An interview with children’s book author Gregory Maguire
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode, I talk with bestselling author Gregory Maguire about his latest novel for kids, Cress Watercress.
Gregory is the author of the incredibly popular books in the Wicked Years series, including Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which inspired the musical. He is also the author of several books for children, including What-the-Dickens, a New York Times bestseller, and Egg & Spoon, a New York Times Book Review Notable Children’s Book of the Year. He lives outside Boston.
Listen to the Interview
- About Gregory Maguire
- About Cress Watercress
- The feelings and success of the Wicked Years series
- Writing for children versus adults
- The seed of the idea for Cress Watercress
- Exploring emotions in children’s books with forest and woodland animals
- The character development of Cress Watercress: Lady Agatha Cabbage, Mama, and Cress Watercress
- Working with illustrator David Litchfield
- The books Gregory Maguire read as a child
- Writing rituals and exercising the writing brain
- The literary parents Gregory Maguire would pick for himself—hint, it’s not Virginia Woolf
- Gregory Maguire’s hopes for Cress Watercress
- Chapter One: Cress Watercress (Audiobook sample used with permission from Recorded Books)
Read the Interview
Bianca Schulze: Hello, Gregory Maguire. Welcome to the Growing Reader’s Podcast.
Gregory Maguire: Hello, Bianca. It’s so nice to meet you this way.
Bianca Schulze: We’re together today to talk about your brand-new novel for kids, Cress Watercress. But it’s impossible not to kick off by mentioning your adult novel, Wicked, which became, of course, a smash hit Broadway musical. We recently actually chatted with your real-life Glinda, Kristin Chenoweth, here on the podcast about her joyful new picture book. And I’m looking forward to the movie version with the talented Ariana Grande starring as Glinda.
So, I just want to know your feelings about all the success that your story Wicked has found?
Gregory Maguire: I must admit, Bianca, that it continues to take me for a ride. Even 27 years after the book was first published, the book did very well on its own before the Broadway carousel came along to fling it to an even greater audience. But ever since then, it’s become a whole universe. They talk about middle earth and the Marvel universe, and it seems to me that there’s a wicked universe that obviously derives from The Wizard of Oz but is almost its own thing at this point. And I feel as any creative deity might do, very proud and a little nervous to make sure my child doesn’t fall off the balance.
Bianca Schulze: I’m sure. So, while many of your fans know you from writing Wicked, the first time that I read one of your books was in 2008. I had just begun working as a children’s bookseller in Washington, DC, and one of my coworkers put What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy into my hands. And you need to know that 14 years later, I still have that exact copy. I just love that story.
Gregory Maguire: Oh, boy, does that make me happy? Although I would probably be happier if you had accidentally left it on the Metro and had to go buy a second.
Bianca Schulze: I love it. I love it.
All right. Well, so here’s something I’m interested to hear about. Some authors write for adults. Some prefer to write for kids. And fewer writers create stories for both adults and kids. And now, since you fall into that third category, I’d love to know what inspires and motivates you to write the stories you create for kids.
Gregory Maguire: Well, I think that probably that answer comes in in two levels. One is that if I have been working on a very dense and somewhat intellectual story for adults, which is to say my motivations are intellectual—although I hope it doesn’t come over as a dry or academic novel—then to write for children is in a way to cleanse the palate of my own mind. It’s a way to restore me to first principles. What is storytelling about? It is about engaging the reader quickly with honor and trustworthiness, amusing them, giving them something to chew over, and leaving them happy to have spent time in your presence in the pages of your book.
This is true for adult readers, of course, too. But adult readers are a little more tolerant of, you know, lingering through passages that they might find boring or that they don’t really understand. With a child reader, there is no such lingering. If something isn’t working on that page, then the book goes onto the table or under the bed and the child goes out of the room and onto the next thing. That is very challenging and consoling for a writer because if you can write for children, you can do just about anything.
Bianca Schulze: So, let’s talk about cress watercress, which honestly reads like a classic story, but really, it’s so fresh. It tackles loss, grief, moving to a new home, and finding community. But all of that’s delivered with such tremendous wit and wisdom. And so, I want to know why and how this story spilled out of your mind?
