"Today the greatest challenge in publishing is distribution and discoverability. As a result, sites like [PictureBooksReview] are more important than ever to discerning readers, new authors and independent publishers."
-Steve Floyd, chief executive officer of August House books

"The interview is so amazing! I appreciate you picking up on all these aspects of what I've been doing. It's always great to talk with someone who understands what goes into these things."

- Jose Lucio, self-published author of Heave Ho!
Showing posts with label halloween. Show all posts
Showing posts with label halloween. Show all posts


A Conversation with Matt Bergin

Matt Bergin was born and raised in the Bronx, and is the author of two picture books, both illustrated by Zach Wideman, Blank Slater, the Boy with the Dry-Erase Face and Lesky Lee, Monster of Monsters, which I reviewed here.

It was a good fit for the blog, as Halloween is now just around the corner, and it is crammed with classic movie monsters. As I stated in my review, the key moment - for me - comes when the heroine, Lesky Lee - having successfully defeated the monsters which populate her nightmares - turns to the reader and says, “Bored now.”

It's a funny moment, a clever moment, and seems to pinpoint the tone of the whole book.

I asked Matt if he agreed with my astoundingly insightful opinion.

That moment is certainly the point where readers should realize things are never so simple. Lesky had a relatively straightforward problem - ack! nightmares! - and she came up with a very direct solution: beat them up. But what she is left with after that (spoiler!) is a dull dreamscape lacking any excitement or color. On the surface, she got exactly what she wanted: monster-free dreams. But really, it was only what she thought she wanted. 

There are several takeaways from the story that all tie back to that moment: be careful what you wish for, don't make rash decisions, compromise trumps conflict. It is a tiny twist in a fairly short tale, which I hope readers appreciate both as a moment of levity and as a challenge to their expectations. The "one act" version of Monster of Monsters would end before "Bored now" with a simple moral of "face your fears" or "stand up for yourself"... but Lesky would agree, simple is boring.  

Fun fact: Attentive pop-culturists should know that "Bored now" is a nod to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although Lesky is clearly more Buffy than Evil Willow (for whom it is a foreboding catchphrase). 

And speaking of pop culture, my oldest daughter (who was my only daughter when I first wrote Monster of Monsters, is an October baby, so her birthdays have often had a Halloween theme and she's always gravitated towards things like Scooby Doo, Monster High, Universal Monsters, and Goosebumps. Inevitably, with so many cartoon creatures filling her brain, she would have occasional bad dreams. Rather than shelter my girl from her fiendish fun or let her succumb to the scares, I focused on teaching her that she was the boss of her brain and that it was up to her to take charge of her dreams.

We made her a "Monster Stick" - a big, polished branch with colored duct tape and stickers - to aid her in any bedtime battles, and I encouraged her to tough it out through the night. This inspired Alexa to stay strong most nights (even at 8, she still climbs into bed with Mom and Dad occasionally). It also inspired me to work out those initial rhymes that turned into the book. The very first draft of Monster of Monsters was spoken aloud to Alexa as a bedtime story, made up on the fly, to help erase any fears she might have over Vamps, Wolfs, or Witches that night. I knew I had to see this book through to publication after my first doodle of Lesky Lee shaving the Wolf-Man. 

Why picture books?

I've dabbled in other forms of writing, but I've always been most drawn to sequential art and visual storytelling. I've written some small press and self-published comics, and continue to tinker with a handful of long-in-development comic scripts. But once I became a father, my focus turned entirely to my child. That meant everything, including my creative energy. It is not that broad of a leap from comic books to picture books, and frankly, I've found my voice writing for my target audience: my kids.

There's also something to be said for the satisfaction of finishing a creative project, which is much easier to do with picture books when your time, attention, and resources are spread thin by a full-time day job and a growing family at home. Picture books, and even the non-illustrated pieces I write and post on my website, are immensely satisfying, but take a fraction of the time to write than even the shortest prose story. I can't imagine locking myself away in an office for all of my free hours hacking away at a novel that may never see the light of day, while my kids grow up and away from me and the world passes me by. With an 8-year-old and an almost-3-year-old vying for my affections, and job and wife competing for what's left of my attention, this is exactly the medium for me. 

