Interview with Cooperative Children Book’s Center

Q 1) In The Night Worker, the young protagonist, Alex, has an experience that can be interpreted literally or as a dream – did you envision one or the other as you wrote the book?

When I wrote The Night Worker I envisioned Alex’s visit to the construction site as a very real outing with his father. The dreaming comes later when Alex goes home and to sleep and relives his adventure. Nonetheless, I don’t think it matters whether Alex’s journey is literal or imaginative. What is important is Alex’s identification and elaboration of this experience. This can happen either through reality or through dreams.

Q 2) The Night Worker was published first in the United States, unlike many of your recent books. How did this come about?

I worked in publishing for several years in the 80’s as Frances Foster’s assistant at Alfred Knopf. It was there that I wrote my first book, Alphabet Soup, which was illustrated by Peter Sís. I did several more books with Frances before marrying and moving to Rome where I met Georg Hallensleben, a German artist. I loved his work and I asked him if he would be interested in collaborating on a picture book. Our first project was Baboon which we sold to the French publisher, Gallimard, for a number of reasons. Frances was contemplating a job change at the time so it didn’t seem the right moment to offer another book to Knopf. Meanwhile, Georg knew people at Gallimard who were enthusiatic about both his and my work. Lastly, we were both curious to see how publishing worked in Europe and eager to acquire a local readership for our books. The French happen to have one the largest readerships among European children and they produce a number of original and appealing books. I especially like their approach toward books for older children and I admire the numerous series which they’ve created and designed for that age group. Because of Gallimard’s support and promotion of our books, both Georg and I wanted to continue working with them as well as with Frances. So basically we’ve divided our projects between Frances’s new publishing house (Farrar) and Gallimard. Our Gallimard books come out more quickly because in Europe books are signed up and released within six months. In the states books are scheduled months, even years in advance.

Q 3) Do you write in French or English? And how do you feel the books change in translation? For example, in French The Night Worker becomes A Night at the Construction Site.

I write all my books in English which is my mother language. I don’t do my own translations, but because Georg and I both speak French and Italian we are shown those versions before they go into print. The publishers welcome and consider suggestions but neither Georg nor I have any final say in the text. According to our contract, foreign publishers are responsible for translation and, unless requested, there is no author approval. As you might imagine, some books are translated better than others. I was happy with the French translation of And If the Moon Could Talk and Baboon, but I thought The Night Worker could have been better. Often sacrifices are made for readership and cultural considerations. Titles can be particularly difficult to translate. The literal translation for The Night Worker would have sounded awkward in French. Therefore we opted for Une Nuit au Chantier which meansA Night at the Construction Site and works well in the French language.

Q 4) You’ve done several books with illustrator Georg Hallensleben. How did this come about and what is your working relationship like?

I met Georg through a mutual friend when I was living in Rome. Georg was living there too. When we collaborated on Baboon Gallimard gave us the freedom to prepare and design the book as we liked. Basically we worked side by side creating the entire book together from page size to layout. We have a lot of respect and appreciation for one another’s contributions and we’ve always felt free to assess each other’s work and make suggestions. I will often call Georg to discuss an idea that’s brewing in my head. And he will telephone me to go over the details of a painting. In Rome we lived a good distance from one another. So at a certain point Georg bought a van and built himself a portable studio inside. When we were working on a book, he would park under my house and spend hours refining his paintings, checking in with me at various points of the day. He’d come up for lunch and then go back to work. Other days I’d go over to his studio/apartment which was in an old mill facing a Roman aqueduct. Now that Georg is living in Paris and I’m hundreds of miles away in the south of France most of our work is done through computer and telephone. Still, we continue to make our books with the same love, care, and mutual respect.

Q 5) In your book The Bird, the Monkey, and the Snake in the Jungle, the text and illustrations work together to tell the story. Did you collaborate with the illustrator Tomek Bogacki during the creation of that book?

I didn’t work directly with Tomek Bogacki on The Bird, the Monkey and the Snake. I had actually never met him and knew him only through his books and Frances. But I knew he was perfect for the story. I liked his artistic style, his humor, his approach to bookmaking. And I knew through Frances that he was someone who is full of ideas and knows how to follow through on them. Interestingly enough, when I met Tomek, after the book was finished, we both realized that we were very much on the same wavelength. And I knew right off that I could give him a text and if he liked it he would be able to take it one step further and give it a new dimension.

Q 6) Many of your more recent books (And If the Moon Could Talk, A Gift from the Sea) take such a wide global view but are still completely accessible to young children. Is this something you do consciously?

The global aspect of my books is only conscious in that it reflects my own personal view of the world – the importance of place, relationships, family, identity and connection in a big and changing world.

Q 7) Similarly, your picture books are so well-paced and so accurately reflect the thoughts and actions of your young audience. How do you capture the essence of three to seven year olds so well?

I don’t really know how I capture the essence of three to seven year olds. I think much of it is a gift, an ability to relate and zero in on a certain state of mind. I’m sure the capacity to preserve memories and tap into my own childhood must be relevant – as are basic lessons of empathy, exchange, and communication acquired through life. As far as integrating these ideas in a coherent form – like through writing – well, that’s surely a gift.

Q 8) Who are some of your favorite picture book authors? Are there writers who have particularly inspired your work?

I grew up in Maine on the coast. Robert McCloskey was and still is one of my all time favorites. I still cherish A Time of Wonder which captures so effortlessly and beautifully in both words and watercolors a coming storm. Then there is Margaret Wise Brown who to my mind, was unique in her ability to relate to children and express their thoughts and visions through well chosen and organized words – to invoke wonder at the most simple of things, which is really what life is all about. There are a host of others whose picture books I’ve read and loved. Louis Sachar is a favorite of mine among contemporary writers. And there is all the literature I read as an as a student and adult. If not influenced, I was surely awed by Tolstoy, Chekov, Mann, and the many great short stories writers (Maupaussant, Katherine Mansfield) whom so skillfully created moments or a feeling for their readers.

Q 9) What projects are you currently working on?

I generally work on several projects at once. My first young adult novel is coming out in the fall along with another picture book that I’ve done with Georg. Georg and I have several other books under contract. And I am doing another project with Tomek. Today I happened to being working on a third Howie Bowles story. And I have a second novel in the works. I guess that’s plenty for now.

Q 10) You mentioned that you were working on the third Howie Bowles story, and that you recently finished a young adult novel. Do you find the experience of writing chapter books and novels different than writing picture books?

Obviously, writing novels for older children provides greater challenges and more possibilities in terms of character development, story, and organization. And I find there is a freedom of space and fewer constraints than in picture book writing. I guess I could say that for me the two processes are completely opposite. Whereas in a longer book I deal with many ideas which I build upon and expand as the story progress, in a picture book I am focusing on a single strong idea that must be honed and sifted, and reduced to a minimum. For that reason I find picture book writing can sometimes be more difficult.