A podcast interview with Andy Griffiths
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode, we have global sensation and fan-favorite author Andy Griffiths. He’s here to talk about the Treehouse series and the special full-color collector’s edition of The 13-Story Treehouse.
As Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore said in a The New York Times article: “Australian-born Mr. Griffiths has never lost that wacky, offbeat edge and ability to push the boundaries of good taste that defines his work.”
Listen to the Interview
Andy Griffiths is the New York Times bestselling author of The Day My Butt Went Psycho!, Zombie Butts from Uranus!, and Butt Wars! The Final Conflict, as well as the Treehouse Series and Killer Koalas from Outer Space. In 2007, he became the first Australian author to win six children’s choice awards in one year for Just Shocking! He is passionate about inspiring a love of books in his young readers and works as an ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Project, which provides books and literacy resources to remote indigenous communities around Australia. Andy is a big fan of Dr. Seuss and cauliflower. He lives in Melbourne, Australia, and is Australia’s most popular children’s writer.
Read the Interview
Bianca Schulze: Hi, Andy. I am so thrilled to have you here today to talk about the full-color special collector’s edition of The 13-Story Treehouse. Welcome!
Andy Griffiths: Thank you very much. Great to be here.
Bianca Schulze: All three of my kids have read your series, which is rare because my kids all have really different reading tastes. But all three of them have read your books, and it’s inspired so many treehouse designs and artwork around here. Do you get a lot of fan mail with treehouse designs?
Andy Griffiths: I certainly do. The readers keep me well supplied with pictures and lists of levels that they would like. And I also get a few complaints from parents who say that they’re getting pressure to build a treehouse in their backyard, but I say that’s no pressure. Just learn to build a treehouse.
Bianca Schulze: Exactly. Well, before we talk about The 13-Story Treehouse and other books in the series, I would love to spend a little bit of time getting to know you. I heard that as a teenager, you managed the awe-inspiring feat of getting a lot of chewing gum wrappers into a jar. So, I’m curious how many are in there and what inspired you to do this, and do you still have the jar?
Andy Griffiths: There’s a lot of questions there. This could be the whole interview. I still do have the jar, much to my wife’s amusement. And I guess I was always a collector. I was always collecting anything. It didn’t matter what it was. But if you have a lot of them, it turns into a collection. So, I think at one point, I was enjoying my chewing gum and just keeping the wrappers. And, yeah, that’s my testament to my teenage chewing gum years. But I actually had a shoebox underneath my bed that I would take apart a clock or a radio. If it broke, I’d take it all apart, and I’d put all the pieces in a shoebox, and eventually, it grew to two shoeboxes.
And now I have what I call my junk jars, which are all the little bits and pieces, things that come out of a Christmas bon-bon that most people would regard as not very important. I have many large stewing jars full of this stuff because it delights me to see it, but it also connects me back to my childhood. Very powerfully. So, when I have a whole room now that’s full of nonsense that I’ve collected over many, many years, but that tunes me back into the kid or the teenager that I was, it gives me that feeling of unlimited freedom and excitement, and then I can just kind of write naturally from that point.
Bianca Schulze: Well, I also read that besides being an award-winning and best-selling author, you’ve worked as a high school teacher, been the lead singer in a rock band, and as a stand-up comedian. How would you say that these experiences have shaped who you are as a person and also as a writer?
Andy Griffiths: I suppose all three, although they sound like they might be disparate, they all involve playing to an audience and observing what the audience needs and then figuring out how to give it to them in a powerful and entertaining way. So, yes, the rock band grew out of my love of music and my love of writing lyrics, and I ended up as the frontman, but I couldn’t sing well. I could make a noise coming out of my mouth, but it was not singing, so I had to counter by jumping around crazily and putting on a big show. Had a lot of fun with that. But I realized ultimately that my talent or my real gift was for writing.
So, I stopped the bands and started taking writing courses and really honing my skills at the same time as doing a Diploma of Education and learning how to teach high school students. And I ended up in front of high school students who were telling me that reading is boring; only losers go to the library. And I was like, you guys have got it so wrong. And I started writing stuff for them, just as I used to write stuff in school for my friends to make them laugh and to pass the time in math class. And so, they started getting the idea that writing was fun. It’s a kind of wild playground. Whatever you can think, up goes, and you can write it down and make your friends laugh or horrify them or make them go. I would always say, Look, I don’t really care what reaction it is, as long as you’re getting a reaction. Writing is communication. That’s how those all came together.
