A friend recommended the new picture book, LEAPING LEMMINGS to me last fall and I found the author’s humor so to my liking that I decided I wanted to combine an interview with the author, John Briggs, with my usual perfect picture book Friday review.
[JM] Where are you from/have you lived, and how has that influenced your writing?
[JB] I was born in suburban Philadelphia and raised in a tiny, remote town in the Pocono Mountains before returning to Philly to go to college. I now live in a village in upstate New York that’s a two-minute drive from a mid-size city. I think the biggest effect all this bouncing back and forth between small towns and big cities had on my writing is that my main characters always avoid being pinned down to a certain lifestyle, or mindset, or way of doing things. They always keep their options open. Even the main character in LEAPING LEMMINGS, who already stands out from his friends, leaves them just to see what’s out there in the world.
[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an author?
[JB] I wrote my first story in third grade. It was a Peanuts story, and my mother told me they weren’t my characters and that was plagiarism, so it’s been nothing but original stories ever since. I kept writing all the way through high school and college, dabbling with short stories and screenplays, but by my twenties, in need of money for my writing, I started working in newspapers. That included three years as a syndicated children’s TV critic. That’s right—I was paid to watch kid’s TV. Anyway, after that ended, I freelanced for a number of media outlets, while also working as a freelance joke writer, landing bits on TV and radio and other places. When my son was about three, I began telling him stories, and sticking with what my mother told me all those years ago, they were original. It took a couple of years before I hit on one that was solid, and I thought, “Why not?” I began studying kidlit, particularly picture books, which eventually led me to LEAPING LEMMINGS and publication.
[JM] Do you have a favorite social media platform, and if so, why?
[JB] As much as I hate to say it… Facebook. It allows for longer posts, and as a writer, I just don’t want to get tied down to 140 characters or the need for a snapshot. It’s also so multigenerational. Everybody from my teenage son to his great-grandparents are on it, so if you’re trying to reach an audience for children’s books, you can find young readers, parents, grandparents, and plenty of like-minded book groups.
[JM] Please would you share your favorite spread from LEAPING LEMMINGS and tell us why you love it?
[JB] This is the left side of a two-page spread. On this side, Larry tells the lemmings he wants to have a name, and on the other side, they end up playing a version of the telephone game in which one lemming thinks he wants to be called Mary. Why I love this spread is that, despite all the speech bubbles, there’s still plenty of action, with Larry twirling and his friend pointing, but if you’ll notice, Larry is in a dress. That was all the illustrator. Nicola took the name “Mary” and created this spread in which Larry feels free to express his individuality. In a book all about being yourself, she found a way to make children accept gender issues whether about themselves or others. All the other costumes are terrific, but this one brilliantly incorporates a prominent social and personal issue making headlines today by just slipping it in. She doesn’t make a big deal out of it, which is the way it should be. It’s natural, and Nicola makes it feel that way here.
[JM] Can you talk a little about any collaboration you had with the illustrator of LEAPING LEMMINGS?
[JB] I got really lucky. My editor says she prides herself on keeping the author in the loop, and as soon as the art director picked Nicola Slater, I was given a link to her portfolio. And I have to say, I was impressed right away. She’s fantastic, and when I saw the early sketches of the lemmings, I thought she captured both the whimsy and action I was going for. Most of my contributions came in adding gags or suggesting a few details here and there. I suggested adding additional speech bubbles here and there, and. I developed the joke on the end pages, and suggested the aviator cap on the cover after noticing our hero wearing unusual hats throughout the story. A few things had to get moved around to make sure jokes weren’t telegraphed ahead of time, but Nicola took it all in stride, making the necessary changes so that the jokes and the story work well together.
[JM] What was the first book you ever bought with your own money?
[JB] I have absolutely no idea. It would have been in very early elementary school, because I remember using my birthday and Christmas money to buy books. So, with that in mind, let me take this in a slightly different direction. I don’t really remember a lot of the Christmas presents I got as a kid, but when I was twelve, my parents gave me a stack of books (Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, The Three Musketeers, A Connecticut Yankee, and on and on) and that remains a very strong memory. I was so excited to get them that I was nearly speechless. Of course, we didn’t have a TV in our house, so that might explain some things (when I said I grew up in a remote town, I wasn’t kidding!).
[JM] Tell us a little about any writing groups or communities you are involved in.
[JB] I’m a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, as well as a really good splinter group that meets twice a month. The smaller group, made of SCBWI members, is great for getting regular critiques, while the main group is terrific for professional development and keeping on top of the business. I really cut my teeth as a writer and editor, though, with the Glens Falls Writers Group. As an all-genre group, it allowed me to become better at both adult fiction and children’s books. It’s always great to have someone else’s eyes on your work before you submit it.
[JM] What artwork do you have on the walls of your home? (photos)
[JB] Not a lot of paintings, but throughout the house, you’ll find little steampunk figures made with nuts and bolts and saw-blades and those sorts of things, as well as a lot of old, kitschy, maybe even campy, collectibles. But the paintings include a lot of work by local artists (including City at Night by Kelly L. Wilson) and art students because no matter what medium you work in (in my case, words), there’s a natural kinship with your fellow creators.
[JM] How many picture books do you have on your shelves at home?
[JB] Just over 100, including the complete works of Dr. Seuss. I’ve been collecting them since my thirteen-year-old was born, and I’m still collecting them with my one-year-old daughter, though I think it’s kind of an open secret they’re really for Dad.
[JM] What is your main writing fault/flaw?
[JB] I don’t really like to describe setting. Everything is very sparse and Spartan in my world. That’s one reason picture books work so well for me. The illustrator fills all that in, and I don’t even have to write an art note!
Five Fun Ones to Finish [JM] What’s your favorite park in the world? (national/state/urban…)
[JB] Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia. It may not compare with the beauty of Yellowstone or the Adirondacks, etc., and it’s a bit of a fortress since 9/11, but I’ve always felt a spiritual connection to it going all the way back to my childhood when we visited it. When I was in college, I sat on the benches outside Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, just reading and writing for hours. Despite all the city traffic and tourist groups, I found it incredibly peaceful.
[JM] Cats or Dogs?
[JB] I’m a dog person, but we rent, so it’s two cats.
[JM] Fact most people don’t know about you?
[JB] My brothers and I built a baseball field on my parents’ property (it was a 450-acre company house, so we had a lot of land). The left-field line had the exact same dimensions as Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia because I wanted to see if I could put one out. I did. Once.
[JM] What was your first paid job (aside from babysitting)?
[JB] I spent my sixteenth summer assisting the janitors at our local elementary school.
[JM] Go-to snack and/or drink to keep those creative juices flowing.
[JB] Tea. Hot or cold, black or green, I drink a lot of it.
Feel free to reach out to John on Facebook.