I was first introduced to children's author and poet Marcus Ewert during the 2013 March Madness poetry tournament, sponsored by Ed DeCaria on Think Kid Think. With poems about interlocking puzzle pieces from different boxes, a heart-dwelling oyster and jellyfish, a confrontation between and vegan and a vampire, and the internal struggle of an ex-mermaid, I was enchanted again and again by Marcus' unique approach, fertile imagination, and enthralling stories. I wanted more.
Next, I picked up his award-winning 10,000 DRESSES (Seven Stories Press, 2008). It's about a transgender child who dreams of wearing magical dresses, like one "made of crystals that flashed rainbows in the sun" or another "made of windows, which showed the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids." Not only did Marcus fill an important need by addressing gender identity in a picture book, but he did so with heart and his characteristic imagination. 10,000 DRESSES has since been incorporated into anti-bullying curricula throughout the English-speaking world.
Clarion Books (July, 2015)
Find at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble,
or via Indiebound.org
The foundation of this book is a compelling story about a mummified cat who wakes for one night each hundred years to search the tomb for his beloved mistress, Queen Hatshupset. At the same time, we witness another, more perilous story that plays out in the murals on the walls. Elegantly designed, Lisa Brown's gorgeous and detailed illustrations capture the feel of ancient Egyptian art, and are truly a feast for the eyes.
On top of that, you'll find layer upon layer of intriguing information for young Egyptologists– about ancient Egyptian royalty and culture, their reverence of cats, the practice of mummification, a large assortment of ancient Egyptian artifacts, plus, at the back, a glossary of hieroglyphics to find within the pages of the book. This is not a one-time read. Children will be poring over and "unwrapping" the story of MUMMY CAT again and again.
But now, my friends, let's delve into the mystery of Marcus Ewert. Who IS this man who lives in an honest-to-goodness turret and is allergic to cats (except for the mummy variety)?
Perhaps a few favorites will give us some clues....
Favorite color: Green
Favorite sound: Rainfall
Favorite children’s book: The Hobbit
Favorite country you’d like to visit: Finland! And Iceland!
Favorite children’s poet: Dr. Seuss (I liked him just ok as a kid, but I really love his work now, as an adult. Faultless euphony.)
Favorite subject in school: History, hands down!
Favorite quote: “Candor ends paranoia.” ~Allen Ginsberg
What drives you to write for children and what do you enjoy most about being a children’s author?
All the books that had the biggest influence on me were ones I read as a kid. Kids react to life in such a primal way – they haven’t learned how to hold anything back. So they throw themselves into books in a way we adults never can. Why wouldn’t you want to write for such an amazing, rapt audience?
Besides, you can be way more creative in a kids’ book. Kids take whatever you tell them as ground-zero. I could say to a kid: “Once upon a time there was a world made entirely out of kites. The people were kites, the trees were kites, and all of the buildings and rivers and mountains were kites too.”
And a kid would be like, “Yes. And then what happened?” No hesitation. That’s priceless.
Can you tell us a little about your writing routine?
Oh man! It’s taken me years and years to get to a routine that’s workable for me. I had a boyfriend once who wrote for hours and hours a day, every day, and although I can do that sometimes, when I judge myself by a 9-5, five days a week schedule, I’m doomed. It’s taken me a very long time to be ok with the fact that sometimes I can only write for four minutes at a time, before I get too worked up. My current goal is an hour a day, which often looks like twenty minutes in the morning, seven minutes on the bus, ten minutes on a break at work, another seven minutes later, two minutes here, five minutes there... whatever it takes to add up to sixty.
May I also just take a moment to say that my very first boyfriend (not the guy cited above) was the poet Allen Ginsberg? I say this not to brag (okay, 5% bragging) but instead to say how DISempowering this was for me. Allen was very dismissive of my writing for a long, long time and that utterly paralyzed me. It took me a long long long time to feel confidence in my own poetic voice and compass. I have a hefty inner critic anyway; a lot of my daily craft and discipline involves facing down my myriad fears and anxieties. Three minutes of writing at a time, sometimes is all I can muster! Or two minutes! Or one!
You have to sneak past your inner critic however you possibly can.
What inspired MUMMY CAT?
I was thinking about what might make for a cool kids’ book, and I landed on ‘mummy.’ But mummies have been done before, a lot. So I mashed ideas up in my head: mummy robot, mummy dentist, mummy dog, mummy...cat! “Ooh, a mummy cat!” I thought. “That’s a great idea - and the Ancient Egyptians did mummify cats, so that even makes it historical...”
