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I recently had the honor of interviewing Marsha Wilson Chall, the author of the new picture book, The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo, and her editor, Jill Davis.
Marsha Wilson Chall grew up an only child in Minnesota, where her father told her the best stories. The author of many picture books, including Up North at the Cabin, One Pup’s Up, and Pick a Pup, Marsha teaches writing at Hamline University’s MFAC program in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lives on a small farm west of Minneapolis with her husband, dog, barn cats, and books.
Jill Davis has been an executive editor in children’s books at HarperCollins since 2013. A veteran of children’s books, she began her career at Random House in 1992, and worked there at Crown and Knopf Books For Young Readers until 1996, after which she worked at Viking until 2005. After that, she held positions at both Bloomsbury and Farrar, Straus & Giroux. She is the author of three picture books, editor of one collection of short stories, and has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University
Mark: The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo came about in a different way than most picture books. You were asked to write a story based on illustrations of a character. Could you tell us about this process and a little about the story?
Marsha: You’re right that this story evolved differently than my others. My amazing editor, Jill Davis, sent me Alison Friend’s thumbnails of an adorable canine character she had named Figgy Mustardo in a variety of human-like poses and costumes. For me, it was love at first sight! So I set about the process of creating Figgy’s story based on my impressions of him through Alison’s art and then, via Jill, Alison’s written notions of his characterization and story ideas.
An imaginative, spirited fellow, Alison visualized Figgy zipping through many adventures on his scooter. In the book, I took the liberty of changing the scooter to a race car and also cast Figgy as a rock star and a pizza chef who organizes and stars in a neighborhood rock concert, pizzeria, and stock car race with his animal friends. Lots of Figgy fun, but this did not a story make. I needed to know why these activities mattered to Figgy and how he grew as a character.
I also had to think about the nuts and bolts of how Figgy might transform from dog to dilettante. I was fairly certain of my own dog’s boredom and loneliness while our family is away, so I started my story exploration there. We all know that dogs, as social creatures, dislike being left alone and are often fraught with anxiety leading to certain not-so-flattering behaviors and/or the escape of sleep. A story with a sleeping dog would not be too interesting, so I chose the much more exciting, destructive route. What if Figgy ate things–any things–in his frustration, fell asleep, and dreamed about himself as a manifestation of what he ate? We all know “you are what you eat,” so in Figgy’s case, for example, he eats Mrs. Mustardo’s Bone Appetit magazine, falls asleep, and dreams of being Italian Pizza Chef Mustardo serving Muttsarello and Figaro pizzas to adoring gourmands. When he wakes, he knows his dream is a sign, so he makes a real one of his own, “Free Pizza,” and serves his entire animal neighborhood at Figgy’s Pizzeria.
Most importantly, I needed to develop a motivation for Figgy’s adventures; how were these events connected to him? What did they mean? How would they affect Figgy’s world outside and inside? The answer arrived in the form of loss; every animal neighbor came to Figgy’s concert and pizzeria and car race except Figgy’s family, the Mustardos, especially George (his boy). In desperation, Figgy creates the sign “Free Dog” to find a family who will talk and walk and play with him like all the other families he sees through his window. Where are the Mustardos? The family Mustardo arrives in time to show Figgy how much they care with a promise to take him wherever they can and to provide him companionship when they can’t in the form of new pup named Dot. Figgy and Dot go on to enliven the neighborhood with Free Shows nightly.
Mark: What kind of revising/editing process did you and Jill go through?
Marsha: Once I knew my character and his problem, I dashed off the story, sent it to Jill who loved it at first sight, then sat back satisfied with a good day’s work.
Ha! Not the way it happened, but I did write a first draft within a few days that Jill found promising. So many drafts later that I can’t even recall the original, Jill exercised plenty of patience waiting for the story she and Alison hoped I could write. I know she’ll protest my tribute, but I have never worked with an editor so open to my trial and error. Her abundant humor carried us through the process that I think would have otherwise overwhelmed me.
Mark: Will there be any more books with Figgy and his further adventures?
