Interview with Kevin Cornell, NEW IN TOWN
Termites have destroyed Puddletrunk's last 200 or so bridges. Luckily, there's a bridge-building expert in town: the fabulous Mortimer Gulch, who will gladly rebuild any bridge for a pretty penny. But what happens when a newcomer comes to Puddletrunk who doesn't want to pay for repairs—and has innovative ideas of his own?
Max's Boat Pick:
NEW IN TOWN
Written and illustrated by Kevin Cornell
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (September 7, 2021)
What inspired you to write New in Town? You started it 12 years ago? That must be some back story! "Hah! Well, I had just signed on to my first book, and I suddenly found myself with an agent (the amazing Steven Malk). He was walking me through all the ways he could help me, and he mentioned that he could represent me as an author as well, if I had any story ideas. So I decided to try and write a picture book. I was very much into P.G. Wodehouse at the time, and I knew that WHATEVER the book was about, I wanted that sort of tone. And I wanted lots of fun things to draw, so that's how it ended up revolving around clocks, architecture, natty waistcoats, dangerous heights and a monstrous villain. Of course, the book was WAY, WAY too long and had some other problems (while it was filled with many a bumbling adult, there were no children), so Steve sent me back to the drawing board several times before I had a version a publisher could actually read. And even then, that version just couldn't entice a publisher, so eventually I gave it a polite wave and pushed it out to sea. Only several years later, after I finished Lucy Fell Down The Mountain, did it seem like I finally knew what I was doing well enough to fix it. So I did another go-around (by this time, version twelve), and then showed it to Grace Kendall, my editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. They really saw its potential as a tale about embracing new people with new ideas, and helped me bring that aspect to the fore. Fast forward several years and several hundreds of thousands of hours later, and here we are!"
You've created quite the hateful villain in Mortimer Gulch (I love that he's a bridge troll, by the way). Are there any other picture book villains you love/love to hate? "Here's where I have to admit something terribly, terribly embarrassing. I don't read a lot of picture books. I don't even recall that many picture books from my childhood. My earliest memories are really just reading Sunday comics. And then when it became my profession and I started educating myself about the genre I had to do it slowly because, the way my brain works, there's a real danger that I'd just regurgitate the books I saw rather than bring something new to the table. I mean... I don't even really read fiction. I mostly read boring ol' non-fiction so that I know how a timber-framed house is put together... or the specific kinds of tools you'd find in a blacksmith's shop. That being said, the big fish in This Is Not My Hat? Cold-hearted."
I'm wondering whether you imagined kids would see through the unreliable narrator from the beginning? Or did you imagine the AHA moment would only come later? Are there any other picture books you love for their unreliable narration? "Well, what I pictured was that kids would be more focused on the story in the illustrations, and the parents on the narrator's words. And then ten... twenty years later... there are the kids, home from college, and this heated argument erupts about the troll dude from that old book, and the kids would be all like that Gulch guy sucks and parents would be like Get em' Gulch! I can't get any of my employees to work either! and all this would culminate in... across the globe... just hundreds of family dinners, ruined. I am the true villain of this book. As for other unreliable narration... hmmm... I'm not sure I can name any offhand? Though I certainly don't trust the old lady in Goodnight Moon... with her ominous rocking... razor sharp crochet needles at the ready..."
If you have kids, do you remember what you loved reading to them at age 3? At age 5? "Alas! We have no kids, and thus can only read stories to our dogs. They listen, but you can tell they'd rather watch squirrels."
What contemporary picture books do you think will be the new classics of the future? "Again, I couldn't necessarily say, what with my hermit-like seclusion from my own genre. But I know Mac Barnett will be there. I also feel so unqualified to judge since I'm really just an illustrator who occasionally moonlights as a writer. But there are some illustrators I've come to follow and I love their work every time. Carson Ellis, Oliver Jeffers, Jon Klassen, Adam Rex, Rebecca Green, Christian Robinson, Corinna Luyken. I've recently fallen in love with the work of Emilia Dziubak. She has such an amazing sense of light."
What would be on your list of 100 best picture books of all time? "I still love Richard Scarry's Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. Love Leo Lionni's Inch By Inch. I only recently discovered the Harry series of books illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham, but that art completes my life. If we broaden the category beyond picture books and into just kid's books themselves... man... A Light In The Attic... The Phantom Tollbooth... any book by Ed Emberley or Edward Gorey. All the Eds."