Gregory Maguire: I have to say that about 15 years ago, I was taking my kids to visit a friend in Geneva, Switzerland. We had driven up from France, and when we got there, my friend said, oh, our kids have a rabbit in a hutch in the backyard. My kids had never seen a live rabbit before or even a dead one, but they were about to because they were so excited about this that they thundered out of the car and paced down the alley, curved around the corner of the building, and crashed up to the rabbit hutch to pet and love and see this beautiful creature who promptly fell over dead with shock and error.
So, in a way, Cress Watercress—subliminally anyway—is my way of bringing the loss back to life, giving that poor rabbit another chance at immortality, in this case, as one of the rabbits in my story.
Bianca Schulze: All right. Well, I have a question lined up from a child reader, and it sort of you kind of answered this a little bit, but you may be able to elaborate a little more.
Eddy: Hi, I’m Eddy. I’m wondering why did you use forest creatures as your main characters?
Bianca Schulze: So, I guess, you know, she’s curious about why forest animals and you kind of sort of mentioned why a rabbit maybe became the main character. So, what is it about forest creatures that you think lend themselves well to Cress Watercress, the story, and the plot?
Gregory Maguire: I think, Bianca, most of us don’t live in the Woodlands anymore or near them. Of course, some people live in the outback, some live on farms, and some live on the edges of the suburbs. But most of us proportionately live in cities and suburban neighborhoods where there isn’t much wildlife activity to be spotted. Once in a while, there’s a coyote, skunk, or raccoon, always squirrels, sometimes chipmunks, but not too much.
So, I think there is an allure to the notion of a population adjacent to us but just out of sight. That is the population of animals who come out at night and have Congress and who have battles and who have struggled for food and dominance and safety and for life itself. And with any luck, survive until the next day—the notion of a secondary world. Well, 100 years ago or so or more, I suppose 130, 40 people, some people still believe in fairies as if there were there was a fairy world out under the bushes and in the shrubs and the parks and woodlands. I think an animal world has sort of replaced the idea of a fairy world, but it’s no less vigorous and it’s no less magic either if the animals can talk.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. When your story is tackling loss and grief and managing a difficult situation, I feel that exploring the story through animals takes the child reader and the adult readers just that one step back so that they can process it from a different place. Do you agree with that?
Gregory Maguire: Well, I do agree with that. And as proof of that, you think about the kind of suffering small children put their stuffed animals through as a way of standing aside from the suffering they would not like to endure themselves—punishing teddy bears by making them sit in the corner or throwing dolls on the floor if they’ve badly behaved. All kids do that, and animals stand-in for their alter egos, in a sense, and it also happens in their stories. Wilbur and Charlotte are not just a pig and a spider. They are a young person and a wiser older person. And we all see that in Wilbur and Charlotte.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, 100%.
So just last week, I had the pleasure of talking to illustrator David Litchfield, who created the incredible artwork for Cress Watercress. And we talked about how your story reminded him and me so much of Wind in the Willows. We also talked quite a bit about Lady Agatha Cabbage as a highlight among a cast of unique characters. So, is Lady Agatha Cabbage a highlight for you two?
Gregory Maguire: Oh, oh, Lady Cabbage. I should explain to your readers who haven’t yet read the book that lady cabbage is a skunk. And I mean that in the animal sense, as well as perhaps in the metaphoric sense. She’s a real stinker and she’s a skunk. She has a white stripe down her back, and she carries a certain perfume around with her, which she can dispense at will if you get on her wrong side. She is full of airs and pretensions, like a lot of people that, in my childhood, we would have called snobby. And she also takes a lot of privileges. She thinks she lives by slightly different rules than hoi polloi, who grovel under her feet.
