Teddies: A Daniel Kraus Interview and Reveal
I see a lot of middle grade books in a given year. I hear about even more, and because my brain is perforated with little holes, only a certain percentage of this information stays for longer than a day. Then someone shows me a plot synopsis like this:
When Buddy, a blue teddy bear, wakes up at the center of a huge dump, he knows something is gravely wrong. he was supposed to be picked up off the shelf of his toy store and taken home in the loving arms of a child. Instead, he is in a forgotten wasteland. Fortunately, Buddy isn’t alone and quickly befriends four other teddy bears — Horace, Sugar, Sunny, and Reginald — who are equally confused.
They all agree on one thing: they need to get back to their store, or else they will never find an owner. So, they embark on a perilous trek across the dump and into the outer world. With ravenous rats, screeching gulls, and the big bad world in front of them, the teddies will have to overcome insurmountable challenges to find their way back home. But they will stop at nothing to fulfill their destiny.
Well. I mean.
I’m only human.
It doesn’t hurt matters that the author is one Daniel Kraus. You may be familiar with his work. After all he was the co-author of The Shape of Water, which was adapted into a film that won Best Picture at the 2018 Academy Awards. Y’know. THAT Daniel Kraus.
So they asked if I’d like to chat with the gent and seeing as how it would let me break out my awesome teddy bear knowledge (more on that in a second) I was all in.
Betsy Bird: My in-box sees any number of odd announcements on a given day but to see an upcoming series described as “Toy Story” meets “Lord of the Flies” . . . that’s a new one on me. So tell me a bit about this new middle grade series of yours.
Daniel Kraus: I’ve had a weird career. But even though I’ve done multiple Adult and YA books, this is my first middle-grade. It didn’t stem from a wish to diversify. I approached TEDDIES the same way I approach anything: I had an idea, I started writing, and the voice worked itself out at a certain pitch.
TOY STORY meets LORD OF THE FLIES isn’t a bad description. What I thought of most while writing, though, was WATERSHIP DOWN. Stephen King raved about it in his book DANSE MACABRE, so when I was in high school, I went to the library and checked out the only copy they had: a large-print edition. And it blew me away. Here was this horrifying, complicated, violent, heartbreaking, inspiring story…and it was about bunnies?
To me, that’s punk rock. TEDDIES is my attempt at hitting that vein — telling a grand, dark, shocking adventure by using the most vulnerable characters possible. In my story, five brand-new teddies wake up in a landfill. They have no idea why they were thrown away, and so set off to figure it out. It does not go well.
BB: Now I don’t want to brag, but having worked with the original Winnie-the-Pooh, formerly owned by Christopher Robin, at NYPL I have picked up a fact or two about teddy bears over the years. And teddy bear enthusiasts do indeed exist. So I gotta ask, did you do any teddy bear research with this book?
DK: I’m a research freak. My stack of research books for my ZEBULON FINCH duology literally nearly hit my ceiling. So, yes, I did do some research. TEDDIES is a very physical story. It’s very much about the teddy body–the fabric, the stuffing, the stitching, the plastic eyes and noses–and what happens to those parts when a teddy journeys into a realistic urban setting. That said, there’s a fantastic element here, and I didn’t want to get caught in a rabbit hole. So I limited the research.
BB: Middle grade publishing is so interesting to watch these days. For example, here in 2019 realism is the name of the game. The bulk of the books getting the starred reviews involve real kids in real situations with real problems. Fantasy, particularly dark fantasy, exists but you have to search a bit for it. Why go there?
DK: I don’t think this way. What’s trending or not has never affected (or infected?) my brain. You don’t come up with an idea like THE SHAPE OF WATER and think, “Oh, people are going to *love* this.” With every story, I want to push readers into situations they’re not expecting. I also want to push myself as an artist. I hate working in comfortable spaces. That’s why I publish all over the map, and part of why I’m excited about the middle-grade space. It’s a whole new kind of challenge.
BB: What, to your mind, is the allure to the idea of toys coming to life? Above and beyond the obvious (kids imbue them with imagination and picture them alive anyway) is there something else at work when we write stories about our creations having minds of their own?
DK: I wonder if we’re working out feelings about life and death. When we play pretend with toys, we’re creating life. That presents a god’s dilemma. We’ve made life — now what do we do with it? Let our creations enjoy picnics and tea parties? Maybe, but just as likely you send them on adventures, and put them into agonizing situations…and maybe even kill them. It’s a way for kids can recognize their impulses, including their dark ones. For the teddies in my story, their creator-type figures — those who made them, the kids who might love them — have split the scene. So what do they do?
BB: Will we be seeing this as a series? Are more in the works? And above and beyond TEDDIES, what are you working on next?
Teddies a three-book series. This is a stupidly busy time for me. In October 2019 I have BLOOD SUGAR, an Adult book with Hard Case Crime. In February 2020, I have BENT HEAVENS, a highly disturbing YA book with Holt about alien abduction. In June 2020, I have an epic coming from Tor that I co-wrote with George A. Romero, who directed NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. It’s just called THE LIVING DEAD, and is pretty much my dream project.
Fall 2020 will bring the first volume of TEDDIES, as well as a comic project that’s not announced yet. Let’s stop there for now, I’m tired.
For those of you curious about the teddy images in this piece, they have have nothing to do with the book officially. Daniel just used them as character inspiration. This one is my personal favorite. It can see into my soul.
One more note: The illustrations in this book will be made by artist Rovina Cai. A word of warning: Should you care to delve deep into her portfolio, be advised that you may not be coming out again anytime soon. Alert your friends and family. Pack a snack. Then dive.
Many thanks to Kelsey Marrujo of Macmillan and Daniel himself for the interview opportunity.
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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