Interview: Julie Danielson, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Alice at the Mad Tea Party, by Frank Dormer

Today I continue my series of interviews with children’s book bloggers in an interview with Julie Danielson (abbreviated “JD” below), who blogs at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, or “7-Imp” for short.  Jules  is an influential blogger in the kidlitosphere and is an aficionado of children’s picture books .  As you’ll see from the interview, she’s a wiz with American Sign Language and is also pretty darn funny.  Pithy enticing quote: “…very simply, I’m an Illustration Junkie and must feed my habit.”  The point of these interviews, of course, is to help connect readers of Children’s Books and Reviews to some of the many other excellent children’s literature blogs out there. So, if you are also a sucker for children’s picture books, after reading the interview I encourage you to check out Julie’s blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Click here for the previous interview in this series, with Jill Tullo of the Well-Read Child.

Q: When and how did you become interested in children’s picture books?

JD: I blame Eisha Prather, my best friend and fellow imp—and whom regular 7-Imp readers will recognize as my partner-in-crime in co-founding the blog. Not too terribly long after college and before each of us went off and got hitched, we were roommates in a lovely, if un-air-conditioned, old farmhouse in beautiful Maryville, Tennessee. That’s “Murvul,” by the way, if you’re a true East Tennessean. At the time, she was a public librarian and would bring home her favorite picture books and leave them on the dining room table for me to read. I’d wander off with them and explore. I fell for them. And fell hard.

Q: Tell me some basics about your blog.

JD: The two of us co-founded the blog in 2006 (back when, tragically, our images at the site posted so very small). Our vision was pretty simple: We planned to talk about the books we read. And lots of different kinds of books: picture books, memoirs, YA fiction, science fiction, graphic novels, fancy-pants postmodern high-art metafiction for grown-ups, paranormal noir, whatever struck us. And we wrote about them in the hopes that we could a) let readers know about a book that they might like to read, too, and b) inspire discussion about said books.

In 2009, Eisha decided to officially back out of the blog. Her career path simply shifted (though I admit we joked about staging a fake fight with lots of creative cursing and making it look like she was storming out). Now I blog solo. Even before Eisha officially backed out of 7-Imp, my focus shifted. For different reasons (but primarily ‘cause I am fascinated by the art form that is the picture book), I post about illustration — picture books and illustrated novels. I simply couldn’t keep up with blogging about novels I’d read, though I still read them. I now leave that to the numerous other bloggers who are way better at it than I — unless, like I said, there are illustrations involved, in which case my interest will be piqued.

I probably lost a bunch of readers when I shifted my focus, but perhaps I gained fellow picture-book-nerd readers. (I say “nerds” lovingly.) Who really knows. I don’t even know how to look up my reader stats. Honestly. I just run my mouth and hope someone will engage in a conversation with me about children’s lit.

I don’t even consider 7-Imp a “review” blog anymore, though I notice sometimes people refer to it as one (which is fine). I’m not sure what it is. I’d like to think of it as a sort of literary salon where authors and illustrators stop by, after getting a cup of cyber-coffee, to share their craft—and where illustrators wake us up with art. Yeah. That.

Plus, very simply, I’m an Illustration Junkie and must feed my habit. Should the blog’s header now say, “Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a blog about illustration”? Perhaps. But I’m too sentimental to change it.

That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.

Q: What is the significance of the name of the blog?

JD: “Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast” is a reference to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In chapter V: “Wool and Water,” Alice meets the White Queen, who tells Alice that, when she was her age, she “sometimes… believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

This quote seemed perfect for the blog for a couple of reasons. First, as Eisha once wrote at the site, the idea of deliberately believing impossible things is a pretty great description of what a fiction-lover does when s/he opens a book. We also felt that the Alice books were a great talisman for the blog, because they’re read and loved by children and adults alike. Since back then, we were blogging about both children’s and adult literature indiscriminately, it seemed fitting to make reference to a crossover classic, particularly one that had such a huge influence on both of our early literary lives.

“Six Impossible Things…” had already been used pretty heavily in the hyper-hypo world of the Web. And “Twelve Impossible Things”—since there were two of us—has already been used by Jane Yolen in one of her book titles. And besides, we were both kind of busy when we brainstormed the blog’s name, so “twelve” was probably too ambitious anyway. We compromised on “Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast — why stop at six?”

Q: I noticed that there are quite a number of “Mad Tea Party” images adorning your blog. Can you tell me a bit about those?