It’s so fun to write a slightly nasty individual now. She’s not a complete villain. Nobody in the world is a complete villain, but she does have her head screwed on the wrong way, and she’s a little too enamored of her own aroma. I just loved writing Lady Agatha Cabbage. And there is usually somebody like a Lady Agatha Cabbage in all my books one way or the other. Somebody that it’s fun to make a little gentle fun of but not to dismiss entirely because they have their issues too. How did Lady Agatha Cabbage get to be so full of pretensions and what does she really need? And we learn a little bit about that as the book goes on.
Bianca Schulze: I want to talk about another character I identify with, Mama. As an adult, she isn’t allowed to crumble under pressure, and she has to hold everything together for her kids. But she comes off a little crabby at times, but all she wants is the best for her children. I would love for you to share some thoughts on her character development and what she brings to the story.
Gregory Maguire: Well, I have to ask you first, Bianca, if that character appeals to you, I have to ask you, have you ever known a mother figure like that?
Bianca Schulze: 100%. I identify with her.
Gregory Maguire: Yes, I identify with her in my own parents, and I identify with her in myself as I am a parent to occasionally up against it. And even if my surface manner is irritable or I’ve just had it, I’m fed up; still, the underlying impulse is always to try to do what’s best for the other people in my life. I don’t always manage, but I always try. So she is, in a way, a kind of amalgam of every good mother and many, many good teachers and librarians and other adults in our lives who have put our needs above their own. And that’s a tiring thing to do. So, no wonder she gets cranky from time to time.
Bianca Schulze: Well, before we move on from the characters, I feel like since we talked about Lady Agatha Cabbage and we’ve talked about Mama, I mean, do you want to share a little bit about the central star, Cress?
Gregory Maguire: Yes. Well, Cress is a young rabbit. She has a baby brother named KIPP who struggles with asthma. So, his needs are always a little bit more dominant than hers in the family. At the beginning of the story, Cress is very sad because, with the disappearance of Papa Rabbit, the family has had to make the difficult choice of moving out of their private home—their private rabbit warren with its pantries and its separate bedrooms.
They take up new lodgings in an apartment tree, which for them is a bit of a down-market move. But it’s necessary because Mama Rabbit can’t see to procuring the food and supplies the family needs without having another adult at home to mind the kids and make sure the baby doesn’t get sick while she’s gone. So, living in an apartment will help out by having neighbors all around who can cast a kindly eye upon the family.
When Mama goes out to do her chores and collect her food, Cress is there for an older child to her baby brother. But she’s not very old indeed. When she sees the moon and they’re on their trip to their new lodgings, she can’t even remember whether she’s ever seen the moon before. Her mother says she has, but she doesn’t remember it. So, in a way, she’s a very young child. And in another way, because Rabbit’s lives are short, she’s almost a teenager, which is kind of a description of childhood. Until we become adults, we are both the little child we always were. And we’re the teenager grappling with the kind of rusty apparatus of what it’s going to mean to be a grownup and have to make our own decisions for ourselves.
Bianca Schulze: Yes. There’s also that element of when you go through a difficult experience, and often there is an extra weight on your shoulders that almost pushes you to take that step closer to adulthood. That can be the downfall of difficult situations. And I feel like Cress is such a courageous, determined character that shows that development so beautifully.
Gregory Maguire: Well, yes, I hope so. And yet, at the same time, when you survive a difficult moment, as Cress does at a certain point, well, she survives a number of them. But at a certain point, she comes face to face with the reality of her grief. And she is speaking somewhat analytically and with intelligence to her mother. But she crawls up in her mother’s lap and puts her arms around her mother’s neck. So, she is both a small child and a struggling adolescent at the same time. That’s how I think most of us feel most of the time. But grasping being a rabbit can demonstrate those feelings on the same page. And frankly, that’s one of my favorite pages in the book when Mama consoles Cress on a moonless night.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, I loved that moment too.
Something else I spoke to David Litchfield about is how his artwork glows. Every dark moment in the story is countered by a brighter, cheerful, often funny moment. And your words and David’s art just dance their way through the story with such synergy. And I would just love for you to tell me about this pairing with David, how it came to be, and what you thought when you saw the finished book.
