Annie Barrows landed her first job at age 12
in the library. "I'd sit in the back when I was supposed to be putting on
the plastic jackets," she admits. "I was being paid to read, which
has always been my career goal." As an adult, she became an editor, but
soon discovered that editors don't actually get to read all the time. "I
always say that if you really want to be paid to read, you should be a security
guard," explains Barrows. "Being an editor is far too difficult, I
think." Not only is Barrows the bestselling author of the Ivy and Bean
series for children, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, she also co-authored The
Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
with her aunt Mary Ann Shaffer, aimed at adults. Here Barrows discusses the
inspiration for Ivy and Bean, the pressures children feel about global warming,
and the contrast between writing for young people and for adults.
What got you started with Ivy and Bean?
I got the
idea for Ivy and Bean when my older
daughter was at the end of first grade because we sort of ran out of stuff to
read. We'd gone through Junie B. Jones and Magic Treehouse, and I thought, "Someone
needs to do something about this." And I thought, "Heck, I'm a
writer, I could write a book." I started to think about what kind of book
I'd like to read, and what kind of book my daughter would like to read. I
thought, "We could go down that fantasy path or write about the real
world, her friends, their lives." My ulterior motive is to give kids a
real laugh and serve no purpose.
One of the best things about Ivy and Bean's
friendship is how different they are, but also how well they complement each
other. Did you model their friendship on one you're familiar with yourself?
think there's really a one-to-one correlation with a single real-life person.
Ivy is in some ways a lot like my older daughter who leads with her ideas.
Whereas, my other daughter leads with her impulse and her body. And I love the
combination of one making plans based on her ideas, and the other trying to
make the ideas become real. An idea person often doesn't have a way to make
them real, and the real child doesn't make those flights of fancy. I wanted to
put those together so they could have more fun than they'd ever have
separately. Idea people often look in the sky, which is great, but isn't great
reading, so you need the real-world person to put the ideas into practice.
Let's talk about Pancake Court--does it
bear any resemblance to your childhood neighborhood?
Not at all. I
made up Pancake Court because when I first wrote Ivy and Bean, there were two things that had to go: 1. Ivy and Bean
make voodoo dolls. 2. When Bean runs away from Nancy, she runs across the
street. The editor said, "These two things have got to go." And I
said, "But Bean has to run away!" She said, "I don't care. She
can't run across the street." So I made it a cul de sac--that was the
solution to all my problems--and I took out the voodoo dolls. Of course, I spent
my entire childhood running across the street. I lived on a street where all
the kids were in the street all the time; we all roved from yard to yard.
How do you keep the series so fresh--both
for you and for your readers?
Part of what
I have to do is enter into kid-brain myself. I also have to spend time really
listening to kids. I used to listen to my kids, but they're older now. So I go
to their school and listen to what they're saying, and it reminds me of their
world. You have to ask yourself honestly, is this really what a kid would do?
Does this sound right? Does this make sense in kid-think? I work on it. I don't
know that it's always successful but it's in my head as I'm writing.
Children receive such a heavy message about
their responsibility for the planet. Was Big Idea a response to that?
I feel like
it is a response to that. I've been watching my own kids get this throughout
their elementary and middle school careers, like it's all falling apart and
going to hell in a handbasket. I think kids worry a lot about this. It's all
out of their hands and they can't do anything really to solve the problem. I wanted
to take the kids' vantage point on this and show there's another way to think
about this. It's not this unilateral dark picture. There are ways it's being
addressed and there are a series of small solutions, and that adjustments in
thinking can be key to making a world we all want to live in.
Sometimes it's really hard to come to the
simple solution. Was it difficult to arrive at Ivy and Bean's project?
ending was very hard to come to. In a lot of the Ivy and Bean books, it has
been hard for the solution not to be falsely successful. In Break the Fossil Record, they're not
successful in their goal, but they're satisfied as kids. In this case it took
me a long time to find an ending that would be honest and where they'd be
satisfied. I had to stare out my window for a long time to get to that "We
Are the World" space. I think people are very frightened of the outdoors,
in a way. We have this conditioning that it's something we have to oppose, that
we have to bend to our will. What if we change how we see it, how we feel about
it? Does that create more respect?
What was it like to work on The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie
Society after Ivy and Bean?
brain just shorts out when I think about those two things together. It is such
a different way to write, writing for grown-ups and writing for kids. When I
began Guernsey, I was doing it
because my aunt asked me to. I thought, if she wants me to, I will. But I had
no idea what it would be like, and once I got into it, it was such a joy to
work on--part of that was hanging out with Mary Ann, but also writing those
sentences, circling around a subject instead of going right straight at it the
way you do with kids' books.
Can you give us a sneak preview to book
eight in the Ivy and Bean series?
book is about money and cheese. It seemed like it was time for me to address
the issue of money, which is such a big deal for seven-year-olds. Ivy and Bean
want to make money to buy cheese, not because they want the cheese but because
they want the little round wax things that the cheese comes in. My daughter
told me one day that this is the hot item in the lunch room.
Top photo by Brook McCormick