Remember the collection you had as a kid? Maybe it was seashells or marbles, Barbies or bandanas, but nearly every kid went through a phase of excitedly collecting something - and every new acquisition was the stuff of pure joy.
The Governor General's Literary Award winning team of writer Jon-Erik Lappano and illustrator Kellen Hatanaka capture that joy in their new picture book Maggie's Treasure (Groundwood Books), where the titular Maggie collects every beautiful thing she sees - feathers, pretty rocks, buttons, and more. At first her neighbours are grateful as she cleans up the town, but soon her collection grows so large it's a problem. Her solution is a creative one young readers will love, even as it teaches them about helping their communities.
We're excited to welcome Jon-Erik to Open Book today to chat with us as part of our Kids Club Books for Young People interview series. He tells us about how parents can learn to see wonder in the world through their kids' eyes, the importance of tasty snacks as part of the writing process, and how great kids' books let the reader experience "being a child in a big, weird, wonderful world".
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
Maggie’s Treasure is a story about a child with a passion for collecting who sees “the sparkle in everything” – whether a button, a feather or a shiny stone, it will end up in Maggie’s collection. At first, people are impressed by Maggie’s curious habit, and they praise her for cleaning up. But soon, her collection grows out of control, spilling out of her house and garden in an unsightly mess. The neighbours do not approve, and her parents have had enough. Maggie must find an inventive way of dealing with her treasure, and along the way, she teaches her community to look at things they throw away in a different light.
This story was inspired by our three daughters, and their insatiable appetites for finding ‘treasure’ on their walks through our neighbourhood. Their drawers still overflow with random bits and pieces of colourful chaos. As a parent, there is a tension between wanting to foster imagination and creativity in our kids, while also knowing that there are limits to how many precious objects we can bring home (there’s only so much space under the bed after all!). I wanted to play with that tension and take it to the absolute limit.
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
I hope kids and parents alike take away two main ideas. First, to view the world with a sense of wonder. This, I believe, is already alive in children – a bit of ribbon on the sidewalk is a beautiful thing to be cherished. As parents, we tend to gloss right over it. If we try to move through the world with wonder, I think we might waste less, and we might care more for what we have. The second takeaway in this book, I hope, is that it’s important to share your passion with the world. At first, Maggie’s eye for treasure turns her into a bit of a hoarder, because she holds everything too close. When she channels her passion to create something wonderful in which others find joy, she finds balance – and transforms her community.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I have a full-time day job, so most of my writing happens at night, after the kids are asleep. I sit down at my laptop, equipped with a pen and notebook for problem-solving and random scribbles, a bowl of chips (or family-sized bag if I’m being honest), and a cold drink. I then try to make the most of the hours ahead. Sometimes, I’ll end up doom-scrolling through Twitter, or binge-watching food shows on Netflix (which leads to more elaborate late-night snacks). Other times, I’ll manage to get a few good sentences onto the screen. And in rare, lucky times, I’ll enter into a flow and an entire story can emerge. It really varies. The key for me is dedicating whatever evening and late-night hours I can to make the effort. I never know how it will end up, but it’s still time well-spent.
What defines a great book for young readers, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great kids books, whether you read them as a child or an adult.
It’s hard to say what defines a great kid’s book for me. I think in the end, they are the books that stay with you, and that will be different for everyone. For me, they are books like Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, or Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon. Another one I loved as a child was Robert Quackenbush’s Henry’s Awful Mistake, a story about a duck who tries to get rid of an unwelcome ant and ends up destroying his entire house in the process.
Great books will find a way in. They play with the hopes, fears, desires, and joys we carry with us. I think the best books do this indirectly – using phrases and illustrations that evoke feelings of being a child in a big, weird, wonderful world. Good children’s books are like poetry, they create a space between words and images where we can make our own meaning. The best books start us down paths that lead to questions, laughs, tears or chills. They spark conversations, and leave you thinking long after you put them down. There are so many people creating great kids books today. Some excellent authors I’m reading lately (in no particular order): Jillian Tamaki, David Alexander Robertson, Christian Robinson, Mac Barnett, Lauren Soloy, Jael Richardson, Kyo Maclear, Yuyi Morales, Phoebe Wahl, Matt de la Pena, Kwame Alexander, I could go on and on….
What are you working on now?
Kellen Hatanaka and I are creating an online series of short animated videos that will take young viewers on a quest of problem-solving adventures through a dreamscape-like wilderness.
Next year, I’ve got a picture book coming out with Groundwood Books, illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler, titled Song for the Snow. It is a story about a young girl named Freya who longs for the snow to return to her village. She discovers a long-forgotten song that may contain the magic needed to call the snow home, but Freya soon learns she can’t do it alone.
There is another picture book in the works for 2022 that is too early to announce, and one potentially ill-fated chapter book manuscript that is currently in the late-night-bag-of-chips-and-Netflix stage of writing.
Jon-Erik Lappano is a person who stays up too late working on curious things, including writing books for children. His debut picture book, Tokyo Digs a Garden, was the winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award. Maggie’s Treasure, his second picture book, was inspired by his daughters’ impressive ability to spot treasure. Jon-Erik lives in Stratford, Ontario, with his wife, three daughters, and a growing collection of things that glitter.
Kellen Hatanaka is a designer and illustrator who lives in Stratford, Ontario, with his family. He has written and illustrated Work: An Occupational ABC (an ALA Notable Children’s Book) and Drive: A Look at Roadside Opposites. He also illustrated Tokyo Digs a Garden, winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award.