The first time I heard the title FIRST GRADE DROPOUT I said (yet again), “Why didn’t I think of that? Brilliant!”
(Also, the song “Beauty School Dropout” played through my head a gazillion times.)
This new book from dream-team Audrey Vernick and Matthew Cordell did not disappoint. In fact, it was very different from what I imagined and I loved it because it was so unexpected and clever.
You might already know Audrey from her BUFFALO and BASEBALL books. And, if you don’t know Matthew by now, I might have to whack you upside the head with one of his delightful picture books. (Don’t worry, I’ll use a paperback so it won’t hurt.)
Audrey once told me that humor often stems from inserting the absurd into the ordinary. That’s why I enjoy her BUFFALO (which, according to the title, is really MY buffalo…or YOURS…definitely NOT HERS). On one hand, it’s totally crazy to have a buffalo in school…but on the other, it seems SO VERY RIGHT.
Last time Matt (hey, we’re on nickname terms now!) visited my blog, he talked about his loosey-goosey illustration style in SPECiAL DELIVERY. Well, FiRST GRADE DROPOUT gets so loose that you’d swear Sir Quentin Blake illustrated it. Yep, it’s that amazing.
So today, I asked Audrey and Matt to interview each other. What a hoot…
Audrey: When you’re illustrating your own work, does it start with an image? How do you begin when you’re illustrating a text written by someone else?
Matt: In terms of my own books (ones where I do both the writing and illustrating) it’s been a little of both. Some have started with an image that materialized in my head or on paper that I wanted to wrap a story around. And some began as a fully formed idea that became a finished manuscript that I wove illustrations into. The ones that have come from an image in my head or on paper seem to be the most difficult to write. Wrapping a whole story around an image has not been easy for me. But when I have a full story idea and get it out and done, it’s much easier to plug the art into that scenario.
What about you, Audrey, how do you begin? Do you have an idea and just start attacking it and writing right away? Or do you plan and outline, and take a more plotted out approach to crafting your stories? Both? Neither? The art stuff always comes much more naturally to me. The writing… I’m still trying to figure this out, man!
Audrey: For this book, it began with that moment, the embarrassing one, something my sister, a second-grade teacher, told me happens every year in her classroom. But I had the idea (a PiBoIdMo idea!) for a long time before I wrote the text because for this book, that idea wasn’t enough. I needed the first-person voice, too. Ideas rarely come in images for me–usually in moments. I’m not sure that’s a distinction that makes sense to everyone–what I mean is that it’s not something I see the way a visual thinker would. Sometimes a title comes first and tells me all I need to know (So You Want to be a Rock Star). I never plan and outline, even when I’m writing novels. I am not recommending this approach.
In preparation for this interview, when thinking about embarrassing moments, I was remembering adult moments, many involving incoherence or humiliation in the face of celebrities. We’ll save that for another time. But when I hit upon one from childhood, I was surprised that the sting was still intense—tears came to my eyes!–more than 40 years later. At a seventh birthday party for a friend in another town—a party at which I knew only the birthday girl—I was mortified when her older brother kissed me in front of everyone. I called my mother to pick me up early. I waited outside for her, and when I opened the car door, I climbed onto the floor of the passenger seat, and just sat there and cried. Other kids had laughed and teased and I was mortified. Fun times. What embarrassed you the most as a kid?
Matt: Well, thank you for sharing that soul-baring moment here. The nerve of that kid! I mean, where does he get off?
Me, I was a pretty shy and awkward little guy, so I feel like I have a whole archive of cringe-inducing childhood memories. Ones that like to randomly resurface when I’m doing the dishes or taking a shower. Let me see… there was that one time that I almost won the school spelling bee. I was in the 4th grade and just figuring out how terrified I was of speaking in front of bunches of people, when our teacher made her students duke it out with a spelling bee. Unfortunately, I was not bad at spelling, so I kept standing up there spelling words right until I beat everyone in the whole classroom. (I could’ve–should’ve?–just thrown it and spelled a word wrong on purpose, but I guess my moral code wouldn’t allow for such.)
Then came time to compete against the other class winners before a packed school auditorium. Beforehand, my teacher was all excited and gave me this big book of insane words to study. Words I probably wouldn’t even be able to spell (or define) even today. And apparently if I was good enough, this spelling stuff could take me all the way to the nation’s capital to compete. NOOOOO!!
Anyways, there we were up on stage, the best spellers in the school (awesome, right?) and to make the thing worse, I had a brand new terrible haircut. My whole face and ears were burning up with awkward terror and embarrassment. Yet somehow I kept spelling words right over and over again. Until it was just me and this girl Becky. We went head to head for a while until I finally choked and spelled something wrong. (“a-n-c-o-r.”) And then Becky got it right. (“a-n-c-h-o-r”) It was a weird combo of feeling really bad and feeling really good. I felt like a real doof messing up like that in front of the whole school. But I was super glad it was over. Lucky for Becky, I don’t think she made it all the way to D.C. either.
