Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Phyllis Root, Interview

Tuesdays with Morzant:
Getting to Know an Author

MORZANT: Zulko, humans. Today I’m interviewing Phyllis Root, a versatile writer whose name inexplicably comes up every time Bigfoot hears “Some Enchanted Evening.” Zulko, Phyllis.

PHYLLIS ROOT: Zulko, Morzant. I assume that means “Hello,” and not, “You look delicious.” I want to thank you for this interview. It is a little known fact that I myself am a cryptid. Really. I’m not just a wannabe because cryptids are so cool: my existence has never been conclusively proven, not even to me. There have been a few blurry photos of me, one of which I am sending you.

MORZANT: I see Bigfoot took that photo. Due to Bigfoot’s photography impediment, that photo would be blurry whether or not you’re a cryptid. Still, since I have no reason to suspect you’re making that up—aside from knowing you write fiction for a living—here’s a packet containing maps to our meeting places and a diagram illustrating how to perform the secret handshake.

Before we begin the interview, I want to commend you on the inclusion of gastropods in several of your books. A snail appears in two illustrations in your picture book OLIVER FINDS HIS WAY and another snail is pictured in Sam’s garden in SAM WHO WAS SWALLOWED BY A SHARK. In those instances, the illustrator added snails that weren’t included by you in your stories. However, you did write gastropods into at least two of your other picture books. There’s a rare appearance of a slug in SOUP FOR SUPPER. In ONE DUCK STUCK there are seven snails, although they’re relegated to supporting roles. Would you consider writing a book with a gastropod as the main character?

PR: I think a gastropod would make a great main character. In fact, one of my favorite books to read is HOORAY FOR SNAIL, which stars a gastropod. I confess I am less enamored of slugs, who don’t seem to have shown up as characters in any books I can think of, but if worms can star in books, slugs certainly can, too. Pretty much all the slugs I’ve ever met have designs on my garden. I feel similarly about rabbits and squirrels in the summer—cute as long as they keep their paws off my tomatoes and lettuce and peas.

MORZANT: I’d like to assure the BIGFOOT READS audience that the slug in SOUP FOR SUPPER is not an ingredient.

PR: Please be assured, too, that I eat neither slugs nor snails.

MORZANT: My friend Penny C. Monster, on learning that you used to conjure up ghost stories for your cousins, made me promise to ask if you ever intend to write a supernatural tale for your fans.

PR: Please tell Penny that I haven’t really thought about it, but I like the idea, as long as I don’t scare myself while I’m writing it.

MORZANT: I pride myself on being a thorough researcher; therefore, I was determined to read all of your books. This was no small feat considering you’ve published so extensively. You may be interested to learn that if all the pages from a copy of each of your books were positioned side-by-side, they could carpet an entire regulation-sized pugilifot field, including the players’ congregation chambers. Don’t worry. I determined that mathematically and not by actually tearing apart any books. To what do you credit your incredible prolificacy?

PR: I am not familiar with pugilifot or congregation chambers, but I’m very impressed with your dedication to research. I’ve been writing for more than thirty years, so I believe that if you counted up all the words in all the books I’ve written and divided it by the number of days in those years, it would not be a very large number per day. It might even come down to a letter a day. Maybe.

MORZANT: I’m tempted to calculate that now, but I must stay focused and continue this interview instead.

I enjoy interviewing all writers, but I’m especially eager to speak with you. While studying your work, I discovered book formats and literary devices I’d never before encountered. For example, your lift-the-flap and board books were the first of their kind I’ve read.

My friend Norman the Half-Invisible Turtle told me that the purpose of board books, which have thick cardboard pages, is to arm human babies with a spider-masher in the event any arachnids crawl into their cribs as they’re reading. Can you confirm this? I’ve learned to be skeptical of almost everything Norman tells me.

PR: While Norman is certainly correct that a board book could be used to mash spiders, I did not write one with the intention of arming babies against arachnids. I often leave the spider webs I find in the corners of my house out of respect for their art and not, as some people contend, because of lackadaisical housekeeping. I believe the purpose of board books is to provide a short story in an almost-indestructible form so that a baby may chew it or bash it or turn the pages with abandon, but Norman, and human babies, are certainly free to enjoy books in whatever way they wish. I’ve always thought an edible book would be a great idea. Do you have books to eat on Zeenton?

