Interview With Dan Bar-el: On Picturebooks, Writing, and Collaborating

Dan Bar-el is an award-winning children’s author, educator and storyteller. His writing includes chapter books, picture books, and most recently, a graphic novel. For the past twenty years, Dan has been working with children ages 3 to 13. He’s been a school age childcare provider, a preschool teacher, a creative drama teacher and creative writing teacher. These days, when not writing, travelling around the country presenting his book, storytelling or leading various workshops at schools and libraries, he teaches creative writing courses to children with the organization CWC. Dan lives in Vancouver, BC and shares his life with artist and goldsmith, Dominique Bréchault, and Sasha, the most adorable cat in the known universe. — [X]

You have some wonderful stories and most of them involve some equally wonderful illustrations. What is it about illustrated texts that interest you? Why (if at all) do you think it’s important to read picturebooks?

The analogy I’ve always used to describe picture books is theatre, which was my first passion and perhaps explains my initial attraction to the form. Like a play, a picture book is a complete experience. The words may guide you through the narrative, but the illustrations envelop you. A conventional novel requires a reader to bring their imagination to the story, to build the author’s world with the supply of words she’s given us. But a picture book requires that you bring your curiosity and your openness. A picture book asks that you seek out what is not said or what may be hidden. A picture book is a world that you literally grasp in your hands. Everything is there – the palette of colours, the speed of time passing, the scope and definition of the landscape and the characters within it. A picture book says to a reader: these are the rules of my world; accept them and enter. This is the same thing one does when entering a theatre space.

Continuing with that analogy, the style of the art, just like a director’s choice in setting or historical era, will add textures and layers to the narrative. Alternately, the illustrations can play counterpoint to the words in the same way an actor might make physical choices that are in direct contrast to his lines; in both cases, revealing more to the story than what’s spoken.

Finally, a great picture book, like a great theatre production, depends on many talents, many skills coming together for the magic to happen, and it doesn’t happen all the time. Unlike theatre, in which a performance is a moment in time, never to be repeated in exactly the same way, a picture book experience can be revisited again and again.

So for these reasons I think it is important to read picture books and read them at any age. They are not the simple cousins of “real” stories. They are a very different beast. And the text is akin to a poem in that a writer is trying to reduce, reduce, reduce, distill the story into fewer and fewer words imbued with all the force of the wordier original while also now making it open to interpretation. When I speak with middle grade students, I implore them to not stop reading picture books even though they’ve moved onto novels. A good picture book will offer new insights depending at what age you are when you come to it. I recently watched the 1949 Italian movie, The Bicycle Thief. This is a film so many of our great contemporary directors put on their list of masterpieces. The playwright, Arthur Miller, wrote an essay touting its brilliance, how is depicts a man fighting for his dignity in an indifferent, harsh world. But really, on the surface, it’s such a simple story told in a fairly straightforward way. All its power and energy is bubbling just below the surface. That’s what a good picture book can be.

What is the collaboration process for a writer working with illustrators? Does it vary depending on the project or the publisher? What do you enjoy about it? What makes you hesitate about collaboration?

The most frustrating aspect of the writer/illustrator collaboration is the lack of active collaboration. It’s bizarre really, in that I’m specifically writing a picture book story so it’s not as if I don’t have some kind of images in my head. And of course the illustrator is also acutely aware of how my words interplay and inversely perhaps even obstruct the visual narrative they are conjuring. So we should be talking!

It is rare to have that give-and-take, organic development of a picture book. I’ve only had one opportunity while working with Rae Maté on Pussycat, Pussycat, Where Have You Been? It was a great experience. It took the story further because we were able to discuss the bigger themes and elements unspoken in the text. We were able to mine the story-within-a-story in which the girl and the cat were acting out his journey for each other rather than just for the reader, which allowed for the locations to be both real and make-believe. The questions that the girl asks are not just general travel-related but personal in revealing who she is, what she finds joyous or what causes her anxiety, as well as the specific relationship she has with her friend, the cat.

Pussycat - story within a story

All of this was brought out in our conversation, which was very exciting. We had lots of ideas, and of course not all of them were used, but the process injected a lot of energy into the work.

The way it usually goes is that the editor serves as mediator. Depending on the editor, she will suss out my visual ideas and pass them onto the illustrator, or rather, whatever suggestions that are within the bounds of my job responsibilities. I respect those boundaries. I understand that there are authors who do overstep and try to dictate what they have no right demanding and an illustrator needs a firewall to keep them at bay. The only time I made a major fuss was when an illustrator’s choice of time period for the story would have changed completely the heart and mood of my story. The editor passed on my concerns and the illustrator understood and graciously re-interpreted it. I also embrace the non-collaborative collaboration with excitement too, always looking forward to seeing what the illustrator does with the text. I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve had really talented illustrators and in most every case I’ve been very, very happy with the results.

