Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the January edition of my Bartography Express newsletter, which you can sign up for here.
My two-question Q&A this month is with author Abigail Rayner and illustrator Molly Ruttan. Abigail and Molly are the creators of the new picture book I Am a Thief!, a tale of light thievery by a girl named Eliza — and her subsequent emotional turmoil — that was published last September by NorthSouth Books.
Kirkus Reviews awarded the book a star, saying, “This humorous story speaks to anyone who has made a regrettable mistake.”
I’m giving away a copy of I Am a Thief! to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want to be that winner, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on January 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.
In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Abigail Rayner and Molly Ruttan.
Chris: If a young reader were to ask you, the creators of I Am a Thief!, if you yourselves ever stole anything and how did that work out for you, how would you plead?
Author Abigail Rayner; image by Karin Belgrave Photography
Kids are usually too busy telling me what they have stolen to care about my petty crimes. But if they asked, I would plead guilty for sure.
I often open a reading by explaining the inspiration for I Am a Thief! which was my own act of thievery. I stole a magnet from my teacher’s desk when I was about six. (The nerve!) The teacher made everyone stay behind until the thief owned up. It was humiliating and frightening, and I cracked after about five seconds.
Many years later, when my own child tearfully confessed to stealing something — two full years after it happened — I realized something: We are far too quick to judge children for a mistake so many of us make.
We are horrified if our child steals something because it makes us look bad! Kids don’t have the context, or the self-control that adults have, and we need to help them learn why stealing is wrong in a non-judgmental way.
The book is not just about stealing, but about shame. The point is to foster empathy and give kids a safe place to talk about tricky mistakes.
Molly: When I’ve read I Am a Thief! to kids I’ve had a similar experience to Abi — it really gives them permission to talk about their own petty crimes!
But I’ve found the same is true with the adults! Even when I was working on the book, and would mention the project to adult friends, they would spontaneously tell me their story. The same thing now happens at book signings. Even as adults we appear to still be processing the shame and judgment we felt as kids, even as we tell our stories with a smile.
So, I completely agree with Abi — we are way too quick to judge kids for the mistakes they make. We have all been there! What kind of difference would it have made to all the adults walking around, still carrying around that shame, if they had been treated differently as kids? I think every opportunity we can take with kids to talk things out and explore feelings should be cherished, and this book provides one of them!
All that being said, I was a very shy kid; I barely spoke and avoided attention at all cost. I never stole a thing, or if I did I have no memory of it!
But, I might have to plead guilty to this: I have an identical twin sister, and one thing I clearly remember happened on the last day of school in first grade. My sister’s teacher stopped me in the hall, thinking I was her. I was too shy to correct her, so I sort-of stole her identity for a few minutes while the teacher poured out compliments about how I was so creative and such a nice kid to have in class! (Who knows if my own teacher would have said those things to me!)
I remember feeling so embarrassed and uncomfortable, I’m not even sure I told my sister! Eventually I learned to speak up, but not speaking up that time, and stealing my sister’s glory like that, felt as shameful to me as if I had stolen an object.
Chris: I appreciate both of you coming clean, but as Eliza realizes in I Am a Thief!, “Nobody is just a thief. Everyone is a lot of things!” So, what are some other things that you are?
Illustrator Molly Ruttan
I’m so glad you asked this question, because this is my favorite part of the story, when Eliza has that realization. She has realized that — like the stone she impulsively stole — people
People can be different things to different people, and different things to themselves, in different situations. Plus, even as we are all so many different things from each other, we are also so many of the same things.
I love that Abigail didn’t shy away from introducing such a deep and beautiful concept in a children’s book. Talk about providing opportunity for inspired conversations with kids!
Anyway, yes — I, too, have many facets. I will share a few of my favorites!
First, as I mentioned earlier, I am a Twin! I’ve been one my whole life, haha! Next:
I am an Artist! … OK, obviously. But being an artist is also something I have been my whole life. :)
I am a Mother to three wonderful (grown-up) kids.
I am a Wife to my childhood sweetheart, Gabe, who is an amazing guitar player and a brilliant audio engineer.
I am a Singing Drummer in an eclectic folk-rock band called New Garden. We started out here in Los Angeles, but now occasionally perform around Boulder, Colorado, where my twin sister Linda (who is also in the band) and the singer-songwriter (her husband) live. I’m self-taught am have been playing since I was a teenager.
I am a Percussionist and Backup Singer in an art-rock band called Phideaux. (Linda and Gabe are also in this band.) One of our albums just got on Consequence of Sound’s list of 10 Progressive Rock Concept Albums Every Music Fan Should Own.
I am a Singer in a community choir run by a fantastic school called The Silverlake Conservatory.
I am a Pillion — someone who rides on the back of a motorcycle (piloted by Gabe) on day trips and camping trips! Oh, yes —
I am a Camper, too!
I am a Vegetarian…
I am an Animal Lover and caretaker to three dogs, a cat, and a rabbit (my sweet animal babies).
I am a Table-Top Gamer — as in sudoku, crosswords, and jigsaw puzzles!
