Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Author Interview: Judy Schachner

by Jennifer Sheffield

Hi, Judy! We're looking forward to seeing you at our Kids' Literary Festival in May. Congratulations on the release of Bits & Pieces this past fall! Here’s a bit of synopsis from the book jacket:

“Tink has everything he ever wanted: delicious treats, hugs and kisses, and even a kitten to raise. The only thing missing is wild outdoor adventure. So when the opportunity arises, Tink sneaks away -- and becomes an outdoor cat for one unforgettable night...”

I was sorry to hear the news of the recent death of Tink, your model for the protagonist in Bits & Pieces, and I’m curious to know what he was like. Was he truly as spacey as his portrayal in the book? As adventurous? And did he indeed acquire a kitten of his own to raise?

Tink was hilarious! I say was, because he passed away only just recently at the age of 21. He had a long and wonderful life eating inappropriate things like pool noodles, packing peanuts and a flip-flop. Tink was generous with his licks - He licked everything and everyone in sight and he was SO nurturing to the kittens that came to live with us, especially one kitten named Skippyjon Jones. My old cat Simon had earned the name of "The Grannyman" because he was just like a kindly old Granny to Tink when he was tiny. In turn, Tink earned the name of “The Mother-Brother" when Skippy came along because he was both like a mother and a brother to his new kitten. Was he spacey? Most definitely! I seriously think that he had a brain the size of a frozen pea…a dried up frozen pea, which rolled out of his ear one night at dinner. I know this to be true because I found it on my kitchen floor when i was cleaning up after we had finished our meal…what else could it have been? We had eaten creamed corn that night.

I have developed the strong impression (please correct me if I’m wrong...) that in the Grannyman/B&P series, the plot and characters are drawn fairly true to life, whereas the Skippyjon Jones books...tend toward the fanciful. (Though I do see a Siamese called Skippy on your Grannyman dedication page.) How does the writing experience feel different for the two series?

Yes, Jen, both The Grannyman and Bits & Pieces are drawn upon my life with our cats, but to some extent so are the Skippy Tales. Skippy was a very funny Siamese with an adorable personality. One day he was stung on his noggin by a large bee in our basement and that was when he began to speak with a Spanish accent…no one else ever heard him, but I can assure you that it was all true. I love writing the SJJ books because that is when I am most in touch with my six-year-old self…I can really let the cat out of the bag so to speak and I do.

The dedication page for The Grannyman has a beautiful display of cats, some grouped together and some by themselves, who I presume are your feline companions (up through 1999). How many of your cats have you drawn and written about? Do you specifically favor the depiction of Siamese cats, or is that just the way things turned out?

The title page in The Grannyman is one of my favorites because they are indeed the portraits of all my fur children dating back to the 1950’s. Our tabby, Mr. Mickey, made an appearance in my first book Willy and May (still in print) along with my very first Siamese named Frankie. Our dogs have been in my books as well. Buster, our adopted pit bull, is in Skippyjon Jones Class Action, though he made his first real appearance in Yo Vikings (my most favorite book) along with another one of our adopted pooches named Mugsy (talk about a crazy dog!). I do have a special relationship with the Siamese model of feline fuzziness though. They are so very different from other cats. Male Siamese are known to be the most nurturing of all the cat breeds and I have found that to be true. I lost my mother when I was quite young and my oldest brother, knowing that I was having a tough time, brought home a Siamese kitten just for me. I have been smitten ever since.

How do you feel your drawing style has changed over time?

Well…I don’t know quite how to answer that one. The Skippy books are very colorful and boisterous and labor-intensive while books like Bits & Pieces and The Grannyman are quieter in both color and line. I think I prefer the quieter ones and will be doing more of them in between the Skippy books. I just hope to keep improving - I have ever so much to learn (she said in her very best British accent). I am a very harsh critic of my own work - I tend to see only the mistakes. Plus I am a luddite; I have NO computer skills - none. Having said that I must confess to a preference for artwork done by the human hand. I love the imperfections and the warmth of real live art.

