Interviews

Duckworth’s parents think he's a difficult child, so when a snake slides up and swallows him whole, his parents don’t believe him! What’s poor Duckworth to do?



Pick by Sophie Gilmore, TERRIFIC!:


DUCKWORTH, THE DIFFICULT CHILD

Written by Michael Sussman and illustrated by Júlia Sardà

Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (June 18, 2019)

Buy now


What inspired you to write Duckworth, the Difficult Child? "One sweltering summer evening, strolling down Cambridge Street in search of an ice cream cone, the image of a snake swallowing a child flashed through my mind. As I imagined the bulge working its way down the length of the serpent, it struck me as a compelling (if somewhat macabre) set-up for a picture book. I recalled a similar image from The Little Prince, but upon returning home, discovered that the prince’s drawing was of a boa digesting an elephant. (Although, as the prince notes, grown-ups all thought it was a picture of a hat.) I worried that my concept might be too scary for young children unless I made it a funny story, so I decided to model the tale on The Shrinking of Treehorn, by Florence Parry Heide and Edward Gorey."


What other picture books do you love for their dark humor? "My all-time favorite is The Shrinking of Treehorn, in which young Treehorn discovers that he’s slowly shrinking. Like Duckworth’s parents, Treehorn’s mother and father are so oblivious to their son’s needs and preoccupied with their own concerns, that they provide no help at all. ("If you want to pretend you're shrinking, that's all right," said Treehorn's mother, "as long as you don't do it at the table.") Accompanied by Edward Gorey’s marvelous illustrations, this classic tale resonates with any child who has ever felt ignored by the adult world. Other favorites include Spinky Sulks by William Steig, The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey, and The Doubtful Guest, also by Gorey, the Master of the Macabre."



What was your favorite picture book as a child? "Even as a child, I was drawn to absurdist humor, and my favorite picture book was Horton Hatches the Egg, by Dr. Seuss. Poor Horton—tricked by lazy Mayzie into sitting on her egg for 51 weeks while she’s off on vacation—is so dedicated and faithful that we can’t help falling in love with him, and take great delight in the preposterous ending in which a tiny elephant-bird bursts forth from the egg and alights on Horton’s trunk, choosing him over Mayzie. I’m wild about stories in which authors start with a silly premise and then take it to the most absurd denouement."


What was the picture book that inspired you to write picture books? "I read tons of picture books to my son, Ollie, who adored stories and language itself. While the old classics stood the test of time, I was disheartened to discover that the vast majority of newer picture books were mediocre at best. I soon became convinced that I could write much better ones myself!"


Updated: Sep 9, 2021

When a young boy visits his grandfather, their lack of a common language leads to confusion, frustration, and silence. But as they sit down to draw together, something magical happens—with a shared love of art and storytelling, the two form a bond that goes beyond words.



Pick by Matt de la Peña, Last Stop on Market Street and Milo Imagines the World:


DRAWN TOGETHER

Written by Minh Lê and illustrated by Dan Santat

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (June 5, 2018)

Buy now


What inspired you to write Drawn Together? ML: "The story is inspired by my relationship with all my grandparents, especially my late grandfather. Like the boy in the book, I also struggled to communicate with my grandparents because of a language barrier. I wanted to write a book that captured that struggle, but that also celebrates the depth of love that exists despite those challenges."

I love that art is what draws the boy and his grandpa together, and is what eventually (and powerfully) breaks down the seemingly impenetrable barrier between them. Are there any other picture books you love that explore the power of art? "The Iridescence of Birds by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Hadley Hooper is a wonderfully spare but beautiful book about Henri Matisse's childhood that I just love. Another one is My Pen by Christopher Myers which is a stunning ode to the power of creativity."




A huge cultural gulf can sometimes form between assimilated American children and their family members, a divide you explore so well. Are there any other picture books you love that tackle this theme? "The brand new Watercress by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Jason Chin is gorgeously illustrated and deftly captures the complex emotions of assimilation in a way that makes it a modern-day classic. A Different Pond by Bao Phi and illustrated by Thi Bui is another wonderful book that is infused with a quiet but deeply-moving magic."


What picture books do you love for their unique, compelling takes on family? "Dreamers by the powerhouse Yuyi Morales is one of the best picture books I’ve ever read and follows a mother and child as they build a life together in a new country. Another favorite (that my wife and I give to all the new children in our lives) is Max and the Tag-Along Moon by the great Floyd Cooper who sadly just passed away. The book itself is like a warm hug and provides comfort when we are unable to be with our loved ones."




What was your favorite picture book as a child? "Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. To me, that is a perfect picture book and captures the magic of storytelling and the imagination in such a simple yet profound way."










What do you think the best picture books do? "If you fall in love with a book as a child, that book can become a friend for life. It's a work of art that you can re-experience over the years as you grow older. And the magic of that is that as you grow, the book evolves along with you because you read it with different eyes as you hit different stages of life. I love reading books with my children and seeing the story in a much different light now that I’m a dad. For example, reading Where the Wild Things Are as a parent, I have a lot more sympathy for the mom than I did as a kid. So, if a book can capture a child’s imagination, it can continue to reveal layers of meaning over the course of a lifetime... which to me is the magic and power of picture books."



What did you love reading to your sons at age three? At age five? "My sons are 9 and 6 right now and reading is such a huge part of our lives (story time is sacred in our home). We have read so many books over the years, but one that will always stand out to me is Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dykman and illustrated by Zachariah OHora. It’s a great read-aloud about siblings… plus, I have a video of my then 2 1/2 year old reading the book aloud to his baby brother (while he was still in utero), so that’s something I will treasure FOREVER."


