As her many fans and long list of awards can attest, Meghan McCarthy has a knack for taking an often arcane nonfiction topic and turning it into a gripping, funny story – populated with a highly distinctive cast of characters. In her latest picture book, Earmuffs for Everyone! How Chester Greenwood Became Known as the Inventor of Earmuffs, she not only traces the origins of the invention itself, but also muses on what constitutes an original idea and the human penchant for blurring fact and fiction. She spoke to PW about the hard work of research, having artwork rejected by her own mother, and her connections with her audience.
Let’s talk about your visual signature: why do all your characters have googly eyes?
The kids love those. Whenever I go to a school, they ask, “Why do you paint those big eyes?” I tell them it’s my trademark. I explain that you can detect a Meghan McCarthy book from across the library or bookstore. I even made stick-on eyes to turn mundane objects such as fire hydrants into anthropomorphic characters.
The big eye style started in college [McCarthy attended RISD], when I created the first large-eyed cartoon characters. During school presentations I show kids one of the first cartoons I ever did, which was an invitation for our family reunion. My mom rejected it. She ended up buying invitations at CVS.
What didn’t your mom like about it?
There was just one hamburger on the grill. And people didn’t seem to be having a good time cooking it. My mom’s latest comment on the painting is, “It looked like they were at a funeral.” In that illustration the eyes were more pointy, but slowly my character’s eyes got rounder and larger, and I just thought that was funny.
Farmington, Maine holds a Chester Greenwood Day celebration every December in honor of their native son, and in 2014 you were one of the big attractions. What’s it like to be a local celebrity?
I was on the front float in the parade, the Chamber of Commerce float. My dad made the earmuffs I was wearing – two stuffed teddy bears held together with duct tape. My parents followed behind the float, each wearing homemade earmuffs. My dad was wearing stuffed animals that resembled lobsters, also held together by his favorite tool – red duct tape.
I was holding a sign that Kenny Brechner [owner of local bookstore Devaney, Doak & Garrett Booksellers] made for me. I felt awkward at first, but every time I waved a little kid waved back, so I got into the parade spirit, despite the snowstorm and the fact that I couldn’t feel my toes.
The other important person on the float was the man who always plays Chester Greenwood. He’s the Farmington Fire Chief. He had on antique-looking earmuffs, a fake mustache, and was a spitting image of Chester Greenwood. Everyone knew who he was. They were yelling “Chester, Chester!”
I was really surprised at how long the line was at the bookstore signing – it wound all the way to the back wall. When you do school visits, the audience has to be there whether they want to be or not. But I’ve done enough book signings to know that when there’s bad weather [the area was hit with sleet, snow, and rain] people don’t show up. Even when there’s good weather, two people may show up and you have to play it cool and not look as embarrassed as you actually feel. But in Farmington, people did show up and that was great!
How did you hit on the idea of earmuffs?
I had written Pop! [Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum, published in 2010], and my editor [Paula Wiseman at Simon & Schuster] wanted me to do another invention book. I struggled to find the right topic, one that was child-like with a story arc and visual potential. I pitched a lot of ideas and finally found this one after a lot of searching.
I always try to pick ideas that are different and give me a challenge. Earmuffs were definitely a challenge. I originally thought Chester Greenwood was the inventor of earmuffs. But if you read his patent, it was issued for “Improvement in Ear-mufflers.” Once I discovered that, I wanted to cancel the book! But after some thought, and a lot of rewrites, I think the book is far better than it would have been. Sometimes steering the project in a new direction forces the creative juices to come up with something better and more unusual.
You trust that kids can handle multiple truths, ambiguity, myth-making, and the existence of unreliable sources. Is their reaction different from what you hear from adults?
Most people’s reactions, both kids’ and adults’, tend to be the same. Kids are usually surprised that my books are about real subjects because the illustrations are in cartoon form – they think that nonfiction has to involve photography or some such. Adults have the same reaction. I like choosing adult-type subjects and turning them into a story that’s very kid-friendly. It’s all how the text and art is handled. I think kids are a lot smarter than adults give them credit for. That’s why I choose the subjects that I do.
How do your two invention books differ?
Pop! and some of my other books have the underlying message of overcoming obstacles – characters that are the underdog. Kids pick up on that message. I think I keep repeating those themes because I often felt like the underdog. I was the only girl on an all-boys’ baseball team.
