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INGRAM talks with Victoria Chang and Marla Frazee, author and illustrator of Is Mommy?


Q.  Victoria, you are an accomplished adult poet. Is Mommy? is your first book for children. What was the inspiration for the story?

A.  I remember one day asking my toddler the question: "Is mommy nice or mean?" And she responded "Mean!" which I thought was funny and authentic because as a mommy I was feeling pretty run down and not perfect and maybe even not as patient as I should have been. Then I jotted down some other similar questions in my brain and eventually a bunch more on paper and ended up with the text for Is Mommy? In my writing and in my life I yearn for greater authenticity and more human contact, especially in this world filled with social media where many of us—including mommies—put forth a sort of perfection about our lives. Is Mommy? is all about mommies not being perfect and children knowing that and expressing that, and everyone still loving each other.

Q.  Marla, what drew you to this project?

A.  There is something so primal about it. It gives voice to feelings that every child has, sometimes many times a day. Most of us are socialized pretty early into understanding that we can’t voice less-than-nice feelings without repercussions. But here is a book that expresses these feelings in a celebratory way. No one is hurt. No one feels bad. It is actually the opposite. In the right place at the right time there can be love and safety in the expression of contradictory feelings—and in this book, between these toddlers and their mommies, there is. That's what pulled me in.

Q.  Victoria, what was it like for you to see a story of yours illustrated for the first time?

A.  It was breathtakingly exciting. I've had my poems set to music in the past, but this was entirely different. Plus to have my first picture book illustrated by Marla Frazee of all artists was an amazing experience. I loved how Marla interpreted the simple text and really made it her own. Our editor, Allyn Johnston at Beach Lane Books, sent me snapshots via text of the images along the way, and I could feel her excitement through the phone. She revealed them like a theater piece—one illustration at a time. I showed them to my mom as I received them because she had always said that I should write children's books, and I never thought it was something I could do well because I had been focused so purely on writing adult poetry for so long. My mom had also always liked to draw, and we had that in common, so it was an emotional experience sharing the images with her. She was in awe of them and couldn't believe "someone could draw so well." She passed away on August 3 of this year, after a long illness, and was not able to see the finished book, so it meant the world to me that she was at least able to see some of the illustrations.

Q.  Marla, your illustrations have such a wonderful spare, humorous, pared-down quality. Can you tell us about how you arrived at this approach?

A.  I also worked with Allyn on this book via text! Here was the thing—much as I loved this manuscript from the very first time Allyn sent it to me, I spent years believing it would be impossible to illustrate, even though it was brilliant. Then one day I had a big idea. I drove immediately to the school supply store and loaded up on tempera paint, cheap brushes, and manila paper. I raced back to my studio to channel the elementary school artist kid I once was. It felt fun and silly—and messy! I taped the paintings that made me happy up on my studio wall, and I also threw a lot away. I texted a few of my favorites to Allyn. She texted back, “KEEP GOING!” So picture by picture, text by text, this book began to take form. It was very improvisational, immediate, and unlike any editorial process I’d ever had before.

Q.  Do each of you have a library or librarian story from your childhoods to share?

Victoria:  In high school, I was such a shy, quiet, nerd that I was petrified to go into the big bad lunchroom in my big bad high school in West Bloomfield, Michigan. So every day I would go into the library instead and read books and study. Of course it was lunchtime and I was hungry, so I secretly nibbled on bagels and things in the library. I think the librarian knew I was breaking the rules by eating in there, but she never said a word to me. I appreciate every librarian I ever meet now—they are truly part of my tribe.

Marla:  After school my mom often took us to the Tarzana Public Library on Ventura Blvd. in Los Angeles where I would begin every visit by poring over the picture books. I needed to settle into those first. Once primed and drunk on picture books, I felt ready to venture into the rest of the library. What I remember most about those afternoons is how unhurried, quiet, and private they were. No one, not once, not ever, told me that the picture books were too young for me or that the young adult books were too old for me.

Q.  What do you two hope readers—both children and adults—will take away from this book? What discussions do you hope to spark?

Victoria:  I think it's somewhat controversial to say anything negative about mommies, even if it's kind of joking, especially in the sacred picture book format. But I hope that this book gives a more multi-dimensional view of motherhood and parenting and goes beyond the veneer of perfection that mommies are always supposed to achieve. The idea that we aren't perfect, but we will be loved by our children no matter what, really resonates with me.

Marla:  And that love is full of contradictions!

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