The writing and artwork in Lynne Rae Perkins’ books spring from her ever-creative, Renaissance-woman brain—but her family has played a role in many of her works, too, from 2006 Newbery winner Criss Cross to her new teen novel.
In Criss Cross, a photo sequence shows a comb falling out of a character’s pocket. The model? Her husband, Bill. “We did a really low-tech staging session,” she says in an interview from her home in Northern Lower Michigan.
As Easy As Falling Off the Face of the Earth involved her husband (an anecdote from his father made its way into the plot), 16-year-old son (her research-road-trip companion) and college-student daughter (who suggested the book’s final line).
This dovetails nicely with the book’s themes, which center on family—both the blood-relatives kind and the true-friends sort. At the heart of the novel is 16-year-old Ry, who’s off to archaeology camp for the summer, until he learns the camp has shut down. When his train stops for a short break, he disembarks to call his grandfather, who is house- and dog-sitting while Ry’s parents enjoy an island vacation. Alas, Ry’s train leaves without him, he can’t get any cell phone reception, and he’s left alone many miles from the nearest town.
He presses on, though, moving from head-shaking disbelief to a sort of dream-state acceptance combined with a determination to get to his family, even if he has no idea how that’s going to work. Talk about a wacky summer vacation.
Perkins says the story began to percolate in her brain after she read Mark Salzman’s The Laughing Sutra. “I read a description that called it a ‘picaresque.’ I didn’t know the exact definition, so I looked it up, and the dictionary said it’s a story told in episodes with a rogue as the main character.”
“At the same time,” she says, “I was thinking about a friend who died in an accident when my son was a year old. He was a really interesting character and I wish my son could’ve known him. I thought I’d introduce them in the book.”
Indeed, when Ry meets Del, a smart, laid-back fellow with MacGyverish tendencies, his life gets even more exhaustingly exciting and surprising. Adventures range from a comical shoe-shopping expedition to falling out of a tree to a grand trek by air, land and sea.
But Ry isn’t the only one who finds himself engaged in assorted escapades: Perkins gives the reader dispatches from Ry’s parents’ vacation and his grandfather’s misadventures, the former amid palm trees, the latter, maple and aspen. And the dogs—oh, the hilarious dogs, whose exploits we follow via black-and-white comic-book-style panels tucked in among the text.
“[The idea for that] just popped into my mind one day,” Perkins says. “I was thinking about The Incredible Journey and how funny it would be if the dogs didn’t know where they were going. I sent scribbled sketches to my editor, and she went for it.”
Ideas like that are what sets Perkins’ work apart. Criss Cross was lauded for its mélange of words—including haiku and Q&As—and art. Like that book, As Easy As Falling Off the Face of the Earth combines imagery and words that illustrate what it’s like to be a teenager who longs for freedom and excitement . . . and what happens when he gets it.
Fortunately, Perkins’ longstanding relationship with Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, has afforded her artistic freedom. “Not that they’ll publish anything I do,” she says with a laugh. “But I’ve always felt respected, and they raise really good questions.”
Greenwillow gave Perkins a start on her unexpected path to becoming a writer. “I was trying to get work as an illustrator, and Ava Weiss at Greenwillow asked me if I wrote. I had a story I’d written just for the sake of doing illustrations for my portfolio, and they published it: Home Lovely, my first book, in 1995.”
Since then, Perkins has created six picture books and three novels, moving between age groups as well as juggling drawing and writing. She says, “I needed to reassure myself periodically because I was more confident about the drawing than the writing. I’m starting to feel more comfortable with writing, though.”
Her current project takes her back to art: illustrating a picture book by Esmé Raji Codell. “It’s my first time illustrating someone else’s book, which is what I originally wanted to do,” Perkins says. “Now I’ll find out if I really can do it.”