WILL WRITE FOR COOKIES
INSIGHT – INFORMATION – INSPIRATION
Don’t you love to be around happy people? And when they are funny, it is just that much better, right? That’s why I’m dancing for joy that Artie is my guest today! From the first time I connected with him and reviewed one of his picture books, I knew this guy was a keeper. He’s super sweet and smart…and his books are laugh-out-loud hilarious!
He is the author of several picture books, each one loved by parents and children alike. And his website ‘about’ page will have you rolling on the floor. I’ve read every one of his books and have reviewed several of them…they are among my grandson’s favorites.
I promise you are all in for a treat with this interview…so buckle up, you are in for a wild ride!!!
Welcome, Artie! It is a pleasure having you here. I’ll get right down to the questions.
ME: Who were your favorite authors/illustrators when you were a child?
As a lad, I loved all books I could get my grubby paws on that dealt with dinosaurs, monsters, riddles, and baseball. Had there been a book about a riddling Rex right-handed reliever, I would’ve been in book heaven. I was a big fan of John R. Tunis’s baseball books, as well as those of Douglass Wallop (great surname for a slugger), whose The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant was adapted into the classic musical Damn Yankees. And who could resist the equine charms of William Heuman’s The Horse That Played the Outfield? Not me. I also adored Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories and I’ll always remember how the elephant got its trunk, courtesy of a croc on the great gray-green, greasy Limpopo River. (My enjoyment of these fanciful explanatory tales never wavered, even though I knew that they themselves were a crock.)
Another book that made a huge splash with me was A Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer, who happened to be married to Dr. Seuss. It’s a cautionary tale of what can happen to a boy who fails to follow instructions. He overfeeds his little fish, Otto, who grows to leviathan proportions. Otto even outgrows the municipal pool. The pet store owner is called in. Something must be done. He descends into the pool with a boxful of tools. After some suspenseful moments, he emerges with Otto, restored to normal size, ensconced in a fishbowl. P. D. Eastman’s illustrations are perfect. I’m sure this book taught me that untoward things can befall a disobedient boy. As a consequence, I was a good boy, and never overfed our guppies—or pinched and plundered.
But most of all, I loved Dr. Seuss. I launched my literary career with The Butt Book, which I based on his wacky anatomical books—The Foot Book, The Eye Book, The Tooth Book, The Eyetooth Book, etc. I loved these books way back when, and I still do today. In fact, I dedicated my “number two” picture book, Poopendous! The Inside Scoop on Every Type and Use of Poop, to him (“to Dr. Seuss, my meuss”). I think the good doctor would have appreciated that. And I’m sure he would have found the title amusing, too, for no children’s writer coined more words than Dr. Seuss.
His books informed my childhood and taught me the singular pleasures of wordplay. They gave me an appetite for verse and whimsy. And they shaped my personality. I began to collect words, the more colorful and exotic the better, a habit I pursue to this day. I remember how my excitement could not be contained whenever I’d bring home a new Dr. Seuss book from the library, for I knew it would take me to imaginative heights.
Take On Beyond Zebra!, which provided a delicious thrill. After all, don’t dictionaries end at “zebra”? Poopendous! has an early verse:
Everyone poops—yes, it’s true.
From aardvarks to the humped zebu.
This verse pays homage to the groundbreaking work by Taro Gomi Everyone Poops, which, interestingly, was published in England as Everybody Poos. But it also gives props to Dr. Seuss, for “zebu” is, in actuality, on beyond “zebra.” I’m tickled that some young readers have even asked me if I made up the word “zebu.” Isn’t that a stitch?
To my ineffable delight, some reviewers have compared me, favorably, with the maestro. Children’s and Teens’ Book Connection, crowed: “If Dr. Seuss decided to write about bodily functions, he probably would have come up with something as zany as Poopendous!” And The Show Me Librarian has written, “Bennett’s use of rhyme is excellent; his stanzas flow and exude joviality in a manner that few writers since Dr. Seuss have truly mastered. Simply put, these books are a joy.”
ME: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started writing for children?
Hmm. I know now that an author’s work only truly begins once his or her book comes out. When my first “mature” work, The Butt Book, pubbed in January 2010, I thought I could now kick back and relax, waiting for the reviews to pour in and for the many appearance requests to fill up my inbox. So I waited—and waited. But . . . crickets. Or at least katydids. I then came to the rueful realization that, despite my having been assigned a publicist by my publisher, it was incumbent upon me to secure the bulk of my reviews and to fill up my dance card with events. This came as a revelation. No one had ever told me that—that I would be both writer and publicist! So I got busy. And I haven’t let up since. I’ve learned much, of necessity, about how to bring one’s book to the attention of those who might enjoy it. It’s another hat we writers wear, one that sometimes pinches, but at other times fits quite snugly.
I also know now that a busy schedule (I’ve been averaging more than sixty appearances a year), along with a cherished full-time job, leaves scant time for writing. And write we must . . . if only there was a spare moment.
