Humor is very likely on the menu at today’s Children’s Book and Author Breakfast, which is highlighted by three lively veteran children’s book authors and one debut author whose specialty is comedy. New to the book world but familiar to film and TV viewers, Jason Segel will host this morning’s event. Joining him on the podium are Mem Fox, Carl Hiaasen, and Jeff Kinney.
Jason Segel, whose writing credits include movie scripts and songs, teamed up with Kirsten Miller, author of the Kiki Strike and the Eternal Ones series, to write Nightmares! (Delacorte, Sept.), the debut book in a middle-grade trilogy introducing a boy whose worst nightmares start to come true. The story is based on the first movie script that Segel, now 34, wrote when he was in his early 20s.
“I had terrible nightmares as a child, and I found that films like The Goonies and Labyrinth really helped remind me that there’s still magic in the world,” he says. “I hope my book helps kids realize that as well. I think when kids reach the age of eight or 10, the fact that they have responsibilities—and will for the rest of their lives—suddenly hits them, and that can be scary. I want to let kids know that you can use nightmares to learn to cope with fears, and can work through nightmares to make them your dreams.”
Segel was anxious to shape his original nightmares-themed script into a novel. “One thing I’ve learned through my work [as writer] on The Muppets movies is that a child’s imagination is more powerful than anything you can put on a screen,” he observes. “So I really wanted to put this story into book form.”
He reports that his collaboration with Miller was a smooth one. “I’ve found in my career that collaboration is the key to success for me, and I was grateful to be able to work with Kirsten,” he notes.
Segel, who will sign copies of Nightmares! at the Random House booth (2839) at 1:30 p.m. today, is “very excited” to be making his first visit to BEA and to “be around people who really love books.” Still, he admits to a few butterflies anticipating his breakfast gig this morning: “In general, I am terrified of hosting things, but it was comforting to learn about the context of the breakfast and that I’ll be introducing my fellow authors. But I’m still trying to pick out a really good sweater to wear—maybe something Christmassy or something with elbow patches? I’m wading through lots of choices.”
Mem Fox is delighted to speak at today’s breakfast, and recalls her reaction to being asked to do so: “I live in Australia, by the sea, and when the invitation arrived I felt like running along the beach screaming, even though I’m an asthmatic in my late 60s. I was not only honored, I was shocked. My fevered excitement and gratitude know no bounds.” Fox will sign copies of her latest book, Baby Bedtime, (S&S/Beach Lane Books, Aug.) at 1 p.m. today at Table 8 in the Autographing Area.
The author notes that this picture book, which is illustrated by Emma Quay, started very differently from any of her earlier picture books. In early 2010, her first grandchild, Theo, was born 10 weeks prematurely, and Fox spent a good deal of time visiting him in the neonatal ward. “I read, sang, and talked to him daily,” she says. “One day I noticed Theo’s ears don’t stick out. Mine do, so I was so happy for him. I loved his ears—and his nose, fingers, and toes. So I whispered, ‘I could eat your little ears. I could nibble on your nose.’ I kept on going, and realized I’d accidentally written the first verse of a love poem to a baby. Over the next couple of days, I finished the poem, which eventually became the text of Baby Bedtime.”
A devoted literacy advocate who believes in the importance of reading aloud to very young children, Fox consciously shapes the verse of her books so it is especially effective when read aloud. “I’m passionate about children being read to long before they go to kindergarten, so they’ll learn to read easily, happily, and quickly when they finally make it into school,” she says. “And it’s not only verse that I consciously shape for read-aloud perfection, it’s prose as well. My editor and I were recently working intensively on a new book, and I wrote 39 drafts in five days. The final story will be a meager 450 words, but each one will be the right word in the right place.”
Because she loves speaking about her work, Fox expects today’s breakfast to be “a highlight” of BEA for her, adding, “I hope booksellers will take from my presentation a greater understanding of the agony of writing for very young children. I also hope they will find it deliciously easy to sell until kingdom come.”
