Discovered in the Archives: An Interview with Russell Hoban (2010)
When blogs were new and hip and happening, there was a push for everybody to have one. Librarians, publishers, authors, artists, you name it. So in the early part of the 21st century a slew of publisher blogs came into being. Sometimes these came from individual imprints. Sometimes small publishers. Sometimes from the big houses themselves. Over the years I’ve watched them rise and fall with great interest. Scholastic’s On Our Minds blog has enjoyed a unique longevity, as opposed to blogs like, say, the First Second blog or Under the Greenwillow (both of which you’ll find in my sidebar here because I’m bloody awful at updating the darn thing).
The fact that the Greenwillow blog went ker-chunk was brought to my attention recently when I dusted off some of the less traveled crevices of my mind and remembered that in 2010 I actually interviewed legendary children’s author Russell Hoban for their site. It was a genuine once in a lifetime opportunity. Unfortunately, when I tried to find the interview on their blog I was stymied. It didn’t come up! Was it lost to the sands of time? Would I never ever be able to read what went down?
Happily, I’ve been on Gmail for more than 8 years. A quick search of my never emptied in-box revealed the interview. And while I acknowledge that this site is no more permanent than any other blog, let me reprint for you here the piece that came out of our talk way back in the fall of 2010. Please note that many of the references here are out of date.
A librarian that lives in New York City will sometimes have the opportunity to rub shoulders with legends. You might pass Paul O. Zelinsky on the street or hear a tale from the lips of Ashley Bryan. After all, most publishers are located in Manhattan, and most authors and illustrators of works for children tend to pass through this town once in a while.
There are, however, a fair amount of legends that do not live within traveling distance of NYC, nor would they wish to. So when Greenwillow asked if I would be interested in interviewing that most impressive of children’s book expatriates, Russell Hoban, you can believe that I leapt at the chance. Mr. Hoban is one of those living legends that you don’t hear from every day. Best known to American audiences for his Frances books (Bread and Jam with Frances, Bedtime for Frances, etc.) he also went on to write the classic 1967 title The Mouse and His Child, the 1974 holiday title Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas, along with a slew of picture book titles for British children.
I interviewed Mr. Hoban on a depressingly wet and dreary day. Fortunately for him, he was far across the ocean in England (a land not unfamiliar with its own wet and dreary days). He was utterly kind about the fact that I was calling him 15 minutes later than I’d said I would. At the start he spoke with a faint British accent, though this dissipated over the course of the interview, perhaps because it had to contend with my own Midwestern twang.
To begin, I wanted to get a sense of how publishing in America differs from that of England. Certainly here in America Mr. Hoban’s name is synonymous with the classics like the Frances books or Emmet Otter. Yet many of his children’s books were published after he moved to the United Kingdom. So I wondered . . . did he experience any significant differences in tastes and styles when he started publishing in a different country?
“Well what happened was that my writing changed and no difference in tastes or styles were imposed on me.” That said, “I started writing differently. My wife [Gundula Ahl] is German and one Christmas we were at her house in Germany and her mother gave me a marzipan pig.” Published here in America in 1987, The Marzipan Pig is indeed one of the stranger picture books for children out there. Now long out-of-print, it follows the story of a pig made of marzipan that is summarily eaten by a mouse, whereupon a whole host of creatures are affected. It is, in a sense, a picture book both about loving and unrequited love. Referring to the original pig given to him by his mother-in-law, “I’d not seen such a thing before and that was the beginning of that story. It begins, ‘There was nothing to be done for the Marzipan pig. No one had seen him fall and no one knew where he was. He shouted help but no one heard him. Night came and morning and there he still was.’ Now that doesn’t sound the way it did before coming to this country. At that time, reading in this country was more advanced than it was in the U.S. among children. In this country 9-year-olds were reading The Mouse and His Child and this book would have been suitable for younger children. But the change in my writing was my own, it had nothing to do with outside forces. Also, I found myself writing, what can I say, crazier things. Ace Dragon LTD. This was illustrated by Quentin Blake. We were just made for each other.”
If you’ve not heard of Ace Dragon LTD, little wonder. Published entirely in England, the book was never brought to the States. This may have had something to do with the fact that the text includes some particularly British references to wellies and subway stations with names like Dragon East (as opposed to the London subway stop Dagon East).
Of course Mr. Hoban hasn’t restricted himself to the world of children’s literature in all this time. Over the years he has written numerous novels for adults. His last picture book came out in 1997. I asked if he had ever been tempted at any point to return to the world of writing for younger children once again.
“I’m working on a couple things with Quentin right now after all these years,” he responded. Also, “I’ve written what’s categorized as a young adult book which will be published 2012 by Walker Books. The title of the book is Soon Child.” Though young adult, the book will contain illustrations by Alexis Deacon. “For quite a while I’ve been writing adult novels and this Soon Child is a kind of a special one. It’s classified as a young adult book but it’s really for all ages.” The same could probably be said of books like Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child.
