Waffles With Writers

Waffles with Writers: Cathy Ballou Mealey

Yummers!

Welcome to the latest installment of my sort-of-semi-regular bloggy interview show, Waffles with Writers, where I chat with a working writer over a waffle-based breakfast.

Today’s guest is the lovely and talented Cathy Ballou Mealey, whose debut picture book, When a Tree Grows just hit store shelves. Cathy is also a big fan of wee rodents—and, as most of you know, I am a big fan of big fans of wee rodents.

“Oh, hai! Gimmie peanut.” One of Cathy’s backyard buddies.

Cathy! Welcome! I just put breakfast on the table. How do you like your waffles?

Hi Mike! Thanks for inviting me. I like my waffles with real maple syrup, butter and a side of fresh raspberries please.

Since you live so close to the Marshmallow Fluff factory, I thought you’d prefer a Fluffernutter waffle sandwich. I have all the fixin’s if you change your mind…

I’d never say never, but eating that super-sticky Fluff would make the rest of this interview sound like “Mmwuff fuwmpf phampumf.” Maybe later.

So be it. First off, I love When A Tree Grows! It’s fun and funny and the plot moves forward in cheerfully unexpected directions. How did this story come about? What inspired it?

Thanks! I’m really happy that you found Moose and Squirrel’s antics funny!

A few years ago I was out in the woods, enjoying a nature hike with my family when we heard a distant, creaky Crash! Was it a falling tree? An animal? We froze, listened, and after a long silence, hiked on. I began to wonder: What if that crash had scared a bear or frightened a deer?

Building on that “OR” question, I framed a wacky story with two different possible outcomes, one rather expected and one funny, unexpected outcome. Readers will find that “OR” spotlighted on the bottom corner of each page with a clever curled paper art effect.

When A Tree Grows features a precocious squirrel. I know that you are a pro-rodent (prodent) writer. Were you always a fan of the little critters, or did your rodent fandom arrive later in life? 

Definitely a prodent fan for life. My first all-my-own pet was a guinea pig named Brownie. Yep, I came up with that super creative name all by my five-year-old self. He was a charmer. Brownie was followed by a second piggie, Eliza Jane, and a repetitive sequence of hamsters. These days I am befriending the wild squirrels in my yard with tempting peanut snacks so they will pose for my camera.

From left: Cathy, Brownie.

Your story also stars a moose. A moose and a squirrel, eh? Bullwinkle fan?

Of course! And Fractured Fairy Tales cartoons. I also like the visual/logical challenge of pairing two creatures with mismatched proportions. That naturally lends itself to picture book hilarity, much like the GINORMOUS guinea pig in Everybody’s Favorite Book.

Aw! Look at you, plugging my picture book! This is why we’re such good friends. But let’s get back to talking about you. I’m always interested in kid lit writers’ childhoods. What was the young Cathy like?

I am so glad that you are asking me and not my older brother. I was a perfect angel and my parents’ favorite child.

When did you first have the desire to write?

As a kid I loved to write and illustrate greeting cards, so my earliest efforts were short and to the point. I also wrote scripts for Muppet-like puppet shows, assigning the best roles to myself of course. When writing lost its luster as school assignments piled up, I stopped scribbling for pleasure.

As an adult, I drafted my first picture book manuscript for the Cheerios “Spoonfuls of Stories” contest. Even though “Ozzie the Oyster” was definitely not ready for publication, my prize was discovering a passion for the craft of picture book writing

You dedicated the book to your “astute forester” father and “elegant correspondent” mother. This intrigued me. Can you tell me a little bit about your folks?

They are enthusiastic supporters and paid for my first SCBWI membership, so it was a natural choice to dedicate the book to them. My dad, at age 89, still cuts, splits, and stacks the wood used to heat their house. Thus, Moose made a tree-crackingly excellent tribute to Dad’s arboreal skills. My mom attended secretarial school and has the most Palmer-method perfect, beautiful penmanship and shorthand. Like Squirrel, when she sets pen to paper her encouraging messages are irresistible and instantly recognizable.

