by Matt Forrest Esenwine
Photo by Michael Seamens
Although David Elliott was born and raised in a small town in Ohio, that didn’t prevent him from traveling the world and collecting myriad experiences. Over the years, he worked as a singer in Mexico, an English teacher in Libya, a cucumber-washer in Greece, and a popsicle-stick maker in Israel. Elliott also studied classical voice at a conservatory, with dreams of becoming an opera singer. The problem, he says, is that he wasn’t very good.
Fortunately for the world of children’s literature, Elliott became a New York Times bestselling children’s author. His many picture books and chapter books include: And Here’s to You! (Candlewick, 2009), The Transmogrification of Roscoe Wizzle (Walker Books Ltd., 2001), The Evangeline Mudd books (Candlewick), Finn Throws a Fit! (Candlewick, reprint, 2011), Jeremy Cabbage and the Living Museum (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2008), and the picture book, In the Wild (Candlewick, 2010).
As of this writing, Elliott has six new picture books under contract, due to be published within the next couple of years, and is working on a YA novel and a new middle-grade book. He currently lives in New Hampshire with his wife, their cat, and a three-footed dog. He shares three of his poems with us in this interview, so please enjoy…
First of all, thank you, David, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with us! Did you ever imagine yourself being this busy, back when you were washing cucumbers in Greece, or making popsicle sticks in Israel? And wouldn’t it have been easier to just wash cukes or make popsicle sticks here in the States??
Maybe. But think of all the fantastic food I would have missed out on.
Touché! Seriously, though, how did you come to finally discover your true calling and end up back home in the U.S.?
Oh, dear. Do I have a true calling? But to answer your question, after many years of traveling and working abroad, making popsicle sticks, washing cucumbers (the most Freudian job ever!), teaching in Libya, singing in Mexico, I came back because — as transformative as those years were — the truth is, they were also very lonely; better suited to a comic novel, maybe, than to a real life. I have a big stack of journals from those years. One day, maybe, I’ll write that novel.
Anyone who uses the word “transmogrification” in the title of a children’s book must have fun while he’s writing! Does it “feel” like work, and do you ever wonder if you’ll ever end up having a “real job” (i.e., a typical 9-to-5) again?
When the paperback of The Transmogrification of Roscoe Wizzle came out, the sales staff wanted to get rid of that word. “transmogrification,” and call the book Roscoe Wizzle. I try to be as collaborative as I can when it comes to these things — and they come much more frequently than one might think — but in this case, I put my foot down. I didn’t want to dumb down the title because adults were scared that it was “too hard.”
I felt vindicated a couple of months later during a school visit when an eight-year-old boy came running up to me after my presentation. “Transmogrification!” he said. “Transmogrification! When I hear that word, it just makes me want to read the book.” You know, I’ve heard adults mangle that word over and over again, but never, not once, has a child mispronounced it. Sometimes, I think it might be part of the writer’s job to protect children from what the adults in charge of their lives think about them.
For me, writing is a real job and, perhaps more accurately, hard work — especially the funny stuff and the picture books.
You write in a variety of styles, including poetry, picture books, and chapter books…do you prefer one style over another?
Not really. Each has its challenges just as each as its pleasures. There are so many books out there. That’s great, of course, but it can also be a bit discouraging. And do we really need another vampire book? Another adventure series? Another this or that? In fact, we probably do. My problem is that I’m not interested in writing them. At the moment, I’m interested in experimenting with new structures, new ways of telling a story.
Books like In the Wild (Candlewick, 2010) and In the Sea (Candlewick, 2012) contain some great examples of children’s poetry that are written in simple language but are quite thoughtful and full of emotion. Is it difficult to find that balance? And what is your process for determining how you want to present a poetry subject or idea?
First, thanks for the kind words. Each of the three books in the series (two more on the way) presented a different challenge. On the Farm was perhaps the most straightforward. We all know what a farm is, and without ever opening the book one could guess what animals we might find between the end pages. (I did try to include some of the undomesticated animals that are present on a farm, too: the turtle, bees, a garter snake). In the end, a farm is a kind of container. Additionally, if we hear the word “cow,” we share a set of emotional responses because, in one way or another, we have all grown up with cows, or at the very least, the idea of cows.