And as soon as I had that title/concept, “Mummy Cat,” I immediately I saw the long, lean form of a mummified cat – very horizontal – and he was padding down these long horizontal halls, and over his head long horizontal murals stretched. And I knew the story would be told in verse, in long, horizontal lines, and that the meter would be the footfalls of this dead cat as he strode the long halls... a soft, funereal tread...
|© Lisa Brown|
So the whole thing came to me very clearly, in other words. And I knew at once that the murals above the cat’s head would be bright colorful scenes of when he was alive, and they would contrast with his dull, dry, dusty gray present existence, and they’d torment him. They’d invoke all this longing in him.
|MUMMY CAT, text © Marcus Ewert, illustration © Lisa Brown (clike to enlarge)|
Another point of inspiration for the book: the very first thing I ever wanted to be as a kid was an Egyptologist! So working on Mummy Cat was a way to cherry-pick from that treasured childhood dream.
One last impetus/influence/inspiration: How sad I was as a very young kid - as a very young gay kid - whenever I heard “Puff the Magic Dragon.” It was about two male characters who loved each other – it was, in fact, the ONLY example I had of two male characters who were explicitly said to have love for each other – i.e., not familial love, but instead love for each other as individuals – and then the boy totally turns his back on the magical creature and abandons him! And then- and it’s utterly heartbreaking - Puff is left alone in the gloom, completely bereft, voiceless, despairing, and - my god! - even his scales are “falling like rain” – in a kind of depression-induced dragon-mange! This KILLED me as a kid! If someone would just turn Jackie Paper around, and let him see what his once-friend was going through! Surely, surely, he’d feel some sympathy!
So, in Mummy Cat, I wanted the book to have that same terrible longing and sadness... but I ALSO wanted the love between the human and the magical creature to be REQUITED. Hat-shup-set adores Mummy Cat just as much as he adores her. She wants them to be re-united just as much as he does. I desperately wanted that parity.
|From MUMMY CAT, text © Marcus Ewert, Illustration © Lisa Brown|
|Lisa Brown, Illustrator|
We both live in beautiful San Francisco - in adjacent neighborhoods, even - so it was easy for us to meet in person and discuss.
Let me back up a second: before working with Lisa, for about a year, I was working on the Mummy Cat poem myself, in private, very very slowly and painstakingly (see question #2). Sometimes it took me a month or more to complete even a single couplet. And I hadn’t shown the piece to ANYONE. But, all along, as I was working, I pictured Lisa’s artwork illustrating the poem - even though I didn’t even know Lisa’s art all that well, at the time!
|VAMPIRE BOY'S GOOD NIGHT|
by Lisa Brown (HarperCollins, 2010)
Click HERE to watch trailer.
But I only knew Lisa a little bit at this point. And was very nervous about imposing too much on our nascent friendship. Thus, I was too shy to ask her outright to illustrate the book. For one thing, what if she said no? I’d be so bummed! That said, from time to time, I’d post these little updates on Facebook, like “Mummy Cat stanza 14: complete!” And one day Lisa commented back: “I love drawing cats. Hint hint.” And I was floored. I immediately messaged her saying “OMG, you are who I’ve been picturing all along!” and she said, “Well, why don’t you send me the ms. and let me see.” And I DID send it to her, and I was SO nervous! I mean, in the privacy of my own heart, I thought the poem was pretty great, but maybe I was totally delusional? What if the poem made no sense at all, and had absolutely no narrative traction? (See my response above regarding all my doubts post-Allen Ginsberg!) Luckily, she really, really liked it - and Lisa doesn’t even like rhyming books! But she liked this one. And so we began working together (all of this is still probably about two years before we submitted it for publication anywhere).
Okay, so once we were “officially” working together, we’d meet every few weeks at a great tea house here in town called Samovar. And, as I remember it, a lot of what we were doing was “merely” gushing about how cool ancient Egypt was, and wouldn’t it be cool if we included X and Y in the book? Hieroglyphs, for instance.
|"Meow" © Lisa Brown.|
And we showed each other pictures of beautiful artifacts, etc. Or tidbits of Ancient Egyptian life & society. “Let’s get that in the book too!”