Carl Hiaasen arrives at BEA with a new feather in his cap: with the release of Skink—No Surrender (Knopf, Sept.) he will add YA author to his long list of writing credits. In his new book, the Newbery Honor author (for Hoot) brings back Skink, the hermit ex-governor of Florida he first introduced more than 25 years ago in a novel for adults, Double Whammy. Here, Skink and a teen named Richard embark on a search for the boy’s missing cousin, undaunted by blinding storms, crazed pigs, flying bullets, and giant gators.
Both Skink’s sketchy character and the story line—the missing girl runs away with a guy she meets online—skewed the novel to young adults, observes Hiaasen. “The world has obviously changed with the Internet, and it brings a host of new threats, like cyber predators, that kids and adults have to worry about,” he says. “This story is obviously a bit heavier than what goes on in my middle-grade books, so it naturally fell into the YA category—though my books are so peculiar that they don’t really fit into any category.”
And of course there’s the roguish Skink, whom Hiaasen describes as “probably the most adult character in any of my books, so it made sense to bring him into a book aimed at teens rather than younger readers.” In addition, the author’s teen readers appear to be ardent fans of Skink. “A lot of teens who read Hoot when it first came out and now read my adult novels have told me that Skink is their favorite character,” he adds.
Asked if he felt the need to tone down Skink’s character for the YA audience, Hiaasen replies that he decided to tell the story in Richard’s voice, which “gave me the chance to filter Skink’s dialogue. Richard became somewhat of a built-in editor. At one point he remarks that Skink is cussing, but he refuses to tell the reader what he’s hearing. Skink is a character who needs some supervision, even in an adult book.”
Not surprisingly. Hiaasen, who signs ARCs of Skink—No Surrender at 11 a.m. this morning at the Random House booth (2839), doesn’t keep a straight face as he describes his reaction to being asked to speak at the breakfast: “I immediately thought, ‘What are they thinking—are they out of their minds?’ I’m always flattered and also surprised when asked to appear at a dignified function like this. My fan base and audience are a little more ragged—which I love—but here I may have to dress up and behave.”
Jeff Kinney’s ninth Diary of a Wimpy Kid novel, The Long Haul (Amulet, Nov.), marks several departures from his earlier books in this bestselling series. For starters, Greg Heffley and his family leave home for the first time to embark on a road trip. Kinney notes that though “taking the characters out of their element is freeing, it’s a little risky for me creatively. Normally, I don’t figure out the novel’s theme until I’ve written all the jokes for the book, but this time the road-trip structure was already there. I was intent on writing the book cinematically, in three acts, where I ordinarily build the story around scattershot jokes that the plot strings together. Here, I feel a bit as though I’m writing right-side-up rather than my usual upside-down.”
Changing the setting by taking the Heffleys out of their home turf also brought new problems. “With the family in one car together, I have to have them all doing something, moving toward some kind of goal, which is a different approach for me,” he remarks. “I thought it might be limiting, but it was very liberating, because all the characters had to have some sort of character development, which I don’t usually focus on.”
Citing an additional creative departure, Kinney adds that he also tweaked his approach to the humor in The Long Haul. “With this book, the humor has to be a bit more observational and the jokes more action-driven,” he says. “When characters are in a car, you need flat tires, chases, and things to go wrong. It’s all a little more madcap.”
Speaking of humor, Kinney says he is honored to be a breakfast speaker this morning, but a tad anxious as well. “I’m a bit nervous about having to deliver laughs, since that can be tough at that time of the morning,” he says. “In one lifetime, I can only collect so many funny stories, so I pray if I tell one that booksellers have already heard they won’t call me out on it.”
After the breakfast today, Kinney heads to the Abrams booth (2727) at 10:30 a.m. to autograph copies of the Wimpy Kid School Planner, and will return to the booth for a second signing on Saturday at 11 a.m.