Will Cleveland is the co-author, with Mark Alvarez, and Tate Nation is the illustrator of Yo, Sacramento! and Yo, Millard Fillmore!, books for kids about state capitals and presidents. The books are now available in new editions.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for these books?
WC: When my children (who are now all married and have their own children) were little, we often found ourselves in the car traveling to see my wife's sick mother who lived a couple of hours away.
My wife was a very successful, but strict (really strict), middle school English and history teacher. She refused to allow our children to listen to portable tape recorders, insisting instead that we have quality time in the car.
On one of our trips, as we plodded up the highway in stony silence, it occurred to me that it would be fun to memorize all the presidents.
I had read about memory systems in college. When we got to my in-laws, I printed out a list and over the next few weeks while in the car, Anne, the children and I made up the memory tricks to remember the presidents in order. At the time the first President Bush was in office.
The tricks worked so well that when my children’s friends came by the house, I would take them aside and teach them to remember the presidents. Two things happened because of that: (1) my children's friends stopped coming by the house and (2) I thought the tricks might make a good book.
I had known Mark Alvarez, a freelance writer, and David Wilk, our distributor, since college and had gotten to know Tate Nation, our really talented artist. The four of us worked together on developing Yo, Millard Fillmore!.
TN: In the late 1980s, I engaged Will for legal representation in the sale of a printing business that I co-owned. Along the way, we became good friends.
As soon as the sale of my business was finalized, Will told me that he had a project that he'd like to team up on. He presented me with his original concepts for learning the presidents (which needed illustrations to be effective), and soon a tweaked and revised version of Yo, Millard Fillmore! was underway.
Q: Yo, Millard Fillmore! first came out a quarter-century ago--why is there a new edition of these books now, and were there any changes made?
WC: Because of the success of Yo, Millard Fillmore!, we wrote (and illustrated) Yo, Sacramento!, a similar book that teaches kids to remember the state capitals. Whenever there was a change of presidents, we updated Yo, Millard Fillmore!.
As our 25th anniversary approached and the books were still selling well, we decided to color all of the images as a way to sort of brighten up the books.
TN: We've updated Yo, Millard Fillmore! after each election since the original edition was introduced in 1982. To celebrate its 25th anniversary, Will and I teamed up to totally colorize it (and also Yo, Sacramento!), both of which were originally offered as black-&-white line art.
Q: What reactions have you had to these books over the years?
WC: In 2013 we developed Yo, Millard Fillmore! as an ibook. USA Today ranked it as one of the top ten digital books of the year. As of the summer of 2016, we had sold over 250,000 of Yo, Millard Fillmore! and over 125,000 of Yo, Sacramento! We are very pleased with the enthusiastic reviews that we get on Amazon.
TN: Over the years, Will and I have done hundreds of presentations to schools, bookstores, and conferences, teaching the books' mnemonic memory techniques to countless thousands of eager participants. While our main audience is usually 4th and 5th graders, we've also presented to Library Associations, college classes, and teachers' conferences.
It's a real treat that these days, we now often have the opportunity to teach the Yo! books to a new generation: the children of our original audience! Often an adult will approach me to tell me that he/she learned the presidents or capitals as an elementary student, and STILL remember them, thanks to our books! That's very gratifying.
Q: Who do you see as the audience for the books?
WC: The books work for anyone interested in learning the presidents. We find, however, that 10-year-old kids in the 5th grade have the balance of mature intellect and childhood wonderment that makes them the ideal reader.
Q: What are you working on now?
WC: We still find it immensely satisfying to speak to classrooms, teachers' conferences and library association meetings.
Although we flirted with writing a third book on how to remember the books of the Bible (Yo, Leviticus!), we could not come up with a memory trick for Deuteronomy that we thought would get by the censors.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb