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Children’s book author and illustrator Will Hillenbrand discusses his origins as a young artist; why “instant art” is a myth; his attempt to kiss a cow for research; his breakthrough after learning he was dyslexic; how his son inspired the Mole and Bear book series; the power of giving voice to ideas; the literary magic available to us in books; the importance of play and joy in art; and why, as a child, he wanted to grow up to be a fire truck.
Books mentioned in this episode:
- Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton
- Kiss the Cow by Phyllis Root and illustrated by Will Hillenbrand
- Zee Grows a Tree by Elizabeth Rusch and illustrated by Will Hillenbrand
- Spring Is Here by Will Hillenbrand
- The Mole Family’s Christmas by Russell Hoban and illustrated by Lillian Hoban
- Starting from Sketch by Will Hillenbrand
- Turtle-Turtle and the Wide, Wide River by Will Hillenbrand (forthcoming)
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
- Mighty Reader And The Reading Riddle by Will Hillenbrand
- The Voice in the Hollow by Will Hillenbrand (coming January 3, 2023)
- Katie and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton
- LITTLE RED by Will Hillenbrand (coming Fall 2023)
Laura Maylene Walter: When you were four years old, you wanted to grow up to become a BLANK. Will Hillenbrand: Fire truck. Laura Maylene Walter: Welcome to Page Count presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, literary advocates, and readers in and from the state of Ohio. I'm your host, Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS. Today, we're speaking with Will Hillenbrand, a celebrated illustrator and author whose published works include almost 75 books for young readers. In addition to his own self-illustrated titles, he has also illustrated the works of many renowned children's book authors, including Eve Bunting, Phyllis Root, Daniel Pinkwater, and many others. Will has lived most of his life in Cincinnati. Will, welcome to the podcast. Will Hillenbrand: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. Laura Maylene Walter: We always start this podcast by asking the guest about their Ohio connection. So you are from Cincinnati. Can you share a bit about that with us? What was it like for you to grow up in Cincinnati? And what is your relationship to the city now? Will Hillenbrand: Well, I grew up in Cincinnati, of course, in a small part of the city called college hill. My dad had a barbershop in the neighborhood and fortunately for me, we could walk everywhere. So we could walk to the grocery store. We could walk to the pony keg, we could walk to my dad's barbershop, to church, to school, and the ball diamond, And to the public library, which was right next to the baseball diamond. That was a block and a half away from my home. And it was my home away from home. It also <laugh> was an air conditioned building, which meant that oftentimes, or should I say always before a baseball game, I would walk to the library first to cool off and get distracted <laugh> and hopefully not be late for the ball game. I remember once my dad said that he wanted to take us downtown, but he didn't tell us why. Will Hillenbrand: So we did ask why, but we didn't find out until we got down to the riverbank and the Delta Queen had pulled in and it was beautiful to see that boat on the river. I mean, probably not an uncommon sight 80 or 100years ago, but for us it was a special attraction. A person walked from the pilot house down to the calliope. I didn't know what a calliope was. And when they played, the calliope and the sound rebounded off of Covington and other hills, it was glorious and it was a great surprise. And I think things like that for us as adults now, for young people to give them experiences that they can say, oh, I remember when we did that or it made that place special or unique. These are really significant opportunities for memory building and they'd filter into who we are and our identity. Will Hillenbrand: And so when my dad didn't tell us, it was a surprise and maybe for some they might think, well, was that a big enough surprise? Well for me, surprises are things that are wonderful or things we don't forget. Wouldn't it be wonderful as an adult that we would know, oh, we're gonna create an experience. That will be our memory forever. We don't know that, but it may. I could go on and on about Cincinnati. And I, I probably only have lived about three months outside of this city. What's nice about Southern Ohio and Southwestern Ohio is that my Indiana relatives are just across the border, going to Kentucky and being in the home of Abe Lincoln and many other things offers an abundance of diversity and experiences. And it grounds you as an author and illustrator. My stories don't necessarily talk about place because I pitch my stories into another reality, often, or maybe always, into the story world of animals. And so when I do that, a reader may not say, oh, that's directly from Ohio, or that's a landmark from Ohio. You're not gonna find that kind of thing, but you will find a tone and a style, I think, that is distinctly Midwestern. