When I told my four year old daughter that I would be turning 32, she looked at me with big sad eyes and said, “Dad, even though you are really old, I promise that I will still love and care for you.” It doesn’t get much better than that. Unless of course, you also get a chance to interview Sara Pennypacker on your birthday.
Hi Colby – Happy Birthday and Happy Summer Solstice also! A character in the Clementine books has a birthday on the same day as you, but you’ll have to wait a year and a half to find out who it is, I’m afraid. Thanks for having me, and thanks for creating such a great blog – I’ve been reading about so many wonderful books here, and can’t wait to get reading or re-reading them. Thanks also for the great questions – I can tell you and I would talk for hours if we met in person…
How did I transition from being a watercolor painter to a children’s author?
I know, right? But actually, it wasn’t that big a change at all. I’d fallen in love – I mean madly, passionately in love – with children’s books when I was reading them to my kids, and decided to dedicate my life to mastering the craft. What surprised me was how similar the two fields were. Artists and writers go into their studios and figure out what to “say” then wrestle with how to say it. The main difference is that as a writer, I get to sit down.
Ah, my characters…I’m so glad you love them! You ask: Are any a challenge? Do I have favorites? How do I create them?
It’s hard to call any part of the Clementine writing a challenge, because there’s so much joy. And I love them all, I really do. Margaret breaks my heart, she’s so uptight, and Mitchell is such a great kid, and the parents – they are so much fun to write. I’d say my biggest challenge is to tell the truth – to not love these characters so much that I make them perfect.
I do have some favorites. Clementine, of course. What I love most about her is that she says “okay, fine” – by that, I mean to express that she’s very accepting of her flaws, and just wants to move forward, to do better next time. A very wise attitude, I must say. And Principal Rice – I so look forward to that scene in every book where Clementine and Mrs. Rice are looking at each other across that vast desk. With Principal Rice, I try to have her say as little as possible, and let her eye-rolling and long-suffering sighs say the rest. And I have to mention Clementine’s father – that guy deserves the “Father of the Year Award” hands down.
How do I create them? Well, everyone is based on real-life people I know. I keep track of their personalities and habits and funny stories and store them in my “character toolbox” – it makes the characters seem believable to use real details. (Always ask people if you can do this, though!)
Working with Marla Frazee
Oh my gosh, I’m with you – what a genius she is! You know, we don’t “work together” at all, although we’re very in tune about the characters and the story. She really gets the relationships between all the characters, which you can tell by looking at their body language in the pictures. Look at this picture here (below), where Clementine is telling her father how sad she is – this is my all-time favorite Marla drawing, although there are about a hundred in close second place!
How we do it is this: I write the story first – all the way to the final draft. Then Marla decides where pictures are needed and which things she can deepen or expand upon by illustration. She never just draws what I’ve written, she always adds something to the scene. I often say that I don’t need to write a single word about how loving this family is, or how funny the characters are, because Marla’s drawings are so emotional and so hilarious. I don’t know what she’s going to illustrate until she does it, and I have no idea how she chooses, but when it’s all done, the book feels exactly right, don’t you think?
If I could spend one day inside the world of a book, which book would I want to hang out in? What a great question! It depends…could I change things, or would I only be able to watch? If I could do something, I’d have to choose a book like THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN because I just can’t stand the thought of the characters in those books suffering so much – I’d have to free them, or at least try to make things a little better for them. (Of course, that would ruin a great book, though, wouldn’t it? Hmmm…) If not, I think I’d pick ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS – I love to have to try to survive out there…but only for one day!
Will we see more of Clementine?
Well, I have good news and bad news.
The bad news is, I have just finished the seventh book in the series, and it will be the last. I love this character so much, and I’m going to miss her and her family terribly, but I felt seven was exactly the right number of stories to tell about her. Each one feels important – there are no soft “filler” books in the series – and the series takes her from the beginning of third grade right up through the last day. Clementine herself is so fresh that I just didn’t want for her to become stale or predicable, either to me the writer, or you the readers.
But now for the good news! Drumroll, please, because I am about to make an announcement, and your blog is the very first time I’ve let this out! I am doing another series. The main character will be Waylon, the “science-y” kid from Clementine’s class, who made his first appearance in CLEMENTINE AND THE FAMILY MEETING. Like the Clementine books, the Waylon books will be funny while at the same time covering real things that come up in school and family life. I’m setting the series in fourth grade, and of course they’ll be about a boy, so there will be some differences. I’m looking forward to getting to know Waylon and his friends. (One of them, I’m thinking, might be Baxter…sounds like you agree Baxter should come back!) Well, the best thing about this series is also the good news: Clementine, and Margaret and Mitchell, will be back. They won’t be main characters, but they’ll drop in and out of the books, and we’ll get to see how everybody is doing a year later.
No, wait. The best thing about this new series is that Marla Frazee will illustrate it!