Thursday, July 21, 2011

Meet Children's Books Author Audrey Vernick

A very fun book.

My caricature of Audrey
Author Audrey Vernick is unflinchingly honest and gasp-for-breath funny, in real life and on the page.
When I first met her we were at our literary agent's writer retreat in an idyllic setting near Boston, with a reservoir perfect for kayaking, woodsy paths ideal for writerly contemplation, tables on the patio just right for manuscript  inspiration. And a wide, green lawn that I kept hearing hosts frolicking baby  foxes early in the mornings -- but I never saw them even though one morning I did get up very early to jog. 
This was a lovely backdrop for meeting Audrey and other stellar members of our agent's client list. 
At such events my strategy is to memorize names and analyze people quickly. 
Instantly I pegged Audrey as sort of a sister. 
To me this means she can take endless ribbing (and get even) but she also has a huge heart. She's deep. Compassionate. She plays fair. By now she knows some of my worst faults and insecurities but never uses them against me. 
We drove for ice cream one night --
Erin Murphy, literary agent, and Audrey Vernick, literary author

and Audrey's group got lost. (Probably her fault.) We gave up looking for them and drove back to the retreat center, but I remember worrying -- not for their safety, but for us. Audrey's little, but she's a big part of any party.

It was on this trip that I came to know Buffalo, of Publisher’s Weekly starred-reviewed Is Your Buffalo Ready For Kindergarten? 

Buffalo is fabulously illustrated by Daniel Jennewein who injects Audrey's visionary characterization with watercolors and caran d'ache to make a naive 
giant of a kindergartener, a sort of Baby Huey for today's kids.
And now the Buffalo book has a sibling! A second book, Teach Your Buffalo To Play Drums, debuted last month.

To celebrate, I cornered Audrey and begged her to answer six questions: 
1. Why drums? Why not a French horn? Piccolo? Bassoon? Or my favorite, the harmonica? It’s portable, not too loud -- the only problem is you can’t sing while playing. Does Buffalo sing well? If not, I recommend a harmonica.
Audrey's answer:
I'm still reeling from Baby Huey!

The answer to the buffalo question is embarrassing in that it paints me as kind of random and uncreative. But one day, when I was saying something stupid to my son about teaching his dog to bake, I said, "You know, I should write a whole series--Teach Your Dog to Bake; Teach Your Cat to Surf; Teach Your Buffalo to Play Drums." That last one kind of echoed in my head. And I never thought to look beyond the words I said. Your question makes me wonder why I didn't consider other instruments before committing my buffalo to life in the rhythm section. But drums allowed me to write one of my favorite lines, one that was ultimately cut from the final text:

You know what’s really cool? Your buffalo should walk around with his drum sticks all the time, everywhere he goes, just so everyone knows he’s a drummer.

It must be noted: Harmonicas are awesome, too. Do you know Bruce Springsteen tossed me his harmonica during "Promised Land" in 1984? True story.

2. I know you love to research because you produce awesome books that require a lot of it. Can you tell us about an unexpected discovery that still delights you?
Audrey's answer: 
You ask fun questions, Ruth Barshaw. I think I'm saving my favorite discovery for a book that keeps not getting written by me, but one I really hope to write some day. So let's go with these two tidbits.

Editing the text of SHE LOVED BASEBALL: THE EFFA MANLEY STORY required cutting away some very important scenes. One of my favorites involved Branch Rickey. He's pretty widely regarded as being the man who, by signing Jackie Robinson to play for the Dodgers, integrated the major leagues. But from Effa Manley's point of view, he was more like a thief. This is a scene I regret cutting from SHE LOVED BASEBALL:

But Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Dodgers, wasn’t done yet. He signed five more Negro League players, offering to pay for only one of them, and just a tiny amount at that.
She couldn’t stay quiet any more.
Effa decided to do something about it.
She wrote to Branch Rickey, criticizing the way he took players without paying for them. She asked for a chance to meet with him. Rickey did not respond.
One day she happened to be at Yankee Stadium when Rickey was there. She marched over to him and explained that Negro League contracts were as real as major league contracts. She pointed out that she could take legal action against him. It is said that she made Branch Rickey turn very bright red.

I just love imagining the moment when Effa spotted him. Keep in mind this was the 1940s. She was both African-American and female. And she upbraided the great Branch Rickey right there in front of everyone in Yankee Stadium.

The other discoveries that don't exactly delight me, but make me laugh, have to do with the Acerra Brothers, subject of the forthcoming BROTHERS AT BAT: THE TRUE STORY OF AN AMAZING ALL-BROTHER BASEBALL TEAM. For this book, I interviewed two of the three surviving brothers from the twelve-member team of brothers. And my repeated refrain to their glory-days stories was, "It's a book for CHILDREN!!" The testosterone stories they told! My favorite example of incredibly bad judgment came from Freddie. He was determined to join the Navy during World War II, but despite living blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, he had one tiny problem: he couldn't swim. I can't tell this story without my head involuntarily shaking, but this is how he solved the problem: he gave his dogtags to someone else, someone who could swim, and had him take the swimming test. Don't think about it too hard.
Yikes!!! 3. What is Buffalo’s favorite martial art? 
Audrey's answer:
4. Are you working on another Buffalo book?
Audrey's answer:
I have submitted a list of possible titles; it's in my publisher's court right now.
5. How do you think Buffalo and Ben-Ben would get along? (Ben-Ben is Ellie McDoodle's hyper little brother)
Audrey's answer:
Buffalo would adore Ben Ben and be tickled by his energy. I think they would enjoy hilarious hijinks together, and I'd like to see how you'd draw that, ma'am. But I think Buffalo would need to nap after a few hours. I don't think a slumbering Buffalo would slow down Ben-Ben, though. I think he would continue, sometimes hijinksing atop a sleeping buffalo.

I totally agree. 

6. What’s the question you wish I’d asked? (And what’s the answer?)
Audrey's answer:
What is the derivation of babyhead? (A term I use to describe myself and others).

I don't know the answer. I just know it's a term I use, on occasion, to describe myself. And others.
You've called me Babyhead many times. I don't feel any more enlightened than before. :p   
Audrey, if you need to know what it feels like to wrestle in a Sumo suit, I can tell you sometime. My nephew rented Sumo suits for his graduation party last month, and of course I suited up to fight. (Don't do this on a very hot day. And try not to be the person who puts on the suit immediately after the kid in the wet bathing suit.) 
As to Bruce Springsteen's harmonica, I am in awe. "Promised Land" is part of why I wanted to learn how to play harmonica. I still can't play it... 
Thanks so much for today's duet. :)
  Audrey's other books:

Water Balloon
Clarion Books
September 5, 2011
Her first novel comes out in just a few weeks!

So You Want To Be a Rock Star
illustrated by Kirstie Edmunds
Walker Books for Young Readers
January 2012

by Audrey Glassman Vernick and
Ellen Glassman Gidaro
illustrated by Tim Brown
Overmountain Press, 2003

Indie bound link   
Amazon link  
Barnes & Noble link  

Audrey’s website link  
Please check out the other stops in Audrey's book blog tour: 
Jean Reidy’s blog (6/22) (Buffalo's bucket list!)
Peter Salomon’s blog (6/29) 
Laurie Thompson’s blog (7/13)  
And you'll love Audrey's blog.