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I first met author Michael Sussman when I reviewed his debut picture book OTTO GROWS DOWN, illustrated by Scott Magoon. I LOVED IT! In fact, OTTO remains one of my favorite picture books of all time, and I often refer to it when teaching humor and picture book workshops.

Michael wrote me a lovely thank-you email and we became fast friends and critique partners. He went on to write novels, but now he’s back to picture books and his latest, DUCKWORTH THE DIFFICULT CHILD, is creating a kidlit buzz for its retro vibe and dark humor.

Michael, I’m so thrilled to have you back in picture books! It’s been a while since OTTO GROWS DOWN!

OTTO is the boy who wants his little sister to disappear, and she does. In DUCKWORTH, he himself “disappears,” but he didn’t want to!

For fun, can you compare and contrast OTTO and DUCKWORTH as characters?

What a wonderful question!

First off, I want to thank you, Tara, for all your help in promoting OTTO GROWS DOWN, and for being such a wonderful critique partner for so many years.

To my mind, what links Otto and Duckworth is that they both face dire circumstances which they must overcome without any help whatsoever from their parents. Unbeknownst to his mom and dad, Otto is trapped in backward time and will disappear altogether if he doesn’t figure out how to return to the present. Duckworth’s parents are oblivious to the fact that he has been swallowed by an enormous cobra, and he is left to his own devices to escape from inside the snake.

In contrast to Duckworth, Otto has a loving family, but must come to terms with an interloper: a new baby sister. In order to overcome his understandable resentment and animosity toward Anna, he must grow up and become aware of his burgeoning love for his sibling.

Duckworth is an only child and is faced with a far more difficult predicament: narcissistic parents who are utterly oblivious to his needs and concerns. Although Duckworth is as successful as Otto at conquering his life-and-death dilemma, the ending of his story remains bittersweet, as he is still stuck with woefully inadequate parents.

Poor Duckworth, stuck with oblivious parents who seem like the despicable adult characters in a Roald Dahl story. DUCKWORTH, as a whole, has a very nostalgic energy, like a picture book from days long ago. Did you get any inspiration from “dark humor” authors of the past?

DUCKWORTH is my homage to the classic picture book, THE SHRINKING OF TREEHORN, by Florence Parry Heide and Edward Gorey, soon to be a motion picture directed by Ron Howard. I love the dark humor of Gorey, Dahl, and William Steig’s SPINKY SULKS.

What is it about those dark humor books that you admire? Why did you want to pay homage to them?

I guess I just like dark humor in general, and have featured it in both my picture books and novels. Dark humor presents unpleasant and taboo aspects of life in a satirical manner, taking the edge off and relishing in the absurdity of the human condition. In stories, it allows authors to address potentially painful topics—such as sibling rivalry in OTTO and poor parenting in DUCKWORTH—in a manner that’s less threatening and more enjoyable than a straightforward or didactic approach.

I was also eager to riff on THE TREEHORN TRILOGY because I felt it was under-appreciated and falling into obscurity. Now, thanks to me and Ron Howard, it’ll be rediscovered! 😉

Let’s talk about the illustrations by Júlia Sardà. They are dark and mysterious, with a retro European surrealist vibe. (Maybe I think that because the mother looks like Salvador Dali?) The gorgeous cinnabar of the cobra jumps out and bites you.

The art takes full advantage of perspective—I love the illustration of Duckworth in the serpent’s stomach, surrounded by floating items the cobra has swallowed.

Is the art what you had imagined?

Júlia Sardà’s illustrations are spectacular, and way beyond anything I could have imagined or hoped for. Her style, sense of composition, and attention to detail are extraordinary, and perfectly complement the story. The illustrations are so striking that I actually became concerned that they’d overshadow the text, and convinced my editor—the wonderful Emma Ledbetter—to switch to a more dramatic font, and make use of drop-down letters to highlight the first word on some pages.

