We were very happy to have celebrated children's author Michelle Knudsen as one of the authors on Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read. Her book, Smart Shark, illustrated by Ted Frymark, tells the tale of Mark the shark. One day Mark ate something he found in the water – something small and green and glowing. And it made him very, very smart, much to the consternation of his underwater friends.
Michelle is also the author of the bestselling Library Lion, and her latest is a young adult fantasy novel, The Dragon of Trelian. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Michelle and asking her about smart sharks and library lions.
What is your relationship with libraries both before Library Lion and after its release?
I have a long relationship with libraries. I remember going when I was little and bringing home books and I remember when I was old enough to go and pick out my own books. There was a particular shelf in one of the Staten Island libraries that had all these collections of fairy tales and dragon stories and I just worked my way along the shelf. The idea that you could just go and come home with all these new books every time and then bring them back and get more new books was always very exciting.
I was a library monitor in junior high. I always found my way to the library in any community that I was in. When I was in college I got a job at the library and then when I moved back to Ithaca as an adult the first thing I did was go back to the library and see if I could work there again. There’s just something as a book person – it’s wonderful to be around books and other book people.
One of the reviews of Library Lion called it a love letter to the library, which is perfect. That’s exactly how I’d like people to think of it. Writing the book has only increased my affection for libraries and I’ve gotten to see a lot more, I’ve been invited to visit other libraries. I think you can learn a lot about a community, too, by the way that its library is put together and the people who you meet when you’re in the library. I really could go on and on. I think they’re wonderful.
For Learn to Read, you had lists of specific words you could and could not use. How did this affect the way that you write?
It was very challenging because I’ve written a lot of beginning reader-type books but never with a specific word list. It took me a while to get used to that idea. At first I thought, oh I’ll just write and then I’ll go back and make sure the words are okay, but that doesn’t work out.
On the other hand, it was also inspiring in a way. Smart Shark came from the fact that I was trying to figure out what to write about and I was looking at the patterns of words in the word list and 'smart' and 'shark' were in the same little window and that’s probably not an idea that I would have thought of without the word lists to refer to. And it’s a fun challenge to have to tell the story using only the words that you’re allowed to use. There might be a word that’s perfect in terms of being what you want to say at that moment in the story but you’re not allowed to use it and so you’ve got to find a different way to get the same idea across. It was fun. It was hard, but fun.
Were you happy with the illustrations?
Yes! I loved the illustrations. I LOVED them! I think Farmer Ted did an excellent job. Whenever you write something and someone else does the illustrations you never quite know how you’re going to feel because you see pictures in your head and no one can see what’s in your head, obviously, so they’re always different. But they’re so much better. They added a whole other layer to the story. They just bring it to life in a new way, and they’re so funny.
Were you surprised with how Library Lion was illustrated?
That one’s so interesting because the illustrations are so perfect I can’t imagine having thought of them in any other way. Kevin Hawkes did such a beautiful job. The only thing that I remember at the time was I wasn’t thinking that Miss Merriweather would be as old as she was because I am very conscious of the old lady librarian stereotype, and so part of me didn’t want her to be an old lady for that reason but she’s so perfect. And she’s also a very snappy dresser, which I appreciated. The lion was perfect, too. He really got the story and again added a whole other dimension to it that wasn’t there before. I’ve been very lucky with a lot of my illustrators.
What reading tips would you give to parents?
It’s hard because I’m not a parent and so my experience of children’s books is a different one. Obviously I read a lot of them and I write for children, but a lot of it is specific to the child. I would say the very best thing that parents can do is read to their kids and read in front of their kids. That was very important to me growing up, seeing my parents reading and wanting to be able to read the kinds of books that they were reading, and seeing it as an enjoyable activity, not a chore, not something you did because it was good for you but something you did for fun. I also think it’s great to let kids participate in the book selecting process.
How about reading tips for kids?
I think to be patient, especially for younger children. I remember when I couldn’t read and how frustrating that was. When I was learning to read, it was very difficult. It’s so easy to get frustrated – if you want to read a book that’s beyond your reading level and you can’t do it. I think it’s really important to just be patient with yourself during that whole process. And for kids who are already confident in reading I think it’s important to read a lot of different kinds of books – you may be interested in one kind of story but there’s so much out there. The more you read, the better.
Do you have any picture books you’d recommend?
Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr. It’s an oldie. It was my first favorite picture book from when I was younger. They rereleased it several years ago in an anniversary edition. There are a lot of Mog stories but I am mostly partial to the original story of Mog, a forgetful cat, and her adventures. She’s so cat-like and it’s a small story but you feel so much for Mog.
Something by Leo Lionni, I can’t think of which one. It’s very hard to pick.
All right, I’m going to pick one that nobody ever picks which is T Is for Terrible by Peter McCarty, Peter McCarty of the Hondo and Fabian books, which are wonderful. This one’s about a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It’s sort of a small story but his art is amazing. It’s a self-reflective “why am I so terrible, would I be so terrible if I were pink?” There are pictures of him with all the other animals running away from him. And then at the end he sort of embraces “well, you know, I’m Tyrannosaurus Rex and I’m terrible” and he’s going to eat all of the other dinosaurs. It’s very clear in the art. It’s a weird book. I probably shouldn’t say that – weird in the most perfect way. I came across it in the store one day and fell in love with it and bought it and recommend it to people. It’s different. It’s a different approach.
For more on Michelle's new young adult novel, The Dragon of Trelian, see the rest of my interview at Media Macaroni.