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Q&A with children’s author Oliver Jeffers

Beloved Irish-born children’s author Oliver Jeffers makes a quick stop in Canada this weekend with an appearance at Small Print Toronto’s sold-out Totsapalooza.

Quillblog spoke to Jeffers about the inspirations behind his art practice and picture books, including his latest, the best-selling This Moose Belongs to Me (HarperCollins).

Does your fine art inform your picture books or vice versa? My visual vocabulary comes out in both: colour schemes, sense of perspective, and space. Thematically a lot of times they cross over the same territory. For example, when I was working on The Incredible Book Eating Boy, I was also involved in an exhibition where I was working with a quantum physicist about the quest for ultimate intelligence. Both the book and the art are really about the search to be the smartest person on earth. They extend from the same starting place, just in slightly different directions.

A lot of the very early art I was doing involved telling stories and mixing words and pictures together. But often what was intended to be one single image turned into several images that I realized would be better suited to a picture book. After that my art changed without really thinking about it. I think my thirst for putting words and pictures together was totally satisfied in the realm of picture books.

You use a lot of collage and layering in your illustrations. Do you hoard materials? There’s a difference between a hoarder and a collector. A hoarder keeps everything, whereas a collector curates their hoard. I am very editorial about what gets kept and will only keep something I think has potential. Space is limited here.

Where did you find the landscapes for This Moose Belongs to Me? I kept finding all these old paintings in trash piles near where I live in Brooklyn. I started painting on top of them and changing the scenes to create different narratives. I had already come up with the basic structure of This Moose Belongs to Me and when I was sketching it out, I started thinking about the kind of environment I wanted for these characters. I didn’t actually paint any of the backgrounds in Moose, which I think thematically is paired brilliantly because one of the themes in the book is that of ownership – I’m using all these old paintings that I didn’t make, appropriating them to fit my story.

What are you inspired by most: materials, emotions, or themes? They’re all interconnected. It’s very difficult to go back and trace the roots of how an idea came to be at a particular point. It probably came from three different things happening at the same time, from working with materials to overheard conversations or snippets of stories. I always have a notebook and I’m always writing things down.

Do you have an affinity toward particular animals? Not really. I think sometimes if you use an animal character it’s less specific than a human character. A human’s physical characteristics have implications on how people read them, whereas with an animal it’s a lot more vague and easier to put yourself into the story. It’s more about what the animals are doing than who they are.

Does the little boy in the striped shirt reappear in several of your books because they are a series or because you weren’t finished with him as a character? HarperCollins has asked me that, too – I think they’d be quite happy for him to make another appearance. How to Catch a Star and Lost and Found came quite naturally. I knew I wasn’t finished with him at that point. After those books I was done with him because I didn’t want to force a series, but then quite naturally the idea for Up and Down crept up into my head and unfolded in a very strong way. I suppose I’ve learned to never say never, but I also won’t try to come up with another story with him.

Your hand-lettering is as recognizable as your illustration style. How did it develop? In art college finding your voice is a big thing. It happened to me intuitively about 12 years ago when I was halfway through college. It was just a matter of listening to the way my hand liked to draw rather than forcing a style because I liked it.

As far as my hand-lettering is concerned, that’s just the way I write. For the longest time I wanted to include my handwriting in books, but it was always very difficult with co-editions and foreign languages. Before I figured out Photoshop it was really complicated if there were any last-minute text changes. It’s only been technically possible for me in the last couple of years.




BookNet bestsellers: Canadian children’s books

Consider this an early Christmas present for Robert Munsch, who takes six spots on this week’s bestsellers list for Canadian children’s books.

For the two weeks ending Nov. 25:

1. Finding Christmas, Robert Munsch; Michael Martchenko, illus.
(North Winds Press/Scholastic, $19.99 cl, 9781443113175)

2. Love You Forever, Robert Munsch; Sheila McGraw, illus.
(Firefly Books, $5.95 pa, 9780920668375)

3. A Porcupine in a Pine Tree, Helaine Becker; Werner Zimmerman, illus.
(North Winds Press/Scholastic, $16.99 cl, 9780545986632)

4. Just Getting Started, Justin Bieber
(HarperCollins, $23.99 cl, 9780062202086)

5. The Munschworks Grand Treasury, Robert Munsch; Michael Kusugak and Michael Martchenko, illus.
(Annick Press, $45 cl, 9781550376852)

6. A Porcupine in a Pine Tree (gift set), Helaine Becker; Werner Zimmerman, illus.
(North Winds Press/Scholastic, $24.99 gift set, 9781443119573)

7. Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Christmas, Mélanie Watt
(Kids Can Press, $18.95 cl, 9781554534692)

