Hello there! Today, in honor of love (and this whole mid-February thing), we catch up with JJ Austrian. His adorable debut picture book, Worm Loves Worm (illustrated by Mike Curato) is one of my new favorites — funny and sweet and full of love!
From the flap: “When a worm meets a special worm and they fall in love, you know what happens next. They get married! But their friends want to know– who will wear the dress? And who will wear the tux?…”
Worm Loves Worm is a deceptively simple story that celebrates the triumph of unwavering love. Can you talk about your inspiration for this book?
The idea came to me several years ago—after having dinner at the home of good friends and former neighbors, two women who had been a couple for more than twenty years. My son, who was four years old at the time, had assumed that Pam and Leanora were married, since, like mommy and daddy, they lived together and loved each other. When my son asked me if Pam and Leanora were married, I tried to explain to him that, at that time, women couldn’t marry women and men couldn’t marry men. When my son asked, “Why not?” I said that some people thought it was only “natural” for men and women to marry each other. My son thought about this for a moment and said, “That’s dumb. Pam and Leanora love each other.” I agreed and wondered why other adults couldn’t see the truth that was so obvious to my son. How such love be anything but natural? Nature doesn’t care about gender. Look at earthworms!
Four years later, while earning my MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults at Hamline University, I was asked by one of my advisors, the children’s author Claire Rudolph Murphy, to write a picture book. Thinking back to the conversation I had with my son, I decided to write WORM LOVES WORM.
(Also, I’m delighted to report that in 2014 my son and daughter were part of Pam and Leanora’s wedding.)
How did your manuscript evolve from its first draft? (The pacing and language turns are so satisfying!)
The story evolved and grew after each draft. The structure of the story never changed, but the first draft was very spare and the message was front-and-center, which didn’t work. Nobody, especially kids, wants to be lectured. So I added more wedding stuff: the tuxedos, cake, dancing, and rings. I also added Spider—after Claire suggested I give the worms an ally. It was also pointed out to me, in a workshop at Hamline led by the writers Gary Schmidt and Marsha Chall, that the other insects seemed very negative, which wasn’t what I wanted at all. I didn’t want the insects to be mean or nasty, just set in their ways and clueless. So, I changed the word “No” to “Wait” in order to show that the insects wanted to both plan and participate in the wedding—but a “traditional” one. Finally, I was incredibly fortunate to receive a Shabo Award from the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, which allowed me to work with author and illustrator Nancy Carlson. It was Nancy who helped me figure to out the refrain, “That’s how it always been done,” which made the ending come together.
Spider’s sly line (about the cake and Cricket and Beetle) accomplishes so much! It’s a playful wink to the power of commas and, depending on inflection, is open to interpretation for more sensitive listeners. Was this line in the manuscript from the beginning?
Spider had that line the moment she joined the story. To me, it was Spider’s subtle way of telling cricket and beetle to get with the program. The funny thing is that adults always ask me about the line, but kids seem to get the joke right away. You can’t get anything past kids, which is why it’s so fun to write for them.
What do you hope your young readers will say when they reach the end of this book?
Most of all, I hope they laughed and enjoyed it. My main goal was to make sure the story is entertaining. Beyond that, though, I hope young readers will see that they should not only love themselves, but also stand up for themselves. Just because we have always done something a certain way doesn’t mean that it’s the right way and can’t or shouldn’t be changed. Of course, change can be scary, but it also can lead to opportunity. And, in the end, love is love.
What new stories can we look forward to from you, and how soon?
I’m finishing my Young Adult fantasy, THE SILVER COFFIN. It’s about a young, impulsive shepherd who sells his soul in a desperate attempt to save his sister from being sacrificed to the God of Death, and about how his headstrong sister does everything in her power to win his soul back. I’m trying to write a roller coaster of a story that has speed, twists, turns, and jolts. I’m having a lot of fun writing it and I hope readers will enjoy the story.
Some of your readers may not know that wildly patterned trousers are one of your trademarks. What is the origin of JJ’s wild pants?
My awesome dad is the reason I wear awesome pants. My father held jobs that demanded he wear a suit and tie, and, thanks to my mother, my dad always dressed well. He was stylish, but never flashy or trendy. However, way, way back in a mystical, groovy time known as the early ‘70s, there was a brief moment where wild prints were worn to summer cocktail parties and get-togethers. My straight-laced dad was one of these bold men in bold pants, and I loved him for it. I loved that he didn’t take himself too seriously. He was, and still is, a fun-loving person and a great dad. Years later, when I was fortunate to inherit his collection of vintage pants, I began wearing them to events and parties as a way to honor my dad and not take myself too seriously. Now, if I wear khakis, people seem disappointed. I’ve added to the collection over the years, and, while not all the pants are vintage, they are all fun and fairly loud. Like me.
Thank you so much for visiting, JJ! To see JJ’s wild pants (and more!) drop by www.jjaustrian.com.