Today I’m pleased to talk with Vikki VanSickle about her books for kids and tweens, her influences, and the unique place she draws inspiration from.
What were your favorite picture books growing up?
My mind was absolutely blown by Miss Nelson Is Missing by Harry Allard and James Marshall. It was likely the first mystery I was exposed to and I have loved mysteries ever since. This is a perfect example of text and illustration working together. Nothing in the text explains the true identity of Viola Swamp (what a name!), but there are hints in the illustration. It takes a certain kind of genius to make readers side with the adult—a beleaguered teacher—instead of the children in the book
Teddy Rabbit by Kathy Stinson and Stephane Poulin really spoke to me because like the main character, I had a teddy rabbit instead of a teddy bear. It also spoke to my deep fear of the subway. Growing up in a small town I was equally fascinated and terrified by the big city. I found Toronto loud, overwhelming, and very fast-paced. The subway in particular was frightening, and the idea of dropping my beloved Bunny on the tracks was as high stakes as it gets. If little Vikki knew that she would grow up to take the subway every day (without fear or incident, in fact I look forward to the extra reading time) she would not believe it.
Lastly, Steven Kellogg’s Pinkerton books, Pinkerton, Behave and A Rose for Pinkerton were also favourites of mine. I have always loved pet stories, and the giant, clumsy Great Dane with a heart of gold totally captivated me. Especially when he meets his match in tiny but fierce Rose, a kitten after my own heart.
You’ve said that the idea for If I Had a Gryphon grew out of an observation at a bookshop story time. Can you tell me a little about that?
I used to watch my colleague Elaine create actual magic during story time. I was fascinated with which books resonated with the kids. It wasn’t always the ones that I expected. You don’t know how a book will land until you see it read aloud to children. Two things became clear: rhyme was always a hit (plus it was so fun to read) and pet stories were perennial favourites.
At the same time, I had a lot of little customers with older siblings who were obsessed with Harry Potter. They wanted to share in their older siblings’ love of the series, but when I went looking for good storybooks featuring similar creatures I came up short. There were lots of stories about dragons and unicorns, and some beautiful anthologies about mythological creatures, but no storybooks for the youngest readers. I’m a Harry Potter and mythology fan myself, and decided to write a sort of primer to magical pets.
Which of the mythical creatures that you mention in your book do you like best? Why?
This is a tricky one! Before I saw Cale’s illustrations I would have said a phoenix or gryphon, because I think they’re such majestic and fiercely beautiful creatures. But then the art came in and I found myself totally charmed by the enthusiasm of poor hippogriff, who just wants to play ball. I also love that cuddly-looking sasquatch, I think he’d make a great reading buddy.
You mention in your bio that you liked to go to flea markets when you were growing up. Do you have a favorite item that you found at one? Why is it special?
I am like a kid in a candy store at a flea market—I hardly know where to start and I could spend all day browsing through tables and shelves of random objects. It is such a rich source of story ideas that it’s almost overwhelming. Did that trunk come from overseas? Why? When? Who did it belong to? What does the inscription in this book mean? Who wore that wedding dress, and what happened at the party? How did that teddy bear rip its jacket? The possibilities are endless.
I didn’t bring the treasures home very often, it was enough to ponder the ideas they inspired. The one thing I did buy was Nancy Drew books. I completed my entire collection by searching garage sales, flea markets and antique stores.
You interact with your readers through school visits, library presentations, and at festivals. What do you like best about meeting your readers in person? Do you have a fun or interesting anecdote to share from any of your appearances?
Now that I no longer work in a bookstore, I don’t have as much kid-contact as I would like. Visiting schools and libraries gives me a chance to chat with kids, find out what’s important to them, what books they love, what makes them laugh, and just generally be reminded of what a privilege it is to write for this audience.
