Children's Writer of the Week: Kyo Maclear

The author of not one but two of my favourite picture books is Kyo Maclear. Spork (KidsCan 2010) is a wonderful story about identity told through a character who is neither a fork like his father  or a spoon like his mother and has to find his own place and use in the world. Sounds like it could be didactic and heavy-handed and the great joy is that it is anything but.  

Kyo eating chocolate
Virginia Wolf (KidsCan 2012) is that elusive and necessary beast - a children's book about depression (think Shaun Tan's The Red Tree). It is of course reductive to describe the book that way because it is also about joy and friendship and sisterhood and colour and creativity. It would also be a terrible shame to think of it as a book just for children.

Here's what the New York Times had to say:
Operating on a much deeper and darker level, “Virginia Wolf,” an ambitious story about girlish blues, sisterly differences and the healing power of art, will do wonders for Woolf-besotted former English majors. But the story, about Virginia and her sister, Vanessa, who paints a fantastical world called Bloomsberry, will work equally well for children who hardly know the difference between the United States and the United Kingdom.
Both books were illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault and with Virginia Wolf in particular the collaboration moves the work into a rare category where the synthesis of talents creates something so much larger than its parts.

Also published this year was Kyo Maclear's second novel for adults, Stray Love. You can read more about her and her work at her fiction website or her children's fiction website.  
Kyo at home

And be sure to check out her wonderful book trailers for Spork and Virginia Wolf.

What surprised you most about your most recently published book?
I am surprised and happy that it appeals to my seven-year-old son’s friends. I am also happy that adults are unabashedly buying it for themselves. (I am looking forward to the day that publishers and readers catch on and picture books are embraced and marketed as  a cultural form for people of all ages.

What was the hardest thing about writing it?
First hard thing: writing in the formidable shadow of the real Virginia Woolf—whose literary legacy both inspires and intimidates me. Second hard thing: balancing up and down, glad and gloom, trying to find a comfortable way of dealing with a potentially uncomfortable subject.

What are you working on now?
I’ve recently finished a new picture book, currently being illustrated by Matte Stephens, to be published in Spring 2013. It’s about a boy named Martin who is EXTREMELY wary of change. He meets a man named Mr. Flux who turns his staid, predictable world upside down. Matte is an amazing artist with a wonderfully witty touch and an unerring sense of modernist design. He’s a perfect match for this retro arty tale.

How do you feel about being called a children’s writer?
Proud. I love what I do. I love working with a form that seems so modest and miniature but that allows for so much expression.

Is there a book—or books—you most wish you'd written yourself?
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. (It’s a little angsty, a little lofty, and a lot of fun. I still relate to Milo’s problems and the language nerd in me loves the fact that this book swarms with wordplay and puns.)
The Lover by Marguerite Duras. (As you know, when you write picture books you learn to take Strunk and White’s style rule “Omit needless words” to heart. I like the way Marguerite Duras applies this rule to adult fiction, creating great atmosphere and lingering effects with comparatively few words.)
Sculpting in Time: Tarkovsky The Great Russian Filmmaker Discusses His Art. (I’m envious and in awe of artists who can talk cogently and usefully about what they do. This book is a totally original artistic testament written by a very conscious and alive human being. I would like to write such a book and be such a person.)

When (or where) do you write?
I try to write a bit every day. It always feels to me that being a writer is less existentially sturdy than other professions (for example being a dentist or an architect.) It’s just wonkier. You never know if you're a writer unless you’re actually doing it. When you stop, it vanishes. (Where: I write in my first floor study with my cat/muse Mimi for company. She literally nudges me down the stairs and into my chair.)

Who do you write for?
For my two sons and all their friends. For booky children and adults. For anyone who has ever felt a bit small in the world. For my own enjoyment.

Did you want to be a writer when you were a child?
No. I wanted to be a “drawer.” A person who engages in drawing. Not the box-shaped container that fits into a piece of furniture.

If you could live in a book, which book would it be?
Probably a Richard Scarry book. I know it’s anthropomorphism but I love how his towns teem with interspecies life (anteaters that paint, foxes that farm.) There is no narrative coherence just a bunch of busy creatures somehow, happily, getting along.

What is the question you would most like to be asked?
How about: Do you have any hidden talents?
And my answer: I can stand on my head. I can also eat a large Cadbury Fruit and Nut chocolate bar in under a minute. I’ve never tried but I’m pretty sure I could probably do both at the same time.

Great news!  KidsCan Press is going to give away one copy of Virginia Wolf to a lucky reader.  Leave a comment below telling why you love Virginia Woolf, or Virginia Wolf or just wolves.


The Little Prince

Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children to have to provide explanations over and over again.   

Saw these lovely dishes in a shop window while we were visiting Quebec City.  

More than a little sorry not to be in Montreal this month in order to see the Grandes Ballets premiere of The Little Prince.


The Living Centre of the Universe

I am well aware not only of the importance of children -- whom we naturally cherish and who we also embody our hopes for the future -- but also of the importance of what we provide for them in the way of art; and I realize that we are competing with a lot of other cultural influences, some of which beguile them in false directions. 
Art, including juvenile literature, has the power to make any spot on earth the living center of the universe, and unlike science, which often gives us the illusion of understanding things we really do not understand, it helps us to know life in a way that still keeps before us the mystery of things. It enhances the sense of wonder. And wonder is respect for life. Art also stimulates the adventurousness and the playfulness that keep us moving in a lively way and that lead us to useful discovery.