Marsha: Figgy hopes so and so do Jill, Alison, and I. For now, I hope Figgy wags his way into the hands and hearts of many human friends where he belongs.
Mark: How was this project different having a character first and then having to find a writer to tell his story?
Jill: It was kind of hard. The illustrator had invented this little dog who she wanted to be an adventurer—yet she wasn’t sure how to make the story happen. When I saw the dog, I thought of Marsha’s One Pup’s Up—and I knew how talented she was. Seemed like a slam dunk! But all of us—Marsha, myself, and the illustrator, Alison Friend, had to share plenty of feedback, edit, and revise a bit before Marsha was able to tell both the story she envisioned as well as the story Alison had in mind. Marsha pictured Figgy at home, and really loved the idea of using signs. Alison seemed to feel Figgy was some kind of James Bond. So how were those two visions going to meet? They finally did when Marsha realized that Figgy would go to sleep and dream about his exciting alter-ego. And we all loved the idea. The book may seem a little bit sad because Figgy is always being left at home, but Marsha told it in such a great way that Figgy showed his grit! If he’s hungry, he eats what’s there—but then the magic happens and he goes to sleep and dreams of something related to what he ate. It’s so fun and so imaginative. I love what Marsha did with Figgy’s story, and Alison did, too.
Mark: What was it like to work with Marsha in this new role as editor after being her student in the MFA in Writing for Children program at Hamline University?
Jill: It felt very wonderful and natural. Marsha does not use intimidation as a tactic in general. She’s the rare combination of brilliant and super silly. That’s one reason she’s so loved at Hamline and in the continental United States, generally speaking.
There were times when she should have been frustrated or wanted to spit at me, but she was cool as a cucumber in the freezer in the North Pole. So professional and what I loved also about working with her is how much I learned. I learned how she makes use of repetition, alliteration, and very careful editing. I can be sloppy, but Marsha walked straight out of Strunk and White. She’s exact and wonderfully detail-oriented. She was also involved at the sketch stage. Actually at several sketch stages. We worked on the phone, we worked at Hamline, and we worked until we thought it felt perfect. And she loved it because she could use it in her teaching! And I just loved working with Marsha!
Mark: Thank you Marsha and Jill for taking the time to tell us about your collaboration on The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo. The book is now available at everyone’s local independent book store.
In this interview with Jennifer A. Bell, illustrator of many endearing books, we’ve asked about the process of illustrating Little Cat’s Luck, our Bookstorm™ this month, written for second, third, and fourth graders as a read-aloud or individual reading books.Jennifer was also the illustrator for Marion Dane Bauer’s earlier novel-in-verse, Little Dog, Lost.
What media and tools did you use to create the soft illustrations in Little Cat’s Luck?
These illustrations were rendered in pencil and finished in Adobe Photoshop.
Do you use real animals for models? Are they animals you know?
I do have a cat. I find Google image searches to be a bit more helpful when I need to find details of different animal breeds or specific poses.
How are the decisions you make about drawing in black-and-white different than those you make about drawing in color?
I love working in black-and-white. I get to narrow my focus onto lighting, value contrast, and textures. It’s much faster than working in color. Color adds another layer of decision-making and can make things more complicated.
The covers for Little Cat’s Luck and Little Dog, Lost are so vibrantly colored. Do you get to choose the color palette for the covers or are you asked to use those colors?
Initially, I had submitted many cover sketches for Little Dog, Lost. Most of them were moody nighttime scenes with the exception of a daytime park sketch. Simon and Schuster thought that image worked the best and we went from there. That cover went through many revisions. The dog changed, the composition was adjusted, and the colors got brighter and brighter. When we started working on Little Cat’s Luck the cover needed to look different than the dog book but still coordinate.
How did you interact with the art director for these books?
There was a lot of back and forth on the covers but I had more freedom working on the interior illustrations. I had a set number of illustrations to come up with and they set me loose with the manuscript. The art director then used my sketches to lay out the book. Once they could see how it all came together we made some adjustments and I was able to work on the final artwork.
When does the book designer get into the process?