Gregory Maguire: To be perfectly blunt, I had an American artist in mind for the illustrator when I wrote the book. Of course, it’s not the author’s choice or decision, but I’ve been around the block long enough that my opinion at least gets listened to. And I made a proposal to my editor who said, we admire the work of the person you are proposing very, very much, but we don’t think it’s right for this book. We’re going to make a few proposals ourselves and we would like your opinion on them.
My editor then sent me five portfolios of five different artists that they were considering, and one of them was David Litchfield’s. I looked at his work, and to again be blunt, I didn’t like every inch of every piece, but there were huge patches of things that I really loved and that really stood out to me and that I thought were sufficiently magical. So, I said to her, I like the David Litchfield who does this one of a bear playing the piano in the woods. And I highlighted those effects that I thought were particularly translucent and moving to me funny, individual, quirky, unique, and unlike anything else. So, I have a feeling the editor said, all right, we’ll go with that.
And when the editor and art director got in touch with David, I have a feeling they gave a work order in to say we like work that emulates this kind of thing that you can do so well—that kind of thing will work very well for this book. And I think he followed suit. Now, I haven’t talked to him about that. And maybe they never gave him any instructions at all. Maybe it was only the story that gave him the instruction. But the work came in and almost every single piece, I think, could not be improved.
My description of how it sits on my eye, Bianca, is as if someone took a stained-glass window from a European church, put it in the Cuisinart, and pressed it on a light pulse. And then the shards of glass, not crumbled into sand but still with large chunks of color, were tipped out onto the page because the whole book has the sense of light shining through it. I hope through the words, but especially through the art. That’s what David Litchfield can do and that’s what he has done.
Bianca Schulze: Yes. Oh, my gosh. That description was fantastic. I could see that happening in the blending and pouring out. And I completely agree with you. So, I mentioned before a comparison of Cress Watercress to Wind in the Willows and it has me wondering which books from your childhood you most remember reading?
Gregory Maguire: You know, this is a really great question and I’m inclined to try to answer it in terms of what animal fables and stories do. I remember reading because I certainly read a number of them. Still, among my most favorite books, I don’t know that animal fables would really be a characteristic that would organize them in my head. I did love any story that had to do with magic. But by that, I’m talking more about chapter books like Cress Watercress.
From books of an earlier age, Bianca, I confess to you that I have very few memories of picture books from when I was of picture book age. I have memories of picture books from when my younger brothers and sisters were of picture book age. And I would read to them. I loved Maurice Sendak, I loved Babar, and I loved Madeline. All those books with a lot of color and big pages, some of which were filled with animals, and some were not.
But for myself, for instance, the Beatrix Potter books, you would think they might have been a big influence on me, but I didn’t ever see those until I was probably in my early teens. So, I lived a young life without knowing about Peter Rabbit or Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, or some of the others. That’s a saw lapse in my childhood education, I’m afraid.
Bianca Schulze: Well, here’s a question I ask everyone. They say you need to be a reader first to be a writer. So, was there a pivotal moment when you considered yourself a reader?
Gregory Maguire: Oh, yes. I remember being able to start picking out letters in the newspaper. You know, looking at a newspaper page and trying to find the O’s and then trying to find the A’s and then sort of moving to the alphabet and teaching myself to identify letters even before I got to kindergarten and was taught them.
But I do remember a night when I was probably in about first grade when I had taken a book out of the library. We were great library attendees, and it was a short book with big print, but it wasn’t a picture book. There were pictures on every page, but it was a slightly longer novel. Maybe now you’d say it was for second or third grade, but I was reading it in first grade, and I got to about halfway through. I got tired and suddenly was filled with joy because I knew I could put the book down flat open onto the two pages where I was on the floor next to my bed, and in the morning, I could wake up and start reading again.
And that meant I was a grownup because that’s what grownups did. They didn’t finish books all at once reading as little kids did. They had to wait and read them in sequence. That moment was a moment of great triumph for me and a real moment of happiness in my childhood when I realized it.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, that’s such a fantastic memory. I don’t remember ever falling asleep reading, and I wonder if that’s because I would fall asleep with the book on my face. I don’t know.
