Our guest: Michael Hall is the author/illustrator of The New York Times bestseller My Heart is Like a Zoo, as well as the critically acclaimed Perfect Square and Red: A Crayon’s Story. His latest, Frankencrayon, was released by Greenwillow in January. (Read our review HERE.)
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.
One of the earliest books that spoke to me was What Do You Say, Dear, written by Sesyle Joslin and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.
Harold from Harold and the Purple Crayon. I wasn’t a great student as a child, but I had a good imagination and spent many hours engaged in my own internal adventures.
3. WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE CHILDREN’S BOOK AUTHOR? ILLUSTRATOR?
It has to be Shel Silverstein. (See number 11)
4. IF YOU WERE TO THROW A KINDERLIT PARTY FOR FIVE GUESTS, WHO WOULD YOU INVITE?
My first thought was that it would be fun to invite five fictional characters from children’s books. But I’m not so sure that it would go well.
First of all, it could easily devolve into a complaint fest.
“My author never really understood me.”
“My Illustrator made my nose too big.”
And so on.
Then there is a possible beverage problem. Most of the characters I’d invite are minors, and I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to serve alcohol to a fictional minor. Would I be willing to serve my signature pasta dinner without offering wine? That could be a deal breaker!
Finally, some of my favorite children’s book characters are animals. It would be hard to prepare a dinner that would work for multiple fictional species. And worse, there’s always the danger that one guest might eat another guest.
Okay, as an alternative, I’ll try a group of living people I admire from different fields:
Artist Maya Lin; Cognitive scientist/author Douglas Hofstadter; Singer/songwriter John Prine (right); and President Barack Obama.
I would invite them for pasta, wine, and a discussion of how children’s literature has influenced them. (Or whatever they’d want to discuss, really… Unless they want to talk about the failure of my new book, Frankencrayon — which has been canceled. That subject is totally out of bounds!)
As a fifth, I’d invite my friend Hugh, who doesn’t get invited to many dinner parties and might have something funny or insightful to contribute. You never know.
5. WHICH QUALITY DO YOU THINK IS MOST IMPORTANT IN GOOD CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
6. IF YOUR OWN WORK HAS A DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC, WHAT WHAT IS IT?
In most of my books, the narrative is structured as something like a game. In Perfect Square, it was making beautiful things from the pieces of a broken square. In Cat Tale, it was stringing together sentences in which the object of the verb in each sentence is followed by a same-sounding verb in the next sentence:
“They flee a steer. They steer a plane. They plane a board. They board a train.” And so on.
The repetition gives the reader a chance to guess what the next iteration will be. (And it’s great fun for me!)
7. IF YOU WERE TO DIE AND COME BACK AS A CHARACTER FROM CHILDREN’S LITERATURE, WHO WOULD YOU LIKE IT TO BE?
Winnie the Pooh. What fun it would be to hang out with Piglet, Eeyore, and the rest.
8. IF YOU COULD GO BACK AND REDO ONE THING IN YOUR WORK, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Being finished is difficult concept for me. It’s painful that I can’t go back and make changes to several of my books. On the other hand, there are some amusing blunders that I wouldn’t change even if I could.
Frankencrayon, a picture book about a canceled picture book called Frankencrayon, is one such case. A basket of oranges appears on the opening page, but later, in a flashback, we see one of the characters carrying the oranges out of the book. This was an oversight that I didn’t catch until it was too late. Fortunately, there was time to make a minor text change to the back of the jacket, where I had the same character apologize for dropping the oranges on his way out.
I enjoy pointing out mistake when I read my books to kids.
9. WHAT IS THE GREATEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU WERE EVER GIVEN?
When you find a seemingly unsolvable problem, leave it alone and look for another problem to solve. It’s surprising how often the solution to the second problem makes the first problem disappear.
10. DESCRIBE YOUR WORK PROCESS.
My work process is a mixed-up jumble of doodling, painting, writing, outlining, googling, scribbling, pacing, punctuating, deleting, replacing, coffee drinking, more pacing, emailing my editor, procrastinating, scanning painted paper, diagramming, wishing I was working on something else, making dummies (with double-stick tape and staples), cutting my finger with an exacto blade, mildly cursing, reading, looking for a bandage, wondering if it’s too late to start all over from scratch, talking to myself, gazing out the window, dropping off FedEx packages, taking long walks along the Mississippi river, outlining imaginary Caldecott acceptance speeches, confusing myself, making more dummies (with double-stick tape and staples), deciding that my story should be a song rather than a picture book, throwing away imaginary Caldecott speech outlines, submitting six cover ideas to my publisher, panicking, meeting with my editor and art director in New York, more doodling, more scribbling, much more pacing, checking my Amazon ratings, drinking more coffee, sending eight new cover ideas to my publisher, sending final art to the publisher, discovering problems with the final art, sending final-final art to my publisher, promising myself I’ll do better on the next project, playing around with Marion Bataille’s Numero (see number 12), and sending final- final-final art to my exasperated art director. It’s fun!
11. WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE CHILDREN’S BOOK
Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. It had something to say to me when I was 9, 29, and 59. I love that so much of the story — including the details of the boy’s unhappy life — is left to the reader’s imagination. I often think of the simple structure of this story when I write my own books. Most of them owe something to The Giving Tree.
12. TELL US ABOUT A BOOK YOU LOVE, THAT, FOR ONE REASON OR ANOTHER, HAS NOT FOUND A WIDE AUDIENCE.
Marion Bataille’s alphabet book, ABC3D, was very popular, but two of her number books, Numero and 10, seem to be harder to find in the U.S. Both of these books are beautiful, playful, poetic, and surprising feats of geometry. They have a special spot on my bookshelf. It’s hard to walk past them without picking one up and looking through it again and again.