The art directors for these books were also the designers.
What does the book designer do beyond what you’ve already done?
So much! They design the cover and book jacket. They choose the fonts. They paginate the text and illustrations and prepare the book to be printed.
Jennifer, thank you for taking the time to share these insights into your work with our readers. One of the reasons we fell in love with both Patches and Gus, and with Buddy in Little Dog, Lost, is because you have such a deft way with characterization.
For use with your students, Marion’s website includes a book trailer, a social-emotional learning guide, and a teaching guide that you’ll find useful as you incorporate this book into your planning.
In this interview with Marion Dane Bauer, we’re asking about her novel-in-verse, Little Cat’s Luck, our Bookstorm™ this month, written for second, third, and fourth graders as a read-aloud or individual reading books. It’s a good companion to her earlier novel-in-verse, Little Dog, Lost.
When the idea for this story came to you, was it a seed or a full-grown set of characters and a storyline?
I began by sitting down to write another Little Dog, Lost, but not with the same characters, so it was easiest to start with a cat. When I begin a story, any story, I always know three things: who my main character will be, what problem she will be struggling with (knowing the problem, of course, includes knowing about the story’s antagonist, in this case “the meanest dog in town), and what a resolution will feel like. So I knew Patches would be lost and I knew she would encounter “the meanest dog in town” and I knew she and Gus must be believable friends in the end. I wasn’t sure, though, how their friendship would evolve. So I sent her out the window after that golden leaf and then waited to see what would happen.
You’ve stated that Little Cat’s Luck is a “companion book” for your earlier novel-in-verse, Little Dog, Lost. What does that term mean to you?
It’s not a sequel, because it’s not the same characters or the same place (though it’s another small town). I have however written it in the same manner—a story told in verse through a narrator—which gives it the same kind of feel. The same artist, Jennifer Bell, did the illustrations, too. Each book stands alone, but they could also be read side-by-side, compared and enjoyed together. One significant difference is that Little Cat’s Luck is entirely devoted to the world of the animals where Little Dog, Lost is focused more on the humans. In Little Cat’s Luck we see the humans only tangentially as they affect the animals, and because the animals stand at the center of the story I allow them to converse with one another. That doesn’t happen from the human perspective of Little Dog, Lost.
When you’re writing animal characters, which you do so well, from where are you drawing knowledge of their behavior?
I have always had animals in my life, cats when I was a child, both dogs and cats as an adult, though in recent years I’ve grown somewhat allergic to cats so no longer have them in my home. But I have lived with dogs and cats, paid close attention to them, loved them all my life, and when I turn to them as characters in a story I know exactly how they will be. In fact, since I can’t cuddle real cats any longer without ending up with itchy eyes, I found deep pleasure in bringing Patches to life on the page.
In creating Patches, you’ve imbued her with characteristics and dialogue that could be identified as human and yet you’ve maintained her animal nature. At what part of your process did you find yourself watching for that border between human and animal?
The moment I give an animal human speech, I have violated its animal nature. We are who we are as humans precisely because we talk, and we do it constantly, with good and bad results. We converse to understand one another, and we call one another names. In stories it can be very difficult to hold onto the animal nature of a dog or cat while human words are coming from their mouths. When I wrote my novel Runt, about a wolf pup, I chose to give the animals speech, following the pattern of marvelous writers such as Felix Salten, the author of Bambi, a Life in the Woods. And while that was a very intentional choice, it was a choice I found myself not wanting to repeat when I considered writing a sequel to Runt. I returned to my wolf research in preparation for writing that second book and found myself so impressed with the subtle, complex ways wolves actually communicate with one another that I put the idea for a sequel aside. I found I didn’t want to put speech into their mouths again. However, when I wrote Little Cat’s Luck I put that concern aside easily, partly I suppose because cats are domesticated animals, so speech felt less a violation. I gave them roles that are familiar in our human world, too, for Patches be a mother and for Gus to be a hurting bully, which made it easy to know what they might say. Throughout, though, I retained their animal nature by staying close to their physicality. Describing the way they move and the things they do with their bodies kept their animal natures in view.
