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Meghan McCarthy’s award-winning picture books capture young readers’ interests with a wide range of subjects, from animals to astronauts to aliens. Working in her trademark cartoon style and colorful acrylic illustrations, McCarthy uses innovative fonts, striking layouts, and expressive, goggle-eyed characters to convey information, making her books a favorite among the kids in our library. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with her about her inspirations for becoming an artist and creating her popular titles for youth.
How did you first get into children’s book publishing?
McCarthy: I went to art school—the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). While there, I took a class on how to make a children’s book, which was taught by an art rep and a children’s book editor. I’d been interested in making books since I was a little kid, but taking that class really made me think again about the possibilities. After graduating from RISD, I supported myself by delivering pizzas while I sent out submissions to various publishing houses. One editor invited me to visit when I moved to New York City, so I did, after much mental coaxing, of course! That meeting landed me my first publishing contract.
You started as a fiction writer before you switched to creating nonfiction. Why the switch?
McCarthy: For years, I have worked in a bookstore. When I first started there, I noticed a hole in the market. Each day, we’d get boxes of new fiction titles but few nonfiction ones. I remember how my excitement turned to disappointment when the book chain put my first fiction book on the “returns list” in three months; my fiction books were getting lost among hundreds of other fiction titles. But I didn’t start making nonfiction just to stand out. I wanted to make books that would interest kids who struggle in school like I did. There’s so much boring material out there that’s supposed to teach kids something, but how can it teach anything if the material doesn’t sink in? I wanted to give kids some less boring educational options and make learning fun, because I know that it can be.
Your nonfiction books cover a wide variety of subjects. How do you choose your topics?
McCarthy: There are a lot of ways that I choose my subjects, but most often they choose me. I’ll stumble upon something interesting on the Internet, or I’ll watch an interesting program on public television. That’s usually the way things happen. Sometimes, though, I deliberately look for subject matter, and one search will lead to another and to another. That’s how I arrived at the idea to write Strong Man, about Charles Atlas. I was doing a search about circuses, which led to information about sideshows, and that’s how I found Atlas. He was in a sideshow when he was young.
On your website, you list a variety of influences, among them other visual artists, your parents, and some musicians. Could you elaborate on how these individuals inspired you?
McCarthy: My dad was a huge inspiration, because he showed me how to paint. He also owns a ton of art books, and we’d look at them together and talk about the artists. Take van Gogh, for example. My dad showed me the tools van Gogh used and how he made his self-portraits, and he told me if I kept practicing, I could create art, too. My dad used to paint giant oil paintings in the house, and I’d watch him work. Then I’d get out my own paints and copy him.
My mom read to all of us when we were little; we had storytime in the evening. Sometimes she’d read us picture books, and sometimes she’d read us a chapter or two from a novel. We never wanted her to stop! We’d shout, “One more book! Just one more!” Mom’s throat usually got tired at some point. It was her love of books that stayed with me all these years.
My grandmother also encouraged me to make art and follow my dreams. My sister and I used to come up with stories, and Grandma would write them down and leave big spaces for us to draw pictures. She saved all of my childhood art; I still have it in a big scrapbook.
You create both the words and the pictures in your book. What comes first: the text or the images?
McCarthy: I write the text first. I have to do a lot of research, so I do that simultaneously, while working on the text. When the text is done and paginated, then I create the sketches, which have to get approved before I can start painting. There’s a lot of back and forth with my editors and designers. The aim is to get everyone on the same page while maintaining my vision. I need at least a year or more to make a nonfiction book.
I won’t ask you which of your books is your favorite, but I would like to know if some of the projects felt harder or easier than others?
McCarthy: Oh boy. Well, the book that I did last is the freshest one in my mind, so I’m going to say that Balto was a big struggle. It took me a long time and a lot of research to complete. I have lupus, and I was in the hospital during an important due date, so that added a lot of tension to the process. I was having some memory problems, and I had to keep rereading the same material over and over. I’d never had that problem before. It’s not easy to write nonfiction when you can’t remember the material! One of the easiest books was probably The Adventures of Patty and the Big Red Bus. Fiction writing is much easier; there’s no research involved, so the story gets written very quickly, and by my fourth picture book, I’d gotten the technique down. The book got turned in on time (I was not yet sick), and everything went pretty smoothly.
Please tell us more about Balto, the subject of your latest book.
McCarthy: Many people know that Balto helped save the people of Nome by bringing medicine to them in a historic blizzard, but they don’t necessarily know what happened after that. My book takes a look at what happened after the rescue: Balto went on tour, starred in a silent movie, and posed for a statue that is now resting in Central Park. Slowly, though, he was forgotten about. Eventually, he was sold to a dime show and chained to a dusty sled in a windowless room. But the story has a happy ending! You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Adventures of Patty and the Big Red Bus. 2005. 40p. Knopf, o.p. K–Gr. 2.
Aliens Are Coming! The True Account of the 1938 War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast. 2006. 34p. Knopf, $16.95 (9780375835186). 791.44. K–Gr. 3.
Astronaut Handbook. 2008. 40p. Knopf, $16.99 (9780375844591). 629.45. K–Gr. 3.
City Hawk: The Story of Pale Male. 2007. 40p. Simon & Schuster, $15.99 (9781416933595). 598.9. K–Gr. 3.
George Upside Down. 2003. 40p. Viking, o.p. K–Gr. 3.
The Incredible Life of Balto. 2011. 40p. Knopf, $16.99 (9780375844607). 636.73. Gr. 2–4.
Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum. 2010. 32p. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (9781416979708). 664. Gr. 2–4.
Seabiscuit: The Wonder Horse. 2008. 34p. Simon & Schuster, $15.99 (9781416933601). 798.40092. K–Gr. 3.
Steal Back the Mona Lisa! 2006. 40p. Houghton, $16 (9780152053680). K–Gr. 3.
Strong Man: The Story of Charles Atlas. 2007. 34p. Knopf, $15.99 (9780375829406). 796.41092. K–Gr. 3.
For more on Meghan McCarthy’s books, visit www.booklistonline.com and select “Web Connections” under Book Links on the left-hand navigation bar.
Monika Schröder is the former elementary-school librarian at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, India. Her third novel for young readers, My Brother’s Shadow, will be published in 2011. Visit her at www.monikaschroeder.com.
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