Bianca Schulze: I’m going to read a quote from a profile that was done on you in The New York Times, and I hope I pronounce her name right. It was done by Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore. I’m sure I’ve said that wrong. So sorry, Clarissa.
Andy Griffiths: That’s perfect.
Bianca Schulze: Okay, good. She said Australian-born Mr. Griffiths has never lost that wacky, offbeat edge and ability to push the boundaries of good taste that defines his work. So, I’d like to know your thoughts on what it takes to push the boundaries of good taste. I love the way she wrote that, especially regarding writing for kids. I feel like sometimes, when people get into that comedic space, the boundaries they push are often not done in good taste, but yours is just fun-hearted. So, what are your thoughts on pushing the boundaries of good taste?
Andy Griffiths: I think I’ve always been attracted to the weird and the strange and the wonderful and the oddball kind of humor. That’s just a built-in feature of mine. It was a bit of—to my chagrin—when I started writing seriously. I tried to start writing serious stories, but there’d always be this little voice, this energy that would come through the pen and derail my best efforts and turn my stories into parodies and silliness. And I was like, oh, maybe I’m a comedy writer after maybe I’m not Raymond Carver after all. I’m the class clown.
But at the same time, I could be the class clown, but I was also a parent and also a teacher, so I had kind of three hats. And Australian-born great writer Tim Winton described this as writing in a triangle so that you are at one corner of that triangle. So, you’re writing for yourself. You have to be engaged in what you’re doing. You’re writing to your audience, which in this case, the primary audience is the children. So, you know what? By observation of children and by observation of myself, I know what I like, and I know what makes them laugh or groan.
But you also have a third audience at the top of the triangle, which is the gatekeepers. The parents, the teachers, the librarians, and the podcasters are the ones who get your books to the children. Sometimes the kids will buy them themselves, but you still need adults there. And so, you’ve got to include that third audience who may not be quite as keen on the gross outside of things or don’t get the weird lateral humor quite as readily as children. So, you’re writing for three audiences, which makes, I think, writing for kids slightly more complex than writing as an adult. If you’re a thriller writer, you write for the adults who, like, write reading thrillers; that’s all you have to worry about.
So, I have to modify what I send to the kids to go through the gatekeepers so that they are not completely turned off by what I’m doing. And I’ll give you an example. I did write a very provocative book called The Day My Butt Went Psycho just because it was a funny idea but also because teachers were very nervous about me at that stage. This was in 2001. And I said, look, let’s just all relax. It doesn’t matter if you say the word butt or if we have some silly jokes about it. And so, I wrote a book that would be in everyone’s face, but I didn’t use the word fart once in that book, okay? Once. On the very last page, I used it.
And this was because I did a test reading. And when you were using that word or the word poo just frequently and freely, it wasn’t as funny as if you implied it. So, you said, when a butt talks, you’ve got to block your nose because it smells pretty bad. Now, you haven’t said fart, but you’ve implied it, and the audience will laugh much harder and more readily. And it also makes it easier for the adult to read to the child because then you’re both slightly more sophisticated humor. So that’s how I go close to the edge without falling off.
Bianca Schulze: I love it. That’s genius. Actually, this is a question I typically ask everyone, and to be a writer, they say, you need to be a reader first. So, was there a pivotal moment in which you considered yourself a reader?
Andy Griffiths: I can go back and see. I was absolutely galvanized by the book called Struwelpeter, a German children’s cautionary tale book written in the 1850s by a man called Heinrich Hoffman. And they were horrendous tales of cautionary tales of what would happen to these kids if they didn’t obey their parents. They were done in rhyme. They had lurid, colorful pictures. And the kids would often either disregard their parents’ instructions not to play with matches or not to suck their thumbs; they would either suffer dismemberment, they’d be maimed, or would die at the end of each story. And it was so over the top.
The boy who wouldn’t stop sucking his thumbs had a man with long red legs and big pair of scissors come in and cut the thumbs off. And even as a five-year-old, I went, that’s a little over the top. But isn’t it funny? It’s horrifying and funny in the same image. So, I was kind of scared and fascinated by the book whenever I’d go and visit my grandmother, and I do credit that book for my love of reading because you never knew what was going to happen when you turned that page. Anything could happen. And then my mother read me Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I literally have a memory of being on a picnic rug while we were on holiday in a garden while she read me this book.
So, I had some pretty great early reading experiences I never considered myself. I didn’t go around. I’m a reader. I was just always reading. And American Horror comics got me through my early my late ten s and my early teens. I was just enamored of them, so I was reading anything and everything.
Bianca Schulze: I know that you’re really passionate about inspiring a love of books in young readers and that you work as an ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Project, which provides books and literacy resources to remote indigenous communities around Australia. I would love it if you could tell us just a little bit about that.
Andy Griffiths: Work of being an ambassador in this particular organization. There are small communities, hundreds of them, dotted in the outback of Australia, where people are living on the traditional lands, and there might be a school, but the libraries are very under-resourced for various— the distances are huge out there, so their literacy rates were low. And the organization organizes books at cost but completely free to the communities to be in there so that they can have books to actually learn to read with.
And as part of the early work of that organization, I would travel around with a small group of people and do workshops with the kids. And I quickly found that my stories were very city based. They involved cars and buildings, and just ways of being that are not the same out in these remote, remote places. And I quickly discovered the kids had stories that were entertaining me.
They would say, sometimes we get flooded, and we have to go and live on top of a mountain for three weeks. And I go, well, how do you eat? And they said, oh, they drop food in on helicopters. In our house, we had a flood, and there was a snake, a snake floating around the lounge in the living room. And I said, what do you do? And they went, well, you get a broom, and you get it out. Duh, can you write this down for me? Because this is extraordinary. In another group of kids, some of the boys got into trouble because they were swinging out on a rope over a river to see how high the crocodile who lived in this river would jump as it tried to bite them.
I was like, oh, now this is better than anything I can make up. So, can you make me up a little book? And I’d do these tiny twelve-page books, three strips of paper folded in the middle with a staple in the spine, and I’d say, just draw twelve pictures and twelve short sentences. No matter how rudimentary your writing skills or drawing skills are, it doesn’t matter. Any kid can, can tell you a sequence of pictures, and it tells a story. So, this is what I did for many years, traveling around remote communities. It works the same in non-remote communities, too. I would just give kids a blank twelve-page book and say, fill it up with anything that you can think of, and they quickly discover that they have material and that they can affect and amuse their friends.
And that’s where writing starts for me. So, yeah, that’s how that all happens.
Bianca Schulze: It must also just feel good to be able to share your passions while also giving back to communities. So, I love that you’re able to do that.
Andy Griffiths: Yeah. And we know that literacy underlies so much of someone’s life and what the opportunities in that life can be. Even just at a health level, being able to read the label on a bottle of medicine can make an enormous difference to your longevity and health while you’re alive, as well as employment opportunities and just being able to deal with the world around you. And that even if you’re in a remote community, you still have to negotiate with the wider community. So, yeah, it’s been very successful and now operates in over 200 communities, including what they call the Book Buzz Gifting, a set of classic picture books, some in the language of the community, some in English, to every child who is born in a particular community. So that books are just part of the furniture as they grow up, and we all need that to become proficient readers. It’s just books are part of our lives.
Bianca Schulze: Let’s talk specifically about The 13-story Treehouse. So, if a first-time reader was standing in front of you right now, how would you describe this story to them?
Andy Griffiths: I would say this is a book about me and my friend Terry and how we live in a 13-story treehouse with a bowling alley and a tank full of sharks and a marshmallow machine that follows us around and fires marshmallows into our mouth whenever we’re hungry. It’s about how we have to write a book for our publisher, Mr. Big Nose, who is a very angry man and gets very upset if he doesn’t get his book written. And this is what the book is going to be about, how we write the book.