MORZANT: No. But a Zeentonian friend of mine once accidentally swallowed a calculator.

Your book WHO SAID BOO? is not only a board book, but also a lift-the-flap book. Norman claims that lift-the-flap books were originally invented by William Shakespeare as a means by which to convey clandestine messages to General Paddington during the Great Marmalade Wars. I’m fairly certain that’s at least partially inaccurate.

PR: I am very impressed with Norman’s grasp of the intersection of politics and art. Here I’ve lived on Earth my whole life so far and have never even heard of the Great Marmalade Wars. Who won?

MORZANT: You’ll have to ask Norman. Not surprisingly, I didn’t find any mention of it in my books on Earth history. I won’t waste your time with what Norman told me about the first pop-up books.

PR: One thing I think about when I am writing books for young children is how to invite the listener or reader into the book. An editor once told me that picture books are performances, which changed how I looked at writing them. I’ve tried lots of things—questions, prediction, rhyming, repetition, lift-the-flap, all sorts of ways to invite children into a book. Of course, the best invitation is always a good story, which is always what I’m trying for when I write.

MORZANT: Several of your books, including IF YOU WANT TO SEE A CARIBOU and LOOKING FOR A MOOSE, introduced me to the literary device known as onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia, as I understand it, is a word that simulates the sound it’s meant to describe. Given that these words are frequently complete fabrications by writers and don’t appear in any official registry of words such as a dictionary, I’m left to wonder if onomatopoeia is entirely legal. Forgive me for saying so, but at the very least onomatopoeia seems a bit shady. Have you ever been jailed for your cavalier manipulation of the alphabet?

PR: I have been arrested, yes, but not for writing without a license. Call me an anarchist, but I say letters should be able to associate with any other letters they want to and most certainly have the right to freely assemble. When I wrote RATTLETRAP CAR, I had great fun bouncing along in my car and trying to capture the sounds the car made. Does your language have strict rules about which letters can be with other letters? Does your language have letters?

MORZANT: My language does have letters. A Zeentonian wouldn’t fear retribution for arranging letters in a free-spirited manner, I just doubt it would occur to the average Zeentonian to do so. The arrangement of the letters in our words is based on an ancient mathematical equation.

Regardless, you’re particularly adept at creating onomatopoeia. In IF YOU WANT TO SEE A CARIBOU, “rooosh rooosh” is used to simulate the sound of waves. LOOKING FOR A MOOSE uses “squeech squooch” to replicate the sound of walking through a swamp. I’ve walked through a swamp and “squeech squooch” is the exact sound I heard. My favorite onomatopoeic words are in ONE DUCK STUCK. The seven snails “sloosh sloosh” as they move along. Do you have a lab assistant helping you conduct the rigorous research I assume is necessary for the creation of such convincing onomatopoeia?

PR: I work alone. The last lab assistant I had threw out the leftover growth hormone, and the slugs in the back yard ate it. Needless to say, I let the slugs have all the tomatoes they wanted from my garden that year.

MORZANT: There’s another aspect shared by IF YOU WANT TO SEE A CARIBOU and LOOKING FOR A MOOSE. Both books feature quests for antlered creatures. Did personal experience serve as inspiration for these books? If so, were you successful in locating the object of your search?

PR: I love being outdoors, whether sailing, canoeing, hiking, camping, or gardening, so yes, those books are based on personal experience. I wrote IF YOU WANT TO SEE A CARIBOU while on a sailing trip to the Slate Islands in Lake Superior where I had hoped to see caribou. When Lake Superior froze in the early 1900s caribou crossed over the ice to these islands, and no predators crossed with them, so now there are lots of caribou on the islands. Unfortunately, they aren’t that easy to see, at least for me. One of the folks I was sailing with claimed to be spotting lots of them, and I got pretty upset—the trip had been my idea, so I should be the one seeing caribou. Finally, just as in the book, after a hike around one of the islands I came back to the sailboat and while we were sitting there drinking a glass of wine (okay, that part is not in the book), two caribou came out of the woods and walked along the shore by us. True story.