What is your relationship with the illustrator, Zach Wideman?

Actually, I hired Zach for my first book, Blank Slater, The Boy With the Dry-Erase Face. I successfully funded that book through Kickstarter, all of the money raised going toward paying publishing fees and Zach's modest page rate. It was my first picture book and Zach was just getting started with his freelance illustrating business, so he was more than fair to me with his price, and we each learned a lot from one another on that project. We were so happy with how that first book came out that we decided to do another one, and I am sure we will do more again in the future (I just need to replenish the warchest -- paying an artist is not cheap, especially when there is no money being made yet!).

My scripts are industry standard picture book scripts - the words you see on the page plus some light art direction for important story beats. I also share my own sketches. From there, I ask him for rough sketches of how he interprets the story, and then we edit.

Writing is revising, and so it goes for writing picture books. Seeing an artist's interpretation of my words might inspire me to add more words or encourage even more sight gags and Easter eggs. Zach and I went back and forth quite a bit on what monsters would appear in Lesky's dreamscape, what each one would look like, color choices, etcetera. While my script was light on art direction, we soon moved into working with a marked up PDF of rough layouts - move this here, add this there, make this pop. We also played around with the visual tone of some of the action - vampire fangs flying through the air made one image too violent, so they were nixed; a test reader thought the wicked witch was bleeding, not melting, so we revised the colors pooling at her feet. Then there's font choice, word placement, and the mechanics of building a digital proof. Quite a bit of back and forth to put something like this together. And believe it or not, it was all done remotely, without Zach and I ever meeting. We still have yet to meet or speak. Honestly, Zach may be a robot!

Great to hear the experience from Blank Slater… was enjoyable enough that you wanted to continue with another book. Were there any lessons from that experience which you've applied here? 

I've enjoyed the process of all of this: from joining SCBWI a few years back, consuming all of the critical information I could from the organization's website, newsletters, live events, and peer members; to trying and trying and trying again to successfully pitch an agent (still trying, by the way); to joining the DIY movement and figuring out how to 'Kickstart' my own self-publishing efforts. And then, of course, I enjoyed writing and refining my Blank Slater script through many incarnations (Blank's gone from comic strip to Disney pitch and a few things in between, before finally finding it's face as the book out now).

I learned everything I could about the picture book industry, best practices for first-time writers, script formatting, query letter etiquette… A huge lesson along the way with Blank was that so much of it was about timing and subjective opinions. That is the lesson that ultimately sent me down the self-publishing path and a successful Kickstarter campaign. When enough people tell you how "great" something is or how much they "love" what you've done, but it's "just not a good fit" for them "right now"... and then you see so many cool creator-owned projects launching in that other sequential art industry next door (comics), you have to make a move. That's what I did with Blank Slater.

And then with Monster of Monsters, I knew I wanted to do another self-published book and to do one more project with Zach. We were energized, we had a good system in place for working together, and I wanted to follow up Blank while that first book was fresh in people's minds and the two titles could support one another. So that was that. The rest of it is what it is. I am still learning. I could have done a million things differently with Blank, I could probably do some things better with Monster of Monsters right now, and I'll encounter a few forks in the road toward whatever becomes my next project.      

Putting "Lesky Lee" at the forefront of the title gives the impression, at least to me, that she’s meant to be an ongoing character. Will there be more Lesky Lee stories?

My next project is something tentatively called Fluffless, A Squirrel's Tail, an ugly-duckling story starring an ambitious but deluded rat. It's a longer piece, prose with spot illustrations. I'll likely release that myself in 2016 and then get back to actively pitching new scripts to agents and publishers.