Earmuffs is a lot less straightforward. The book isn’t about being an underdog. It’s about a lot of other things – patents, inventors, the history of a family, how folklore is created. There are many twists and turns. For example, one Farmington resident named Mickey Maguire admitted to having exaggerated a few Chester Greenwood tales to drum up excitement to get Chester Greenwood Day officially declared. [McCarthy quotes one resident as saying “I couldn’t remember what was true and what was not. I still can’t. I’m afraid that I told some terrible, wicked yarns.”]
It’s reminiscent of that famous last line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Relatives of Chester Greenwood are still alive, and they’re not entirely happy with my book. They made it clear that they think I’m incorrect when I say that Chester Greenwood is not the inventor of the earmuff. I understand their position: it’s their family legacy, there’s a parade in his honor, and then I publish a book saying he didn’t quite invent what everyone says he did. I’d be upset too.
I was confronted by the relatives after the Chester Greenwood Day parade. They challenged my research. They made it clear that in their minds Chester is the true inventor of the earmuff. It was an uncomfortable situation for me, as I’m not a fan of confrontation. The situation was diffused when my mom bopped over and said in her Rhode Island accent, “Hi, how are you doin’!” – all bubbly and friendly. She’s a social worker. She knows how to deal with people.
In Earmuffs, some digressions throughout the text include a look at early earmuff innovators, an explanation of patent law, and Chester Greenwood’s marriage to a suffragette. It would be easy to go down the Internet rabbit hole and keep researching forever. Can you tell us about that?
For Earmuffs for Everyone and Pop!, there’s not a ton of information out there – it’s not like I’m writing about George Washington. So there is a stopping point. But I like putting other details in there that may not be part of the main plot of the book because kids can use them in classrooms – teachers can use them as jumping-off points. For example: Chester Greenwood’s wife was part of the suffrage movement. That fact isn’t essential but a classroom could do a whole unit on the suffrage movement and women’s rights. So there can be more research to do.
As far as what kinds of things I did to research my book: When I was writing Earmuffs, I still had my part-time job working in a bookstore [Barnes & Noble at New York City’s Union Square], so I’d get home from work and think “OK, time to look at more patents.” I would look at patents for hours and hours. I fell asleep at the computer looking at patents. There’s a Google patent search, which makes research a lot easier, but there are a lot of misspellings so it’s kind of hard to navigate.
Can you talk about how a book comes together for you?
The first thing I do is a lot of research. Then I write a rough draft. I’ll polish that enough to submit it. Once it’s accepted, I start doing rewrites, and once it gets to a certain point where the text is acceptable, I do the sketches and then the art. All the while I am still doing research. I’m always trying to find as much as possible about my subject. Doing the art also requires a lot of research to make sure that I paint my characters and items accurately. When I start doing the art, I also pare down the text. That's the advantage to being an illustrator, because I can change the text and still keep working on the art. It may drive the designer crazy, but it’s important because it makes the book better.
What makes Where the Wild Things Are so great is its spare text – the images tell the story. I can’t make my text that spare because it’s nonfiction and I have to get a lot of information in there. But I try to do as much as possible.
I write a couple of drafts and send it to my mom and if she thinks it good, it goes to the editor. [My mother is] my go-to lady and she’s always really honest. She is great at grammar. She’s picked up on stuff that copyediting has missed.
Because my dad is a great painter I like him to look at my art. My mom was an art history major in school so she has a great appreciation of art as well. Of course, I don’t want anyone to critique anything once the book has gone to print – please don’t tell me you’ve found a mistake then!
But kids notice: This girl wrote me a letter – her teacher sent it to me: “Dear Meghan McCarthy, I thought you’d like to know that in Pop! you painted the pages in the calendar backwards.” So I wrote back, “Thank you so much for noticing,” and I sent her a signed copy of my latest book.
I was at a school visit for Daredevil [Daredevil, The Daring Life of Betty Skelton, 2013] and I was telling the kids about the [Pop!] mistake, and a boy said, “I see a mistake in your new book. The tiny airplane doesn’t have a pilot in it.” It’s such a tiny plane, I just forgot to paint a person in it.
I’m going to start a contest on my website to find all the mistakes in my books. I know I’ll get a flood of responses.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews that school wasn’t easy for you. Can you talk about that and how it influenced your career?
