Magical Things: An Interview with Julianna Baggott

Nikki Tranter

'If you pay attention to the world around you, you'll see truly magical things.' Julianna Baggott talks about The Anybodies and The Nobodies, her fantasy books for young readers that reveal the path to enlightenment lies in a life spent reading.

PopMatters Books Editor

Please don't go rooting for a moral about girls being good or punished for adventure... like Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks. You won't find it here!
-- N.E. Bode, The Anybodies

Writing as N.E. Bode, Julianna Baggott's Anybodies series is a coupling (soon to be tripling) of books featuring Fern Drudger, a young girl on her pre-pubescent path to enlightenment courtesy of a wild imagination and a whole lot of girl-power gumption. Though odd-looking, a little nutty, and open to moments of deep desperation concerning her place in the world, Fern is also bright, funny, and unafraid of asking important questions of her elders. Baggott has something to say, and with her resilient and intellectually advanced teen protagonist, she says it loud: Girls rock.

That's, of course, how her YA audience might describe it, but Baggott's explanation of her objectives with Fern are lot more complex. According to Baggott, not only are books with strong girl characters in need of a Renaissance, so are serious female writers interested in genre-crossing. Baggott has spent much of her career attempting to make literary inroads by adopting what she considers a male approach to writing. As far as she was concerned, this was her ticket to a sustainable career. As it turns out, it wasn't until she wrote Girl Talk, about a young New Jersey girl searching for her biological father, that success came her way.

"If you pay attention to the world around you, you'll see truly magical things." Julianna Baggott talks about The Anybodies and The Nobodies, her fantasy books for young readers that reveal the path to enlightenment lies in a life spent reading.

Referenced books:
The Anybodies
by N.E. Bode

September 2005, 288 pages, $15.99 [paperback]

The Nobodies
by N.E. Bode

June 2005, 304 pages, $15.99 [hardcover]

The irony of a writer so set on giving voice to bold young women not outwardly trusting her own is hardly lost on Baggott. Yet she still finds herself frustrated at clichéd and even patronizing responses to women writers by readers and critics. Girl talk wasn't so much a response to this as a catalyst for opening Baggott's eyes to the amount of work needed (or, at least, the amount of explaining) in order to remain strong-willed and confident as a commercial literary writer. She's one of the lucky ones, in fact, writing to critical approval and decent sales. It's no surprise, then, that lately, Baggott's confidence is looming large.

This is especially noticeable throughout The Nobodies (released through HarperCollins in June) and its precursor, The Anybodies, (out in paperback in September). Baggott steams into the story with humor and intelligence as she explains just how far from heavenly it is for the crazily inventive Fern to comprehend her parents, Mr. And Mrs. Drudger -- the most boring people alive. They didn't like to take vacations from [work]," Bode writes. "But... didn't want to cause a stir by not taking them either."

The dull Drudgers are opposed to anything resembling super, awesome, or cool, and so Fern's creative mind is ordered to a standstill. The problem is, Fern's about three-parts normal and all the rest creativity. Her dreamer qualities (can she or can't she make stuff drop from books by shaping them really hard?) and devotion to literature (she's read every books for kids there is) fill her up. Her very personality is has been fuelled throughout her short life by the books she's read, the adventure stories and fairytales she's immersed herself in as escapism and for sheer entertainment's sake.

Fern desires her own adventure, though. She gets it at the beginning of The Anybodies when she receives a visit from a man proclaiming to be her real father. A hospital mix-up meant that math-loving Howard ended up going home with him, and Fern with the Drudgers. Her father, known as The Bone, makes a deal with the Drudgers to swap kids for the summer and gage just how well, or not so well, they fit.

So begins Fern's own girl's adventure. She soon learns that her overactive imagination might just be a product of her DNA. She, like her father and late mother, is an Anybody. She learns, too, that a book containing the secrets of the Anybodies entitled, The Art of Being Anybody is her birthright and so sets herself on a quest to find the book and thus learn everything possible about being an Anybody. She going to have to be quick smart about it, though, as someone else -- an evil and miserly someone -- is also on the hunt for the book and its treasures. Fern is suddenly on a race through literature and fantasy to get her book and discover her true purpose.

