One of our favorite writers has her first book out: and this one comes with pictures. Mabel, One and Only is by Margaret Muirhead who long time readers will recognize as a contributor of some great and hilarious poetry as well as an early nonfiction piece. Some of these pieces can be found (or rediscovered) in The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.
When we saw Mabel, One and Only was coming out (and it should be in your local store now), we tracked down Margaret and got her to sit still long enough to answer a few questions. Of course, we very much recommend her book:
We just loved reading your new picture book, Mabel, One and Only. Can you tell us about it?
Mabel is the story of a girl who is the only kid on her block. Usually she can convince her grown-up neighbors into playing a game or two, but one afternoon, she finds they’re all busy. So Mabel and her canine sidekick, Jack, set about to find their own fun.
Mabel is a great, lively kid. Do you have more stories for her planned?
I could write countless stories about Mabel. But this is really a publishing issue—it’s unusual for publishers to contract picture book sequels. You may find a spunky Mabel-like kid under another guise, however.
Did you get to choose the artist who illustrated your book?
No, I didn’t, but I’m delighted that Lynne Avril agreed to illustrate it. She’s fabulous! Her brown-haired Mabel is decidedly not girly-girl—more of an adorable rapscallion. Jack is a mop of a sheep dog. And Lynne’s Brooklyn is a warm palette of pumpkin orange, periwinkle, and olive.
Which other illustrators do you admire?
William Steig, Bob Graham, Amy Schwartz, the Provensens, Barbara Cooney, Donald Saaf, Melissa Sweet, Maira Kalman. When I like an illustration, I just want to climb in and live there.
You write fiction, poetry, and now picture books. Is writing picture books as similar to writing poetry as I imagine the limitations on both might make it?
Yes, in that there is a form (to a certain extent) and that a lot can happen and be felt in few words. I love poems for their associative quality. And lack of plot. I’m not great with plots.
Writing a picture book is more like creating sudden fiction: character, conflict, and resolution compressed within very few words. As I’ve become more accustomed to the form, I’m more used to omission. I leave things out as I write, imagining all the while what the pictures will say. A picture book writer tries to get to the heart of a character, but knows it’s the illustrator who will open and extend the story into a whole world.
Was Mabel, One and Only influenced by your own life? (Or anyone in your family’s?)
Some of Mabel was inspired by an eight-year-old girl whom I befriended when I was in my twenties. She was the only kid in our neighborhood. When I came home from work, she would knock on my door, rollerskate into my house with her enormous dog, raid the change bowl for quarters, and convince me to come out into the sunshine. She taught me how to rollerskate on one foot, which is surprisingly dangerous.
Other details in the book come from my life: the dog who can hold three tennis balls in his mouth at one time, the affinity for climbing into cardboard boxes, the avid collecting of super balls.
Your husband, Peter Reiss, is an artist—any chance you two will collaborate?
I hope so. I think he would love it—as long as I don’t get too bossy.
It was great fun. The group at MH was super smart and thoughtful and prone to spontaneous games of Nerf basketball. I answered phones and did some photocopying and reveled in the books we made. I also learned to copyedit (thank you, Zipporah Collins), which has since come in handy. I know my em-dashes from my en-dashes.
In the context of Mabel, One and Only, what exactly does “zither” mean?
Without meaning to, I invented this word. It does not refer to the stringed instrument of which the Beatles were fond. It is a verb that refers to dithery zigzagging or zesty slithering. It is something you do in tennis sneakers (particularly if your sneakers match your dog’s sneakers).