Alice at the Mad Tea Party, by Dan Krall

JD: In 2007, author/illustrator Frank Dormer created a Mad Tea Party image [AM: the image at the top of this post] specifically for 7-Imp by way of thanks for featuring his art work. I loved it so much I wanted to take it to the courthouse and shotgun marry it, so I placed it in the header of one of the blog’s pages. I then decided it’d be fun to “collect” various Mad Tea Party images and place them in the headers of the site’s other pages, though the blog’s main page will always have the classic Tenniel. Some I found on my own or others pointed out to me, and then I begged and borrowed (such as, Fernando Falcone’s). Others are the result of illustrators saying, you featured my art. Thank you. As a result, I just created a Mad Tea Party image just for your site. Want it? To which I can usually be heard screaming with enthusiasm, while doing cheerleader spirit fingers (not really), WHY OF COURSE YES!

Q: Tell me about Cristiana Clerici’s International Spotlights.

JD: Cristiana Clerici is an Italian blogger and picture book aficionado. She blogs over at a site called The Tea Box, where she shares her love of books and follows titles from all over—with special attention to Italy, the United States, the UK, France, Spain, and South American countries. In September 2010, I asked her if she’d like to come contribute posts—interviews and book reviews—about international picture books at 7-Imp, because I have a huge interest in what picture book authors and illustrators on the other side of the world are doing. (If only I had more time to blog, I’d love to do more of that myself.) She enthusiastically agreed.

So, whenever the mood strikes her, she makes these lovely contributions to 7-Imp. And she is a force of nature, I tell you what. She maintains three pages in three languages (Italian, English, and French) at her own site, so most of her time goes into translating her own posts. I mean, holy wow and hubba whoa, right?

She is so smart. And fun. And passionate about picture books. I wish I could meet her in person and have cappuccinos with hazel cinnamon rolls and mini frittatas every morning while gabbing about picture books in a small, rustic cafe in some remote Italian town.

And, as illustrator Pascal Lemaitre said about author Toni Morrison in my 2009 interview with him, Cristiana is a sun. (I love that. I have lifted that phrase to describe personalities like Cristiana’s.)

Q: Who are some of your favorite children’s illustrators? Authors?

JD: I love the work of Maurice Sendak. He has tremendous respect for children.

I love every single thing John Burningham ever did.

Big Momma Makes the World is probably my favorite picture book ever, because the writing is perfect, the illustrations are perfect, and both of them together are sublime. (Should I say, it’s “good. It’s real good”? Or is that too corny?)

Marie Hall Ets. Naomi Shihab Nye. E.B. Lewis. M.T. Anderson. Jack Gantos. Ruth Krauss. Virginia Euwer Wolff. Polly Dunbar. Dave McKean. R. Gregory Christie. Adam Rex.

This is hard! I could go on. As for picture books, let me direct you to this fairly recent post à la the talented Mr. Sergio Ruzzier.

Q: I understand you recently spent some time as a librarian at The Tennessee School for the Deaf. Tell me about how you came to be involved with the deaf community, and how that experience has been for you.

JD: I received my Bachelor’s degree in Sign Language Intepreting and worked as an interpreter at The University of Tennessee, even co-founding a children’s theatre for the deaf in Knoxville at one point. Most interpreters you meet have, say, an aunt who is deaf or, growing up, had a neighbor who was deaf. I knew no deaf people as a child. I was simply very taken with American Sign Language—I remember as a child staring with my jaw dropped at deaf people’s hands flying through the air—and decided to study it in college. It’s the most complex and straight up gorgeous language on the planet.

After getting my graduate degree in Information Sciences, because I so super bad wanted to study children’s literature and that’s where those courses were, I ended up (after a while) as the librarian at the Tennessee School for the Deaf (grades pre-K to 12). It was wonderful. Challenging, too. Many deaf children end up at school with a language delay—smart as a whip, but their hearing parents may have gotten a late start in learning to sign and communicate with their children—so the challenge was to match the right book/reading level with the child.  And ASL is an inherently dramatic language, so story times were really fun!

Q: So, I also understand that you are doing the hard work of mothering right now. How is that? Are your kids catching your passion for books?

JD: My seven-year-old, yes, usually has her head in a book. And we look at illustration a lot around here. She still says she wants to be an artist one day. The five-year-old? Not as heavily into books, which is a-okay (and, I realize, could change anyway). She’s entirely more active, as in she’ll usually jump around like a monkey while I read a novel aloud, while just somewhat listening. However, if you read to her an Ursula K. Le Guin Catwings book any day, a hush falls.

Mothering is a large part of why I started blogging. I had gone from full-time work to full-time stay-at-home motherhood (my choice). I found it challenging to spend my days with humans incapable of abstract thought, as much as I adored them, after having spent my days discussing books with teachers and other librarians. Blogging was a way to keep my brain active—and to keep myself involved in children’s lit. I suddenly had some new colleagues, if you will—other bloggers from all around the country, who also loved discussing children’s lit. I still feel like I owe those other bloggers a whole heapin’ lot. As in, seriously, I’m tearing up now. I thank them for re-engaging me in those discussions during an isolating time.

Q: Do you hope to return to librarianship some day? If so, what is your ideal librarian job?

JD: Honestly, I have no idea anymore what I want to be when I grow up. I may return to school librarianship. Right now, I’m freelance writing. And I like it. I’d like to be a children’s literature adviser of some sort.  But I’m not sure how one earns that title. Or if I’ve got what it takes.

Essentially, I wish 7-Imp’ing were a full-time job, but that doesn’t happen to bloggers. There’s so much more I’d like to do at the blog (such as the kind of thing you’re doing with your blogger interviews here, which I once did and no longer have time for), but it comes after my family, work-that-pays, and Other Things That Enable Me to Have a Life. For all those reasons, too, I try not to take it too seriously.

Q: I noticed that you have aspirations of one day pursuing a doctorate in children’s literature. Do you have a research topic in mind that lures you toward the ivory tower? If so, what is it?

I’m honestly not so sure about that anymore. (I should really update my blog’s “about” pages!) If I do it, I’d want to be that instructor who introduces children’s lit to Education and Library Science majors. The first person they meet along the way, that is, who encourages them to think about children’s books in a scholarly manner. (And I’d keep it fun. Promise.) I meet so many people who think children’s lit isn’t worthy of that level of thought.

Q: I noticed that you also do some freelance writing. Tell me about the book project you are currently working on (unless it is top secret).

JD: I’m writing Wild Things!: The True, Untold Stories Behind the Most Beloved Children’s Books and Their Creators with Elizabeth Bird of A Fuse #8 Production and Peter D. Sieruta of Collecting Children’s Books. Over the years, the three of us have been surprised by how many people have a romanticized view of children’s literature, visualizing their favorite authors and illustrators writing stories with a quill pen in hand and two or three cute fluffy bunnies curled up at their feet. With this book, we hope will dispel the fluffy-bunny school-of-thought by exploring the “untold” world of children’s/YA literature. It’ll be a slightly irreverent (but always respectful and celebratory) survey of the stories behind our favorite books and what it’s like to be a living, breathing twenty-first century creator of children’s books in a culture that often misunderstands, patronizes, or idealizes one’s work. It’ll be published by Candlewick in Spring 2013.  The three of us really love children’s literature, and we hope to communicate that with this title.

Q: I understand you also write a regular column for Kirkus Reviews. What sorts of things do you write about there?

JD: Yes! About two months ago, they asked me to join their Book Blogger Network, focusing on children’s lit. I have an invitation to write about whatever I want—and however I want (reviews, Q & A, whatever blows my hair back). I was inordinately happy to have been asked. As already mentioned, I blog primarily about picture books, but over at Kirkus—since I am currently the only one in the Book Blogger Network in the “children’s” genre—I feel a self-imposed obligation to also write about books in the realm of children’s lit that are beyond picture books. This means that also I make a point of covering chapter books, middle-grade novels, etc. (They have multiple YA folks in the blogger network, so that’s covered.)

Q: What do you enjoy most about your work around children’s literature?

JD: That’s a wonderful question.

When we talk about “children’s literature,” we mean a very wide spectrum. Everything from board books to adult titles considered crossover YA titles. My very favorite stop on that spectrum—though I love to read a little bit of it all—is picture books. I love to see what contemporary illustrators are doing. “The picture book is a peculiar art form that thrives on genius, intuition, daring…” Maurice Sendak once wrote. I find it a complex and beguiling thing—when art and text interact.

I’ll also add this: Blogging is a labor of love. It’s definitely a follow-my-bliss type of activity. For that reason, it’s extremely validating—and makes me all geeky-happy—when people use 7-Imp as a resource. For instance, a picture book illustrator emailed me recently to ask a question about a book he was working on. He had made particular palette choices and was wondering about examples of picture books with similar palettes. I was able to give some examples (and with images!) by hitting the 7-Imp archives. He was happy to have some examples, and I was happy to have provided them. Or when instructors/professors of illustration and children’s lit tell me they use the blog as a resource in their classrooms, I get all squealy. Because I love talking about picture books with others.

And I’ll do it if just one person is reading.

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Categories: Blogger Interviews
Tags: BlogChildren's Picture BooksInterviewJulie DanielsonSeven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
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