Fern's race, continued in The Nobodies in which she and Howard attend a camp for Anybodies and discover something's not quite right about the camp counselors who seem to all be suffering fun-transplants, is about a whole lot more than a simple quest for a book. Along the way, she comes to learn that being an Anybody is about understanding the true effect of a literary life, and that the world is ever changing and that she can change along with it, so long as she doesn't alter her personal beliefs and ideals unless she does so on her terms. As a mystical fellow Anybody tells her in The Nobodies:

Thing are always changing. You have to be in tune with that, the world's flux. You know that Heraclitus was a great Anybody. He was the one who said that you can't step in the same river twice. And Kafka was dating an Anybody when he wrote Metamorphosis, of course.

Heady stuff for kids, but effective. The point here, that Fern comes to know, is how important it is for young people to understand the level of control they have over their own life paths. Fern soon realizes that her parents' dispositions need not be her own, and that if she desires avenues considered unworthy by anyone at all that she thoroughly believes in, she should have the will to go forward. She is, essentially, the god of her own world, the writer of her own story.

Baggott, as N.E. Bode, brings this intricate message to young readers in a style reminiscent of Roald Dahl, by way of P.L. Travers. There's a snappy buoyancy to her prose, which is offset (but never overrun) by an eerie, dramatic undertone. It's not a kiddie spookiness that hides beneath the giggles of The Anybodies' opening chapter, but a feeling that, as the books jacket reveals, things are not as they seem. This feeling culminates at the end of chapter one in the revelation that Fern's mother died in childbirth:

...the mother, with large brown eyes, wet as pools, lashes soft as moth wings, began to lose blood. She would lose so much, in fact, that she would die.

While the book's comedy is its high point, it's Baggott's (or Bode's) ability to convey such solemnity with sensitivity and skill that gives these stories weight. Her reluctance to alter her writing style in terms of language and vocabulary to suit a child's ear and remain entirely accessible to those children is her true gift. She's direct, she's concise, and above all, her drive to make a role model out of Fern comes across as natural and unforced.

On the eve of The Anybodies paperback debut, Julianna Baggott spoke to PopMatters about girls, books, the joys of writing, and why she's not too concerned that Harry Potter continues to dominate the book charts.

PopMatters: When you first had kids, what books could you not wait to introduce them to?

Julianna Baggott: I was raised during the crazy days of the Little House comeback where girls were force-fed bonnets and prairie dresses. I confess I was completely into the bonnets, but when it came to books, I was going for something a little less devoted to realism and more interested in the unusual. I was dying to read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to my kids, but I started in when they were way too young -- the oldest antsy for more pictures, the youngest still relatively blobby. I had to put it down and be patient. Luckily picture books these days are astounding -- A Day At Wilbur Robinson's House, Weslandia, A Bad Case of Stripes, Alpha Beta Chowder -- so the kids and I were kept well-fed while awaiting C.S. Lewis and Dahl. I also loved Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary -- and by thirteen had turned quickly into a David Mamet diehard.

PM: What makes a book or a story memorable? Why are we still reading, for example, Charlotte's Web and Anne of Green Gables -- or are we? Have the new age Harry Potters and Lemony Snickets erased those classics?

JB: Charlotte's Web is a phenomenal book. It's easy to see how and why it lives on. But take White's Stuart Little. It's a messy narrative with no real resolution. But, still, it lives on for its situation -- a baby mouse? -- and Stuart's character and, I think, because the novel's inventive premise allows children's minds to riff off of it. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is one of the tightest novels I've read -- a tidy, bizarre, sadistic morality tale -- but Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator is a disaster. I think it only lives on because it's the sequel to something quite brilliant. Potter and Snicket haven't erased anything. In fact their popularity has brought adults back to the more wildly imagined terrain of books for kids -- classics and new works alike.

PM: Have you always wanted to join the ranks of adult writers creating for kids?

JB: No, not at all. I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer and to do so, I was pretty sure that I should write like a man. I wrote like a man for years and published many manly stories. But it was my first story about a woman that got the attention of an agent. When my agent sold Girl Talk, I was married with two kids, a third on the way, and, without hearing anything about the book, people assumed that I'd written a children's book -- an assumption I don't think they'd have made if I'd been a man. When I told them that it was for adults, the second question was often asking if it was a romance novel... You see what I mean. It was frustrating. Books for children, like novels more geared toward women -- literary or not -- are dismissed in a way that novels written by men aren't. But, frankly, it's my books about women and now girls that have worked for me. The biases still exist however.