And last but definitely not least, the obvious: I am an Illustrator and Writer of Children’s Books!
Some of my earliest, most vivid memories are of poring over the illustrations in books. I also spent many hours creating my own little books with folded paper, staples, and magic markers. I’m super excited about my new book coming out in May, called The Stray (with Nancy Paulsen Books), which I both wrote and illustrated.
I also have to mention that, until very recently, I was a Caregiver to my wonderful elderly mother, who lived with us and brought grace and love into our home for 14 years. She passed away in October.
So, these “things” are at the top of my list. Of course I am many other things too — aren’t we all? We’re all human!
I’ll end with a confession — I had to look up “Pillion” and “Table-Top Gamer.” Who knew there were names for those?
Abigail: Molly makes my heart sing when she talks about our book! It was Molly who made the connection between facets in a jewel and the sides to people’s personalities, and I love it. At readings, I like to pause on this beautiful spread and talk about it with the kids.
So, my list of things:
I am a mother to two children. Both of my published picture books were inspired by my kids. They are hilarious, caring, and wonderful company, and have revealed to me a kind of love that is so deep and pure that it is… terrifying. (Thanks, a lot!)
I am a wife to Jon, a talented percussionist turned library IT professional (with obligatory, but superior, tattoos). Jon travels a lot and cannot sit still without coding. But we forgive him because he also makes a pretty mean mince pie, and his grown-up job pays the bills.
I am a Brit. I was born in Manchester, England, and grew up in York and Chelmsford, near London. I moved to the US when I was 26, and December was my 20th in the states. (I hope no one here can do maths).
I am a writer. For me, writing is something I am compelled to do. If I don’t write, I start to get grumpy, like a jogger with a bum knee. I’ve been writing since I knew how, and making stories since before then.
I am an artist. As a child, I spent hours drawing. I thought it would be my life. I did go to art school, but found a degree course that allowed me to focus on writing and visual arts. As I go about my day, I often stop in my tracks to marvel at an ice-encrusted leaf, a dog’s expression, or peeling bark in the woods, and my hand grasps for a pencil. I don’t draw enough, but I’m planning on taking a drawing class this winter.
I am a walker and hiker. One of the (many) great things about having dogs is that they need to be walked. We are always out exploring in the woods near my house, or following a nearby trail. I am lucky enough to live at the foot of the Sourland Mountains in New Jersey, and I am surrounded by trees and wildlife. I hike with a good friend, and we recently drove down to the Pinelands in South Jersey. It was all fir trees and sand underfoot. For most of it, we were completely alone and it felt like entering another world. I always considered myself a city girl, but as I get older, I am increasingly more content in the middle of a forest. Sometimes, I wish I could live in a tree.
I am a journalist. I worked for The London Times and The Financial Times as a reporter in London, and then in New York. Once a journalist, always a journalist. I still think like a reporter, and when big news stories break, I feel an ache to chase them.
I am an animal lover. My dogs — a rescue from Puerto Rico named Ruby Maria Pickaxe, and a goldendoodle called Pearlie Queen Peach (thanks kids) — are a big part of my life. Their unconditional love is pure gold, and their goofy antics keep us laughing when times are tough. (And if Pearl could stop peeing on the sofa when she gets excited, that would be great!) We also have a cat named George of the Basement because she hates the dogs and refuses to come out. She does a lot of loud singing so we feel her presence.
I am a celiac-mama! My daughter has celiac disease, which means I am an expert on the topic. If you ask me about it, I will talk your ear off. Having a child with celiac means planning ahead and being organized, so that your child can socialize without being poisoned! That’s a work in progress for me! Having a child with a disability, and watching her suffer (especially in social situations), is very hard, but it has made me stronger and more open to anyone with a difference.
I am a baker. When my kids were little, and there was no time to create, I poured my imagination into baking. My daughter was standing at her kiddie table stirring batter at 18 months, and yes, she ate most of it and threw the rest up the walls. I made ambitious birthday cakes, including princess castles, a Thomas train, and the universe of cake! They were not works of art, but it was fun. After my daughter was diagnosed with Celiac, baking was a challenge, but one which I took up with gusto. I was determined my child would still have fun food. Together we made unicorn cupcakes, homemade fondant, hot cross buns, chocolate-covered marshmallow reindeer pops, you name it, we brought it to the school/scout/birthday party.
I am a language lover. I can’t say I’m a linguist, because I have never mastered a second language, but my brain is like a multilingual scrapyard of Greek, Italian, French, and Spanish. I lived in Greece as a child, but forgot most of my Greek. As a reporter in New York, I took Italian lessons from an elegant and sweet Roman lady on 55th street, who gave me caffe latte and panettone, but didn’t teach me much Italian. Since America’s second language is Spanish, I took my kids to Spanish playgroup, where we learned immersion style. They are not bilingual, but definitely have a feel for Spanish and languages in general. They also switch between Brit and American accents with a seamlessness that would put Peter Sellers to shame. So, if nothing else, they’ll be able to support themselves with voice work.