In addition to serving as editor of the New York Times Book Review (and before that, as its children’s books editor), Pamela Paul has authored six books for adults, three of which focus on books and reading, including How to Raise a Reader, co-written with Maria Russo. In her first picture book, Rectangle Time, illustrated by Becky Cameron, a supremely confident cat reveals the crucial role it plays when a father and his child read “rectangles” together (“Just the right setting for a furry nuzzle”), and its confusion when the boy starts to be able to read on his own: “Look at the poor little guy. He’s just…staring at the rectangle.” Paul spoke with PW about the story’s real-life source, the challenges of a small home office, and the perils of misreading social cues.
Stories benefit from distinctive voices, and the cat’s voice is what stands out in this one. Did it emerge while you were writing, or was it there from the start?
Oh, yeah, I ventriloquize our cats all the time. I supply interior monologues. My kids ask, “How do you know what they’re thinking?” I don’t… but I sort of think I do. This book really did spring from reality. We have a cat named Zoomer—one of the most lethargic cats ever, by the way, Zoomer is an ironic name—and whenever I’m reading aloud to our youngest child, he’s learned that it’s rectangle time. We’ve tested it. He doesn’t come when we’re just talking. But when I start to read aloud, there must be something in the tone or the cadence of my voice that draws him. I just started to imagine the entire process, what is it he thinks we are doing. He thinks it’s about him: that when we take out this rectangle, it’s a signal to him that his presence is required, that he has a fundamental role to play. Cats are narcissists. They think the entire world revolves around them.
I had been wanting to write a picture book for 10 years, from the time I started as children’s books editor. I had all these ideas, and every time I started a book for adults my kids would say “What?” They were slightly irritated. I was getting to the point where I really wanted to get started, and in the middle of the rectangle time ritual I realized, “This is a book!”
I got up and sat down and started writing and my youngest read it over my shoulder. I’m the kind of writer who really doesn’t want anyone around me when I’m writing. I share a home office with my husband and I basically don’t want him in there at all. When my kids want to mess with me, they churlishly lean their heads over my shoulder and look at what I’m writing just to get to me. But with the picture book I didn’t mind, and my youngest child did make one concrete suggestion. He wanted to change the emphasis in a sentence, to put italics on one word instead of another, and he was right. All three kids got to witness the entire process in a way that they hadn’t been able to do with any of my previous books. It’s fun to show other kids this process, too. They know from school that they have to revise and edit, and if they see me rewrite for 10 rounds, they understand that this isn’t an indignity. We all edit.
What was it like for you, an editor, to be edited?
Liza Kaplan is my editor, and I love being edited! I know that’s unusual. My first reaction was…well, writers who are also editors are probably the worst. We see what you’re doing. We see you when you sandwich criticism [between compliments]. We see your tricks. And yet I think that being a writer and an editor is relative, like being a pedestrian or being a driver. When you’re a pedestrian, you think, “They’re so egregiously disobeying the law! How can the driver be rushing me?” And when you’re a driver, you think, “I have the right of way!” It’s about perspective. My initial reaction as a writer when I’m edited is fury. And then it’s gratitude. I’ll be really angry that something is being changed, and then, when I come around and see it with a little bit of distance, I think, “Oh, thank goodness they changed this and saved me from my own worst self!”
In the editing process, what fell away and what got amplified?
As a parent and as a children’s book editor and author, I think about what kind of language a young child can handle. I always push beyond that. There is research that shows that up to a certain age, children hear every word as equally new and unknown. “Boy” and “inarticulate” both register as equally strange. They absorb them in context and then, later, they will ask, “What does that mean?” As parents we try not to oversimplify our language. I push a little bit more for sophisticated language. This is the time when kids can absorb it. In certain instances, my editor urged me to make the language more accessible.
What was it like working with illustrator Becky Cameron?
It was a mysterious process, and I loved it. I love the illustrations. It was fun never to actually speak to her, but to work with her so closely. I have this illustrator I’ve never spoken to, and I have my editor, this secret emissary or spy, this international diplomat, a go-between.
There were certain aspects that involved a lot of back-and-forth. I wanted to be clear on the trajectory of the boy growing older. In earlier versions he wasn’t quite so small when he began, and he wasn’t quite so old when it ended. The other thing was to work hard to make sure that the cat was central. There are lots of animals and toys—there was a teddy bear, for example, a completely adorable teddy bear—and we needed to make it clear that we are inside the cat’s head.
The deeper underlying story is about cats and humans. On the surface, the story is about reading, but the underlying story is about social cues and how we all misread them. The cat is completely misreading all of these situations. He thinks it’s about him. The cat is reading that the rectangle needs something from him, and the boy needs something from him. But the boy is in his own story. The father is in his own story. And the cat doesn’t realize that.
We all do that. We walk into a room and we think the story is about us. We think that everything that’s in that room is a key to our own story. But there’s actually another story.
Rectangle Time. Pamela Paul, illus. by Becky Cameron. Philomel, $17.99 Feb. 16 ISBN 978-0-593-11511-4