"Mamalita" of Skippyjon Jones
Parent & Child: Where did you draw the inspiration for the character of Skippyjon Jones from?
Judy Schachner: I’ve always had Siamese cats, and one of my kitties was Skippyjon Jones! He had very large ears when he was a kitten, and as he grew, he seemed to resemble a Chihuahua. He came downstairs one morning, had his breakfast, and proceeded down into the basement to do some thinking inside the litter box, where he was stung by a large bee. He had several stings, and that was the day I always jokingly say he began to speak Spanish to me.
P&C: So the inclusion of Spanish in the manuscripts was natural from that experience?
Schachner: Ever since I was a child I have always wanted to speak different languages. I tried to speak French and I know a teeny little bit of Spanish. In my head, I speak to different characters. So the combination of [my cat] being a very funny animal and very sweet and dear combined with my way of thinking produced this whole line of books.
P&C: When did you first become interested in writing and drawing? Which did you prefer as a child?
Schachner: I think I was born drawing. I remember very early my mother sitting with me at the table; we would draw characters and make them talk to one another. Drawing was just something I loved to do. Recently I was diagnosed with ADD by a third grader. He recognized in me a similar way of thinking. I went to my doctor and said I’d like to know the truth, so she tested me, and I was off the charts. Which explains why, when I was little, when I drew I wasn’t so careful about how I drew. What was really important — and this came to me much later in life — was that I got down an outline or a quick sketch of the character I was creating. That was enough for me to inhabit the skin of that character. Drawing was a vehicle for me to make up stories and create dialogue and to live in the head of all these people that I would draw.
Writing never came easy to me. In school we were always dealing with the rules and conjugations and sentence diagramming, and the logical side of my brain didn’t function that way. It wasn’t until I was forty, when I went to visit editors and my editor asked me if I wrote and I told a big fat lie and said, “Sure!”, that I went back home and tried to write Willy and May [her first book]. That’s when I realized, boy, I don’t have to be a perfect speller — I have a dictionary for that — and my editor helped me, but mostly it’s like you’re having a conversation with yourself. If you can tell a good story, you can write a good story.
P&C: One of the things about the Skippyjon Jones books that’s so exciting is that fun, rhythmic language. Do you think your difficulty with the rules of language helped you to let go and play more and have a good time with it?
Schachner: I think that’s part of it. Also, when I write, I stand at my desk. I’m always writing and then reading out loud, and it’s like I’m doing the same thing that I did when I was a kid. I would stand and put paper on the wall, and I would draw and be moving around and talking to myself the entire time. That’s kind of how I write.
Plus, the Spanish language is a very musical and whimsical language. Skippy thinks he speaks Spanish — he doesn’t, although he uses the diminutive. I’ve worked with adolescent Latino girls for many years and they would always speak to me, saying “Mamalita,” and it was just this conversation we were having, so writing Skippy comes naturally.
P&C: What kind of responses have you gotten to the books?
Schachner: A lot of teachers and other people who love the books also say they’re very difficult to read. I think part of the reason is that you really have to become the characters in the book. You can’t be afraid; you can’t sit back and read it deadpan, you have to really get in and act. I think that’s why kids like it so much. They identify with Skippy and they identify with that rapid-fire way he and the Chimichangos express themselves. So they love it because they’re not that inhibited, but adults, as we get older we become more afraid to just be ourselves. I think when I write I’m always getting into the skin, or in this case — the fur — of the character and becoming them. I think that’s why kids like it so much, because they really believe they are Skippy or Don Diego.
P&C: What kind of advice would you give to kids who want to be artists?
Schachner: They should draw all the time. They should really learn to look and observe carefully. Kids get frustrated when they try to draw things and they hold their pencil very stiffly, and so I’m always trying to tell them to loosen up, to love your mistakes, to get your references. I want them to get in the habit of looking in magazines and newspapers and clipping pictures. Practice drawing those pictures — all artists use reference. When I go to schools I try to get them to see how reference plays a lead part in my work.
P&C: What about parents of those kids who want to be artists? What would you tell them?
Schachner: I’d tell them, in some respects, to leave them alone. Restrict their television watching, restrict their video game playing, and allow time for play. There’s nothing like the idea of looking at that refrigerator box and thinking what you can do with it — that’s more exciting than anything. More exciting than a prepackaged toy. Parents should leave their kids with pencils and paper and not bother them. And read to them — it’s kind of a cliché, but reading to kids is the greatest gift you can give them.