ME: Where do you like to write/draw – inside, outside, a special area in your home, on the computer, in a notebook? And when do you find the time to write?
I do my best writing in our sitting room. But because our Brooklyn apartment, like most, is on the cozy (read “cramped”) side, our sitting room has little standing room—and contains our dining room table. But I also keep a pen and scrap paper with me at all times and am constantly jotting down verses and verse fragments. I even keep a pad on my nightstand to capture any wondrous will-o’-the-wisps from dreamland.
I begin a new book by scribbling in my notebook. (If it’s nonfiction, I try to learn and record as much about the topic as I can.) When I have a sufficiency of raw material, I transfer it to the computer, where I begin to shape my noodlings into verses while developing a story arc. I tweak and tweak some more. Then when I’m all done, I subject it to another round of tweaks. Because I’m a crotchety perfectionist, I agonize over every syllable, so I’m constantly refining. An extra syllable here, an unstressed syllable there. A troche for an iamb—and vice versa. I then print out the manuscript and fine-tune it some more, paying careful attention to how well the verses scan when read aloud. This is a necessity for me, so I eschew slant (sloppy?) rhymes and stick-in-your-craw rhythms. Writing in verse is like making sausage. The reader needn’t see the agony of the versifier, just the tasty finished product. It’s a challenge to write in verse, but it’s a challenge that I welcome. When I get stuck, I take comfort in knowing the solutions are there somewhere. I only have to uncover them.
ME: When during the day (or night) are you most productive? Do you set a schedule for working or do you write/draw when the muse speaks?
Over the years, I’ve morphed into a major morning person. It’s the time of day that I’m at my sharpest and come up with my choicest verses. I’m sure that this topper from Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My! was conceived in the morning, perhaps right after a hearty bean-based breakfast:
Every living person farts:
Nincompoops and those with smarts.
Opera singers, lumberjacks, bell ringers, and quarterbacks.
Bullfighters and acrobats, skywriters and diplomats!
All must fart—it’s nature’s way.
We all “break wind” both night and day.
My day job, which I adore, is executive copy editor, whereby I attempt to put a gloss on the work of other writers, eradicating errors of every stripe. I pursue my own writing on weekends and in snatched snippets of time. I don’t have a daily writing goal, but mostly write when inspiration strikes—and time permits. And when it does, watch out! Verses pour out of me like droppings from a goose. It’s rare, though, that a verse will emerge fully formed. They’re mostly the product of endless revisions.
Curiously, I do some of my best “writing” in the pool. I swim every weekday morning before work and I do believe I’m at my creative peak when I swim. Some of my best rhymes emerge while doing my laps. And if I happen to be stuck on a particular verse (poet’s block?), I frequently find solutions. It’s imperative, though, that I jot them down right after I towel off or they’ll slip back into the pool. Something about the rhythm of swimming seems to bring forth creativity. Perhaps it’s because my mind is a blank slate then, ready for me to compose upon.
ME: Why do you write for children?
I write for kids because I have to. “Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly. I gotta write that verse till I die.” I’ve nourished an itch to write for a long time, and children’s books have proved the perfect vehicle for its expression.
My father worked in construction. He’d come home exhausted by the rigors of his work. But late at night, after everyone was tucked away in bed, he’d take out his composition book and write. And he wrote feverishly. Poems, short stories, novellas would pour from his pen. My dad never had the good fortune in his too-short life to see his work in print. He accumulated a drawerful of rejection slips, which arrived with great regularity. But my dad was undeterred. He kept writing, though, for he had something to say.
I was so proud of his doggedness. And it gave me an early regard for the power of words and the majesty of books. I knew then that I, too, wanted to be a part of this magical world.
Kids inspire me to write—and to keep writing. My traditional storybook, Peter Panda Melts Down!, has a fun, catchy refrain running through it:
“Uh-oh. Here it comes. Here comes that frown.
Peter Panda melts dowwwnnn!”
In my live appearances, I tell youngsters that when Peter Panda melts down, he really melts down, so I solicit their help. I leave off the “dowwwnnn!” element from the chorus, allowing the children to chime in. I love hearing how their “dowwwnnns!” intensify along with Peter’s tantrums, building to a crescendo, until the final, hushed “dowwwnnn!” as Peter goes beddy-bye. To be a part of that impassioned interactive experience encapsulates why I write for kids. Seeing the smiles and hearing the laughter of children lifts my spirits and gives me ample reason to continue writing. And parents also express their appreciation for the books, often leading the laughter. I sometimes have to pause while reading, waiting for the guffaws to die down. At a library slide show in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, a small schoolboy cried out, “This is the best field trip ever!” Having others respond with glee to something you’ve created is a heady experience. And sharing the gift of laughter with youngsters is a blessing that transcends words, even words like “poopendous”!