I’ve also seen a fair number of moose in my time, one of which I almost walked into while hiking on Isle Royale. Moose are very, very big. I doubt if even Bigfoot would want to tangle with a moose. I’ve also heard moose outside the tent at night when camping, and they clomp, clomp very loudly. It’s best to give moose a lot of respect and a lot of room.

MORZANT: A parallel could easily be drawn between those books’ quests for antlered creatures to the quests people make in search of elusive cryptids. A companion book titled OH WHERE, OH WHERE HAS MY JACKALOPE GONE? might round out the series quite nicely.

PR: I think you might have an excellent idea for a book here, and since this suggestion comes from your heart as all good ideas do (I’m assuming inhabitants of Zeenton have hearts), I encourage you to write that book yourself.

MORZANT: Many of the authors I’ve interviewed have suggested I try my hand at writing. Perhaps I should take those suggestions to heart. Zeentonians have three, by the way.

Speaking of books in a series, you have a set of picture books about Bonnie Bumble and her animal friends and the outlandish things that happen to them during the course of a week. When I was checking out this series of weekday-titled books, my library friend noticed what I had not—that there was no book for Sunday. I must ask you: What happens to Bonnie Bumble and her animal friends on Sunday?

PR: No one knows. So far I have tried several Sunday stories, but with no success. What would you suggest? JACKALOPE SUNDAY just doesn’t have the alliteration of the other titles.

MORZANT: SASQUATCH SUNDAY has a nice ring to it.

The collection of stories in AUNT NANCY AND THE BOTHERSOME VISITORS features one of my favorite characters in all the Earth literature I’ve studied so far. Aunt Nancy manages to outfox Old Man Trouble, Cousin Lazybones, Old Woeful, and Mister Death himself.

Norman is my dear friend, but he can also be extremely bothersome. He constantly interrupts my attempts to interview Bigfoot. He feeds me misinformation about Earth’s inhabitants, customs, and history. And, perhaps most irritating of all, he pretends to think I’m a frog when he knows perfectly well I am not a frog. Irritating me is a great source of amusement for him. How do you suppose Aunt Nancy would advise me to deal with Norman?

PR: I cannot speak definitively for Aunt Nancy, but I can imagine she might say that whenever he pretends you are a frog, you should croak a lot and hop around and perhaps catch a fly or two, or at least offer to catch some for him. Jumping on him might also work, or you could even hint that a favorite frog food is half-invisible turtles, and would he like to come to dinner? You know you’re not a frog, I know you’re not a frog, Aunt Nancy knows you’re not a frog, but if pretending to be one buys you a little peace and quiet, I think Aunt Nancy would say hop to it. She is not above bending the truth a little.

MORZANT: That’s interestingly counterintuitive. I do love to experiment. I’m going to try it.

RATTLETRAP CAR and TOOT TOOT ZOOM! include the recurring theme of a broken down vehicle. I was once stranded on Ganymede when my ship’s yardimotuvantu overheated. I was unable to carry out a conventional repair because I had carelessly left behind my six millimeter horzonmitont. The repair simply couldn’t be completed with the five millimeter horzonmitont I had brought. Fortunately, like the resourceful characters in RATTLETRAP CAR, I was able to improvise a temporary repair. There are probably worse places than Ganymede to break down, but I can’t think of any at the moment.

PR: A good friend always said, the right tool for the right job. Too bad you didn’t have any chocolate marshmallow fudge delight. I’ve also fixed cars with bars of soap and twisty ties, but I suspect your yardimotuvantu may be more technologically sophisticated than Earth vehicles, none of which, to my knowledge, has yet managed to make it to Ganymede. RATTLETRAP CAR, by the way, is arguably my first non-fiction book, since everything that happened to that car in the story has happened to cars I’ve owned, including things I left out of the story because nobody would believe them.

MORZANT: It’s becoming a tradition for me to ask the interviewee a hypothetical question. My hypothetical question to you is: If you had to choose a place for your car to break down and leave you stranded, where would you choose?