Among my favorite scenes in the book are the pages outlining Tink’s intoxicating stroll in the daylight and moonlight. Do you share Tink’s fascination with the outdoors? Do you do any of your drawings “on location,” or do you create the outside world from an inside space?

For an indoor cat, Tink certainly did have a fascination for the outdoor life; in his later years it became an obsession - trying to escape every time he heard a door open. I’m more of an indoor girl - though I think I have an obsession with weather. I love storms, especially snow storms. I love being in my studio working on my books when it snows - I can think of nothing better. Most everything I draw or paint is pulled out of my head…my imagination.

I'm glad to hear you like the snow, considering the winter we've been having!

I’m a cat person myself, and I recently included Bits & Pieces in a “staff pick” list of books with cats in them. What are some picture books featuring cats that you particularly like?

It’s not really a cat book but I love Sam, Bangs and Moonshine by Eveline Ness. I identify with the little girl who has just lost her mother. Sam has a cat that follows her everywhere. She talks to him and she says that Bangs could talk if he wanted to. I think it’s a near perfect little book which deals beautifully with the subject of death. Other favorites of mine are Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless Her Cat by Lore Segal, love the orange tabby in the Church Mice books by Graham Oakley and it goes without saying, anything by Clare Turlay Newberry.

Do you have current or upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?

I am finishing up the newest Skippy adventure, titled Snow What. It involves tights, sausages, and kissing. It will be on your doorstep this fall - that is, if I ever do finish!

And now for our "3 for 3" book questions:

1. What were 3 of your favorite books from childhood/teen years?

I adored Little Black Sambo - The idea of tigers turning into butter positively floored me. I can even remember drawing that image in my first grade classroom - only, I think I drew the tigers melting by the stove in our kitchen. I don’t remember having many books as a kid and anyway the thing I was most interested in was drawing. When I was a bit older, I do remember just loving the book Rascal by Sterling North. I didn’t have glasses and I needed them, so reading was difficult.

2. What are 3 books that you've read recently that surprised you?

I was never a big fan of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed The Signature Of All Things. Loved it! And who knew how interesting it would be to spend time inside the mind of Thomas Cromwell? Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, both by Hilary Mantel, blew me away - could not put them down. Finally, The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes was, in my opinion, bloody brilliant!

3. What are 3 books that influence/d your work?

A Visit To William Blake's Inn, by Nancy Willard, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen, A Girl Named Zippy, by Haven Kimmel, and, last but not least, all works by Arthur Rackham.

Thank you so much for joining us!

Judy Schachner was born into an Irish Catholic working class family from New England. Money was as tight as their apartment was tiny and though she may not have had the easiest of childhoods, she credits her imagination with helping her survive it.

She can't ever remember a time when she was not drawing and like most budding artists she doodled on everything, including her father's bald head. She drew herself into stories where she was the smartest in her class and into a family where mothers lived to a ripe old age. In many ways, Judy feels that her own life has resembled the fairy tales she loved reading as a child, complete with a happy ending. And the best part of this author/illustrator's story? She married a prince of a guy and they had two beautiful daughters and just like the mothers in her earliest tales, she plans on living to a ripe old age.

Described by the New York Times as “…something like the James Joyce for the elementary school set…,” Judy Schachner is the #1 NY Times Best Selling Author/Illustrator of over 23 books for children including Bits & Pieces, the Skippyjon Jones series, Yo Vikings, The Grannyman, and Willy and May. She has won many awards including the first E. B. White Read Aloud Award.

Thanks for reading!!! If you're local to the area, please let the bookstore know if you would like a copy of Bits & Pieces, or any of Judy's other books. You can email orders to orders [at] bigbluemarblebooks [dot] com, call (215) 844-1870, or come see us at 551 Carpenter Lane, in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Also, come check out our annual Kids' Literary Festival this May, where Judy will be among our lovely literary guests.
Next up: On February 25th, come check out Cordelia's interview with Bonny Becker, author of the Bear series and the Ms. Plum books.

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