Superheroes are ALL the rage these days. Just ask Marvel and their now ridiculous amount of successful movies. And related toy franchises. And book tie-ins. Superheroes usually win the appeal of children. But let’s not forget that villains can be just as popular, especially to the imagination of children who want to act out emotions they might not be able to express in any other way. This is just one reason why such iconic villains like Darth Vader become so very popular.
Hannah Barnaby is previously known for her children’s novels “Some of the Parts” and “Wonder Show.” Yet just recently she made her book debut with the brilliant picture book “Bad Guy” illustrated by Mike Yamada (of “Big Hero 6” fame). It capitalizes on the opposite of the superhero trend and explores what a young villain-to-be might yearn for.
Hannah joins us today to discuss this newest book, and her first picture book at that. Welcome Hannah!
Me: What draws you to writing picture books?
Hannah: I’ve loved picture books since I was a student in the children’s literature program at Simmons College, and they were some of my favorite projects as an editor at Houghton Mifflin. The alchemy of text and pictures creates such magic and even as I was working on novels for older readers, I was always jotting down picture book ideas in various journals. It wasn’t until I had children and was really immersed in the world of picture books as a reader that I felt ready to turn some of those ideas into manuscripts.
Me: How is that different from writing novels? Do you have different approaches? Is it harder or easier?
Hannah: My picture books and my novels all start with an idea spark, some small thing that grows into a larger story. In some ways, picture books are easier because the spark doesn’t need to become so much more layered; but in other ways, they’re more difficult because there isn’t any room for extraneous material. So I have to stay very focused on the central idea and block out all the other stuff that wants to come in and play. But I love the efficiency of picture book writing, that I can work on a smaller scale and sketch out a complete story in a day or two (versus weeks and months for a novel).
Me: The illustrations by Mike Yamada in this book are wonderful. I particularly love the picture we’re first greeted with (a white cat!). It’s so great! Did you get any say in what the illustrator did with this book? Did you imagine the characters as siblings?
Hannah: Yes, the two kids in the story were always siblings to me — having grown up with two brothers, I have a lot of personal history to draw from! I didn’t have any direct communication with Mike Yamada (which is typically how it works) but I was able to include a few illustrations notes in the manuscript to share information with him about the “staging” of the action, and my editor, Christian Trimmer, and I spoke extensively about how we envisioned the story. So many of the fabulous details, though, were entirely Mike’s invention. Including the cat!
Me: Superheroes are SO popular with kids these days. What gave you the idea of doing a story with a villain?
Hannah: BAD GUY was originally inspired by a rule at my son’s preschool: “There are no bad guys on our playground.” Obviously, this rule makes sense from a safety perspective, but I saw so many kids (boys and girls alike) who were drawn to playing the villain as a way of trying on a different personality. It felt safe for them to do that in a familiar place, with friends, and they were always asking the adults to pretend to be monsters, to chase them, to capture them. I wanted to write a story about a little boy who unapologetically embraces that persona . . . but not without some consequences.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Hannah: This wasn’t so much a writing surprise, but a publishing one: it took a long time for my agent and I to find an editor who was willing to acquire the book because of the word “bad” in the title. Many (MANY!) editors told us that they personally loved the story but they didn’t feel that they could get it past the acquisitions group at their house. And that did surprise me, although I understood — having worked in publishing myself — how difficult it is sometimes for publishers to take chances on books that don’t fit the current trends or the way they see the marketplace. Are there parents who won’t buy BAD GUY because of that word? Probably. And that’s okay. But I’ll tell you that the kids to whom I’ve read the book are instant fans, and there’s nothing better than that.
Me: Wow! That’s quite surprising! I’m glad it did finally get a contract though. Any advice for new picture book writers?
Hannah: Read, read, read. Go the library or the bookstore (one with a great children’s department) and read every new picture book you can find. You don’t have to make your stories sound exactly like anyone else’s — in fact, you shouldn’t! — but you need to know as much as you can about what’s being published now and which companies are publishing what. Do your homework. And then set it all aside and write the best story you possibly can, and find some readers to share it with. (Not just ones who are related to you. They’re not objective.)
Me: Who is your favorite villain? Darth Vader? Voldemort? Count Chocula?
Hannah: Those are all great ones! I have always loved Cruella de Ville from 101 DALMATIANS, and Ursula the Sea Witch from THE LITTLE MERMAID. So stylish, and so very wicked. And they do get their comeuppance in the end…
LOL! Indeed. And I’m not sure who my favorite villain would be, though Ursula is definitely one of my top ten. Possibly even Syndrome from “The Incredibles.” But then again, if it’s a villain you “love to hate” I have to go with Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. She made me want to pull my hair out and spit nails. Even rewatching the movies with her STILL make me want to spit nails, and I remember yelling at the books the first time I read them. DEFINITELY a well crafted villain to maintain that power after so much time has passed. But I digress.
Dear readers, if you are looking for an amazing book that kids will love, check out “Bad Guy” with a villain that will make you cry for a sequel. You can learn more about Hannah at her website. Or follow her on Twitter @hannahrbarnaby. Keep watch for her next upcoming picture book as well. “Garcia and Colette Go Exploring” is released in June. Thank you for stopping by Hannah!