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. And by the way, I love a calliope. You know, I could see how that would be something that would get embedded in formative memory. Definitely. One more Cincinnati question. Now I am in Cleveland, which is of course basically at the opposite end of the state. I'm also not from Ohio originally. I grew up in Pennsylvania, so I'm not, you know, a born and bred Ohioan. And so I'm going to ask you a Cincinnati question that is probably a major tourist question, but are you a fan of Cincinnati chili? And if so, do you have a favorite place to get it? Will Hillenbrand: Well, every Skyline Chili is a favorite place to get it Laura Maylene Walter: For any listeners who might not know, Cincinnati chili is spaghetti with chili on top, and you can add, what, onions and beans and cheese. Will Hillenbrand: Exactly. That would be called a five way. If you did that, it is the spaghetti with chili on top Laura Maylene Walter: And I happen to be a vegetarian. So I've gotten the, I think it's Gold Star. They have a good vegetarian chili. And I think maybe skyline does now. I don't know. I'll have to check that. Will Hillenbrand: Yeah, they do. And now typically have their black bean and rice over top of the spaghetti. But it is one of the things that if you decide that you're gonna have a meal there you'll end up smelling like it for the rest of the day. <laugh> Laura Maylene Walter: Well, it could be artistic fuel, right? Will Hillenbrand: Yeah, very good. Now in Cincinnati, there is another kind of dish that people like called Cincinnati caviar. Well, that's what people nickname it, but it's called goetta. It's a breakfast food, often a mixture of oatmeal and sausage and it looks disgusting. I'm not a fan of that. Laura Maylene Walter: Oatmeal and sausage. Okay. Will Hillenbrand: When I look at dishes like that, you know, our ancestors really didn't waste anything and we shouldn't either, but what reminds me of our leftovers and they threw it into a skillet and made something and was a hit. It's a little bit like making a mud pie, using the things that are around you. It's not a mud pie, but when we have things that are left over, it does require sense of invention. Laura Maylene Walter: Well, you have a really fantastic website with a lot of fun pictures and details about your life. And so I went through and picked out a few things that I would like to hear more about. So I will essentially give you kind of a quick quiz about your own life on your website. I will ask you a couple of fill in the blank questions you could share more on and a few true and false. So the first one, okay. When you were four years old, you wanted to grow up to become a BLANK. Will Hillenbrand: Fire truck. Laura Maylene Walter: <laugh> Will Hillenbrand: The background story there is that I had been read MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL Mary Anne, and wanted to know more about Maybelle and the Cable Car and things like that. And I think for me as a child, books have allowed me to go places. I couldn't go on my own. So I was in the grocery store with my mom. We walked there and she met a lady from church and it felt like those two ladies were talking forever. So I stood by patiently. And then this lady leaned over and asked me the question children often get, which is, if you could be anything, she said it this way, if you could be anything when you grow up, what would you be? And I told her, I'd like to grow up to be a fire truck. And she corrected me. She said, you mean, you'd like to be a firefighter? Will Hillenbrand: And I said, no, ma'am I was polite. I said, no, I wanted to be a firer that ended this long conversation later. I dated her daughter for a little while. It didn't last. Anyway. I don't know why. That's another story on the walk home. My mom asked me, why did I say that? Often with children? And my mom was really good at this. If you ask an open-ended question, we can fill in the blank. And the answer to that was it was red, which was my favorite color back then it helped people in trouble. It had its own house. It came with a dog. And if my brothers ever gave me a hard time, I could squirt them down. I mean, it was perfect. So I told her that and she completely got it. When I read MIKE MULLIGAN or when it was read to me, it gave me permission to think big. And I would like to invite our audience and others to think about how books really do that. They connect to our imagination and allow us to think about possibilities that we might restrict ourselves from. And in our world of imagination, it's a beautiful playground. And we should always question why we put barriers up and if we put them up only because we think they need to be there. We should question that as well, children often don't, and that's why I find working for that audience to be my delight. Laura Maylene Walter: Wonderful. Okay. Next question. Your favorite season is BLANK. Will Hillenbrand: Winter. Laura Maylene Walter: Appropriate for Ohio. Will Hillenbrand: You probably get a lot more winter than we do. Laura Maylene Walter: Yes, that's true. Will Hillenbrand: But as a child, of course, in a snowy day, an important book, but it really reflected one of the important reasons. Winter is significant and that is you can wake up in the morning in the world is a different place and it's a place that may be quiet. it invites you to explore. You can see tracks in the snow. It's the only season out of any season that I think about in every season. Laura Maylene Walter: That's lovely. Okay. Here's a true or false question. True or false: You once kissed a cow for research. Will Hillenbrand: Absolutely true. <laugh> Laura Maylene Walter: Can you tell us that story? What was that like? Will Hillenbrand: Well, I was, uh, working on KISS THE COW, a wonderful story by Phyllis Root. And I was gathering reference to do that book. We had a family vacation visiting my wife's relatives in Wisconsin. My son was very young and we were taking him to a farm that welcomed visitors in Wisconsin. And I should say, I tried to kiss a cow. Back then, years ago, I gave my wife the camera. I said, you know, there's a beautiful young cow. I need to be able to do that. I'm gonna kiss this cow. And the cow had the big lashes and looked very adorable. And I got up, you know, within range and all of a sudden, you know how those cows like have that white part around their eyes when they get very surprised, it gets bigger. When the cow saw me get within kissing range, it made a new path to the pasture. And so I just missed a kiss. I felt the breath of the kiss, but I didn't get the