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Talks With Roger
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AD: 728x90, Stick & Stone
Beth Ferry & Tom Lichtenheld Talk with Roger
By Roger Sutton
Beth Ferry & Tom LichtenheldA picture book manuscript can be a lonesome thing. You might even say the best ones generally are, still seeking a companion to bring sense and wholeness to their lives. Beth Ferry's text for Stick and Stone is particularly terse, even mysterious, taken on its own, waiting for pictures to complete it. Beth and illustrator Tom Lichtenheld here talk about how they turned Beth's words into a book.

Roger Sutton: My first question is about the genesis of the thing. When you look at the words all by themselves, you think, "Oh, this is rather zen-like." I'm curious to know, Beth, how you began?

Beth Ferry: It was a challenge I made to myself. I really like to write 500- and 600-word stories, so I made it a challenge to write one under 200 words. I wasn't sure yet what it was going to be about. I think that was the first time I treated my writing as a job, like it was work—I'm going to write something with the intent of being published. And then I picked friendship as a theme because what I love about picture books is they truly do appeal to all ages. I get a lot out of my kids' picture books. And friendship, finding and keeping good friends, is a challenge throughout your life.

RS: Tom, is this final text fairly close to Beth's original manuscript? Is this what you first saw?

TL: Yes, I would say 99.5 percent.

RS: How did you know what to do?

TL: Well, I made a lot of mistakes first.

BF: Which were all brilliant, by the way. Every mistake was brilliant. I'm just saying.

TL: Thank you. I did a posting on the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog showing a bunch of my mistakes. After I went down all the blind alleys, I realized what I should be doing, and I did that. I always do a lot of preliminary work. Sometimes it goes somewhere and sometimes it doesn't. But to answer your original question, the very thing that Beth just talked about, the succinctness, was the thing that attracted me immediately. In that zen-like atmosphere that it creates, I fell under the spell of the rhythm and the cogency. It's spare, yet it's rich. Everything dovetails together and fits. It's still got a dynamic arc to it. There's pathos at the beginning, and there's drama in the middle, and there's a resolution. It walks you through all those things seamlessly. I always know if I want to work on a book from the first reading, and the first time I start doodling. I'll start doodling right in the margins of a manuscript, if I'm taken with it, and if my doodles actually feel good, then I know that I'm interested in the project. We changed very little editorially as I worked on it. There was one little thing I asked the editor and Beth if we could do at the end, and they were cool with that, so we made that little adjustment, and everything was there.

RS: It's a very collaborative book. Of course in the theme of the book, the friendship between Stick and Stone, but also in the interdependence of the text and the pictures. Did you work together as the project went along?

TL: We really didn't, which is unusual for me. I usually collaborate pretty closely with the authors I work with, but this was so figured out already. I could tell that even though it was simple, the simplicity was the result of a lot of work. Everything was just bolted together. There was a little bit of back and forth, but to be honest with you—and Beth, correct me if I'm wrong here—I don't think there was a lot of it.

BF: No. I had seen some of the original sketches, and Tom did these brilliant puns. There was a lot of conversation between the stick and the stone, and a pinecone making little comments. My whole family and I were laughing out loud. But [editor] Kate O'Sullivan pointed out that when you read any type of conversation bubbles, or however it would have appeared, you lose the rhythm. So I think Kate was ultimately right in saying no dialogue.

RS: There are only a couple of moments when we do get an interjection, like the "boom" of the hurricane.

BF: Right. And you know what I find? When I read the book to kids I never read those words, but they do. I stay with the rhythm, and they'll read the "boom" and "cowabunga," which is really funny. And perfect.

TL: I've been reading the book quite a bit to kids in schools. Often when I read a book to kids I will stop along the way and talk about the visuals and talk about the story, but I learned pretty quickly with this book to just read it through. It's that zen-like trance they get into with this story. At first I misinterpreted their silence as uninterest, but then when you really watch them they're just transfixed. As soon as you get to page three, "Lonely. Alone," you've got them. And it's hard sometimes not to say something about the story or the pictures, but I don't say a thing anymore, just read it.
AD: 160x600, Stick & Stone
RS: Beth, what surprised you most about the transformation of your manuscript into a picture book? When you look at this book now, what's in there that you didn't see for yourself?

BF: I'm not an artist at all, so I don't actually spend a lot of time thinking about what the pictures are going to look like. I know I could never do justice to them. The characters aren't full of personality when you're writing them, especially in something so short, but you want them to be. Every time I see my characters now—every day, because I have a picture of them hanging on my wall—it's a shock. I don't know if this happens to other picture book authors who are not illustrators, but it's truly joyful. It makes me beyond happy to see how they turned out.

RS: How come you made them boys?

BF: That's a great question. You know what? I don't know.

RS: I think of it because I had this long discussion with Marla Frazee when we did an interview about The Farmer and the Clown. We were both talking about the clown being a little boy, even though it's a wordless book and you really can't tell the difference when they're that small and they have their clothes on, right? But we both decided it was a little boy.

BF: And I totally concur.

TL: It's a fascinating phenomenon, Roger. I have this book called Duck! Rabbit!, and there's a genderless character in it, okay, that's either a dinosaur or an anteater. When I talk about the character with kids, I make it a she. And immediately, the boys protest, because they're so accustomed to genderless characters being presumed to be male. It is just amazing, that she's got her head up in the tree eating a leaf, or she's got her nose on the ground. It's really kind of dispiriting, but a fun experiment.

