Thursday, April 20, 2017

Book Love: BULL


We discussed his poetry collection On The Wing (Candlewick Press, 2014) and he challenged us to write letter poems.  (I reposted one yesterday: Damon Dean's "Dear Sir Roly-Poly.") In celebration of National Poetry Month and TLD's birthday, I've invited David back to talk about his new young adult verse novel from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 28, 2017
ISBN: 978-0544610606
Find at, Barnes & Noble,
via, or order a personalized copy.
BULL is based on the Greek myth of the Minotaur. This is not the first time we've met the Minotaur on Today's Little Ditty (thank you, Tabatha Yeatts), nor is it the first time we've focused on mythology. (Remember Marilyn Singer's ECHO ECHO?) But David opens up a whole new labyrinth with this one. (See what I did there?) BULL is edgy, hip-hop, brash, irreverent, dark, complex, sometimes profane, and always extraordinary.

Looking back at the verse novels we've reviewed over the last few months—Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis, When My Sister Started Kissing, Gone Camping, and now BULL—there's one thing that's obvious: novels in verse don't come in one-size-fits-all! For goodness sake, it's hard enough to figure out what to call the darn things—verse novel, novel in verse, novel-in-poems, let alone when and where to place the hyphens. While BULL and Stone Mirrors are both considered young adult literature, they're so different in tone and subject matter that it's hard to imagine packing them in the same box. It's true that David takes a similar approach to Helen Frost (When My Sister Started Kissing) in that each character has its own distinctive poetic form and voice, but the similarity ends there. And Gone Camping? Forget it. BULL is nothing like Gone Camping. This book is not for elementary-aged children. Period.

In BULL, the Minotaur is not the monster we've come to expect. Quite the opposite. We feel sympathy for the doomed creature as David fills in the blanks about the Minotaur's birth through teenage years. It's the free-wheeling, gonna-mess-with-your-head-and-couldn't-care-less Poseidon who you need to watch out for! For mythology enthusiasts, that shouldn't come as a surprise. We know that we mortals are merely the gods' playthings, yet to see the damage play out in this novel can be disturbing.

In the words of Poseidon:
Well, Life's not for wimps.
Sometimes gods are gods
And sometimes they're pimps.

In the words of Daedalus, the Royal Engineer: 
     Oh, it's the same

in every corner of the earth:
     the powerful are
     the rest of us are dirt.

Speaking of Daedalus, the craftsmanship of this novel is remarkable... even the page turns become part of the poetry! David deftly weaves character, poetic form, innuendo, narrative twists and double crosses. And let's not forget David's characteristic wit and wordplay! In this case, it mostly shows up as the bawdy and callous barbs of an arrogant sea god. While I found Poseidon hard to take at times, I appreciate David's explanation in this Horn Book interview:
I know that some folks may be offended by Poseidon’s profanity and also by his disdain for us mortals. To be quite honest, I myself was sometimes taken aback by the sea god. But it wasn’t my job to censor him or send him off for sensitivity training before I allowed him to speak the way he wanted to. That isn’t writing; it’s moralizing. I guess it’s Poseidon’s joke on me that although he is the one with a potty mouth, Im the one who has to take responsibility for it.

It's not surprising that BULL has earned six starred reviews—from Kirkus, BCCB, The Horn Book, Booklist, Shelf Awareness, and School Library Connections.  Seven, if you include TLD's ditty-star of approval.

I could say more...

but I think I've blabbed enough. Let's hear from David instead.

Hi David! Welcome back to Today's Little Ditty!
What have you been up to since you were last here in 2015?

It seems like I’m always busy either with the work of writing (which includes many hours of staring idly out the window) or with serving as a mentor for emerging writers. When I finish here, I’m going to take a nap.

Tell us a little about your experience of writing BULL. What drew you to the story and why did you choose a verse novel format?

I’ve always been very curious about that myth. It tells us the circumstances of the Minotaur’s birth, but that’s it. The next thing we learn is that he’s in the labyrinth. Not a word about his childhood or adolescence. What might that have been like for the boy and for those around him? Also, when I discovered that his mother named him Asterion, and that it meant Ruler of the Stars, my heart broke.


Mommy has a little calf.
     Little calf.
     Little calf. 
Mommy has a little calf.
His nose is black as tar.

She calls her calf Asterion.
That's my name—Asterion.
I'm Ruler of the Stars.
– from BULL, a novel by David Elliott (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2017)

To have given him a name like that, she must have really loved him. What then made him transform from Asterion into the Minotaur? That is, how are monsters made? Finally, it made me think that each of us has this potential—to become either The Ruler of the Stars or The Minotaur, sometimes both, and that we make decisions about that potential every day. As for choosing to write in verse, I don’t mean to be coy, but I really felt as if the verse chose me. It seemed to me that that is what the book wanted, what it needed.

Was there anything in particular about the process that caught you by surprise?

