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NEPM brings you interviews with New England authors of books young people may enjoy.

A kids' book with the feel of old Sunday funnies is meant to empower and reassure

Northampton, Massachusetts, author and illustrator Jeff Mack holds his book "Just a Story."
Nancy Eve Cohen
/
NEPM
Northampton, Massachusetts, author and illustrator Jeff Mack holds his book "Just a Story."

When Northampton, Massachusetts, children's book author Jeff Mack was a kid, sometimes he'd read books that were a little too scary for him. Mack said his picture book, "Just a Story," is meant to empower and reassure his readers.

It starts with a little boy who's reading in a library when pirates, elephants and a dragon appear.

Jeff Mack, author and illustrator: The boy doesn't notice any of these things, and neither does anybody who's in the library. So there's an extra little element to the story where it's asking the reader, 'Is what's happening here something that's really happening to the boy, or is it something that's happening in his imagination?'

And my idea for this was really just to remind kids, when you're reading, you've got the power to turn on your imagination. You've got the power to turn it off, too. When you're done reading, when it's too scary, you close the book and all that stuff goes away.

Nancy Eve Cohen, NEPM: Where do you get your ideas from? Do you get inspired by something you see in the world? Do they come to you from drawing or just from writing?

It's a pretty active process. You have to be thinking about possibilities — at least I can't just sit back and wait for inspiration to come to me. I've got to pay attention to the things that are going on around me, conversations that I hear people having, and then trying to put different pieces of the things I've observed together in an interesting way.

How would you describe the illustration style of this book? And do you have the same style in all your books?

It references old newspaper comics. When I was a kid, one of my favorite memories was reading Sunday comics with my grandfather. I'd sit on his lap and he'd cut my fingernails and we'd sit there and read the comics together. And it was something reassuring about it. There was something comforting. And occasionally there were things that made us both laugh out loud. I wanted something that kind of brought that feeling back.

So the art in "Just A Story" has kind of an old Sunday funnies feel to it, maybe a little bit of a pop art kind of sensibility.

I change my style often from book to book. I want to make sure that the feeling of the illustrations matches the tone or the feeling of the story that I'm working on.

When you were a kid, what was your relationship to books?

I would go to the library with my grandmother, usually on the weekends, and we would come home with a whole stack of books — lots of books about Dracula and Frankenstein and the mummy. And I would sit and practice drawing the monsters that I saw in those books. And, you know, I just would do this over and over again, even if I got frustrated with it.

When I talk with kids about drawing now, I try to tell them, if you're frustrated, don't crumple up your drawing and throw it in the trash. Put it away for a little while. Put it in an envelope or put it in a drawer and wait for your emotions to calm down a little bit. When you come back to it, there's a good chance that you're going to feel differently about the drawing. If you didn't like it at first, you might like it a little bit later on.

Today kids have a lot of screens around them, sometimes in front of them. Does that change how you think about writing stories?

I'm glad that kids can read books on devices because of the convenience; it makes it easier for them. But there's something that you miss when you're actually holding a book in your hand and you can feel — like this book has a really nice texture to the paper. It kind of has a tooth to it. Like an old kind of newspaper print kind of tooth, except it's thicker and heavier paper than that.

And there's a real kind of tactile experience that you can have with an actual book that I don't think you can have with a screen. So I think that's an important thing that I don't want to lose in picture books, is just the actual feeling of a paper.

Why write books for children?

I just think they're the best audience. Children are so willing to suspend their disbelief. They're so ready to change their emotions from one moment to the next. You know, if something's really funny and then something really sad happens and then something really exciting happens, they're just willing to go with that.

They just want to be engaged and explore. And I just think that's the best thing you could hope for with an audience.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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