We’ve been fans of Holly Kowitt for longer than any of us care to remember. And now, our nine-year-old is a fan. And so it goes. When we heard the title of Holly’s new book, we howled, we roared, we had to have it! The Principle’s Underwear Is Missing! What more do you need in a kids’ book? Since she’s one of the funniest, most creative, and most successful writers we know, we thought we’d pick her brain on books, writing, principals, and yes, underwear.
The Book Doctors: Why in heaven’s name did you decide to become a writer? And having made that decision, why did you decide to write books for kids?
Holly Kowitt: I first became a writer to get illustration work! My cartoon-like drawing style made me a tough match for most children’s books (this was pre-Wimpy Kid) so I had to create my own projects. Which turned out to be a good thing.
Part of ending up in children’s books was random– my first entry-level job just happened to be at Scholastic. Being there naturally made me focus on kids.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books when you were growing up, and why?
HK: Harriet the Spy was my all-time favorite. The characters were so alive to me—so real and quirky—and, like Harriet, I wanted to be a writer. I also loved Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen, a low-concept, timeless coming-of-age story with the best first line ever: “Today I’m going to meet a boy…”
TBD: What books are you reading currently, and what books have you really enjoyed lately?
HK: Should be reading: Evicted by Matthew Desmond
Secretly reading: I Represent Sean Rosen, a middle grade novel by Jeff Baron.
Recently enjoyed: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett and The Daily Show: An Oral History.
TBD: As an illustrator as well as a writer, how do you get these two parts of your brain to cooperate with each other? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to wearing both hats simultaneously?
HK: The cartoons give me an extra way to hook reluctant readers, and add a loose, fun energy. Plus, they’re a blast to draw. The disadvantage is sometimes the text gets robbed to let the illustrations shine. It’s hard to cut a good joke, even when you realize it works better as a picture.
TBD: I just did a Google search of your name and the word “underwear,” and I got tons of hits. Did you ever think your life as a kids’ book author would lead you down this dark path?
HK: Ha ha! Children’s Book Rule #8: Use the word “underwear” whenever possible.
TBD: The Principal’s Underwear Is Missing: That may be the greatest title I’ve ever heard. How did you come up with it? And what was the inspiration for the story? Have you ever had underwear go missing? Have you ever been involved with principal’s underwear?
HK: I tried to invent the most catastrophic scenario possible for my heroines—and I think I found it. My approach to a story is always: what’s the biggest problem I could give this character? No, it’s not torn from my own life!
TBD: How do you capture the voice of the kids so well?
HK: Obvi it’s, like, crazy-hard. Some combination of subway eavesdropping, The Urban Dictionary website, profiles of twelve-year old YouTube stars, Seventeen Magazine, and Shop Jeen on Instagram gets me in the ballpark.
TBD: What was your inspiration for the story?
HK: I got the idea from Jeeves, the P.G. Wodehouse series about a rich, dimwitted young man and his very smart butler. I thought it would be fun to set the story in middle school, where a ditzy, super-popular 8th grader teams up with a 6th grade nobody. The Queen Bee has a habit of getting herself into trouble, and it’s up to her brilliant younger friend to get her out.
TBD: What’s this story about?
HK: Becca, a bookish 6th grader, accidentally zonks the school’s most glamorous 8th grader with a volleyball. To make it up to her, Becca tries to do Selfie a favor. But she accidentally grabs the wrong shopping bag—one containing a very personal item. Even that wouldn’t be so bad, if Selfie didn’t immediately lose it.
It’s the story of a friendship that holds constant surprises. It’s about exploring an off-limits older world, and finding out how it’s better (and worse) than your own. It’s about challenging the unspoken rules of middle school, and doing what’s right. It’s about losing the principal’s underwear.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers and illustrators?
HK: Billy Crystal’s ex-manager once told him to “leave a tip” with his stand-up act—to go deeper and more personal. After I finish a chapter, I go back and try to squeeze in an extra ten percent to make it funnier, weirder, realer. So my advice is to always give your work that extra push. You won’t be sorry.