kiss. Probably if I would've asked permission to kiss the cow, I might have, you know, <laugh> might have been able to do it. So it was a near miss. Laura Maylene Walter: The cow wasn't having it. Yeah. <laugh> Good effort, though. Good effort for your art. Okay. On your website, there is a picture of a can of spray paint with a caption that says, "There is no such thing as instant BLANK." Can you tell us about that? Will Hillenbrand: Art. No such thing as instant art. I think about this, and children often do think about this, and that is if they're intended to do something and often we can feel we're intended to do something or think that we're in a classroom and we're intended to do something. If we get it right the first time, those of us who do the kind of work that I do, that seldom happens. And this is significant because if you feel like doesn't work out the first time, then you don't continue. You're taking yourself outta the game. And what happens is if you're invited into the game, invited into an idea that you've fallen in love with, it's not a monologue, which is when I keep a journal, I record my ideas. But it's conversation with the page that the page then talks back to me. I have to be a good listener to understand what I'm trying to figure out what it's telling me. Will Hillenbrand: But if I keep thinking about it, if I walk away from my journal, I'm still thinking about it. It's pulling me back. And I think that instant art is a myth. Wouldn't it be nice if we could just have an idea, shake a bottle next to head and then spray it out at its complete. Art is a process and writing is a process, which means it's revealed to us over time and we have to be patient and persistent in being able to do so you're paid off because what happens is you come to a new understanding often about what that idea that you had is telling you. If I went into an individual story, I could tell you what that means specifically. And maybe we can circle back to that if you'd like. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah, no, I definitely wanted to talk about your process for illustrating another author's work and also writing and illustrating your own, which I imagine are different. But before we get into that, can you tell us a bit about how you entered this career? How did you become an illustrator of children's books and then a writer as well? How did this all get started for you? Will Hillenbrand: This is a little bit like finding the headwaters to the Nile. <laugh> You know, you go back up stream and it's got a lot of tributaries and different fissures. And when you get back to the beginning, it looks like nothing. How can that be a mighty river? That's also important for young people to hear, because they might think everybody else has stories, but I don't have that. So thinking back to me, I'm a visual person. So to understand the world in a visual way. For me, when I was a child, I touched things. Children do that. I mean, if I'm working with really young children and reading a story to preschool children or younger, they often wanna touch my shoes or anything. That's kind of close by. They're tactile. Why do they do that? Why I did that was I wanted to make sure that was real. Will Hillenbrand: That was really happening. That was physical. So having something tactile is probably one of the very beginning things for me now at a certain point, Sister Maria Agnes might say, don't be touching everything that then transferred to drawing it because I could look at it. And when I drew it, I could see it and understand it. And in a way, hold it by doing so. But those beginning drawings were just like everybody else's. They were naïve attempts at being able to understand what the three dimensional world is. So why is this important? I even said three dimensional because you're looking at the three dimensional world, but you're drawing two dimensionally. That fundamentally is a huge step because if we said we're living in a three dimensional world, let's go to the fourth dimensional world, all of a sudden, wow. Then you start beginning understanding the transformation of being able to go from three to two, because now for shortening all these other things come into play, but it's a fantastic way to be able to hold content. Will Hillenbrand: And it also means you have to take the conventions of sophistication and know how to do overlap and how to be able to make things look properly in dimension. Oftentimes the way children might do that, or the way that Grandma Moses might do that might be flattening it, or even illustrators being able to flatten dimensionality. I mean, I think in pictures, the visual world informs me and that's how I decode it. So when it came time to being able to think about how do I develop this? I really didn't have anything in my elementary school background that did very much to do that, except what I drew on my own. I often drew, or I often drew out of anger and frustration and I might've had some issues with my brothers. And so I would have this rage, maybe when I was younger, we just went at it. Will Hillenbrand: But a certain point I moved in another direction and I had that energy and beating up or trying to do that or getting beat up. Wasn't very satisfying in the end. So I moved to drawing and I would just take this energy. And I was like gonna just pour it out onto the page. And at the end of it, I had something and my anger had been, you know, worked out. So I think we sometimes need a catalyst or a reason why we do things. I did that because I wasn't a psychologist. I was trying to figure it out. It just seemed to work. And I was happy with it. It's a surprise sometimes by, you know, look what I did. And it was like being on top of a rocket, this energy, and it was just, go. Now, I didn't have my first art teacher that was trained to teach art until I was in high school. Will Hillenbrand: And I