I am excited to have two-time Grammy Award-winner, storyteller, musician, and writer Mr. Bill Harley with us today. Mr. Harley has won several national awards for his writing, including the Parent’s Choice Award and an award from the American Library Association. Mr. Harley’s latest children’s book is Lost and Found, published by Peachtree.
Lost and Found
1. Your new children’s book, Lost and Found, is based on the items we lose, though not always find. What was the idea that sparked this story?
I’m always interested in places where kids are exploring terrain without supervision, or going to places they don’t usually go, or where they have interactions with adults that are not structured like typical adult/child interactions. Justin’s interaction with Mr. Rumkowsky is out of the bounds of typical experiences for a kid. And there was a period when one of my sons was coming home with stuff he had found in the lost and found box. He was more interested in other people’s stuff than the stuff he lost. Mostly, though, the first draft was one of my writing experiments – self-imposed writing assigbments – where I had to come up with a story in a day. I tinkered with it from there.
- Are any of the characters based on you? Perhaps Justin or, possibly Mr. Rumkowsy?
I think I’m probably pretty much identifying with Justin – a kid just trying to get through childhood as well as he can, and at the mercy of many people around him – a little afraid or uncomfortable with authority and power – he’s getting it from all sides, but finds out it’s not as monolithic as it seems. I would have to think about how I’m Mr. Rumkowsky…
- You have written eight picture books and two middle grade novels, most of which are funny. Which do you enjoy writing the most, picture books or middle grade novels, and how important is humor in your writing?
Humor plays a big part of many of my stories, although some of my books (e.g., Night of the Spadefoot Toads) have a more serious tone. It can sometimes be a weakness to go for the laugh, and that is where my weakness is, I guess. If my main job is to make an eight year old laugh, it’s a pretty good job. And humor and laughter open people up a little bit, so something else can get it inside.
Because I’m interested in story, the novels are a little more interesting to me right now. But frankly, the trend in publishing, where picture books have gotten shorter and shorter in terms of text, causes me problems. As an oral storyteller, I have a lot of stories that are not really novels, but can’t be told in less than 1000 words. I live somewhere between, and over the years I’ve had many editors say they like the story but it doesn’t fit into any format they can use.
Bedtime for Frances would never get published now – too much text. I even wonder about the length of some of Seuss’s work. But because I’m very interested in how story works, I need some more time and space (well, all writers love their own words and feel the same…) – I like it when seeds laid at the beginning bear fruit later, after the reader or listener has forgotten they are there. You can see that in Lost and Found – it’s important to know that Justin’s mother went to the same school, and that she had a similar hat. Then we have to talk about something else for a long while, so the reader kind of forgets that.
- What keeps you writing for children?
I have to eat. Actually, this is not the greatest way to make scads of money. At least, from my experience. But I actually find children genuinely interesting and open to the world – the line between reality and fantasy is pretty porous, so they accept that anything might happen, if the rules are laid out clearly. I’ve spent my life wandering around the geography of childhoold, so it’s my home.
5. For what did you win the two Grammy Awards?
Two of my spoken word recordings for children – Blah Blah Blah, and Yes to Running, which is the audio of a concert I did for Montana Public Television.
- You were quoted as saying you believe that all children should be given a ukulele at birth. What does this mean, and what are the babies to do with the ukulele?
Well, they’re supposed to play it. Music is about the expression of feeling, and community – it opens us up to the world, and makes us more alive. I use the ukulele as a metaphor for exposing children to music because it is kid-sized and, if you can keep it in tune, it is pretty simple to play – there’s immediate gratification. As someone who works a lot with music, I am not so concerned with how well people sing, but that they sing.
- Getting back to Lost and Found, Justin finds all sorts of things in the lost box but his hat. One of those other things is a dangerous looking animal, with sharp teeth, that looks like it wants to bite Justin’s nose right off his face? What animal is this?
That is totally Adam Gustafson’s wacky brain. He says it’s a flying badger, but I’m not sure. It is just the kind of thing I was hoping the illustrator would come up with. To my mind, Adam’s work reinforces the idea of what a good picture book is – the words provide the spark to the illustrations, which deepen and influence the story – and sometimes move the story forward. We’ve had a contest on my web page about what that creature is, and it is stunning what people have come up with (see here http://www.billharley.com/whatisit.htm)
- Justin’s elementary school had lost and found items stacking up for many years. Did the box ever contain a circus animal?
Could be. What did you have in mind? I made some suggestions to Adam (not the flying badger), but it’s quite possible there are things in there that neither Adam nor I are aware of.
- For those aspiring to be a writer, can you tell us about your favorite writing place?
I need a quiet place with no distractions, because I’m very easily distracted. I do most of my writing in my little one room studio/office behind my house. It was originally built as a cottage-industry candy factory. Now, I have one desk where I write, and one other space on the other side of the room for my music – a computer where I record, and where the instruments are hanging.
It would be better, probably, to have a computer that has nothing but my word processing program on it. I usually put on some music, but it has to be instrumental, and it has to be pretty steady in dynamics – Bach works, or small ensemble jazz that’s not too much bebop or too dissonant. What’s more important is that I try to write first thing in the day, before the rest of the world intrudes. Like interviews.!
- Do you have any advice for the kids who read your books?
It depends on what the question is. I guess I write books and tell stories and sing songs because I want them to carry those things – story and reading and music – with them through life. The most interesting people I know are people who read a lot – their minds are always working – and if we can get people hooked on early enough, they’re probably going to lead pretty interesting lives. So, read something, play something.
- Anything you would like to tell the kids about yourself?
I’m not done yet. I have a hard time sitting still. That’s good and bad – depends on what I do with it.
Mr. Harley, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I greatly appreciate it. Have fun on your book tour. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to write a review about your new book, Lost and Found. The review is available HERE!
Lost and Found .Bill Harley .Adam Gustavson .Peachtree Publishing .978-1-56145-628-4 .No. Pages: 32 Ages: 4 to 8 .....................
If you would like to learn more about Mr. Bill Harley, and his career, here are the links.
Activities for grades K to 8: http://www.billharley.com/resources.asp
Illustrator, Adam Gustavson’s website: http://www.adamgustavson.com/
Peachtree’s Fall Releases: http://peachtreepub.blogspot.com/p/fall-2012-frontlist.html