(Virtually) Sitting Down With Elana K. Arnold.
By Chloe Grant, Read to Them Staff
Back in April when we read A Boy Called Bat for our #OneBookConnects program, I had the honor of video interviewing Elana K. Arnold, the author of A Boy Called Bat. The acclaimed author virtually welcomed me into her Southern California home where she does most of her writing. In addition to the 2018 Global Read Aloud title and our first text featured in our digital program, Bat’s story is part of a trilogy. His adventures with his baby kit continue in Bat and the Waiting Game and Bat and the End of Everything. Other titles by Arnold include the National Book Award finalist, What Girls Are Made Of, and Printz Honor winner, Damsel.
In this interview we chat about all things Bat, what Arnold is doing to maintain a routine, and what insights she has to offer to young readers & writers. During our time together Arnold said,
"One of the great things about being a writer, is that it's my job to fall in love."
I hope you fall in love with Elana K. Arnold & her work, just as I have while writing this.
*See below for a transcript of the video.
A huge thank you to Elana K. Arnold for her time & great contributions during this interview. For more information you can head to her website.
Transcript of the interview:
GRANT: I’m Chloe from Read to Them and today, I have the absolute pleasure of introducing and interviewing Elana K. Arnold, who is the author of our very first book, A Boy Called Bat. Welcome!
ARNOLD: Thank you so much, Chloe! It’s lovely to be here! Thank you for selecting A Boy Called Bat for your first book.
GRANT: Yes! We’re absolutely thrilled to be reading it. And so to get started, I want to ask you about how you got to this point in your life career, and what made you decide to be a writer?
ARNOLD: Well, I was a reader first. I still am. I’ve always been a big reader when I was a little kid. I was a lot like Bat. I didn’t know much about making friends, I didn’t feel very comfortable in social situations, I didn’t have a really good time controlling my body in space and time, and books were a place where I just felt very comfortable and safe, and I was a very avid reader. I can’t even remember a time before I read. It seemed to me the only thing better than reading books would be writing my own. So, I was pretty young when I started writing little stories, and I’ve been writing off and on ever since.
GRANT: That’s so awesome. And hearing you talk about reading at a young age— that’s what we want for our kids, and if there’s anything you could hope that families could gain from reading A Boy Called Bat with #OneBookConnects, what would that be?
ARNOLD: I think what’s really interesting about books and reading, is that humans are story-loving animals. That’s one thing we have in common: we all love stories. If something interesting happens to a kid’s day at school, back when they were, you know, leaving the house for school, most kids are excited to come home and tell someone at home about their day. If something interesting happens at home, people are excited to go to school or work, and share their story there. So I think that naturally, humans are drawn to stories. A lot of kids get stopped because they don’t necessarily like decoding the text. And so they think they don’t like books or they think they don’t like stories. But I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s they don’t quite enjoy decoding text. And so I think the idea of literacy as a connection to and relation to a story first, and decoding text to me is way down on the list. So a great thing about Read to Them, any program that reads out-loud or alongside kids, is that it demystifies the decoding of text and puts the focus back on the story, and on sharing stories. And reading out-loud with a kid on your lap or a kid at your side, or taking turns reading or asking a kid to read to you while you're cooking, it’s just a wonderful way to center time and our space with one another with the story is this wonderful third member of the conversation.
GRANT: Yeah, that’s so true. And I think right now is a great time for it as well as people have a lot more time on their hands while being at home. And it made me notice, you know, Bat thrives in having a sense of routine like so many of us do, especially myself, personally. In a time like right now when all sort of routine has kind of been thrown out the window, what are you doing and what do you think families can do to establish that sense of normalcy?
ARNOLD: Routine is important for most of us. Even those of us who think we don’t like routine like the routine of not having a routine in a certain way. So, I’ve established a new routine since being home. I’ve started— oh! [CAT MEOWING OFF-SCREEN] I don’t know if you can hear my cat—
ARNOLD: I’m sort of a seasonal writer in that I get focused on a project, I get really, really involved in a project— hang on a second, I’m gonna move the cat. We can pause, but first I’m gonna bring him to introduce him to you. Okay. I’m gonna introduce him then I’ll put him out of the room. [APPEARS WITH CAT]
GRANT: Oh my goodness!
ARNOLD: This is Crumpet. He’s a Sphinx. He’s a hairless cat. He’s quite fabulous, so.
GRANT: He’s great.
ARNOLD & GRANT: [BOTH COOING FOR CRUMPET]
GRANT: Oh my goodness. Love it!
