SELECTIONS FROM ALAN SILBERBERG’S LIBRARY
Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze, Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2010.
Pond Scum, Hyperion, 2005.
The Awesome 100% Almost True Adventures of Matt & Craz, Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2013.
Alan Silberberg received the 2011 Sid Fleischman Humor Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze, a story about a boy who copes after the death of his mother. Not the usual fare one would expect to find in a humor book, butMilo is also Silberberg’s personal story. “This was something I experienced as a kid,” he says. When he was in third grade, his mother complained of headaches and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Two months later she passed away. “Third grade will always be that before and after moment of my life.” A funny kid before his mother died, Silberberg shielded himself with humor to deflect any talk of death.
When Silberberg began Milo, his second book, it was “a silly junior high novel with cartoons.” The narrative cartoon hybrid style was gaining momentum and he wanted to jump aboard. “The cartoon, My Dad [in which Milo understands the weight of his father’s grief], helped define the book…turning it in a new direction,” he says. “Milo realizes his dad is gone, too.” This heavier cartoon became the lynchpin of the story, and Silberberg’s personal experience informed how Milo would react.
As a college student, Silberberg knew his destiny lay in kids’ television. “I created a major called Cartoon Communication Education at the University of Massachusetts.” After graduation he wrote, cartooned, and produced television shows for networks such as Nickelodean and Disney. His latest Disney Channel effort is called “Dadnapped,” a story about a famous children’s author kidnapped by rabid fans and rescued by his James Bond-like daughter. “I always saw myself doing something in education,” he says, but is quick to qualify that he never wanted to teach. “I wanted to use different media as educational tools.”
In one of those “a-ha” moments that become the stuff from which books are made, Silberberg was swimming in a pond when a friend warned him about leeches in the pond scum. At the time, he thought Pond Scum would make a great title for a TV show, but at his wife’s urging Pond Scum set his career in children’s literature afloat. “[The book] evolved from my own childhood because I was forced to make new friends,” he says recalling the frequent moves his family made. As the architect of his main character’s life, Silberberg gave him the power to transform into animals to ease his assimilation into country life. Chapter by chapter the story grew into a book, but Silberberg was so intent on becoming an author he steered clear of incorporating cartoons with his text.
Silberberg thought the transition from television to printed page would be a “piece of cake.” After all, it was a natural progression to a new form of writing. Pond Scum took 18 months to write and was rejected by several agents before one agent called to say she loved it and wanted to represent him. “I had one of those cartoon moments and said, ‘Can you please repeat that?’”
His third book, currently titled Draw, is a wish-fulfillment story that centers around two best friends who aspire to be cartoonists for the school newspaper. They acquire a magic pen that makes everything they draw come to life. “I remember wanting to change things with a wish so badly,” Silberberg says, “but not having that power. Unfortunately my Mom’s death is such a touch point for my life. Everything kind of goes back there. I no longer live in that moment, of course, but it certainly has a defining place.”
He sent what he thought was a good draft of the manuscript to his editor, but she commented that it ended in the middle of the second act. “It was missing the emotional payoff of the story,” he says. “My subconscious brought me to the edge, but I didn’t want to do the icky stuff.” With his editor’s guidance, Silberberg turned in a more satisfying final draft. Of the revision process he says, “I love it and I hate it at the same time.”
Silberberg begins each day in his Montreal home with a cup of espresso which he sips in his “big fat chair” while web-surfing, responding to email, and checking Facebook. Depending on the status of his work in progress, he will write or draw for several hours, his dog Zeus on his lap, taking breaks for snacks and the daily crossword puzzle. Finding a character’s real narrative voice is the most difficult part of writing for him. Many writers “adopt a kid’s voice,” he says that is more like “an accent” rather than delving into what makes a particular character tick. Silberberg mines his junior high school feelings in order to develop a fully layered character that evokes emotion in his readers. In a letter from one woman whose husband had died, she tells how she and her two sons found Milo and took turns reading it aloud. “If one cried, the other would pick it up and continue.”
On his website, Silberberg describes writing as “the mortar that holds all of life’s loose bricks together. I may not always build a perfect wall or a straight house or a story without holes, but getting messy trying to hold all the crazy pieces together makes it all worthwhile.”