Evangeline Mudd and the Golden-Haired Apes of the Ikkinasti Jungle
by David Elliott
Published by Candlewick Press
208 pages, 2004
David Elliott developed his sense of humor early while growing up in a small, Ohio town with the claim to fame of having the first concrete street in the United States. Of his childhood home, David says: "There were many, many great things about it, and many kind of absurd things about it. Having a strong sense that in many ways life is beautiful but also absurd has really influenced me."
This sense of the absurd, as well as David's ability to find joy in the everyday, is evident in his children's stories. In titles like The Transmogrification of Roscoe Wizzle, Hazel Nutt Mad Scientist and Evangeline Mudd and the Golden-Haired Apes of the Ikkinasti Jungle, both children and adult readers are taken on wild rides on which they discover innovative plots connecting by story's end. This too is to be expected from a writer who counts Dickens as a literary influence.
David's first book, Alphabet of Rotten Kids, was published more than a dozen years ago. Since then, he has published six other children's books -- including the New York Times bestseller And Here's to You -- and has six more titles on the way. He was awarded the Book Sense 76 selection for The Transmogrification of Roscoe Wizzle, of which Publisher's Weekly states "Colorful plot twists and character names ... combine with sassy first-person narration and snappy dialogue to skew the proceedings a few thoroughly enjoyable degrees off normal."
Bradley Dunbaugh: The Transmogrification of Roscoe Wizzle is about a little boy who turns into a bug. Was there a Transmogrification of David Elliott -- not to say that you turned into a bug -- but into a writer of children's books?
David Elliott: The truth is, I'm 56, so every morning I look in the mirror and I am transmogrified right before my very eyes. More than that, I hope that I am always changing, transmogrifying and transforming into the next thing. Whenever I inscribe Roscoe Wizzle, I write in it, "Life is change," because to me, that is what life is all about.
In terms of, did I wake up one day and say: I'm a children's author? I really did not do that. My first book was published 12 years ago, An Alphabet of Rotten Kids. It was total serendipity. I had always written, all kinds of things, but I had never thought of taking it beyond my own house. Then I met someone who had been an editor ... at Dial Press. At first, I didn't know that. I thought she was just somebody else who liked to write and knew about writing. She read that first manuscript, called me, and asked if she could send it to someone. The book was published, and I realized: Oh, I can do this, this will be good.
And you know, I wrote a lot, and I found out I really couldn't do it. I got a lot of rejections until I really learned my craft. It's only been in the last three or so years that I would say yeah, I'm a children's author, and I still wouldn't even say that. I write [Laughs]. I'm a writer, and my audience is kids.
Candlewick Press describes the Transmogrification of Roscoe Wizzle as "Part Franz Kafka, part Roald Dahl." That's an interesting statement, especially for those of us who have read The Metamorphosis. Of course, Roald Dahl is the author of James and the Giant Peach, one of my favorite children's books. What authors have actually influenced your work?
One writer that I still love is Dickens. I love those twisted plots and funny names and eccentric characters, where everything all works out somehow in the end. I do think you can see some of that in Roscoe Wizzle, where the various elements of the plot come together.
Growing up as I did in a small town in Ohio in the 50s and 60s ... in order for me to survive there, I really needed to develop a sense of the absurd. It's the home of the first concrete street in the United States. They actually elected a "Miss Concrete Street." It was that kind of place. There were many, many great things about it, and many kind of absurd things about it. Having a strong sense that in many ways life is beautiful but also absurd has really influenced me.
I hope that every single minute that I've been conscious has influenced me. I hope that I'm alive enough that I'm taking in life as I live my own, and that life finds its way, one way or another, into my work.
Can you explain a little about the author/illustrator relationship, and how it works?
Yeah, I can explain the relationship in three words: there is none [Laughing]. So many people -- especially when we're talking about making a picture book or a book that is heavily illustrated -- so many people go into the making of that book that the author is really one part of the whole. And I'm not sure the author is the most important part, although all my author friends would kill me for saying that. There's the author, then there's the editor, the art director, the illustrator, and increasingly the sales staff have a large say in how things look, or sometimes even if manuscripts are purchased.
I'm really lucky because at Candlewick and Holiday House -- the two places that [publish me] -- they're very progressive. With Candlewick in particular, we spend a lot of time looking at various illustrators, and I feel like I have a lot of input. But I try not to be too much of an artist about it. I feel that it's part of my job to get out of their way and let them do their work. If we come to loggerheads, I often say: Okay, you guys seem to know what you're doing. And I kind of wait and hold my breath. That's worked well for me, although I know other people it doesn't work well for.
