Monday, April 19, 2021

Q&A with Melanie Ellsworth



Photo by Amy Wilton


Melanie Ellsworth is the author of the new children's picture books Clarinet and Trumpet and Hip, Hip...Beret!. She has worked as an ESOL teacher and literary specialist, and she lives in Maine.


Q: What inspired you to write Clarinet and Trumpet? Why did you choose those two instruments as the main characters?


A: Clarinet and Trumpet is based on my own musical journey growing up.


When I started writing picture books, I wondered how I might share that experience and at the same time address what I perceived as a bit of a musical gap in the picture book market. I had also been wanting to write a friendship story. So I combined the two ideas and created a friendship between Clarinet and Trumpet.


I started playing the clarinet when I was in fourth grade, and throughout elementary, middle, and high school, I sat right in front of the trumpet section in band.


Sometimes the trumpets were so loud (particularly in elementary school) that we woodwinds couldn’t hear ourselves at all, but the rivalry was always good-natured. So I thought a story featuring a clarinet and trumpet who were friends that temporarily got out of tune with each other would be fun to write.


For me, and for many people, music summons up strong emotions and memories, and I hope readers can feel that emotion in the book – all those ups and downs. But I didn’t want the book to be too heavy, so I added humor through musical word play and instrument antics.


The book can be a teaching tool for talking about instrument families, but it also has a broader theme around belonging to groups while also being part of a bigger, broader community.


Most of all, I hope Clarinet and Trumpet reminds readers that we need everyone’s voice at the table to create something amazing, just as a band needs all its sections to make music.


Q: You also have another new picture book, Hip, Hip Beret!. How did you come up with the idea for the beret's journey?


A: This book came from playing around with the phrase, “Hip, hip hooray!” and exchanging the “hooray” for various rhyming words. I came up with lots of silly book ideas but eventually settled on “beret” as the rhyming word and concept to focus on.


I think one of my brief brainstorms had to do with a guinea pig who wants a beret and travels far and wide looking for one. Early on in the brainstorming process, though, I realized that the beret itself should do the traveling. I imagined a windy day and the beret being carried from one head to another.


Each repeating “Hip, hip…” phrase needed a different rhyming end word, so that phrase formed the structure of the book, and those rhyming word choices dictated where my beret could travel and who it might meet along its journey.


This book is really all about the joy of playing with words, and I hope it inspires readers to do the same. And maybe to come up with a few more words that rhyme with “hooray!”


Q: What do you think the illustrations (by John Herzog and Morena Forza respectively) add to the books?


A: John Herzog’s illustrations infuse emotion, energy, and humor into Clarinet and Trumpet. The characters seem to be jumping off the page. I can almost hear them tooting their horns and making music! (The built in rainstick-like shaker in the book’s spine helps with that effect, too!)


I imagine it’s a huge challenge to bring objects to life, but John did. And I love how he added things never referenced in the text, like a metronome that skips around on some of the pages. My sister thinks that’s the cutest character in the book!


Morena Forza combined digital and hand-drawn art in a really unique way in Hip, Hip…Beret! Each little cobblestone on the street on the cover is individually drawn.


The book spans a full year, and I love Morena’s use of vivid colors that reflect each season. Her characters are full of joy, and she included a few of her own pets in the illustrations.


When we finally met on Zoom after the book was published, she told me that the other girl in Bella’s birthday scene is based on a photo of Morena when she was a child. With her warm, whimsical art, Morena perfectly matched the playful tone of the text.


Q: What first got you interested in creating children's picture books?


A: Picture books were an instrumental (😊) part of my childhood, and I was lucky to have an ample supply from my library growing up. I brought a big bag of picture books to all my babysitting jobs – I could count on a child connecting with at least one of them and giving me a few quiet, calm moments on the job.


I think the first picture book I actually wrote was when I was traveling in my mid 20s through Kenya, and I was inspired by a particular type of tree in the Kakamega Rainforest. I wrote that book for fun, and a friend traveling with me illustrated it.


Later, I worked at an educational publishing company, then taught ESOL and worked as a literacy specialist, so I think the educational aspect of picture books has always interested me.


But I like how picture books can educate very subtly in a format that’s fun and filled with beautiful art. Themes of kindness, friendship, sharing, cultural exchange, understanding others, etc. can be introduced and shared with children and enjoyed by adults, but as a story, rather than a lesson that must be taught and learned. 


When you come across an old picture book that you loved as a child, you get this almost magical, tingly feeling. Perhaps that comes from a combination of memories: the cuddling while being read to, pouring over the art, and being empowered as a child to “read” the story through the art even before you could understand the letters and words.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have lots of new ideas I’m excited to make into picture books, and I’m revising a few stories. My agent has several picture books on submission as well.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’ll be doing a webinar event on May 5 through Print: A Bookstore (Portland, Maine) with illustrator John Herzog, and we’ll be talking about the making of Clarinet and Trumpet. I hope anyone interested in learning more about creating a picture book will come Zoom with us!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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