I had a tough time in school. I was bored a lot. In the fourth grade, I was brought to a psychologist and asked to repeat a series of words and I couldn’t get any of them right. I thought it was an intelligence test and that I was stupid. It was actually a test for ADD – this was before it was a big thing like it is now. And I was the only kid that I can recall being tested for it.
My sister, who’s two years younger, is a super reader. She always liked the big novels. I would be assigned a book report in sixth grade and would pick out the skinniest book ever because I didn’t like reading. I couldn’t concentrate. I still have trouble reading. But I think what’s most important is to put the right book in the right kid’s hand. That’s what worked best for me.
I remember [it being suggested] that I go on medication in elementary school, junior high, high school, and college, and I always refused. I have managed to cope with my ADD in other ways.
At my school presentations I show one of my report cards from the fourth grade. It reads: “Meghan is beginning to slip back to previous behavior – inattention, daydreaming. I have spoken to her and am trying to get her to take more responsibility for the problem.” I looked out the window a lot. I doodled a lot. But… I didn’t listen a lot.
Because I was bored in school I want to make learning fun and in such a way that kids don’t know they are learning at all. I write books for the little me. Exciting and funny art is one way of accomplishing that. A unique topic is another. There is so much history out there that is yet to be discovered by kids. I want to write about it.
You have a very rich website: you have videos, audio versions of your books, blogs, even advice to aspiring authors. How do you do it all?
I have tons of ideas flying into my head all of the time – that’s what happens when you’re ADD. You’re hyperactive and all over the place, but you can also sit for eight-hour stretches if you’re really interested in something. I can reign it in and control it. I’ve also found ways to cope with things that distract me.
As far as my “writing section” goes – I started answering questions about writing books because I used to get emails and questions about how to get published, and answering the questions on my website saved me a lot of time. But I understand where they’re coming from: I was once an aspiring author too, and I was always looking for advice.
You have an approachable, conversational style – it’s like hanging out with a geeky friend. Did you have to work at it?
I don’t struggle with the writing part. I don’t know why. I started getting As in English when I was a senior in high school, but before that I was mediocre. Eight years ago, I gave my mom a novel I wrote and she told me, “You didn’t know how to write when you were a little kid – it’s like a switch has been turned on.”
It sounds like your parents have been a big influence on your work.
My dad paid for his first term at art school in 1969 but Vietnam started and the school went on strike. My dad said he lost his tuition. He became a social worker instead. That’s where he met my mom. After work and on weekends my dad would paint and as soon as I could hold a paintbrush I did what my dad did. When my dad painted self-portraits, I painted self-portraits. My dad showed me old master paintings and their techniques. I was captivated. My mom loved reading to us kids and our nightly story hours were really special to me. Sometimes my dad would also sit with us and he’d make up his own fantastical stories. It really got my imagination going.
You’ve written four works of fiction. What drew you to nonfiction topics?
I worked in the bookstore for 13 years and one day I was scanning books and saw that my first [fiction] book was marked for return. It had only been out three months and I felt so humiliated – I didn’t want any of my co-workers to know that it was going back. I’d see how many books came in each month – cartons of them – and there was no display space for any of them. I also lost interest in fiction because it seemed very formulaic to me. Nonfiction seemed much more creative, in an odd way – it’s more of a challenge for me. It’s a lot of work, and I can’t just change a word or an event because something in the story isn’t working.
What’s next for you?
I’ve turned in half the artwork for The Wildest Race Ever: The 1904 Olympic Marathon. It’s about the first time the Olympic marathon was held in the U.S. and it was pretty wild. The runners ran on dirt roads. Automobiles and bicycles followed behind them, and the marathoners were breathing in all the dust. There were only two water stops for the runners.
The guy who “won” rode in an automobile part of the way. The actual winner, Thomas Hicks, really struggled. In fact, it was the first case of doping because he was given strychnine, which stimulates the nervous system. They also gave him brandy. And then there was a guy from Cuba who ran in work clothes. And a South African runner was chased a mile off course by a wild dog. We’re trying to release it for the next Summer Olympics. It’s going to be one nutty book.
Earmuffs for Everyone! How Chester Greenwood Became Known as the Inventor of Earmuffs by Meghan McCarthy. S&S/Wiseman, $17.99 Jan. ISBN 978-1-4814-0637-6