Michael Hall is the New York Times bestselling author of MY HEART IS LIKE A ZOO as well as the acclaimed PERFECT SQUARE, IT’S AN ORANGE AARDVARK, and CAT TALE. With his wife, Debra, he ran the design firm Hall Kelley for many years before becoming an author. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
For what age audience do you write?
I write picture books that are primarily aimed at three- to eight-year-old children. But I try to make books that have something for all ages.
Tell us about your latest book.
RED: A CRAYON’S STORY is about a blue crayon with a red label. Red tries valiantly to draw red fire engines, strawberries, and hearts — even his own self portrait. But despite his best efforts, and despite all the well meaning help from his family and friends, all his drawings come out blue.
When a new crayon asks for a favor, Red discovers what was obvious to readers from page one: He is blue. He goes on to be quite successful and prolific.
Henry: Great treatment of labels and of learning who you are! It’s THE DAY THE CRAYONS QUIT meets Caitlyn Jenner.
What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?
I hope it will be among the many resources that help young children learn their colors. I hope all readers will get a kick out of the antics of Red’s well meaning friends and family, who simply cannot see beyond his official label. And I hope it will spur discussion and reflection on issues like judging people based on outside appearances and the strength required to reject labels others put on you.
What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?
Finishing. I am confined by an odd physical law: As my project approaches a state of completion, my velocity approaches zero.
I love writing, rewriting, and rewriting again. I love making pictures, even when I’m pretty sure they’ll never appear in the final book. I love watching the structure of a story change as I go. I’m most comfortable when I know that I can always throw it all out and begin again from scratch.
At some point, I have to accept that a final version of the book must be sent to the publisher. But making the final decisions and doing the final touch-ups is agonizing. I usually have a long list of little things: fix blotch on page six, add cyan to background on page seven, etc. Each one is drudgery. I constantly find excuses not to work. I must make tea! I must got to the store! I hate to let the story go.
Henry: The need to make tea is inversely proportional to the work remaining, which leads to productivity asymptotically approaching zero. #Math!
What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?
Everything is a metaphor for everything else.
OK, I can’t really call that a lesson because it’s probably not true — and how could anyone tell if it was? But it sounds cool. And it might just be true after all.
Henry: Crayons are a metaphor for people. Crayons are a metaphor for the electromagnetic spectrum. Crayons are life!
What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?
After my first book (MY HEART IS LIKE A ZOO) was published, I got a note from a woman whose young son was going through a series of difficult heart surgeries. I sent her son a print of one of the pages from the book (Brave as a lion).
Four years later, she approached me at a reading in Portland, Oregon. She gave me a recent photo of her son grinning and holding the print I had sent. He was shirtless, so I could see the impressive scar on his chest.
I think of them often.
Henry: So your gift went from your heart to his, metaphorically.
Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you write?
I will admit to only one: I’m a pacer.
My brain gets stuck if it’s not jostled from time to time, and walking back and forth seems to do the trick. I work at a standing desk so I can make the transition from working to walking with very little effort.
Henry: Next step: one of those jogging desks!
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I’m glad you asked. I’m fairly self-conscious, so I always thought invisibility would be the superpower for me. But as I think about some of the details, I’m having second thoughts.
I assume my clothes would remain visible. So if I went out in a bathrobe, for example, everyone would be pointing at me and talking about the unoccupied bathrobe walking around town. I could go around naked, but I’d still feel self-conscious even if I knew no one could see me.
I might hire an attorney and try to hammer out an extensive contract before signing up for invisibility. But it still seems fraught with unexpected pitfalls. Would I be invisible to myself? That would really freak me out.
So I’m thinking maybe I’ll go with flying instead. But there are still problems. Everyone would be looking up and pointing at the old man flying over the city. Maybe I could combine flying with invisibility. But I don’t really see myself as the naked invisible flyer type.
I’ll continue to work on this.
Henry: This inquisitive creativity is why we end up as children’s book authors. How would you get your hair cut if you’re invisible? Would hair that is somehow cut from your head become visible when separated from you? When you drink tea, would the tea be visible. Superpowers are a metaphor for the concept that everything has advantages and disadvantages.
What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?
There are way too many possibilities, so I’m going to pick three:
A favorite from picture books is the lion-like character in Dr. Seuss’s IF I RAN THE ZOO. It has a very, very long tail, and it hits the end of it before going to sleep each night. The communication between the brain and the end of the tail takes so long that the creature doesn’t feel the pain until hours later when it is time to wake up.
Being a Minnesotan, I like a theoretical beast called the Hidebehind, which is said to sneak up on and hide behind lumberjacks in Minnesota and Wisconsin. No matter how quickly the victim turns around, the hidebehind stays behind him. Of course, no one has actually seen a hidebehind, but how else can you explain the many lumberjacks who have been devoured by them?
Finally, I’m blind in one eye, so the literary creature I relate to most is, of course, the cyclops.
Henry: Wikipedia tells us more about IF I RAN THE ZOO:
“The book is written in anapestic tetrameter, and illustrated in Seuss’s trademark pen and ink style. The book is likely a tribute to a child’s imagination, because it ends with a reminder that all of the extraordinary creatures exist only in McGrew’s head.
IF I RAN THE ZOO is often credited with the first printed modern English use of the word “nerd,” in the sentence “And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo/And Bring Back an It-Kutch, a Preep, and a Proo,/A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too!”
In the book, Gerald McGrew is a kid who, when visiting a zoo, finds that the exotic animals are “not good enough”. He says that if he ran the zoo, he would let all of the current animals free and find new, more bizarre and exotic ones. Throughout the book he lists these creatures, starting with a lion with ten feet and escalating to more imaginative (and imaginary) creatures, such as the Fizza-ma-Wizza-ma-Dill, “the world’s biggest bird from the island of Gwark, who eats only pine trees, and spits out the bark.”
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I like going to movies, concerts, and restaurants with my family and friends. I enjoy taking long lonely walks along the Mississippi river, which runs through Minneapolis.
What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
MICHAEL HALL: 1954-2054
Henry: Clever, but why not be even more ambitious? 1954-2100 Is he really here? It’s hard to tell because he became an invisible flyer.
Where can readers find your work?
At most independent bookstores and chains. And, of course, on Amazon.
This interview is also posted on the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.