From William Steig's Caldecott Award Acceptance Speech, 1970 re-printed on Letters of Note and found via the wonderful Kyo Maclear.  Watch this space for a Q & A with Kyo.


Children's Writer of the Week: Caroline Adderson

Caroline Adderson was well established as a fiction writer before she turned her hand to children's books, but her wry humour and unique sensibility have served her well in writing for young readers.  You can learn more about her children's books at her website, but I will mention her two most recent publications: a wonderful young adult novel, Middle of Nowhere (Groundwood) and primary novel, Jasper John Dooley: Star of the Week (KidsCan Press) which is to be the first in a new series.  

* Caroline's publisher has generously donated a copy of Middle of Nowhere for one lucky winner (sorry, Canadian mailing addresses only).  Just leave a comment below and I will draw a name next week.  You can read an excellent review of the book by Sarah Ellis for Quill & Quire here.

My absolute favourite of all Caroline's books is Very Serious Children (Scholastic) which has the most ludicrously wonderful of premises - two little boys run away from the circus to join the real world.  I was also fortunate to get a sneak peek of Caroline's latest effort, a picture book, and can promise that it is going to be wonderful.  

Much as I admire Caroline's writing for adults (check out her latest novel The Sky is Falling), I am grateful that she is writing for children as well.  Hers is just the kind of moral intelligence and wit that young readers are lucky to find.
Caroline kindly submitted to my latest blog feature, an email question and answer session.  Suggestions for other victims kindly welcomed.

What surprised you most about your most recently published book?

Once upon upon a time (almost 25 years ago!), I worked for a year on a novel I wasn’t skilled enough to finish.  It was partially set in a logging town in the 1930s and required hours of research.  All those notes about how logging was done before clear cutting got packed into a box.  I forgot all about it until Mrs. Burt started telling her story to Curtis and Artie.  A bindle stiff, a mulligan mixer, a barber’s chair?  The old logging jargon just popped out of her mouth.  I couldn’t believe it.  So you see?  Nothing’s ever wasted. 

the author (aged six)
What was the hardest thing about writing it? 

Getting the voice of a twelve year-old boy right, even though I live with one.

How do you feel about being called a children’s writer?

Wonderful!  The other half of me writes for adults and has done so for much longer.  I first started publishing in my mid-20s.  Back then, when I told people I wrote fiction, they would automatically say, “Children’s books?”  This was because I looked like a child so couldn’t possibly have written anything as difficult as a book for grown ups.  Now that I actually do write children’s books I know the truth: they’re harder.

When (or where) do you write?

Morning is my best time.  I write after I get my son off to school and the dog walked.  My office is upstairs.  It has fir floors, a skylight and the built-in bookcases I’ve wanted all my life.  It is also the only room in the house in which the mess is my fault.

Who do you write for?

My characters.  I feel it’s my responsibility to reveal the truth of their lives to the best of my ability.

Did you want to be a writer when you were a child?

It never occurred to me.  I didn’t seem to be a real job.  I wanted to be an archeologist.

If you could live in a book, which book would it be?
This is such a wonderful question, one I could answer in so many different ways.  For example, if by “live in” you mean “share the adventure of” From the Mixed of Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler comes to mind because hiding in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, bathing in its fountain, and sleeping in its displays at night is right up my alley.  If you are talking about the specific world of the book, I immediately think “small” (rather than, say, “dangerous” or “run by wizards”).  The small world you and Julie Morstad created in your three Henry books (When You Were Small, Where You Came From, When I Was Small) makes me shiver with delight – sleeping in a slipper!  Ditto The Borrowers and The Indian in the Cupboard.  And then there are all those books in which we can be animals (Frog and Toad, The Wind in the Willows) and books we would live in because we want to be friends with the characters (all the Beverly Cleary books, Harriet the Spy)… Sorry, it’s impossible to answer this one.

What is the question you would most like to be asked?

What’s it like to travel the world intrepidly, speak eight languages fluently, and sing like an angel? 

I wonder why no one asks.

FULL DISCLOSURE:  I know Caroline.  I met her in Vancouver where I also met any number of other wonderful people, many of them writers and many of those writers very good writers indeed.  Caroline is one of these.  I reserve the right to use this blog to talk about people whose work I admire whether these people are strangers or dear to me.


Keep Our Secrets

Okay, how cool is this?  Seriously.

New from McMullen's (the new children's imprint of McSweeney's) and highly covetable!  Article here about editor Brian McMullen.


Donald in a Box

Oh dearie me, look at how lovely this is.  Spotted via the highly addictive Brain Pickings.

The Donald Boxed Set by Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer is published by Pomegranate Press and looks to be a thing of rare beauty. It's on my wish list.

You can read more about the Donald stories and their origin at Goreyana.   


Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900–1931)

 A very good Flavourwire piece on ten classic fairy tale illustrators has introduced me to a new favourite: Virginia Frances Sterrett
Here's a bit from her obituary:
Her achievement was beauty, a delicate, fantastic beauty, created with brush and pencil. Almost unschooled in art, her life spent in prosaic places of the West and Middle West, she made pictures of haunting loveliness, suggesting Oriental lands she never saw and magical realms no one ever knew except in the dreams of childhood ...Perhaps it was the hardships of her own life that gave the young artist's work its fanciful quality. In the imaginative scenes she set down on paper she must have escaped from the harsh actualities of existence.

You can read more about her short life at Vintage Book Illustrations but for now just bathe in all this beauty and colour.