What inspired you to write Henry Hubble's Book of Troubles? How did you come up with the character, Henry Hubble?
Many years ago I wrote a humorous poem called “Menu for the Week,” that gave a fictional cafeteria’s list of amusingly gross food choices. A publishing friend of mine suggested that I use it as the genesis of a book. Henry Hubble’s Book of Troubles grew out of that proposal, but that early version was entirely in verse, and was intended as a picture book for young children. All the poems in the book related to items that fell out of Henry’s school bag on the first page. The project gradually evolved into the middle grade sketchbook-journal that’s now been released. I’m happy to say that some of the early verses still survive in HHBOT (Henry likes to write poetry in his spare time. No surprise, he has dubious success).
Henry Hubble is loosely based on some of my own middle grade experiences, so there’s a great deal of young Andy Myer in his character. However, a number of his “troubles” are true incidents that my wife brought home from the elementary school where she taught for 36 years. For example, the squirrel brought to school in a book bag was a real event! I just had fun with some of the particulars.
How long did it take you to write Henry Hubble?
It took me about a year and a half to create Henry Hubble. I had the competing tasks of both writing and illustrating Henry’s journal sketchbook. I’ve been an illustrator my entire career, and writing was far more challenging for me. I found the work moved more smoothly if I wrote large chunks of the manuscript before working on the drawings in that section.
Why did you choose the Red Sloth as Henry’s comic book hero? Can you tell us about the Red Sloth’s super powers?
The aim of humor is often to take a widely accepted idea and turn it on its head for comedic purposes. Everyone expects a superhero to be powerful, swift, and have some incredible superpower that sets him or her apart from the rest of us. The Red Sloth is (no surprise!) incredibly slow, and has no particular extraordinary power whatsoever. He gets baddies to surrender by dangling over them for hours at a time, and boring them into submission by reading monotonous textbooks. Henry’s a kid who’s drawn to peculiar ideas, so I thought he’d be the kid to fixate on this unlikely comic book hero.
What are some of your favorite books from childhood? Were there any specific authors who inspired you?
My middle grade favorites were a mishmash of historical adventures (like Northwest Passage by Kenneth Roberts, and Michael Strogoff by Jules Verne), and the Danny Dunn series of “boy-inventor” books by Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams, which were popular in the 1960’s and 70’s.
My favorite reading, however, was humor. That’s how I coped with the trials and tribulations of early adolescence. I read every humorist I could find, from Robert Benchley and Mark Twain to HH Monroe and Jean Shepherd. I just couldn’t get enough.
Perhaps my strongest influence for Henry Hubble was the wonderful English humorist Sue Townsend, who wrote a number of wildly funny and charming books about her middle grade “hero,” Adrian Mole. Like Henry, Adrian has a pretty skewed notion of the adult world, and an unerring talent for finding catastrophes.
When Henry’s diary is published to social media, Henry is horrified that everyone’s seen his personal thoughts. He gets back at the culprit with a little help from a friend and a sneaky plan. What is your advice to kids who have to face an online embarrassment?
I have to say, I’m grateful I was born too early for this kind of harassment. I was widely viewed as a nerd in junior high and high school, and my own teen years would probably have been made far more miserable by Twitter and Facebook. Clearly, the pervasive influence and anonymity of social media adds a whole new level of cruelty and abuse to the lives of kids who others perceive as “outsiders.”
Henry’s unusual answer to his harassment isn’t a likely solution for other kids. But I think the takeaway for young people who don’t “fit in” is to wear their freak flag proudly, and unapologetically. I like to think Henry has this quality of being a “defiant dweeb.” Of course, this is easier to say than to do, and a young person struggling to find his or her identity during these vulnerable years must find it horribly painful to come under online attacks from schoolmates. Still, if a young teen can find the internal strength and wisdom not to care, perhaps the torment will lessen, and eventually go away. And perhaps there are novel ways that adolescents can turn to social media itself to fight online bullying.
Where do you like to create? Do you listen to music while you are writing or working on an illustration?
Almost all of my writing and illustration is done in my studio in my home near Philly. I wish I had a more social setting to do my work, but unfortunately I’ve never found a satisfying and achievable way of making that happen.
If I’m working on my illustrations, I like to have music or a radio talk show like NPR’s Fresh Air on. I can even have the TV going, as long as it’s not a riveting thriller that requires my undivided attention. If I’m writing, I find that I need silence, or maybe some barely audible music.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? Why?
This is a moot question for me, as I couldn’t possibly live anywhere other than where I do now. I’m in the unbelievably lucky circumstance to find myself surrounded by my three grown daughters and their families, including my five grandchildren ranging from one year to 18. We have family dinners almost every week, and I get unabashed joy being in their company, and couldn’t imagine living elsewhere — unless everyone came with me.
But I understand the question, and I suppose I’d like to park myself for a while in Barcelona, where I spent a few very happy days about a decade ago. I thought the city was just beautiful, with incredible exuberance and an intriguing history. It’s the showplace for many buildings designed by Antoni Gaudi, whose architecture I find simply inspirational.
|Antoni Gaudi / Casa Battlo|
The path to publication varies from author to author. Every author has a unique story and one that other authors can learn from. Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publication or do you have any advice for new authors?
My path to publication was fairly arduous, one that took a very, very long time. I first began submitting children’s books in the 1980’s. I wanted to be an author/illustrator, so my book proposals had to be hard copy samples that I assembled, sometimes even bound. Just getting a few copies out the door for submission was extremely time consuming, tedious, and expensive.
My strength was as an illustrator, and I hoped that my drawings would overcome weaknesses in my plots or characters. Guess what?! Editors care about the stories. Notwithstanding my lovely illustrations, the manuscripts all came back. My submissions were so labor intensive I didn’t have either the time or emotional energy to redo them, and I set them aside to do other things (like struggling to earn a living).
Over the years, I learned digital imaging and design skills, which allowed me far easier ways to submit and revise projects. I also became involved with the wonderful Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). At their conferences, I had the opportunity to hear extraordinary writers talk about their craft, and listen to top editors’ perceptions about what makes stories and characters compelling. I returned to some of my early projects, and found some worthwhile and appealing ideas that I was able to resurrect with more sophistication and clarity. The stars finally aligned, and in 2010, I met my agent who quickly placed “Pickles, Please!” and who’s helped guide my career ever since.
My advice to new children’s book authors—don’t give up, and join SCBWI. Oh, and don’t take 28 years to get published. It’s a risky strategy—who knows what might happen along the way!
If you could befriend a character from any book, who would you befriend, why?
I’d most like to be friends with Milo in Norton Juster’s classic book, The Phantom Tollbooth. Milo’s such an appealing character, and the world he journeys into is filled with so much imaginative richness and humor.
Are you currently working on a book? If so, can you tell us a little bit about it?
I’m working on a new book, a satire of the YA dystopian novels and movies like The Hunger Games and Divergent, that have become so incredibly popular. This is a new challenge for me, writing for an older demographic.
I’m also gathering material for a Henry Hubble sequel. It’s my hope that HHBOT will become wildly popular, and I’ll be asked to create the next chapters in Henry’s life!