Cathy’s father. He likes chopping wood apparently.

You have two not-so-little ones. What role do they play in your writing/critiquing process? 

My teens are too deeply into teendom to attend well to their mama’s picture book shenanigans. The youngest used to illustrate my stories when she was still at the crayon and marker stage. Alas, recent family contributions tend to be the type familiar to most of us: “You know what you should write your next book about? [Insert idea here.]” To which I always respond, “Great idea. YOU should write that book!”

Thanks so much for coming by, Cathy! One last question: If you could be reincarnated as a rodent, what kind of rodent would you be?

I live with a deep-seated insecurity that I would like to resolve by being reincarnated as a river otter. Doesn’t everyone love a river otter?

Well, sure, but…

OK, that’s not technically a rodent. But I am not always a rule-follower, and I am sure that otters and rodents of all sorts would be good friends. And would share their Fluffernutter waffles. “Mmwuff fuwmpf phampumf!”

 

Debatables, Uncategorized

Debatables: The Most Appealing Mouse

Welcome once again to Debatables, the monthly column where esoteric kid-lit questions are argued with way too much passion. (Last month, I was unable to fulfill my Debatables duties, so I’d like to thank my debate substitute, the great and wonderful Jilanne Hoffmann, who won the battle hands down.)

My Debatables sparring opponent is, as usual, my colleague, friend, and collegial frenemy, Cricket Muse.

Here are the Debatables ground rules:

Each debater is allowed one brief argument (fewer than 300 words) on a previously agreed-upon topic. These brief arguments will then be followed by a briefer rebuttal (fewer than 150 words).

This month’s debate is near and dear to my pro-rodent (prodent) heart.

To celebrate my upcoming picture book, Scampers Thinks Like a Scientist (Preorder it now!), Cricket and I have decided on a mousey topic:

Who Is The Most Appealing Mouse In Middle Grade Fiction?

I chose the inimitable Amos from Ben and Me.

And Cricket chose Reepicheep, the warrior mouse from the Narnia series.

So! Let’s get started.

***

Mike: American history wouldn’t have been the same without Amos. The eldest of 25 siblings, Amos demonstrates his admirable character traits from the outset by selflessly volunteering to leave the comforts of home to provide for his hungry family. He soon meets Benjamin Franklin (by way of Benjamin Franklin’s comfortable fur hat) and demonstrates his worth almost immediately by inventing the Franklin stove.

Franklin is, of course, dazzled and negotiates a contractually bound creative partnership that promises a bountiful, lifetime supply of cheese, wheat, and rye for Amos’s family.

As for Amos’s end of the bargain, the mouse agreed to impart a lifetime’s worth of wisdom. Declaration of Independence? Amos suggested most of it. Electricity? Amos endured a series of cruel and unusual electrical experiments.

Not cool, Ben. Not cool at all!

And—according to the Disney cartoon—Amos also invented bifocals.

Amos never failed to help out a fellow mouse. Toward the end of the book, when Franklin was wasting time canoodling with some French hotties, Amos led a palace attack to rescue the imprisoned children of a white mouse named Sophia. (Amos’s actions, by the way, were not born out of amorous desire, for he also reunited Sophia with her lawfully wedded husband.)

Time and time again Amos proved himself to be kind, creative, brave, inventive, patriotic, altruistic, and fiercely devoted to both man and mice.

I cannot even begin to imagine a personality that could be more appealing.

 

Cricket Muse: Mike, for a writer guy of great imagination, how did you manage to overlook Reepicheep? “Here then is a mouse, when can there be such another?” I throw that paraphrased quote in there because Reepicheep is an incredibly appealing mouse. No mouse can be more appealing than this gentle warrior. Take a look at his vitae:

  • Chief Talking Mouse of Narnia
  • Concerned with honor
  • Descendent of the mice who freed Aslan from the Stone Table
  • Fights willingly for friends and good causes
  • Veteran of glorious battles
  • Tamer of dragons
  • Well-read, has a home library
  • Excellent sword skills
  • Fearless–sought to fulfill the prophecy to find the “utter East,” Aslan’s country
  • Adventurer–sailed with Prince Caspian.
  • Made a knight of the Most Noble Order of the Lion
  • Skilled chess player
  • Storyteller
  • Befriends the unloved and miserable, as in boys turned into dragons