Now, having said that, I should add that at this point in my career, I have the ear of some wonderful editors who really do want to know how I visualize the book and will try to meet some of my most urgent requests. In our conversations, I am allowed to fill in the elements that are unspoken in my text to show the book’s potential. For a visual writer like myself who can’t actually make the pictures, this is golden. Now I can pitch stories that have a much more interesting interplay with the images. As to choosing an illustrator, editors may ask my opinion, but that’s as far as it goes, because they have budgets to balance and illustrators have their own interests and/or work schedules that aren’t in sync with the publisher’s, and finally, the reason editors and publishers are in this business is because they love children’s books, so their creative input involves matching a particular artist to the story they want to bring to life.

When you first started writing, did you write for younger persons in particular? When you write now, do you write with an audience in mind? (I ask because books like Audrey and A Fish Named Glub are as “all-ages” as it gets. I especially want to push A Fish Named Glub to every adult I know.)

I’m re-evaluating my answer to that question. Usually I would have said that I write for myself, the stories that I want to tell in the way that I want to tell them and it’s serendipitous that there are young age demographics that my stories appeal to. There is truth to that, but there’s more to it too. I came to children’s books later in life. I have no nostalgia about the children’s books I grew up with (mainly because I have a terrible, terrible memory), and if left to my own devices, I would gravitate to adult writers as much as those writing exclusively for children. I came to children’s books from my work in early childhood education and out-of-school care before that. I’m not a career teacher (with those particular skills and responsibilities) and I don’t have children of my own (with those particular skills and responsibilities and sacrifices), so the relationship I’ve built with children is based only on mutual respect. In other words, I don’t hold any authority with them other than that they trust that I have their best interests at heart. So I suppose I do have a younger person in mind when I write. That child is intelligent, thoughtful, comfortable with their emotions, and has a good sense of humour. I feel I owe it to children to assume each one has those qualities or is striving to develop them. I’m not consciously trying to create stories with broad, mass appeal, to “give them kiddies what they want”. It’s true, that I want adults to appreciate books like A Fish Named Glub, but when people say it’s such an existential story (implying it’s beyond the grasp of children), they do a disservice to children.

SOURCE: http://www.nationalreadingcampaign.ca/childrens-book-review-a-fish-named-glub/
[NOTE: Click to enlarge picture!]

Children do ask big questions, they struggle with big concepts like where they come from and what does death mean. They may reach conclusions that seem simple or incomplete to us, but first of all, that’s a judgement, and second, even if that was so, do their answers invalidate their questions? Ideally, I want children and adults to read my books together and have conversations, to ask questions, to maybe leave them answered until another time and be okay with that, so that the stories are not just consumed.

Dream Boats is one of the most beautiful and diverse picturebooks I’ve ever read. What was the driving force behind writing a book like Dream Boats?

Well, first of all, thank you for the very flattering lead-in to the question. Perhaps we should go with a red-coloured font to match my blush while I form my answer.

I know exactly where the initial inspiration came for Dream Boats. I was doing substitution work at the Boat Daycare in East Van, and with all daycare centres, there is nap time following lunch that involves setting out individual mats in the designated quiet room for children to sleep on. Some centres spread the mats around willy-nilly, but here they were set out in rows, side by side.

I have always found daycare nap times to be a very beautiful human experience (despite how difficult it is for me to sit on the floor without back support). All the children are on their separate mats drifting off to sleep, some right away, some requiring one of the supervising adults to rub their back or their arm, some engaged in self-talk, lulling themselves to slumber. The room gets quieter and quieter until all you hear is rhythmic breathing. Looking at the children asleep in rows as they were, made me think of a marina, with all these “boats” moored together, while at the same time the children individually were already launched into their dream worlds, and were somewhere far away.

Haida1

The dream world imagined in the book is both collective and personal. Using the metaphor of water being both dream and memory, the children’s boats drift into a shared ocean – the stuff of their dreams. I always saw the illustrations being collage on an epic scale, like street murals, incorporating the swirling elements of each child’s experience: their personal memories from their waking life, the memory-stories particular to each family that are often repeated at family gatherings, that belong only to them, and the story-myths inherited within a culture-specific community, passed on orally, or in books, and who knows, maybe within our DNA.

Haida2

The text shift between the lyrical and the prosaic. As in A Fish Name Glub, incorporating poetic writing is a way for me to convey a magical, beyond-the-ordinary plane of existence. So lines such as Water is memory; water is dreams/ Clear or mirror, deep as sleep, water flows inwards and Dream Boats follow / Take me, Dream Boat, and show me everything I know is reflected in illustrations showing all the children afloat in a celestial ocean (beautifully created by the artist Kirsti Anne Wakelin by the way).

