Bartleby Huddle’s family is unusually loud.
His mother sings opera.
His father plays cello.
And his sister tap dances.
Bartleby, however, is curiously quiet. He’s sweet and happy, but he doesn’t say anything. At all. Even his hobbies are quiet.
Everyone tries to make Bartleby speak. His mother trills his name. His father plays loud lullabies and his sister taps and twirls trying to get his attention. But Bartleby merely watches.
When Bartleby’s family holds a noisy party for his third birthday, Bartleby finds a kindred spirit in his grandfather. They leave the chaos to sit on the porch, watch butterflies and listen to lilacs rustle in the breeze. When they do join the fray to have some cake, Bartleby stuns everyone by saying his first word ever — “Listen.”
Surprisingly enough, Bartleby’s unusually loud family does. And they hear all the sounds that fascinate Bartley and his grandfather.
Author Robin Cruise wrote Bartleby Speaks (Melanie Kroupa Books, 2009). She offers up a hilarious take on a little boy who only speaks when he has something to say. Her text is perfectly complemented by Kevin Hawkes’ bright illustrations that capture the distinct personalities of each member of Bartleby’s family.
Robin joins Read, Write, Repeat to discuss how Bartleby came to be.
Bartleby Speaks is dedicated to your son, Henry. How closely is the book based on a real-life experience?
My second son — forever the “middle child” sandwiched between his older brother and younger sister — didn’t talk much until he had something important to say. (That doesn’t mean he didn’t signal exactly what he wanted from day one!) The lone intrepid “lefty” in a family of buttoned-up right-handers, my second son has always had his own agenda, his own highly creative approach to life and his own timetable for getting things done (or not). Even now, though he’s very grown up, I sometimes think he sees and feels — and expresses — things more deeply than the rest of us, which makes him the heart and soul of our family. These days, my beloved second son uses his spirited presence in front of a camera, some video magic, a guitar and his formidable writing skills to communicate beautifully. I say, “Hooray for introspective lefties everywhere!”
Are you personally more of a talker or a listener?
I didn’t realize it for the longest time (after decades of turning cartwheels, tap-dancing, and otherwise spinning in the spotlight to call attention to myself, at least figuratively), but I am definitely an introvert. That means I typically “recharge” by stepping away from busyness and external stimuli, gravitating instead toward solitude and internal reflection. It’s the difference between hopping around at an aerobics class (which I did for many years) or sweating quietly and soulfully during a vinyasa sequence (which these days stretches everything for me)! But as introverts go, I’m also comfortably gregarious — that means I’m eager for and delight in the companionship and the insights of others, the more varied the personal styles and perspectives, the better. It’s not a coincidence that Bartleby signals that being a good listener can make you a better communicator!
What do you like most about Bartleby and his family?
I like that everyone in Bartleby’s family has his/her unique talents (as well as his/her personal quirks), but the cumulative effect is a lively, vibrant, interesting and loving familial mix. I grew up in a family that was liberally spiced with both Irish and Italian traditions, and with five kids spanning eight years in the household — all of us nestled in a house that was cozy but tiny by today’s standards — family life was never dull. Although juggling all the personalities and personal styles/preferences in any given family can get complicated, how boring it would be if all those huddled under one roof for 20 or more years were exactly the same! As for Bartleby, I love that he’s attuned to everything going on around him, but he instinctively has the good sense to simply be the wonderful and spirited boy that he is.
How do Kevin Hawkes’s illustrations compare to what you saw in your head when you wrote the book?
This is a great question. As with any picture book, although the manuscript typically comes first, it’s the artwork that ultimately determines the immediate feel and impression of the book. I was so fortunate that Melanie Kroupa, who at the time had her own imprint at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, saw the possibilities for Bartleby Speaks! She had several good ideas for illustrators, but when she suggested Kevin Hawkes, the possibility was beyond my wildest dreams, even though it meant waiting a few years for a spot to open up on his dance card! I trusted that Kevin would not only “get” the story but would also capture it with a warmth and humor that could offset an undercurrent of worry and/or sadness that accompanies Bartleby’s intrepid silence. Is it a book about autism? No. Could it resonate for families that have children who are autistic or “challenged” in some other deep physical and/or psychological way? Maybe.
Bartleby’s first word is “Listen.” And in the author’s notes, it says one of the first things you said was “Hot fudge sundae.” Has this book made people tell you all the funny first words from their families?
The “first word” question is a fun one for engaging children in lively discussion or for classroom discussions to engage students and teachers. And yes! As an author, I’ve found that asking “What was your first word?” is a great way to ignite give-and-take. Mama, Dada, ball, bye, go, up, no, mine! — all are familiar first words from toddlers. But there are other first words that are more surprising! As far as I know, Bartleby is the only toddler to first utter “Listen!” It’s a complex concept.
You’ve written middle-grade novels and picture books. Do you work on them both at once and move back-and-forth? Or do you focus on one, finish it, and then start something else?
As a children’s book author, I’m hardly prolific. The occasional stories I want to share in print seem to mulch for a long time, and all of them have been inspired by my own family and friends. In many ways, writing a novel is a longer and more arduous commitment than tackling a picture book—as a writer, you have to be committed to living with the characters for a a long time, even the obnoxious or otherwise unappealing ones. On the other hand, tackling a picture-book manuscript is intense — it requires the focus and precision of poetry. All of which is by way of saying, that although I might have several ideas “mulching” at any given time, I find that I can be actively committed to writing only one — even if I have to put it aside for a while and then come back to it. I know there are intrepid writers who juggle YA novels, picture books, and other work simultaneously. Alas, I’m not capable of that particular juggling act!
What projects do you have coming up?
As noted elsewhere, I’m hardly prolific as a children’s book author. I write stories that somehow resonate profoundly for me, in hopes they will also resonate for others. There are a few picture-book subjects I’ve had mulching for … years. One involves twins. (I have an amazing twin brother.) Another is an ode of sorts to brothers, a bouquet to my two amazing young adult sons. And someday soon, I hope I’ll find a way to capture the extraordinary — and complicated — ties between mother and daughter.
To learn more about Robin, visit her Web site.
To learn more abouty Kevin Hawkes, visit his Web site.