If I'm working on a picture book, I might have an idea of what I think the illustrations should be like, or I might have a particular illustrator in mind as I'm working, because that provides an anchor for me and helps me map out or plan the book better. I also know that my idea is probably not going to be the one. The way I think the book looks in my head when I'm writing it is not going to be the way that the book looks when it's on the shelf. It can be disappointing, but in a way it's kind of nice. I feel like I've done my part, now let's see what they can do.
The opposite end of the illustration spectrum is when you do work directly with the illustrator. In Hazel Nutt, Mad Scientist, you worked with True Kelley, who lives in the same town as you. What was that experience like?
It was different in that True would call me and say: I finished the sketches and I'm going to bring them over, let's look at them. In that book -- it's just about craziness -- it was really fun because True is very quick at her work. She wanted to have some kind of carnivorous plant in Hazel's laboratory, so I said: How about a Venus cow-trap? In two seconds she was whipping up a little flowerpot with a plant with a big cow head in the middle of it. I don't want to take any sort of credit away from True, because she conceptualized that book in her own way.
The illustrations have these little -- I'll call them Easter eggs -- where you point out patent-pending inventions by Hazel Nutt. Was this part of the original concept, or did it grow out of your collaboration with the illustrator?
Most of those were True's. She was really great, she would check them out with me and say: Do you think this or that is too much? For me, it's never too much. The more that book pushed the boundaries, the happier I was.
This is an interesting point, because children are attracted to the subversive -- you know, breaking the rules and getting away with things that adults might not agree with. What do you think of stories that are just plain fun for children, with no moral or value message to them?
It's kind of interesting that you ask, because I'm thinking a lot about that right now. Almost everything I do for kids is funny, or people say it's funny, or I hope it's funny. My friend Susan Goodman, who does non-fiction, we kind of joke, because she says that nonfiction is at the bottom of children's literature barrel, and humor is just right above that, because people don't value it very much, they don't think that it's serious. It seems kind of strange to say that humor is serious, but I think that it can be very serious.
I know from my own experiences in life that humor for the sake of humor is as valuable as any other tool in helping us to make sense of and get through our lives. If you look at the Newbury books, and there's some great books in there, too; but so many books are dealing with very heavy issues, and yet they're for third and fourth graders. I do know lots of kids who say they don't like those books. I feel that's because the books are not really written to the audience that they're intended for, even though the "gatekeepers" like them -- the teachers and the librarians and the parents -- they think that these are the books that children ought to read. They may be right, maybe children ought to read those books, but I don't think they're the only books that children ought to read.
When I'm writing, I'm just trying to tell the story. I don't set out to be funny, I don't set out to think I'm going to be subversive, I don't set out to think: Oh, I have this message that I want to get across. I'm just really trying to tell a story. In the course of telling that story -- usually it starts out with a character -- these other elements find their way in and begin to shape the story. As it turns out, humor almost always does find its way into the story, or elements that people might consider subversive, social issues find their way in; which I'm happy about, but which in some ways are very secondary to what I'm trying to do -- which is to simply tell the story.
What was fun for me, in reading Hazel Nutt, was that some of the humorous references were probably more meaningful to me as an adult than they might be to a child. For example, Hazel uses leftover monster parts to build a monster piano called Frankensteinway. When you write a children's book, do you ever keep in mind how to attract the adults who will buy the book while you are writing it, so that you intentionally incorporate adult themes?
I don't, but I should. If I did, I'd be a lot more successful! If you take that example, the "Frankensteinway," I think that most kids are going to know Frankenstein. He's so much a part of the general culture, I mean he's in cartoons, he's everywhere. What I think kids will not get about that joke is the Steinway part of it. But I didn't really consider that. This is another reason why adults should be less editorial about the range of books their children are reading. When a kid picks up a book, we never know what they are going to take away from that book, and it doesn't make any difference if the book is something as silly as Hazel Nutt Mad Scientist, or something that is much more serious in its theme and tone and concerns.
