All three of my daughters loved Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp by Mercer Mayer, 1984. Picture book with strong young female in a cultural environment my girls found magical. We would take turns being the characters and they could participate even before they could read. It was the first book they wanted for there own children.
On the Brain Burps podcast, author/illustrator Katie Davis interviewed Mercer Mayer, whose Little Critter books were all around our house as I was growing up. My mother particularly enjoyed them. Sure enough, I enjoy reading them to my own kid.
Mercer Mayer has an astonishing work output even though he’s been in this biz since the late 60s, with over 400 productions by now. Mayer also interests me because many of the Little Critter books have been turned into apps by Ocean House Media. Here are some things I learnt about apps and children’s books from this interview:
Although many authors are reluctant to enter the digital age, he feels this is like saying of the Gutenberg Press, no I’m just going to stick to handwriting thanks. He sees no reason not to make works available via new technology, whatever that technology happens to be. Mayer’s attitude is not a new one — he also embraced CD-ROM when that was a thing.
Mercer Mayer has an assistant, Bonnie, who works with him on marketing appointments and on the more mundane Photoshop tasks which are nonetheless lengthy and time-consuming. While I thought this sounds awesome in a way, I wasn’t too impressed that Mercer Mayer didn’t realise Katie Davis is an author/illustrator in her own right. I don’t aspire to that kind of success — the kind where you don’t bother looking up your interviewers’ credentials, or keeping up with who’s who in publishing world.
Katie Davis at the time of this interview was considering biting the bullet and subscribing to the monthly plan that Adobe has now instituted for its Creative Suite. Mayer’s advice is to not bother. He still uses Adobe CS on Macs which haven’t been updated since Apple switched to Intel processors. He does update his printer, so it seems, because he was talking about how good printers are nowadays — he can get excellent proofs out of his. I think he has a point about the Adobe thing. While it’s nice to have the latest version, in fact it’s possible to do very good work with much older versions of this very nice piece of software, even if it takes you a few more keystrokes or whatever. Mayer no longer works on paper — it’s all digital — he uses a Wacom Cintiq (the top of the line model, by the way, in which it’s just like drawing on paper.)
Although Mercer Mayer has produced many books, each time he finishes he thinks that was his last work. But then he starts doodling and another idea presents itself. I’ve heard that the writer of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers said exactly the same thing: Ideas are floating around in the ether waiting for a writer to pull them out of the air and turn them into something, and if you don’t do it, someone else will.
Mayer also says there’s no more than about 10 ideas out there anyhow. (Some people say seven.) It’s all about how you execute the idea.
The hardest parts of writing a picturebook are beginnings and endings. The middle is easier. The main problem with many middles is that the writer is focusing on the same scene for too long. You turn the page and it’s still the same scene, when the child reader wants to move on.
The other problem in many picturebooks is that the writer doesn’t seem to trust the illustrator, writing far too many words, perhaps as guides for the illustrations. Picturebooks are all about the illustrations. Illustrators who write their own stories don’t have this particular problem, and Mayer is thankful that he writes his own.