Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat’s After the Fall, due in October, reimagines the Humpty Dumpty story as a victory over fear. Humpty used to watch the birds he loves from his perch on top of the wall, but he’s so scared of heights after his catastrophic fall that he can’t even face climbing the ladder to his bunkbed. He takes up crafting paper airplanes, but his best effort lands on top of his wall. Not only does he master his terror to climb to the top and retrieve the airplane—in an unexpected transformation, he sheds his shell and takes flight himself. Santat and his editor at Roaring Brook, Connie Hsu, talk about their working relationship, the perils of narrating in the first person, and what it takes to make an egg fly.
The author-editor relationship can work all sorts of ways. The two of you seem like a team, like collaborators. Connie, can you talk about what Dan brings to the collaboration?
Hsu: When Dan approaches an idea, he’s not afraid to think big. He’ll come in with something ambitious, out of the box, fresh, fearless, and it pushes me as an editor: how can I help him realize that vision for his book? His art is always fantastic; I’ve become accustomed to that level of work and ability. Not every artist can approach a character the way he does. He just nails it. He’s not afraid. He’ll do five different sketches to get a scene right, to get an emotion right, to get a page turn right.
Dan, how does it look to you?
Santat: I think the word that would best describe our partnership is “trust.” I think that the key to our relationship is that we hold each other in equal regard. We check our egos at the door.
There are cases that she feels very strongly about the way a story should be handled and I’ll have completely the opposite feeling. We listen to each other. Because she gets to see what I do before anyone else does, I rely on her to give me her unfiltered opinion of whether the work is doing its job. Also, I’m an artist, I’m not a strong writer. I rely on Connie to clarify what I write.
Was it that way from the beginning?
Santat: The turning point in our relationship, I remember, was when she was at Little, Brown. She was just starting out as an editor. Her notes didn’t seem honest enough for me. She would dance around the edges to spare my feelings.
Hsu: Dan’s agent Jodi [Reamer of Writers House] told me before we worked on The Adventures of Beekle, “Don’t be afraid to push him.” She could tell somehow when I was keeping her posted that there were things I wanted to ask him to redo but I didn’t want to lead him astray. It was his vision and I wanted to be respectful. I was feeling out what the relationship would be between editor and creator. She kept saying, “Push him, Push him!” And once that gate was opened, he was game to try anything, and that also opened up the possibilties for what our collaboration could lead to.
Santat: For example, with After the Fall, she was convinced that it should not be narrated in the first person. She was adamant.
Hsu: My fear was that it would be too dramatic. You know how first-person narration can sound: “I was in pain. I was scared.”
Santat: So I had it in third person. And it sounded so didactic. But she was willing to experiment. She said, “OK—impress me!” I came back a week later with the manuscript rewritten in the first person, and she read it and she said, “You convinced me.”
Hsu: What I had forgotten about was that if you narrate in first person, it requires you to say less. You can cut right back.
An early article about the book in PW described it as a story about how Humpty Dumpty had to climb back up the wall to retrieve a piece of him that was missing. That was his big achievement—retrieving the missing piece. How did that book change into this one, with its striking final transformation?
Santat: The story is a metaphor about overcoming anxiety. It’s a story about my wife.
She’d been dealing with anxiety and with postpartum depression after the birth of our second child. During the worst of it, it was a strain on the marriage—it was hard to keep going. I felt like I didn’t know her. She gave up things that were really important to her. And then, when she finally got help, it was like I got my wife back. That dark cloud went away and I got the person I knew back. That was the missing piece. It was about six to eight weeks before the Caldecott when we were ironing it out. Piecing it back together. Winning the medal made everything better. I think it saved my life. People have told us we’re like newlyweds.
Hsu: In the first version, Humpty Dumpty never gets put together properly. The expected arc of the story is, Humpty falls, Humpty climbs back up. Dan wanted him to be transformed. He wanted Humpty to be transformed forever. And so that change with the piece never felt quite big enough.
Santat: The idea changed in a conversation with Connie and me. We talked for an hour and half, tossing out ideas, asking, “What constitutes a ‘big enough’ moment?” And Connie pushed me across the line. “Hey!” she said. “Humpty Dumpty is an egg! What’s inside him?” And I said, “And a bird pops out of him!” and we had this really dark conversation about Alien. It felt so shocking, but also so on the nose. For five minutes I was just sitting on the phone saying, “Can we do that? It’s insane! Can we do that?” “Why don’t you give it a try?,” she said quietly.
I went right into sketches. I was really excited. A good majority of the subsequent discussions was about smoothing out that ending and getting the pacing right. The whole thing was showing Humpty hatching without it being horrific. We finally realized that we couldn’t show Humpty from the front or from the side. I did seven or eight sketches and got frustrated. I thought, “This is good enough!” When we showed it to people we got some wild reactions: “Did a bird just fly right through him?” So we had to simplify it even more. Connie said, “Try it again. Trust me. This isn’t communicating the way you want it to.”
Hsu: When I look at my book folder, I see 16 different versions of the text
and art files. And even during the round before we got it right I was thinking, “We’ll never get there.”
Santat: When people read it, those cracks [in Humpty’s shell] show up four pages earlier, but they mostly don’t see them. Your mind doesn’t dare to think it. The overwhelming response comes at the end; “Oh, right, he’s an egg!” Even grownups don’t realize what’s happening.
Hsu: And if we can nerd out a little, when it was being narrated in the third person, the lines read, “Humpty knew something was different!” But when Dan changed the voice back to first person, we didn’t need a line there at all. It just takes that one quiet moment to make the story sing. Once that line was removed, the book was done.
Dan, what are you working on now?
Santat: Well, one of the things I’m working on is You Bad Son, a memoir of what it was like growing up Asian-American in a white, Christian, American town. For most of my childhood I was trying not to be an Asian-American. In middle school and high school you try to blend in with the crowd. You don’t want to have that kind of shame. Then I read [Gene Luen Yang’s] American-Born Chinese. I ran into Gene at Miami International Airport and I told him, “Your book changed my life.” Writing [the memoir] is like releasing these demons, laying everything out on the table.
Hsu: So where is it?
Santat: I’m working on it...
After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat. Roaring Brook, $17.99 Oct. 3 ISBN 978-1-62672-682-6