He’s also doing more picture books with Quentin Blake. “Two things; One is called Rosie and Her Magic Horse and the other (Quentin does work in hospitals of various kinds and I did a text for one of the hospitals where there are old people who suffer from senile depression) How Tom and Daisy Did It.” I asked if the names “Tom” and “Daisy” had any relation to The Great Gatsby. Not as such. “Her name is Daisy because in the course of the story Tom bought a bicycle built for two and he saw Daisy standing by the side of the road. He says, ‘Is your name Daisy?’ She says, ‘It is now’.”
Of course eventually all thoughts turn back to Frances, that irrepressible little badger with her distinct likes and dislikes. The original books have been reprinted many times over the intervening years since their first publication. I wondered, have any changes been made to the images after all this time? I’d heard something about the colorization of the illustrations, but nothing specific. “I don’t remember the colorization but whatever was done it was with my approval,” said Mr. Hoban. “Right now I’m engaged in adapting the original Frances books to the I Can Read Format for young readers. Four of them are done with two to go. Of course, Bargain for Frances was an I Can Read to begin with.”
Speaking of illustrations, over the past few years there have been multiple efforts made to republish or reillustrate some of Mr. Hoban’s books. I know that The New York Review of Books published a new edition of A Sorely Trying Day last year, while a couple of years ago Scholastic published The Mouse and His Child with illustrations by David Small (and I, for one, am waiting eagerly for a reissue someday of the aforementioned The Marzipan Pig ). Did he have an opinion on the republication vs. the reillustration of his titles? Not particularly, though he admitted that he did prefer cases where the books retained the original illustrations. “For me they seem to go better with the text. Or maybe I’m just attached to the combination as it was originally.” Having interviewed illustrator David Small on a panel at BookFest, I remembered him saying something similar about Hoban’s opinion of his art for The Mouse and His Child.
I was aware of the Frances books a child. They were, in a way, everywhere. However, my heart really belonged to Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas, in large part because of the Jim Henson adaptation (which, if you haven’t seen it, should be on your Netflix Watch Instantly list right this very minute). Generally speaking, was Mr. Hoban pleased with the cinematic adaptations of his work? Surprisingly, yes. The Emmet Otter adaptation was particularly well done. He confessed that he’d written it as a kind of child friendly version of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. “I liked Emmet Otter and I didn’t like The Mouse and His Child.” Here Mr. Hoban was referring to 1977’s unfortunate animated film of the same name. “And they had good voices too. Peter Ustinov. Cloris Leachman.”
I guess that sort of made me realize that for all her popularity Frances has remained relatively commercial free. You will find no Frances television show. No big screen movies or Frances the Badger music videos. But Mr. Hoban mentioned that there was some attempt at animating Frances. “I just don’t know at what point that is.” So be aware, kids. Frances’s time may be nigh.
With a career spanning some fifty plus years, I had to wonder if Mr. Hoban felt that there was a difference for a new children’s author starting out today. It certainly felt that way to him. “It’s more difficult today. Partly with the passage of time and partly because of the recession. So someone starting out today would not get into book publishing today as easily as I did way back then.” He started to reminisce about his first works. “The first book I ever did for Harper was What Does it Do and How Does It Work?” “How was it?” “Variable.” Because of this title, Mr. Hoban had the chance to work with the great children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom. According to her collected letters in Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstom, Hoban was a successful commercial artist before he came to Harper. Nordstrom saw the work he did on drawings of machinery and the result was his first book in 1959.
“Oddly enough she wasn’t with me all the way on The Mouse and His Child.” That didn’t keep her from writing her opinion in the margins, though. “She’d write NGEFY.” Translation? “Not Good Enough For You. My editor was Ferdinand Monjo who has died since. Ferd was an excellent guide for me on that book.” Indeed the book is considered in some circles a bit of a classic. Later Nordstrom would write to Mr. Hoban, “Well, you and we disagreed about much that you wanted to keep in that book, Russ, but we lost out in some of our requests. And maybe you were right and we were wrong. After all it is YOUR book; and I’ve always been interested in seeing you explore and experiment . . .”
Speaking of experiments, anything else new coming up? Just one thing and it’s small. “I have a communication from a little family from Massachusetts. And they are doing a musical stage version of The Twenty-Elephant Restaurant. That’s one of my favorites. Some of my best writing is in that book.” Not that it’s easy to get a copy these days. “I had to get my own copy from Abe Books.”
Special thanks to Mr. Hoban for agreeing to speak with me and to Greenwillow Books for the opportunity to speak firsthand with history.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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