Susan Hughes is the author of the new children's picture book Maggie McGillicuddy's Eye for Trouble. Her many other books for kids include Earth to Audrey and No Girls Allowed. She lives in Toronto.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Maggie McGillicuddy and her eye for trouble?
A: Believe it or not, the story began with a dog. My neighbors had a very ancient dog, Cody, who, before she died a few years ago, used to tippy-toe tippy-toe on stiff legs down the front steps of her house and then sit on her lawn, keeping an eye out for trouble in our neighborhood. (Now their new dog Rosie has taken on this important role!)
I work from home writing, which -- as you, Deborah, probably agree -- often means spending an inordinate amount of time staring out the front window or frequently wandering out onto one’s own porch.
So over the years, I found myself observing Cody often, and indeed became very fond of her. I came to appreciate that this ever-aging, ever-vigilant dog had the most incredible imagination and nothing made her more happy than to be able to spot trouble almost everywhere she looked!
I began to want to include Cody in a story. And I did. Cody is, of course, Cody Dog in this new picture book. However while Cody’s corporeal form, her dogginess, became stiff-legged Cody Dog, who “moves slowly, slowly down the steps and tippy-toe, tippy-toe to the end of the walk,” (a fine contrast to the explosively energetic Charlie, who moves “ka-powie!” and springs from the steps and barrels down the steps, and then whirls and bounds his way over to Maggie), somehow Cody’s posture and attitude to life, and her super-powerful imagination became transferred to the elderly Maggie McGillicuddy.
Q: What role does imagination play in her story?
A: Maggie McGillicuddy is an elderly woman who lives alone and loves her neighbourhood – and has a wonderful imagination! Maybe she can’t move far from her porch, but that’s okay because she can keep an eye on things from there, specifically, she can keep an eye out for trouble.
And wow does she enjoy spotting trouble: A cat becomes a tiger, a tree root becomes a snake, and a sparrow becomes a hawk, and a tree root becomes a snake. Even though the trouble is imaginary, of course, it gives Maggie the opportunity to protect the helpers in her neighborhood with the clacking of her knitting needles and the smacking of her walking stick.
And, of course imagination – and its power to create excitement and the thrill of pretend danger from the everyday -- is what connects Maggie with her new friend Charlie!
Q: How would you describe the relationship between Maggie McGillicuddy and her new young neighbor, Charlie?
A: Well, a few days go by after Charlie moves in. Charlie had tried to go outside alone once, but his mother had warned him not to: “What if you find trouble – or it finds you?” And then perhaps she’d been too busy settling in to spend much time outside with him. We see him in a window, observing Maggie while she spots the tiger, the hawk, and the snake – and perhaps he is seeing that imaginary trouble as well!
Then Saturday comes, and Charlie, ignoring his mother’s warning, comes ka-powie! out of the house and straight for a colorful ball, which just then rolls onto the road. Knitting on her porch and keeping watch, as always, Maggie sees the real trouble. She leaps to her feet and hollers at Charlie, loudly and insistently, to stop – and he does. Trouble goes sailing on by, and Charlie knows it.
With a grin and a wave, the boy decides to initiate a first visit with his protective neighbor, who clearly knows what to do if real trouble finds him; he grins and whirls and twirls his way over to her.
It turns out that Charlie has just as good an imagination as Maggie – and loves to use his imagination to create trouble just as much as she does! Complementing each other perfectly, the elderly woman and the young boy are clearly going to be the best of friends: Charlie needs a friend who has an eye for all kinds of trouble – and can keep an eye on him; Maggie needs a friend who has a nose for some kinds of trouble and needs a little supervision.
Q: What would you say is the perfect age for this book?
A: I think readers 4 and up will enjoy it. And I hope parents, teachers, and grandparents will like it too!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on finalizing text for a set of three board books coming out in fall 2017 with Annick Press. Each of Bath Time, Nap Time, and Play Time has great close-up photos of animals engaging in the same activities that toddlers do – but in their own special ways!
I’ve also been revising, revising, revising the draft of an informational picture book which is finally coming together. I love feeling that zing! that we writers recognize when our text is starting to sizzle and become energized!
I’m also writing teacher lessons for two different publishers at the moment, as well as continuing to spend time every week doing manuscript critiques and coaching my writer clients.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I do manuscript critiques and developmental editing of picture books, chapter books, MG, YA, nonfiction – you name it! I also provide story coaching. Interested? You can find out more, and read some recent testimonials, on my website. Or please get in touch with me at email@example.com.
I’ve been lucky enough to have over 30 books traditionally published (so far!), including picture books, chapter books, MG, YA, a graphic nonfiction-novel, and lots of children’s nonfiction. I’m an editor of educational materials, and I do commissioned writing, as well. I’m a blog columnist for OpenBook.ca; I write about kid lit and love interviewing other writers and editors about the biz! Check it out here.
Oh, and I have a few other books coming out over the next two years. One is my nonfiction book Up! How Families Around the World Carry their Little Ones, which is being published by Owl Kids in spring 2017. It’s for children ages 2 to 5 and has amazingly colorful cut-paper collage illustrations by Ashley Barron.
And I’m pleased to be signing a new contract shortly for yet another nonfiction picture book. All very exciting!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb