Saturday, March 23, 2024

Q&A with Michelle Markel





Michelle Markel is the author of the new children's picture book biography Tomfoolery!: Randolph Caldecott and the Rambunctious Coming-of-Age of Children's Books. Her other books include Balderdash!. She lives in Los Angeles.


Q: Why did you decide to write a children's picture book biography of artist and illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886), and what do you see as his legacy today?


This is a companion book to Balderdash!- my bio of John Newbery. A hundred years after Newbery had jump-started the children’s literature industry, Randolph revolutionized the art of illustrating picture books.  


He got rid of the Victorian era fuss, clutter and stodginess, and gave the characters room to breathe and move across the page. He introduced visual subplots, and a rhythmic flow between text and art. Picture book illustrators have been using those techniques ever since.


The ALA named a prestigious award after Caldecott to honor his contributions to children’s literature. But that’s only part of the reason why I wrote a book about him. I thought young people would be inspired by his artistic journey.  


I think we all want to succeed by being true to ourselves, by using our own unique gifts. Randolph’s story shows that it’s possible. Unlike other illustrators, he didn’t receive an arts education. It took years to master his elegant, expressive lines, and he lost many months to illness.


But Randolph never let go of who he was, and his personality poured out of his pen.  He kept drawing what he truly loved: action, comedy, animals and nature.  


Q: What do you think Barbara McClintock’s illustrations add to the book? 

A: Her art is the soul-mate to my text. It’s fun, exuberant, and joyful - I couldn’t ask for more. Basically we’re Caldecott fan girls. For our research we both (independently!) visited Harvard’s Houghton Library and held Randolph’s little notebooks and sketches in our hands! 

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book said, “A cacophony of verve and frolic, this is biographical storytelling at its absolute best.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think it’s wonderful, because it means that Barbara and I accomplished our goal- in the eyes of a Kirkus reviewer. Writing a picture book biography is no easy task. After doing heaps of research, one has to decide what the story’s theme will be. Verve and frolic, that’s what Randolph brought to picture book illustration!

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: My editor thought the book should have a humorous, old-timey title, since it’s a companion to Balderdash!


To me, tomfoolery means shenanigans and silliness- and there’s a lot of that in the nursery rhymes Randolph illustrated, and had fun with. Seriously, the dish ran away with the spoon?


In his illustration, Randolph imagined that the dish and spoon are a young couple who were going to run away together - but got caught by the spoon’s parents.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A story about a pioneering 19th century physician. This will be my first “science” biography, and I am learning A LOT. My brain is exploding with new ideas. That’s one of the things I love about writing nonfiction. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Tomfoolery! received the 2024 Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators' Golden Kite Award for Nonfiction Text for Younger Readers.


I am so grateful to SCBWI for recognizing and promoting quality nonfiction for children. Well-told factual stories are every bit as emotional, and inspirational as fiction - fantasy included. The truth is a beautiful thing.


It’s amazing what human beings can achieve, without the help of a fairy godmother. Passion, and perseverance have a magic all their own.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Michelle Markel.

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