I can give you an example from my own life. When I was young, I read a lot of comic books, and I loved Scrooge McDuck. I read tons of Scrooge McDuck. In one of those episodes, the Harpies were attacking him and making him eat parsnips. At the time, I did not know that the Harpies were straight out of Greek mythology, but I always remembered them because they were fascinating, you know? They were these women who were flying, and I understood that they were dangerous and scary and made you eat parsnips. I know it sounds crazy, but I love the Greek myths today. I often read them, I refer to them a lot and I think about them a lot. I came from a working class family, so it isn't like my Mom and Dad were sitting around talking about, you know, Persephone. They were working. So that is how I was introduced to the myths: I was introduced to them through something that I loved, which happened to be Scrooge McDuck.
We can't predict what a child is going to take away from anything he or she is reading. I definitely think that a kid can get just as much out of a children's book like Captain Underpants, as he is going to get out of something that may win the Newbery Prize. I'm not a snob about these things. I feel very democratic about it. I wish everybody did.
In Hazel Nutt Mad Scientist, you stay in her magical world the entire time -- unlike a story like, say, Where the Wild Things Are, where the protagonist enters a magical world then returns to the real world. Is it important to separate the two in children's fiction?
I don't think so. That's what it means to be a child, where those things are not so separated. Even as adults, I think that we should do the opposite. Instead of trying to separate them in our adult life, we should be trying to unite them. There is, in my experience of life -- and I don't mean this in any new-age kind of way -- there is an a-logical world, as well as a logical world. Things like intuition, where we don't know how we know things, but we know them. I think that in our culture now, we are trying so hard to destroy that world -- let's call it magic -- and I don't think its taking us to a good place.
In the jacket of Cool Crazy Crickets, you have a quote that "giving characters just the right name in a story is one of the most important things a writer can do." Why do you say that, and do you think it applies just to children's stories?
I want to give a nod to Charles Dickens, because that is one really clear way that I've been influenced by him, because of the fabulous names of his characters. By naming my characters, I find out a lot about them, because names are the banners through which we go through life. Especially when you are creating a character and creating a name, you can work the two together -- and sometimes they work oppositely in an interesting way -- it's very effective and helps to tell the story.
In the case of Roscoe Wizzle, an older, more established writer said that I should change the name. I was thinking about it, wondering: Gee, should I change the name to Tommy? When I got a call from somebody who did not know I wrote for kids. He was making a joke, so when I picked up the phone and said hello, he said: Hello, this is Roscoe. Sometimes the cosmos speaks to us, where this a-logical world I was talking about is at work. To me, when I heard him say: This is Roscoe, just at the time I was thinking I should change the name to Tommy, I realized then: No, I should not name the character Tommy. I should name him Roscoe.
Look at the names in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. They were wonderful.
I especially love Charlie Bucket. That's such a great name, because it tells us he's just a plain little boy -- he's just as plain as a bucket.
Moving from names to roles. I found it interesting in Cool Crazy Crickets, that each of the characters in the book had a distinct role. How important is it to have predefined roles in a children's book? You know: the leader, the brains...
I had four main characters in there. For younger children who are just learning to read, those characters needed to be distinct. As those characters started to talk, and as I got to know them a little bit, it became clear that Leo was going to be the leader and that Phoebe would be dreamer and a little out of it. As it became clearer, it became easier to write, because each kid was speaking in the way that he or she spoke.
I was just looking at some sketches of that book yesterday, because I did a school visit. It was interesting because the illustrator, Paul Meisel -- who did a great job -- himself got confused. If you look in the front of that book, there's a little kind of photo gallery on the title page, with round cameo portraits of each of the kids. That was part of the designer's idea to help children who were just learning to read, by distinguishing the characters from each other.
One of the facets that I enjoyed in Cool Crazy Crickets was how the kids found joy in everyday things -- like a stray cat that is first something to be feared, then something to be rescued and ultimately a friend. I appreciated how you captured that joy of the everyday, and wondered how you find that same inspiration to carry it through your stories.
If only I could! Actually, I'm happy to hear you say that. Partly, I think that it's my responsibility to say to kids in my books, that life is a joy. Because, even though as adults we know life is sometimes rarely a joy, and sometimes much worse, sometimes it's neither joy nor tragedy, but just getting through the day. Kids need to believe that life is a joy, so that when they're older, they have a reserve: they have a strong foundation of faith that, as in fairy tales, things will turn out fine. Some part of our psyche needs to believe that, and needs to know it in order for us to live successfully and to live well. Because, if we don't have hope -- especially in the face of dire circumstances and darker times -- then we have very little. I think the time to instill that hope is as young as possible.
Do you ever find yourself unintentionally talking down to your readers, or lecturing them? Are there clues you look for in your own writing that help you to level your writing and style to the audience you have in mind?