Holly Kowitt has written more than fifty books for younger readers, including the Loser List series. She lives in New York City, where she enjoys cycling, flea markets, and West Coast swing dancing. Find her online at kowittbooks.com.
We’ve been fans of Todd Colby for a long time. He’s one of the most creative people we know. He’s always making something: art, poetry, mayhem. So when we saw that his new book, Time for History, is out, we picked his fertile brain.
The Book Doctors: Why the heck did you decide to become an artist, of all things?
Todd Colby: The alternative is just, well, boring. Why not live in a state that allows me to pay attention to the world a little closer and then celebrate or mourn the delicious and repulsive state we’re all in?
TBD: For as long as I can remember, it seems people have been talking about the demise of art. And yet, we seem to be in a moment right now where poetry is flourishing. Why do you think that is?
TC: When the going gets tough, like right now, people need a lot more than the latest news cycle whopper to inspire themselves, at least the people I like to be around. They need some depth, something that lasts, or makes them laugh or cry or recognize their own lives in a new light. Movies can do that, music certainly, but poetry has that special distillation of language, rhythm, and meaning that is reassuring and makes me more mindful when it’s really working right.
TBD: How has your career as a poet influenced your career as a visual artist?
TC: They’ve always worked hand in hand for me. In fact, I feel little distinction between the two and shift from being a poet to a visual artist with great ease. I mean both arteries of expression come from the same “Todd,” and that goes for my musical excursions with my old band, Drunken Boat. At the same time, different things that I need to express require different modes. It’s really nice to have options. I feel lucky that way. I will say that when I’m painting or making any kind of art, time moves in very odd chunks. Hours will go by and suddenly I’ll realize it’s dark out or that I haven’t peed for a very long time. That sort of concentration in almost any form is just beautiful.
TBD: What was the inspiration for your new book?
TC: I was doing an artist’s residency on Governors Island provided by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council during the winter and spring of 2015. A friend had given me a huge stack of antique linen postcards as a gift. I brought them with me to the island thinking I could do something with them. One day while strolling around Governors Island I thought, “There are no monuments to poets here!” So, I began altering the postcards by writing captions in oil markers over them. I made a lot of postcard monuments to Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, James Schuyler, James Baldwin, Emily Dickinson and many more. I still feel compelled to make them. It is enormously satisfying to rename monuments that celebrate poets and writers I love.
TBD: How would you describe the art you’re doing in this book?
TC: Time for History is an expansion of the themes I explored on Governors Island. There is some political and social commentary that comes through in a few of the pieces that I made after Trump was elected. And oddly, there’s a narrative that emerges as one goes through the book in sequence.
TBD: How did you go about getting this particular book published?
TC: My dear old friend and frequent collaborator, the artist Marianne Vitale approached me with the idea of putting a selection of the hundreds of postcards I’ve made into a book. We’ve done collaborative books together over the years, so she knew what I was capable of, believed in me and the project and helped get the whole thing moving along. She introduced me to a book designer she works with, Nicolas Borel. He designs with a very keen eye and understanding of a book as object and then he subverts that expectation and expands the notion of what a book is, and what it can be. He was a joy to work with.
TBD: Who are some of your favorite artists, and why?
TC: I love Joe Brainard and George Schneeman. They both lived in NYC, and had close ties to the Poetry Project (where I also serve on the board of directors) and they both collaborated with a number of poets I respect and admire, like Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, John Ashbery, Bill Berkson, and so many more. I also love the painters Amy Sillman. Jack Whitten, Louise Fishman, and Sue Williams; all of them are very different from one another, but they are all fierce, agitated, funny, precise, and driven. All of these artists occupy distinct thrones in the palace of my artistic loves.
TBD: Do you think working in a bookstore has influenced you as someone who does art and puts it into a book?
TC: Yes. As the manager and programmer here at 192 Books, I have been able to meet a wide variety of incredibly talented and creative people. People who I’ve admired so greatly over the years come into the store and talk about their art and their lives. Interacting with them, asking them questions, and getting to know them has been a real life changer for me.
TBD: Do you make something every day?
TC: I do. I try to make or write something a few times a day, even while I’m at work.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for artists?