PR: That’s a tough one. There are so many wonderful places. Also, I’ve already been stranded in more places that I can count. I would probably choose somewhere I haven’t yet been but yearn to go, like Greenland or Finland or the Galapagos, none of which is currently accessible by car from Minnesota.

MORZANT: There’s a famous work of literature where a princess’s kiss turns a frog into a prince. In your KISS THE COW!, kissing a cow results in an abundant supply of milk for an enormous family. I wonder what would result from an author of such a book kissing an extraterrestrial from the planet Zeenton. I’m amenable if, in the pursuit of knowledge, you would like to try.

PR: Pucker up. I feel a sequel coming on.

Actually, I tried very hard to kiss a cow while writing the book so I’d know what kissing a cow was like, but when I went to the cow barn at the state fair to conduct my research, I couldn’t bring myself to kiss one. (To be fair, the cows are tied in the barn so that their back ends are mostly what you see when you walk through.) A few years ago I did kiss a friend’s cow on the nose. Do Zeentonians have noses?

MORZANT: Is having a nose a prerequisite to being kissed on this planet? Although Zeentonians don’t have a protruding appendage as humans do, we do have an olfactory organ that allows us to perceive odors. You could kiss that if you like.

PR: Noses are not mandatory for kissing on Earth. Lips do help. Cow lips, however, were more than I wanted to kiss.

MORZANT: In addition to your books for younger readers, you’ve also written two novels. Your most recent novel is LILLY AND THE PIRATES. Lilly is an anxious girl who jots down her worries in a “worry book,” superstitiously believing that doing so will prevent terrible things from happening to her.

Please correct me if I’m mistaken, but I believe I identified the use of the literary device known as a metaphor in LILLY AND THE PIRATES. Lilly finds herself sailing on turbulent waters. At one point she is ejected into the sea and begins to sink. She is only able to resurface when she lightens her load by letting go of her worry book.

The tossing and turning of the sea seem to represent life’s tribulations and letting go of her worry book signals that Lilly will no longer allow worries to keep her from living her life.

I don’t have a question about that. I just wanted to demonstrate my understanding of the metaphors your novel.

PR: You have a deep understanding of metaphor. But superstitious? You mean it doesn’t really work? Aaagh!

MORZANT: Lilly has to face her fears, as does the main character in your novel THE LISTENING SILENCE. Are you a writer who follows the adage “write what you know”? If so, what fears of your own did you draw on when writing the stories of these two trepidatious characters?

PR: Actually, I think it’s more fun to write what you don’t know, but it’s true that I’ve been terrified of many things in my life: the dark, taking out the garbage, underneath the bed, closets, where to sit in first grade, going to Sunday school, tornadoes, fire ants, ghosts, sinking a sailboat, going up in a Ferris wheel, driving over bridges, rafting on the Zambezi River, sleeping out at 23 below zero. You name it, I’ve probably been afraid of it. When my daughter read LILLY, I asked if she recognized me in the chapter about being seasick (I am probably intergalactically famous for my seasickness), and she said, “Mom, you’re on every page.”

Is there anything on your planet that I should worry about?

MORZANT: You share a fear of fire ants with Penny. As to my planet, you’d probably feel at ease there. We don’t have fire ants, Ferris wheels, or a Zambezi River. I trust you wouldn’t be troubled by a 39-legged teleporting Zementiny. Their poisonous sting rarely kills.

I’m trying to gain a greater appreciation for words, although I prefer numbers. For that reason I have a special affection for ONE DUCK STUCK and TEN SLEEPY SHEEP, books that are an amalgam of numbers and fiction. TEN SLEEPY SHEEP is apparently what’s known as a bedtime story, the first I’ve ever studied. Or, more precisely, attempted to study. It pains me to say I don’t know what happens after the seventh sheep falls asleep. The story’s somnolent cadence defeated my repeated attempts to remain conscious while reading it. Isn’t it counterproductive to craft a story whose purpose it is to put the audience to sleep?

PR: Actually, the first time I read the manuscript in a critique group, I did put one of the other writers to sleep, which is the desired effect of a bedtime book on Earth. Earthlings have been known to read even the most exciting stories in a dull monotone in the hopes of luring small children to sleep at bedtime.