But when we delve into the separate dream adventures of each child, the writing is episodic and tightly packed as in: Maiqui rows across cold waters. High in the Andes Mountains, it is night. But it is not dark. Mighty Viracocha, maker of light, reaches into the shimmering lake. He tosses up stars that paint the sky with constellations. One is Yacana, the thirsty llama. And then a real llama greets Maiqui at the shore. Hello friend. Together they journey down treeless slopes past terraces of barley and quinoa towards his grandparents’ village. Maiqui hears music and sees dancing. He dances too, tickled by flute song. I’ve been criticized for these passages in some reviews because there are all these elements referenced but not explained and therefore it is supposedly confusing. But that’s an adult interpretation of children’s storytelling. When I’ve recorded stories dictated to me by preschool children, that is exactly how they tell stories. This happened and then this happened and then this happened. Their peers never seem to be put off by “illogical” sequences of events when we revisited the stories as a group. There’s not a lot of demanding for explanations. That tends to kick in when we get older. Now, the publisher did end up putting a glossary page at the end of the book, but really, I’m not sure it was necessary. Mighty Virococha, maker of light evokes a powerful image whether you know exactly what god he is or what myth is associated with him.

Your latest release, Audrey (cow) is a touching and hilarious account of one cow that escapes the “Abbot’s War”. It started with an actual article you’d read. What is it about the news article that made you want to retell the cow’s story?

I think that I was first struck by the inherent dramatic structure of her story when I came across the news article. She’s literally in a life and death situation, either she avoids the abattoir or it’s game over. And then, by escaping into the forest, the stakes rise again, as she had to adapt to new surroundings while still contending with humans attempting to hunt her down. So in that regard, the story was already written.

The first question that came to mind was what made this cow special? What compelled her to make a choice that the majority of food cows don’t make? If it wasn’t just a random impulse, an adrenalin surge, let’s say, then what was it? A true will to live? A strong sense of self-worth?

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What kind of research did you end up doing?

Not too much. I did read up on the different animals up to a point – what they eat, their habitat, etc. – to keep it as real as was necessary within the rules of the world I’ve set up. The animals are basically animals in that no one is standing on two legs and smoking cigarettes when out of sight of humans. They are still limited by their physical forms but it’s their intelligence and emotional life that is shown bigger than we often credit animals with. Now, I did discover that there have been other cows who have escaped and yes, there is actually a sheep tornado, which you can see in a video on YouTube.

I’ve received several emails and reviews that praise the story for championing animal rights, and I’m glad that the story resonates with readers within that focus. But in all honesty, my intention was to write a human story. The circumstances of Audrey’s plight, the death sentence based on nothing more than who you are, the will to live, the undying love of a parent, the altruistic efforts of others to save a life, the stranger in our midst that we choose to embrace or shun or prey upon – that’s our story throughout history.

Why did you pick the news special format for the story? (I thought it worked brilliantly!)

I always knew that I wanted it written in first person, from Audrey’s point of view, and over the years, whenever I’d try to get her to tell the story, she’d always identify herself as a poet cow, and the voice that kept coming out sounded like a young Judy Garland – naïve, big dreamer, somewhat breathless in her desire to live life. I don’t remember exactly when it dawned on me to have all the characters, both animal and human, share the narration duties, as if they were being interviewed in an Errol Morris documentary (minus the eerie soundtrack). But what I did know was that if I could deal with our modern, heightened ironic sensibility within that premise (because let’s face it, we are forever winking at children in our stories these days), then I could then be free to tell a genuinely sentimental story without apologizing, like they used to do in old movies (hence all the old movie star names given to the characters).

I should add that more and more I like telling stories with animal characters. Trying to tell realistic modern stories in a time when technology dictates so much of our life and that technology is constantly changing seems to put a best before date on a story before it’s been finished. I guess historical novels would be the next choice.

Can we have a hint of what you’re working on next?

I have another picture book coming out but not until spring 2017 (a time conflict with the illustrator sadly pushed its release back). The book is called So What Should Dad Be? It’s funny, it’s straightforward simple (and not so simple), very child-friendly, with an uh-huh moment at the end.

I’ve also just signed a contract for a middle-grade graphic novel called Dog Night at the Story Zoo. My editor for the book, Samantha Swanson, pitched it as (performance event /radio show) The Moth but with animals. I’ve tried to cram as much humour, cheezy and otherwise, into this script as possible. It was a hoot to write. I’m looking forward to seeing what an illustrator can do with it. Both books will be published by Tundra Books.

Writing-wise, I’m trying to develop a picture book series. I’m also working on a graphic novel for perhaps preteens that takes place in the 1930s. And maybe, hopefully, there’s a sequel to Audrey (cow) in the future too.


Thanks so much for doing this interview with us, Dan! I so enjoyed corresponding with you! 🙂
To the readers and fellow unicorns, if you want to look up Dan’s varied and wonderful works (and I highly recommend that you do) go here! And if you’d like to get in touch with him, he also lives online here.
Happy Friday everyone!