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The Caldecott-winning author-illustrator talks about his latest trickster tale and how myth has shaped his life’s work.
In the 37 years since his debut picture book, Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti (1972), was named a Caldecott Honor Book, Gerald McDermott has created more than 25 books and films, including his fifth trickster tale, Pig-Boy: A Trickster Tale from Hawai‘i. McDermott’s numerous accolades include receipt of the Caldecott Medal for Arrow to the Sun: A Pueblo Indian Tale (1974) and a second Caldecott Honor for Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest.
Although many years separate his book projects, the passage of time between publications is well justified. With new books and a children’s opera in the works, an interactive children’s museum exhibit, and a venture into costume and set design, there’s little to suggest that McDermott’s energy has slowed. Recently we had an opportunity to talk with the author about his newest trickster tale, his association with renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell, and the journey into art and myth that is threaded through all of his work.
NJJ & CG: We’ve noticed a period of many years between your last picture book and Pig-Boy. What was the journey that resulted in this trickster tale from Hawaii?
McDermott: I’ve been immersed in the literature that became Pig-Boy for a long time. It’s based on an epic poem of 16,000 lines that wasn’t intended for children. It’s filled with violence and drama and is massive in its telling. Then three years ago, I had a call from a woman who is a librarian and a Hawaiian storyteller. She’d formed a partnership with a choreographer who was a modern dancer, and they had created a performance of their stories. They invited me to these performances and to work with them. I wrote something on that trip and we tried it out. It was lovely to perform these pieces in a fancy theater as well as in community centers; the children who came were thrilled. I returned from Hawaii with the energy from those performances and went into the archives and came back with this epic poem.
NJJ & CG: How do you turn a lengthy epic poem into a story for children?
McDermott: I think certain elements fall away naturally, but the themes can be retained. Basically, as Pig-Boy steals the king’s royal chickens, he changes his form into a hairy hog, a tiny fish, and a wild boar. There’s a shapeshifter quality to the story and a cycle that he goes through. That structure occurs early on. He grows, changes shape, and then returns to the baby stage when he reunites with his grandmother.
NJJ & CG: We’ve read that you tell a story over and over again until you find it. What is your process?
McDermott: The best way to describe it is that the story finds me. I have heard thousands of stories and every once in a while one leaps up and grabs me. When I read a story that is important for me to tell, I feel it. It’s not intellectual. Once a tale catches my attention, I try to locate as many versions as I can until I feel I understand the structure. What is the basic version of it? What is the core story? Then I start telling my side of the story, speaking it aloud as I walk around my studio. Something wonderful happens when I speak a story aloud. It develops its natural rhythm. By the time I sit down to write, it’s 95 percent there. What follows is eliminating redundancies and clarifying ideas. While that’s going on, I start on the images. I distill the essence of the story to tell in words only that which I can’t tell in pictures. But the story is the engine that drives the book. Then I create a small mock-up of black-and-white sketches, creating a storyboard book.
NJJ & CG: Do your illustrations require a similar discovery and distilling process?
McDermott: I always do extensive visual research into the culture that originally told the story in order to understand the design logic of the art. When I put brush to paper, it can take many months. In Pig-Boy, I decided to play with the heart shape of the taro leaves, which resulted in the shapes for the pig’s nose and ears and is also found in other images throughout the book. And then I am off and rolling—I have the basic form of my character and I can work variations on this form. For Anansi the Spider, the triangle is the basic form of folk art in the Ashanti culture, so I just started adding triangles until I found the right shape.
NJJ & CG: What was your journey to becoming an artist?
McDermott: When I was very young, my parents took me to art classes every Saturday morning at the Detroit Institute of Art. I think children were supposed to be six years old to enroll, but I was just four. It was such a wonderful immersion in the visual arts that by the time I was eight or nine, I knew I was going to be an artist. Another great institution was my high school, Cass Technical, which was a magnet school before the term was used. It was massive, like a federal penitentiary, and kids came from all over the city for music and art and drama with a curriculum based on the Bauhaus principles. That really set me on the path. They were giving us design, painting, and art history at a college level. That’s where I started getting together my portfolio, and from that I managed to win a Scholastic Art Scholarship to the Pratt Institute in New York.
NJJ & CG: You’ve mentioned making films in high school. Where did you nurture that ability?
McDermott: I was making movies with high-school buddies and experimenting with animation, which I loved. When I was a kid, I used to draw stick figures on the margin of the Yellow Pages so when you flipped the pages, it was like a little movie. It wasn’t until I was at the Pratt Institute that I made a story film, The Stonecutter. I didn’t like Disney, but I liked the notion that you could make a drawing become a movie. I did The Stonecutter in the style of Japanese woodblock. Then it went into a drawer until I graduated.
NJJ & CG: So filmmaking was just for fun?
McDermott: It wasn’t a class assignment; I did it during my summer vacation. When I graduated, one of my professors said, “I know a man who produces and distributes educational films.” This was the era of the 16mm projector, and it was actually a viable distribution. I was introduced to this producer, who bought the rights to The Stonecutter and offered to put up financing for more films. I was just out of college, and he said, “What kind of movies do you want to make?”