8. Stella! Marie-Louise Gay
(Groundwood Books, $24.95 cl, 9781554982929)

9. Why I Love Canada, Daniel Howarth
(HarperCollins Canada, $12.99 pa, 9780007921546)

10. Moose! Robert Munsch; Michael Martchenko, illus.
(Scholastic Canada, $7.99 board book, 9781443107181)

11. Neil Flambé and the Crusader’s Curse, Kevin Sylvester
(Simon & Schuster, $14.99 cl, 9781442442863)

12. Just One Goal! Robert Munsch; Michael Martchenko, illus.
(Scholastic Canada, $7.99 pa, 9780545990356)

13. This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, Kenneth Oppel
(HarperCollins Canada, $12.99 pa, 9781554683406)

14. Smelly Socks, Robert Munsch; Michael Martchenko, illus.
(Scholastic Canada, $7.99 pa, 9780439967075)

15. Dragon Seer’s Gift, Janet McNaughton
(HarperCollins Canada, $9.99 pa, 9781443406789)

16. Sinking Deeper, Steve Vernon
(Nimbus Publishing, $12.95 pa, 9781551097770)

17. Missing, Becky Citra
(Orca Book Publishers, $9.95 pa, 9781554693450)

18. A Tinfoil Sky, Cyndi Sand-Eveland
(Tundra Books, $19.99 cl, 9781770492776)

19. The Grave Robber’s Apprentice, Allan Stratton
(HarperCollins Canada, $18.99 cl, 9781554688258)

20. Cat Found, Ingrid Lee
(Scholastic, $18.99 cl, 9780545317702)

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BookNet bestsellers: Canadian children’s books

Just in time for March Break, this week’s bestsellers list, which looks at Canadian children’s books, illustrates that readers will love Robert Munsch forever.

For the two weeks ending March 4:

1. Love You Forever, Robert Munsch; Sheila McGraw, illus.
(Firefly Books, $5.95 pa, 9781443107648)

2. We Share Everything! Robert Munsch; Michael Martchenko, illus.
(Scholastic Canada, $9.99 bb, 9781443113441)

3. It’s My Room! Robert Munsch; Michael Martchenko, illus.
(Scholastic Canada, $7.99 pa, 9781443113656)

4. Up, Up, Down, Robert Munsch; Michael Martchenko, illus.
(Scholastic Canada, $9.99 bb, 9781443113465)

5. The Paper Bag Princess, Robert Munsch; Michael Martchenko, illus.
(Annick Press, $6.95 pa, 9780920236161)

6. Love You Forever, Robert Munsch; Sheila McGraw, illus.
(Firefly Books, $14.95 cl, 9780920668368)

7. The Gathering, Kelly Armstrong
(Doubleday Canada, $14.95 pa, 9780385668538)

8. Neil Flambé and the Marco Polo Murders, Kevin Sylvester
(Simon & Schuster, $14.99 cl, 9781442446045)

9. Blood Red Road No.1, Moira Young
(Doubleday Canada, $12.95 pa, 9780385671859)

10. Moose! Robert Munsch; Michael Martchenko, illus.
(Scholastic Canada, $7.99 pa, 9781443107181)

11. Thomas’ Snowsuit, Robert Munsch; Michael Martchenko, illus.
(Annick Press, $1.99 pa, 9781554511150)

I Have to Go! Robert Munsch; Michael Martchenko, illus.
(Annick Press, $1.99 pa, 9780920303511)

13. Sing a Song of Mother Goose, Barbara Reid
(Scholastic Canada, $9.99 bb, 9780545997249)

14.Half Brother, Kenneth Oppel
(HarperCollins Canada, $12.99 pa, 9781554686117)

15. The Paper Bag Princess, Robert Munsch; Michael Martchenko, illus.
(Annick Press, $1.99 pa, 9780920236253)

16.Nighty-Night: A Bedtime Song for Babies, Richard Van Camp
(McKellar & Martin Publishing, $8.95 bb, 9780986576744)

17.I See Me, Margaret Manuel
(Theytus Books, $6.95 cl, 9781894778855)

18. Give Me Back My Dad!, Robert Munsch; Michael Martchenko, illus.
(Scholastic Canada, $7.99 pa, 9781443107648)

19. Smelly Socks, Robert Munsch; Michael Martchenko, illus.
(Scholastic Canada, $7.99 pa, 9780439967075)

20. Zoe’s Year, Barbara Reid
(Scholastic Canada, $9.99 bb, 9781443113724)

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Book links roundup: Saltspring Island launches literary festival, top 100 children’s books, and more


Children’s authors and illustrators sign proclamation demanding better picture books

A group of U.S. children’s authors and illustrators have found an eye-catching way to demand better quality picture books from their peers.