ARNOLD: Okay, now I’ll put him out in the hallway. [ARNOLD LEAVES WITH CRUMPET, RETURNS WITHOUT HIM] Alright! Back— so I have started writing again every morning, so I cycle through different routines, and my new routine is I get up around 6:45 AM, and I have a glass of water first, which I don’t really want, and then a glass of coffee, which I very much do want, and while I’m drinking my coffee, I try to write first thing in the morning so that by the time I got on the phone with you this morning, I’d already gotten in my words for the day on my first project that I’m working on. And then I’ll write again this afternoon. And in-between, things are looser, but I kind of have just a couple of those moments— I have the morning session of writing, and I have the early afternoon session of writing. And then everything else fills in around it. I don’t think we need the whole day to be scheduled for our kiddos, I think if we can give them a couple of touchstones, and those sort of become lamp posts that light the rest of the day. I would encourage families to try not to feel like they need to schedule every moment. I’m a homeschooler. I don’t know if you knew that—
GRANT: That’s awesome! I didn’t.
ARNOLD: My kids have always been schooled at home, so we’re kind of used to this rhythm, and so for those of you who are newer to it, I’d say be gentle to yourselves. Parents and children alike, and a great place to return to is stories. If you guys are feeling overwhelmed by curriculum, or overwhelmed by worksheets, always pull a story off the shelf. And picture books, too, are fabulous resources for families of all ages. It’s just a place to sort of calm and center. I’m a big fan.
GRANT: Absolutely. That is great advice, and you know after meeting Crumpet, I am now curious how we got from a hairless cat to a kit for the character in the story. And I’m just super curious of how Thor became the character that was going to steal Bat’s heart and reader’s for that matter.
ARNOLD: One of the great things about being a writer is that my job is to fall in love. And then follow my interests and learn a bunch, and once I’ve decided to put something in a book, I’ve given myself permission to become a little bit of an expert, and that involves research. Research is one of my favorite things. Doing research means paying good attention, and being very curious, and asking lots of questions. And in this case, watching a bunch of videos about adorable baby skunks. So when I decided that Bat was going to befriend a skunk kit, that gave me sort of permission for myself, to myself, to learn all I could about skunks. The more I learned about how adorable and charming they are, the more I knew I had made a good choice. And I didn’t really think about why I’d chose a skunk when I did. But with some distance and some time, now I know that the back of my brain made a very wise choice. A skunk is an animal that will let you know if it is scared. And so it gives Bat a very concrete, good reason to try to keep himself calm. It’s not a very subtle animal, and I think that’s a good fit for Bat, a kid who might miss some more subtle cues, but really wants to be told upfront what people think and how they think, and why they think the way they think, and skunks do that for us. So, I think the back of my brain was smarter than the front of my brain… knew, at the time.
GRANT: That’s such a great way to put it. And I also— I’ve contacted Dr. Dragoo since reading the book—
ARNOLD: [DELIGHTED] He’s a real person!
GRANT: Yes! I was so excited when I found his page. I was like, he’s real! I can’t believe it! So, I’m writing a skunk piece in addition to this on the blog page, because I do think it’s such a misunderstood animal. I think we miss these things, so I also then am interested, because it’s not a traditional route, but I also read on your website that you don’t really have the traditional route of pets either, or that you just have a plethora of them. Can I hear a little bit more about that?
ARNOLD: Yes! I’d be glad to. First of all though, Dr. Jerry Dragoo. That was such a fun discovery for me. Basically I knew I needed to learn more, and I found an expert— and his name was Dr. Jerry Dragoo. And he really does run the Dragoo Institute for the Betterment of Skunks and Skunk Reputations which I reference in A Boy Called Bat. And honestly, part of my job as a writer of fiction is to know when I can’t make up something better than reality. And that was something so charming, and big-hearted, the name of his institute that I knew I had to have it in the story. So that’s where the idea came from. Dr. Jerry Dragoo was very kind to allow me to fictionalize him and put him in the book. I do write at home. Most days when home, I am surrounded by animals. We have seven, which is the fewest number of pets we’ve had in many years, but it’s a good number. So we have Crumpet, who you’ve met. And then we have a very large white fluffy cat, and then we have two dogs— a giant sheepdog, and a little tiny mutt named Poppy. The sheepdog is Phoebe. And then we have two tortoises, Big Torty and Little Torty. And I have a golden cap conure. A conure is a small parrot that’s about [MAKES A SHAPE WITH HER HANDS THAT’S ABOUT EIGHT INCHES TALL] this big, and his name is Birdie.
GRANT: Wow. That is so awesome, and how did you discover that having pets like that was going to be in your life?
ARNOLD: I love animals. I just love them. They make everything better. I almost always have an animal on me when I’m home.
GRANT: That’s awesome.
ARNOLD: Yeah, my big dog likes to lay across the back of the couch and put her head across my chest, and there’s usually a cat. One thing about hairless cats is they like to be shoved up in your sweater.
ARNOLD: I spend most of my life touching an animal when I’m home.
GRANT: That’s awesome. And so, were they any inspiration at all when you were writing Bat? OR where did you get your inspiration from?