remember my first class, Mrs. Hubbard took some black linen and she attached it to a white corkboard and she gave us charcoal newsprint. And she said, today, we're gonna draw drapery. She said, everything's drapery. The clothing you're wearing is folded into drapery. I mean, I'm thinking originally like something around a window drapery, but she's explaining that it's the shape that's underneath the cloth. The things that we do that and the light and the dark, and she talked about positive and negative shape. When I heard these words, they were like music to my ears. And I thought, wow, where has this been? My brother was really seen as the artist in the family. And he had this class, the session before mine. This was in high school. It was, I was at the end of my junior year. I ran to catch up to him and I said, wasn't that the most fantastic class you've ever had? Will Hillenbrand: He said that lady's a nut case. And I said, she wasn't to me. And I think this is kind of the important part for people of artistic temperament is that we're invited to a cornucopia and a way of seeing things that offer us endless possibilities, not fixed stars. If you want fixed stars, you're probably not gonna become a person that will want to be a reader or want to know more generally speaking. I think that those of us who find that were on a moving planet and the stars are moving, they may seem fixed, but they're moving in this ballet of the universe. Galileo helped to see that it's an artistic moment in a way scientific moment, but scientists and artists are connected. They help us understand and see things anew. And so for me, Mrs. Hubbert was the opening door. Then I knew, right after that, that I was way behind. Will Hillenbrand: I needed to do a whole lot more. Now getting to doing picture books is way after that. But I decided to take a class in high school that allowed me to do art for three hours a day. It was a commercial art class. And I could also do my academics, but I needed more. In fact, I knew I needed even more than that because I went to night school when I was in high school because my art teacher taught during the day taught at night. So I would go back to finish or work on new things. My brother Pete said, you know who's gonna be in your class? There were 800 students in my junior class alone. So I didn't know everyone. But he said, you know, David Brown? I said, yeah, I know David. I said, you know, we rode the bus together and he has his portfolio with him and I heard people going, ooh, and aw. Will Hillenbrand: And he said, well, have you seen his portfolio? And I said, I haven't. He said, you need to. And I said, why? And he said, because when you look at it, you'll want to quit. Yeah. I know. And when I looked at his artwork, I said, what you said, which was, oh, because he looked like he could draw like Michelangelo, which I loved. I didn't draw that way. I don't draw that way now. But I loved what he did. I just felt like I will do something of my own. Laura Maylene Walter: Right. Your own style. Will Hillenbrand: Yeah. So saying how someone else didn't shut me down. It was exciting. I talked to him, how did you do this? And we became friends. But I also know that for me, I ran into a big problem. It happened when I was in college, I went to an art school, the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Will Hillenbrand: And of course I wanted to get a degree, a bachelor's of fine arts, but the academic classes were practically impossible. So I went back to my grade school and talked to one of my teachers and she said, you know, in education, things have changed a lot. We have a specialist at school in the trailer. If you come this day, I'll make sure there are no other children there. You can be tested long and short of it. As I found out that I was dyslexic up until then I thought the visual things I got without any problem, but the academic things were problematic. And the writing part was a problem. I also then solved the head of the regional area that advises at Mount St. Joe. And she said, there's nothing wrong with your mind, but you may need to be able to have someone help you write your ideas down. Will Hillenbrand: So understanding that really was a breakthrough. Before that, Laura, what I also knew was that the good stuff was in books. And partly I was a slow reader because nearly everything I read, I needed to visualize, like I was doing a whole movie set. So I'm think I'm building all this and the characters and the setting and all this. And so I'm not just speed reading. I'm doing this in a different way. And a lot of ways, it was a pleasure, but it wasn't fast. I listened to a lot of audio books. Now, you know, the teacher at Mount St. Joe said, you'll need an assistant. Well, these days we have the computers and other things, Grammarly and other things that can really be great assistance for people who have challenges like I do. But here is what we find in our stories. They find a way to solve their problems. They're not stuck for most of us. What happens is that we find books to be a pleasure because we find problems that we can identify through other lives and other times, and find a way that they've been able to work through that laboring to a conclusion that is satisfying to us probably long before the last page, because usually the last 10 pages become something that we wanna slow down on because we don't wanna leave. Laura Maylene Walter: I've read a quote about your dyslexia, that it didn't hold you back from your dreams. And in fact, it may have helped. Which I think is inspiring, to create a world out of books and stories and an illustration as well, and things like this, don't have to put a stop to anything. Will Hillenbrand: Absolutely true. In fact, a teacher at Mt. St. Joe said, this is your gift. This is God's gift to you. She was a nun. She said, this is God's gift. And I said, if it is, I'd