What does it mean to be blue? Is it okay? How do you stop? What do you do? Children’s writer Caron Levis set out to answer those questions. The result: a subtle and beautiful picture book about what it means to be sad and an adorable embodiment of that sadness, the Blooz. The Blooz shows up one day and won’t go away. He’s a lovable, loathe-able, character, dripping and oozing into your heart.
Levis’ first book, Stuck with the Blooz came out this month to much applause. And for anyone lucky enough to live in New York City you can come out and hear Levis read from the book this Saturday, October 20th at 11:00am at Greenlight Books in Ft. Greene. For those not in New York, no worries, you can get your very own copy of this beautiful book! Ask your local bookstore or go online to purchase it. AND now for the good stuff. The Recollective sat down with author to get the back story…
The Recollective: The first question we have to ask is the obvious one. What do you do when you’re sad?
Levis: When the Blooz visits me I like to take long walks, soak in the tub, or read a favorite book. Other times I might listen to music, scribble words I like in purple pen, or meet up with a friend. Sometimes the Blooz wants me to slow down and notice things going on inside, other times, it wants me to go out and jump into leaf piles in order to hear the crunch.
The Recollective: What was your inspiration for Stuck with the Blooz?
Levis: The story was sparked to life by a conversation I had with a student one day while I was teaching in an elementary school. She had been quietly crying while walking down the stairs, I pulled her aside and we sat on the steps to chat. Speaking through her sniffles, she conducted a thorough investigation into her sadness. She asked herself questions: was she hungry? Hurt? Tired? Homesick? She couldn’t figure out why she had the blues at that moment, but she could describe what it felt like, remind herself that it would eventually go away, and brainstorm activities that would make her feel better. Her self awareness and courage impressed me. She reminded me of all the folks I know who work to be present with their more uncomfortable emotions. I knew I wanted to share that conversation. A few months later, while I was sitting alone in a large empty house, looking at a cloudy sky and listening to the rain, the Blooz knocked on the door.
The Recollective: What do you think she would think about this interpretation of her experience? (Have you told her?)
Levis: She’s a teenager now, so I doubt she’d remember me, let alone one short stairwell conversation! While our conversation and her plucky, smart questions inspired me to the idea, the book is not about her and the character is entirely made up. I haven’t yet been able to get in touch with her or her family but it would be fun find out what she’s up to now. She was a smart, joyous, and creative kid, so I imagine she is pretty great now.
The Recollective: You have a knack for getting down to a child’s level, not condescending or heavy-handed teaching, but understanding. How do you step into the shoes of say, a 4-year-old when you sit down to write?
Levis: Thank you so much for saying that. I honestly don’t think about shoe stepping much. I’ve been working with kids since I was in high school and though I do love my groan-up friends, I have to say, I enjoy talking with–and mostly listening to–kids the most. So, when I’m writing, it’s just me talking with kids, or hearing them talk to me. That said, if I could fit into four year old shoes, I would so get me some of those adorable lady bug and crocodile galoshes they get to wear.
The Recollective: You write both for children, young adults and adults, how does your process differ for each? Does it differ?
Levis: For the most part I work on ideas as they come to me, make sense, and become urgent somehow. Whether it’s something that ends up being for kiddos, teens, or adults doesn’t matter. Nope. My process is slow and messy no matter who I’m writing for;) But I think I let myself eat more ice cream when writing for kids, because Jane Yolen, a children’s author told me to. (In her book about writing.)
The Recollective: What was it like working with an illustrator?
Levis: I feel like the luckiest first time picture book author ever. Sincerely. I know it isn’t always like this and I am so grateful. My editor, Adah Nuchi, got Blooz from the start and found the perfect illustrator in Jon Davis. She sent me his character sketch and I had a happy-dance party in my living room because I knew it was going to exceed my highest hopes. So, the process for me was a delight because while Jon was hard at work, I just awaited with total excitement. He lives in the UK and we’ve never met. We didn’t correspond until after the book was mostly finished, which makes the whole thing even more wild. Jon took hold of these ideas in my head and drew them into pictures more amazing than anything I could have imagined. He is so incredible at evoking emotion through body language, space, and color. Putting Blooz in that old timey striped suit was brilliant and perfect and made me want to hug him (him being Blooz AND Jon!) Some of the details Jon chose to create made me feel like he’d been to my house or knew me. And the last scene…see I use acting exercises when I write and in order to find the right ending, I kept making a certain gesture with my arms to embody the feeling I wanted the words to convey. I never told anybody about it of course, certainly not Jon, yet there that gesture is on the last page of the book. He’s an incredibly perceptive and talented illustrator and I still can’t believe my luck.
The Recollective: How old were you when you started writing?
Levis: I’d have to look back at a long line of journals to find the date, but I remember it was after reading Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books that I decided I wanted to be an author. My elementary and middle school was wonderfully supportive of writing and handed journals out every year. Though, I think writing really starts with reading, and I have this amazing tape recording of my mother reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar to me when I was about two. It was obviously one of my favorite books, and on the tape you can hear me “reading” along, often beating her to the next words. Listening to it, I can recall having the sensation that I was actually making the story happen by calling out those words. (four strawberries! …cherry pie!…still hungry!) Those studies we sometimes hear about, that explain the importance of reading to kids? Absolutely true in my book.
The Recollective: What do you hope readers will take from reading the book?
Levis: Kids, just like adults, feel sad sometimes. As adults we try to send the message that ‘it’s okay to cry’, but we don’t like to see people we love, especially kids, feeling blue so the instinct is often to make the sadness go away. Sharing the experience of being sad is tough, but once a conversation is started, kids, aren’t afraid to explore their emotions. I guess I hope the book can help start the conversation about emotions–in an enjoyable, fun way. When we can get a little distance, there’s often humor to be found in our gloom. I think sadness is mostly considered a scary, unattractive, and mysterious emotion that is best to block out, hide, or fix as quickly as possible. It can definitely be scary, but it can also be beautiful and lead us places if we let it. My intention was to have the story work at different levels and Jon Davis made this possible by creating such a squishy, goofy, huggable Blooz. You don’t have to have to talk about the blues to enjoy Jon’s gorgeous and joyful drawings. I’d be delighted whether conversations happen between parent and child, teacher and students, inside a single reader’s mind, or if they just float around the beautiful blues of Jon’s skies while kids are busy giggling at the way Blooz bounces.