What would be on your list of 100 best picture books of all time? "The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito, illustrated by Julia Kuo. This is one of those books that I have not stopped talking about since I first read it. I describe it to people as a guided meditation led by Christopher Robin. It is a true work of art and a great example of the heights of artistry that can be achieved by a picture book."

No one knew where the strange storm came from, or why it lasted so long. The family has to hunker down together, with no going outside - and that's hard when there's absolutely nothing to do, and everyone's getting on everyone else's nerves.



Max's Boat Pick: THE LONGEST STORM

Written and illustrated by Dan Yaccarino

Publisher: mineditionUS (August 31, 2021)

Buy now


What inspired you to write The Longest Storm? DY: "A couple of years ago, a lot of things were happening in my life that I wanted to somehow express in a story, but couldn’t quite figure out how. I had found myself in the middle of a divorce with two college-aged kids and wasn’t sure how we could relate to each other now, and that was really, really hard. The idea of creating a story about a family that has drifted apart, but eventually finds a way to come back together, circled around in my mind for several months, because of what I was facing in my own family. Then once the pandemic hit, family life became even more challenging, for me and for the rest of the world. Then the story fell together pretty quickly.

It was the hardest book I’ve ever done, since it dredged up a lot of the more painful emotions and experiences I had ever been through. Of all of the books I’ve ever created, this one makes me feel the most vulnerable, since it was so profoundly personal and revealing. But I’ve discovered that when you dig deep down into yourself with your work, and get more personal with it, an odd thing happens. It somehow becomes more universal. The very things I wanted to hide from the world, and even from myself, are what readers seem to be connecting with.

I believe that we are all essentially the same inside, and we’re looking to connect with the dark, sometimes scary parts of ourselves through art and books and culture. It reminds us that we’re not alone in our feelings and experiences."


Some might assume The Longest Storm was inspired by the pandemic? "Well, The Longest Storm was inspired first of all by the shift in my family’s dynamic. I would say the pandemic then became the catalyst for the story. So, in The Longest Storm I was trying to show the internal as well as external forces that could pull a family apart, and all of the emotions and conflicts that arise that we have to face.

As we all know, the pandemic made these kind of difficult family reckonings much more common – maybe almost unavoidable. But I also think the pandemic offered us opportunities to kind of re-make what our families are all about, how we connect with each other, and that’s what happens to the family in the book."

Are there picture books you would recommend for how they explore this strange pandemic world we've been living in? "So far, I’ve seen a few other uplifting picture books inspired by the pandemic that offer something positive to give to children in this dark time. Brian Floca’s book Keeping the City Going is an incredibly detailed and reassuring tribute to the front-line workers. It makes me think of Mr. Rogers’s famous words about what we can tell children to do in a crisis – look for the helpers. There Is a Rainbow, by Teresa Trinder and Grant Snider, is about that charming tradition of putting pictures of rainbows in our windows so kids walking by could spot them. And don’t forget the Dr. Fauci biography, Doctor Fauci: How a Boy from Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor, by Kate Messner and Alexandra Bye."


More generally, are there other picture books you would recommend for how they explore weathering "storms" or crises (of any sort)? "The classic picture book about a family facing loss and sort of stuck in a bad place, then finding a way out again, is Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There. The art in that book is just him at his top form. The story and the art are so ambitious, it boggles my mind. I also would shout out here to my friend Dan Santat’s After the Fall. It’s about Humpty Dumpty’s fall, so it’s a story of not just falling or failing but actually breaking into pieces! And then Dan comes up with this totally original way to show rebirth and transformation."

What was your favorite picture book as a child? "There weren’t picture books in my house growing up, which I’m sure sounds odd, but we just didn’t have them. That wasn’t unusual for Italian-Americans of my parents’ generation. However, I would go to the library and get books about comics and cartooning. I loved looking at the artwork and studying the sequential storytelling.


The truth is that picture books didn’t even come onto my radar until I was already a professional illustrator. Once I realized there was this whole incredible tradition, I was hooked. I couldn’t believe how much fun it was to tell stories this way. It was so immersive and satisfying. Once I began exploring what was out there, I was drawn to the simplicity, elegance, and beauty of mid-century illustrations and graphics. So, for example, a lot of the artists who illustrated Little Golden Books became my heroes. I am in awe of J.P. Miller, who’s an unsung genius, in my opinion, as well as Aurelius Battaglia, who seems to have been forgotten, sadly."


If you have children, do you remember what you loved reading to them at age three? At age five? "By the time my children came along, I’d been creating children’s books for a few years, so I’d become increasingly aware of contemporary, as well as historical children’s illustrated literature. I was lucky enough to have all these friends who were making picture books, like William Joyce and Dan Kirk and Lisa Desimini, and I’d happily read their books to my children. That was really special because they knew them. Lisa is actually my daughter’s godmother. Then I’d also read them the classics, like Dr. Seuss, Curious George, and the Madeline books."




What would be on your list of 100 best picture books of all time? "That would be a fun list to make! But I’ll just name a few here that I couldn’t live without. First, some classics:

The Little Red Hen, Little Golden Books edition, illustrated by J.P. Miller

• anything and everything by H.A. Rey

• all of the Madeline books

I Can Fly by Ruth Krauss and Mary Blair

• anything by Miroslav Sasek

• anything by Roger Duvoisin

Richard Scarry’s early work

And there are a few stylish younger illustrators working now who have caught my attention and seem to be building solid careers and making books that will endure, including Vera Brosgol, Christian Robinson, Beatrice Alemagna, Isabelle Arsenault, and the Pumphrey Brothers."