Next week will see the release of a new picture book from Anne Isaacs, children’s literature’s contemporary Queen of the Tall Tale. Fans of the 1995 Caldecott Honor Swamp Angel, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, as well as its relatively recent sequel, Dust Devil (2010), know what giant (in more ways than one) fun is in store when Isaacs puts pen to paper.
Isaac’s new book, Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch, illustrated with equal parts hyperbole by Kevin Hawkes, is the very funny story of Tulip Jones, a widow from England, who inherits a ranch in By-Golly Gully, Texas. But it’s not just a new home she inherits; there’s a windfall of money too—$35 million, to be exact. To Tulip’s dismay, news of the money spreads, and unmarried men flock to her ranch—“and in 1870,” Isaacs writes, “every man in Texas was unmarried.” It’s a book that’s already been met with a handful of starred reviews, this tale of spunk, greed and, ultimately, true love—and a story Isaacs describes as dear to her heart.
How does a writer, both American and Canadian and raised in Buffalo, capture so well the exaggerated swagger of Southern tall tales in her own original stories? The closest she came to living in the South, she tells me, was spending four weeks on an archaeological dig in Neelyville, a city in southern Missouri, during her freshman year in college. “The voices you hear,” she adds, “are those of 1830s’ Americans trying to settle ‘the West’ against truly impossible odds. I don’t think the voices are Southern, but instead, frontier voices from anywhere that the ‘West’ happened to be. What draws me is a sense of kinship: I like and understand people who venture out to do impossible things, and I feel a bond with those who cannot live without nature, raw and untamed. Those who have a bit of lake water in their veins.”
This is the third story Isaacs has written that opens with a reader’s “notice.” And Meanwhile’s is especially entertaining, Hawkes’ placing it on a signpost, complete with a cowboy vulture, in the spread preceding the book’s title page:
Under full penalty of law, exaggeration is forbidden in the state of Texas.
No Texan may decorate a plain fact—except if that person is an elected
official, or anyone who has ever ridden a horse. In such cases, all
exaggeration must be restricted to the first twenty-four hours past sunrise.
When I ask her about the notice, she explains, “I owe a debt here to the notice in Huck Finn. I’m a huge Twain fan. I love that extra out-of-story wink to the reader; it kind of makes the author and reader a team. If I’d have thought of the idea before I wrote Swamp Angel, believe me, I’d have used it there, too. So, the Meanwhile notice was planned all along; the only question was, what would it contain? It was extra fun poking at Texans, with all their bragging about being the biggest, fastest, best.”It’s a story that begs (in a Texan drawl, to be sure) to be read aloud. Isaacs’ career has centered on working with children; as an author, she’s had plenty of opportunities to share tall tales (and otherwise) with them. But before her first published book, she worked in curriculum and program development for non-formal educational agencies, such as parks, nature centers and environmental education facilities. “I always built my work around children,” she tells me, “writing curriculum that they would learn, training teachers and naturalists and rangers, writing training manuals for environmental educators. I do love children. My life has been built on that foundation, more or less.”
When I ask her what’s next, she notes she’s working slowly on a novel that will be her last book. This novel, The Garden of Hesperus, is one she’s found “very hard to write but very worth it. I’ve been working on it for over 30 years, in one way or another. It tells the story of a rebellious pre-teenaged indentured servant in 1770s’ Maryland, who comes of age exactly as the Revolution breaks out. Revolt within revolt, you might say.”
And what about Tulip Jones herself, you may be wondering? Well, I can’t spoil the entire story for you, should you want to share this with your favorite child, but I will give you one small spoiler: In the end, our intrepid protagonist finds real love. Isaacs knows a little something about this too. “I spent my childhood,” she says, “wishing I were Jo March—or some new member of the March family. I wanted it so badly that it became (unconsciously) my life plan. I’ve grown up to be a writer of children’s books, a teacher and a mom—just like Jo. I still wasn’t a real March, of course—until I met this really, really nice guy online, seven-plus years ago.
I only knew his first name at the time I met him in person—online dating is like that—but as he took my hand, I had this funny feeling that it would not be our last day together. I turned to him and asked: ‘Rick, what’s your last name?’
‘My last name?’ he said matter-of-factly. ‘It’s March.’
So it is that I became a member of the March family at last.
And I learned this lesson: Never underestimate the power of a children’s book.”
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.