Home-schooling during self-isolation has meant many people are attending to children’s literature and authors like never before. UWaterloo alumnus and picture book author Joe Frank and I had a virtual conversation about the value of children’s literature in a pandemic, what he enjoyed about UWaterloo, and the process of publishing his first book. Which is, in another timely twist, about a barber. Read on!
JLH: You’re a graduate of the now-defunct Independent Studies program–but the bulk of your courses were in English. What made you gravitate to our department?
JF: My plan applying to university was to study English Literature. I loved writing fiction and I wanted to do it myself. I entered the Independent Studies program at Waterloo, completed a number of self-directed courses, and wrote a collection of linked short stories. I gravitated to UWaterloo’s English department because, though I loved the independent work, I wanted community with fellow students, the guidance of English professors, and many of the courses related to the work I was doing on my own. The English Department’s courses were just too good to pass up. They introduced me to critical ideas on such subjects as alienation and isolation, the history of the novel, and Irish literature, to name a few that left a particularly lasting impression on me. I was lucky to find many great mentors, including Danine Farquharson, John North, and Whitney Hoth. I was like a dual citizen of the Independent Studies and English departments and recall those years as some of the most rewarding of my life.
JLH: Can you tell us a bit about how you ended up writing for children?
JF: Before I wrote I illustrated. Until I was 19 or 20, drawing was what I spent most of my time doing. I put that away, foolishly, when I began taking writing seriously as an undergrad. I focused on writing through my years at UWaterloo. I spent time at the Humber School for Writers and did a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto. I tried to do a PhD, but while working on that I felt I was no longer doing the writing I wanted to do, and the absence left by my abandonment of drawing became very clear to me. What I really wanted was a life in which I could do both. By then, I was married and the father of three children, to whom I read several picture books every evening. I realized I was studying the picture books. Clear, concise short stories have always been my passion. The best picture books are clear and concise, with great illustrations to go with the prose. It seemed obvious that I should give this a try. It was while walking home, having dropped my kids off at school, that I came up with the idea for my rhyming kids book Arthur Garber the Harbor Barber. The words “harbor” and “barber” rhymed so perfectly and their cadence, said aloud, matched the pace of my footsteps. I wanted a name to go with them and I began saying the name of Canadian actor Victor Garber along with them. I couldn’t use his name in the story, so I chose the name Arthur for its phonetic similarity to the other words. At home, I quickly wrote the first draft. The book’s title, it’s premise, the rhymes, along with everything I had learned from reading so many picture books and studying the appetites of my kids’ imaginations – it all seemed to come together rather spontaneously. I allowed myself to listen to my silly ideas. I shared the subsequent drafts with my family. They were encouraging. I did some drawings to go with the words. Then I shared this rough work with a friend in publishing. I think she feared the story I begged to send her would turn out to be garbage. But when she saw it, she loved it and presented it to the publisher. It wasn’t long before I was signing a publishing contract.
JLH: What surprised you most about the process of publishing Arthur Garber the Harbor Barber?
JF: I was most surprised by my immediate desire to start writing and illustrating another book straight away. As soon as the final page of Arthur Garber the Harbor Barber was accepted, I was ready. There was no lag, no desire to not do it again, so shortage of idea number two, three, or four. I’ve published fiction for adults, and I love writing that, but that process is as torturous as it is pleasing and rewarding. I never know how serious I’m supposed to pretend I am. I’ve published academic research. That was considerably more difficult and, I’m sorry to say, not my passion, though I do reflect on that process fondly and regard the importance of research. It just wasn’t for me; I didn’t want to do it again straight away. But with the picture book it was different, a new thrill without the need to recover from the process. Perhaps this is because I get to do the two things I love most – writing and illustrating. Or maybe it’s because I have a short attention span, an inner restlessness, and the desire to do anything that impresses my kids.
JLH: Those of us social distancing with children at home have noticed how active children’s authors have been in reaching out to families at home. Do you see children’s authors as having a special role?
JF: I do think that children’s authors and artists have a special role to play during social distancing. I don’t think they’re obligated to fulfill that special role, but if they’re willing and able then they’re uniquely positioned to bring a lot of joy to kids and some relief to guardians. As an illustrator, I’ve been connecting with families online, participating in What Should I Draw campaigns. Kids propose illustration ideas and artists create them. I’ve also created and shared personalized colouring pages online and to friends and family. Other children’s literature creators are sharing rhymes, stories, illustration workshops, and recorded read-alongs. As a parent, I can say my kids have had a lot of fun with these activities. I believe it’s helped them process some anxiety they may feel being pent up at home and constantly exposed to a narrative of human vulnerability. At the very least, maybe it’s entertained them when they’ve needed a brief distraction.
JLH: Finally, because it’s fun to ask, what are you currently reading? Children’s book suggestions are especially welcome!
JF: I’m currently reading Charles Portis’ True Git. It’s a fun, succinct story full of truly engaging characters, meaningful stakes, and a lot of heart. I’m also reading – and I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t read this as a teenager or undergraduate – Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. When I can sneak it in, I’ve been picking away at Jeff Smith’s complete Bone comic. And to my kids I’ve been reading a lot of Curious George and William Joyce stories lately.