Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Emily Jenkins - the WBBT Interview

I have had an author crush on Emily Jenkins ever since I first read Toys Go Out, which I reviewed in September of 2006, which is, in my opinion, a hugging book. More on that during the interview. So when I signed on for this year's WBBT, I sent an email off to Emily asking if she'd agree to be interviewed about her picture books and novels. And when she said yes, despite having a busy writing career and a brand-new baby, I did the dance of joy.

Emily is the author of two Toys Go Out chapter books (so far) and a bevy of picture books. As best I can tell, all of her books completely nail what it is to be a child, and each of them speaks to a child reader about fears or concerns that are universal among children, such as fear of displacement (That New Animal), fear of people who are unfamiliar (The Little Bit Scary People), a desire for friends (Skunkdog), and concern that misbehavior might make parents, er, reconsider keeping them around (Love You When You Whine). Toys Go Out and Toy Dance Party examine similar fears-- many of which boil down to "fear of the unknown,"-- by telling the story of interactions between a number of different toys (who are very much alive and have their own personalities, thank you), as well as the occasional towel or machine in the laundry room. I should note that the only toys that appear not to be alive are Barbie dolls.

That New Animal tells the story of two dogs adjusting to the arrival of a new baby in their home. As a fan of Beverly Cleary’s book, Socks, I found I responded to the focus on the needs of the four-legged family members, and took it as a cautionary tale for parents, reminding them to pay attention to their pets (and, I suppose, to their older children) after a baby comes home. My friend Linda Urban (who is a huge fan of yours, btw, and wants to bring you coffee) reads it as a tale designed to help older siblings adjust to the changes that come with a baby. I don’t want to ask which one of us is right, exactly, but, um, what was your intention when you wrote the book?

I am always writing for the child reader first. But I think a good picture book has something for the parents as well – some humor, or word play, or something thought-provoking. In That New Animal the adult figures are insensitive to the needs of the child figures, as they are in a number of my other books (Daffodil, Daffodil Crocodile, Toy Dance Party, Skunkdog), but my primary concern is not a lesson for the grown-ups; it is the emotional experience of the child. Or dog. Or stuffed animal. Or rubber ball. (Note from me to Linda: You were right. As usual.)

Five Creatures is a wonderful exercise in sorting, and in employing the advice from the movie version of Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach to “try looking at it another way.” For example, one two-page spread about mealtimes explains who likes what: "Four who like to eat fish.... Two who like to eat mice. Only one who likes to eat beets." The aforementioned Linda tells me that the book was inspired by Venn diagrams, which I totally understand. My question has to do with the manuscript itself: how copious were the illustration notes? I am, of course, assuming some were necessary if only to spell out hair colors and those sorts of things. Or did you simply send in Venn diagrams?

Thank you. Sadly, Venn diagrams don't actually work with five creatures. So it's not the most mathematically accurate inspiration. I didn't give Tomek any illustration notes at all. He interpreted the text himself. I love what he did.

What or who was the inspiration for Skunkdog, your recent picture book release about Dumpling, a dog with no sense of smell who is only too happy to meet a skunk?

My aunt and uncle had a Labrador named Domino who ate poo and rolled in garbage and generally loved whatever was the stinkiest thing she could get involved with. She was a fantastic dog. She used to chase the skunks at my grandmother's summer house, and continually got sprayed. So I started with Domino and the story developed from there.

One day I told a story about a dog and a skunk to my daughter to entertain her in the car. My 'on the fly' stories are just as haphazard and ill-constructed as anyone's, probably more so – but my kid liked the story and asked for it to be told over and over, so bit by bit I refined it orally, until I realized that maybe I should write it down. But that's rare. Usually the stories I tell off the cuff are pretty crap and remain that way.

When Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic first hit stores, I picked up a copy and started to read it in the store. I consider it a “hugging book,” because I quite literally hugged the book to my chest and simply had to bring it home with me. You have said elsewhere that Toys Go Out started as a single story about toys based on a toy you lost as a child and your cats’ reaction to being inside a cat carrier, so I’m guessing that what is now the first chapter of Toys Go Out was the original story. How did you go about choosing the other episodes in the book? Or, more particularly, did you identify particular themes you wanted to address in the book (e.g., “fear of the unknown”, evident in the first story, “In the Backpack, Where it is Very Dark”, and in the story of Lumphy’s adventure with Frank the washing machine, “The Terrifying Bigness of the Washing Machine”), then write the stories, or did you simply write the stories as they came to you, with the themes that I’m seeing being a more intrinsic or organic thing?

