Welcome to Elephant Notes . . . our periodic take on some of the ideas, issues, and news impacting parents, children, and reading.
The challenge of meeting a new friend reaches new heights in David Teague’s picture book, The Red Hat.
David is a well-known author, professor, and children’s advocate in the Delaware community. We were delighted to have a chance to interview him as our August Author of the Month. His story about a lonely little boy who does everything he can to meet a little girl that just moved into the new building next door will surely capture the attention of little ones.
Billy tries all kinds of strategies to meet this new friend–a paper airplane, a kite, even a homemade parachute–but the wind foils every attempt. The Wind is actually another character in the book, appearing as raised, shiny lines, sweeping and curling across the cover and throughout the interior spreads. The Wind keeps the little girl next door, far away. How can Billy outsmart the Wind?
David, you have an impressive resume. Professor of Literature at the University of Delaware, board member on both the Delaware Humanities Forum and the Delaware Center for Justice, and you are a Fellow in the Yale National Teacher’s Initiative. However, your position as director of the “Just Write! Wilmington” initiative, a creative writing program for underserved children in Wilmington, is what caught our eye. Tell us a little about “Just Write! Wilmington” and what you do for them.
“Just Write!” is a chance for storytellers of all kinds to tell all kinds of stories to one another, not to mention publish them. One thing that’s hard for most teachers to do in school, because they have so many other things to do, is find time for creative arts, including language arts. So “Just Write!” is a way to reserve time for imagination, storytelling, and writing, and to have different people, including University of Delaware students and faculty, community members, and kids, learn by doing it all together. And to have fun—because nothing is better than telling a story to people who want to listen to it!
How did you decide to write your first children’s book?
I decided to write my first children’s book because I was having no luck writing books for grownups. I guess I’m not very good at being serious and old. More than one person has remarked that I have the mind of a six-year-old, and even though I’m fifty-five, I take that as a compliment. So . . . when my kids were born, I started telling them stories. One was about a boy trapped inside the imagination of a giant (typically, the imagination of a giant is not very large). One was about a boy who is trying to sleep, but a man builds a railroad through his bedroom. And one was about a boy who lived on a tall building and felt lonely up there . . . The rest is history.
The Red Hat is about Billy Hightower, a little boy who lives alone in a skyscraper. But when a new building goes up next door and a girl moves in, he hopes she might become his friend. Unfortunately, the wind foils his plans to contact her. What was the inspiration behind this tale of determination? Is there a real life Billy Hightower or little girl?
The real life Billy Hightower is my little boy, Charles (who was four when I first started telling the story—he’s twenty-one and six feet tall now). He once told me, when he was small, that it was hard to make friends because sometimes people feel far away. So the little girl is someone on the playground he was afraid to talk to, named Ruby. It took a lot of courage and determination on Charles’s part to cross the long space he felt between them. Also, we were living in Philadelphia at the time, and one time I bought him a balloon that I didn’t tie to his stroller very well, so we lost it, and it soared away up high, and I thought about how lonely that balloon looked when it flew from the top of one skyscraper to the other . . . So that feeling got into the story, too.
The little girl remains anonymous throughout the book. Why?
I always wanted to write a second book where they are friends and we get to know her, so I was saving her personality for the next book.
The art is simple with few colors, but it’s lovely. The swirling, shimmering lines that create the wind are the best part. Was this your idea or the illustrator’s, Antoinette Portis?
Those lines are amazing, and they were actually the idea of the editor, Kevin Lewis, who loved and nurtured the story from day one. He specially asked if we could have them when we printed, and they said yes.
Did you and Ms. Portis know each other before you teamed up to create The Red Hat?
We did not! And we’ve still never met in person. But after the book was done, and she’d read my words and created her images, I felt like she’d seen right into my head. I was so thrilled with her vision.
What is the best part about being a children’s author? Who were your favorite authors as a child?
The best part is reading the book aloud to kids who love books. Because I was always a kid like that, so I know how happy it makes people. I loved and still love Harold and the Purple Crayon, Lyle, Crocodile, Amos and Boris, Brave Irene, Where The Wild Things Are, and Ferdinand.
When you look around at the current state of kids and reading, what are the biggest challenges for parents or opportunities to address?
The biggest challenge, in my humble opinion, is everything else that competes with reading. I am all for fun games on a tablet, YouTube videos on a laptop that make you laugh til lemonade comes out your nose, and Snapchat, but to learn to go a bit slowly, to transform words to images in one’s imagination—that is something I hope young readers will still learn.
Do you have anything else in the pipeline we can look forward to reading?
I am writing a middle grades book called The Society for the Uncovery of No Such Thing, about a boy who blurts ideas about wildly unbelievable things that don’t exist, but he thinks they should, and then they come true . . . Also, a young adult book called The Ballad of Phoebe and Sara, about a girl who meets a homeless woman who has been alive, possibly, for two hundred years, and possesses unforeseen powers.
Thanks to David Teague for speaking with us about his background and his work as a children’s author. We look forward to seeing more of his upcoming work. You can find out more about David at his website, here.
Give the Gift Everyone
Feels Good About
Elephant Books . . .
the Book Club for Kids