like to give it back. Laura Maylene Walter: <laugh> Will Hillenbrand: She was familiar with my temperament. Will Hillenbrand: She enforced her idea, which was true. But the truth of it, I didn't understand at the moment, but she didn't hold back from it. But sometimes we're not ready to hear something that's important. That's being told to us. But when we hold back from telling a truth, we may take that away from a person, understanding it at another time, maybe when they're more ready for it. But my experience with truth is that when you hear it, it sounds different. And when we think about it over time, we can see how it fits. And that's how her words were important. To me, it has become a gift. It has been a challenge. Continuing will always be a challenge for me, but it isn't something that defines me. I've decided I'll define it. And I think this is an important, not for me so much, it's an important idea for people listening that might think about these challenges because in some way, shape, or form, life presents or will present challenges to us. I love young adult novels because oftentimes that just portrays the person, becoming the person they were intended to be through the challenges that they have. Laura Maylene Walter: I would love to learn more about your process today when you're either writing or illustrating a book. So I thought maybe we could go through an example of each case. So first, if you are illustrating the book by another author, and I see behind you, the book ZEE GROWS A TREE by Elizabeth Rusch. And you illustrated that book, which is a delightful book about the Douglas fir tree. It's about a little girl, Z who is born on the same day that this tree emerges as a sprout. And it's, it's really lovely. So can you walk us through, what is your process for illustrating someone else's work? Will Hillenbrand: Illustration means to light up the page or to illuminate, and that's why we've got illuminated manuscripts. I wouldn't have done a book about a Douglas furry on my own. I need to be able to say, do I connect with the story? This is a story that I have fallen in love with. I don't even know it, but I have fallen in love with it. It's beautifully written, but I'm in love with the idea. And I'm also challenged by something new here, which was being able to combine fiction on nonfiction within the first page of the manuscript. Elizabeth has a note, this is the fact part of it. So how do you create a narrative that flows, but has stopping points? Of course, I looked at how other people did it to see how that can work. You know, thinking about a book like this and falling in love with it is important because all of a sudden you become immediately aware of about 10 other things that might happen. Will Hillenbrand: For instance, like it's gonna be a story about a tree and a little girl, how do these two lives parallel with each other throughout the book? How do I make that work so that it can be transparent or apparent. Other things that can happen: like it goes through time. So I've got a seed of a tree and then it's, you know, will be 300 feet tall in the back matter of the book. That's a lot of growth, but how does it work when it's a child from pregnancy to about eight to 10 years old? Normally, for instance, like if I'm thinking about doing a book, like, uh, KISS THE COW, Annalisa there is the same age throughout the whole book. She wears the same clothing through the whole book. You don't need to be able to make a change throughout the whole book, but when you're making a character change, think about a photograph of ourselves, for instance, when we were born or maybe when we're in kindergarten, or maybe when we're in second grade, third grade, well we can say that picture looks like us or it doesn't. Will Hillenbrand: But for me, I have to think about creating this identity through a child through all that time. And I'm gonna invent that character. I'm not gonna be able to say, I'm gonna go photograph it. Photographs can be important. I looked at a lot of reference photography from Elizabeth about what a Douglas tree farm would look like. If I think about tree farms, I think about those in Ohio or in North Carolina, I haven't been to Washington state or Oregon to see what the tree farms look like there. So she was helpful in finding that kind of research. So all of these are kind of the mechanics, but how do you render it while rendering it for me begins with using a journal and period of time will be spent on character development. Is this the right look for the right child? And at what point am I doing that at what age? Will Hillenbrand: And do they have a companion? Do they have a dog? Do they have a cat? And then it gets into thinking about the setting, where do they live? How does it look? What kind of house do they have? That is a way that I start feeling my way through. Those are elements, but they don't cast you through the pages of the book. So then looking at the story, breaking it into pieces so that you can do this flow of thinking like the cinematography of the story. How do you move your reader from page to page close up far away. If you establish your character well enough to pull up, pull back, close up, doing these things. And then when you do the storyboard and the book dummy, you start feeling the weave and all of those are done with very rough loose sketches that allow me to be very fluid and not fall in love with the drawing, but be able to find within the rhythm of the text, the ideas that have been established and the information that I may not, but we'll need to find out more about cast a narrative at the same time, making sure your reader doesn't notice any of that. Laura Maylene Walter: Well, and I know for an artist, the creative side is paramount. That is why writers and illustrators do what they do. But I think I would be remiss if I didn't ask about some of the practical business