Fractured fairy tales? How about fractured mythology? Just in time for National Poetry Month, David Elliott gives us a modern take on Theseus and the Minotaur. Contemporary mythology in verse, you ask? Trust me when I say your high school students will love it, just as you’ll love its cucumber-washing, popsicle stick-making author.
This graphic pretty much sums up David Elliott’s latest novel, Bull. Perhaps it’s his love of opera that’s behind his ability to successfully combine verse and drama or maybe that has nothing to do with it and he’s just channeling his inner child’s love of Scrooge McDuck’s “The Golden Fleecing.” Whatever his inspiration, this unique retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur made us want to learn more about the author and we know you do too, so keep reading.
When did you know you wanted to become a children’s book author?
I’m not sure there ever was one of those “aha!” moments that some lucky people seem to have. Before I started writing seriously for kids – and for me it is serious even though a particular book may be funny – I’d worked as a singer in Mexico, a popsicle stick maker in Israel, a cucumber washer in Greece (don’t ask!) as well as an English teacher in Libya, an ESL teacher at Ohio State University, and the list goes on.
In fact, what I really wanted to be – still do, really – is an opera singer. I studied at The New England Conservatory, but started when I was already thirty (too busy before that with all the cucumbers). Still, even if I’d entered earlier, in the end I’m not sure I had the pipes for it. It was during that period that I met my wife – thank God! – and began to figure things out a bit. After our son was born, I began to write for him and that’s how my first book, An Alphabet of Rotten Kids, came into the world (later to be banned in Spokane, Washington!).
It was in high school, though, that I learned how powerful language can be. I wrote a humor column for the high school newspaper. One column in particular I thought hilarious. My friends thought it hilarious. We all thought it hilarious. Hooray! Unfortunately, the teacher I wrote about found it much less hilarious. That ended my career as a budding journalist, but I think it was at that moment that I learned something crucial about the written word. It can make people laugh. It can also make them very angry. In Bull, I tried to fill in the middle years of a boy born with a terrible deformity. But, for me, the book is also about language. Its flexibility. Its playfulness. Its power. I try to make that true for whatever I write, which is why in my work for younger kids I don’t hesitate to use a five- or even six- syllable word. Here’s “The Panda” from In the Wild.
You’re a bamboo bandit.
You’re a piebald dream.
You’re a bear in silk pajamas.
You’re cookies and cream.
You’re the wizard of the mountains.
You’re Nature’s best example
Of bear imagination.
I see that much of your previous work, such as your This Orq series and the beautiful In the Sea, has been aimed at younger children, what made you decide to target an older audience this time and why a book adapted from Greek mythology?
I can’t ever remember making that decision. For better or worse, I’m not a very conscious writer; that is, I almost never initially think, “I’d like to write about that.” Sometimes a phrase comes to me, or, for example, in the case of my next picture book, Baabwa and Wooliam, a name. (I’m excited about that book, by the way, it will be published by Candlewick in the fall of 2017 and is illustrated by the fabulous Melissa Sweet). When that happens, I try to explore what’s beneath that phrase or name, and before I know what’s happening, I’m involved in a narrative of one kind or another. In the case of Bull, it was the prologue. I carried those eleven lines around in my head for years before I was able to know what they were really about. I recognized, of course, that they were referring to the story of the minotaur, but beyond that I had nothing. It was only by being patient, really patient, that I understood it was the beginning of a book for an older audience. Once Poseidon began to speak, I remember thinking, “Uh-oh. Here we go.” But there was nothing for it but to proceed. I, myself, was initially concerned about his profanity, but it wasn’t my job to censor him. Rather, it was to listen to him.
As for the myth itself, I am proud to say that I learned to love the myths through Scrooge McDuck, who was the star of a retelling that was among my favorite comic books when I was a kid: “The Golden Fleecing.” Later, when I read the actual myth of Jason and his Argonauts, I remember thinking, “Hey! They stole that from Scrooge.” When I read the myths today, I can feel that un-adult-erated pleasure of reading Scrooge rekindling.
Was there a special teacher or librarian who inspired you?
I wish I could answer that question with a loud and definitve “yes,” but well, the truth is, not really. I did love my high school freshman English teacher though, Miss Cora Bales. I’ll never forget her reading Shakespeare’s “When Icicles Hang by the Walls” to the class. “When blood is nipped, and ways be foul,/Then nightly sings the staring owl,/To-whoo;/To-whit, to whoo, a merry note,/While greasy Joan doth keel the pot./ And I can still recite “The Raven” because of Miss Bales.
But in the small, Ohio farm town where I grew there was a Carnegie Free Library. I spent a lot of time in that beautiful building, ostensibly doing homework, but in fact roaming the stacks. It was in those stacks that I found a book of essays by the humorist Robert Benchley. “At last,” I can remember thinking, “at last, I have found someone like me in this world.” Thank God for the librarian who let a fifteen-year-old boy discover who he was, sitting on the floor, alone in those stacks. That experience changed my life.
What do you enjoy most about your school visits?
The very best thing about school visits is being around young people, who, by and large, are the most honest segment of the population. I love their lack of filters. It also gives me the opportunity to be completely honest. I’m thinking now of a boy sitting in the fourth row of an auditorium in Defiance, Ohio. (Yes, you read that right, Defiance.) He looked a little hungrier than most of the kids, maybe a little less clean. He raised his hand “Do you ever write from the heart?” he asked me. I was sure I hadn’t heard him correctly; I asked him to repeat. But I had heard him. “You know,” he said, a hint of urgency in his voice. “Not from your head, but from your heart?” And that’s why I love school visits. They keep me humble. They remind me of why I write for young people.
It’s also a huge privilege to witness the heroic job that so many teachers are doing. Last year, I gave a talk to a group of teachers in western Massachusetts. There was a dinner before my presentation, and of the four teachers sitting at my table, two had taken children home with them. If ever I’m around one of those people who say that teachers are overpaid, I’m afraid I’ll have to slug him.
Keeping in mind that we are a magazine for K-12 school librarians, is there anything you would like to add that hasn’t been touched on?
I guess the only thing I’d add is that I know times are tough now for school librarians and that many districts are foolishly cutting back their hours or eliminating their positions altogether. This seems to me not only stupid (sorry) but dangerous. For many kids, that school library may be their only opportunity to be with books and to be with a professional whose job it is to know books, who can put the just right book into a their hands, a book that might even change their lives. The library is the beating heart of the school, and the librarian its caretaker. I can’t think of a more important or honorable job.
To learn more about David Elliott and his books, go to https://www.davidelliottbooks.com/