Nothing officially planned for more Lesky Lee, but there's a very loose idea for a sequel or two. I talk a big game about self-publishing, but it's a not-so-secret dream that the payoff to my putting these two books out myself is that I could sell a publisher on continuing the series. "Lesky Lee, Maker of Monsters" displayed prominently in the front window of Books of Wonder next to a deluxe hardcover re-release of "Lesky Lee, Monster of Monsters" would be awesomesauce. (I should get to work on that 'Maker of Monsters' script, eh?)

What nightmares do you have?

I think real, live, wide-awake humans are way scarier than anything that might creep into my subconscious while I am sleeping. So I don't really have any nightmares or monsters of my own. 

Actually, that's not true! I dedicated Lesky Lee to my two little monsters, my kids. But they're no nightmare.

Part of the Conversations with Storytellers series.

Be sure to visit Matt at his website, and Zach Wideman at his!


Lesky Lee, Monster of Monsters (2015)

Written by Matt Bergin

Illustrated by Zach Wideman

October has just begun, and the cool days of autumn are here in earnest. I was very happy to receive a copy of Matt Bergin and Zach Wideman's Lesky Lee, Monster of Monsters. They had previously collaborated oBlank Slater, The Boy With The Dry-Erase Face, which definitely had a grim, slightly unsettling feel to it. This book is more classically Halloween, filled with Universal Movie monsters and other classic creatures - I saw Cthulu and a flying monkey - all haunting the dreams of the young heroine: Lesky Lee.

The nightmares take their toll on the girl, as nightmares must. She begins to become a bit of a monster herself, behaving beastly to her parents and classmates.

During Free Play, she trampled her schoolmates' toys like a rampaging dragon.
At Lunch, she devoured her schoolmate's snack like a greedy ogre.
When she wasn't grumpy like a goblin...
...she was zonked like a zombie!

Clearly, something must be done!

This is a rather long picture book, as picture books go. 39 pages... but fully illustrated throughout. We're treated to lots of images of Lesky fighting her way through the nightmare land, ripping the limbs from Frankenstein's monster, shaving the wolfman,..

...all in the service of allowing Lesky to return to normalcy. Normalcy, in this case, is a happy dream world filled with ponies and princesses and gumball gardens, apparently. No monsters in sight.

I enjoyed the wit of the story and the illustrations - and the character of Lesky - but I was a bit disappointed by the blandness of the seeming resolution. Then:

Only being moderately hip myself, I was later informed that this is a nod to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Regardless, what follows - and what, it turns out, is the true arc of the tale - is Lesky realizing that she actually misses her nightmares. She liked  all the monsters haunting her dreams! They drove her crazy, but at least they were interesting! Who wouldn't want Cthulu hanging out in their subconscious?

"This boring dream is a nightmare! I want my monsters back!"

And so she seeks them out, seeking a compromise for all parties. So it wasn't a trite tale of a girl battling her nightmares after all! You were worried, I could tell. All ends well, for young girls and monsters alike. And really, isn't that what Halloween is all about?

This has been a sponsored post.


The Tailypo (2010)

Here is a short film done by a fellow named J. Hasani W. I really love everything about it - the music, the feeling of dread, the slow reveal. Perfect.

However, there is no speaking in the film. As someone else pointed out, what it's really lacking is the phrase, "I want my tailypo. I want my tailypo." Without that, it almost doesn't seem like the same story. Like Jack and the Beanstalk minus the "Fee Fi Fo Fum."

Regardless, check it out!


Tailypo! (1991)

Retold by Jan Wahl

Illustrated by Wil Clay


Twenty years later, the story of the fearsome Tailypo gets told again. If you recall, in my last entry, I reviewed the fearsome beast with the bushy tail as imagined by Joanna and Paul Galdone. The book mentioned that, in researching the story, Joanna had discovered that it had originated in Tennessee. I love details like that, and in this version by Jan Wahl and Wil Clay, we really delve deeper into that origin. This book seems firmly rooted in the lore of the Tennessee woods.