What broke me of my own bias against writing for kids -- I was as much to blame as anyone -- was reading the children's books to my kids, remembering that I'd signed onto the writing business because I loved magical realism; Marquez and Calvino, the poems of Adelia Prada. There's a great quote from Michael Chabon -- who made the post-Pulitzer leap into kid-lit with Summerland (2002) -- talking about the age when he first wanted to be a writer, 10 or 11: "Back then I didn't want to write a novel about an overweight, pot-smoking, philandering teacher whose mistress is pregnant; I wanted to write the books I loved to read, fantasy and novels about contemporary children."

I'd gotten tired of realism, tired of my own desire to be taken seriously, and wanted to go back to my roots.

PM: How does having children influence writing for children? Could have written these books ten years ago?

JB: If I'd wanted to really dive back into my own childhood, sure, I could have come up with novels for the younger set without children of my own. But there's something to be gained by being steeped in my kids' lives -- seeing their drawings, listening to them recount bad dreams -- that gives me a deeper insight and helps me remember my own childhood needs.

PM: Can you pinpoint some specific differences between writing for adults and writing for kids? In both The Anybodies and The Nobodies, your language has hardly been watered down for a young audience -- did you deliberately decide to blend a very literary style with that fantastic, simple language?

JB: It's ironic but adults are a babyish audience who need a lot of narrative handholding. I have to warn them before anything unusual happens. I have to couch my most imaginative moves in metaphor. But the kid audience is always ready to leap. It's been really liberating.

I wrote The Anybodies using whatever language came naturally to me, knowing my editor would dumb it down when necessary. She never once changed a word based on the notion it might be too challenging. I found that remarkable and admired her for her respect for the kid audience.

PM: Why do think it's important that Fern be a girl? Is there a lack of female protagonists in modern kid-lit?

JB: I met with my editor before I wrote the book, and we both agreed that we wanted a book about an empowered girl in a wild adventure. The Anybodies is hugely feminist.

The first round in Hollywood, pitching the first book to execs, I was told point blank that girl movies were a hard sell because boys and girls go to movies about boys, but only girls go to movies about girls. As a result -- a calculated move that actually gave me structure and turned out to work out very well for the series -- Howard became more important in The Nobodies -- a real buddy book.

PM: What was your aim with Fern? Did you deliberately decide on her specific strengths and weaknesses?

JB: I have oversized eyes and hair that sticks up wildly, rooster-like, on top of my head. Fern and I have much in common. I didn't think about her in terms of strengths and weaknesses. In many ways, I just thought of myself at that age -- though with a deeper sadness.

PM: Together, the books present a clear message that imagination and the ability see the world almost in an absurd, existentialist way, are the keys to discovering the magic of the individual's world. Was this the message you set out to impart from the beginning?

JB: I don't set out with a message, but it's no surprise that this is the message that's come to light. I certainly believe that the world is a bizarre place and that each person's reality has many levels, and that if you pay attention to the world around you, you'll see truly magical things.

PM: The philosophy behind Fern's quest was heavy enough for me to follow -- I'm thrilled at the possibility that kids could begin to investigate and interpret existence and life as Fern eventually does. Are younger readers understanding this idea?

JB: This again was a criticism from Hollywood execs in the first round. What's the philosophy that governs The Anybodies? I had no answer. It was plaguing me when I sat down to write The Nobodies and I was determined to understand the book on a simpler but deeper level.

Now, my therapist at the time was a Buddhist, and although he turned out to be a crummy therapist, he was a good Buddhist, and the philosophies of Buddhism work very well with Anybodies -- the idea that the world is always in flux and that Anybodies, who are truly in tune with this constant state, can enter it and transform themselves or the things around them -- like books, making the figurative real, etc.

This vision was a huge relief on an artistic level, but it also worked for Hollywood. Now I had a more present boy character to attract the boy audience and I had a philosophy that made sense. It was in this second round that the series was optioned by Nickelodeon Movies at Paramount Pictures.

PM: Do you buy into the idea that kids would rather go to the movies than read a book?

