In last fall’s Dory Fantasmagory, Abby Hanlon introduced a six-year-old who calls on her vivid imagination when her older brother and sister refuse to play with her because she’s a “baby.” For companionship, Dory conjures up Mary, a monster friend, and Mr. Nuggy, a gnomish man who announces he is her fairy godmother and turns her into a puppy. The illustrated chapter book made an immediate splash, receiving four starred reviews – including one from PW – and landing on five “best books of the year” lists. First-grader Dory makes an actual friend in a sequel, Dory and the Real True Friend, a July release from Dial. Hanlon, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their eight-year-old twins, talked to PW about how Dory came to be. (Hint: the author didn’t have to look too far to find her!)
What sparked the idea for Dory’s character?
Actually, the initial spark came at a dinner with my parents and two older siblings, after my husband asked my Dad if he could marry me. And my father said, “If Abby said ‘no’ to you, that would be the height of her immaturity!” Family conversations always seemed to come back to me being the baby and immature – even after I became an adult. That inspired Dory’s character, and then everything started to fall into place.
To what extent did your childhood sibling dynamics come into play as you shaped the plot of Dory Fantasmagory?
Dory’s was my childhood in some ways. My sister was the oldest, and my brother worshiped her and always followed her around. But they considered me a baby. Like Dory, I talked to myself all the time, and my siblings relentlessly made fun of me. I don’t recall having an imaginary friend I can name, but I think I had a rotating cast of them, depending on the situation. I feel as though I didn’t actually carry a lot of details from my childhood into adulthood.
So what inspired the specifics of Dory’s life?
I get a lot of ideas from my kids, Burke and Louise. My writing process begins with jotting down funny things they say – I think that’s what makes my novels authentic. I’m always eavesdropping on them – in fact, sometimes when I’m at my computer and they think I’m working hard on something, I’m actually typing down everything they’re saying. After I collect my notes, I come up with a theme for a story. I’m good at connecting things into a story arc, but I can’t come up with funny things on my own – so I leave that up to my children. I count on them to be funny!
Do they recognize their lives in Dory’s?
They are my very first readers – they read my work even before my husband or my editor, Lucia Monfried, does. And they are amazed to see things from their life come together in a story. We talk about Dory all the time, and if I have a problem with a plot, they’ll help me figure it out – and sometimes come up with ideas of their own. In fact, now I sometimes wonder if it’s a matter of life imitating art instead of art imitating life – the lines are a bit blurred. For instance, Dory pretends to be a dog in the first book. My son loved acting like a dog for years – and at eight he sometimes still does. And I wonder now if he’s imitating Dory when he pretends to be a dog!
You were an elementary school teacher before your children were born. Did that experience affect your subsequent career path?
Definitely. As a teacher, I rediscovered children’s books. I taught for two years at a Harlem school that was considered “failing.” The kids could be unruly, and I discovered the power of classic picture books to capture their attention, and to inspire their own creativity. I held writing workshops, based on a curriculum developed by Teachers College, which encouraged writing from one’s own experience rather than from writing prompts. It’s much more open-ended, and it was a challenging curriculum to pull off. But it’s a good way to show kids that there’s value to their life experiences and value to communicating them.You addressed that very point in your debut book, Ralph Tells a Story, when Ralph has trouble coming up with a story idea for a writing assignment. It sounds as though that was indeed a case of art imitating life!
Actually I wrote that book because that was the book I wished I’d had as a teacher. It’s so difficult for some kids to learn that there’s a real connection between words and pictures in storytelling. In fact, I don’t think I really appreciated that connection until I was teaching, and would write a little story and draw a picture for it, as an example for the kids. I remember saying, “Wow! This is what I want to do – use both words and pictures together as a children’s book creator.”
In terms of balancing the two, are you more at home writing or illustrating?
My brain is more geared to being a writer, but I need the inspiration of drawings in order to write. I never went to art school, and taught myself to draw, but still I always start a story with drawings. That’s the fun part for me. If I’m stuck on the writing, I pull out my sketchbook and draw – I often go back and forth.
Your portrayals of characters are so simple – yet so expressive. How do you depict so much emotion with a squiggly line for a mouth and black dots for eyes?
I redo things many times! I look at my drawings and decide if I did capture what I wanted to or not – is it dead or alive? One dot for an eye might be a little bit off and it just doesn’t work. Maybe as I become more fluent in drawing I won’t have to redo as much – but maybe not. Sometimes I get lucky and characters come easily to me. But then I’ll get tripped up on other things.
What’s up next for Dory?
I’m working on a third Dory book now. In this story, she is a struggling reader, and she finds an unusual use for books: instead of just opening up a book to read it, she opens up a book and goes into it. Reading a story set on a farm, she and her reading partner find themselves on the farm and some crazy things happen.
You have a number of years before your twins leave home to live on their own – but do you ever wonder where you’ll find inspiration for stories when that day comes?
I worry about that all the time. I think I’ll always need to be around kids and will figure out how to be. I’ve written down so much about what my own kids have done and said that that will carry me through for quite a while. They do keep me supplied with ideas. In fact, I asked Burke to take the dog for a walk, since I was about to do this interview. And he said, “I’ll take the interview. After all, you get all your ideas from me.”
You really should tell him – and Louise – to keep up the good work.
I definitely will!
Dory and the Real True Friend by Abby Hanlon. Dial, $16.99 July ISBN 978-0-5254-2866-4