Interview with Annie Barrows, Author of the Ivy + Bean Series

Writer Annie Barrows has created a delightful and amazing book series about two mischievous second-grade heroines in the award-winning book series, Ivy + Bean. Now they will be plotting their exploits onstage in Ivy + Bean, The Musical, playing at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, March 23 - April 6. I extremely excited to share an exclusive interview with New York Times best selling author, Annie Barrows.

Q. Are your characters based on you or your daughter? Is there one you identify with more, and if so, why?

A. There is no actual one-to-one real-life equivalent to any of the characters. I took some of the qualities of my children, some qualities of my own, and some that belong to wacky kids I know, and I mushed them around to create these characters. Ivy looks like one of my daughters, but that’s about as close as it gets. When I went to the play at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley with my daughters, I got up on stage to speak to the audience, so they all caught a glimpse of my older daughter and went, “Awwww, it’s Ivy!” Which was cute, but she is not like Ivy the character; she just looks like Ivy.

Q. What made you choose your illustrator, Sophie Blackall to create the visuals of the Ivy + Bean series? Did you work closely with her to describe what they look like.

A. Not at all. I had no control over the choice of illustrators; that was done entirely by the publisher. I wrote the first Ivy + Bean book, I sold it to Chronicle Books about a year before they found Sophie. During that year, I reviewed lots of sketches, and mostly I was appalled. I was going into despair thinking my book was never going to get published when my editor sent me an envelope of sketches from Sophie, including the one that ended up being the cover of the first Ivy + Bean book. When I saw the sketches I thought “Eureka, we found the treasure!” because they were exactly what I had wanted, both their level of adorableness as well as how she adapted my words to make the girls just as I imagined them. She picked up the right details, and of course her clothes are a thing of beauty and a joy forever. She added to what was on the page, which all illustrators do, but it was just perfect and exactly what I had hoped for.

Q. In the 3rd series “Break the Fossil Record,” my daughter, since she was very young, has been really into paleontology and connected with that book. When she was five, the librarian here (THANKS YOLANDA!) gave her a book called “Bone Girl, Stone Girl” by Laurence Anholt, which is all about Mary Anning. Ever since then, Mary Anning is my daughter's hero.

A. The idea to use Mary Anning came about when my daughter was reading about her in 2nd-3rd grade. Like your daughter, mine was mesmerized by a book about Mary Anning.. She went around digging up everything she could find. There were big holes in the backyard because she was looking for dinosaur fossils.

Photo by Kevin Berne

Photo by Kevin Berne

Q. What is the most challenging part of writing for children instead of adults? How do you create a believable child's voice?

A. In many ways, I find writing for children easier then writing for adults. One of the most challenging parts of writing for children, as opposed to writing for grown ups, is you are writing for one group of people and yet they are not the people who buy the book. That’s another group. So you have to appeal to both groups. When you write for grown-ups you need to appeal to grown-ups. But when you are writing for kids you need to work for kids and also their parents, grandparents, librarians, teachers. That dichotomy is tricky. Attaining a kid’s voice? Perhaps due to chronic immaturity, it is not a problem for me.

Q. When you start a new book, do you always have a clear idea of where the story is going, or does it change as the book progresses?

A. I start with a clear idea but it does change as it progresses. To fufill my contract with my publisher, I have to write a synopsis of the book before I begin, which is reasonable: they want an idea of the book before they publish it. For the synopsis, I write out what I think is going to happen, but sometimes that is not what ends up happening. I have never done a real outline. My synopsis is just a page long, so there’s a lot I don’t know. For instance, I never know where I am going to begin, and that, to me, is hugely fun because when I sit down to type a book, I am just as surprised as the next guy. I do know where they’re going, and I think that is absolutely necessary for children's books because you don't have much space, but I don't know how I am going to get there exactly.

Q. When you are writing for children, how do you like to have children interact with the characters? What do you want to the kids to take from the books?

A. I want to just give them a laugh. I am focused on entertaining kids and depicting the things they do that I think are really funny. My goal is not particularly educational or uplifting. Of course, I hope to have them think of reading as a fun thing and not a chore. The only axe I’m grinding is that I don't think it's the job of my books to improve children, I think children are just fine the way they are.

Q. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Who are authors that inspired you to write children's books?