I was initially surprised by some elements of the artwork that diverged from what I’d expected. The snake is WAY bigger than I’d anticipated, and I think that was a brilliant choice. The mother’s face, body, and attire are quite masculine-looking, which bothered me at first, but I think this allows the parents to be presented as a single unit, which fits the story. (Not to mention that the mother, as I wrote her, is utterly devoid of maternal concern!) I expected Mr. and Mrs. Snodgrass, the neighbors, to look British, but they are decidedly Russian in appearance. Finally, Duckworth looks more peculiar than I’d envisioned him, but I’ve grown to like that. Initially, he looked far too old, but Emma and I convinced Júlia to make him younger.

So there were some changes and edits to the art. What about to your original manuscript? Did anything turn out differently than the version you submitted?

Initially, the boy’s name was Bowlby. I wanted an odd name, to parallel Treehorn, and I think I unconsciously selected Bowlby because of the famous British psychologist, John Bowlby, who did pioneering work on maternal deprivation. But Emma wasn’t wild about the name, so I made a list of unusual monikers, and the two I liked the best were Duckworth and Digby. My son, Ollie, preferred Duckworth, which Emma liked as well, so I used Digby for the name of Duckworth’s cousin.

Ha, Bowlby is a funny name, but I do like Duckworth far better!

In giving a workshop on humor recently, I talked about “superiority humor” and how feeling superior to someone else is a cause of laughs.

In DUCKWORTH, the child feels superior to the parents, and I think your reader will also feel superior to the Mr. & Mrs. Was that a deliberate decision to make the adults in the book so hapless?

Superiority theory states that we laugh at the misfortunes and shortcomings of others because it makes us feel better about ourselves. And indeed, a portion of the story’s humor stems from seeing the pompous stupidity and ineptitude of Duckworth’s parents. The vast majority of parents who read the book to their kids will be able to pat themselves on the back, thinking I may have my faults, but I’m a far better parent than these hapless twits.

But I think that Incongruity theory, the notion that humor derives from the enjoyment of a perceived or imagined incongruity, is a better fit here. The discrepancy between Duckworth’s desperate plight and his parents’ haughty indifference and self-preoccupation, is amusing.

Surrealist or absurdist humor is also at play, in that the story presents a ridiculous situation that is impossible to take seriously, and the obliviousness of Duckworth’s parents is exaggerated to the point of absurdity.

Well, I think you use all those forms of humor brilliantly.

I’ll close our interview with how I typically begin…

You know I host Storystorm to inspire writers. So what inspired DUCKWORTH?

Well, I was suffering from writer’s block at the time, so I resorted to my patented Whack-a-Plot™ titanium mallet, which I invented for your 2010 PiBoIdMo (forerunner to Storystorm). Within seconds of regaining consciousness, the story came to me in a flash.

Seriously, folks, the story was inspired by a visual image, which is unusual for me since I have aphantasia, a condition where one does not possess a functioning mind’s eye and cannot voluntarily visualize imagery. (I’m not making this up.)

One summer evening, while taking a stroll, an image passed through my mind of a snake that had swallowed a child. As I imagined the bulge working its way down the length of the serpent, it struck me as a compelling (if somewhat macabre) basis for a picture book. I recalled a similar image from The Little Prince, but when I returned home, I discovered that the prince’s drawing was of a boa digesting an elephant. (Although, as the prince notes, grown-ups all thought it was a picture of a hat.)

I worried that my concept might be too scary for young children, unless I made it a funny story, so I decided to model the tale on THE SHRINKING OF TREEHORN.

Michael, I think you’ve created a new classic! Thank you for chatting with me about DUCKWORTH!

Blog readers, Simon & Schuster is giving away 2 copies of DUCKWORTH THE DIFFICULT CHILD.

Just leave one comment below to be entered in the giveaway.

Two random winners will be selected in mid-August.

Good luck!


Abandoned by a cackle of laughing hyenas, Michael Sussman endured the drudgery and hardships of a Moldavian orphanage until fleeing with a traveling circus at the age of twelve. A promising career as a trapeze artist was cut short by a concussion that rendered him lame and mute. Sussman wandered the world, getting by on such odd jobs as pet-food tester, cheese sculptor, human scarecrow, and professional mourner while teaching himself the art of fiction. He now lives in Tahiti with Gauguin, an African Grey parrot. Visit him at MichaelSussmanBooks.com.

I am ridiculously far behind in picking winners. So without further ado, here they are!

WINNER of CRASHING EDEN by Michael Sussman:

MIKE ALLEGRA! (heylookawriterfellow)

WINNER of THE MONSTER WHO LOST HIS MEAN by Tiffany Strelitz Haber:

LESLIE G!

Congratulations, guys! I’ll be emailing you shortly.

I’m sorry if you didn’t win, but everyone’s leaving with a consolation prize. No, not a lifetime supply of Turtle Wax. (Do they even make Turtle Wax anymore? If you ever won a lifetime supply on Let’s Make a Deal you’d be ripped off.) Instead, it’s a piece of picture book writing advice:

Think BIG and carry a SMALL manuscript.

One of my favorite quirky picture books is OTTO GROWS DOWN by Michael Sussman, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to learn that Michael has a new YA novel, CRASHING EDEN. Well, Michael is crashing my blog today and he’s leaving behind a paperback copy just for you.

“Dr. Suss” (as I like to call him) is a prolific, versatile writer who has published books in diverse genres. So I asked him how he shifts gears to different formats and what obstacles he faces in doing so.

TL: Michael, you’ve written medical books, picture books, and now a young adult novel. How did you adjust from writing one genre to another?

MS: The toughest shift was from writing nonfiction professional books on psychotherapy to writing fiction. About 20 years ago I first tried my hand at a novel. Looking back at that manuscript, I cringe at how stiff and wooden my writing was—especially the dialogue. Thanks to practice and critiques from writer’s groups, my next novel was considerably better, although it too went unpublished.

After reading hundreds of picture books to my son, I decided to start writing for children. That transition was a breeze. Writing for kids totally freed my imagination and allowed me to be much more playful and fantasy-based. The result was OTTO GROWS DOWN, a story about a boy who becomes trapped in backwards time.

In writing for young adults, I benefited from having already spent years honing my novel-writing skills. There were, however, two major differences. It was a stretch to write with the voice of a teenager, and that took a great deal of revising to get right. Secondly, I had to revisit my own adolescence, and that was no picnic!

TL: Which genre is your comfort zone?

MS: When it comes to writing, I’m such a perfectionist that I’m not sure I have a comfort zone.

Writing picture books is probably easiest for me, since the sky’s the limit when it comes to letting your imagination run wild. In terms of novels, I think I feel most comfortable writing thillers and mysteries, especially with a comic edge.

TL: How did you get the idea for CRASHING EDEN? What made you decide to tackle the YA genre?

I started trying my hand at fiction about twenty years ago. I wrote a psychological thriller and a comic mystery novel, neither of which were published. I developed severe writer’s block, which was immediately relieved when I began writing for young children. Looking back, I think I was working out unresolved issues from my own childhood. Next I turned to writing for young adults. Consciously, I chose YA because the market was hot! But unconsciously, I believe I realized that it would give me the chance to work on issues from my mostly miserable adolescence.

The genesis of CRASHING EDEN began with the title, which had floated around in my mind for nearly a decade. I’d been interested in world mythology for many years, and especially intrigued by the widespread myths suggesting that humans have degenerated from an ancient state of grace, symbolized by Paradise or the Golden Age.

I began to wonder what might happen if we were somehow able to recapture the state of mind supposedly experienced by people before the Fall. What if a device could be built that altered our brains in such a way that we felt like we were back in the Garden of Eden?

This led to speculating about how the God of the Old Testament might react to trespassers in his Garden. That’s where the story takes a controversial turn.

TL: What an intriguing premise! So, what YA reads have really stuck with you? To which books would you compare your style?

MS: My favorite YA novels are Phillip Pullman’s trilogy, FEED by M.T. Anderson, UNWIND by Neal Shusterman, and MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD by Francis X. Stork.

I’d like to think my style is unique, although I’d say it’s strongly influenced by two of my favorite novelists: Tom Robbins and Christopher Moore.

TL: How do you hope readers will react to your book?

