Monday, October 31, 2016

Interview with Leonard S. Marcus, Book Review Contributor to New York Times & Author

1.      As someone who has contributed book reviews to The New York Times over portions of the past three decades, what is it that you look for when reviewing a book? I write about children's books and my favorite genre is the picture book because it's a bilingual medium: storytelling in pictures and words. I look for a picture book to merge all its elements into a complete and satisfying world in 32 pages. I look for words to be put to new use, as Margaret Wise Brown was so inspired at doing--and so few other writers for the very young ever are. And I look for illustrations that bring something more to the story told in the words and that establish a strong emotional connection with the reader. Because the best books for children have something to say to everyone, I look to be stirred and entertained myself, not just to see how some hypothetical child might be induced to react that way.

2.      What is it that you love so much about books that you have dedicated your life to them? Swimmers feel at home in water. I feel at home in words and pictures. I had a big vocabulary as a small child--and a hard time learning how to read. One day my remedial reading teacher asked me to write her a poem, and because I had written it myself I had no trouble reading it to her the following week. From then on, writing and reading have felt as closely linked to me as breathing out and breathing in. And books have seemed both a way out of myself and a special way in.

3.      What can be done to bring back more print book review space in magazines and newspapers? It may be that this is a matter for the great foundations--Ford, Carnegie, Gates--to think about underwriting. A democratic society cannot function without a vigorous press and a literate population that cares about books and the ideas found in books. Frederick Melcher, editor of Publishers' Weekly for several decades during the last century, was a major supporter of the children's book industry because he understood that literacy skills and a love of reading are best cultivated from the first years of life. (To put his money where his mouth was, Melcher single-handedly created both the Newbery and Caldecott Medals.) If the advertising model no longer works for print media, then maybe nonpartisan foundations need to fill the breech in the interest of preserving democratic values.

4.      What advice would you have for a struggling writer? Most writers face two kinds of struggle: the creative struggle and the financial one. I would say of the art form that writing has to be a struggle, and that that dis-ease is something that you have to learn to live with and even to accept. As for the financial struggle, there is no telling how that might go. Some talented writers meet with early success while other, equally talented ones labor at the margins all their lives. All you can do is love your work and, as E. B. White said, "be prepared to be lucky."

5.      You have a new book out. Please tell us about it. Comics Confidential (Candlewick Press) is a book of Q-&A interviews with 13 contemporary graphic novelists writing and drawing for children and teens. Among those I spoke with are Gene Luen Yang, Sara Varon, Hope Larson, Kazu Kibuishi, Harry Bliss, and Mark Siegel. Each artist also created an original one- or two-page comic for my book. So, Comics Confidential is an introduction to several of the most creative spirits in this fast-growing genre, and it's also a showcase for their work. I fell in love with the graphic novel genre several years ago and now read books in this vein every chance I get. I enjoy the hybrid nature of the storytelling that goes on in their pages: the cross between literature and film and I guess you could say hieroglyphics. They're lean and mean storytelling, and I've always been attracted to the most distilled forms of communication: the pared-down, plain-spoken prose of E.B. White and poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and writers for children like Brown and Beverly Cleary. Graphic novels have proven to be a gateway to literacy for reluctant readers and they've become a lingua franca for an international community of young readers. All very exciting to me.

6.      What inspired you to write it? I wanted to have a chance to get to know the graphic novelists' community better. It really is a community, a band of devoted outliers linked by friendship, mentorship, online art sharing, guerrilla publishing efforts, convention encounters, and increasingly by a sense of having reached a readership that is as passionate about what they are doing as they are.

7.      How does it compare to some of your prior works? I have published a number of interview books. The Wand in the Word (Candlewick) gave me the opportunity to dip into a genre I felt no special affinity for: fantasy fiction. Harry Potter had come along a few years earlier and I wanted to understand why so many readers felt drawn to stories of that kind. I spoke with Lloyd Alexander, Ursula K. Le Guin, Madeleine L'Engle, Susan Cooper, Philip Pullman, and Terry Pratchett, among others--an amazing group. I was struck by how often they had felt inspired to write fantasy by their experiences of war. It turned out that for them writing fantasy was not an escape from reality but rather a way of speaking about unspeakable realities. For a history buff like me, that was quite a revelation. For my interview book Show Me a Story! (Candlewick) my goal was to talk with some of the picture book makers whose work I already loved and revered: Maurice Sendak, William Steig, James Marshall, Helen Oxenbury, and more than a dozen others. For that book I was starting from a place of intense interest: the challenge was to learn more about the making of familiar classics, and to look for the thread the connected the artists' life stories to the stories they chose to tell.  Deep down, I have always been a biographer. My biography Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon (Harper Perennial), which will be celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2017, was my introduction to the entire field, and to the question of how it is that some few special adults manage to maintain contact with their child selves and create real art and literature that invites all of us to reflect on the essentials of our lives.

8.      Leonard, where do you see book publishing heading in the near and distant future?
The picture book will continue in print form, in part because young children are tactile learners and in part because we all like to be in the presence of beautiful and special things. For this reason, picture books are already becoming more like artists' books and even some adult fiction is being published with illustrations, as in Victorian times! Most series fiction, on the other hand, and other kinds of books that are read once and forgotten, will comfortably migrate to digital form, along with most reference books. But not the kinds of books we most care about. Teen girl fans of the Twilight series have wanted to own the books in hardback. Apparently we humans prefer our touchstones in tangible form. Meanwhile, exciting new technologies will keep coming along and mixing and merging in unpredictable ways. Great. But none of that will matter unless the people involved remember that the value of a new technology is the extent to which it serves the storyteller.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2016 ©.
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