New York Times-bestselling author and illustrator John Bemelmans Marciano may be best known for continuing the stories of his grandfather, Ludwig Bemelmans—John has written and illustrated a handful of Madeline stories in Bemelmans’ style—but his latest venture is a collaboration with Caldecott artist Sophie Blackall.
Their new series of chapter books for children, The Witches of Benevento, tells the story of five children in a small Italian town, famous for its witches. The children’s goal is to outwit the legendary witches who cause mischief and mayhem in their wake. The first two books in the series, which Sophie illustrated, were released simultaneously in April, and the Kirkus review calls the series’ opener “fresh and pleasing.”
I chatted with John via email about the series and what it’s been like to talk to children at school visits about goblins, spirits, witches (including Janara), and demons.
Jules: Hi, John! Thanks for agreeing to chat about this series. We actually already started talking a bit (off the record) about your vision for it, but I'd love for you to repeat here some of what you said—about your idea for how the four books will function as a single work. You said some interesting things about why you wanted to do that—"as a way to remedy what I see as an unfortunate paradox—that while 2nd – 3rd-graders consume ever-more complex music, movies, TV, and video games, they take a large step backwards in what they are reading, content-wise." Can you talk more about that again for those reading?
John: I first noticed it when my daughter was in kindergarten—all the kids would hang out on the playground and talk about vast universes of superheroes or the fine points of My Little Pony mythology. Why was this level of complexity totally absent from picture books?
It’s not to be found in the next step into literacy, either. Elephant and Piggie, Henry and Mudge, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid are all great stuff, but there’s a reason book-loving kids rush headlong into Riordan and Rowling before they’re ready—their thirst for rich content isn’t being satisfied.
The idea for Witches was to build a world that is richly sophisticated but with a narrative broken into easily digestible bites. To do this, we separated the larger work into books that follow the point-of-views of the different main characters.
Because of this, the books don’t follow one after the other in a linear way—but overlap. In book 2, for example, Maria Beppina explains to the other kids how she got captured by the wicked Clopper and barely escaped with her life. In book 3, however, we find out that something entirely different happened. Hopefully, kids will go back and re-read book 2—something they are wont to do at this age anyway—and gain new insights for their efforts.
Jules: I'm going to backtrack a bit and ask: What was the origin of this series? I know you and Sophie share a studio space. Did the idea for the series generate from a studio discussion?
John: The first book Sophie and I worked on together, The 9 Lives of Alexander Baddenfield, was done in the traditional manner—my job as author was finished before Sophie’s job as illustrator had even begun. As we toyed with ideas for a sequel, we decided what we really wanted was to create something totally different. Not only different in concept, but different in the way we worked. There would be no hand-off of manuscript from writer to artist. Instead, the back and forth between words and pictures would be ongoing from inception to publication. (This was not easily worked into the traditional publishing schedule, we would learn, but Viking has been wonderful in letting us find our way.)
Technically, Witches didn’t grow out of a studio discussion, because we left the studio to discuss it. Over pie and coffee, I pitched Sophie a couple ideas. One was nothing more than a setting—a small city in southern Italy I had visited a dozen years earlier. The thing about Benevento is that it was totally infested with witches of all kinds, and for generations kids had to learn strategies on how to avoid them just to get through their day.
Sophie took the concept and ran with it. She immediately had ideas about characters and that we should do it as a series and how the books should be of a particular smallish size. From there, it’s hard for me to remember whose idea was whose.
Jules: Was it really fun to brainstorm the tales for the book?
John: It was a lot of fun.
Jules: Since it's set in an Italian village, did you get free tips from studio-mate Sergio Ruzzier [born in Milan]?
John: Yes, free tips aplenty from Sergio. We also stole his name for one of the characters, which can make creative conversations in the studio rather confusing.
Jules: That's pretty great that Viking was accommodating with regard to you all straying from the traditional process. I moderated a panel discussion recently where we got into the topic of authors and illustrators collaborating and the pros and cons of that, as opposed to the more traditional way of today where author and illustrator are kept separate. I think you can see in these books, though I've only seen the first two, that there was a rich back-and-forth between you two.
John: To be honest, it did take us until book 4 to find a method of collaboration that worked. The separation traditionally happens when an editor hands off a copyedited manuscript to a designer who flows the text onto the page, with spaces left for art. The trick has been for Sophie and I to work together on the layout before the manuscript is finished. It has meant that our editor, Regina Hayes, and designer, Nancy Brennan, have had to be involved throughout the entire process, which is more work for them. We are so grateful that they’ve seen it through with us, and we think the end product has been so much better because of it.
Jules: How have children responded? I think I saw on social media that you've done school visits, yes?
John: AMAZINGLY. We felt like we were pushing the envelope on certain things—like the books physically connecting and having so many unfamiliar kinds of mythological creatures—but if anything we didn't go far enough. The kids want more.
Jules: Children have been contributing some of their own mischief-making characters during school visits and then Sophie draws them, right? What have been some of the stand-out ones?
John: Yes, they have loved creating their own Janaras. And with Sophie Blackall as your drawing medium, who wouldn't? I think we should let the results speak for themselves.
Jules: What's next for you?
John: Next for me is a middle-grade book for Viking, called The Naughty 9, about a group of kids in 1920s Pittsburgh who get coal in their stockings. Incensed by being naughty-listed, the kids band together and travel by train, dogsled, and reindeer to Santa's factory in order to play with the toys of the nice kids of the world. Unfortunately, they burn Santa's workshop down by mistake. The Naughty 9 become the most hated kids in America and go on trial for ruining Christmas, with Clarence Darrow defending.
Jules: You seem to have a theme here, writing about mischief and naughty protagonists. I like it. And how many books total will be in the Witches series?
John: Sophie and I originally talked about doing thirteen books. These would include three "seasons" of four books each, plus a special 13th book from a different character's point-of-view that would tie the whole series together.
Or something like that. We're still figuring it out!
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.
Illustration above is copyright © 2016 by Sophie Blackall and used by her permission.