Having written middle grade, YA, and several critically acclaimed adult novels, Meg Wolitzer has turned her talents to a picture book. In Millions of Maxes she introduces readers to a young protagonist whose trip to the playground comically disabuses him of the notion—put in place by doting parents—that he’s the “one and only Max.” But after an exhilarating adventure with two other kids named Max, he discovers that it’s fine to share a world with others who “all have the same name, but we’re all completely different.” PW spoke with Wolitzer about the personal experiences that drove the book, the “existential” moment when you realize your name is not solely yours, and how writing books for this youngest of audiences may impact her work for grownups.
The book is dedicated “To my mother, who was the first to read to me.” What were your favorite picture books as a child?
I know it’s not a picture book and it’s not the first thing she read to me, but I remember being read Charlotte’s Web by my mother—sitting on her lap and weeping at the death of Charlotte.
My mother [Hilma Wolitzer] was already writing at this point, and I remember also feeling connected to her in the way she felt about the death of a spider—how a writer animates a character. I call books “hot objects”—they’re packed with feeling. I was leaning against her neck with my hot wet face, and we were similarly moved. But it was also this redemptive experience. When you’re read to, you have that experience together.
A beautiful picture book I remember is Umbrella by Taro Yashima [a 1959 Caldecott Honor Book]. It had these extraordinary illustrations, with a kind of melancholy quality. Pictures can do that: they incite such emotion in you, and you go down a little rabbit hole of your own and make connections between yourself and the picture.
I loved anything by Maurice Sendak—my mom went to high school with Maurice Sendak and they were on the yearbook together. He illustrated a book written by Ruth Krauss called A Hole Is to Dig  and I loved it so much I drew all over it—I added my crayon to it. That’s when you know it’s a good book, you feel you’re in it. The Snowy Day was a powerful book. And then later, the Little House on the Prairie books.
We have these strong feelings about books that we get so connected to and you really want to pass them on. I have two boys, Charlie and Gabriel, and I said, “Well, you’re going to read The Secret Garden.” And they enjoyed it. I think the books you love transcend gender.
What prompted you to write for picture book audiences?
It wasn’t just generically “I want to write a picture book.” I had this idea. It started when Gabriel came home from school and he was telling me about kids who had the same names—there are two Sophies and a couple of Maxes—and I was relieved that he was the only Gabriel. I thought about how many names are popular, and what it’s like to be Zach F. or Zach T. That’s what going into school and the wider world is all about: you find things you share with people—and that’s a good thing.
I kept seeing this thing with names again and again with my kids and my friends’ kids. I filed it away because I thought, “I don’t write picture books.” And it didn’t seem like it was going to be a 500-page novel like The Interestings. But there was an existential vibe to it: what does it mean to not be the only one?
How long ago was that?
About 25 years ago. That’s a really long gestation period—but it’s not unusual for me. With The Interestings it was a 40-year gestation. That’s what happened for me with Millions of Maxes and my other books: it marinates. I need time and distance to understand what it is I want to write about. If I had written Millions of Maxes right away it probably would have been a more whimsical thing. But as I thought about it over time it became about children and parents, and the child having a moment of panic, and then discovering they [Max and the other Maxes] are all different people—and as they get to know each other, they’ll learn who they are as individuals.
I couldn’t have seen that in the moment when it happened—when you’re so connected to your children and you want everything to go right for them and be the one and only.
And Max himself seems wiser in the end—perhaps even wiser than his parents?
His parents have anxieties: is he going to feel special enough? Are we bolstering him enough? And of course the answer is yes. But Max is on to something else, he’s going places where they can’t go with him—into friendship, into the big world. You need to have adventures. The parents are still back in this thing of giving reassurance. He’s not worried about that. It was fun to be playful about those ideas.
Gabriel now knows other Gabriels and it’s okay—he lived to tell the tale.
Do you see common threads between the themes of the picture book and your other work?
You don’t like to look at your writing life as if it’s a biography, but I do think my interests have broadened over time, and writing about groups is one of those interests. It’s true in The Interestings, it’s in Millions of Maxes, it’s in Belzhar. I’m very interested in friendship, and this book is about friendship.