A. As a kids I read a lot, a lot, a lot. I was like Ivy in that way. The most direct inspiration for the Ivy + Bean books are the “Betsy-Tacy” books by Maud Hart Lovelace. They are old books, and wonderful, and I loved them. It was the same kind of a story: two girls playing around, their friends, their neighborhood, what they did and thought. It's the same genre. Though those books continue into high school, and they even get married at the end of that series, which is not going to happen to Ivy + Bean. But they were an inspiration, and I wanted to pass along that kind of book to my kids.

As far as being a writer, I thought I wasn't going to be a writer. I thought I’d be an editor, and I was for awhile. I didn't think I was good enough to be writer. But after being an editor for a long time I thought, “This is just not that hard. I can do this.” At first I became a writer of nonfiction for adults. But after doing that for awhile, I stopped spending time with adults and I didn’t have anything to say to adults. I was spending all my time with kids so I turned to writing for children.

Q. Ivy + Bean are second-graders in the series, are they ever going to move into third-grade?

A. I think we are just going to stay in second grade. It's my opinion that second grade is the pinnacle of life. Really everything just goes downhill after that, so why not keep Ivy and Bean in paradise. I love second graders! Don't get me wrong, I love all the ages but second grade is about as good as it gets.

Q. My daughter wants to know what you think Ivy and Bean will do when they are adults?

A. Bean has wanted to be a bunch of things. What she sticks to most is being an arborist. She wants to climb trees for a job; she thinks that would be cool. But at the end of the tenth book, coming out in the fall, she wants to be the person who makes up fortunes for fortune cookies.

Ivy's career plans are to be a witch. At the end of the tenth book Ivy + Bean are concocting a very good plan because what they want to do is Bean will write a fortune and Ivy will make it come true, and thus, everyone will believe Bean's fortunes and clamor for more, and they'll get rich. They are very entrepreneurial.

I think it’s important to capture your child's entrepreneurial moments when they happen because they lose this entrepreneurial spirit all too soon. You can suggest brilliant money-makers to teenagers and they don't want to do anything.

Q. Is self-publishing having a big impact on writers of children's books? What do you see as the positives/negatives of self-publishing?

A. I haven't personally felt the impact, but I am all for it. It is hard to break into publishing for most people. However, despite how easy it is to publish, distribution is the sticky problem. The self published authors I have encountered are people who want to writer, not people who want to spend all their time dealing with distribution routes and returns and packaging and shipping. That's the problem, and even if it’s electronic publishing, you have to interface with electronic media and figure all of that out. It's not that it is inimical to being a writer, but for most writers I know, that's not how they want to spend their time.

Q. Do you have a set writing schedule or try to write for a certain number of hours each day? Can you describe your writing routine?

A. I try to write as much as I can. I can't manage 9-5/Monday to Friday, but I start working when my children go scampering off to school, and I try to write until about 3pm. Then I lose my mind because I have been in the house all day and I go running around. My writing schedule is interrupted by not just by my family life but by my work life because I tour a lot. I try to write as much as I can when I am around, because I cannot write on the road.

Q. What advice would you give to others interested in writing children's books?

A. Read what’s out there. A grave problem that I often encounter is the belief that because someone's own children or grandchildren love their stories, they need to be published. That is absolutely not true. That just means you have a nice relationship with your children/grandchildren. People who want to write for kids need to get out there and read, go to the library, read to other children, see what they like and how they respond.

Q. Regarding the play, did you write it?

A. Oh gosh, no. A genius named Scott Elmegreen wrote the play, music and lyrics. I could never have combined all those stories like that. He's so clever.

Q. The play was a culmination of a few of your books. My daughter spotted that right away. Why was it decide to rewrite the play that way?

A. Yes, it's a combination of books 1, 3, 4, and 5. Scott and I had a conversation right at the beginning before he started writing the play. We talked about the characters, not how to jiggle the plot. He did that himself. I didn't think he could do it, but he did. From my perspective, it was amazing that he could get all of those plots contained in a play, but he managed to do it, and I am so impressed. I believe he chose those books because they are the ones taking place on Pancake Court. Whereas some of the books are primarily school stories. I loved the play. What could be more fun, from an author’s perspective, than to have all your characters jumping out of your book and on to a stage. It's really fun watching the characters come to life.

Q. I was reading about you and I was intrigued with your daughter's names.

A. Clio is the muse of history, which is significant with both my husband and myself since we were both history majors and met there. But she’s also named Clio because it’s a compromise between the kind of strange names I like and the kind of short names he likes. Esme we picked from the short story "For Esmé—with Love and Squalor" by J. D. Salinger.