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  • Ratha Tep

Interview with Matthew Burgess, BIRD BOY

Nico was new, and nervous about going to school. Everyone knew what to do and where to go, but Nico felt a little lost. So, he did what he loved to do: He befriended the birds.

Max's Boat Pick: Bird Boy

Written by Matthew Burgess and illustrated by Shahrzad Maydani

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (July 20, 2021)

What inspired you to write Bird BoyMB: "I was inspired by one of Shahrzad Maydani’s sketches of a boy feeding the birds. I was captivated by the image and the first draft of the story arrived like a wonderful surprise. First it emerged as a poem, and then I went back to explore the conflict, the narrative arc, the page turns. This is the first picture book manuscript I’ve written in direct response to the artist’s image. Shaz's irresistible character was the spark."

I really enjoyed the poetry of your words: "such as watching the insects crossing a crack in the blacktop like climbers over a mountain pass." I just loved that. So simple, yet so evocative. Are there any picture books you admire for their poetry or the beauty of their words? "William Steig's sentences are my favorite sentences. He writes with a poetry that feels high-spirited and effortless, profound yet totally unpretentious. Describing the friendship of mouse and whale in Amos and Boris, he writes: 'Boris admired the delicacy, the quivering daintiness, the light touch, the small voice, the gemlike radiance of the mouse. Amos admired the bulk, the grandeur, the power, the purpose, the rich voice, and the abounding friendliness of the whale.' Both mouse and whale appear so distinctly. Magic. Some of my favorite sentences are in Steig’s chapter book, Dominic, which follows the adventures of a dog but feels like a manual for being a person.

Recently I read Dave Eggers’s new picture book, We Became Jaguars, illustrated by Woodrow White. Eggers writes from the child's perspective in a way that feels both poetic and true. The boy-narrator has just met his grandmother for the second time in his life, and he is both enchanted and intimidated by her invitation to become jaguars. 'She laughed like great thunder and I laughed like lesser thunder and we jaguared on.' And later: 'So she ran nimbly and I ran nimbly and we bounced across like marbles on glass.' It's gorgeous."

Are there any other picture books that you love that explore the theme of being true to yourself? "Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault is an amazing book for middle grade readers (and up) that explores this theme. It feels like a hybrid between picture book and graphic novel, and both words and images are astonishing. Mike Curato’s YA graphic novel, Flamer, is courageous and candid."

What do you think the best picture books do? "I admire the way Christian Robinson creates a poetic distance between word and image in You Matter. This space invites the reader to linger and wonder and come up with their own connections, which is something I think the best picture books do. In Du Iz Tak?, Carson Ellis invites the reader to become a co-creator of meaning while inventing a hilarious, ear-and-tongue-delighting language. “Unk scrivadelly gladdenboot!” I’m crazy about this book. I also love when a picture book is immersive and transporting, like Decur’s When You Look Up. This book surprises on so many levels."

What do you hope your picture books do? "I hope that my picture book biographies quicken a creative response in the reader. You know that feeling when you encounter an artist you love, in a museum or in a book, and you suddenly feel the impulse to make something in response—to write or draw or dance or run wildly outside? I love the idea that a book about an artist can spark the artist-inside-the-reader.

Though it is more of a “self-portrait of the artist,” I admire A World of Your Own by Laura Carlin for this reason. It is filled with invitations to dream, to draw, and to make things. If I had read this book as a kid, it would have propelled me directly to colored pencils and paper.

Another thing I hope my picture books do is to create a space—a temporary sanctuary for both ‘connection with another’ and for solitary dreaming. I love the sumptuous quietness in Akiko Miyakoshi’s The Way Home in the Night. It is a dreamy, vibrating world I am invited to inhabit—a magical and comforting trance. I recently read Me and Mama by Cozbi A. Cabrera, which explores the mother-child bond in a beautifully vivid and cozy way. I appreciate when a picture book engages all of your senses so that the rest of the world is temporarily held at bay. You are in it for the duration, and you emerge changed, enlivened, or ready for bed."


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