Evangeline Lilly made her name as an actor on Lost, and, more recently, in the movies Ant-Man and its sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp, but books have always been dear to her heart. The Squickerwonkers, her darkly illustrated picture book series, which she says will ultimately encompass 20 titles, introduces a troupe of puppets who take in naughty kids whose flaws lead to their undoing. She’s at BookCon to discuss the first two titles—The Squickerwonkers: The Prequel and The Squickerwonkers: The Demise of Selma the Spoiled—and where the series is headed.
You wrote the first Squickerwonkers poem when you were 14. Can you talk a bit about how the stories started and what they mean to you?
I have always loved cautionary tales and origin tales, which usually have a very strong sense of justice, like the Native American tales of how the fish got its scales or the bird got its wings. Then as I got older, I started to realize the sinister side to some of them, which suggested that if you are not a pure and worthy little child, you deserve horrible things. And I thought, well, how do we reconcile those two things, one I adore and one I really do not agree with? I decided to make stories where every protagonist and supporting character is flawed, where there are no heroes, there are no perfect little people. There are only people making mistakes, the way we all do.
Like those old morality tales do, are you trying to impart certain lessons?
Children really need help in navigating tough choices, situations, and emotions that creep up on them and drive them to make bad decisions. I just don’t see children being given a ton of guidance in that way anymore. So I call these books “cautionary tales for the modern-day brat.” For me as a mother and as an adult in 2019, I think it’s really, really important to remind children that choices lead to consequences, and that it’s not everybody else’s fault if something goes wrong. That you can look at yourself and ask yourself, “What have I done and what could I maybe have done better?”
The visual world of the books is so distinctive and powerful, and unified across the different artists you’ve worked with. How have you guided them to create that world?
I work on every aspect of the books with the designers and the illustrators. When I do the audiobooks, I produce, direct, and perform, and I am in the sound booth working with the director. When we do the print book, I have a very specific sort of feeling of what I want the books to convey and how I want them to feel. I’m inspired by things that I love, like [the work of early 20th-century British illustrator] Arthur Rackham. I love that in his work you can see the pencil strokes. I’ve always said to my artists, “Please do not do this all digital. I want to see pencil strokes and texture on the page.” I want children to love the art, to recognize that they could create that.
Why did you decide to write these stories in rhyme?
I love rhyme, and I find that is a very immersive tool. When you’re forced to start to trot mentally at a certain canter, when the author has that kind of power over the rhythm with which you read the story, the voice can become much clearer and stronger than if it was straight prose. Dr. Seuss was a huge inspiration for me. Edward Gorey was probably my largest inspiration as a writer. And they both use rhyme to such powerful effect.
“Middle Grade Blowout” 10:30–11:15 a.m. // Room 1E14