side, because I know we'll have listeners who are curious about this when you are illustrating another author's book. Can you tell us how that works? Is it brought to you by the publisher? This is assuming there's already a traditional publisher involved. So it's brought to you by a publisher or an agent. Do you have any contact with the author? Is the text already final when you get it? How does all of that work? Will Hillenbrand: The work will come to me in this particular case. It'll come through my publisher and I work with traditional publishers and Candlewick was the publisher here in Boston. And so my obligation is to the publishing house, not to Elizabeth, right? My formal business relationship then would be to go through the art and editor and working together as a team with Elizabeth. And they will be the filter. I may work with my art directors primarily to get a character finalized and I'll think through ideas. And, and I like that collaboration. But then when I create a book dummy in this particular case, it'll be sent to the publisher and then it'll be there a little while. Sometimes it's a PDF dummy. Sometimes it's physical. Sometimes it's both kind of, depending on the story, when I get it back, they will have combined their comments and the author comments in one piece, Andros, a tree that was also accompanied by a secondary manuscript, not of the story, but of information, photographs, research information to help the rough drawings be more complete. Laura Maylene Walter: And what about for a book that you have written yourself and are illustrating as well? Take us through that process. Will Hillenbrand: If you were a musician, it would be like sitting you down in front of the organ. You've got a lot of stops and foot pedals to play. And if you pull 'em all out at once, you've got a mess. So you really have to become in a way disciplined in being able to think about how you're gonna go about doing what you're doing. So I'm gonna take a step back in time to my very first Bear and Mole story, which was SPRING IS HERE. That idea happened when my son tried to wake me up one morning, I would often work late at night. My wife would get up early and go get ready to teach kindergarten. Ian would wake me up in the morning. One night I stayed up very late and he woke me up. He normally would bang the door open and say, morning time. Will Hillenbrand: And I would get outta bed. I'd make his breakfast, but not this morning. I was, I was like really tired. So he came over and he'd did all the things to try to wake me up by pulling on my ear and tickling my nose. He had been reading a book called THE MOLE FAMILY'S CHRISTMAS that he really loved, which was about a mole family by Russell and Lilian Hoban. I kept snoring and I was awake, but I just wanted to rest a little longer. He pulled the sheets loose, got under the covers, and he tweaked my big toe that woke me up. So no real big thing there. I made breakfast for him. We went to his favorite park and he played for a long time on the way home. He said these magic words, which was, tell me a story. And just when someone says, tell me a story. Will Hillenbrand: It's like every story you've had in your head, they go for the corners of the room. Like they seek shelter. So I told him, I said I could put one on the cassette player. And he said, no, he'd asked for me to tell him a story. He'd been very specific. And I was trying to get out of it. <laugh> he was giving me that, you know, eyeball-to-eyeball look. And I said, I do lots of stories, but I can't think of any. And he shrunk in his seat and I felt really wretched about that. So I raced through my mind and then I told him, I said, I can think of a story about a mole. And he knew the story would be about him because he was pretending to be a mole cause he'd been reading a book called a Mo Family Christmas and all of a sudden his posture changed in his chair. Will Hillenbrand: And then I don't know why, but I said, and the Mole's best friend is a __, and he said, a bear. Now I've got two characters, Laura. Isn't that great? Laura Maylene Walter: That is fabulous. Yeah. Will Hillenbrand: Yeah. But no story <laugh> so what do you do? Yeah, so I got the characters and I've got that. So what I did was I stopped and then I just REW the clock and I told him a story about a mole waking up a sleepy bear. So that was just what happened that morning when he woke me up and he knew everything that I was gonna bring up was something that he did when he tried to wake me up that morning. And at the end of that retelling, he liked it so well that he fell asleep. When I put him down for his nap, I went upstairs and I drew in my journal. Will Hillenbrand: That story idea, because I knew not that I wanted to make it a book. I only did that because number one is typical practice for me. I did it. Number two, because if he wanted me to tell that story again, I knew that everybody knows this. If an adult changes the story that's been once told, they will tell you where you've changed it. So I wanted to have it down in a visual form. And that's a little bit like when I tell a story orally, I'm just thinking about the pictures I've drawn. That's how I record that. So I just think of the next picture that I've drawn. And then I can tell the gap in between. So I drew that and then some time later, maybe two years later, my editor said, are you thinking of any news stories? I said, I've got a funny story to tell you. Will Hillenbrand: And I told her that one and I showed her some pictures. She says, we need to do that. Now I did make some changes like the time of year spring and bears waking up some minor changes happened to it. But the essence of it was all born at that moment. So when a story happens like that, and I haven't told you anything about the drawing of it, except that all of those things were fundamental and fundamentally different than when I