Gus, the dog, is at once the “meanest dog in town” and the character who earns the most sympathy and admiration from readers. Was the “villain” of your story always this dog? Did he become more or less mean during your revision process?
Gus was always the villain, and he always started out mean. In fact, I didn’t know how mean he could be until he took possession of those kittens … and then of Patches herself! But by that time I understood Gus, understood the need his pain—and thus his meanness—came from, and thus knew he was acting out of desperation, not out of a desire to hurt. So that meant my story could find a reasonable and believable solution, that Patches, the all-loving, all-wise mother, could succeed in reforming “the meanest dog in town.”
How conscious are you of your readers, their age and reading ability, when you’re writing a novel like Little Cat’s Luck or Little Dog, Lost?
When I’m writing, I’m focused on my story and my characters, not my readers. I hope there will be readers one day, of course, but I’m writing through my characters, through my story without giving much thought for what will happen to it out in the world. If I can inhabit my story well, and if my story comes out of my young readers’ world, it will serve them. However, reading ability is another matter, and one I must take into consideration. I have written many books for developing readers, and I love the kinds of stories that work for young readers, so I have loved writing them. I wrote a series of books for Stepping Stones aimed at developing readers, ghost stories The Blue Ghost, The Red Ghost, etc., The Secret of the Painted House, The Very Little Princess, and more. And they were a great pleasure to write. But after I time I grew restless over having to write in short sentences to make the reading manageable for those still developing their skills. So when I came to write Little Dog, Lost, I said to myself, What if I wrote in verse? If I did that, the bite-sized lines would make it easier to read, and I wouldn’t have to alter the natural flow of my style. I did it, and it seemed to work, not just for reviewers and the adults who care about kids’ books, but for my young readers themselves. And I have been very happy with having discovered a new—for me—way of presenting a story. That’s why I decided to do Little Cat’s Luck in the same way.
Little Dog, Lost was your first novel-in-verse. With Little Cat’s Luck, are you feeling comfortable with the form or do you feel there are more challenges to conquer?
I was much more comfortable with the form with Little Cat’s Luck. When I started Little Dog, Lost I felt tentative. Could I really do this? Would anyone want it if I did? Was I just dividing prose into short lines or was I truly writing verse? So many questions. But after a time, I grew to love the form, and when I was ready to start again with a new story, I knew verse was the right choice. The one change I brought to verse form in Little Cat’s Luck is that this time I began experimenting with concrete verse, letting a word fall down the page when it described falling, curl when Patches curls into a nap and more. That was fun, too, but the challenge was to play with the shape of the words on the page without making deciphering more difficult for young readers. I’m guessing there will be more discoveries ahead if I return to this form.
Do you think visually or primarily in words?
Totally through words. Absolutely and totally. In fact, when I receive the first art for one of my picture books, I always go through the entire thing reading the text. And then I say to myself, “Oh, I’m supposed to be looking at the pictures!” and I go back to look. I didn’t have to prompt myself to be more visual, though, to play with the concrete poetry. Once I’d started doing it, opportunities to do more kept popping up, so even though I was using only words my thinking became more visual.
What is the most important idea you’d like to share with teachers and librarians about Patches and Buddy that you hope they’ll take with them to their students and patrons?
I believe that the most important thing a story does, any story, is to make us feel. By inhabiting a story, living through it, we are transformed in some small—or sometimes large—way. I know that when stories are used in the classroom, they are used for multiple purposes, and that is as it should be, but I hope adults presenting Patches and Buddy will first let the children experience the boy, the dog, the cat, will let them feel their stories from the inside. After the stories have been experienced, as stories, there is plenty of time to use those words on the page for vocabulary lessons or as a prompt for children to write their own verse stories or anything else they might be useful for. But always, I hope, the story will be first.
Thank you, Marion, for sharing your thoughts and writing journey with us.
For use with your students, Marion’s website includes a book trailer, a social-emotional learning guide, and a teaching guide that you’ll find useful as you incorporate this book into your planning.