A brilliant writer friend, Michelle Knudsen, has a brand new picture book out which you're going to want to run out and snatch up for your little boys. It's called BIG MEAN MIKE and it's awesomely illustrated by Scott Magoon. Today, I am lucky enough to interview them both about this great new book about a bully with a soft side...
Q. Michelle and Scott, congratulations on an ADORABLE book! Although maybe that's too sweet of a word. I'll say awesome, stupendous and kick-bum instead. BIG MEAN MIKE has strong boy appeal - was that your goal and how did you set out to achieve it through both the writing and illustrations?
Michelle: I didn’t specifically have boys or girls in mind when I wrote this story, although I can see how Mike and his cool car (and the monster trucks!) might especially appeal to some boy readers. Most of the time when I write, and certainly when I’m working on a first draft, I’m thinking more about the story and the characters than the audience, and so I just end up writing about what I think is fun or funny or exciting or moving, and hope readers will be drawn to the same things that I like about the story myself.
Scott: Elizabeth, thank-you for having us here and for your kind words about Big Mean Mike! First, I should probably confess to you right away that are little white fuzzy bunnies everywhere here in my studio right now.* About a year or so ago when I was working on Mike—a story with a number of fuzzy bunnies as characters—I invited a few over for reference and they haven't left. Anyway, yes, I was mindful that this book could have a strong boy appeal but it didn't influence me to draw it any differently. I wanted it to appeal to boys and girls alike. I hope it does. Be right back, there's a bunny drinking my carrot juice on the couch.
Q. BIG MEAN MIKE is actually a great book to talk about bullies and bullying - in a fun way. Have you heard from any teachers using it to introduce the topic?
Michelle: I did a reading for a kindergarten class recently, and the teacher used Big Mean Mike as a conversation starter, asking the students to share experiences they had of being teased or made fun of, or to tell about a time they decided to stick up for a friend who was being picked on. I love the idea that the book can be used as a way to approach the topic of bullying, even though that wasn’t my original goal when I wrote the story.
Scott: Big Mean Mike is a great book to talk about bullies and bullying in a FUNNY way as well. Why funny? Well you've got this big tough guy Mike who gets all riled up at these teeny little silent bunnies who stand up to him because they either see he could be a good friend—or because they're mad as March hares. Its unexpected—and that makes for some very funny scenes. Teachers are skilled in using picture books in the classroom; I've heard that a number of them have used Mike in this way. This book is also an excellent story about sticking up for yourself—and for your friends. Oh no! Now I've got a fuzzy bunny turning on my TV watching Phineas and Ferb. Excuse me for a sec.
Q. Do either of you know any big mean Mikes? Where did the inspiration for the words and pictures come from?
Michelle: The first part of the story that came to me was actually an image: a big, tough main character (I don’t think I knew he was going to be a dog right away) surrounded by a whole bunch of soft fuzzy bunnies. I loved the contrast of the toughness and the cuteness, the hardness and the softness. I also knew that the bunnies would be more than just adorable; that they also had a toughness of their own (and a fondness for big, mean vehicles). Mike wasn’t based on any actual Mike that I know — the name just seemed to fit him, and I liked the alliteration of “mean” and “Mike.”
Scott: I wish I knew some Big Mean Mikes, I could ride around in his cool car and hit some Monster Truck shows, like he does! Originally Mike was going to be a bulldog, but we changed him to be more wolf-like. The inspiration for Mike's look came from a 1943 Tex Avery wolf cartoon with a dash of Brando in The Wild Ones.
Q. Michelle, on the writing... BUNNIES!? How in the world did this story come to you?
Michelle: I rarely know exactly where my ideas come from, but a while after I’d written the text for Big Mean Mike, I was working on a presentation about the story and suddenly realized that the scene where the other dogs are making fun of Mike is based on a memory of something that happened to me as a child. I was just at the age where I was maybe becoming a little too old to be playing with dolls and stuffed animals, but I still really liked to play with them. One day, I decided to put some of my dolls in my parents’ car to take on a trip, and some older boys from down the block walked by and started making fun of me. I remember being absolutely mortified — so embarrassed and hurting inside at the mean way they teased me. I hadn’t thought about that moment in years and years, but clearly it was still hidden away in my memory somewhere, because I can see its influence in that scene between Mike and the other dogs. Maybe some part of me wanted to recreate that experience and have it come out in a much more positive way this time around!
Q. Scott, on the illustrations... Can you describe your process to my readers?
Q. For both of you, what do you hope readers will take away from this story?
Michelle: I think what I’d most like them to take away is the idea that real friends like you for who you are, and that it’s okay to be friends with anyone you want to be friends with, no matter what anyone else thinks.
Scott: Would anyone like to take away some bunnies? I have too many! Seriously, though, I hope our readers remember how Mike kept open to making new friends. For me, that's a very important lesson as a busy grown-up. Friends can come into our lives in the most unusual and surprising ways, throughout our lives—and if we're open to the new experiences, points of view they bring to us, then we remain spry and full of energy and young at heart. Just like fuzzy bunnies.
*Not really. But can you imagine? Please? :)
Saturday, January 26, 2013: Storytime at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY
Saturday, March 16, 2013: Storytime at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, NJ
One lucky winner will receive a free copy of BIG MEAN MIKE. Must live in the continental US to win - review and winner's copy provided by Candlewick.
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BIG MEAN MIKE. Text copyright © 2012 by Michelle Knudsen. Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Scott Magoon. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.