Our guest: Joe McGee is a Pennsylvania-based author, whose first picture book, Peanut Butter & Brains: A Zombie Culinary Tale, was released earlier this month by Abrams. Joe also contributed the text to this month’s edition of our Exquisite Corpse.
The Proust-Esque Questionnaire is based on a set of 36 standardized questions designed by Marcel Proust in the 1890’s to give an overview of the respondent’s personality. Our goals are less lofty, but hopefully will provide some insight into how your favorite authors and illustrators work and what they love.
1. WHAT IS YOUR EARLIEST MEMORY OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
I was an early and avid reader and my mom did a good job of feeding my voracious appetite for books. I never wanted for things to read and library visits were a very frequent thing. However, I remember an Little Golden Classic version of The Adventures of Robin Hood (the one where Robin is a fox). I must have read that over and over and over and one day my mom got a call from the school. My kindergarten teacher needed to speak with her. I had collected all of the toys and put them in the corner of the room, refusing to let the other kids play with anything. When asked why, my answer was “I’m stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.”
“Well, who are the poor?” asked my poor teacher.
“I am,” I replied.
Robin Hood became a temporarily banned book in my house.
This is probably not at all an original answer, but definitely Peter Pan. I don’t ever want to “grow up” and yes, I spend a lot of my time in Never Never Land. I don’t identify with the tights though, or his shoes, which don’t look comfortable in the least.
3. WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE CHILDREN’S BOOK AUTHOR? ILLUSTRATOR?
My favorite? Wow, that’s tough…there are SO many that I just love, but Roald Dahl is my absolute favorite. I admire his genuine connection with his audience, with the kids who are reading and being read his books. He understood the lens through which kids see the world, and, quite often, the adults who seem to control it. In fact, he once said “adults should get down on their knees for a week, in order to remember what it’s like to live in a world in which the people with all the power literally loom over you.” With this in mind, Dahl wrote these wonderful, absurdist adults and exaggerated the world in a way that makes sense to kids…because, after all, these are the people for whom we are writing. So yes, Dahl rocks!
Hmmm…Illustrator? Charles Santoso (right). Beyond being biased because he illustrated my book, I am still in awe of how he brought my story to life and how he managed to make my zombies the cutest things EVER! And have you seen “I Don’t Like Koala?” Wow. Just…wow. He has such an amazing range and style. Check out his Tumblr account.
But outside of Charles, I’d say Edward Gorey (left) and Quentin Blake. Blake and Dahl go hand and hand, of course and I’ve always connected with Gorey’s somber humor and playful darkness.
4. IF YOU WERE THROWING A KINDERLIT PARTY FOR FIVE GUESTS, WHO WOULD YOU INVITE?
This is the coolest question! I’m going to go with fictional characters here, because I can. Ok, I’d invite Dahl’s Matilda. We’d have an amazing time talking about books. Alice, from Alice in Wonderland. I’d want a first-hand account of her travels through Wonderland. Charlotte, from Charlotte’s Web, because she is so kind, so sweet, so insightful. Peter Pan, because he has the proper philosophy of life and would be up for some hi-jinx and shenanigans. And Dwight (with Origami Yoda), from Tom Angleberger’s Origami Yoda series, because Dwight (and Yoda) would undoubtedly have many wise, humorous, and crazy things to add to the conversation.
That’d be a crazy mix of characters!
5. WHICH QUALITY DO YOU THINK IS MOST IMPORTANT IN GOOD CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
Being genuine. It’s that quality that made Dahl and Maurice Sendak (right) so revered (ok, one of the qualities). I think that as children’s writers, we need to hold on so dear to that inner child and write with our audience, not necessarily for our audience. It’s not the same to just think like a kid, you have to be a kid, at least for those moments when you are sitting down to write. It’s like method acting, only you aren’t taking on the role of a character, you are taking on the role of an age group. Cast out the adult mindset and all of the nonsense that comes along with being “grown up.” We have to be willing to be children again, and then, we can write stories that our readers genuinely connect with and love…because we are speaking their language and sharing their burdens.
I love this Sendak quote: “Grown ups desperately need to feel safe, and then they project onto the kids. But what none of us seem to realize is how smart kids are. They don’t like what we write for them, what we dish up for them, because it’s vapid, so they’ll go for the hard words, they’ll go for the hard concepts, they’ll go for the stuff where they can learn something. Not didactic things, but passionate things.”
6. IF YOUR OWN WORK HAS A DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC, WHAT WHAT IS IT?
I’ve often heard my work described as “quirky.” I actually pride myself on that. I like being quirky in my writing, and in my life. Quirky is good. Quirky has character. Quirky is, in my opinion, interesting. This adjective is often linked with “humor,” something else I am very proud of. “Quirky humor” seems to be a theme that resonates in my writing, whether it be picture books, middle-grade, or YA. I also have a “dark” edge, but not in a frightening way, of course. I mean “dark” in the sense that Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), Neil Gaiman (Coraline), Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket), or Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and R.L. Stine (Goosebumps) are dark – touching on the shadows without plunging into the abyss. And no, I am, by no means, putting myself on the same level as these legendary writers. I just feel as though these writers illustrate the kind of “safe” darkness that I like to dance in some of my work. Remember, Peanut Butter & Brains is a picture book filled with zombies…
Captain Hook. Three reasons:
1. I LOVE pirates and this is one of the coolest pirates in children’s literature. He’s iconic and, frankly, quite interesting.
2. I’m fascinated with literary villains. The villains (good ones, anyway), have such incredibly awesome back stories. Who are they? Why do they do what they do? What drove them to do these “villainous” things? And, depending on their motivations and rationale, do they even see what they are doing as “villainous?” Are they really villains, or just misunderstood? But, back to the back story, which leads me to #3…
3. I recently read Captain Hook: The Adventures of a Notorious Youth by J.V. Hart, and loved his take on what molded young Hook into becoming the sinister pirate we know in Peter Pan. Maybe if I came back as a young Hook, I could change some things and grow up to be not such a bad guy? However, I’d still be a pirate, so there’s that…
I can’t think of anything I’d change in Peanut Butter & Brains. I love it! And now this book is out in the world and it’s no longer mine. It belongs to the boys and girls who are reading it, to the parents sitting at their child’s bedside, to my publisher, and my editor, and the art director, and my illustrator, and to you… And now I focus on the next story.
9. WHAT IS THE GREATEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU WERE EVER GIVEN?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work closely with some really AMAZING kidlit writers, like Amy King, Kathy Appelt, Tim Wynne-Jones, Rita Williams-Garcia, Tom Birdseye, Sharon Darrow, and Lisa Jahn-Clough, and they have all taught me so, so many things.
However, I think the GREATEST piece of advice I have ever been given was from Neil Gaiman (indirectly, of course) from his 2012 Keynote address to the University of the Arts. The entire speech is so wonderfully inspiring, but these two sentences ring in my head every day: “Do what only you do best. Make good art.”
I try to remember that every time I sit down to write. It’s easy to get carried away worrying about the industry, or reviews, or critics, or failure, or expectations. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to make things perfect. But if you sit down with a playful attitude and approach your writing as something unique to you, if you write it for you, if you sit down to simply make good art, odds are that at the end of the process you’ll have something genuine and lovely. Just make good art and the rest of the pieces will fall into place.
Musician Ani DiFranco once said, “Art is why I get up in the morning…”
So, make good art. Make your art.
My process? I’m not even sure I have a process. But, with picture books especially, I think visually. What this means is that I get an idea for a book, and I kind of see it big picture…literally, in pictures. Then, I draw out a map of the book in little squares that represent the pages. I do this on a big piece of newsprint paper, this way I can see where the page turns are, and the spreads, and where I am with pacing. Then, I begin to write the book. I will literally put “Page 1-3: Front Matter” and then “Page 4: [whatever is going on here, or dialogue or whatever].” When I write the manuscript for submission, both for my agent AND for editors, this is what I do, because this is how I envision it. Yes, I am very careful to not take the illustrator’s job. I rarely put illustrator’s notes, but I am pretty good at hitting the pacing and flow of the story this way.
I don’t really have a set time that I write, I’m not a creature of habit. I write when I can, where I can. Sometimes I carve out hours and hours, and sometimes I get twenty minutes here and there. I do like to write at my antique desk, in my office, but I don’t have to. Incidentally, my window looks out over THIS really cool, old graveyard!
Definitely The Hobbit. I am a HUGE Tolkien fan and have collected most of his works. I am particularly proud of the various editions of The Hobbit that I have collected. That story opened up a world to me that left me wanting to create worlds and adventures of my own. And now that I think about it, the quest to get to the Lonely Mountain echoes another piece of Gaiman advice. He said to consider your writing goals as a distant mountain and make choices that keep you moving closer to the mountain. I never really thought about these two together before, but I think I kind of knew it in the back of my mind, but…wow. Epiphany.
And I can’t leave this question without adding Where the Wild Things Are, which I may have read thirteen gazillion times. I wanted to be crowned “King of all the wild things” and dance the wild rumpus!