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Like many of our best storytellers, Drew Daywalt might bend the truth just a little. Case in point: In one author biography for his Crayons series, he presented 10 “totally true facts” about himself, including the claims that he eats his weight in bamboo shoots every day and that he was a farmer in the 1800s. “My defense,” he says, “lies in the words of my favorite fictional mentor, Gandalf the Grey: ‘All good stories deserve embellishment.’”
Growing up, Daywalt wrote stories “every chance I got.” One of his topics: the Easter Bunny and Santa as action heroes, with props like “Easter egg grenades and man-eating reindeer. My teacher was not amused, but the other kids were.” Lucky for legions of young readers, his teacher’s disapproval didn’t deter him.
After spending a few years in Hollywood as a script doctor, Daywalt turned to writing children’s books, and has so far produced the best-selling The Day the Crayons Quit and The Day the Crayons Came Home. In April, he came out with the uproariously funny and inventive The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors, sure to be one of your library’s most-borrowed books!
Q | Your background is in film and TV. Did this influence how you approached writing books?
A | When I began my screenwriting career, I discovered my strength was dialogue. I was being called in to do a lot of rewrites to fix bad dialogue in otherwise good scripts. So when I sat down and started seriously writing children’s lit, I thought, Man, you don’t see much dialogue in picture books, and that’s my strength. So I kind of cheated and wrote The Day the Crayons Quit as a series of monologues, but disguised them as letters. It works because picture books are actually meant to be spoken to a child or by a child, just like dialogue in film and TV.
Q | Did you work closely with illustrator Oliver Jeffers to make the Crayons books come to life?
A | Oliver and I never met until the release of The Day the Crayons Quit, but we became friends, and The Day the Crayons Came Home was totally collaborative. He’d send me ideas for dialogue and story, and I’d give him sketched-out ideas and notes on his art. It was really fun!
Q | Did you color a lot as a kid? And did you have the 64-pack?
A | Every Christmas, I’d get the 64-pack. I had a GI Joe coloring book, and I used up all the greens and browns. Because I’d worn down all the earth tones before I got to the end of the book, the last two GI Joes had to be bright primaries. It looked like Andy Warhol and RuPaul dressed those guys.
Q | What are some favorite moments during school visits?
A | My visits are very organic. I introduce myself, talk about what writers do, and explain how books are made. I make a butt joke to get them laughing, and then dive in to teach them about inspiration, personification, irony, why things are funny, that kind of stuff. Even when I’m talking to the really little ones, like kindergartners, I can see that they get it, and suddenly the mystery around creating books is less mysterious. If I’m doing my job right, they can see themselves doing it, too.
Q | How did you come up with the idea for The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors?
A | When I saw my kids playing it, I decided there needed to be a story about the game. I researched it pretty heavily and discovered that it’s possibly millennia old and has no definitive origin story. So I figured I would make up the origin story. And to give it gravitas, I would write it as a mythic hero story. I wanted to make a book that looked like it was about one thing but was really about the opposite. In this case, a book that looked like it was about fighting and conflict was, in the end, really about teamwork, friendship, and challenging yourself to do your best.
Q | Did you play a lot of Rock-Paper-Scissors as a kid?
A | I did play it as a kid, and I’m gonna spill a secret.… I got really good at reading the other kids’ hands at that millisecond after you say, “Go!” but before you throw down. I’d make my hand shape just a microsecond after they did, and I won all the time. So I guess I’m advocating cheating, gambling, as well as cheating at gambling.
Q | Do inanimate objects live large for you?
A | My editor on this book, Donna Bray, asked me the same question. For a moment I was stymied, but I quickly realized the reason. I am the youngest of six siblings, and I was always being told to be quiet, sit still, wait my turn to talk. I hated being silenced all the time. And I was greatly influenced by writers who could change your perspective as you read their work. So, putting those pieces together, I wanted to speak for the underdog, the one who never gets to speak up. That’s the primary reason kids empathize with my characters. They see themselves in those crayons, and hear their own actual, real voices in the voices of those characters.
Q | What are your top three books about inanimate objects?
A | I don’t have three, but I do have one that my mom used to read to me when I was little. It’s What Was I Scared of? by Dr. Seuss, and it’s about a character who, while hiking alone in the woods at night, comes upon a pair of pale-green pants also hiking around. It’s so silly and outrageous that it always made me laugh. What I didn’t realize until I was an adult was that Seuss was writing about empathy and understanding things that frighten us at first—and understanding those who are dramatically different than we are. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to make books that good.
Photo: Courtesy of HarperCollins