But when it came to In the Wild, I was stumped. First, there is no container. These animals are found all over the world, and there are tens of thousands of them. How to choose just 14 or so? (My editor and I settled on the iconic.) Then, I discovered that I knew very little beyond the obvious when it came to the animals. Since it’s the writer’s job to say something new, I spent weeks, reading, looking at pictures, watching YouTube videos of the animals in the book, trying to get not just information about them but a feeling for them, too. Then there was the complicating factor that many of the animals in the book are endangered. On one hand, it felt disrespectful to both the animals represented and to the children reading the poems to ignore this sad truth; on the other, I didn’t want to write a book that said, “Too bad, kids, by the time you are adults, some of these animals won’t exist…” I tried to solve the problem with the last poem, “The Polar Bear,” and its page turn. By the way, we don’t talk or think enough about page turns in picture books. In the best ones, they carry as much meaning as the text.
After starting In the Sea, I completely understood the expression, “a cold fish.” They’re rather hard to feel warm and fuzzy about. In the end, I decided to think about the various forms in the ocean. Since many fish have the same basic shape, I wanted to give the late Holly Meade, the illustrator, something to work with. I feel incredibly lucky to have been paired with Holly. She brought so much to these books. Some of you may not know that she left us in April of this year. A sad and terrible loss.
If I can, I’d like to give a plug for On the Wing, coming out fall 2014 with art by a wonderful new illustrator, Becca Stadtlander. As a whole, the poems in the book might be my favorite of the four volumes thus far. But they were very, very difficult. All birds have feathers, beaks and they fly – at least the ones we chose for the book do. What more was there to say? It was very challenging because most of us know very little about individual species of birds, so there was not a lot of common knowledge I could rely on. The bower bird, for example, a very plain species native to Australia, builds a complicated structure on the ground. He then adorns it with flowers and shells — anything colorful he can find — to lure a paramour into what is literally his love nest. Who knew?
Here’s the poem.
The Bower Bird
No fancy feathers,
to attract a mate,
first he builds
And how anxiously
the bright tokens
O pity then
the bower bird.
– © 2013, David Elliott, all rights reserved
It’s always an open-ended question to ask someone where they get their inspiration; for most of us, it comes from everywhere, anywhere, and often nowhere. So let me ask, how do you deal with the inspiration you get? That is, how do you know if an idea is worth your attention, and what do you do with it?
This is something that plagues me. I’m never at a loss for ideas. But what I’m always afraid of is that I’m not up to executing them in the way they deserve. I’m rather slow on the uptake. I kept the first draft of Roscoe in my drawer for eight years before I really understood what the book wanted to be.
Recently, I’ve been reading and re-reading Homer, Ovid, Virgil, and along with them, some modern retellings. (David Malouf’s Ransom is one of the best things I’ve read in years. Now, I’m reading his An Imaginary Life. Equally as wonderful.) All this has me thinking about the relationship between the Greek and Roman gods and the mortals who worshipped them. Those gods required a lot: supplication, sacrifice, interpretation, belief. This seems to me a wonderful metaphor for the relationship between artists and their inspiration. How much are we willing to humble ourselves before it? How much are we willing to sacrifice? How much are we willing to listen to the oracular voice? How much are we willing to believe? This last is perhaps the most frightening question.
I so wish I had understood this earlier in my career. These questions will be very much at the forefront of my mind (and heart) as I continue to work on new and longer projects.
Your chapter book, Jeremy Cabbage, is about a young orphan boy – a sort of cross between Oliver Twist and Lemony Snicket’s Beaudelaire siblings – who goes into the world on an adventure. Did you see your globe-trotting self in Jeremy, and how have you used your life experiences in other books?
In a way, all books are autobiographical, since it is the life experience, sensibilities, instincts, and education of the particular author that make the book. In my case, it is perhaps not the external circumstances in which Jeremy finds himself, but the emotional content of the book that is closest to how I felt as a child and still sometimes feel as an adult.
Some folks, like J. Patrick Lewis and Jane Yolen, say inspiration is overrated – that success more often comes via the “BIC” rule (Butt In Chair). In other words, sit down and get to work! What are your thoughts on this approach?
Isn’t it the only approach? One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from the writer Octavia Butler. (Kindred remains one of the most under-appreciated books in print. Everyone should read it.) Anyway, she put it very succinctly: “Habit is more important than inspiration.” As others have said, we write to find out what we don’t know.
Speaking of things we don’t know…how difficult is it to know what children will like or not like? Who do you trust for feedback on your writing?
