Remember the feeling of confusion and wonder when, as a child, you saw your elementary school teacher in, say, the grocery store? How can this be? you wondered. She’s a Teacher, not a regular person who engages in such prosaic activities as shopping for milk and eggs.
Author-illustrator Peter Brown, fresh off of a Boston Globe-Horn Book win for Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, understands this and tells the entertaining tale of the antagonistic relationship between Bobby and his teacher, Ms. Kirby, in My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.) Ms. Kirby isn’t Bobby’s favorite person these days: She flares up and gets frustrated at him, after all, when he misbehaves in class. From Bobby’s point of view, she’s a full-fledged monster, complete with green skin and exceedingly pointy teeth.
But then he sees her in the park one day and hangs out with her for a while, as weird as it is to see her outside of school. Suddenly, Ms. Kirby starts to change—in more ways than one. Could monsterhood be in the eye of the beholder?
I decided to ask Peter about that, as well as what’s next on his plate.
This book made me laugh out loud many times. Did you, by chance, run through a series of instances in your mind when Bobby meets up with Ms. Kirby outside of school? I guess I'm asking if there are outtakes. Or maybe: How many drafts did you through to get this to where it is now?
The story and art for this book went through MANY versions. As it turns out, making a story about a likable but grumpy teacher is a very delicate operation. It took years of tinkering before I felt like I’d finally struck the right balance of humor and sweetness and believability.
I always knew that I wanted Bobby and his monster teacher to bond outside of school, at the park, and I had dozens of ideas for how that might happen. Some of those ideas involved Bobby and Ms. Kirby climbing trees together, skipping stones off the water, and other outdoor activities along those lines. One idea even had Ms. Kirby teaching Bobby how to juggle. But in those early versions of the story, we never saw Bobby disrupting class. I decided it was vital we see Bobby disrupting class, so that we realize he’s not completely innocent, and I began imagining ways he might get into trouble. I ended up having Bobby throw a paper airplane in class, which seems like a slightly cliché way to demonstrate Bobby’s troublemaking, but it allowed me to quickly and clearly make my point: Bobby is a harmless troublemaker. Plus, I loved that I could show him throwing paper airplanes in the beginning of the story, at the end of the story, and most importantly, in the park with a little help from Ms. Kirby.
I know authors get asked the “inspiration” question a lot, but this story sort of begs the question: Did it come from real life? Did you get inspired by school visits, by chance?
This story was definitely inspired by some of my own experiences. I was a sensitive little kid with a big imagination, and I was easily intimidated by teachers who were stern or who had no sense of humor. There was a time when I actually thought some of my early teachers were monsters, in disguise.
Fortunately, most of those monster teachers ended up being pretty cool, once I got to know them. So those early memories provided the initial spark for this book, but I was also inspired by stories my friends and acquaintances shared with me. It seems that we’ve all had one or two “monster” teachers in our lives, and it’s amazing how vividly we remember them. I was especially interested in hearing what teachers had to say about difficult teachers and students from their own lives. All of those various personal stories swirled together in my imagination as I created this.
What was it like to get the Boston Globe-Horn Book news? (Congrats!)
Before the Horn Book Awards were publicly announced, the Horn Book contacted my publisher to notify them that Mr. Tiger had won. My publisher was asked to keep it a secret until the official announcements had been made, so my publisher was strangely secretive when they invited me out for a drink to tell me some news. I try really hard not to pay attention to reviews and awards (for the sake of my own sanity), and so I had no idea what the news might be.
A few of us gathered at my favorite cocktail bar (I had my usual, an old-fashioned) and they told me Mr. Tiger had won a Horn Book Award, and I was absolutely thrilled, of course. I’m thrilled anytime anyone likes my work, but to receive such a prestigious an honor as the Horn Book Award is one of the highlights of my career.
What's next for you? Working on any new projects now you are allowed to talk about?
Well, for the first time in 10 years I am not working on any picture books. Instead, I’m writing my very first middle-grade novel. It’s a little stressful, but it’s mostly fun and exciting to try something new and to tell a story that’s been bouncing around my head for years. The story is called The Wild Robot, and it’s basically the survival story of a robot stranded on a wild, remote island. I’m having a blast with this book, and I can’t wait to see how it turns out. Hopefully, I won’t botch it. The Wild Robot isn’t due out until the spring of 2016, so don’t expect to see it anytime soon.
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.
Photo above right: Peter Brown, monster version!