Tim Myers is a big personality, with energy pulsing off him, great waves of it. It’s no surprise that one category cannot contain him: he’s a writer, a songwriter, a poet, a storyteller for children and adults, a teacher, the list goes on. His children’s books have earned a Smithsonian Notable Book award and a National Council for the Social Studies and the Children’s Book Council. Basho and the Fox was a New York Times bestseller. He has a new children’s book, published by Sterling Children’s Books, Down at the Dino Wash Deluxe.
I met him at a reading, where he was reading his poetry, displaying the full spectrum of his personality—witty, funny, serious, light-hearted. He is a man full of superlatives and adjectives. We talked about his new children’s book, what inspired him to write it, how he got started and how parents can encourage their kids to keep reading.
Nina Schuyler: How did you get the idea for your newest children’s book, Down at the Dino Wash Deluxe?
Tim Myers: I have a daughter, who is now 21, and two sons, who are now 34 and 32. When they were young, I stayed home with them a lot. We played all the time. My boys loved Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. We probably read that book 80, 100 times, maybe more. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to write something like that? Something that appeals to boys to meet the challenge, some call it a crisis, of boys not being readers. But I wanted to do it differently. So I thought, what’s the other go-to for boys? Dinosaurs. So how do I combine cars and trucks and dinosaurs? Then I got it—dinosaurs are huge, they live in the city and get dirty. They need to get clean somehow.
NS: The illustrations for the Down at the Dino Wash Deluxe are so rich and colorful, with great expressions, full of emotion. Do you have any role in the art?
TM: The industry standard is that the writer doesn’t have any contact with the illustrator. For the majority of my books, I haven’t seen a glimpse of the art until the published book arrives at my house. It’s kind of like getting a mail-order bride: my life is going to depend on this, and I don’t know who this person is.
Some of my best editors have allowed me to comment on the art, but only to the editor, not the art director. I can understand this. If I’m an illustrator, the last thing I want is an author hanging over my shoulder, telling me this is wrong, and this is wrong. I was in a room full of picture book writers at a book festival, and this topic came up. It seemed everyone had a my-illustrator-made-a-mistake story. That encouraged me a lot; it’s just normal. It’s about interpretation.
Recently, I found an illustrator for a publisher because the publisher was having a terrible time locating someone who would be good enough for their high standards for a book about Native Americans. This recent exposure to the art side of children’s books has shown me it’s a lot more complicated than I thought. I have a new respect for art directors and what they have to go through.
NS: You write songs for adults. Does songwriter influence your writing for children? Does it give you a heightened awareness of sound and rhythm?
TM: One of the things I want to do is a picture book titled, Hip Hop Honey Bee, about a bee who raps. You know, now that I think of it, there’s a lot of song-lyric-like rhythm in my picture books.
NS: What makes a really good children’s book?
TM: I am forever quoting William Goldman, who said about Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” It’s a misunderstanding to think there is a formula to writing a children’s book. Picture books do have a unique quality, the melding of word and text and pictures. I have no illusions that what sells children’s books initially is the art. When I pick up a picture book I look at the cover and the art. But one of the constant errors that people commit is they don’t write from a child’s point of view. Or they don’t include any child’s point of view. They write from an adult’s point of view, which doesn’t work because kids don’t see things that way.
NS: : Do you have a favorite children’s book?
TM: I do, and one reason it’s my favorite is that it made me a children’s book writer. I sat down, read it to my kids, and when I closed it, I was a children’s writer. I said to myself, I had no idea you could do this in children’s literature. I’m talking about Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. I was swept away by this book, like when I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Saul Bellow’s Herzog. When I teach children’s literature at the university, I often start with that book because it’s an indicator of the depths to which children’s work can go. Where the Wild Things Are is about chaos and order in human existence, dark impulses, bright impulses, and somehow it’s all played out in the midst of the family drama.
NS: Your children are adults now. Do you still read children’s books?
TM: I’ll go to Barnes & Noble, sit down with a big pile of picture books and read through. When we have grandkids, my wife and I will open the floodgates. I’m sure my grandkids will ask their parents to take them home, because the grandparents are wearing them out. A kid is the greatest interactive toy ever made! Last year, my daughter gave me a picture book for my birthday, Black Dog. The illustrations are stunning!
NS: What’s your advice to parents to help kids enjoy reading?
TM: We never pushed our kids. We’d say, want to go to the park, the library, play GI Joes? Reading was just as normal as everything else. It’s the most natural thing for kids to love children’s books. For almost any kid, if you let them select books, they’ll find stuff they love.
But something happens to them along the way. They are told to get serious about life. I agree with that, but you can’t forget about fantasy, the joy in reading. I have college freshmen in writing classes. Half my job is to try to help them rediscover the joy of reading again.
Add this book to your collection: Down at the Dino Wash Deluxe
For more information on Tim Myers and his books, visit: http://www.timmyersstorysong.com
Nina Schulyer’s new novel, The Translator, has received starred reviews from Booklist and Shelf Awareness. Her fist novel, The Painting, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award and was named a ‘Best Book’ by the San Francisco Chronicle. She’s fiction editor for www.ablemuse.com and teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco. For more information, visit her at www.ninaschuyler.com.