In terms of presentations, the students keep me on my toes with insightful questions, comments, and by pushing me to be flexible when an activity doesn’t work or they are more interested in process rather than plot. It sounds obvious, but you need to be very present when you’re working with children. I appreciate the opportunity to be in the moment, connect with readers, and talk about stories.
Earlier this fall during the question period a little boy asked me if I knew how many species of dragon there were in the world. When I told him I did not, he replied “That was a trick question. Nobody knows.”
Besides If I Had a Gryphon you’ve written a series of three middle grade novels (Words That Start with B, Love is a Four-Letter Word, and Days That End in Y) and a coming of age novel (Summer Days, Starry Nights). Can you tell me a little about how you approach the different genres and what you enjoy most about each?
I find them to be entirely different experiences. Picture books to me are about structure, space, and beats. It’s very much like writing a play. As the playwright, you do not cast, direct, or design the costumes, set, or lighting for your show. Your task is to create the bones of a project that many other people will then flesh out. With a picture book, the illustrator takes on role of casting director, costume, set and lighting designer. I believe in the interplay between text and pictures, and as the writer I need to leave the space for an illustrator to do so in the narrative.
Novel writing is a messy, chaotic, immersive process, at least for me. It’s very instinctual. I write in first person, trying to understand the voice of the narrator and her motivations, and the plot is often secondary. I’ll jump all over the place, sometimes writing the same scene in many different ways, occasionally working backwards from what I think might be the end, or switching narrators. I get to a certain point (usually between 60-80 pages) when I stop writing to seriously consider what I have done. I read, take notes, reorder, cut, refine, and then I have the beginning of a structured draft.
What’s up next for you?
I’m in the final throes of a middle grade novel which I’ve been describing as “Stranger Things” for tweens and I have a picture book I’ve been muddling over for awhile now that’s starting to come together.
Since Celebrate Picture Books is a holiday-themed blog, I can’t let you get away without asking you a few questions about holidays, so…
What is your favorite holiday?
Definitely Halloween—costumes, black cats, AND candy? What’s not to love?
Do you have a funny or interesting holiday anecdote you’d like to share?
Here I am dressed as a Rockford Peach, my all-time favourite Halloween costume.
Has a holiday ever influenced your work?
Not yet, but I would love to write something with a Halloween theme eventually. I have a few ideas rolling around in my head but I haven’t settled on the perfect one yet.
Thanks so much for spending time with me, Vikki! I wish you the best with all of your books!
You can find If I Had a Gryphon at these booksellers:
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Review of If I Had a Gryphon for Pet Awareness Month
About the Holiday
Pets give us unconditional love, provide companionship, and add entertainment and fun to our lives. This month is set aside to focus on our pets. To celebrate spend extra time with your furry friend, make sure they have everything they need to stay healthy, and give them a little extra treat. If you don’t have a pet, consider adopting a dog, cat, bird, or small animal from your local animal shelter. You’ll both benefit!
If I Had a Gryphon
Written by Vikki VanSickle | Illustrated by Cale Atkinson
Sam gazes at her first pet—a hamster—as he slumbers on his bed of shavings. She’s a little disappointed because mostly all he does is eat, sleep, and hide. She snuggles into her reading chair with a cup of tea and a book of mythical creatures and thinks: “If only I could have a pet / With strange, exotic powers, / I know that I’d find lots to do / To while away the hours.” She considers having a unicorn whose mane she could braid and who she could ride through fields of posies, then remembers that “Unicorns are pretty, / but they’re also very shy. / On second thought, I’d like to give a hippogriff a try.”
Sam plans to take her hippogriff to the dog park to “run and jump and fetch” and “to give his wings a stretch.” Considering it again, though, she realizes that the dogs may find a hippogriff scary and that “when it comes to playing ball, / Well, things could get quite hairy.” Instead, she decides to get a sasquatch “with burly, curly fur,” but then she remembers all the time she’d spend brushing out the tangles. A gryphon with “flashing feathers” sounds better until she thinks how she’d have to fly it every day “regardless of the weather.”