Gregory Maguire: Quite possibly.
Bianca Schulze Well, something else I love learning about is the day-to-day practices of writers. And so, I’m wondering, do you have any writing rituals that you tend to each day?
Gregory Maguire: When I am writing the first draft of a new book, there are a couple of things I expressly try to do to keep the channels open the channels to my subconscious, particularly, which is, I think, where most art is made.
One thing that I try to do is walk a little bit every day. Another thing that I do is resist listening to music while I’m writing because I have a musical ear. If there’s music on in the background, part of me is trying to eavesdrop on the music, you know, and it distracts me. Some people can write to music, and I admire them and applaud them. But I can’t. Because for me, music is another language. It’s a little bit like going into a coffee shop and wanting to have a conversation with your friend, but people at the booth next door are about to get divorced and are arguing loudly and you can’t help but want to hear what the problem is. That’s what music does to me. Well, I don’t put music on when I’m writing.
The other thing that I do that I will say is that if I get stuck, and let’s face it, who doesn’t? If I get stuck, sometimes all it takes to dislodge me is to go to my library, where I have an ample collection of books of poetry. I don’t understand poetry a lot of the time, but I love to read it anyway because of its aggressive and athletic use of language. It presses my restart button and helps me think about things in a new way. That’s what poetry does in general. But I think reading poetry is really good for the person writing stories. It helps you realize you have to continue to surprise yourself as a writer. You’re never going to be able to surprise the reader.
Bianca Schulze: So, I know a lot of writers that if they’re not in the middle of a project or they’re between projects, they will keep a journal. Is keeping a journal something that you do?
Gregory Maguire: Keeping a journal is something that I do. It’s not a daily journal anymore. And even when it was a daily journal, it wasn’t terribly daily. But I have been keeping a journal for more than half a century. It kind of makes me quake in my boots to be able to say that sentence.
Honestly, I read the novel Harriet the Spy when I was in about sixth grade. Harriet keeps a journal, she calls it a spy notebook, and she writes down everything she learns and hears from her friends and neighbors and people she sees on the street, much like that spying. I was talking about listening to the people arguing over a divorce at the next booth. Harriet does that kind of thing. That’s where I learned that trick—I loved the book Harriet the Spy, I love that she wanted to be a writer—and I thought, I want to be a writer, too, I should keep a journal.
Originally, it was called The Spy Notebook, but here it is 57 years later—not quite 57, 54 years later—and I still keep it now. I write it on the computer, and I don’t do it every day. Sometimes I might not do it for three or four or five weeks in a row, but sometimes I’ll do it every day for a few days if something is going on that I really need to process or I really want to remember and I really endorse that.
Not so much because I think writing a journal makes you better, but keeping in shape as a writer, keeping your eye in shape to look and notice, keeping your mind in shape to use language to express, what it is that you observe, is just like, I think, playing scales every day. If you’re a concert pianist or stretching every day, if you’re a ballet dancer or a long-distance runner, you need to keep in shape. And for a writer keeping in shape, even when you’re not writing a new book, can be done by keeping a journal.
Bianca Schulze: That’s great advice. So, since you brought up a literary character, Harriet the Spy, here’s a random and fun question. Who would you choose if you had to pick two literary characters to be your parents?
Gregory Maguire: My goodness. Well, let’s see. I suppose it depends on whether I wanted my parents to yell at me for not living up to their grand talents and accomplishments or whether I’d like to work my chromosomes backwards and think, where did I come from in terms of literary antecedents? I think I will choose to think of the latter because it might be kind of daunting to have Virginia Woolf as your mother. We should all be so lucky. But she didn’t have any children, so I’ll let her off the hook.
My literary father, in some ways, might have been T.H. White, who wrote The Once and Future King. That’s the story that inspired The Sword in the Stone, a Disney movie about Merlin and the young King Arthur. And it also inspired the movie Camelot and the musical Camelot. The Sword in the Stone I Loved. The Once and Future King by T.H. White I loved because it was taking the story of Merlin and Arthur and telling it again as if it had never been told before, which is sort of like what I did with Wicked. So, he would be my literary father.