TC: Keep doing it. It’s important that whatever you want to do gets done. Don’t fall into line. Don’t do what you think other people want you to do because that is just a giant bummer for you and everyone else.
Todd Colby is the author of six books of poetry, most recently of Splash State (The Song Cave, 2014) and Flushing Meadows (Scary Topiary Press, 2012). He was the editor of the poetry anthology Heights of the Marvelous: A New York Anthology (St. Martin’s Press, 2001) and serves on the board of the Poetry Project. He was the lead singer for the critically acclaimed band Drunken Boat.
Thank you to Kat Lieu for inviting us to her blog, Phil and Mama. You can read the interview “Working Parents Rock! # 1: The Book Doctors!” on Phil and Mama. Our interview is below.
Interview with David Henry Sterry and Arielle Eckstut
Almost ten years ago, I was in grad school and I met David through Craigslist. I applied to became his intern and helped worked on his website. In return, he read my draft manuscripts and became my writing mentor. Thanks to David, the world refers to me as Kat now instead of Kathleen. Kat Lieu just has a better ring than Kathleen Lieu, David advised. I also landed an opportunity to create online games for Little Miss Matched, a company founded by Arielle, David’s wife. I met their daughter Olive when she was just a little baby, and I can’t believe that she’s eight now! Time really flies. It was such a treat to interview this dynamic duo of working parents, and to catch up with a mentor. The first word that comes to my mind is “goals” after learning about what they’ve accomplished through the years and continue to accomplish. I know you’ll enjoy this fun interview as much as I did! – Mama Kat
Q. Tell us a little about yourselves.
A: Arielle is a city girl, she grew up in New Yawk New Yawk, as an only child surrounded by millions and millions of people. She was (and is) an avid reader, very precocious, and went to an amazing school called Bank Street, where she learned about reading, writing, arithmetic, and being an entrepreneur. This would lead her to become the author of nine books, a literary agent, and start a business called Little Miss Matched, which began by selling socks in packs of threes that don’t match. That company blew up to the point where they have stores all the way from Disneyland to 5th Avenue in New York City, back where Arielle was born. Her favorite writer and all-time hero is Jane Austen.
David is the son of immigrants, and has lived all over the country. He never went to the same school for two years in a row until he went to college. He spent several early years in Hueytown, Alabama, when that state was ranked 50th in the nation and education, and they still whacked you on the knuckles with a metal ruler when you acted too sassy. His mother was an avid reader and an amazing educator. David was obsessed with baseball as a kid, and he always loved to write. He went on to become an avid soccer player, but was injured terribly just as he was offered a contract to play professionally. He then became a stand-up comedian, and an actor, who performed in everything from industrial training movies to plays that nobody came to, all the way to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air with Will Smith. While in Hollywood, he became a screenwriter, and eventually got a three picture deal with Disney, which was promptly terminated after the first screenplay was rudely rejected. His hypnotherapist at the time (and it is mandatory to have a hypnotherapist if you live in Hollywood), advised him to start writing about his life. This led him to finding an agent, who helped him not write the book he was writing, but write the book he was supposed to write. That book sold for six figures in under two hours when it was put into the marketplace. This led David to become the author of 16 books. That agent was Arielle Eckstut, who is now his beloved wife, and mother of his child.
Speaking of which, Olive is eight years old and, like her parents, she loves to read. One of her heroes is Raina Telgemeier, the splendid middle-grade graphic novelist. Olive adores the Harry Potter books, and has recently been reading books about Gabby Douglas, Hillary Clinton and Babe Ruth. She just loves to watch reality cooking shows. She also enjoys gymnastics, baking, and hanging out with her awesome BFFs. Olive travels all over the country with her parents, and has now been to 33 States. Her favorites are Austin, Texas, and Hollywood. She is absolutely adamant that she does not want to be an author when she grows up. She’s been to the circus too many times, and seen how scary the clowns look like backstage without their makeup on. She wants to be a teacher, an Olympic gymnast, a baker who runs a restaurant, a photographer, or perhaps an agility trainer for dogs. Speaking of which, she also loves her dog Moe, who is a very loving beast, and has lots of problems.