“Once way down in the big woods of Tennessee lived an old man all by himself in a cabin with one room and that was his parlor, his sitting room, his bedroom, his dining room, and his kitchen, too,” and there it all is, spread out before us, a hundred details showng us the life this man lives, in rich, warm tones. A roaring firplace casts warm shadows throughout, as the man enjoys his stew and the company of his hunting dogs.
“…and one night after he ate his supper there crept through the cracks in the logs a Creature with a great, big, long tail.” Although it is not a hairy tail, as Galdone imagined, but seems more reptilian in nature, as though this is some prehistoric monster haunting the Tennessee woods.

One bloody swing of the hatchet later, a little salt and a little pepper, an old man with a full stomach dozing contentedly, and we are able to enter the heart of the matter.

“Tailypo, tailypo. All I want is my tailypo.”

What I found most interesting about this version of the story was actually something I found on the back jacket flap.

“Here’s what the critics have said about Tailypo!” it announces clearly. This is a pretty standard element for picture books to have.

School Library Journal says, “…a scary and highly graphic accompaniment to his succinctly retold African-American tale.”

Kirkus infoms us that “…Clay provides dramatic double-spread painting for Wahl’s retelling of this scariest of African-American tales.”

The common element there, I couldn’t help but notice, is “African-American.”

In Galdone’s version, the unfortunate hunter is an old white man. In Wahl and Clay’s version here, he is an old black man.

Was Paul Galdone being disingenuous? Was he trying to whitewash a folktale from a particular group of people?

I tried to do a bit of research myself, and couldn’t find any mention of the Tailypo ever being specifically African-American in origin. So how then, could School Library Journal and Kirkus be so in-the-know? What do they know that I do not? And then it occurred to me, perhaps they ain’t. Maybe they’re just assuming that its an African-American folktale because… the main character in the story happens to be black?

If it had been a Chinese woman living in a cabin in the woods, would they have heaped praise on such a wonderful retelling of that old piece of Chinese mythology?

Race aside, this one does have a bit more grisly ending.

“I DON’T HAVE YOUR TAILYPO!” hollers the old man, running off in terror as the… thing… grabs him by the shirt tails of his longjohns. It now seems to resemble a Hoth wampa. The man’s limbs disappear in a tangle of white fur and claws.

“Yes, you have,” it says, and that is that.

Part of the power of this story is that we are so used to children’s picture books ending in some level of understanding. Like, it should turn out that the Tailypo  was really just misunderstood. Or, at the very least, the old man should escape and live to tell the tale.

Not so, sweet children. Not so.


The Tailypo (1977)

Retold by Joanna Galdone

Illustrated by Paul Galdone

This is one of the great read-aloud spooky stories. It was first told to me by the mother of one of my neighbors who was down visiting. “Tom tells me you like stories,” she said, and it was a beautiful, sunny day – Earth Day I’m pretty sure it was – not a cloud in the sky.

“Yup, pretty much,” said I.

“When Tom was a kid I used to take him down to the Jonesborough Storytelling Festival…” she began.

“Hey, I’ve been there!” I said excitedly.

“…and his favorite was always the Tailypo .”

“The what?”

“You don’t know the Tailypo?” she asked, incredulous. “Well, there’s all different ways to tell it. There's a man in a cabin, and suddenly he’s attacked by this creature which moves so fast he can’t really see what it is. But he has an axe and he manages to cut off the creature’s tail. Then he boils it up and eats it.”


“And then, in the middle of the night,” she continued, drawing closer, “He hears a voice saying: I want my Tailypo. Tailypo, tailypo, I want my tailypo…” And her voice grew deeper by several octaves, throatier like a chain smoker. She was wearing these dark sunglasses, so I couldn’t see her eyes, but there was suddenly something about her that really invoked this creature. This sweet older lady, transformed before my eyes. “I want my Tailypo,” she continued. “Give me back my Tailypo!”

She kind of freaked me out.