As I mention in the notes in the book, I chose the poetic form for each character rather impulsively, without really knowing what I was doing. (NOT the way to write a book, by the way.) What was surprising—and kind of wonderful—was to watch how the respective forms shaped the characters. In a way, the forms wrote the book.

Please share a favorite selection from BULL and tell us why it's meaningful to you.

Poseidon’s irreverent passages were very liberating. But I have a personal connection to his lyrical description of Crete at the book’s beginning. Many years ago, I lived on Crete, first, picking olives high up in the interior mountains, and then washing cucumbers in a coastal town. I’ll never forget those rare experiences or the incredible, primal beauty of that island.

In these lines, Poseidon is explaining that Minos is a man with no imagination and therefore cannot be moved by the island’s beauty.

. . . But it’s not the friggin’
Scenery this friggin’
Minos has in mind.

Not the harbors or the shores,
The god-possessed waters.
Not the sheep, the trusty shepherds,
Their warlike sons, their lusty daughters.
Not the olives or the figs,
The sacred long-lived trees.
Not the amber honey
Or the honey-making bees.
Not the thyme-drunk lovers
Who sigh among its flowers.
All this clown wants
Is a little power.

What's coming up next for you?

I’m very happy to say that I have quite a few things in the pipeline. This fall, Candlewick will release a new picture book, Baabwa and Wooliam, illustrated by the one and only Melissa Sweet. It’s about as different from BULL as you could imagine. Picture book. Prose. Sweet. I’m super excited about it. Then the following spring, we’ll have another in the poetry series. In the Past. Dinosaurs etc..  All I can say is, Matthew Trueman is amazing. I have recently signed up In the Woods, illustrator to be announced. Familiar woodland animals. And then with Beach Lane, a very young picture book, Red Big, Red Small. My agent, the great Kelly Sonnack, is currently pitching another YA novel in verse. It’s based on an historical figure, and is very different from BULL. No f-bombs. (I don’t know if I’m happy or sad about that.)

Well, David, we're certainly happy that you stopped by today to shoot the bull with all of us! (You know you saw that coming!)

If you want to write a letter poem for our Ditty Potluck, I'd love to see it!  Or, if you'd rather, choose from any of the other 27 DMC challenges. Post your poem on our April 2017 padlet and be sure to indicate which challenge you are responding to.  All contributions will be included in a wrap-up celebration on Friday, April 28th. Individual poems shared this week were by David L. Harrison, Rebekah Hoeft, Jone Rush MacCulloch, Damon Dean, and Linda Mitchell at A Word Edgewise.

Tabatha Yeatts is welcoming busloads of poets to The Opposite of Indifference this week. Join her for the Poetry Friday roundup.

If you're looking for other ways to celebrate National Poetry Month, Jama Rattigan is your go-to for NPM festivites at Alphabet Soup.


  1. "It seemed to me that that is what the book wanted, what it needed."

    And, if we, as writers, are smart, we'll do what the works requires. It sounds a little bizarre (weirder than coy, even), but sometimes you feel like someone else is writing your book. I'm glad David has validated that experience!

  2. Wowsa! I want to read this book--right now. It sounds amazing. And just over on Laura Shovan's interviews with writers of novels-in-verse, she was asking when someone might tackle fantasy or sci-fi in verse form, and now I discover mythology in verse form. It's shaping up to be a very good day.

  3. The thought that "the forms wrote the book" grabbed me! Thanks for the glimpse--I'm adding it to my reading pile right now!

  4. What fun to let the tongue loose, let it finds its rhymes, in quick time. I will look for this book.

  5. I am a huge fan of David's poetry, and I am thrilled to see all the critical acclaim BULL is receiving. Thanks to both for the peek!

  6. I've had a lot of students in the past who are fascinated by the mythical gods, so imagine young adults will love this new novel. I enjoyed hearing David talk about the writing of it, and can't wait to read it myself. Thanks for a wonderful interview, Michelle.

  7. Wow, David is so prolific, and so incredibly versatile in his creations! Definitely an inspiration for aspiring writers.

    1. That's what I was thinking, Jane. Such variety - and so much on the go! What a wonderful place to be in. :) A fascinating interview, thanks Michelle and David.

  8. Love this interview and look forward to not only reading BULL, but all the books coming down the line. Huge David Elliot fan here. =)

  9. I just received a copy of Bull for review and I can't wait to get to it. Thanks for this terrific interview. I know I have disappeared for a while, but I hope to see you here more often.

  10. Fascinating interview! I was really moved by hearing the Minotaur's name was "Asterion," and I liked David's thought process regarding "how are monsters made? ...we make decisions about that potential every day."
    Thanks for this!

  11. Wow. Putting this on my TBR list! YA usually has to wait, but this one gets moved to the top!

  12. "Bull" sounds intriguing, and I'm a fan of mythology–thanks for filling us in more on the making of it David! And thanks for this outstanding interview Michelle!