Even though picture books are a new venture for me, you do bring yourself and your preoccupations to every work. I feel that as a writer you have a sensibility. There’s a line from Zadie Smith, “When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world.” Even if you’re writing for different ages, you’re expressing your way of being in the world. So you take a piece of yourself regardless of what you’re writing or who you’re writing for.
Since this was your first picture book, how did you work with your editor, Lauri Hornik?[Wolitzer had previously worked with Hornik and Julie Strauss-Gabel as co-editors on To Night Owl from Dog Fish, her middle grade novel with Holly Goldberg Sloan.]
I had a draft and she had some thoughts and it was a really pleasurable process. I was asking a lot of questions—I wanted to be a quick study, to get it right. There’s that whole notion of showing vs. telling, but what if you don’t have the illustration in front of you yet? Lauri let me see that the visual component is just as important. You can be looser in a way, and I think that’s something I’ve learned for my adult books.
Novels are like a Jenga tower—if you can pull something out and it still works, you have to ask, “Why was it there in the first place?” There’s a spareness to picture books that goes along with that idea: you say only what needs to be said, and say it in the most powerful way. It can a beautiful line or whimsical line, but you have to understand why it’s there. You have to read it as a haiku—does that line move the story forward, does it get us to understand Max’s anxiety and excitement? Lauri was very helpful that way.
Do you expect this experience to make an impact on your future work?
I think everything affects everything that you do. You can’t know exactly the way one book you do affects the next.
Will there be a more visual component in what I write next? There might be. Always for me with my adult books, I say I have only a blurry idea of what my characters look like, what their faces are. Will there be more immediacy? Absolutely. No book exists in isolation.
One thing that may very well affect my work: having children in a book. I like writing about children and for children, and I think there may be a younger child in my next book because I feel connected to that right now. Trying different things opens more doors for you—and then those doors stay propped open.
How were you paired with the illustrator, Micah Player?
Lauri gave me his name and I looked at his work and I just loved it. It seemed really right. I was very responsive to it in a way I can’t quite explain. I could see that he was very funny, first of all, and I wanted the book to be funny, to have that notion of playfulness of having been “the one and only.”
Once we said “yes, he’s really, really great,” next I saw a sample first spread, where Max’s room has his name all over it. Micah did these incredibly clever, subtle things, like the leaded windows spell out Max, the tiles of the floors look like they have the letters M, A, and X on them. The pulls on his desk look like M and A and X. That’s not the kind of thing I would have thought of. I think my children would have loved looking for all the Maxes—it’s like finding the Ninas in a Hirschfeld drawing. I just got the book in hardcover yesterday and I’m noticing even more “Maxes”—even subtly on the wallpaper, in pale colors, there are the letters of M A X.
I remember when the name “Gabriel” hadn’t quite popped in the way it would later, and I couldn’t get him one of those little license plates. These are big moments for kids: what does it mean that my name is or isn’t there? Now, of course, you can custom order anything. All of these “MAX” things in this book are probably available in some way in some catalog. [Laughs]
Once the three Maxes assemble, they’re always on the move. Is that how you imagined the action unfolding?
I did put the characters on scooters and skates and stuff, so I wasn’t that surprised. But the brightness of it and the energy and the kinetic quality! When you’re writing mostly adult books, you get long scenes—I call them “emptying the dishwasher” scenes—that are the opposite of kinetic. Things move fast in Millions of Maxes and I was delighted. Storytelling is about the child wanting to turn the page—and that’s the same for adult books as well.
What’s next for you?
I haven’t met or spoken with Micah—we’ve exchanged messages. I definitely want to do events with him, but at this point in time we don’t know what that will mean.
I’ve joked I can follow up with Zillions of Zachs, or Infinite Isabellas. But in the short run I’m writing a novel. I would love to do more picture books. Having a picture book come out right now feels so great to me: it’s a hopeful thing, it’s about moving forward and that’s more important now than ever. People need to read books regardless of what’s going on. It felt so good to open that box of books yesterday and think, here we go, here it is, it’s real.
Millions of Maxes by Meg Wolitzer, illus. by Micah Player. Dial, $17.99 Jan. 11 ISBN 978-0-593-32411-0