But unfortunately, Terry is very unreliable, and instead of writing the book, I find him painting a cat yellow. And I said, what are you doing? He says I’m painting a cat yellow to turn it into a cat canary. And I say, don’t be silly. That’s not how you make canaries. And he says, yes, it is. And he throws the cat out the window, and it flies. And I go, wow, that’s amazing. And then our neighbor Jill, who we love very much, comes over and says, have you seen my cat?
And that’s where our dramas start because I didn’t realize it was Jill’s cat. And then we have a number of other dramas. Sea monkeys, a mermaid who turns into a sea monster who turns into a mermaid who tries to eat us, and a giant gorilla who tries to shake the tree down for giant bananas. And you can see it’s very difficult to write a book under these circumstances. Then I would say to the kid, but you probably won’t like it. It’s probably too silly for you.
Bianca Schulze: I love that. Some of our listeners are writers as well. And I just think it’s so genius that it’s basically an entire story about procrastinating or finding distractions to not get that book done. The writer and me really related to that and found it hilarious. I’m curious, where did the specific idea for The 13-Story Treehouse even come from?
Andy Griffiths: Well, Terry and I have worked together now for 25 years, I think it is. He was the first illustrator assigned to my very first book. And we just discovered we thought we loved the same kind of sense of anarchy. He could draw what I could imagine; what I imagined was exactly what he loved to draw. So, at the point where we created this book, we had done many, many books together, and I’d done a book in Australia called The Bad Book where everything was bad. And then we did a sequel, the very bad book. Bad children, bad parents, bad animals, bad situations. And then I said, let’s do the very, very bad book.
And we went away to my parent’s beach house, where we would lock ourselves away for five to six days on these writing binges. I said, what have you got? And he said I’ve got a picture of my finger. And I said that’s it. You’ve had a whole year, and you had a picture of your finger? And he said, oh, no, I’ve got a close-up of my finger. And I said, okay, well, that’s not a lot to make a book out of, but why don’t we make a really bad book about not being able to write the book? Because you haven’t come up with drawings, and I haven’t come up with words, we will literally waste the reader’s time for the entire book telling them why we haven’t written the book. So that was the pure idea, to begin with.
And I said we’ll live in a treehouse because the kids in Australia at that point knew us very, very well and would often think that we lived together and that we clobbered each other over the head with grand pianos when we were upset with each other. So, I said, well, let’s make it a fake biography of our working life together. So that was the genesis of the idea.
Bianca Schulze: Ernest Hemingway once said that just when you have writer’s block, start with one true thing, and then if you start with one true thing, then the rest can blossom from there. And that feels true for this story, is that your one true thing was you weren’t sure what to start writing about, so that’s the true thing that you wrote about it blossomed.
Andy Griffiths: Yeah. And the thing with Terry and I, the collaboration is total that he would draw a picture, and then I would write some words, and then those words would inspire more pictures, and the more pictures inspire more words. So, it’s absolutely impossible to tell where our contributions begin and end, and that’s what we were experimenting with at the same time. And he’s a little more lateral. I’ll plan out stories at a certain point and have a beginning, a middle, and an end and a logical sequence of events, even though they’re illogical events. And he will be far more spontaneous and sort of free-associative in his working methods. And the two just work beautifully because he’ll go off track. And then I’ll have to somehow take what he’s done and incorporate it into the structure of the story, which makes it seem really creative. But I’m just trying to fix the problem of him not attending to the story.
Bianca Schulze: It all works so perfectly, and it really is just every page; there’s something to laugh about. I’m curious, in terms of feedback that you get from kid readers, have you noticed there’s something specific, like a specific theme, that they tend to find the funniest?
Andy Griffiths: They love it when me and Terry are fighting. In real life, we get along very well, and there’s rarely an argument. In fact, never. But in the books, if Andy is berating Terry for something and Terry’s doing something silly, that’s funny in itself. But when Andy’s standing there getting madder and madder because they should be doing the book, it becomes even funnier. So, I think they enjoy the fact we fight, but we do makeup in the end. They love, obviously, the comedy of it, but they also comment on the adventure because the books are a hybrid. They’re comedy, adventure, and fantasy all mixed in together, which maybe is why your kids, despite having different tastes, can all enjoy the book because there’s sort of something for everyone along in that book.
