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  • Ratha Tep

Interview with Sergio Ruzzier, NO! SAID CUSTARD THE SQUIRREL

Custard the Squirrel, aren’t you a duck? Will you please quack? Will you do anything you don’t want to do? “NO!” said Custard the Squirrel.

NO! Said Custard the Squirrel

By Sergio Ruzzier

Publisher: Abrams Appleseed (September 6, 2022)

Can you tell me how No! Said Custard the Squirrel came about? Your dedication mentions a real Custard the Squirrel. Who is that? SR: "'How did this book come about?' is my most dreaded question to answer. Most of the times I have no idea how I got the idea for a book. But in this case I know perfectly what to answer. To tell the truth, I decided to do this book mainly because I knew I would have an easy time answering that question. Here we go: a couple of years ago my friend Sophie Blackall showed me a photograph of an old, beat-up plush duck she had found. As soon as I saw the picture I thought: that’s Custard the Squirrel. And then the whole story just formed in my mind in a matter of seconds. Custard is undoubtedly a squirrel, a squirrel who is not going to let any stupid diapered rat say otherwise. I based my Custard on Sophie’s plush duck, the real Custard the Squirrel."

For those who love No! Said Custard the Squirrel, can you recommend one or two other books that you think they might also enjoy? "The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson is about a kid who keeps doing what he wants to do ignoring people’s non-requested advice. Uri Shulevitz’s Snow has a similar theme. Maybe it doesn’t have much to do with Custard, to think of it. But it’s a beautiful book, so I will recommend it anyway."

In his interview, Bob Shea called you "the funniest author working today." Who are some other picture book writers that make you laugh? "I wonder if Bob with 'today' meant only that very day of the interview, and I also wonder how he knew I was really working on that day. Creepy Bob. He is known for following authors. Only on social media, but still. Anyway, of course now I will have to reciprocate and answer your question with 'Bob Shea,' but luckily it happens to be true.

His books are always very funny, besides being sweet and unique and clever; and beautifully designed. Like Bob himself. A very funny book he wrote is Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads, which Lane Smith illustrated with his usual mastery.

I like humor that is subtle and unaffected, not brassy or punny. Florence Parry Heide is (unfortunately she died a few years ago, but I think we can still use the present when talking about her as an author) probably the funniest writer I’ve ever read. I had the good fortune of illustrating two of her books: Tales for the Perfect Child and Fables You Shouldn’t Pay Any Attention To (the latter co-written by Sylvia Worth Van Clief). Those books were first published decades ago with drawings by Victoria Chess, who is one of my favorite illustrators. I love every single thing she does.

James Marshall’s humor is brilliant. His George & Martha books are a work of genius. Rowboat Watkins’ books (Rude Cakes; Pete With No Pants, etc.) also have that kind of understated, soft humor that I like, and are complemented beautifully with his unique and always unexpected illustrations."

You are a huge Maurice Sendak fan. What kind of influence did he have on your art? What are your favorite Sendak titles, in order of preference? "I grew up with the five Little Bear books, written by Else Holmelund Minarik and illustrated by Sendak. I learned to read on those books (of course the Italian version, as I grew up in Milan), but even more importantly, I learned to read the pictures, and how these work with the words to create a unique language. Later, as a teenager, when I started to be interested in drawing with pen and ink, I kept those same books very close, for guidance. Little Bear was the only work by Sendak that I knew as a kid, but later on I found more and more of his books, especially after my move to New York, in my 20s.

All of his books are good and beautiful, but I can mention a few that are of particular importance to me (I’m not sure I am able to list them in any order, sorry!). The four volumes in The Nutshell Library; Outside Over There; Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (written by Charlotte Zolotow); A Hole is to Dig (written by Ruth Krauss). And Bumble-Ardy. The more I read and look into that book, the more I understand its brilliancy.

Meeting and getting to know Maurice was wonderful and strange. He was very warm, sarcastic, curious, generous. Sometimes childish, in the best sense of the word. He had high standards in judging a book or a drawing, even and especially his own. Since I met him, I find it more difficult to send out a work if I know I could have done better. Don’t get me wrong, I can still manage to send it out, but it’s more difficult than before meeting him."

Who are some other artists who've had a huge influence on you?

"Let’s see. In no particular order, here are a few: Simone Martini, Hieronymus Bosch, Edward Gorey, Alfred Kubin, George Herriman, Elzie C. Segar, Charles Schulz, Arnold Lobel, Roland Topor."

What would be on your list of 100 best picture books of all time?

"I already mentioned a bunch of Sendak’s books, so I’ll skip them here. Also, when I like an author I tend to like most of their books, but here I will mention only one or two by each.

The Doubtful Guest by Edward Gorey

The Loathsome Couple by Edward Gorey

George & Martha series by James Marshall

The Piggy in the Puddle by Charlotte Pomerantz and James Marshall

Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel (I know these are not exactly picture books, but I am putting them in the list anyway)

Yellow & Pink by William Steig

The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer

Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág

I Saw a Ship A-Sailing by Beni Montresor

Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs

The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin and Marc Simont

Babar and Zephir by Jean de Brunhoff

Toddlecreek Post Office by Uri Shulevitz (possibly the saddest picture book ever published)

Phew… I’ll stop here, but there so many more great books out there that I should mention.

Oops! How could I leave this one out?! Wolf Erlbruch’s Death, Duck, and the Tulip. Such a great book."

What are some upcoming books you're most looking forward to reading? "Because I don’t live in the U.S. anymore, sometimes I miss out on books that I used to find in my favorite NY area bookstores (Books of Wonder, The Curious Reader, etc.). For example, I still have to see Lane Smith’s A Gift for Nana, Ali Bahrampour’s Monsters in the Fog, Sophie Blackall’s Farmhouse, and a bunch more. I will surely get my copies very soon.

I also want to find out if there is anything new by Maria Gulemetova, who did such a lovely job with Beyond the Fence. Other authors I am always happy when I find new books by are: Beatrice Alemagna, Alexis Deacon, Jon Agee… I know I left out many more. Oh, well."


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