Q | In This Is Me, a teacher asks students to pack their most-cherished possessions in a suitcase for a lesson on emigration.
A | I was made aware of using a suitcase as a teaching tool for emigration from both a friend of mine as well as from Michael Moore’s documentary Where to Invade Next. He shows that in Germany it is part of the curriculum to talk to young people about exodus—fleeing your homeland and taking objects and possessions with you as you go.
I thought it was an interesting thing to explore with very young kids, with first graders, this idea of impermanence and adventure. I’ve made it much less political and much more about the adventure of a new environment.
It’s a way to personalize the difficulty of [emigration] by condensing all of those feelings and fears into a suitcase. Because they’re first graders, I’m trying to explore the adventure of moving to a new environment.
Q | The students choose to bring a wonderfully wacky array of items with them—from a ukulele to a signed “Weird Al” CD. How did you choose what each character would take?
A | First of all, you have to remember who my illustrating partner is. I’ve had an illustrating partner, Laura Cornell, for 26 years and I know her talent.
I also knew that, since it’s first graders, it had to be eclectic. It couldn’t be overly sentimental or overly familial. It had to have modern-day references that are important to young people today. Of course, the book is in verse, so the items also had to fit into verse. And then I was kind of thinking about each kid and what his or her heritage was in my head.
[The items also] changed. Here’s my favorite: In the first room that we go into, Trey’s room, what I wrote was, “I couldn’t take paintings, or Digglet, my rat, or trophies, or school books, or Dad’s hand-carved bat.” Digglet was my son’s rat’s name. Obviously, books and trophies and things could fit.
Now, “Dad’s hand-carved bat.” I assumed that Trey was that all-American kid, whose father played baseball when he was in school, maybe played in college a little, but never made it to the majors. I assumed that Trey’s father was a baseball fan and had hand-carved a baseball bat. Then, when I handed the book to Laura Cornell, she decided that Trey was a flamboyant figure skater and that his father was an avant-garde artist who carved a wooden, flying bat. That’s where text meets illustration (and I will never tell Laura Cornell what to draw). Choosing what to take changed, but it didn’t matter because it’s the same point: My dad carved something by hand and it’s too big for me to take. That’s the point of the text, whether it’s a baseball bat or a flying bat. They’re an avant-garde art family, and I love them.
All of the objects were things that popped into my head, some from my childhood. I wanted to make sure that there were a few family heirlooms in there. And, you know, some people believe that if you have a pair of Groucho Marx glasses and nose you can do anything—you can go anywhere in the world and make people smile. That and a “Weird Al” CD. The combination of those two items made me smile. That’s how it happened. It wasn’t supposed to be overly serious. It wasn’t supposed to be silly. I wanted it to be specific and important, but at the same time have some irreverence to it.
Q | What do you hope that kids take away from this book?
A | First, that we should not be afraid of adventures. We should not be afraid of change. Second, every human being is a combination of factors—your genetic factors, your environment where you grow up, what kind of world you grow up in, where you live and how you live, and then what you can physically, materially take with you that says, “This is who I am.” It’s a lesson in exploring who we are through objects—through the idea of condensing our lives into a very small suitcase and saying to the world, “This is who I am.”
Q | You’ve written several best-selling children’s books. How did that part of your career begin?
A | My daughter was 4 and she marched into my room—I could draw you the room, I remember where I was sitting, how I was sitting, when my 4-year-old marched down the hall—and in that way that 4-year-olds do, which none of us could ever replicate, she put her hands on her hips, looked at me, and said, in that 4-year-old voice, “When I was little I used diapers, but now I use a potty.”
It was just this declarative statement of selfhood. What made me laugh out loud was that I looked at her only going forward. I didn’t look at her going back, because when you’re a parent of a young child all you’re doing is looking forward. Nothing fits them, so you’re constantly buying the next size up. You’re moving them out of a crib into a bed. It’s all forward. Forward march. And she was looking back, the way I look back at shags and bell-bottoms. The way I look back at my youth. With fondness and that kind of “Ha! Can you imagine? Back in the day!” What she was saying was, back in the day, I wore diapers but now I don’t wear diapers, I pee in the potty. It was this ownership of selfhood and a real sense of who she was and that she had a past, which I couldn’t understand.
It made me laugh, so I wrote down on a piece of paper: “When I Was Little: A 4-Year-Old’s Memoir of Her Youth.” Then I wrote a list, just a list. By the end of it, I [had written] three things that made me cry as I wrote them: “When I was little I didn’t know what a family was. When I was little, I didn’t know what dreams were. When I was little I didn’t know who I was. And now I do.” Those last three lines, I had tears running down my face, and I thought, “Oh, this is a book.” And that was it.
Everything is spur of the moment. No book has ever come out of me without it being fully formed in flow. They just show up. They basically write themselves. They come out entirely finished. That’s not to say that I don’t edit them occasionally, change a word or rhyming structure, or change entire passages, but mostly the books come out fully formed, and then I do some tweaking. Every single book has just popped out of my head. They show up when I don’t expect them. They’ll show up at a public park, in the backyard.
When my son came home from school one day, he came up to me and I could see that he was really upset, his face was kind of contorted. He walked up to me and he said, “Is there really a human race?” It just broke my heart. That this little boy somehow felt that he was in a race that I hadn’t mentioned. It killed me, I felt terrible. And then, of course, I went inside and wrote a book [Is There Really a Human Race?]. It just popped into my head.
Q | What have you enjoyed about writing for a young audience?
A | These books are my aces. My best offering that I will ever give to the universe is these books and the fact that the universe conspired to put Laura Cornell in my life. There’s a book called Annie Bananie, by Leah Komaiko, which was my daughter’s favorite book. It was illustrated by Laura Cornell; it was her first book. When I sent the manuscript to Harper and Roe (that’s how old I am), I sent it there because they had published Annie Bananie and I wanted Laura Cornell to draw the book.
So, I chose her 26 years ago, because I recognized her gift in this beautiful book called Annie Bananie—funny, irreverent, the kids look real, nobody looks airbrushed. They all have hair askew and cuts on their knees and their socks don’t match, and that mirrored my experiences as a child and as a parent much more than those Little Golden Books that were part of my childhood, where the children were in those perfect little white socks and they were chubby and blonde and white. They all looked like they had alabaster skin. That just didn’t gel with how I felt as a kid, so I didn’t relate to them. All of that imagery didn’t jibe with me. It just didn’t speak to me.
The truth of the matter is, if I stay out of the way, these books come out of me. If I try to force it and I sit down with the germ of an idea and I don’t wait for the idea to grow with me, I’ll sit here for hours feeling like such an idiot, with my pen in hand, musing. I don’t muse, there’s no musing. I wait with my pen in hand, and then “Boom!”
Photo: Andrew Eccles