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Little Willow

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Interview: Barbara Jean Hicks

After sharing an anecdote about my pets hightailing it into the kitchen whenever I opened a can of Vegetarian Vegetable Soup, author/illustrator Barbara Jean Hicks replied, "Hey, if cats can eat vegetable soup (vegetarian, no less!), certainly little monsters can eat broccoli!" I agree. Don't you?

Last year, I came upon the picture book The Secret Life of Walter Kitty. With a cat on the cover and a title being a play on a Danny Kaye film, I simply had to pick it up and read it! I included it on my Best Books of 2007 list. Earlier this month, Michele from Provato virtually introduced me to Barbara Jean. We quickly struck up a conversation about our pets, our favorite foods, good films, and good books.

I loved your picture book, The Secret Life of Walter Kitty, the title of which was obviously inspired by the story and/or film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Do your pets resemble Walter - pardon me, Fang?

Oddly, Walter/Fang is much more like my current cat, Patches, than he is like the cat who first inspired this story, my darling Miguel, who has since moved on to the Great Mouse Meadow in the Sky. Miguel was a real love, dog-like in his devotion, but his life outside our family circle was obviously something else altogether. (He had the scars to prove it!) Patches, on the other hand, is downright perverse! Dan Santat's representations of Walter's moods express Patches' moods exactly. The common thread between Walter, Patches and Miguel: HUGE personalities. And, I have to think, big imaginations! I've immortalized Miguel on my website in artwork, photos, and words - his story both from my point of view and his.

By the way - I've never actually seen the old Danny Kaye film. (It's on my list!) The film was based on a James Thurber short story that I read in high school (lo, those many years ago). About the time I first started writing for children, I was tutoring a teen in English and introduced her to Thurber. She was so amused by Walter Mitty I knew the idea still had legs. (Thanks, Shanae!) It seemed a natural for cats, who have such an air of mystery about them you just KNOW they have secrets!

Dan Santat's illustrations of Walter are vibrant and playful. Did you write all of the text before seeing his artwork, or was it a collaborative process?

I love Dan's illustrations! For the most part, the manuscript was complete before Dan got involved. In the normal course of a picture book coming to life - at least, when the text and the illustrations are created by different people - the author writes the text, the publisher assigns an illustrator to the project, and never the twain shall meet. In fact, the author is discouraged from communicating with the illustrator so as not to unduly influence him or her. It's a collaborative process in that the illustrator uses the author's text to create his or her own vision of the characters and action, in the process adding much to the story, but the collaboration is rarely face to face. If changes are deemed necessary in either the text or illustrations, they are mediated by the editor and art director. For instance, my editor and art director at Knopf decided Walter needed an additional fantasy scene; Dan came up with an idea and created an image (Fang as Indiana Jones), my editor sent me the artwork, and I created text to go along with the new scene: "Eureka ! The skull of the Mad Monkey King of Mombasa!" One of my favorite lines, which would not have existed without author, editor, art director and artist all working together.

Your next picture book, Monsters Don't Eat Broccoli, will gnaw its way into bookstores next summer. How did you come to team up with illustrator Sue Hendra for this tasty tale?

Okay, this is the exception that proves the rule I talked about in the last answer! Sue Hendra is a prolific British author/illustrator - more than 70 books published, some with her own text and some for other authors. She had completed a dummy for a Random House project in England, a pop-up book called Monsters Eat Skyscrapers. RH, for whatever reason, decided not to go ahead with it. My editor at Knopf was in England on business and happened across Sue's book. She LOVED her sense of humor and quirky illustrations but wasn't interested in the pop-up aspect, plus the story line just didn't work for her. So - she sent me the dummy and asked me if I could come up with a text to go along with the pictures! Highly unusual. In the process of writing a new text, I rearranged the sketches, eliminated some, and made suggestions for new illustrations plus changes in existing ones. I imagine I must have responded to Sue's images in much the same way an illustrator responds to an author's text; it stimulated my own imagination and got my creative juices flowing. In fact, the new story line was inspired by one of the sketches, in which the trees, both their shape and their size relative to the monsters, reminded me of broccoli. So instead of being a book about what monsters eat, it became as much a book about what monsters - and their child surrogates - DON'T eat. Namely, vegetables! Of course there's a twist at the end, and it's really a book that encourages kids to eat good stuff.

Oh - and just for the record, because a number of people have asked me - no, the title is NOT a political statement...

What's your least favorite thing to eat?

Hmm. That's hard to say, because I really don't eat things I don't like! I must admit that vegetables were an acquired taste, however. When I was a little monster, my dad had a huge vegetable garden, but my mom didn't care much for veggies and didn't force us to eat the ones we didn't like. I still don't like beets or lima beans, but I'm okay with almost everything else - even Brussels sprouts! As for broccoli, I like it best either cooked with cheddar in a quiche, or raw, dipped in buttermilk dressing. Not to give the story away, but: "Mmm! Yummy, gummy trees!"

You are an illustrator as well. What are your favorite mediums? Types of canvas? Subjects?

What I most love to do is cut-paper appliqué. I'm more comfortable with a pair of scissors in my hand than I am with either a pencil or a paintbrush. I'm really more a graphic artist than I am a fine artist, and this medium, with its emphasis on simplicity of line and color, is perfect for graphic images. I'm mostly self taught, but have taken several art classes lately and am gaining confidence with other media as well. Miguel, as well as inspiring The Secret Life of Walter Kitty and my toddler book I Like Black and White, also inspired my first cut paper images seven or eight years ago. I still use those particular images on my website, business cards, and school visit materials, and my tuxedo cat greeting cards have been my best sellers. Truly Miguel was a muse of muses! Except for my greeting cards, I haven't pursued publication as an illustrator. Maybe someday!

You have also written full-length novels for adults. Are you focusing on books for young kids now, or do you have any adult novels in the works?

I've been working on a middle grade novel, Maisie's Ghost, for years and haven't got past the fourth chapter! Part of the problem is that writing picture books is an entirely different process from writing a novel. Picture books are like poetry. Every word matters, in very particular ways. I love poetry, imagery, wordplay, the inherent rhythm of language… Picture books are a good fit for me because all those things are such important elements of good picture books. But now when I work on a novel, I find that I'm so focused at the word-level that I lose the story. I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, trying to perfect the language - the poetry - and end up with beautifully written scenes that may have no place in the novel. Arghh! But I still haven't lost interest in Maisie's Ghost, so I think it will happen at some point. I also have a vague idea for an adult novel that I'd like to pursue some day, a story about possibilities and parallel universes and choices made and not made.

In the meantime, I have lots of picture book ideas that need attention, so I'm happy to wait till the time is right. I find the creative process endlessly fascinating. Some things about our creativity can be analyzed and taught and disciplined, but there's magic and wildness in the process too. Ultimately, our best words and images and stories come from deep-down places we don't always understand on a conscious level. I think we have to honor that. I am a believer in following my muse!

Visit the author's website.

Read Barbara Jean's interview at the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) blog.

Visit other stops on the blog tour of authors via Provato.

Related Posts: Cats Cats Cats Booklist, Best Books of 2007
Tags: blog tour, books, interviews

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