This question is more complicated than first it appears. Not all children like the same things. Then, we have to ask, what do you mean by children? A five-year-old is very different from a 10-year-old who is very, very different from a 13-year old. Children are the same in only one way: they are developing. This, to me, is one of the principal differences between writing for an adult audience and writing for children. This, too, is one of the things that I find so difficult about writing for kids. I’m afraid that sometimes we don’t do the best job of honoring the sacred fact that children are still becoming. It’s a scientific fact. Research now tells us that the brain isn’t fully developed until our early twenties. This makes, or it should make, a difference in how we approach our work, or at least in understanding and respecting our audience.
But I sometimes worry that we too often fall prey to a kind of inferiority complex in which we feel we have to compete with adult publishing to be real writers. I wonder if this is why there are so many books for kids where a loved one dies, or is alcoholic or, well, you know what I mean. Why do we have this idea that tragedy is more serious, more valuable than comedy? To me this seems very puritanical and old-fashioned. Also wrong. Of course, I know that many young people do experience terrible things in their lives. But many children also experience happiness – even those in the most wretched circumstances – and that happiness can bolster a young heart. I know this, by the way, from personal experience. There is so much to say on this topic.
Well, considering you enjoy comedy and escapism, who are your favourite children’s authors or poets? What have you learned from them?
I love Roald Dahl. I love Robert Louis Stevenson. I love Louise Rennison. I love M.T. Anderson. (He’s a good friend, and though I don’t want to admit it to him, he is completely lovable!) I love Jack Prelutsky (because it’s clear he loves kids.) I love, love, love Natalie Babbitt. Too many to mention. And what I’ve learned from them is that I have a lot more to learn to be the writer I would like to be.
Is there a poem or book you’ve had published that you are particularly proud of? Is there one secretly wish you could revise?
Good heavens! The answer to the first question is, “all of them.” The answer to the second question is, “all of them.”
Ha, spoken like a true poet! What, then, was the worst idea you ever had – for a poem, a book, a career, or anything – and what did you do with it?
Believe me, you don’t have enough time for me to talk about my bad ideas. I still get them. Every day.
As do we all! So what advice would you give to aspiring children’s poets and authors? And from your experience, what would you say is the most important thing you’ve learned in trying to get published?
Currently, I teach in the Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. One thing I find myself repeating to my students is, “Get out of the way.” By which I mean, the writer must be secondary to the work. Understandably, less experienced writers are anxious, eager to prove to the world and to themselves they have what it takes. (If I’m honest, most of us feel this way. In fact, I have to fight that feeling every day.) This can create a bit of a tendency to show off on the page, to make a wrong decision about a particular word, or sentence structure, or well, almost anything, really — from punctuation to plot. But almost always, this either bores us (deadly!) or distracts us from what John Gardner calls “the fictional dream.” In other words, we stop thinking about what we’re reading and start thinking about the person who wrote it (and usually not in the kindest of terms). We end up feeling disappointed or cheated; tricked, somehow. The harsh truth is that no one really cares about you, the writer. And rightly so. The reader only cares about what is on the page. And rightly so. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but also liberating once you’ve got the hang of it.
Of course, that isn’t to say that we can’t be dazzled by what a writer has accomplished. That’s happening to me right now with David Malouf, but it’s because 1) the writer has complete control of her craft and 2) whatever the writer has done has been in service to the story or the poem, and not to herself.
About publishing, I don’t know what to say, really. One thing we almost never hear is that you need a little luck. So my advice in this area is 1) learn your craft 2) one you’ve learned it, stay open so that when luck comes knocking, you recognize it and let it in. (This isn’t helpful, I know. Sorry!)
Considering all of your life experiences so far, do you think you’ll remain content with writing children’s lit, or do you see yourself branching out into other genres, or even doing something entirely different?
As my wonderful editor at Candlewick once said, “When I find adults as interesting as children, I’ll start working for them.” But I do have adult projects in mind. I’ve published one, The Tiger’s Back, either a very short novella or a very long story, depending on how you look at it. I also have written some for the theater and plan to do more of that. But I’ll always write for kids.
By the way, there’s a children’s illustrator from New Zealand named David Elliot. As far as anyone can tell, you’re not him…right?
I don’t think I am, but one never knows.
Well, thanks again for spending some time with us here at PACYA, David…and all the best for future success!
Thanks so much!
To learn more about David and his books, visit http://www.davidelliottbooks.com!