Interview with John Seven and Jana Christy, author and illustrator of several picture books including We Say No! A Child’s Guide to Resistance, A Rule Is to Break: A Child’s Guide to Anarchy, Gorilla Gardener: How to Help Nature Take Over the World, Happy Punks 1 2 3: A Counting Story.
AG: How did you get your start writing children’s books?
JS: Since Jana and I were together, we’ve collaborated on stories together, with a focus on children’s stories. In the 1990s we ended up working on comic books together, but took a break from that after our twin sons were born. During that time, Jana started to work more as a freelance illustrator and I picked up more work with newspapers.
Eventually we moved to North Adams, MA, where Jana moved into children’s books, while I shifted to journalistic writing, and then a lot of arts writing, working staff at the local newspaper. At some point, we conceived of a picture book together about kids’ moods and one of the publishers Jana had worked for was interested in it.
Soon after that, another publisher hired to us to write a book addressing the Gulf oil spill in context of the wider story of the Earth’s oceans. It’s called The Ocean Story and it’s what really got us started. It’s a pretty dark picture book, but we’ve discovered that kids really seem to connect with it. We’re very proud of it.
AG: In the opening of A Rule Is to Break the protagonist sews her own costume—a take on Max’s wolf suit?—then joins a cast of playful characters including a bunny and a robot. Where do you find inspiration for your characters?
JC: I definitely draw from our sons, Harry and Hugo and our niece, Sophia. I love feisty kids that can make parenting a bit of a challenge–who question everything. They are so inspiring.
AG: Throughout your books, the theme of personal expression and the inherent strength of our voices comes up again and again. In We Say No! even the endpapers shout this out, loud and clear: “Yes to speaking your mind!” “No to bullies!” “Yes to art!” “No to mean!” Can you talk about this theme?
JS: I think Jana and I were always the types of kids who wanted to be heard, and we raised our sons to have confidence in their own voices, so it seems natural to me that this is the kind of behavior we’d endorse in books.
One of the simplest things a person can do to make a wave and right a wrong is to just say something with their voice, even just on a personal level. You’ll find it makes a difference. Bullies of all ages and positions in the world hate that. They want everyone to shut up.
AG: Your books embrace a sense of exuberant disorder. Kids dance naked. Televisions are painted. Plants grow everywhere. I love how in Gorilla Gardener the abundance of plants forces the grown-ups out of their offices and into the wild, swinging in the vines. These moments create a vast sense of possibility. What do you hope to communicate to kids about the potential of their actions?
JS: Disorder is a lot of fun. There’s comedy in chaos and there’s comedy in disruption. Most good stories aren’t about a bunch of people sitting around and behaving themselves. That’s true from Jane Austen to Dr. Seuss. And at the same time, disorder is integral to resistance, right? That’s fueled the great revolutions and protest movements through history. Disorder is often how you get things done, because it’s only in causing those disruptions that you get people far enough out of their routine that they can actually look at their routine and do some thinking about it.
JC: Kids are born with this beautiful spark. Often it gets extinguished by adults as they make their way in their world. We try and foster that spark and fan it a wee bit. The books we’ve done with Manic D Press (Anarchy, Happy Punks 123, Gorilla Gardener and Resistance) are kind of sneaky–they’re aimed at the adult reading it just as much as the child (psst… it’s ok to let your kid run around naked! it’s ok to have cake for breakfast- at least sometime!- wouldn’t it be cool to take those flower seeds and plant them in the crack of every sidewalk?!)
AG: What was your process like for creating We Say No!? Were you inspired by particular actions you participated in or witnessed?
JS: We had always kept in our minds that we wanted to do a follow-up of some sort to A Rule Is To Break: A Child’s Guide To Anarchy, but we never wanted to do it just to do it. We really dislike the gratuitous series that have become common in picture books. So we needed something to call us to create it.
We didn’t expect the 2016 election would be the thing, that’s for sure. I started working on a manuscript well before the election was over, because we both thought that a book about protest was going to be useful whoever won the election. It seemed to us that 2017 was going to be a year of unrest either way. And we felt if Clinton won, protest would be mandatory — whatever else you can say about her, I think of the two choices, she was easily the one who at least presented the possibility that vigorous protest could possibly sway her decisions as president.
When Trump won, it wasn’t just that we thought protest was important, we thought full-blown resistance was. Revolution was important, continual revolution. We struggled with whether we wanted to subtitle it “A Child’s Guide To Revolution” instead. We ended up with the Resistance subtitle and then, inside on the title page, crossing out “Resistance” and writing in “Revolution.”
But as with the Anarchy book, we felt that lecturing a kid was not the right approach. We wanted a fun book that portrayed the energy of speaking your mind, made it seem appealing and like something you would want to do. We heard from some people in regard to the Anarchy book that they wish we had outlined the principles and history of anarchism rather than presenting it the way we did. But we don’t look at these books as a way to bore kids with political lessons, we look at them as entertaining ways to excite and awaken them in a language that means something to them.
JC: We were also definitely inspired by the Occupy movement. We participated in a number of ways- marching, donating food and supplies. We also made a mini book, Occupy 123 that folks could print on their own and pass at marches. The Resistance book was completed before we attended the Women’s March in DC, but the energy building up to it was definitely channeled into the book.
AG: In We Say NO! you paint a picture of many antagonists–cutting down trees, taking things, creating fear. By doing so, your characters can respond “No!” and create alternatives. It’s very powerful to see the range of responses. What do you hope to reveal to children about these antagonists?
JC: What we’re hoping to get across, in hopefully a child-friendly way, is that no matter what your own personal antagonists do, there are creative ways to combat the harm they do. The power is yours.
AG: What are some of your favorite social justice and activism picture books?
JC: My favorite is The Big Box by Toni and Slade Morrison. It’s the story of three kids who don’t fit in, and get put in a large box, eventually escape and find freedom. It’s dark and powerful and gorgeously illustrated by Giselle Potter. We needed to pull our sons out of school in 3rd grade for similar reasons, and homeschool them. This book hit that nerve beautifully.
JS: Obviously, there have been a lot of activity in that area of publishing lately, but this question makes me look back to my own childhood influences, actually, and makes me think of Dr. Seuss’ The Sneetches. There’s a lot of specific political area that is covered in picture books now, but The Sneetches really taught me everything I needed to know about human psychology in regard to the way we treat each other. You can apply it to a lot of situations and it hasn’t let me down in the decades since I first read it.
AG: What’s next?
JS: We’re interested in the death-positive movement and have been working on a story with that in mind. We also like telling stories that celebrate outsiders and have a couple books we’d like to work on that do exactly that. We enjoy testing the boundaries in picture books, but not in what we feel is an obvious way, so that’s always the track we’re on.
JC: Definitely exploring death and decaying- it’s always been something I’ve been fascinated by forever, and am enjoying exploring how to do it in picture book form.
AG: Thank you!!
Learn more about John and Jana’s books on their website.