This week Bookshelf checked in with the creators of six of this spring’s more highly touted titles to hear about the source of their inspiration.
Chris Van Allsburg on Queen of the Falls
Twice honored with a Caldecott Medal for his fantasy picture books, Van Allsburg leaps into nonfiction with this account of the first person ever to survive a plunge over Niagara Falls in a barrel – a 62-year-old charm school teacher from Bay City, Mich. Bookshelf caught up with him just after he had finished presenting at a TED conference in Ann Arbor, the subject of which was: Encouraging Crazy Ideas.
Van Allsburg: Some years ago, I read a Sports Illustrated article about the daredevils of Niagara Falls and was amazed not only that the first person to go over the falls in a barrel was a 62-year-old woman, but that I had gotten to age 22 without ever knowing this. I was a young sculptor then; it didn’t occur to me that I had the means to right what seemed like a wrong.
As the years went by I became a writer and illustrator, although exclusively of fantasies. But a year and a half ago, in an effort to keep my work interesting to myself, I decide to explore another genre. I have very positive memories of reading biographies of unusual Americans as a child. I wondered who might be a worthy or interesting subject, and from the recesses of my memory came this story about a woman and her barrel. Forty years had passed and I still hadn’t run into much information about her so I determined to find out who she was. I thought it would be a difficult research challenge and imagined I would have to get in touch with someone at Time-Life and have them go through the archives at Sports Illustrated just to get her name. First, I did think to Google the words “woman, barrel, Niagara Falls,” and, of course, it yielded the name right away: Annie Edson Taylor. I was a little disappointed because I had thought I was going to address a long-standing injustice but there’s no such thing as obscurity in the Internet age. However, she had not been the subject of a book, so I was still okay.
I was curious about why a woman who had very definite ideas about manners and etiquette would do something so reckless and in conflict with what a woman of refinement might be expected to do. She was a regular church-goer and she was very clear when asked about the implications of doing something suicidal, something that would be contrary to her beliefs. Everything she said made it clear she was not harboring a death wish. She must have considered that she might die but she pursued this with a high level of confidence. She believed in herself.
Meg Cabot on Abandon
Cabot will join Libba Bray and Maggie Stiefvater this spring as part of Scholastic’s “this is teen” tour, during which she’ll be promoting Abandon, the first in a new series loosely based on the Greek myth about Persephone, who was kidnapped by Hades, something that made her mother so mad she invented winter.
Cabot: My mom, the English major, had an Edith Hamilton mythology book lying around and you know how mothers are always saying, ‘Go read a book!’ so I picked that up and fell in love with Persephone. It might have been the illustration of Hades dragging her into his realm that did it. Strangely, I didn’t feel bad for her. She was one of the only female characters in Greek mythology who not only doesn’t get turned into a tree, she becomes queen of the underworld. It’s empowering! I think she ate the pomegranate on purpose, by the way. There’s a part of every teenager that is longing to meet that special someone who will take them away from their crappy life. Get me out of Bloomington, Indiana, and to a palace where I would rule over dead people! Plus, I kinda got the feeling she thought Hades was hot.
So I always wanted to write something about that for teens. It’s very dark but as a teenager I was certainly always drawn to darkness. And I really identified with Persephone who, I think, was just extremely lonely. Her mother kept her away from Olympus because she was so beautiful and was worried about what would happen to her among all those miscreants, so Persephone is left to play with the nymphs in the field. I think she felt like an outsider. She didn’t fit in. I identified with that, too.
So I had tried re-writing this myth many times – once as a romantic comedy called Date with Death. He had a Corvette. Really. But it just wasn’t working. The thing that finally did it was learning about this thing called “Coffin Night,” which is when the senior class [at Key West High School] hides a coffin somewhere on the island and the junior class has to find it and if they do they burn it on the field during homecoming weekend. I tried but did not succeed in finding out exactly why they do this, but it seems to be connected to this little problem they’ve had over the centuries on Key West of hurricanes unearthing all the people who’d been buried underground – when Ponce de Leon got here the place was covered with skeletons. So now there is this fantastic cemetery with above-ground stone crypts that can withstand the hurricanes. It’s not Key West in Abandon – it’s Isla Huesos, “Island of the Bones,” and it’s a very spooky place.
John Flanagan on The Battle of Nihon-Ja
Penguin will bring John Flanagan to the U.S. from his home near Sydney, Australia to mark the end of the Rangers Apprentice series. The 10th and final installment brings the number of copies in print in the series to 3.5 million in the U.S. alone. Not bad for an idea that began life as a set of short stories, one each week for five months, that Flanagan wrote to encourage his son Michael to read. Though this is the last book, Will and Co. may live on – the series has been optioned for film.
Flanagan: I asked a friend and fellow author, Deborah Abela, how she felt when she finished her 10-book series. She said she burst into tears. I know how she felt.
But, by the end of Book 10, all of the key relationships between characters in my books have been settled. The teenage boys I began with so many years ago are now young men. My neophyte apprentice from Book 1 is an assured, skilled, senior member of the ranger corps. His mentor, Halt, is now happily married and regards young Will as a surrogate son. Horace is now the foremost knight in the kingdom of Araluen. What more is there to say?