I don't think I ever find myself talking down to my audience, I hope I don't. And the reason I don't think I do is that I hear from a lot of kids who love the books. If I did that, I don't think I would hear from those kids. In terms of leveling the story ... maybe the plot and interest level of the story is for very, very young kids, but the language and the humor is for older kids. Sometimes that can be very schizophrenic, and that's something I do have to think about. I will be rewriting something that very clearly has that problem. It's 60 pages long, and really it should be about 25 pages long, and the chapters are three to four pages long and they should be about a page and a half long, a lot of the humor is above the audience. So, I can get into a mess that way.
What type of editorial pressures will publisher place on children's books authors?
I don't know what they place on other authors, but I know what they place on me: and that is to be funny. That can be, sometimes, a little off-putting, because I don't always feel funny. I don't know ... I guess that I am funny! If I write something that is not funny, my editor at Candlewick, who I adore, she always says: Oh, this is too earnest. So I do have that kind of pressure. Other editors who are interested in my work always say to me: Oh, please send us something that is really funny.
In the opposite extreme, are children's author's pushed to homogenize their stories to the point where no one -- and I mean no one -- will be offended? For example, ensuring that there is a balance of race represented across all the characters.
I have to tell you, I think it's the opposite. I can give you examples from my own life. The first book, an Alphabet of Rotten Kids, was a case where I did not see any of the illustrations until the book was completed. I was surprised when I saw them, because all the kids were white. I was a little disappointed, because the world is not all white. I wanted any kid to be able to pick up and read my book and see himself or herself there.
In The Cool Crazy Crickets, I was asked if I had any ideas about the illustrations and the only thing I said was that I just didn't want the kids to be all white. And then somebody said: So we'll have one Asian kid, one black, one white..." and I said: No, it doesn't have to be like that.
If you look at the kids, two or three are of kind of indeterminate race -- they could be Spanish, they could be Black, they could be Indian, or maybe American Indian. I was very pleased about that. It's also really helped the book. A literary group is using that book in Washington D.C. They're distributing it to 4000 inner city kids. They've made lesson plans with it, and each of the kids has a pen pal, they work with the parents to do activities around things in the book. I couldn't be more pleased because I know that all kinds of kids -- kids of every color -- can look in that book and see themselves, or a cousin, or a brother, or a sister in it.
What makes a children's book and story last through the generations?
Of course, it's got to have all the things that any book has to have: it has to have a compelling story and compelling characters and the writing at the sentence level also has to be compelling. But you know, there has to be something more than that. Any writer worth his or her salt should be able to come up with those things. There has to be something else, and I'm not sure exactly what that is. Take a book as simple as Good Night Moon: I don't know how many words that book has in it, but not very many. And what happens is really nothing: a little bunny goes to bed. He says good night to the things in his room, and that's it. But there is something about that book, both in the illustrations and in the text, that somehow gets into the psychic world of the child. That book, as simple as it is, has been around for 50 years. I also think the book comforts the adults who read it, as well as the children who are hearing it. I think there are all kinds of reasons. But I think it's kind of a mystery in a certain way as to why it's so successful. Whatever it is, the book is tapping into something larger than itself.
You studied classical voice. How has music impacted your literary life?
I really try to be aware of the music in the language. I hope that I put together sentences that, when read aloud, are pleasing to the ear. One of the reviews of Evangeline Mudd mentions that this will be wonderful read aloud. I was very pleased with that. In the rhyming stuff I write, the music is implicit and in that way it has really impacted it a lot. In Evangeline Mudd, she ends up being a concert pianist, and there is a section where she is in the jungle, and she thinks it's like being in a great symphony. In that way, music does find its way into the books.
Many children's stories use an animal as the protagonist, and all of your stories use children in the protagonist role. Is there any appeal for you in writing a children's book where animals are the primary character?
There hasn't been up to now. Although, I do have this idea that I would like to tell a story in the first person of a mouse. There's a Victorian explorer named Mary Kingsley. She was one of these characters who went into the heart of Africa in her bustle and long dresses with people carrying her tea service and all of that. I've always wanted to tell her story from the standpoint of a mouse that somehow got into her luggage.
One book, not my next book, maybe two or three books down the line, I do think is going to be in the voice of a piano. I know it sounds kind of crazy, and I haven't quite figured it out yet, but I am eager to do that. | November 2004
Bradley Dunbaugh is a student in Lesley University's MFA program for creative writing. This is his first published work.