I am delighted to be sharing this very special spotlight post featuring an interview with If I Had A Gryphon author Vikki VanSickle!
Canadian author Vikki VanSickle has published a number of books that I have adored: the Clarissa Delaney middle grade series; the YA standalone Summer Days, Starry Nights; and more recently, the picture book If I Had a Gryphon, illustrated by Cale Atkinson. Please read on for the interview I had the opportunity to do with Vikki, as well as my thoughts on (the perfect for Halloween!) If I Had a Gryphon.
Welcome to Fab Book Reviews, Vikki! I am thrilled to have you here! Let’s get right into the questions I have for you…
Q: You are the author of multiple terrific children’s titles and a YA novel, and I was so delighted and curious when I first read you were going to publish a picture book! Have you had the idea to branch out into picture books for some time now or was If I Had a Gryphon something that started with a particular seed of an idea for a children’s story?
A: I love the range of ages and projects encompassed by the idea of “children’s literature.” Middle grade novels are where I am the most comfortable, but I love the specific challenges of picture books. Writing a picture book is a lot like writing a play, which speaks to my drama background. The beats and pacing are extremely important. Plus, if you’ve written a play, you likely don’t direct, cast, or design the set, costumes, or lighting. Chances are other people take on these roles. In a picture book the illustrator takes on those roles. It’s such a privilege to have an artist interpret your words and build a world with you.
Q: How did your approach to writing If I Had a Gryphon differ- if at all- from writing a middle grade title? Is the process of writing a picture book any shorter than the process of writing a book with a much longer word count?
A: For me it’s the opposite- I find it much easier to wade into a nice, long novel and muck about with plot, language, and character. Picture books are more challenging to wrangle in my head. Every word, moment, and decision is deliberate and must be impactful. They are both creative and enjoyable to work on, but use different muscles. I think of it like swimming- novel writing is freestyle and picture book writing is the butterfly.
Q: Rhyming picture books are typically so much fun to read aloud and perform for kids (and adults!). Did you always plan to have If I Had A Gryphon written in rhyme or was the rhyming structure something that evolved organically as you worked through the story? How tricky is it to find or fit just the right words to match?
A: The manuscript has changed a lot, but I always wanted it to be in rhyme. I love reading rhyme and I love how kids respond to it- there is so much delight in the rhythm and the anticipation of the rhyme. For a brief period of time I tried to rewrite the story in prose and it just fell flat. I don’t think all books should be in rhyme, but for this story, perhaps because it’s silly and more than a little whimsical, it just felt right.
Q: Your writing and Cale Atkinson’s illustrations are, in my opinion, a perfect match! How did it come about that Cale would be the illustrator for If I Had a Gryphon? How much say did you have in the matter of choosing an illustrator that might best fit your story?
A: Cale was discovered by my editor, Sam. When she showed me his artwork I loved its vibrancy, sense of movement, and playfulness. Some of the creatures could be quite scary, but in Cale’s hands they were funny and downright cuddly (I’m thinking of that adorable Sasquatch in particular). Cale is a busy artist and I was so thrilled that he agreed to illustrate the book. I can’t imagine it any other way!
Q: Of all the fantastical creatures in If I Had a Gryphon, which one would you pick as your ultimate ‘strange, exotic’ pet?
A: I really love Cale’s interpretation of the hippogriff. He’s so enthusiastic and lovable and would make a great pet.
Q: What are some of your favourite reads (picture books, middle grade, anything!) featuring mythical or strange creatures?
A: I’ve always been interested in magical and mythological creatures and sought them out in the books I read. love Steven Kellogg’s The Mysterious Tadpole, which I borrowed from the library over and over again as a child. The book is about a family who receives a tadpole from Scotland. As the creature gets bigger and bigger they realize they have a sort of Loch Ness Monster on their hands, and they have to figure out the best way to deal with it.
I was also a huge fan of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Catwings series, which is probably the first chapter book series I read independently. I remember ordering the first book from the Scholastic Book Fair and I loved it so much I wore it out and bought it again the next year!
A new favourite is Kallie George’s Magical Animal Adoption Agency series, about a little girl who works at an adoption agency for magical creates. It’s fresh, inventive, and a fantastic family read.
Q: With Halloween upon us, could you tell us some of your favourite spooky or ghostly reads? Any genre is okay!
A: Halloween is my favourite holiday and one day I hope to write a Halloween book. In the meantime, here are some of my favourites:
Hallo-weiner isn’t exactly spooky, but it is probably the funniest Halloween picture book I’ve ever read. Considering it’s written by Dav Pilkey (aka Mr Captain Underpants) I shouldn’t be surprised.
If I’m in the mood for something atmospheric, creepy and more traditionally Halloween-ish, The Dollhouse Murders (Betty Ren Wright) , The Swallow (Charis Cotter) and The Night Gardener (Jonathan Auxier) are very satisfying middle grade reads.