MS: My ideal reader loved OTTO and is curious about the title of my novel. She’s intrigued by the notion that the widespread myths of a Golden Age were based on something real, and by the idea of returning to Edenic consciousness. She feels empathy for my troubled protagonist and gets caught up in his many dilemmas. She enjoys the humor and suspense of the story and finishes the book in one sitting. Then she recommends the novel to all her friends, posts glowing reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and sends a copy of the book to her uncle, the filmmaker!

TL: Ha, ha! Don’t we all wish! So, with all those genres floating around in your head, do you ever experience writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?

Yes, I’ve definitely had periods when I couldn’t write a thing and couldn’t come up with a single idea. It feels awful. With other types of work you can just phone it in, but not with writing.

With mild writer’s block, I can overcome it by exercising, being in nature, taking a hot bath, meditating, or simply taking a break from writing. With more serious cases, it takes some psychological/emotional exploration. The blockage may be due to depression. It may stem from avoiding something that you need to write about. In one case, my writer’s block evaporated when I shifted from writing for adults to writing for children!

TL: I love that. Writing for children definitely frees the imagination and lets you go places adult fiction doesn’t.

Thanks to Dr. Suss for offering a paperback copy for me to give away! Just leave a comment to enter. You get one entry for your comment plus an extra entry for each share on social media, just let me know in a separate comment! A winner will be selected in one week. Good luck!

Want it now? Crashing Eden is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords.

And visit “Dr. Suss” online because he’s hilarious and talented (and a good friend)!

by Michael Sussman
with illustrations by Casey Girard

The struggle for new ideas can frustrate even the most creative writers and artists. For PiBoIdMo 2009, I unveiled my revolutionary device—the IdeaCatcher™—employing the latest in windsock technology to snag ideas from the air. Despite a very reasonable price of $29.95, sales were disappointing.

Undaunted, I’ve returned to the drawing board, and this year am pleased to offer not just one but two ground-breaking products, available exclusively for PiBoIdMo 2010 participants and lurkers.

Exciting new developments in neuropsychiatric research have revealed direct links between literary genres and specific regions of the brain. Mysteries, for example, are generated by the prefrontal cortex, and science fiction is associated with the anterior hypothalamus.

The human brain is a remarkable organ, but to function optimally it sometimes requires a little prodding. That’s where Whack-a-Plot™ comes in! Using this ingenious device, you can stimulate your gray matter to spew forth a story in the genre of your choice.

The Whack-a-Plot™ kit includes a titanium mallet and a detailed map of the skull, pinpointing the exact region of the brain responsible for each literary category. Need an idea for a pop-up picture book? Simply locate your posterior cingulate gyrus and pound away! Within seconds of regaining consciousness, you’ll have your story.

There may be times, however, when your mind is so sluggish or crammed with useless information that no amount of whacking will do the trick. In such cases, you’ll need Brano™. Just as Drano® flushes out clogged drains, and high colonics rid the colon of accumulated waste, Brano™ purges your mind of stale ideas. Two squirts in each nostril and you’re good to go! Out with the clichéd phrases and stale storylines, and in with the brilliant epiphanies!

Kiss writer’s block goodbye forever! Purchase Whack-a-Plot™ for just four payments of $19.99, and we’ll throw in Brano™ for free! Call 1-555-IDEA-NOW today! (Offer not valid in Tennessee or District of Columbia.)

Michael Sussman is a clinical psychologist and writer who resides in the Boston area. His debut picture book—OTTO GROWS DOWN—was published by Sterling, with illustrations by Scott Magoon. Dr. Sussman is also the author of A Curious Calling: Unconscious Motivations for Practicing Psychotherapy, and the editor of A Perilous Calling: The Hazards of Psychotherapy Practice.

Casey Girard is a freelance designer and illustrator working out of Boston. Her main business is marketing design for trade books and she is currently working on polishing up her own book ideas.

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Tundra/PRH Canada
June 4, 2019


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Disney*Hyperion
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HarperCollins
Spring 2020

THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
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Sourcebooks eXplore
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