Together, Arielle and David formed a company called The Book Doctors, after they wrote a book called “The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.” They travel all over the country, helping writers get successfully published, with Olive, and have presented everywhere from rural Alaska to Miami Beach to Brooklyn to Deadwood.
Q: What’s a typical day like for you? What about a typical week?
A: We are either on the road, in which case we are going to airports, checking into flights, going to hotels, doing workshops, taking in the local sights, and swimming wherever we go. When we were in South Dakota, a donkey practically climbed into our car to eat the apple that we were offering. In Alaska we saw wild bears, eagles, and even a whale.
The three of us love to eat. Whenever we’re on the road, we make sure to find amazing restaurants. We have eaten moose in Alaska, steak in Omaha, paella in Miami Beach, lobster in Rhode Island, and barbecue in Kansas City. When we’re not on the road, we are writing our own books, consulting with organizations like the Blue Man Group, doing consultations on the phone with authors, playing softball, riding our tandem bicycle, watching movies, knitting, baking, cooking, and/or hanging out with each other. We really like hanging out with each other. 🙂 And of course Olive is in school. She is extremely lucky to go to a great elementary school called Hillside, and she hopes to be in their world class drum squad called Drums of Thunder.
Q: Where do you vacation? Do you recommend it for parents with smaller children?
A: We are of the profound belief that people need to vacation whenever humanly possible. While it’s certainly great for parents to get away by themselves, we take Olive with us everywhere. Part of our job, as we said, takes us to some amazing locations, and we always make time to mix vacation with vocation, and fun with work. Olive’s grandparents have a place up in Rhode Island that we go to every summer; there are great beaches, amazing food, and a great old time carousel. It’s fantastic. We also love going down to the Jersey Shore, and we loved going to Hawaii!
Q: Where do you draw your inspiration from?
A: Mostly from everyday life and our crazy imaginations. We see things on the news, we see things at schools, and we are inspired by what we read especially. In this household, people are always turning funny incidents in life into story ideas.
parenting and working just fit…
Q: What’s one piece of advice that really helped you when you were new parents? How about now?
A: We had an amazing woman named Ivorine who helped us when Olive was a baby. Olive did not cry that much, but one day when I (David) was with her, I just couldn’t get her to stop crying. So the next day I asked Ivorine what I should do when our baby was crying, and why Olive kept crying. She looked at me very patiently, like I was a slightly dull child, and said, “Babies cry.” Those two words changed our entire life. As for the feeding, watering, grooming and educating of an eight-year-old, we really try to make sure she knows she can ask us any questions, and that she can come to us if she’s having trouble with anything. We’re also very vigilant about the computer and the Internet. We try to make sure she eats great food, gets lots of rest and sleep, and knows that she is very loved. We try to teach her daily about empathy, caring about other people, trying to see things from another person’s point of view. And of course we tried to instill a sense of discipline and hard work, which is not always so easy in the entitled bubble which we Americans create as a culture for our kids.
Q: How do you two achieve work-life balance?
A: It’s actually not very easy in certain ways when your office is your home. Of course it’s fantastic to have a 30-second commute. But it’s also kind of relentless, because everywhere you look around your house is a reminder of the work that needs to be done. But we really try to focus on small things like having dinner together every night, having a big Sunday dinner with the grandparents, riding our bikes or doing something outside when it’s nice, and doing fun things together that we all love.
Q: How do you define success?
A: We define success as finding something you love to do, something you’re absolutely passionate about, and doing it, hopefully on a daily basis. If you can actually find a way to make money doing that, as we have done, all the better. In fact the first iteration of our book about publishing was called, Putting Your Passion into Print, because we are so dedicated to the idea of spending a life doing things one is passionate about.
Thank you again, Kat!
Kat Lieu is a millennial mama, doctor of physical therapy, certified lymphedema therapist, professor, indie author, and blogger from NYC. Phil is her happy little toddler who loves to play, joke around, and shower her family with love. Her blog, Phil and Mama, provides tips, hacks, free printables, advice, and resources for busy, new (and experienced) parents who work, and who seek to fit life and work into a harmonious balance.