MINA Live: An Interview With Matthew Forsythe
There. Isn’t that lovely? If you’re anything like me, you may have seen Matthew Forsythe’s picture book Pokko and the Drum and become, instantaneously, a Forsythian (not a word but, still, copyright me). His style is entirely unique. It incorporates the subtle humor of, say, a Jon Klassen but with a distinct increase in luminous landscapes and, quite frankly, more expressive facial expressions. When you pick up a Forsythe, you’re instantly engaged in a picture book that taps into classic picture book elements while also retaining its own heady, unique style.
The latest Forsythe creation is Mina, a sweet story about a girl mouse and her ne’er-do-well but well-intentioned papa. Behold, the publisher’s description:
From the creator of the acclaimed and beloved Pokko and the Drum comes an emotionally resonant, “richly imagined” (The Horn Book, starred review) picture book about trust, worry, and loyalty between a father and daughter.
Mina and her father live in a hollowed-out tree stump on the edge of a pond on the edge of a forest. Nothing ever bothers Mina, until one day, her father brings home a suspicious surprise from the woods.
Should Mina trust her father—or listen to her own instincts?
For the record, and I cannot stress this enough, I looked at the cover of this book roughly 40 times before I realized that there was a cat on there.
Here’s what Mr. Forsythe had to say for himself:
Betsy Bird: First and foremost, I appreciate your taking the time to answer my questions. I’m also quite intrigued by MINA. In many ways, it feels like a companion to POKKO AND THE DRUM. Do you see it that way, or does it feel wholly separate to you?
Matthew Forsythe: Yes, I see Mina as filling out the same world that Pokko lives in. I’m planning a third book in the series and the idea is that they are all connected by animals in Pokko’s band. (Mina’s father is the xylophone player in Pokko).
BB: Like POKKO AND THE DRUM, MINA is about a small female forest denizen who is ultimately wiser in some ways than her father. But part of what intrigues me so much about MINA is that rather than slap a message on its end, there’s a beautiful bit of ambiguity to what we should take away from MINA’S tale. The father in this book may be obtuse, but his kind acts ultimately prove his inadvertent salvation. So I suppose my question to you is, do you believe that picture books need to end with some form of moral instruction, or is that rather beside the point?
MF: For what it’s worth, I don’t think picture books or any books should moralize – however, even if I’m wrong – we can probably agree that there are more than enough books that serve this purpose in the medium already. When I see this sort of justice or “moral instruction” in picture books, I don’t really recognize it in my own life or my own childhood. I think there should be books for people and kids who don’t see fairness and justice delivered so neatly in their lives and I want to make books for them. Also, I simply think these sorts of stories are more interesting.
BB: Agreed. Are there any particular influences that you could cite when looking at MINA? I caught just the faintest whiff of Leo Lionni, but that might have just been because of the shape of your mouse’s ears.
MF: Leo Lionni is of course an influence on everything I try to do – so, thank you. Someone made a comparison to Dr. DeSoto – which I hadn’t thought about at all when I was writing, but I definitely loved it when I was a kid so I’m sure it came through. I’m always trying to channel the dark humour of Rohald Dahl and intimate details from someone like Raymond Briggs – which I also loved as a kid.
BB: Ah. Briggs explains a lot, actually. Now, there are little details in the art that I think say so much about the relationship between Mina and her father. For example, when they go to bed I noticed that Mina gets the bed proper while her father is happy enough with a pull-out near to the floor. Did you base their father/daughter relationship on anything in particular?
MF: The father in Mina is a very direct reference to my own father – who was always bringing home bizarre things that sometimes bordered on dangerous. He was a musician and a stand-up comedian and a laboratory chemist and he once actually brought home a mass spectrometer to run air samples in the kitchen. That didn’t end well. Regarding the bed: I grew up in a small council flat in London with my father and grandfather. My grandfather had his own room but my father actually slept on the floor in a sleeping bag beside my bed. So that’s where that came from.
BB: Aww. Just out of curiosity, are you a cat owner yourself? Because you seem to have placed your finger firmly on the pulse of their personalities.
MF: Thank you! I am not a cat owner but a year or two before I started working on Mina, I designed a cat and mouse film for Netflix called Robin Robin. I had to study cats all year. For me, cats are very hard to draw so I felt like I should put my newfound ability to draw cats to work in one of my own stories.
BB: I’m also quite delighted by the role that stick insects play in this book. When you were writing this story, were the stick insects something you knew you had to include from the start, or did they just sort of show up in the course of your writing?
MF: Yes, they just showed up. An earlier version of the book had the father bringing home a whole series of different animals. I liked the insects so they had to stay.
BB: Excellent! That is what I hoped you’d say! Finally, what are you working on next?
MF: I just finished production design on a preschool puppet show for Jim Henson Studios and Apple TV. And now I’m writing the third book in this band animal series.
While I sit over here trying to figure out whether to salivate more over the Jim Henson show or the new picture book, I’d like to thank Matthew Forsythe for taking the time to answer my questions and to Jenny Lu, Nicole Russon, and the folks at Simon & Schuster for allowing me to speak with him in the first place.
Mina is on shelves everywhere TODAY! Go find yourself a bookstore or library and read it up!
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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