RS: Even here at the Horn Book, we'll often initally default to male, even though we don't know for sure. Luckily a fact-checker will catch that, if the character is not actually identified one way or the other.

TL: It's built in, I'm afraid. And I'm afraid—this is not an endorsement, just an observation—I'm afraid that girls and women are so accustomed to it that they kind of accept it, maybe not even as a slight, but just as a fact.

RS: Right.

BF: You don't even notice. I have two bulldogs. One's a girl and one's a boy. But to me, all bulldogs should be boys, because they look like boys. I know that sounds silly.

RS: Oh, Beth, I'm worse than you. I think all dogs are boys and all cats are girls.

All right, let's talk about the gender-ambiguous pinecone. Do you foresee any further adventures of Pinecone?

BF: I don't know, actually. That's a great question. Kids do want to know what happens to Pinecone. I hadn't actually thought about poor Pinecone after being swept away, so I think the way Tom brought the character back—Pinecone's redemption—was really important for kids. And it does lead to a nice discussion about how you forgive someone who is mean to you. But so far, no, I don't have a story yet about Pinecone.

RS: Do you two plan to do another book together?

TL: As soon as she sends me another perfect manuscript.

BF: No pressure at all.

TL: The Revenge of Pinecone.

BF: Exactly. We haven't really talked about it yet. Maybe it would be fun to do another one.

TL: I would love to do another book together but I'm not a huge fan of sequels.

RS: Amen, brother.

TL: Number one, I like challenges. This book had so many wonderful challenges in it. And I feel like I would be repeating myself. I'm fine with a series, a book or a character that is designed from the get-go to be a series, and I'm actually working on one right now. But the difference is it's built that way from day one, and you make sure there's a lot of territory to explore with these characters. A sequel for the sake of a sequel I'm not really a fan of.
AD: 160x600, I Yam a Donkey
RS: Yeah, I like the idea of just letting Stick and Stone and their new little sidekick Pinecone walk off into the sunset. It's our job to figure out what happens next.

TL: Right.

BF: Tom, when you drew the eyes in the cave, was that just for fun, or did you actually have in mind what creature was in there?

TL: I had no idea. I just knew that when you go to cartoon school, there are always eyeballs in a cave. If you've got a cave, there's got to be eyeballs.

BF: It's funny—when I look at it, I see some type of creature. Resoundingly the kids are saying, "Oh, it's Pinecone."

RS: Really?

TL: I never thought about that.

BF: I know. Me neither. The first time someone said it, the kid was like, "Yeah, he's hiding, because he's embarrassed that he was bad."

TL: Wow.

BF: Brilliant, that kid. It never occurred to me.

TL: So smart.

RS: I think one of the neatest things that you learn when you share a picture book with young children is they really do look at everything in those pictures. You can't let something slip by.

TL: Right.

BF: The details—until I saw your presentation about the dolphin in the logo, I didn't get that, but I think it's brilliant.

TL: Very subtle.

BF: Yes, but really smart. And kids love the dolphins, so it's a double win.

RS: Wait a minute, what are we talking about with the dolphins?

TL: On the spread that says "laze by the shore," where Stick and Stone are—

RS: Oh, it's the Houghton Mifflin dolphins!

TL: It's the old Houghton Mifflin dolphins. Which they abandoned in preference for what I call the drunken geometric shapes.

RS: Yes. Ahem! Tom, I interrupted you before. Do you remember what you were going to say?

TL: Oh, I was talking about the cave. I originally spent a lot of time sketching out scenes where Stick and Stone were wandering around the world, exploring. I did these visual jokes where Stone was sitting in the middle of Stonehenge, because I thought that would be funny, Stone going to Stonehenge. One of the reasons I abandoned that idea was I realized the reason for showing these characters doing some exploring was to enrich the relationship, rather than just make funny jokes about them going to Stonehenge and Easter Island. So when they're looking into the cave, you notice that Stick is behind Stone. He's sort of trepidatious and using Stone as kind of a safety net as he peers into the cave. And on the other side of the spread Stone is making a path for Stick.

BF: Every kid is like, "Look what he's doing! He's making a path." They get it. It's so great.

RS: And do they get the bouncing into the water, the physics of all that? You know, when Stone saves Stick, who's drowning in the puddle?

BF: I don't know. I mean, they get what's happening. They all say, "How does Stone get out?" and I just say, "Well, he rolls out." Because he can roll. They're not questioning how that log is just conveniently in the right spot.

RS: It's brilliant how clear it is—gathering speed on the hill, and then using the log for liftoff, plopping quickly into the puddle, and boom, out comes Stick. It's a terrific demonstration of physics right there.

TL: Right. I just want to take this opportunity to thank Beth for throwing that one at me. The line says "Stone rescues him quick." So thanks a lot for giving me a stick and a stone with appendages, and making one of them rescue the other out of a puddle.

BF: When I wrote that line, I thought, "I don't know how this is going to happen, but the illustrator will figure it out." And you did a magnificent job.

TL: I love those kinds of challenges. It's not an unreasonable challenge at all. You just figure it out.

AD: 160x600, Mustache Baby

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Beth Ferry
Tom Lichtenheld


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