This is a Renaissance mouse. He is well-spoken, elegant of manner, knowledgeable, respected by kings and queens, a skilled fighter, and is so revered that the other mice were willing to lop off their own tails when Reep lost his in battle. Aslan recognizing the fierce devotion of Reepicheep’s followers, restored his tail. It is no stretch to say that Reepicheep is one of Narnia’s most memorable AND appealing characters. He is a mouse among mice.

One of Reepicheep’s endearing qualities is his ability to set aside his pride and accept a hug.

All in all? Reepicheep is one heckuva mouse. No hat hiding for this mouse. He is out and about shaping history and not having to hide behind anybody’s name because he makes his own fame.

 

Mike’s Rebuttal: You are being disingenuous, Cricket. Amos is not “hiding behind anyone’s name.” He is just a humble mouse with humble needs. He has no lust for fame or fortune. And he certainly isn’t vain enough to pester a Jesus figure for a replacement tail.

As for bravery, Amos is every bit as heroic as your candidate, perhaps more so. After all, Reepicheep is two feet tall (!), is always wielding a sword, and leads a standing army; Amos is just a little mouse with a big heart.

And let’s not forget that Amos is a fine writer, contributing to the historical record by penning his memoirs on eensy teensy scraps of paper. A mouse of letters is a very appealing thing indeed!

In my opinion, there are no bad rodents. Reepicheep is certainly worthy of great respect and hugs. But Amos is the more appealing.

 

Cricket’s Rebuttal: Mike, there is one glaring fault to your argument. If Amos is so great, then why was he only known to Ben? Humility plays no part in this. Amos never spoke with any other human in his time with Mr. Franklin. This gives ponderment as to whether Amos is merely a figment of Ben’s ample imagination. On the other hand, Reepicheep, warrior, true, but one with a gentle heart, was known to all, and left a deep impression upon all who encountered him. Honored by Aslan, befriended by a dragon, knighted by a king, and loved by MILLIONS of readers, Reepicheep is a mouse of the MOST appealing nature. As for the tail comment, tsk, Mike. You might have alienated loyal Narnia followers with that one. As I recall your Amos did his share of fighting–ruined a good party, and Ben’s popularity with the French. Some nice mouse.

***

And that’s the debate—which is a shame since Cricket’s rebuttal NEEDS a factual response. But, hey, that’s what the comments are for!

So! Who won the debate? Do you have an appealing mouse candidate who wasn’t mentioned here? Leave a comment! We wanna hear from you!

On Writing

You’re Grounded!

I don’t write about my day job on this blog too often, because my day job doesn’t have much to do with writing for children.

On rare occasions, however, I get lucky.

GroundingI draw my salary from The Lawrenceville School, editing and writing for The Lawrentian, the School’s alumni magazine. Not too long ago, I learned that Julian Thompson, the author of 20 YA books, was an alumnus, and, well, I just had to interview the guy.

I read Thompson’s young adult novel, The Grounding of Group 6, when I was an actual young adult. I remembered loving it, but, after 30 years, I couldn’t remember much else. All I could recall was a couple of basic plot points. I also recalled that the book had some dirty parts – which might have been why the 12-year-old me thought the book was so dang wonderful.

I gave Thompson a call and he could not have been more gracious. He happily agreed to sit for an interview. In preparation, I reread Grounding and found it to be every bit as good as I had remembered. And yes, the dirty parts are still a little dirty – but not nearly as dirty as my memory had led me to believe, which is kind of a relief, really.

Whew! I thought. Thompson is not the Henry Miller of middle school lit!

For those of you who might be interested, I am posting a PDF of the story below. I don’t think the finished article is a great piece of magazine writing by any stretch, but I do think it is as good a way as any to remember a fine writer and a generous human being.

Julian Thompson: Grounded by Experience