So, I think mostly what we did was egg each other on: encouraging each other to really pour all these things that we loved into the book.
|Surprise! Look under the book jacket! © Lisa Brown.|
On a more technical note: Lisa is a very good editor, and she made some great redactions to my text, especially at the end, which originally rambled on a bit. She just flat-out chopped a few couplets. For the better. And the whole back-story, regarding Hat-shup-set’s evil sister, that all springs from Lisa! (Lisa’s such a fan of Edward Gorey!)
And I offered some not-too-unclever (IMHO) thoughts/feedback about a few of Lisa’s spreads. And then of course, once Anne Hoppe at Clarion Books bought the book, we both worked with her (and with our art director) very closely. So then even more elements got teased out and combed, and then even more tightly and gracefully interwoven.
Would you share a favorite selection from MUMMY CAT?
|From MUMMY CAT, text © Marcus Ewert, illustration © Lisa Brown|
I like this section because it’s very earthy and concrete (something Allen always would get on my case about!). (Boy, I seem to be mentioning him a lot on this interview! Well, why not? Clearly he was a big influence on me, for good and for bad.)
The details are very specific, and very cat-like, I think. And yet these specific, natural details are being used to paint a very supernatural picture: a mummified cat is rising from the dead (again).
Also, points to me for spelling rustling with extra s’s, to get some onomatopoeia in there. Also, points to me for remembering to include details that are auditory as well as visual.
According to the informational section at the back of your book, “the Ancient Egyptians had many different beliefs about souls and the afterlife, but generally they believed that a properly mummified person would spend eternity enjoying the things with which he or she had been buried.” If you were “properly mummified,” what would you hope to have in your tomb?
Books, books, books, and books. Books to read and books to write in. Pens.
And internet access.
Can you give us a hint about what’s coming up next for you?
Well, Lisa and I definitely want to work on another book together, and we’re mulling over several different idea-babies.
And I’m working on a middle-grade sequel to my very first book, the transgender-themed children’s picture-book 10,000 Dresses. The sequel is called Bailey & the Valentine Castle.
And I have a bunch of other picture-book ideas: we’ll just see which one gels first and/or most successfully.
And finally, I’m working on a very very long rhyming epic called The Zillion Scoops. It’s like The Divine Comedy meets Animal Farm meets There’s a Wocket in My Pocket. It’s for older-aged kids than Mummy Cat is, though it’s possible that’s it’s ultimately for a very fervent audience of just one person: me. We’ll see!
If you had all the world’s children in one room, what would you tell them?
|10 year old Marcus at a Japanese temple|
Similarly, please don’t be mean to yourself. Don’t insult yourself, don’t harshly compare yourself to someone else. Something that might be very easy for someone else might be incredibly hard for you. Please try to give yourself the love and understanding and encouragement that you would give to a dear friend.
Finally, please tell us what you have chosen as this month’s ditty challenge.
Write about a long-time love that seems unrequited, but which ends up being requited after all.
Is that too heavy for a ‘ditty’? It could be about your [un]requited love for ice cream... or maybe the [un]requited love between ice cream and a waffle cone– that totally counts!
Are you kidding? I LOVE it!
...but does it love me back? Probably too soon to tell.
Please join me in thanking Marcus for today's interview, and also for generously offering a copy of MUMMY CAT, signed by both Lisa Brown and himself, to one lucky participant in this month's DMC challenge! A random drawing will be held at the end of the month.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE:
Throughout the month, send your love poem to TodaysLittleDitty (at) gmail (dot) com or use the contact form in the sidebar to the right.
For children under 13 who would like to participate, please read my COPPA compliance statement located below the contact form.
BLOGGER FRIENDS: Thank you for publishing your poems on your own blogs– I love that! Please also remember to send me a copy of your poem or a direct link to your post. That way I know I have your permission to post your poem on Today's Little Ditty.
Some poems may be published on the blog as daily ditties, but all of them will appear in a wrap-up celebration on Friday, October 30th, 2015.
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Last month's ME poem challenge, courtesy of Lee Bennett Hopkins, was all I expected and more. With fulsome thanks, I must echo Lee's comment on the celebration post:
"THERE is SO much herein; SO much within; SO much therein. Thanks to all of you for reaching back, giving forward."Random.org has determined that the winner of an autographed copy of JUMPING OFF LIBRARY SHELVES: A BOOK OF POEMS selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins, with illustrations by Jane Manning is:
JESSICA BIGI – Congratulations, Jessica!
In celebration of Poetry Friday and diversity, Heidi Mordhorst has a juicy little roundup for us today at my juicy little universe.