Spoiler alert: sheep numbers eight, nine, and ten meet the same fate as the other sheep.

MORZANT: I do like numerical fiction, but non-fiction is even more appealing to me. Many readers equate non-fiction with dullness. Your book BIG BELCHING BOG is an excellent argument against that misconception. BIG BELCHING BOG blends information and poetic language with striking illustrations. It has all the drama of a work of fiction, such as when the insects are devoured by ravenous plants. It has interesting characters—the bog’s resident frogs who are frozen alive during the winter and the specters of caribou. There’s an ominous building of tension as the reader is drawn to wonder what is rising in the bog, and then finally a revelatory payoff.

In short, your non-fiction is as compelling as your fiction. Is one or the other harder to write?

PR: Thank you for all your kind words. I’m feeling more and more like a real writer throughout the interview. I find non-fiction harder to write because I can’t just make something up when I want to. That said, I loved doing the research and writing the Bog book and am hard at work on a prairie book, even though prairies don’t seem to emulate any bodily human functions. Do you have prairies on Zeenton? Do they make any noises?

MORZANT: There aren’t any prairies on Zeenton. Zeenton is mostly desert. In contrast to Earth’s deserts where one might see a mirage, one is more likely to encounter an auditory illusion while roaming Zeenton’s deserts. I’ve never experienced one myself, but there are accounts of entire symphonies being heard. And, sometimes a mysterious dry hacking cough.

Thank you for introducing me to creation stories with your picture book BIG MOMMA MAKES THE WORLD. Creation stories offer imaginative scenarios to explain how the Earth was made. I assume you’re aware that BIG MOMMA MAKES THE WORLD is scientifically incorrect. It’s sometimes difficult to be certain what’s going on in the mind of a writer, so I’d like to confirm that you’re familiar with the big bang theory. Are you? If not, I’d be happy to explain it to you. Furthermore, I’d like to offer additional scientific instruction if GRANDMOTHER WINTER and LUCIA AND THE LIGHT are true reflections of your understanding of your planet’s winter season and of the sun.

PR: I can see where confusion might arise, but if you look at the page right before Helen Oxenbury’s wonderful wordless explosion of animals, you’ll see that Big Momma makes all the rest of the animals in One Big Bang. I assume this is the theory you mean. If not, I’d be glad to hear any alternate explanations you’d like to offer. I realize things might bang differently in your corner of the universe.

Are you saying that snow doesn’t come from shaking a quilt and that trolls don’t steal the sun? How does weather work on Zeenton?

MORZANT: Not having been present at the time of the big bang, I can’t categorically state that a large, maternal woman didn’t create all of Earth’s animals at once. I remain highly skeptical of that particular interpretation of the big bang theory, however.

My offer of a tutoring session stands. I’ll explain snow—which isn’t dependent on quilts, afghans, or sleeping bags—and dispel your mistaken ideas about the sun. While we’re at it, I’ll throw in a lesson on evolution.

Your enthusiasm for storytelling is apparent. It reminds me of my own passion for scientific experimentation.

PR: What sort of scientific experiments are you currently conducting? Did you know that here on Earth you can stand an egg on end on the equinox?

MORZANT: Of course there’s my ongoing study of Earth literature. Then there are my experiments to determine the cause of Bigfoot’s photography impediment and my research regarding the tensile properties of Rice Krispies Treats.

I’ll mark my calendar for the equinox even though I can’t shake the feeling you’ve been recruited by Norman to convince me to try something that will make me look foolish.

PR: Actually, I’m not being completely truthful. If one is patient and has a steady hand, one can stand an egg on end any day of the year, not just on the equinox. A little salt on the surface under the egg doesn’t hurt, either.

MORZANT: I knew you were too nice to follow through with a Norman-style prank.

You’ve written board books, lift-the-flap books, early readers, bedtime stories, numerical fiction, tall tales, creation stories, non-fiction, and novels. Interestingly, you’ve also written stories about stories, namely THE NAME QUILT and COYOTE AND THE MAGIC WORDS. COYOTE AND THE MAGIC WORDS is another creation story. In it, the Maker-of-all-things uses magic words to make the world and everything in it. The world’s people then use magic words to make the sun rise and set, to make it rain, and to make crops grow. To amuse himself, Coyote tricks the people into using the magic words against each other.