It wasn’t until later that I found this version of the story, done by Paul Galdone and his daughter Joanna in the  seventies. It definitely does the tale justice.

There is really something about Paul Galdone, I cannot put my finger on it. I’ve felt it before. He has such a classic – dare I say, basic – way of telling a story. Very matter-of-fact. Like he’s just telling you the story the way he heard it with no elaboration. So, in a way, I almost put my guard down. But then there’s always an edge. He does not shy away from violence. I remember reading his version of Jack and the Beanstalk to Arlo once, and was slightly taken aback by the illustration of Jack triumphantly cutting the Giant’s head off (a la David and Goliath, it just now occurred to me! I love making connections like that!).

It was actually written by his daughter, Joanna Galdone. The back of the book tells us that she first heard the story from her grandfather (which is a great way to first hear a story). She set about researching its origins, and traced it to the backwoods of Tennessee.  It also says that Paul Galdone modeled the woodsman on a man who lived near him in an abandoned one-room schoolhouse. Wow. Every artist should be so lucky.

The man in the story is old, with long white hair and a thick mustache and lambchops which cover the bottom half of his face. He goes out hunting and finds himself a rabbit with the help of his hunting hounds. But then just as he’s about to fall asleep all contented-like, what should he find but that “a most curious creature crept through a crack between the logs in the wall. It had a BIG, LONG, FURRY TAIL.”

Indeed, that’s all we see, just a nice, long furry tail. Probably soft to the touch. Nothing scary so far, though it is a bit intense to see that hunter immediately roused and carting an ax. He manages to cut off that tail and, still hungry, figures, why not,I’ll just boil it into a stew and eat it.

“Tailypo, tailypo, all I want is my tailypo,” comes the voice in the middle of the night. As I read it, I could hear that throaty voice of my friend’s mother.

This occurs three times - and three times - the old man hollers after his hounds to go chase away whatever it is. But the third time, the dogs do not return. Did they run off in fright? Or…

“You know and I know, all I want is my tailypo.”

Galdone finally reveals the creature at the very end of the book, or at least the top half of the creature. We see him peering over the foot of the bed. He has two, large yellow eyes, two furry ears. A hand with claws reaching up over the bed sheets.

“I haven’t got your tailypo!” screams the old man.

“Yes you have. Yes you have.”

Now there’s nothing left of the old man’s cabin in the deep, big woods except the chimney. But folks who live in the valley say that when the moon shines and the wind blows, you can hear a voice say:

‘Tailypo, tailypo
now I’ve got
my tailypo.’


The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher (1984)

Written and Illustrated by Molly Bang

Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

Well, my first ever contest has a winner. Dear Natalie Bleu has won herself a free copy of The Crown on Your Head by Nancy Tillman. You may recall, the contest was only this: to tell me the scariest picture book you've ever read. It is no coincidence that Halloween is around the corner.

I was actually not familiar with Natalie's choice, The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher. It doesn't look particularly frightening, does it? It kind of looks like one of those Lois Ehlert books for pres-schoolers to learn the names of fruits. This, however, is what Natalie wrote:

"A wordless picture book about a grey lady purchasing some strawberries at a market and being spied on and followed by a cloaked creature who has an affinity for strawberries... an affinity so strong that he chases her through towns and forests for her strawberries, dodging danger all in the name of delicious fruit. The artwork is really beautiful and so adventurous that absolutely no words are needed in this story... but I am not even lying when I say that the premise of being chased by a creature (especially one who looks like The Strawberry Snatcher) terrified me well into my teen years. Thanks, mom and dad."

I found a nice essay by Molly Bang describing the creation of this book. She writes, in part: "When the book came out, many of the reviews were pretty bad. I remember one from the New York Times that said that the weird-looking characters and flashy colors were an indication that I was part of the drug culture."

There are also some great reviews on Amazon of this book written by very concerned parents. One mother wrote, "When we read it, he seemed okay, but twenty minutes after lights out, we heard him crying. My husband went in to see what was wrong, and little Tommy said, "Daddy, the strawberry book is scary. Put it in jail."

