Thursday, February 28, 2013

Common Questions for Chris Monroe

Colin talks to author and illustrator Chris Monroe about Frank Ocean, Justin Bieber, and a few other things related to children's literature

CGB: From Chico Bon Bon (Monkey with a Tool Belt) to Cookie the dog, your talented protagonists find themselves often at risk of being exploited by others out to make a quick, deceptive dollar. It seems to me you're saying that what makes a person, or monkey, unique isn't necessarily what makes them whole. How conscious are you of trying to instruct or impart wisdom when it comes to writing books for children? And do you think it's any different for authors of books written for adults? Also, what about Frank Ocean? Have you heard that guy sing "Sweet Life"? If that's not giving it your all then I don't know what is.
Chris Monroe: I have to honestly say that I typically am not trying to impart wisdom or a lesson in the stories I write. I usually am just attempting to tell an entertaining story, with hopefully a little humor in it. I always try to add some humorous asides for the adults reading it too (like the "Lifter Puller" reference in Monkey, or the fanny-pack storyline in Cookie.) There are also visual details for the kids to find. I think more about those aspects, rather than teaching some sort of lesson.

If the character has to overcome some situation, or adversity, I see it more as a dramatic storyline, rather than a morality play. I think Sneaky Sheep is the best example of what I am talking about. In my mind it was a story about some sheep making bad decisions, but it often gets interpreted as a "listen to your elders," kind of thing. Which isn't really a bad thing! But teaching a lesson isn't really my intent. I am more out to hopefully entertain.

Frank Ocean! An amazing entertainer and really a role model by coming out. I can relate to "Sweet Life" because I live in Duluth.

In Cookie, the Walker, Cookie has a brush with fame that leaves her wanting less. We're all a bit enamored by celebrity these days, but so far few have made an appearance in children's literature. Say, like Teddy Wayne, you were to write a story about Justin Bieber. Outside of a change of clothes and hairstyle, what sort of transformation could you see the bieb undergoing?

Justin Bieber survives a balloon crash in the Rockies and becomes a mountain man with an otter for a friend. He has to survive and make his way out of the wilderness with the help of the creatures and plants of the forest. His hair grows out, but he stays upbeat. There's a song in the back of the book like a Raffi book.

You drew the illustrations for Big Little Brother, winner of the "2011 Best Book My Nephew Asked Me to Read 100 Times Award." Is it a challenge matching pictures to words that aren't your own? Or does that make your job easier? In other words, does artwork help alleviate the stress on words to mean so much, and vice versa? 

Writing and illustrating the picture books myself is absolutely the most fun. But, I was thrilled to illustrate Kevin's book. It was a nice break to step away from my own writing. Plus, it was really fun to work with Kevin's story! I just love his story and the way he tells it. It has so much heart, and it's funny. Just having to focus on the art was surprisingly freeing. I like things about both pursuits... illustrating for others vs. myself. If I had to choose one though, it's probably easier to illustrate for myself, because there is no pressure trying to figure out what the author is envisioning or would like. It's all pretty seamless when I am doing both. Probably from years of doing the comic... letting the art tell part of the tale.

It turned out to be a pretty good match I think, and we're doing another one! (or two....) Kevin has been such a positive force in my life! I'm so thankful we got matched up doing this.

Here's a question I've been dying to ask: Why is it that most kid's books feature animals instead of human beings? My neighbor's dogs are constantly barking; our bestselling book of poetry last year was "by a cat" called I Could Pee on This; you'll have to forgive me, but my own jaded adult opinion of furry creatures is, at times, less than thrilled. And I loved Happy Birthday, Moon! 

Funny, I was thinking about that in relation to the last question. I was thinking about how Kevin's book has a memoir like quality while my books are just funny cartoon animals! Why? I have no clue. I tell my own story so much in my comics that for me it probably is an escape from human life to write about monkeys, dogs and elephants. It's fun to draw an alligator in leisure wear.

I guess I don't really know why personified animals are so popular in kid's lit. I suppose it has to do with old folk tales maybe? It probably releases the writer from some of the realities of human existence without bringing magic into it.

I know if I had never seen Lowly Worm in his apple car or Gorilla Bananas driving his banana car in Richard Scarry's books, I would not be the same person. 

Chris Monroe launches Cookie, the Walker at Common Good Books, Saturday, March 9 at 2:00 p.m.

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