Come to think of it, Coyote kind of reminds me of Norman.

What was I saying? Oh, yes. Because of the chaos Coyote causes, the Maker-of-all-things takes away most of the world’s magic words. The only ones that remain are those that exist while stories are being told.

If stories are indeed magical, that would make you a first-rate magician.

I don’t suppose you can you pull a rabbit out of a hat, too?

PR: If I had a hat, and if the hat had a rabbit in it, and if the rabbit was willing to be pulled out of the hat, and if the rabbit promised to leave my garden alone, I could give it a try.

MORZANT: Phyllis, because of your books, I’ve made significant strides in my studies of Earth literature. Thank you. I look forward to further advancements in my studies when your next book is released.

PR: Thank you! This has been the most illuminating and enjoyable interview ever! May you live well and prosper and read lots of books and write them, too.

MORZANT: Good-bye, humans. I’ll leave you with the challenge of finding which of Phyllis’s books contains another reference to kissing cows. Hint: It is one of the books listed below.



(illustrated by Holly Meade; Candlewick, 2005)


(illustrated by Holly Meade; Candlewick, 2005)



(illustrated by Delphine Durand; Candlewick, 2005)

WHO SAID BOO? (also a board book)

(illustrated by Ana Martín Larrañaga; Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2005)



(illustrated by Ed Young; Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985)


(illustrated by Sue Truesdell; Harper & Row, 1986)


(illustrated by Sandra Speidel; Lothrop, Lee & Shepard-William Morrow, 1993)


(illustrated by Axel Scheffler; Candlewick, 1994)


(illustrated by Laura Cornell; Laura Geringer-HarperCollins, 1996)


(illustrated by Russell Ayto; Candlewick, 1996)


(illustrated by Kevin O’Malley; Lothrop, Lee & Shepard-William Morrow, 1997)


(illustrated by Jane Chapman; Candlewick, 1998)


(illustrated by Jill Barton; Candlewick, 1998)


(illustrated by Beth Krommes; Houghton Mifflin, 1999)


(illustrated by Will Hillenbrand; Candlewick, 2000)


(illustrated by Jill Barton; Candlewick, 2001)


(illustrated by Helen Oxenbury; Candlewick, 2002)


(illustrated by Christopher Denise; Candlewick, 2002)


(illustrated by Paul Meisel; Candlewick, 2002)


(illustrated by Margot Apple; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003)


(illustrated by Jim Meyer; Houghton Mifflin, 2004)


(illustrated by Susan Gaber; Candlewick, 2004)


(illustrated by Randy Cecil; Candlewick, 2006)


(illustrated by Mary GrandPré; Candlewick, 2006)


(illustrated by David Walker; Candlewick, 2009)


(illustrated by Kevin O’Malley; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)


(illustrated by Matthew Cordell; Candlewick, 2009)


(illustrated by Betsy Bowen; University of Minnesota Press, 2010)


(illustrated by Regan Dunnick; Candlewick, 2010)



(illustrated by Helen Craig; Candlewick, 2000)


(illustrated by Helen Craig; Candlewick, 1998)


(illustrated by Helen Craig; Candlewick, 1996)


(illustrated by Helen Craig; Candlewick, 2009)


(illustrated by Helen Craig; Candlewick, 2000)


(illustrated by Helen Craig; Candlewick, 2001)



(illustrated by Katharine McEwen; Candlewick, 2000)


(illustrated by Katharine McEwen; Candlewick, 2000)


(illustrated by James Croft; Candlewick, 2002)


(illustrated by James Croft; Candlewick, 2002)



(with illustrations by David Parkins; Candlewick, 2007)



(with illustrations by Dennis McDermott; HarperCollins, 1992)


(with illustrations by Rob Shepperson; Boyds Mills Press, 2010)


Matthew Cordell said...

Wow--love this interview, and love this blog!

Bigfoot said...

Thanks, Matthew. Everybody at BIGFOOT READS loves YOUR work.

cranberly said...

Excellent and entertainig interview!