Through the Woods, graphic novelist Emily Carroll’s collection of short horror comics, is a recent favourite. She manages to create stories that are reminiscent of classic tales and therefore feel familiar, but are totally her own invention.
Q: What books have you read this year that you’ve really enjoyed? Again, any genre is okay!
A: There have been so many fantastic books this year! I’m a big Hannah E. Harrison fan, and her latest picture book MY FRIEND MAGGIE is an emotionally resonant story about friendship and bullying that makes me cry and then text my best friends every single time I read it. I loved the wacky world Esta Spalding and Sydney Smith created in LOOK OUT FOR THE FITZGERALD TROUTS, which is a little bit Railway Children, a little bit Lemony Snicket, and a total riot. I am a science fiction fan and Parker Peevyhouse’s YA debut WHERE FUTURES END was unlike anything I had ever read. Lastly, Trilby Kent’s ONCE IN A TOWN CALLED MOTH made me proud to be Canadian. Her prose is gorgeous and her thoughtful, layered, fish-out-of-water story was a pleasure to read.
Q: If you can share this information, I’d love to know what are you currently working on! Do you have any more picture books on the horizon? Maybe even another book featuring Sam and her trusty hamster [from If I Had a Gryphon]?
A: I have a middle grade novel in the final editorial stages. It is my love letter to The X Files and was inspired by something a doctor once told me, which is that there is no such thing as side effects, just the affects you didn’t want to happen. I found that revelatory and a bit scary. This novel takes place in an alternate version of our world where that question becomes central to the existence of a whole generation of children. It’s my first foray into sci-fi as a writer and I had so much fun!
As for Sam and her hamster, I won’t say no, but I’m currently wrestling with another picture book idea, although it too involves some unusual creatures…
Thank you for having me!
Thank you so much for your time, Vikki! This was such a pleasure!
…Read on for my thoughts on the book…
Review: If I Had a Gryphon by Vikki VanSickle, illus. Cale Atkinson
Source: Hardcopy courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada. Thank you!
Publication: February 9, 2016 by Tundra Books
Sam just got a hamster for a pet. But the hamster is kind of boring … he just eats and sleeps and gets his shavings wet. Inspired by her book of mythological creatures, Sam longs for a more exciting pet. But she soon realizes that taking care of these magical beasts might not be as wonderful as she thought. Sasquatches are messy, unicorns are shy, hippogriffs scare the dogs at the dog park, and having a fire extinguisher handy at all times makes dragons seem like an awful lot of work. In the end, Sam realizes that her hamster is a pretty sweet and safe pet … or is he? If I Had a Gryphon is a raucous rhyming read-aloud about fantastical beasts in everyday situations–and the increasingly beleaguered heroine who has to deal with them.
For some kids, getting an adorable roly poly hamster for a pet would be considered very exciting! But not for Sam. At the start of If I Had a Gryphon, we see Sam, hands smushed on her face, staring at her new hamster with some disdain. For Sam, a hamster is not quite what she had in mind for a pet as the little guy ‘mostly eats and sleeps and hides and gets his shavings wet’. Wouldn’t it be so much cooler, Sam wonders, to get a pet with ‘strange, exotic powers’? Curled up in a chair, Sam looks through her big book of mythological creatures, dreaming up and imagining a life with a more perfect, exciting pet.
As Sam finds, however, as brilliant as it might seem to have a unicorn, a gryphon, or a kraken as a pet, there are often major downsides to having a mythological beast as a pet! For example, unicorns are extremely shy and will never come out to play with friends, gryphons have to fly every day no matter how dark or scary the weather, and you can only play with your pet kraken if you have your scuba suit on! After a while, it begins to look as though having a hamster might not be so bad after all. Vikki’s dynamic and bouncy rhyming text, coupled with Cale Atkinson’s beyond adorable and spirited illustrations make for some perfectly fun reading here. Atkinson’s full-page illustrations do great justice to bringing Vikki’s flawless, cheery text to life; not only that, he also manages to make even the most potentially frightening beasts and creatures (like a manticore, sasquatch or dragon) look altogether snuggly and sweet-natured.
Any readers who love fun and energetic rhyming stories, those looking for an exceedingly fun read aloud (with a little surprise at the end!), or those who love a great picture book about fantastical creatures might definitely want to check If I Had a Gryphon out. Readers who enjoy pictures books by authors such as Dev Petty, Kes Gray, Elise Gravel, Josh Funk, Ed Vere or Ben Clanton, might especially love this delightful read.
I received a copy of this title courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review and for the purposes of this blog post. All opinions and comments are my own. Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for organizing the interview with Vikki.
I hope everyone has a fun and safe Happy Halloween!