A manifesto, signed by 21 members of the kids’ publishing industry, appeared as a full-page ad in the November issue of Horn Book Magazine and on the website The coalition is spearheaded by Mac Barnett, a San Francisco author who sits on the board of 826LA, the non-profit writing and tutoring centre founded by Dave Eggers. Vancouver-born artist Carson Ellis handlettered and illustrated the document. Other authors and illustrators who have signed the letter include Laurie Keller, Lemony Snicket, and Jon Scieszka.

The manifesto begins with a proclamation: “We are tired of hearing the picture book is in trouble, and tired of pretending it is not.” The group calls for titles that are “fresh, honest, piquant, and beautiful,” and asks authors to “cease writing the same book again and again.”

Barnett says he wrote the document on a former professor’s advice. He told Publishers Weekly:

“The target audience for ‘A Picture Book Manifesto’ is quite sweeping.… It is really an exhortation to everyone – writers, illustrators, editors, publishers, art directors, booksellers, librarians, and parents – that we could all be doing better. The only people who are doing fine are the kids themselves. I really believe the rest of us should be doing better.”

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Children’s bookstore launches multilingual short story contest

Rainbow Caterpillar Bookstore, a Toronto-based bookseller of children’s literature in a variety of languages including Italian, Spanish, Gujarati, Farsi, Arabic, and Chinese, has announced its first-ever writing contest. The Rainbow Caterpillar Award for Writing for Children recognizes short fiction (up to 500 words) written for kids 5–10  in a language other than English or French.

In a press release, Rainbow Caterpillar co-owner Happie Testa says the multilingual contest aims to encourage “vibrant literary production for children in foreign languages, but with a uniquely Canadian perspective.” Testa’s colleague Hanoosh Abbasi adds: “We hope ultimately this award also helps parents pass their mother language on to their children born or raised in Canada … We feel that it is important for parents to have access to good books from their countries of origin, but also to put their ancestral culture in the context of our shared Canadian culture where many people speak more than one language on a daily basis.”

The winning author will receive $750 plus publication in a collection, which will also feature 10 pieces that receive honourable mention. The deadline for submissions is Oct. 6. The award will be presented at the Canadian Ethnic Media Association’s annual awards gala in November.

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Event photos: Second Story Press launches Splish, Splat! at Mayfest

Second Story Press launched Splish, Splash!, written by Alexis Domney and illustrated by Alice Crawford in Toronto on May 13. The picture book, about a boy who meets two deaf house painters, is the winner of a contest sponsored by the Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf. The launch was held at Exhibition Place during Mayfest — Toronto’s annual celebration of its deaf community. (Photos courtesy of Second Story Press)

Crawford and Domney sign copies of Splish, Splat!

Crawford demonstrates the collage technique she used to illustrate the book.

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How e-books break poems

Poetry rarely makes the headlines, but an Associated Press story about the unsuitability of verse to the e-book form has been making the rounds. The story notes the dearth of major poets being published digitally.

Major poets not yet in e-form include Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Sylvia Plath, W.H. Auden and Robert Lowell, Langston Hughes and C.K. Williams. No e-editions of poetry are available from this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Rae Armantrout; from Pulitzer winner and incoming U.S. poet laureate W.S. Merwin; or from such recent laureates as Charles Simic, Robert Pinsky and Louise Glueck.

While the assertion that poetry is “so far the least adaptable [literary form] to the growing e-book market” may be overstated (surely, illustrated children’s books have proven even more difficult), it is certainly the case that the design and formatting issues that afflict e-books are more pronounced in verse, often distorting a poem beyond recognition. Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins puts it this way:

The critical difference between prose and poetry is that prose is kind of like water and will become the shape of any vessel you pour it into to. Poetry is like a piece of sculpture and can easily break.

The bad news is that the problem seems intractable, at least for now:

A leading developer of e-reading technology, eBook Technologies, is working on improving the formatting for poetry, although no major breakthroughs are expected before 2011. Company president Garth Conboy said that for now the most realistic options are either to keep a long line intact by scrolling horizontally across the screen — “A really bad experience,” he says — or to find a way to “better communicate” to readers that a line broken in two was meant to be a single line.

“Neither are perfect solutions,” he said. “I’m not sure what the perfect solution is.”

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Daily book biz round-up: battle over The Shack; FOX News attacked; and more

Check these out:

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Daily book biz round-up, April 12

An assortment of links to kick off your work week:

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Hall of Honourers

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Eva Stachniak's Empress of the Night

Eva Stachniak poses with a copy of her book, Empress of the Night

Tea and snacks inspired by Eva Stachniak's Empress of the Night

Rimma Burashko with author Eva Stachniak

Eva Stachniak talks to the audience about the best and worst of Catherine the Great's favourites

Eva Stachniak smiles as she signs a copy of Empress of the Night for a fan

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