NJJ & CG: What was your response?
McDermott: Films on myth and mythology. I was 22 years old. I thought I knew everything about it. “Well,” he said, “you should come to my office. There’s someone you should meet, someone you should talk to.” So here I am—a hotshot—wondering why I am taking time out of my busy schedule to meet some guy. What’s he going to tell me? In any event, that’s how I met Joseph Campbell, who was a dear friend of the producer. We held conversations over the next 12 years. Joe became the consultant for the film Gotcha Spider, Gotcha Tree and advised me as I made the transition into books. It was Campbell who suggested that I look at the sand paintings of the Pueblo, and that became the spark for Arrow to the Sun. I made the film Anansi the Spider with Campbell as a consultant before it became a picture book.
NJJ & CG: Based on that relationship with Joseph Campbell, when you look back at some of your work—even all these years later—does any of that education resonate in a book like Pig-Boy?
McDermott: Absolutely. There is a dramatic arc that goes through Campbell, an understanding through him in the layers of themes. This has been very much on my mind recently because of a recent exhibit of my artwork at the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature in Abilene, Texas. I sat in a gallery with 35 years of my work and saw an arc around it. You can see the lines, the consistency. The nice rounding out of the circle is that after Campbell died, his wife, Jean, asked me to get involved in his foundation. A lot of Campbell’s work was out of print or never published. Part of the trove was 1,400 hours of audiotape that Joe had recorded over a 40-year period. The chief editor and head of the foundation realized that there were about a dozen stories that were loved above all because Joe told them over and over again. My next big project is Joseph Campbell’s Favorite Myths.
NJJ & CG: Are you working on another trickster tale?
McDermott: Yes. It’s a tale from India. It follows the monkey tradition throughout Southeast Asia. It’s a beautiful story and a nice way to round out these trickster tales. One of the best parts is that after having done books for so long, they often come back in ways I could never know.
NJJ & CG: Are there other things you are involved with in addition to writing and illustrating?
McDermott: Recently I was contacted by a composer who wants to write a choral piece based on Musicians of the Sun (1997). He is the composer of the music from the musical Fame. Then the Children’s Museum of Tacoma (Washington) had an idea to do an interactive exhibit based on stories of the world. They decided to use my trickster tales as the basis for their exhibit. I’ve also been designing scenery and costumes for a theater production at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. The best part of this design process is taking something I have done in two dimensions and trying to reconceive it for three dimensions. It’s a revelation to me. I’ve been sitting alone in a room for more than 30 years making books. It is really nice to be with a group of people who bring their energy to it. I’m convinced I can see in the pages of Pig-Boy that my stage is growing. Kids can interact with the stories and enter the world of Raven or Coyote. There’s also a studio where they can create their own stories and art. I worked with the design team, but it was their energy and commitment that made it happen.
McDermott’s Trickster Tales
Coyote: A Trickster Tale from the American Southwest. 1994. 32p. Harcourt, $16 (9780152207243); paper, $7 (9780152019587). 398.24. PreS–K.
Jabutí the Tortoise: A Trickster Tale from the Amazon. 2001. 32p. Harcourt, $17 (9780152004965); paper, $7 (9780152053741). 398.2. K–Gr. 2.
Pig-Boy: A Trickster Tale from Hawai‘i. 2009. 32p. Harcourt, $16 (9780152165901). 398.2. K–Gr. 2.
Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest. 1992. 32p. Harcourt, $16 (9780152656614); paper, $7 (9780152024499). 398.2. K–Gr. 4.
Zomo the Rabbit: A Trickster Tale from West Africa. 1992. 32p. Harcourt, $17 (9780152999674); paper, $7 (9780152010102). 398.2. PreS–Gr. 3.
Trickster Tales in the Classroom
Trickster tales are based on oral storytelling and provide insight into cultures around the world. Part of their appeal is that the trickster characters are often smaller under-dogs who use wit and cunning to gain advantages or achieve goals. Some tricksters are cultural heroes, others have superhuman powers, and most offer entertaining lead-ins to discussions about problem solving and appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. A few strategies for integrating these tales into the curriculum include:
Folktale Themes and Activities for Children, Volume 2: Trickster and Transformation Tales. By Anne Kraus. 1999. 246p. Libraries Unlimited, $30 (9781563086083).
“From Anansi to Zomo: Trickster Tales in the Classroom.” By Terrell A. Young and Phyllis M. Ferguson. The Reading Teacher 48, no. 6 (Mar. 1995): 490–503.
Happily Ever After: Sharing Folk Literature with Elementary and Middle School Students. Ed. by Terrell A. Young. 2004. 360p. International Reading Association, $34.95 (9780872075108).
Nancy J. Johnson is a professor of English education at Western Washington University. Cyndi Giorgis is a professor of children’s and young-adult literature at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas.
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