A kraken would be an unique pet, but to survive the cold, wet depths while playing with it she’d need a scuba suit. A warmer companion might be a dragon, although she thinks with its “temperamental snout / I’d need a fire extinguisher / to put her sneezes out.” A kirin could be a possibility, although it needs an ocean of grass to keep it happy; and a jackalope, while cute, is much, much, much too hoppy.
A phoenix might be an enduring pet, but it “needs a chimney nest / That’s smoke and fire proof” while a “Manticore needs special floss / For EACH and EVERY tooth.” There are oh so many creatures to contemplate—from harpies and chupacabras to fairies and kelpies to basilisks and sprites—but each is problematic in its own way.
Sam takes another look at the adorable hamster in its cage and reconsiders: “He may not be a gryphon, / Or a creature from the sea, / But I am his and he is mine / And that’s enough for me.”
Vikki VanSickle’s entertaining rhymes frolic, gallop, and prance through her encyclopedic array of fantastic beasts. Her young readers will be delighted that the fun of an imaginary menagerie is not just for the older set and will eagerly await each newly considered pet. VanSickle includes all the favorite mystical creatures, plus fascinating new ones that will spark kids’ imaginations and have them scrambling to find out more about them. The juxtaposition of attractive and less so traits of each possible pet adds a nip of humor to the verses that will make kids giggle. Sam’s ultimate realization that her hamster is the perfect companion is a sweet ending that reaffirms readers’ own relationship with their pets.
Cale Atkinson’s Sam is already a dreamer when she acquires her hamster. Her mug of tea sports a picture of a narwhal, her bookmark is a paper-thin dragon, and the book of Mythological Creatures that she consults is already well-thumbed. As the little girl with the square-rimmed glasses contemplates each creature as pet, Atkinson presents an illustration that is both humorous and beautiful. The hippogriff with its bird legs in front and horse legs in back is a gorgeous hue of blue, but it’s expressive reaction to seeing the dogs at the park as well as its enthusiasm to play along also causes the dogs to hide behind a tree; the sasquatch is a cutie, but he also snarls her bike, her bed, trees, and road signs in its thick brown hair; and a turquoise dragon may shimmer with lovely scales, but it also chars walls and furniture. Despite its apparent sloth, Sam’s hamster actually is the perfect pet—besides, he might have a secret of his own!
If I Had a Griffin is a fun romp through a mystical realm of pets that kids will love to hear again and again. The book would be a welcome addition to kids’ bookshelves, especially if they have older siblings enjoying that other series that features magical creatures!
Ages 3 – 7
Tundra Books, 2016 | ISBN 978-1770498099
National Pet Awareness Month Activity
Homemade Dog Treats
Pets love it when you do something special for them! Here’s a recipe for homemade dog biscuits that will taste even better than store-bought because they’re made with love! Making dog biscuits is a fun way to spend time together and benefit furry friends. These biscuits make tasty treats for your own pet, or consider making a batch to donate to your local animal shelter. This recipe is easy and proven to be a favorite.
Children should get help from an adult when using the oven.
- 1 large bowl
- Large spoon or whisk
- Cookie cutters – shaped like traditional dog biscuits or any favorite shape
- 3 cups Buckwheat flour
- ½ cup powdered milk
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¾ cup water
- 1/3 cup margarine or butter, melted
- 1 egg beaten
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees
- Add buckwheat flour to bowl
- Add powdered milk to bowl
- Add salt to bowl
- Stir to mix dry ingredients
- Add water
- Add melted margarine or butter
- Add egg
- Stir until liquid is absorbed
- Knead for a few minutes to form a dough
- If the dough is too dry, add a little more water, 1 Tablespoon at a time
- Place the dough on a board
- Roll dough to ½ inch thickness
- Cut into shapes with cookie cutters
- Bake at 325 degrees for 35 minutes
- Biscuits will be hard when cool.
Makes about 40 biscuits
Picture Book Review