Interview with Michael Sussman, DUCKWORTH, THE DIFFICULT CHILD
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)
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!"