My literary mother might be a lesser-known writer, but somebody to whom I was really devoted as a child and as an adult. A writer named Jane Langton. She wrote Murder Mysteries for Adults, and she also wrote fantastic children’s books, including one called The Diamond in the Window, which is set in a house in Concord, Massachusetts. I read it when I was about ten. And it’s a fantasy. It’s a treasure hunt. It’s a story about lost relatives and missing jewels and a house that’s about to be foreclosed upon. But it’s also a reflection on the transcendentalist impulse, which began to be expressed in Concord, Massachusetts, almost 200 years ago.
Well, she’s a wonderful writer, and I loved her book so much that I wrote to her eventually and I met her eventually. And why do you think I live in Concord, Massachusetts, right now? Because her story was so persuasive that I thought I wanted to be where the action was. That’s why I’ve been in Concord for 25 years and that’s why I’ve raised my family here.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, my gosh. I would never have imagined that that would be your answer to that question. But it just shows that you are a reader and a writer to your core, which is obviously why your books are just so amazing to read. So, I thought that was such a great answer.
Before we go, Gregory, I would love to know what impact do you hope that Cress Watercress has on its readers?
Gregory Maguire: There’s a certain truth, Bianca, that we don’t like to tell young readers, but that we need to, I think. And that is that not only does sorrow happen, not only does fright happen and anger and frustration to the young, but that having survived it once and having learned that you can survive it doesn’t mean that it’s never going to happen again. The cycle of emotions is permanent.
Having gone through loss once doesn’t mean you’ll never go through it again. You will go through it again. Have you been angry once? It doesn’t mean you’ve got it out of your system. You will be angry again. The true meaning of growing up is accepting the cycle of feelings and knowing that you’re beginning to have the tools with which to deal with them.
And so, I think that although that message is very understated, it is certainly one of the prime reasons that the book was written in the first place. Because I think it is a truth that is rarely shared with children. And I wanted to share it.
Bianca Schulze: Yes. And that just beautifully came across. I think Cress Watercress is enlightening. It’s encouraging and it’s entertaining and it’s amusing. It’s so many things. I mean, I think it will be the best story I read all year. I truly believe that. I think what’s great about it is that there’s going to be kids that it’s their reading level, they’re going to read it on their own. But I think I think my favorite times will be knowing when families read this book together. I think it’s such a great family. Read aloud. And I can also imagine teachers reading it aloud to a class. It’s just it’s so good.
And on that note, Gregory, I just want to thank you so much for talking with me today. It’s been so much fun.
Gregory Maguire: Bianca, I’ve had such a good time too, and I wish you all the best. And I hope Cress Watercress does stay with you as long as I hope it stays with me.
Bianca Schulze: Yes. Well, thank you, Gregory.
Gregory Maguire: Thanks so much. You take care now.
About the Book
Publisher’s Synopsis: A lavishly illustrated woodland tale with a classic sensibility and modern flair—from the fertile imagination behind Wicked
Gregory Maguire turns his trademark wit and wisdom to an animal adventure about growing up, moving on, and finding community.
When Papa doesn’t return from a nocturnal honey-gathering expedition, Cress holds out hope, but her mother assumes the worst. It’s a dangerous world for rabbits, after all. Mama moves what’s left of the Watercress family to the basement unit of the Broken Arms, a run-down apartment oak with a suspect owl landlord, a nosy mouse super, a rowdy family of squirrels, and a pair of songbirds who broadcast everyone’s business. Can a dead tree full of annoying neighbors, and no Papa, ever be home?
In the timeless spirit of E. B. White and The Wind and the Willows—yet thoroughly of its time—this read-aloud and read-alone gem for animal lovers of all ages features an unforgettable cast that leaps off the page in glowing illustrations by David Litchfield. This tender meditation on coming-of-age invites us to flourish wherever we find ourselves.
Buy the Book
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