ME: Artie, do you have any other tips or thoughts you’d like to share with everyone?
I would tell aspiring writers to read as much as they can. It will help them find their own unique voice and give them an appreciation for a well-turned sentence.
Another sage tidbit of advice I once received is “Less is more.” I’ve learned that it’s okay to have only one verse on a page—or one verse on a spread. It’s important not to overwhelm the young reader with a cascade of rhymes. I’ve been told I need to “let my verses breathe” and I see the wisdom in this.
Now, when it comes to getting published, the watchword is “persevere,” especially in the face of rejection. Every writer experiences rejection, some more than others. All the greats had drawers crammed with rejection slips. And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Dr. Seuss’s breakthrough work, was rejected twenty-seven times before Vanguard Press took a chance on an unknown writer. But if you have an original voice and a compelling tale to tell, you’ll eventually find your way. Who knows? You could be the next . . . Artie Bennett!
I think it might be a good idea to go out with The Butt Book, which comes to a stirring finale with this farewell flurry:
So respect your butt and listen, folks.
It must not be the butt of jokes.
Bottoms up! Hip, hip, hooray!
Our useful butts are here to stay.
Don’t undercut your butt, my friend.
Your butt will thank you in . . . The End.
Happy reading—and rhyming!
Artie…you have my humble thanks and a round of applause from everyone for a fantastic interview that finishes out a stellar year of Will Write for Cookies. If anyone missed any of our posts, I’ll list them at the end with links so you can catch up. And if you’d like to connect with Artie and who wouldn’t?), you can find him and information about his books here:
Now, wait just a minute! You didn’t think I was going to leave you all with The Butt Book for an ending, did you?
Oh no…definitely not…because I asked Artie for something sweet and yummy that would be a wonderful holiday dessert. Take it away, Artie:
I’m glad you asked. We think of semolina as the basic ingredient of pasta. But did you know that there’s an extraordinary dessert that is made from this rather ordinary fare? It’s called harissa. We live in Brooklyn, on the border of the sizable Syrian Jewish community. They’ve been in Brooklyn for a few generations now and have retained their time-tested traditions. Their local bakery is chock-a-block with the most mouth-watering of treats, not the least of which is harissa. (Note that harissa is also the name of a North African hot sauce, which must not be added to the mix!) It’s a semolina cake (farina, which is similar—and found in Cream of Wheat—can also be used) topped with sweetened flavored syrup and almonds, cut into squares or diamonds. Each sticky bite is a little bit of heaven. I wish I had some now!
RECIPE FOR HARISSA
- 3 cups semolina
- 3⁄4 cup unsweetened butter, melted
- 3⁄4 cup sugar
- 11⁄2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 cup plain yogurt
- 1⁄2 cup whole blanched almonds (to garnish)
- Mix the semolina, the sugar, and the butter in a large bowl. Use your hands to mix it well.
- Mix the yogurt and the baking soda in a separate bowl.
- Wait a few minutes until the yogurt doubles in size.
- When the yogurt has doubled (or nearly), pour the yogurt mix on top of the semolina mix.
- Use your hands again to mix.
- After you combine the two mixes, press it down on a small jellyroll pan or a 9×13 Pyrex baking dish.
- (The cake mix should not be more than 1 inch thick. If it is, bake the cake in a bigger pan or take out the extra and bake it in a separate pan.)
- Cut a diamond or square design in the cake with a butter knife.
- Place one almond atop each piece.
- Bake at 400 degrees for 30 to 45 minutes until it’s a bronze brown color.
- Pour cold syrup on top while it’s hot so it can absorb all the way through.
FOR THE SYRUP
- Mix all the ingredients for the syrup and place in saucepan on high until it boils.
- Then reduce the heat to medium for 45 minutes to 1 hour until it coats a metal spoon.
Oh my goodness…this is a must-try! I’ll tell you what, everyone. Let me know if you tried this dessert…or if you’ve ever made it. Or tell us what dessert you served over the holidays. We’ll put the comments in Random.org and the winner will get a prize…maybe a cookbook of desserts. The winner will be announced in the first post of the new year.
A big round of applause for our wonderful guest, author Artie Bennett!
And now…here is the link to the winners of Susanna Hill’s 5th Annual Holiday Contest…http://susannahill.blogspot.com/2015/12/the-2015-holiday-contest-winners.html
Congratulations to all who participated…and to the winners and honorable mentions…it was so much fun to see so many names I recognized. WAIT A MINUTE!
That second place winner’s name looks awfully familiar!!!
Oh my gosh…it’s me! Thank you so very much to everyone who voted for my story, The Christmas Seed I am thrilled…I guess I just got my Christmas present. Maybe with a little/lot of work, I can turn that into a fun holiday picture book…what do you all think?
I hope you all have a wonderful weekend…look for a SPECIAL post early next week. 😉 And remember, try not to stress out about the gift-giving part…the adults and children in your life really only need your presence…not your presents.