Though his first book for children was 2005's Pond Scum, Alan Silberberg first attracted our attention with the publication of Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze in 2010. This unexpectedly tender book combines humor and insight with Silberberg's own cartoon-style drawings to tell the story of a boy dealing with an aching sense of loss after the death of his mother.
Silberberg turns to a much lighter topic in his latest book, The Awesome, Almost 100% True Adventures of Matt & Craz. The two unlikely friends of the title can't seem to catch a break, either at school, where their comics are rejected by the newspaper editor, or at home, where family issues make life tough. All that changes when Matt and Craz order a cool new drawing pen and discover that it has the magical ability to make anything they draw really happen.
A successful writer and producer for TV and movies before he began writing children's books, Silberberg answered our questions about his entertaining new adventure from his home in Montreal.
Matt and Craz are about as different as two boys could be. Did you base their relationship on a childhood friendship of your own? Did you have any friends who were polar opposites of you?
It's funny, but I didn't base the characters on any of my own friends. The truth is Matt and Craz are both different sides of the kid I was: the cautious cartoonist who was always doodling and the wild, uncensored kid whose mind was spinning and making stuff up.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer/cartoonist?
From 2nd grade on I was that kid sitting in class doodling in the margins of his notebooks. By the time I was 10 or 11 I was making cartoon characters and using my drawings to tell little stories so I felt like I was a "cartoonist" early on and loved filling sheets of paper with my doodles and cartoons. The thing is as a young person I never knew you could "be a writer" but I liked to tell stories and make people laugh. From the time I was a teenager I recognized my ability to listen to other people talk and then toss in a funny comment and get a laugh. But it was in high school that I realized it would be amazingly cool to combine my cartoons and my sense of humor with writing . . . not that I ever imagined I would end up writing books and using my cartoons to help tell the story.
Why did you choose this form for the book—text with occasional drawings—rather than using a comic book style?
A graphic novel—pages of cartoon panels that tell the story in a comic book form—is a wonderful way to tell stories and I would love to tackle that format someday. But telling a story with a narrative format lets me immerse the reader in the story through words, which I believe create a different brain/imagination process. I really love words and there is nothing like writing a wonderful passage. But being able to add cartoon illustrations and doodle punchlines to my narrative—as well as let full page cartoons tell the story—is a very satisfying mix of mediums. If I didn't do both I think my cartooning self would feel jealous of my writer self—and vice versa!
We love your portrayal of Craz's boring English teacher, Mrs. Bentz, but we wonder how teachers will feel about her! Are you expecting any complaints from the (ahem) "educational establishment"?
Oh, I sure hope not. I have nothing but respect and love for English teachers everywhere. I just wanted to create a fun adult character who wasn't evil or mean—someone who was kind of obsessed with one work of literature and that was all she taught, which could get kind of boring after a while. Actually, Matt and Craz find a way to use the magic to give her the best gift ever (no spoilers!). The thing is she isn't at all a "bad" teacher—she's just fixated on Treasure Island to the exclusion of everything else!
With his mother working and his parents split up, Matt struggles to deal with his changing home life, wishing he could use a "big fat eraser to make it all go away." What advice would you have for a kid in Matt's shoes today?
I'm pretty sure the "perfect family" doesn't exist. Kids know this. They are always assessing their own family and seeing how it stacks up to one of their friend's situations. I think it's normal to want to fix your family and make it better no matter the situation. I would want kids to know there is no "magic" solution but there are always people to talk to; friends, teachers, parents. No matter what bad situation you feel you are in - letting someone know what's going on for you is always helpful even if it's just removing that heavy weight from your shoulders.
In the book, Matt's new pen makes his comic strips come to life. It's great seeing these two "rejects" become all-powerful. Did you have a lot of fun coming up with Matt and Craz's adventures? Which is your favorite?
Yes! Creating the specifics of what Matt and Craz will actually "draw" was a blast for me. Of course I wanted some of their desires to be realized so they could see what life might be like if they got everything they wanted. But I also knew I had the chance for some really funny and crazy action because of the pen. My favorite is when the boys craft their perfect Saturday Night - which, of course, goes wildly wrong!
If you had Matt's pen, what would you want to bring to life?
Hmmm. If I had Matt's pen I would draw a fantastic bakery right next door to my house with a big sign that reads "Free Chocolate Chip Cookies". Then I'd draw a gym where I would hopefully go to after my daily trips next door!
You've written books, movies and TV shows. Which do you enjoy the most?
No matter the genre, I love writing and making stuff up but I am basically a "grass is always greener" kind of guy. I think that's why I am always pining for the project I am not doing . . . until I start it and remember how hard that kind of writing is because writing, no matter what you write, is hard! But if I HAD to pick one—writing books gives me the most satisfaction and joy.
Who are your idols/role models in writing for children?
As a kid I loved reading the Sunday comics with my dad. I was really a huge Peanuts fan and I think Charles Schultz's sensitivity and subtle humor had a large impact on me. More recently, I was in love with the odd sensibility and style of Gary Larsen's Far Side cartoons, and also just adore the writing and artwork of Richard Thompson's comic strip Cul de Sac, which sadly has ended. The authors I admire are the ones with an obvious sense of humor who don't talk down to kids, like Roald Dahl and the one and only Daniel Pinkwater—but truthfully, that is a long and growing list.
What message do you hope young readers will take away from Matt and Craz's escapades (and their friendship)?
I would hope kids recognize a little of themselves (and their friends) in my two protagonists and see how it's normal for problems to arise even among the best of friends. I also hope readers will take a little of the magic with them. What wonderful things would they want to create for themselves to make their own lives better?—knowing that you have to be very careful what you wish for!
Illustrations from The Awesome, Almost 100% True Adventures of Matt & Craz, © Alan Silberberg, reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing.