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- Jose Lucio, self-published author of Heave Ho!

5.28.2015

A Conversation with Matthue Roth

Matthue Roth
Matthue Roth is a Philadelphia expat, currently exiled in Brooklyn. He is the award-winning author of several books for young adults, including Losers and Yom Kippur a go-go. In addition, he has recently turned his attention to picture books, first with the sublime  My First Kafka, which I reviewed last year, and now with the newly released The Gobblings. In both books, he has paired with illustrator Rohan Daniel Eason.

What thematic elements connect The Gobblings with My First Kafka?

Aside from the fact that kids love them, and that they both scare the adults that I show them to?

Really? They scared the adults that you showed them to?

Well, not all the adults. Okay, not even most of them. That's me just being a drama queen.

But I will say, more adults have read the books and been like, "Isn't this a little scary for kids?" (which is to say, three or four), than kids who've said, "This is scary" (zero).

I think in both books, we took stories which are dreamy and funny, but have a sort of underlying darkness to them - a fairy-tale darkness - the kind that almost all kids understand and almost no adults do. In both books, there are monsters that are unexpectedly imaginative and kids who are surprisingly resourceful and save the day.

I think it's a huge problem with a lot of picture books. The kids in them don't really do anything; they just sit back and things happen to them. Kafka understood, and I think Maurice Sendak, Arnold Lobel and Kate DiCamillo and most of my favorite picture-book writers intrinsically get this: The best stories are about discovering weird and scary and amazing things about the world and learning about them.

I want The Gobblings to do that. I hope it does.


My First Kafka

Are there picture books which scared you as a child, do you recall?

Looking back on the books I read as a kid, I'm surprised what didn't scare me. Maurice Sendak is sort of the king of that: Max's playmates about to eat him in Where the Wild Things Are, the Hitler-like bakers in In the Night Kitchen who try to literally bake him inside an oven. As a kid, I thought it was totally scary and fun and awesome. As an adult, I'm completely freaked.

From where did the idea for The Gobblings come?

The book started in two places. I really wanted to see Rohan draw monsters and Art Deco spaceships. That was the fanboy half of it.

The other half, the emotional start of the book, began with me thinking about Herbie, a boy who's alone on a space station and doesn't have any friends. It's the most amazing place in the universe to be, but if you're truly lonely, that doesn't really matter. And then he finally makes some friends, but unfortunately those friends are alien monsters who are really really dangerous.

The promotional material states that The Gobblings is 'based on a Baal Shem Tov story.'

It's also a loose retelling of an old Hasidic folktale called The Alef Bet. A boy is wandering through a strange town where he doesn't know anybody. It's Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, but nobody's prayers in the entire town are working. The boy only knows the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the Alef-Bet. So he says the letters, and the honesty and simplicity of his prayer go through the Gates of Heaven (okay, in our story, it's the landing bay on the space station) and save everybody.

I couldn't detect any sort of Hassidic imagery or Jewish allusions anywhere in the book... unless I overlooked something. Was that on purpose?

Yes! Well, not on purpose so much as that the essence of the story, to me, wasn't that it was about Yom Kippur or Jews or even prayer specifically. The nugget that appealed to me was the sense of hopelessness, and being alone, and the idea of Herbie being in
great danger, though he already has the power to save himself.

And also, the idea of Jews in space has already been done as perfectly as it could be. I would hate to step on Mr. Brooks' toes.

Jews in Space

Your website states that you are offering a minibook to anyone who orders directly from you, called Alien. Is that a story related to The Gobblings at all? I think it's a real interesting tactic. Are those books that you both write and illustrate yourself?

Yep, I put them together myself. I like to create extra bonus stuff for people who order from me, since I can't afford to sell my books as cheaply as Amazon. There's always way more that goes into a book than comes out, and for the most part that's a good process, but I'm one of those people who loves DVD bonus features.

For Kafka, I made a book that was a story for adults - not, you know, sketchy or anything, but a short fiction piece so that adults who were buying the book for a kid would feel like they were getting something, too. And in both cases, the stories were sort of a dark mirror of the children's book. Kafka came with a story called The Last Golem in Prague, which was about racism in Eastern Europe and had a kind of sweet ending, the opposite of Metamorphosis; and Gobblings comes with a piece called "Alien," which is about a sort of lustful poetic alien who invades Earth.

The Gobblings

I think the idea of packaging a picture book for adults is a great one... and gets to one of my main contentions with the picture book field, and is an idea I've tried to address a few times with some of my reviews online, is why the picture book genre is still mainly geared toward children. Even stories that are ostensibly for children but are rich enough to be enjoyed by adults... are still, at the end of the day, children's books.

The comic book field has grown and matured and we are seeing graphic stories written for literate adults, as well as animated films, and picture book art has certainly grown to include respected artists working in different mediums. I hope for the day when the picture book medium can be employed to tell truly complex, multi-level stories. By including these 'dark mirrors,' I think you are helping to advance this cause.

Thank you! I think the form's still in its nascence, or maybe its second nascence? There was no question that illuminated manuscripts were meant for adults, and even few generations ago serious novels, whatever they are, included picture plates. I think it's just been since the advent of cheaper, more widespread and easy-to-print books that books have really had to stick to the no-illustrations, 250-page standards.

My friend Fred Chao had a picture book, Alison and Her Rainy Day Robot, that was basically a comic book, 48 pages, and laid out in panels, and every picture book publisher flipped out and refused to publish as it was. Then he launched a Kickstarter that made several times its goal, and publishers started emailing to ask if they could acquire it.

The moral of the story, I guess, is that great things can happen when we wander outside the lines. Not to be too mercenary about it, but I hope that The Gobblings sells enough to let us do some more wandering.

You are now a father. What stories will you tell your child, oh Matthue?

Oh, I'm totally selfish. I like the stories they tell me instead. A month or two ago they were singing a song that went, "We are in a pot of chicken soup." I totally plagiarized it.

Part of the Conversations with Storytellers series.

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