There was one major relationship that was still to be resolved, which became the raison d’etre for Book 10. I’d always promised myself, and my readers, that I wouldn’t write another book simply because there was a series in play. I needed each book to show the growth and development of my people. (I can’t think of them as characters. They’re people to me.) But now, the main story arc, of Will’s progress from nervous young boy to seasoned veteran, is complete. So now it seems right, somehow, to end.
Mo Willems on Hooray for Amanda and Her Alligator!
Having written several picture book series (the Pigeon books, Knuffle Bunny), a bunch of stand-alone picture books (City Dog, Country Frog; Leonardo the Terrible Monster), and two different series of easy readers (Elephant & Piggie, Cat the Cat), what could Willems do next? How about a 72-page chapter book in picture book- size trim? After all, he doesn’t like to repeat himself.
Willems: I promised myself I was not going to write another story about a girl and her stuffed animal, but what happens is that these stories usually evolve as I’m drawing and writing them. This one, the words came first. It was a little more writerly. I had a storyline before I started to draw and it was about a girl and her stuffed alligator. I think the key moment came when I realized what I had was six and a half stories, which stepped it up a little bit in age to almost a chapter book. That was something different.
My inspiration came from re-reading Calvin and Hobbes. One of my very favorite parts is when [Bill] Watterson shows just the two of them, wordlessly hanging out. It’s like you see them between the scripts. I love those drawings and love those moments, so I included one in each chapter [of Amanda and Her Alligator]. The illustration relates to the title page of the chapter but the characters are in repose, if you will.
The inspiration specifically for Amanda came from watching [his daughter] Trixie read. When she reads, she has her head upside down, her leg on a lamp, the book sideways. I’d come into the room and say ‘What are you doing?’ and she’d look at me like I was crazy and say, ‘I’m reading.’ So I have this voracious reader girl with the wackiest books you can think of [Amanda is seen reading Whale Songs for Beginners and You Can Make it Yourself: Jet Packs!]. And I’ve been drawing alligators forever. At first, this one was green but then I worried people would think he was real. [He’s now teal.] All those things coalesced.
Brandon Mull on Beyonders: A World Without Heroes
Mull’s first series, Fablehaven, was a smashing small-press success. It also, he says, taught him how to write. The payoff for him comes with Beyonders, the first book of a new fantasy trilogy, in which an American teen is deposited (or, better put, swallowed, digested and expelled) into the vaguely medieval land of Lyria, where evil rules and some inhabitants have the ability to detach body parts at will.
Mull: I have been planning this trilogy for a long time. I’ve been thinking about it for 10 years. I basically knew every scene in the entire thing. I had taken stabs at writing it over the years but I could not find my stride. Instead, Fablehaven was the idea that got bought first and for five years, that consumed me. Once it was finished, I realized I had learned a lot about writing from writing those five Fablehaven books, so I salvaged my best ideas about Beyonders and found the right way to tell it, with the help of a great editor, Liesa Abrams, at Aladdin. I’m very grateful now that I didn’t get it published earlier than this.
One of the things that was holding me up was that I knew my characters were going to enter an alternate world but I didn’t know how that would happen. There are a lot of ways of crossing over to another world – a wardrobe, tornadoes, a looking glass, but I was at the Hogle Zoo [in Salt Lake City, Utah], and I saw a hippo yawn and its mouth was so wide I thought, ‘You could fit a dude in there,’ so I had my character fall into the hippo tank at the zoo. In fact, he falls not only into the enclosure, but into the gaping mouth of the hippo himself—and he crosses into Lyria that way. The rest of the story is more serious but that is definitely an unusual way to get into it. I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of imitators. This will probably be the only ‘hippo gateway’ book there ever is.
Anthony Horowitz on Scorpia Rising
The prolific British author is touring in support of the ninth and final book in his series about Alex Rider, in which his reluctant teen spy seeks revenge against Scorpia, the criminal mastermind responsible for his parents’ deaths. It’s a bittersweet goodbye.
Horowitz: Scorpia Rising is the end of a journey that has lasted one year for Alex and 10 years for me. Alex is now very different than the boy who was recruited by MI6 in Stormbreaker. He’s grown up so much throughout his adventures. He’s been manipulated, lied to, injured. And yet he’s still upbeat, still a hero, and I’m glad that despite one or two shocks along the way, Scorpia Rising ends with a real sense of hope for the future.
But when I finished writing it, I was really sad, and I was completely taken aback by that. On the one hand I thought, ‘This is crazy to end this. Alex is by far my most successful character and series.’ But part of my feeling was also of relief for Alex. Just how many bad guys, how many gadgets, how many action sequences are there? I’ve had Alex chased on land, in air, underwater, facing down every form of weaponry there is. He’s been bashed around so much it was hard to keep him cheerful and Alex is basically a cheerful sort. I was feeling all the time, ‘How much more can this boy take?’ So, I’ll certainly miss Alex but, all in all, I think I’ve written exactly the right end to the series and stopped at exactly the right time.