An adventure that's more than meets the eye
Most authors today are content to make their characters special by giving them extra senses and abilities. In Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, Jonathan Auxier makes Peter special by taking them away. Peter Nimble is considered the greatest thief in the world, not in spite of the fact that he is a child, an orphan and blind, but because of these things.
After being led to a box containing three sets of beautiful false eyes, Peter is whisked away to the world that exists beyond the edges of a map. There he meets up with his faithful companion Sir Tode, a half-horse, half-cat combination who is as fiercely local as he is strange to look at. The two of them embark on an epic quest to the Vanished Kingdom to rescue the author of a very odd and cryptic note in a bottle. On the way, Peter begins to learn that just because he started life as a thief, does not mean that he isn’t destined for much more.
With his debut novel, Auxier creates a unique blend of epic adventure and touching friendship that goes much deeper than first appearances. We caught up with Auxier (who blogs about the connections between children's literature old and new at www.TheScop.com) to find out more about the creative process behind the book.
What difficulties did you have writing this novel from the point of view of Peter Nimble, a blind orphan?
Well, this is my first novel, so it's really hard to distinguish which difficulties were because Peter Nimble is blind and which came from the standard hurdles of long-form prose writing. That said, I am a pretty visual storyteller, and cutting away all visual descriptions added another layer of work to every scene. There were several moments where I found myself wishing I could just describe the way things looked instead of having to think through what they must also have smelled and sounded like. On the other hand, how often will I get the opportunity to write an entire story through the senses of smell, taste, touch and hearing—that's pretty cool!
Tells us about the world Peter Nimble finds himself in after discovering the Fantastic Eyes.
Peter Nimble & His Fantastic Eyes takes place in a moment of history when the lines between magic and science were being blurred. Strange, exotic lands were being discovered and becoming known—but with that comes a loss of mystery. The central metaphor in the book is that of a half-finished map: the moment a new island or country gets charted by cartographers, it becomes reduced in some indefinable way . . . and that's sad. In the story, I wanted to take that map metaphor and make it literal. So when Peter Nimble sets out for uncharted waters, he finds himself in a place where the rules of logic and science still don't apply—a place where the impossible is still possible.
The chapter illustrations add so much to your story. Do you have a background in art, and why did you make the decision to illustrate the book yourself?
I know a lot of writers came out of the womb with a half-finished manuscript in hand, but that wasn't me. My mother was a painter, and I grew up taking advantage of all the amazing (and dangerous) art supplies in our house. I drew constantly. Even now, every story I write begins with a picture. In the case of Peter Nimble, it all started with the image that you see at the top of the first chapter: a baby floating in a basket with a raven perched on the edge that has just pecked out his eyes.
I looked at that and I wanted to know more—so I wrote Peter Nimble & His Fantastic Eyes!
Many of your characters are incredibly unique—Peter Nimble, Mr. Seamus, Sir Tode, Princess Peg. Where did you get your inspiration for these characters?
Where didn't I get inspiration? Pretty much every book I've ever read has worked its way into this story. I've always thought of nasty Mr. Seamus as a combination of Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist and Mr. Wormwood from Matilda—a vicious brute who can also be crafty and disarming. Peg is pretty much all the Lost Boys from Peter Pan rolled into one awesome 10-year-old warrior—kind of what I had always wished Wendy had become once she arrived in Neverland! Sir Tode is a knight who has been cursed into an unfortunate combination of human, horse and kitten, which was inspired by a desire to fuse Don Quixote with his nag Rocinante.
Speaking of Sir Tode, when will we get to see a picture of the good knight? I can’t think of many things more interesting that what a half cat, half horse knight would look like!
I was sparing the poor knight's feelings! If you were cursed to look like such a ridiculous creature, would you want to be in the public eye? Also, I tend to think that books are best served by leaving as much as possible to the imagination—I'm a big fan of the unknown.
Parts of your book are quite dark, even unsettling. Why did you think it was important to include this type of writing in Peter Nimble?
I actually think a whiff of darkness is essential to children's literature. From Peter Pan to Magical Monarch of Mo by Frank Baum to The Witches by Roald Dahl—these books create a safe place for a child to explore dangerous subjects. That play between darkness and light is what drew me in as a young reader, and it's still what draws me in today.
What impression/message/moral/feeling do you want readers to be left with after finishing Peter Nimble?
I have more than once said I wanted Peter Nimble to be a sort of anthem to delinquency. All my favorite children's books work to celebrate deviant behavior. Alice Liddell is a perfect example: She falls from the humdrum world controlled by adults and manners into this messy, confusing wonderland in which the only way to survive is by out-nonsenseing the nonsense. Why is this important? Well, for a child whose entire life is controlled by adults, I think inverting that power structure for a brief stint can be incredibly liberating. It also is a way of exposing children to the fact that adults (like the ones writing children's books) can occasionally find themselves ridiculous.
Of course, the very best stories find a way to subvert adults while still ultimately affirming the security and comfort of a loving home—I'm thinking of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are as an example of this.
The Vanished Kingdom and the characters who live there are so rich that it’s hard to leave them behind. Have we seen the last of Peter?
I may have another book for Peter Nimble in mind! However, this novel was meant to really be a complete story, and any subsequent installment would not be a "further adventures of" situation. Rather, it would be a companion book in the same way that Magician's Nephew is a companion to The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
Kevin Delecki is a Children's Librarian and Manager at the Dayton (Ohio) Metro Library. He is the father of two crazy boys, and is always in search of his next favorite book.