ARNOLD: So Thor was actually in part inspired by a ferret that we had for many years whose name was Vegas. He lived a long and happy ferret life. He’s no longer living, but that’s just the way life goes sadly, but he lived a long life and was very happy, and— Ferrets are not the same as skunks, but they are related. And they have a lot of skunk-like habits. They’re very curious, and they’re mammals like skunks, but they’re also not quite tame like skunks. Though, I think with the ferret, my brain took the next step to skunks is where that came from. And we used to wear Vegas the ferret in a sling, so.
GRANT: I love that bit with the t-shirt. It’s just such a comforting moment.
ARNOLD: It’s something I suggest for families, too. I went on a school visit, once, and the entire row of pre-K kids, all of them had made a homemade sling out of a piece of cloth, and they had a stuffed animal in it. The entire time I talked, they rocked back and forth with their babies. And I thought, well that’s just the most charming and beautiful thing. So that’s a fun activity to do at home— to make a little sling.
GRANT: That’s awesome. Yeah, it’s such a warm-hearted moment, and I think that right now, it’s something that a lot of people are depending on the idea of connection to humanity. It’s just a nice way of comforting yourself and also comforting the stuffed that animal that’s in your pouch.
ARNOLD: For sure, yeah. And Bat is a very home-based book. Not all the chapters take place at home, but Bat is a kid who loves to be at home and Thor is at home. And the question of home and family, caregiving and comfort-giving are essential and central to the book. So, it’s a great choice for right now.
GRANT: Yeah, I am grateful that more of them exist. So does that carry on through the other books as well?
ARNOLD: Oh, with Bat— which, if you liked A Boy Called Bat, which I hope you will— I love this boy so much. It’s actually a trilogy, so the second book is called Bat and the Waiting Game. And the third book, which just came out in paperback, is called Bat and the End of Everything, which is quite a dramatic title, but I would say all three of these books are full of empathy, and love and kindness, and compassion, and sincerity. So, I think those sort of core values that you’ll find in the first book really do translate throughout the entire series. They’re all very much home books, and without giving anything away, I’d say the ending of the third book, they end up at home right where they started. So, yes. They’re all three definitely books about family, and caregiving, and empathy, and home.
GRANT: And I think those core values you bring up are so important for individuals that read, but also individuals that exist. And I think that now’s a great time to be reminded of that, and I also think reading allows you to develop those ways of living without being aware of it. I would also like to ask what sort of advice you have for young readers and writers that are out there, because I think now is such an interesting time in their development.
ARNOLD: The thing about being a human, is that children are whole people already. They are not practiced people or partial people, or vessels waiting to be filled. Children are whole people, and at a very young age, almost immediately, they’ve experienced so many of the core human emotions, right? Love, contentedness, fear, anger. The things that make us human, make all of us human. From children all the way to one hundred and four year old wonderful people like Beverly Cleary. So I think paying attention to the things that make us essentially human, those human core emotions, and centering them in your writing, paying attention and writing about them is enough. A book, a story, does not have to be a grand adventure that takes place in a far away space with dragons— although I love those books, too. A true story about what it feels like to be locked in your house with your baby sister on day seventeen of the pandemic, and what happened on that day is enough. It’s a whole world, so all the major human experiences kiddos, you have them already. You are a human, and a storyteller already. You don’t have to wait to be a grown-up to tell your story. You don’t have to wait until your spelling and your handwriting are perfect to tell your story. Another thing I would tell students and readers of all ages is that I do not make a book, I write a story. That’s all I do, and I have missed handwriting. And I’m a lefty, so I get pen all over when I write with my hand. I very much encourage children not to compare their stories to finished books, because when I was a kid I would look at books on shelves, and say I could never do that. And the truth was, I was right. I never could. I am not a printer. I am not an illustrator, luckily for the wonderful Charles Santoso who illustrated these. I am not an editor. I am not a packager of books. I am just a teller of stories, so all you have to do, children, is tell your story. And if you continue to tell stories then gain momentum over time, and over time, if you want to share your stories in various ways, you can do so. Zoom is actually a great way to share stories. So you don’t need to think that because you can’t make a whole packaged book, you’re not a writer. You’re a storyteller if you tell stories, even if you don’t put them on paper. And all of us, I think, are storytellers— stories connect us all.
GRANT: I think that is brilliant advice. And even as a young adult, myself, I would take that advice because it’s so true. The power of collaboration is just a beautiful thing, and that’s why I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to interview you. That’s all my questions, but that was absolutely wonderful, and you are a profound woman.
ARNOLD: Well thank you very much, Chloe. I appreciate that very much. And I’m so excited that you are going to be out there telling your stories, and helping connect students with stories, and I really appreciate A Boy Called Bat being chosen for Read to Them’s first full family read. I’m excited to see the books that get chosen and selected next, and after that, and after that. So, yeah. We’re all stuck at home, so we may as well pick up a book and share it with someone we love.