Earlier this month, I reviewed Elizabeth Bluemle’s Tap Tap Boom Boom (Candlewick, March 2014), illustrated by G. Brian Karas, for BookPage. What a good book it is, and that review is here over at the wonderful BookPage site.
Today, I’m following up with a couple of spreads from the book — and a chat with Elizabeth. She not only writes, but nearly 20 years ago, she also opened a bookstore along with Josie Leavitt, The Flying Pig Bookstore in Vermont, and she co-writes over at ShelfTalker (at Publishers Weekly), also with Josie.
I took the opportunity to ask Elizabeth today about Tap Tap Boom Boom, but also what she calls the World Full of Color diversity database. I also asked her simply, what are you reading now? (I love this question so much that I’d love to start a simple blog series where I ask authors and illustrators just that one question — short posts with short answers. Would I have time for this, though? Ay, there’s the rub.)
Anyway, enjoy my chat with the ever-curious, always-learning Elizabeth Bluemle … And, really, if you haven’t seen Tap Tap yet, you’re in for a treat. It’s one of my favorites thus far this year.
Jules: You describe the book at your site as “beat-rich.” Did you set out to write a book with a beat-specific rhythm, or did it sort of morph into that as you went along?
Elizabeth (pictured left): The beat was there from the beginning, though I made changes along the way, trying to capture the varying rhythms and tempos of the storm. I wrote most of my notes for the book standing on the subway landing platform at 14th Street, waiting out a huge thunderstorm with my suitcases. Some of my notes were just prosaic, fragmented observations about the people going up and down the subway stairs into and out of the storm, but others came out in rhyme and rhythm. (The “big, big fella / with tiny umbrella / it’s yellow” was one of those.)
Jules: What was it like to see Brian’s art for the first time?
Elizabeth: It was fabulous. The spreads were so detailed and the palette so rich. I have always loved Brian’s art, and I loved what he did in this book with the mixing of photos and gouache. I felt as though he perfectly captured the city and the spirit of camaraderie among strangers that I was hoping to get across with the book.
Jules: Do you feel like being a bookstore owner influences your writing? I would think, for instance, that you read tons of picture books, and we all know that reading reading reading as many as possible is step one in learning to write (or so people say).
Elizabeth: I do think reading widely and deeply is a wonderful and irreplaceable education for writers. I was a school librarian and a teacher before I was a bookseller, so I suspect even without bookstore experience, I might have read almost as many picture books as I do now. But it would have been a difference animal. One of the unique advantages of bookselling is getting to see the whole field of children’s literature unfold as it happens, meaning that we get to see which houses are publishing what books each season, a few months in advance. So, while that kind of research is certainly possible if you aren’t a bookseller, it’s so much easier when you have sales reps coming in with catalogs and F&Gs (folded and gathered picture books pre-publication) and ARCs. So, I guess I’d say that being a bookseller influences my understanding of the field, but I don’t think that it really affects my writing, which comes from an intuitive, not a logical, place in my brain.
Jules: Tell me more about your diversity database.
Elizabeth: Oh! Thank you for this question.
For several years, I have been writing in my Publishers Weekly blog, ShelfTalker, about the desperate need for more books featuring main characters of color where race is NOT the driving force of the story. Those books are important, too, but children also need to see themselves in every kind of story — and not merely as the white main character’s sidekick. We need books at every age level featuring kids having magical adventures, solving mysteries, navigating friendships — all of the genres! So, I began keeping a database of books that meet the above criterion, and it is used by teachers and librarians and parents across the country. I call it the World Full of Color database.
This conversation about diversity in children’s books really gained momentum over the past couple of years, and I’m hoping we are finally reaching the tipping point where everyone involved in the creation of children’s books—authors and illustrators, agents and editors, art directors and publishers—realize that this is not just a moral imperative, but good (and forward-thinking) business practice.
Jules: What are you reading now? Any good recommendations, even if it’s adult fiction?
Elizabeth: I recently finished a harrowing, utterly riveting debut adult novel by James Scott, entitled The Kept. It’s a revenge epic about an upstate New York family in 1897 whose lives are ripped apart because of the mother’s past. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it is quite remarkably written and could be used as a textbook for evocative setting and world-building in historical fiction. It’s completely unlike Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in setting, plot, and character, but may appeal to readers who found some harsh beauty in that narrative.
I’m also listening to Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood on audio, a delightful mystery starring a wry, none-too-innocent, 1920s-era high society London heroine, Phryne Fisher. A customer lured me into trying the series, and it is pure fun.
The children’s book that has me in its grip at the moment is S.E. Grove’s debut novel, The Glass Sentence. I’ve just started, so can’t say too much about it yet, but so far it’s fantastic, a fantasy with a phenomenal premise wherein the globe has been flung into disarray — not only are land masses separated by continental and political divides, but there are space-time divisions within them, so the world is a hodgepodge of civilizations co-existing at various times in history, some of them fantastical (even in the context of the book). I’ll have to finish it to describe it better!
Jules: What’s next on your plate? Any new books you’re working on now that you’re allowed to talk about?
Elizabeth: I always have several ideas and manuscripts percolating (more accurately, tugging at me to get back to them), but the one that is clawing most impatiently is about a villainous cat. It’s another rhyming book, though it has a more of a narrative arc and a regular rhythm than Wokka [pictured above] or Tap Tap Boom Boom. It’s really fun to write about an unrepentant rascal!
Image of Elizabeth used with her permission.
TAP TAP BOOM BOOM. Text copyright © 2014 by Elizabeth Bluemle. Illustrations copyright © 2014 by G. Brian Karas. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.