I recently talked to John Bemelmans Marciano about his new series with illustrator (and reigning Caldecott Medal winner) Sophie Blackall.
Travis: Why witches? Why Benevento? What was the spark that let to this new series?
John: While in Naples in the early 2000s, I came across a paragraph in a guidebook about a nearby town famous for its witches. I took a bus to Benevento and explored around, then wrote a short treatment when I got back to Brooklyn. I knew I had a great setting; what I didn’t have was a story. Fast forward twelve years: Sophie and I are having a meeting to discuss ideas for a project to work on, and I tell her about these witches. She loves it. Immediately. She was full of ideas for what to do with it, story-wise.
The basic series concept came together remarkably quickly—like over a single cup of coffee. (The rest of it has taken considerably longer.)
You and Sophie work in the same studio. Did this collaboration grow out of that?
Even before we had a studio together, Viking hired Sophie to illustrate The 9 Lives of Alexander Baddenfield, a middle-grade book I had written.
The process on 9 Lives was relatively traditional—I wrote, Sophie illustrated—but there was enough back and forth to whet our appetite for doing a true collaboration, a series in which we created the characters and stories together, and did books equally weighted between word and image.
The design and production on these books is beautiful. Did you have a vision of how the books should look? Or was that part out of your hands?
The designer, Nancy Brennan, did a fantastic job on the books. Sophie’s initial vision for the series was that each book would be small enough to fit in a young reader’s hands—she really wanted kids to have ownership over the books. The laying out of the book was a joint process between me and Sophie, and one of the most satisfying parts of the collaboration. We sat in the studio cutting lines of text and taping them up page by page, with Sophie sketching on overlays.
When she couldn’t get the images and the text to work together, I either cut or added lines to make it work.
What’s one thing you need in order to write?
Time! With a six-and-a-half-year-old daughter and a seventy-pound puppy who needs endless walks, there never seems to be enough of it. (Coffee is a close second.)
What’s one children’s book you love that not many people know about?
Oh, that’s hard! I have a real soft spot for obscure kid’s books.
The first thing that comes to mind is Where’s the Apple by Jan Lööf (a perfect picture book), but for true love and complete obscurity, I’d have to go with Mimi Brennan’s The Golden Egg: A Comic Adventure.
It’s the earliest graphic novel-picture book I’ve ever come across: an ambitious, sprawling, and silly epic for young readers.
I was hoping you’d name some books I hadn’t seen – looking forward to checking both of these out.
Thanks for taking my questions, John.
In case you missed it, here’s John and Sophie Blackall talking about the series: