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5 Questions With... David Ezra Stein (INTERRUPTING CHICKEN)

by David Ezra Stein
April 12, 2013
David Ezra Stein was born in Brooklyn, NY. His book INTERRUPTING CHICKEN was awarded a 2011 Caldecott Honor, as well as many state awards. Scholastic named it one of the top 100 books of all time for children. David received the Ezra Jack Keats award for LEAVES in 2008, and a Charlotte Zolotow Honor for POUCH! in 2010. His books have been translated into Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai, Spanish, French, and Finnish. He lives in Kew Gardens, NY with his wife and son.

From the minute it came out, your Caldecott Honor-winning INTERRUPTING CHICKEN was embraced by teachers. When you do school visits, what have teachers shared about the difference that book has made in their classroom?

Teachers tell me that the book helps them talk about interruption in the classroom, while also encouraging some kids to interrupt! I am not at all sad about that. When pressed, I take the kids’ point of view.

I think that it’s wonderful to make a child so excited about books and stories that they’re ready to jump out of their seat. Just like the little chicken does.

However, I am also a parent and read lots of books to my own son. I see that point of view as well. When kids interrupt me at a school visit, it is almost always because they are so excited to share their ideas. They want someone to listen to them. And I do my best to hear as many of their ideas as possible.

Last fall, you published BECAUSE AMELIA SMILED, in which the titular act of kindness causes a ripple effect throughout the world. What inspired you to write this story?

Long ago I was hanging out with my sister and discussing the power of our actions on the world. We realized that every time something happens to us, it is a chance to react well. The way we choose to react is a choice to pass along a certain energy in the world. In other words, if something bad happens, say someone cuts us off in traffic, we can choose to pass on the negative energy by grouching about it for the rest of the day. Or, we can rewind ourselves to just before the thing happened, when we were feeling good, and continue on from there.

I was mulling our conversation over afterward, and began to write down the story of Amelia. Her smile radiated out and caused a whole series of good things to happen. I grabbed a pen and jotted it all down. Over the intervening years as I’ve become more of an adult, I constantly catch myself wondering, “Does what I do make a difference in the world?”

In 2011 or so, when I was pitching ideas for a next book to my editor at Candlewick, she chose the story of Amelia. I knew it was time for this book to go forth into the world. We worked very hard to make it flow and be believable yet magical all at the same time. I think it is one of the most important books I’ve made, at least for me.

I want people to know that everything they do makes a difference, one way or another. And that in spite of what we see on the nightly disaster report, there are strong bonds of positive thought and action that hold the world together.

Like many of your works, your latest title, OL’ MAMA SQUIRREL, makes a great read-aloud. How do you ensure that your words, like your colorful illustrations, can make the leap off of the page?

Thank you! I write my stories to be read aloud, since that is what I (and all readers) will have to do with them, over and over. I make my words dramatic, I include refrains that children can say along with the reader. I include words that are funny and delicious to say, like buster, slink, not on my watch!, and plonk! And I always try to have a surprise ending. If it makes me laugh, it will make a kid or a parent laugh.

Many successful children’s book illustrators are noted for their signature style. You, however, have earned acclaim (in part) by not having one. What’s your process for crafting a specific look, or working in a specific medium, for each individual project?

I start with the story. Everything I do with art is to tell the story. I should add that I am also an explorer in my own artistic life. So my visual art is always growing, exploring, traveling. That keeps it joyful for me, and keeps it looking fresh in my books. Joy and freshness leaps off the page.

So when I sit down to do the art for a book, I think about how to tell the story. What needs to be in the pictures? What doesn’t? What kind of light will there be? What does the main character look like? What am I excited about doing in the art? How can I marry that with telling the story? The way to answer all these questions is to start making art. What sparkles on the page? Keep that. What doesn’t work for this project? Toss it. I keep going till it looks like a book.

We love learning about what authors and illustrators did before they came into the world of children’s literature. Yours is a particularly interesting tale. How does one become a puppeteer, anyway?

In my case, I was taking a year off from art school when my cousin suggested I try puppeteering. I had been entertaining her and a bunch of relatives in the living room by making a teddy bear do vaudeville.

Now, I know when to take advice. I took hers. After a long Internet search and lots of emails, I got myself invited to a Puppetry Guild meeting in NYC. On the way back to the bus, I met a fellow who it turned out ran the Swedish cottage Marionette Theater in Central Park. He mentioned they were seeking puppeteers and invited me to audition. I got the job. That led to me working my way up as a puppeteer and also building and painting the puppets themselves. It was a wonderful job.

I still miss the theater and I hope to delve back into that world, this time to tell my own stories.

Come see David Ezra Stein at IRA 2013! He’ll be participating in “Celebrating 75 Years of the Caldecott Medal” on Saturday, April 20, 2013. The panel includes authors Chris Raschka and Marla Frazee. It will be moderated by John Schumacher.

© 2013 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


Putting Books to Work: INTERRUPTING CHICKEN by David Ezra Stein

5 Questions With... Chris Raschka (A BALL FOR DAISY)
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