Thursday, January 26, 2023

Q&A with Ellen Tarlow




Ellen Tarlow is the author of the new children's picture book Becoming Blue. Her other books include the picture book Looking for Smile. She lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write Becoming Blue, and how would you describe the relationship between your characters Red and Blue?


A: Becoming Blue began because my agent (Rubin Pfeffer) suggested I try a book about color. I typically write about animal characters but I was intrigued. I fiddled for a while but couldn’t come up with a storyline I loved.  


Then one day I was reading On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. There is a sequence in which the child narrator, a recent Vietnamese immigrant, starts to copy an American boy he admires.  It ends with the American boy yelling at him from the top of a slide, “Stop following me!” It was a horrifying moment of shame and one that struck me as being very true to the inner lives of (some) children.


It immediately sparked the idea of showing this dynamic with colors, i.e., having one of the colors (Blue) want to BE another color (Red). I wanted the story to center on a shaming scene like the one on the slide in which Blue is told by Red to “Stop Copying Me!” This would give Blue the reason to go off to find himself. Having the story be about colors rather than children allowed for a light touch on a rather intense topic.


Q: What do you think Julien Chung’s illustrations add to the story?


A: Julien did an amazing job of navigating the challenges of this book: i.e., color characters who had to remain themselves but ALSO turn into firetrucks and stop signs and rivers. It was Julien’s idea to make the characters geometric (a circle and a square) and his modernist, graphic sensibility really elevates the look. 

The emotion and charm he squeezes out of a blue square and red circle surprised and delighted me. He also added many fun touches. One is a dog who appears in most of the episodes as a funny, happy-go-lucky counterpoint to Blue’s anxiety. It made me think of Snoopy and Charlie Brown.


Q: The Kirkus review of the book says, in part, “Being oneself is a great message to convey—as is joining forces with friends...” What do you think of that assessment, and what do you hope kids take away from the book?


A: Kids today have so many impossible idealizations coming at them from all angles. It is a problem that has always been there but seems much worse now. I hoped to get across how much better off they would be just being “themselves.” I also wanted to honor the fact that it is not always easy to KNOW who you are… And to show that journey.


Q: How did you first get interested in writing children's books? 


A: It has really been a lifelong passion. I took my first children’s literature class in college (1974!) and wrote (and illustrated) my first picture book then. Since then, I have been involved in children’s books as a teacher, writer, and an editor of early childhood classroom materials. But it’s only been in the last few years that I have had the chance to devote myself more seriously to writing.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Becoming Blue seems to have unlocked an affinity for inanimate objects as characters. At the moment, I have another color manuscript, a manuscript about a pair of common tools and one about shapes. (My agent might be regretting suggesting colors to me!)


In the terms of books that are actually coming out, I have three more picture books signed up with Allyn Johnston at S&S /Beach Lane and one early reader series.  


The next picture book is called The Tiny Thing, about a shy Mole and the tiny thing that helps him come out of himself. That will be illustrated by Lauren Stringer (who did my earlier book, Looking for Smile).


Then I have a book about a tree, mortality, reforestation, and some funny animals. That is being illustrated by Daniel Miyares. Both will come out in 2025.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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