get a story written by another author. In many cases, you know, children want to know, so where do you get your ideas? And so when I say they're hidden in plain sight, that's familiar, but what may happen for a young person is they might not think that has any value. You know, what may be valuable to you is something that's unfamiliar to you and what it's familiar to you. Will Hillenbrand: How do you tell it in a way that makes it have the magic that stories have? And there's no other place that actually has magic. I mean, magicians do hocus pocus, but the only magic that is really available to us is the literary magic and the magic that happens in a book. That's where our imagination finishes the magic. And we as a reader, participate in the magic. We're not an observer of it. We are engaged with it. And I think this is where the good stuff is for me. And I think it is for everyone. Laura Maylene Walter: Well, you mentioned the questions that children might ask you. And I know like most children's book authors, you really enjoy meeting your readers and interacting with them. Do you have anything you'd like to share about either common questions that children tend to ask about stories or your books? Or do you have any funny stories you'd like to share about things that kids have said to you over the years? Will Hillenbrand: Well, they're my favorite audience and I'm devoted to them. I could make my books for any group of readers, but I treasure them. And I think the reason that I do is that they're all artists, they're in the process of seeing the world anew, they often ask questions about where you get ideas and things like that. They're not really asking about where I get ideas. They wanna know where they can find ideas. What is a valuable idea? They come from many different places. Ideas are things that EL Doctorow would say that there are ideas that you've fallen in love with. And you think about all the time. I think it's important to be able to say that, why am I thinking about something? If I've done something or if I've experienced something, maybe it's calling for me to be able to find a way to formalize it, formalizing it, meaning writing it down on a piece of paper, because oftentimes if we have had an experience or a dream, we could say, yeah, I think probably all of us, especially in the lunchroom for young children, you could say I had a dream last night. Will Hillenbrand: And by the time you start telling them about why it woke you up, you put them to sleep or you've glazed them over. So there's an important part about being able to say that when you've had an experience, how to reframe it, how to understand how to tell it. And part of that telling only comes from hearing lots of stories, reading lots of stories. And of course, when you get that story language for young children that maybe haven't read a lot, well, no, there's a story on the wing. They can hear it coming. It's like feeling the humidity on a day when there's gonna be a thunderstorm. The essence of it is there. We're story people. And I think it's important for young people and for everyone to be able to say that you are, there's no one else in the world to see in the world, the way that you have. Will Hillenbrand: And if you find it to be valuable, things that you've experienced, you need to give voice to that. Meaning you'll need to find the conventions that allow you to shape it so that your reader can be invited in to understand it. Probably, you know, for children. One of the things that often says, you always keep a story in your heart. And that means to me, you are a story, but we are story people and we are better informed to live this one unique life by being able to celebrate that. And so one of the things I have for advice is just to keep a journal, keep a place where you can record your ideas. We're Teflon people too, meaning that we can think that we have an idea, and if we don't somehow write it down or record it in a place that's a regular place, not just a loose leaf piece paper that flies off into the recycling bin. Will Hillenbrand: But if you have a journal and I always keep one with me and I keep my special pen that I like, and it's small and it's portable and whatever works for you that allows you to do that means that when you've seen something, I've heard something that you think is curious, put it down, don't judge it. It's an idea. Journal, just put down the ideas. But if you come back to that idea again and again, are you thinking about it? It has more to tell these are the kinds of things that have been very helpful and pleasurable to me. And you say, what am I gonna do? Well, you can have a device, but you know, actually that device is not allowing you in many cases to be creative. It's calling you to an action or activity. But if you have a blank piece of paper, I mean, that's never been an intimidation to me. It's an invitation, it's a red carpet. I'm invited and I don't know what it'll be, but I can tell you this, Laura, no one will see it first before me. I'll always see it first. And to me, if that isn't the burning edge of an exciting place, I don't know what is, please tell me. I'd like to know. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah, yeah. Not judging the idea when you have it. I think is so important. I mostly work with writers who write for adults and it's still though the same thing, the same process where you can't judge yourself. As you say, there is no such thing as instant art, you have to just explore and let yourself be creative and see where it goes. And that can be, I'm not sure. It seems like it might be more frightening for adults than for children sometimes because we have so many built-up insecurities or self-doubt and things like that to deal with. But I think that's absolutely true. Um, I pulled out a quote from your book, STARTING FROM SKETCH. It's a short illustrated guide about your process, which I really enjoyed reading. And I love this quote so much. It touches on a lot of what you've talked about during this conversation. But it is, I work in three worlds at once the world of the imagination, the world of the myth and the physical world, children seem to live comfortably in all three. Is there anything more you'd like, like to expand on about that quote and how children might experience the creative world? Will Hillenbrand: Our imagination is only really, truly exercised by the activity of reading. You know, one of the books I'm working on right now is TURTLE-TURTLE AND THE WIDE, WIDE RIVER. I had a dream long ago, I was next to a river and I wanted to get to the other bank across the river. But nowhere on that river, could I find a good place for crossing? There were no bridges, no boats, no anything. So I just kept on going up and down the bank and thinking, is it lower here? Is it this, this is all in this dream. And then I just went in and it wasn't bad and it wasn't terrible. And I got to the other side that was satisfying. I could have been on the one side walking up and down forever thinking about when the best time would be to dive in. Will Hillenbrand: And so when it came time to put that down on a piece of paper, it changes. It's about a turtle. That's on an island and a storm comes and the island will go underwater. We won't have a choice. And sometimes we need to move on. Even when we're held back by fear or thoughts of things that we feel insecure about, you know, I could sit down and say, I'm gonna write this as I remembered it in my dream, I don't do that. I just take this as an inference, an idea, a point of telling a truth of an idea, keeping a journal, writing down your ideas, putting things down, having fun. This is all play. If we think about it being too formal, you know, my fingers would freeze up and my knees would get weak and it would just, it wouldn't happen. If there isn't a sense of play with it, you lose a sense of joy and your reader will have no joy. Will Hillenbrand: And if you don't enjoy what you're doing, how would you expect your audience to enjoy it? They won't even engage a book that, uh, was read to me. But then I read to my mom when she was up in years was CHARLOTTE's WEB. Reading. CHARLOTTE's WEB was something we did together. In fact, that's one way to say that you love someone is to be able to read to them. When I read a book I really love, the narrator in my head is always my dad. He read WIND IN THE WILLOWS to me. And so I can hear his voice. And I think that's because books allow this, a relationship. We have a relationship with the author. We have the relationship with the reader and the person that's read that to us in that connection. And it all has an important link to me. It does. Will Hillenbrand: And I love that it helps me feel alive in the world and connected to the world, even the world of Robinhood or with the new Mighty Reader book, that'll be out this summer, which is really about finding the just right book for you. For instance, no one can pick out our favorite piece of music. No one can really pick out our favorite book either, but we can experience if a librarian gives us many books or ask us what we're interested in child will always say their favorite book by saying again and again, and again, we don't have to analyze why that is, but if we look at that book, that's probably telling us a lot about that individual. And isn't that a wonderful way to get to know each other, Laura Maylene Walter: Feeling alive in the world and connected within the world. I think that might be a perfect note to start to wrap up on. But before we go, would you like to share any additional details about books that are forthcoming? What do you have coming up next and where can listeners find out more about you? Will Hillenbrand: You can follow my Facebook page. My business page always has new information on it, which is just my name Will Hillenbrand. MIGHTY READER AND THE READING RIDDLE was out in July. And that's the third book of the Mighty Reader series. Coming in January, which is an unusual release date in a way, but it's a book called VOICE IN THE HOLLOW, which is a wintry adventure and has the ideas of myth embedded with physical reality. A main character is a mouse, there's a gatefold in the middle. It expands the world of the book. Don't miss it. You're in for a treat. A book that I'm just finishing the details on is another winter book called LITTLE RED. It'll be out with Little, Brown and that will be not this December, but the following December and has a little red truck that is connected to KATIE AND THE BIG SNOW in a way, the main character's named Katie because of that. But it's a little red truck that helps people and pulls a community together for a special celebration. A book definitely meant to be read aloud. Laura Maylene Walter: Wonderful. I will link to as many of those in the show notes to help people find these lovely books. I could talk to you for probably another two more hours about your career and publishing children's books. But I think it was a treat for this morning to spend some time just in a thoughtful discussion about creativity and the imagination, which is really as creators, the realm we most want to be in at all times. So thank you so much, Will, for being here. We really appreciate it. Will Hillenbrand: It's been my pleasure. Thank you so much for your time. Laura Maylene Walter: Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center of the Book at Cleveland Public Library. Learn more online at ohiocenterforthebook.org. Follow us on Twitter @cplocfb, or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email firstname.lastname@example.org and put "podcast" in the subject line. Finally, follow me on Twitter and Instagram @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.
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