Wow, I have to find a copy of this book!

Do you have a favorite spooky children's book? Let me know!


Zen Ghosts (2010)

Written and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth
Watercolor and Ink
17-point Monotype Fournier
Scholastic Press

This is the third - and so far, the last - book in Muth's Zen... series. I suppose that makes it a trilogy, but I hope to be wrong. This is by far my favorite entry, and might be a contender for my favorite picture book ever. It combines my new found interest with Zen Buddhism with what is clearly the greatest holiday of all time - Halloween. (For proof of my Halloween-love, please take a moment to read my Tales and Their Tellers column from last year.)

I really feel like he has captured Halloween perfectly, I've never seen it rendered so sensually. The familiar tropes are represented - trick-or-treating, Jack o' Lanterns, costumes - but it does not rely on those tropes in order to tell the story. The story lies elsewhere.

We begin in the bright, midday sunshine, gorgeous, vibrant fall foliage, and the exclamation: "Michael! There's a ghost outside!"

But it's no ghost, it's only Stillwater, standing as a lumbering, silent supernatural apparition.

The children are preparing for the evening's festivities, making costumes and last minute changes. Michael cannot choose between an owl or a pirate, leading Stillwater to propose, "Perhaps you will be an Owl-Pirate."

"There is no such thing!" Karl retorts. "He has to be one thing!"

I swear I've read this story a dozen times now, yet the significance of that line only now came to me, as I sit here writing this.

"He has to be one thing!"

Not so.

And I see now yet another clue to the story's core on the opposing page. It brings me a moment of gratification, as though the entire intent of this blog of mine were worth it, so that I may find these little treasures hidden within Muth's watercolors. As Addy unrolls the long, white fabric, asking, "Do you like my costume?" I can see the blue and purple geometric pattern growing in vibrancy the closer to the edge we get.

They do look like tiny butterflies, do they not? Indeed, two of them seem to magically fly off the fabric and flutter above Stillwater, one blue, one purple.

"After trick-or-treating, meet me by the big stone wall," says Stillwater, bidding them adieu, "And I will take you to the storyteller."

That evening, it is a perfect Halloween night. They sky is a deep blue, autumn leaves are blowing, children cast long shadows. How beautiful Addy looks, kneeling on the old stone with the long fabric of her costume flowing behind her, her blond hair obscuring her face, and I am again reminded of the passing of years within the universe of the story.

Stillwater leads them to his house, holding out spherical, paper lantern to lead the way on such a misty evening. His home, generally so suburban, now takes on the property of a haunted abode, straight from classic Halloween arcana. Inside, he introduces the children to another Giant Panda who looks exactly like Stillwater. In fact, it is Stillwater...Isn't it? The children are confused. The reader of the story is confused. After all, he has to be one thing...

Not so.

This Stillwater-who-is-not-Stillwater sits cross-legged on the floor before burning candles, produces a long, thick brush.

"I am going to draw you a story," he says, and it is with Stillwater's voice with which he speaks.

The story which he tells, Senjo and Her Soul Are Separated, was first written down in the 13th Century by Wu-men Hui-hai in a collection of koans called The Gateless Gate. It is a very, very old story, and Muth does a wonderful job charting the path of its existence - Sensei to Sensei - in a note at the end of Zen Ghosts.

"It's not an abstract, historic event that happened 1,000 years ago," he writes. "It's very much about you and me today."

I won't tell you the story itself - but it is extremely beautiful and eerie and involves ghosts. But which is the ghost? Suffice it to say, when the story is over, only one Stillwater remains, and it is not the Stillwater from the beginning of the tale. There is no explanation given as to this seeming contradiction.

"In Zen Buddhism," Muth writes, "the teacher who gives you a koan is looking to see if you truly have digested the question. And if you have, the answer becomes your own."

For more stories on Zen Buddhism, click here!
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...