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Neil Gaiman moves seamlessly between writing for kids and adults and from graphic novels to long-form prose while never losing his signature fantastical style. His beloved books for kids include The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book. Gaiman spoke with us about his latest projects: Chu’s First Day of School, a follow-up to his best-selling picture book Chu’s Day, and Fortunately, the Milk, a middle-grade novel.
Q | How did the idea for Chu the sneezing panda come about?
A | The sneezing panda came from a visit to China. My Chinese publishers said my children’s books could not be sold there because the children were always getting one over on the adults and not being properly punished. I think kids should always be smarter than adults in books. I wanted to create a story in which the child would do something subversive and yet not get in trouble. And I wanted to sell books in China. Pandas are so popular in China, and all over the world, really. Plus, who could get in trouble for sneezing?
Q | What was the reaction to the first book, Chu’s Day?
A | The first Chu book was so popular, except with readers of my adult fiction, who said, “This isn’t a good book for adults.” Which is true. From that perspective, the plot is pretty thin.
Q | Why did you send Chu to school in Chu’s First Day of School?
A | For the second book, I wanted Chu to be a year older. I pictured the kids reading this book as growing one year older and Chu growing up with them.… And the first day of school is scary—it was scary for me. I always worried that I would say the wrong thing or wear the wrong thing. And it always ended up being great.
Q | Will there be more Chu books?
A | In the next Chu story, Chu is one year older. I can envision putting out one Chu book a year until Chu is in his 40s and owns an automobile dealership.
Q | Where did you get the idea for Fortunately, the Milk?
A | It came about because of guilt. In The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, the dad doesn’t get to do much. He just gets swapped for things. I wanted to write a book that had the dad doing things. So I thought, “What do dads do?” They tell stories. They get the milk. What would happen if the dad went out to get the milk and didn’t come home for a while? When he got back, he could tell stories about being abducted by aliens, captured by pirates.…
Q | The book is great to read aloud.
A | When I write for children, I’m always thinking about the adults who have to read them—usually multiple times. I want to include things in there for them, too. Then there comes a point when the editor says, “Well, this word isn’t on grade level—why don’t we change it?” And I say, “But it’s a wonderful word. Let’s keep it in. It’s fun.”
Q | Any favorite teachers?
A | When I was 11, Mr. Hayes bribed me to read Gone With the Wind because he said I would never read it on my own. I appreciated the bribery and the broadening of horizons. I also had an art teacher—Mrs. Krailing—who later went on to write children’s books. I found out about it a year after she died. I was quite grumpy about it. I wanted to know why she didn’t ever tell me she wanted to write children’s books. But then I realized that adults don’t typically confide in 9-year-olds.
Image: Kimberly Butler