Thank you so much!

Yes, the first chapter is pretty much the picture book manuscript I wrote originally. The chapter about the washing machine started as just wanting to write about avoiding a bath. Why do kids avoid their baths when once they're actually in the bath, they love it? It is a mystery of parenting that I certainly didn't solve in writing that chapter. But yes, I do think about themes or issues of concern to young children in the Toys Go Out books, because I think without those, you'd end up with a coy, cutesy story that has no heart.

Did your toys have secret lives when you were a kid?

Of course. They still do.

I was thrilled this fall when Toy Dance Party: Being the Further Adventures of a Bossyboots Stingray, a Courageous Buffalo, & a Hopeful Round Someone Called Plastic hit stores. It was wonderful to read more stories about my toy friends, and to meet some new friends as well, including “The Garbage-Eating Shark (Which is Not the Same as the Possible Shark)”. Before I ask anything further about the book, however, I must jump to the obvious question: What do you have against Barbies?

Besides their portrayal of ideal womanhood as the possession of completely unrealistic physical attributes combined with extreme materialism? Oh, nothing.

Being a major Jane Austen fan (as a result of my work-in-progress, a biography of Austen in verse using period forms), I simply had to ask whether Austen has influenced your writing, based on this exchange in Toy Dance Party between Lumphy the Buffalo and Frank the Washer from the chapter entitled “In Which There is a Sleepover and Somebody Needs Repair”:

Frank overhears and interrupts “Love Train” to boom, “Shall I sing something for the little lady?”
“Yes, please,” says Lumphy. “Because she is my particular towel friend.”


I have read all of Austen's novels probably six times, so I am sure I am indeed influenced by her. But I don't catch the reference you're catching! It is probably an echo I heard but couldn't place, if that makes any sense. The phrase "particular friend" is rather Austenian, now that I think of it.

While the characters remain themselves in the second book, the tone of Toy Dance Party is quite different from that of Toys Go Out. Was that a conscious choice or the result of “growing” the characters over time?

The stakes needed to be higher in the second book, in order for there to be a reason for it to exist. But I think these things out before I start writing, and then when I write it just kind of happens and I am rather surprised at the end of the day what has turned up on the computer screen.

You write picture books, chapter books, works for adults and (under a different name), novels for teens. How many projects do you work on at any one time? Do you find it difficult to compartmentalize the projects and their voices?

I work on one long project at a time. Sometimes I have to do copy edits for an older project in the middle of a new, but basically I keep them separate. When I am stuck on a long book, sometimes I work on a picture book. I have a lot of picture book manuscripts that are half-finished or in some state of gestation. I think writing in different forms keeps me alert, keeps me from getting complacent and thinking I know how to do my job.

What’s next?

I have a picture book that just came out: The Little Bit Scary People with illustrations by Alexandra Boiger. After that comes Sugar Would Not Eat It, which is about a cat who refuses to eat birthday cake, with pictures by Giselle Potter. Further down the line I’m doing a book with artist Barbara McClintock, which I'm thrilled about – and a third Toys Go Out book, a prequel. (Squee!)

Speed round:

Cheese or chocolate? Stinky runny French cheese.

Coffee or tea? Decaf skim latte, ideally.

Cats or dogs? Cats. I have two ancient and vomity cats. I love them unconditionally.

Favorite color? Dusty blue.

Favorite snack food? Guacamole.

Favorite ice cream? Dulce de leche.

Water or soda? Diet ginger ale.

What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? The audio of Jasper Fforde's Lost in a Good Book.

What's the last movie you memorized lines from? Does TV count? "I have this little sister Lola. She is small. And very funny." We say that a lot in my house, apropos of nothing, in bad British accents (except for my husband. He is actually British so his accent is good). It is from the TV show Charlie and Lola, based on Lauren Child's books.

A major thank you to Emily for turning up here, and good thoughts for her alter ego, E. Lockhart, who is nominated for a National Book Award for The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.

Ellen Klages at Fuse #8, talking about her new book, White Sands, Red Menace, the sequel to The Green Glass Sea
Ally Carter, author of the Gallagher Girl spy books, at Miss Erin
Mark Peter Hughes at Hip Writer Mama
Sarah Darer Littman at Bildungsroman
MT Anderson at Finding Wonderland
Mitali Perkins at Mother Reader

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