Audrey: I dropped out of Girl Scouts the first week—Girl Scouts was no Brownies. And when a placement test somehow landed me in “double honors” math in high school, I quickly dropped out of that. What have you dropped out of?
Matt: This feels like a kismet-y moment, because I totally dropped out of the Cub Scouts! My brother and I got in with a small pack (troop?) and the whole thing seemed doomed from the start. Totally disorganized and chaotic and not right. (Fuzzy memories of kids running around screaming in button down Cub Scouts shirts.) We stuck it out for a little bit though. I remember liking all the gear–the hat, neckerchief, etc. I did my duties and was excited to earn my first badge (more gear!), the Bobcat. And then I discovered that to earn that badge I was going to have to get up in front of a room full of kids and adults and recite stuff and talk about what I learned. And I’d have to do the same for every badge that came after. You can guess what came next. I bailed fast and hard.
No idea what happened to all the gear, but I still have the card that came with the Bobcat badge. You can see by the scoutmaster’s (den mother’s?) spelling of my name that there really was something…not right.
Audrey: We’ve been teamed on a second book, BOB, NOT BOB, which I wrote with the truly wonderful Liz Garton Scanlon, to be published by Disney in 2017. So two different editors decided to put my text with your art. I take this as the highest imaginable compliment, but I’m not really looking for praise here (everywhere else, just not here). I’m wondering what it is in my stories that has made two different editors think of you. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Matt: That’s a GREAT question. Let me think…I feel like in both of these books there are central characters with serious quirks. It’s possible I’m a guy folks might think of for bringing some quirk to the table. (Or does owning that make one less quirky?)
Also I think, maybe, you and I are central characters with serious quirks. Well, I don’t want to slap that label on you, but my daughter calls me a “weirdo” at least 15 times a day. I think that might be a solid endorsement on my part.
I love both of these books and feel incredibly honored to have been tapped by two different editors at two different publishers to join up with you. I was particularly intrigued when I first read BOB (sooo clever and funny) and saw BOTH of your names at the top of the page. What led you two to collaborate on a picture book? I love that you did, and I love that I get to be the third one thrown into the monkey house on this one.
When I saw you in Chicago a few weeks ago you were telling me about other collaborations in the works and it’s all really fascinating to me. Can you elaborate on why you collaborate? I wonder if I could collaborate with another illustrator on a single picture book or if we’d just end up going after each other with x-acto knives.
Audrey: I’ve collaborated with Liz on two picture books (one of the two is yet to be officially announced) and with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich on TWO NAOMIS, a middle grade. And I wrote my very first picture book, BARK AND TIM: A TRUE STORY OF FRIENDSHIP, with the second-grade-teacher sister.
I don’t know that I would always love collaborating, but I LOVED collaborating with these women. Liz and I stumbled into it. Or, quite possibly, our agent–we have the same one–tricked us into it. She sent us both a review of a picture book and said something like “if you two had a book baby, this would be it.” And all I could think was My God. I want to have a book baby with Liz.
Soon after that, I got a profoundly disgusting cold and was telling both of them how gross I sounded, congested and too sick to think and I ended an email with “Aben,” how a congested person would pronounce “amen.” And our agent wondered if there might not be a story there somewhere. What I think made my collaboration with Liz so enjoyable was the decision that we wouldn’t track changes or include comments. We’d just keep slinging the manuscript (which started as maybe five lines of story) back and forth, freely making changes and additions. If something got cut that one of us missed, we could go back for it–but I don’t think that ever happened.
It was a completely different construct with Gbemi on TWO NAOMIS. We are each writing from the point of view of a nine-year-old girl named Naomi whose divorced parents are dating each other, alternating chapters. We tried to keep it fun, “free and easy” is our mantra. For the first three-quarters of the book, we wrote without an outline or real plan, other than the overall sense of what would happen in the book. Then we talked to figure out how to bring it all home.
I can tell you that on all collaborated-on the books, it felt like way less than half than the work. It is quite possible, however, that you might interview Liz and Gbemi and they may say, oh man, it felt like twice as much work. And then we’ll all know for sure that I’m a slacker.
Back to Tara again: Ha, you are no slacker, Audrey. Not with the slew of books you have coming out!
Thanks to you both for the dynamic-duo interview. I also heard you BOTH SIGNED A COPY of FIRST GRADE DROPOUT.
And you’re letting ME give it away!
So blog readers, comment below about YOUR most embarrassing childhood moment and you’ll be entered to win FIRST GRADE DROPOUT signed by Audrey and Matt.
One comment per person, please.
A winner will be selected in a couple weeks!