Continued from Wednesday...
After Mercer Mayer's initial success, he created dozens of books throughout the 60s and 70s, many of which were my childhood favorites. More in the Boy and Dog series. Bubble, Bubble. His one-worded picture books like ACH-CHOO and OOPS.
Though I only owned two of his titles (both Little Critters) growing up, Mayer's books were always my first stop during any trip to the library or bookshop. The colors were so vivid and the monsters and the southern landscapes and flora so familiar to me...
I almost can't look at Just For You without crying, so much childhood nostalgia does it stir in my heart. And having grown-up in a broken home and a thousand miles away from my father, Just Me and My Dad, in particular, always spoke to me as a child.
You all might remember my story of seeing a book in a bookstore while on vacation once when I was little. I begged my mother to buy it for me, but she refused. I always remembered it even though I had long forgotten the title or author, and I spent the better part of my young life asking people if they knew the name of a book about a little girl who lived in the swamp and battled a monster under a bridge.
I remembered so much about the book, but never made the connection between it and all the other Mayer titles I loved. More than 20 years later, when the internet came about, it was the first book I looked for when I figured out you could type a vague description of a book into a search engine and get results.
As you can imagine, when I spoke with Mercer last week, Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp was the book I wanted to know most about.
"I was traveling a lot to schools... giving talks, and would get questions from the audience like 'Why don't you do a little girl book?' and 'Why don't you do anything about black kids?'" Mercer remembers, "So, I started doodling and a little girl appeared, and from there, a story kinda like Brer Rabbit evolved, and it just worked. I took it to Parents' Magazine Press, who loved it, and after if came out (in '76) I started getting all this heat. 'How dare you do a book about a little girl!?!' and 'How dare you do a book about a little black girl!?!'"
Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp is an empowering story of a little African-American girl who lives in a swamp, presumably in the American South, and outsmarts many a witch, demon, and devil with her sharp wits and swamp savvy. Mercer continued, "It was telling because one time I gave a talk in Dallas and said something to the extent that 'we'll all be a lot better off when we're all coffee-colored.' At which point, all the black librarians stood up and cheered and all the white people sat there with their arms folded."
Mercer never intended for the book to have any racial repercussions. "I spent my later childhood in Hawaii, so any of the racial prejudices that I might have had coming from Arkansas were dissolved. Most of the time in school, I was the only white kid in the room."
When I asked him where he gets his story ideas, he laughed. "There are only six original stories in the universe, everything else is take-off. I even take off my own stuff. That's how these stories come about. Thoughts of my childhood. The stories come alive when I doodle. I'll doodle for a week and then, all of a sudden, the story is there. I've always been a vintage guy. As a kid my favorites artists were Rembrant and Arthur Rackham. Those were my influences." He mentioned the inspiration for another of my son's favorites, A Special Trick, and said it was born out of a love for the story of the Sorcerer's Apprentice.
Circling back to the books he's most famous for, there was no way, at the time, that he could have know who and what Little Critter would become.
"The Little Critter series did not start out as such. I brought the original book (Just For You) in the form of a tiny little dummy to the editor I'd had for Liza Lou. She looked at it and said 'You don't wanna do another dumb animal book?' To which I replied, "Yes. I do,' and I took it elsewhere. I took it to a friend at Golden Press, and they loved it. It sold well, and then they asked for another so I did Just Me and My Dad..." and the rest is history. After the success of Little Critter, the Little Monster books were created as a series based on the characters in One Monster After Another and How the Trollusk Lost His Hat.
Mercer was one of the first authors to embrace technology. During the 80s, he owned a computer software company called Angel Soft that was one of the premiere educational software companies for children. He also produced a good deal of videos and interactive Mercer Mayer products (many of which can be viewed on Youtube) through his company Big Tuna, and now, he works completely digitally, creating all of his new books on computer. "I was always impatient to let the paint dry. It makes my life so much easier."
Working to create new stories like Octopus Soup and Too Many Dinosaurs and re-releasing old favorites like Professor Wormbog and Little Monster and Little Critter collections, he stays busy, and when asked about his career, he replied, "I don't try to preach to the choir. I just try to entertain. It's magical, really. The stories that come... they sometimes amaze me. If a story comes to you, you can't stand too much in the way." And when asked what gives his books that quality that keeps children coming back generation after generation, he mused, "Maybe I just remember my childhood more than other people do."
That said, help me thank Mercer for taking the time to talk about his life and work. There will always be more Mercer to discover here on VKBMKLs, so keep an eye out. You never know when a hidden spider might show up.
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