Edwina shows Reginald Von Hoobie-Doobie what kindness and friendship truly mean. Oh, that sweetheart dinosaur!

Mo was kind enough to answer a few questions in between his Happy Pig Day! tour and launching a new Pigeon app, and I’m so grateful to him. I love his answers, but I knew I would!

Q: Was your childhood as creative and full of funny moments as we imagine it?

A: While by no means tragic, my childhood was mostly lonely. I suppose that’s why I enjoy writing for kids; I want to show them that someone is on their side. I was lucky, however, in having spent much of my childhood reading comics and traveling, for which I am very grateful.

Click here for the full interview.

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