JB: I'm inundated with stories of kids who love to read -- fan mail, letters from parents. I think kids want to read and do, and there's no question that Rowling's books single-handedly taught an entire generation not only to love to read but to wait white-knuckled for, of all things, a book. Rowling's success also flew in the face of the publishing industry's claim that adult American readers want realism, and if not realism than at least something that acts like it. Rowling's success has forced publishers to reconsider the adult audience's appetite for more magical fiction, and it's certainly made more room in the children's section for magical fiction. Chabon has said that [he believes] his publisher would not have been so interested in Summerland if it weren't for Harry Potter. This is an interesting notion. True or not, I certainly feel it and believe I owe Rowling a debt.

PM: Do you see any disadvantages with the popularity of the Harry Potter series? To you, other authors, other readers?

JB: The publication of The Nobodies overlapped with the Half-Blood Prince hype and so it was harder to fight for review space. A columnist, and there aren't tons in kids lit, might do four columns a month but this July, three of the four went to Potter-mania. That said, I'll take the traffic. I don't know the Potter stats, but when Oprah's book club was in full swing, readers who walked into a store to buy an Oprah pick also bought two to three other books on average. I imagine that the Potter stats aren't too far off. It's healthy for booksellers and that helps the industry, which helps my books as well.

PM: Why do you think Harry Potter has been as successful with adult readers as with kids?

JB: Stephen King wrote an essay that I've heard about though haven't ever seen with my own eyes, in which he speculates at what point Rowling stopped writing for kids and turned to the adults as her main audience. I think that the books have gotten hugely complicated which can be a natural consequence of writing in series. The Somebodies becomes much more complicated than the first two [in The Anybodies series]. I think that Rowling's books exploded in a way that no one could have ever predicted or masterminded. But I do think that she didn't stagnate with the age group --whereas Lemony Snicket's books remain true to their audience, which is good and bad. I see Snicket's books literally as a series of events -- brilliant and hilarious -- but not accumulating much in terms of real character growth from book to book.

PM: How do you think your books differ from these others? Do you get tired of the comparisons?

JB: The Anybodies series is truly American and full-color. Potter and Snicket are both gothic and British in tone -- thick with the feel of capes and quills and antiquated dramatics -- even with the contemporary references. I think of The Anybodies as fully contemporary -- magical like Rowling with a smirky tone like Snicket -- but now, really and truly. I don't mind the comparisons -- at all.

PM: What age did you aim The Anybodies at? Do you keep up with modern kids and YA books? Has your response to these genres been generally positive?

JB: The Anybodies was written to suit a seven-year-old in a read-aloud setting up to 13 or so when The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants should take over. I still write adult fiction, and poetry, and for kids, and I'd love to do something non-fiction, so the answer is no to keeping up. I don't feel like I can keep up with any of those genres as I should -- especially since most of my reading [as a teacher] consists of manuscripts that have yet to be published. But I try to. Again, I'm picky and slow -- I do so admire [Neil Gaiman's] Coraline and many [Terry] Pratchett books.

PM: How did you find Peter Ferguson? Did you work together throughout the illustrating process? What do you think of his interpretations of your characters?

JB: His portfolio was the first take on the characters. It's spooky how much Fern looks like me and my daughter, frankly. He'd never seen pictures of us but through my descriptions of the giant eyes and the wild hair and scrawniness, well, there we were. I love his drawings --- even more so in The Nobodies, which I didn't thing was possible. My editor edits his drawings so they work with the text, but I don't interact with him at all really. I just sit back and see his translations. It's an amazing process to be translated visually like that.

PM: What did books mean to you growing up? What's it like, if such is the case, to see your own children discovering the magic of reading?

JB: The truth is I was a reluctant reader -- slow and picky. I would start ten books to find one I might want to finish. Discerning would be a euphemism. Dunderheaded might be more on target. I still am slow and picky. And frankly, my daughter just stopped hating reading this year. She's ten, and she's had a really hard time with the words on the page. So I've worked hard on all of this and have a defense of the reluctant reader on my website -- a letter to parents. I started out giving my daughter all of these magical books and funny books -- things that I loved as a kid to get her going. But found that she really wanted serious biographies (Harriet Tubman and Joan of Arc), and books on the development of animal species. She loves research. Recently, my son was reading to himself and stopped, looked up, and said: "Listen to this.", And then he repeated the line -- a description of snow. He just liked the way it sounded and the image, and wanted me to hear it. That was a fantastic moment.

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