The comment that I love is sometimes they say, look, we love the book, and we love Terry. He’s really funny. Can you be a bit funnier, please? You do realize I’m writing all these jokes? It’s classic comedy. It’s a double act. It’s a straight man and the clown.
Bianca Schulze: What inspired me to want to reach out and talk to you about The 13-story Treehouse, besides the fact that I love it and so many other kids love it, is that it’s getting the full-color treatment and it’s going to be the special edition. And I would love to know what excites you most about Ritas getting the chance to experience the tree house in full color.
Andy Griffiths: Well, it just looks so amazing because, Terry, all the books to this point, have been in black and white. But Terry, in his other life, is a great painter and a great colorist. So, it always seemed sad that we were working in black and white, even though I say sad. But I really do think when you’re reading a book, you’re reading black marks on a page, which are the words and lines on a page, which are the drawings, and you, as reader, are pulling it all together in your head. You’re making the pictures in your head.
And that’s what makes reading so special. I think you’re directing your own particular version of the movie, but to see it in color just adds. I guess it’s like watching a film in black and white or a film in color. Some of that. The unexpected colors add brightness and a vibrance to it, which is already there, but the colors make it inescapable, I guess, and it’s just beautiful to look at.
Bianca Schulze: So exciting. I love that you use the word vibrant because that’s what I was thinking. Just the vibrancy and the energy that color can bring. I haven’t seen the full-color edition yet, so I am really looking forward to it.
Andy Griffiths: Yeah, it’ll be more colorful than you can imagine.
Bianca Schulze: So, each book in the series goes up another 13 stories, which is clever. Will the rest of the series be getting the color treatment, or is it just the first book that is going to have the special edition to this point?
Andy Griffiths: It’s just been the first book, but it’s been extremely well received, and I believe there are plans afoot to do the rest of them up in Australia. We’re up to The 156-Story Treehouse now, and we’re currently working on The 169-Story Treehouse, which will be book 13 in the series, and the whole series works in 13. So, 169 will be the final book in the series because it just seemed logically illogically correct to stop at 13 books.
I think now that we’ve almost finished producing the main series, that’s going to leave time and a great opportunity to come back and do color versions of all of the previous books, which the kids are still reading and still rereading over and over again, which is I’m really proud of that aspect of the books, that Terry’s pictures provide so much so much detail. You can find new details every time you read the book.
Bianca Schulze: Which actually brings me to a question that a lot of parents, you hear them almost in a frustrated way, say, oh, my kid is rereading this book for the 10th time. Why won’t they read anything else? And I think it’s so wonderful when kids come back and reread because they get more context. They often learn more about themselves through the characters that they’re reading and, just in general, they’re reading. So, I’m curious what your thoughts are on just the idea of rereading the same book over and over.
Andy Griffiths: Yeah, that is how readers are created. It’s absolutely natural, and it’s wonderful. Sometimes I get the complaint my kids will only read your books. They’ll only read the treehouse books. And I say that’s fine. That’s called phase reading. You go through a phase where you just want the same thing over and over and over again. As you say, you’re building up your reading skills. You are immersed in a world that you love of reading, so you’re bonding with the whole idea of reading. After a while, you will move through that.
I had an English writer, Enid Blyton. I wouldn’t read anything but her books for three years because she knew how to get the story started fast with a minimum of description, and wonderful, unpredictable things would happen. But after a few years, I was like, the characters are getting a bit samey now. And that’s where a good librarian or teacher or parent can put another book in your hand, say, Try this one. And then you have built up the skills. You’re ready for something more challenging. And that’s what I think the kids are doing. Well, it’s a side benefit, as you say, reading. You get better at reading by reading, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s the same book or multiple books.
Bianca Schulze: So, if there was one thing that you would want listeners to take away from our chat today, what would you want that to be?
Andy Griffiths: Build your children a treehouse because otherwise, they’ll be deprived for the rest. No, that’s a joke. Provide lots of books for your child, whether that’s regular trips to the library. I love going to—we call them opportunity shops here. I’m not sure what you call them. Goodwill. Just books that you buy for ten cents, twenty cents each, can be amazing, life-changing things. But yeah, have lots of books in the house, and if possible, let them see you reading those books or reading a book because your example is very powerful for the child as well.
And I’m like; I’m very happy for kids to watch movies, play computer games. These are. Watch TV. These are all potential sources of imagination and amazing wonder. But reading is a particular pleasure and a particular skill that absolutely belongs alongside those things. So, you can just sort of look over benignly and go, you know, well, you’ve watched a lot of TV time for a book. It’s not easy, but I think parents need to regulate those activities.
Bianca Schulze: Yes. And I feel like what you said, too, is when we as adults model that reading, or even if you do have a reluctant reader, and it is time to switch off the telly, as we say in Australia or TV here in the US— offer to sit beside them. Even if you’re reading individual books, just sitting side by side, reading or reading one chapter aloud, it can make such a difference.
Andy Griffiths: Yes. And that’s where I think the treehouse books; I’ve kind of designed them just by having been a parent. I want something that I’m engaged with when I’m reading with my child at bedtime. I don’t want enormously long slabs of static description. I want stuff to happen. I want pictures that the kids can point to and you can discuss, and you can laugh about. So, yeah, I try not to bog the adult down along with the reader, and it’s a win-win for everyone that way. I have had lovely complaints. I was reading your book with my child one chapter a night, but then they just started reading by themselves, and they got way beyond me.
Bianca Schulze: I love it. That’s the sign of an excellent book when that happens. I love it. Well, Andy, I am so grateful for you coming on the show today. As I said a couple of times, I’m a huge fan of The 13-Story Treehouse. I’m really excited about this full-color edition. It’s already so energetic, so my mind is going to blow when I see the color pages. I know, it is fantastic.
Andy Griffiths: I’ve been very lucky to work with Terry. He’s an amazing artist.
Bianca Schulze: Well, thanks so much, Andy.
Andy Griffiths: Thank you very much. And I’ll see you in the treehouse. And we’re open 25 hours a day, eight days a week, 366 days a year. So, there’s no problem with the time difference.
Bianca Schulze: I love it. I love it.
About the Book
Written by Andy Griffiths
Illustrated by Terry Denton
Ages 6+ | 256 Pages
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends | ISBN-13: 9781250846976
Publisher’s Book Summary: New York Times bestselling author Andy Griffiths invites readers to come hang out with him and his friend Terry Denton in their 13-Story Treehouse―filled with Andy and Terry’s signature slapstick humor!
Special collector’s edition, now in stunning full color!
Andy and Terry live in a treehouse. But it’s not just any old treehouse, it’s the most amazing treehouse in the world!
This treehouse has thirteen stories, a bowling alley, a see-through swimming pool, a secret underground laboratory, and a marshmallow machine that follows you around and automatically shoots marshmallows into your mouth whenever you are hungry.
Life would be perfect for Andy and Terry if it wasn’t for the fact that they have to write their next book, which is almost impossible because there are just so many distractions, including thirteen flying cats, giant bananas, mermaids, sea monsters pretending to be mermaids, enormous gorillas, and dangerous burp gas-bubblegum bubbles!
Join the fun with The 13-Story Treehouse.
Buy the Book
Learn more about Andy Griffiths here: https://www.andygriffiths.com.au/.
Andy Griffiths, the Down-Under Kids’ Author Known for His Butt Jokes, Now Builds and Builds on His Hit ‘Treehouse’ Series, written by Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore for The New York Times on March 9, 2018.
- Getting to know Andy Griffiths and the things he likes to collect.
- How being a high school teacher, lead singer in a rock band, and a stand-up comedian have helped Andy with his writing.
- Pushing the boundaries of good taste when writing for kids.
- How to write about farts without saying the word fart.
- Working with the Indigenous Literacy Project.
- The 13-Story Treehouse, what it’s all about, and the inspiration behind it.
- Themes that get kids excited about reading the Treehouse series.
- When kids love to read the same book again and again.
- Tips for raising readers and regulating screen time.
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Andy Griffiths Discusses The 13-Story Treehouse Special Collector’s Edition. For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Follow Now on Spotify. For similar books and articles, you can check out all of our content tagged with Adventure, Andy Griffiths, Books About Treehouses, Humorous Books, and Illustrated Chapter Books.