Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Great Kid Books talks with Annie Barrows, author of Ivy & Bean

The best, the absolutely best sound in the world is hearing a kid suddenly laugh out loud while they're quietly reading to themselves.  It can be a low chuckle, a loud guffaw or a quiet giggle to themselves.  I love books that combine laugh-out-loud moments with the ah-ah moment  "that could really happen to me!"  Annie Barrows creates wonderful humor in her series Ivy and Bean.  I was thrilled to be able to talk with Annie about writing this series, and her experience as a mother helping her children develop a love of reading.

Ivy and Bean are two best friends who find out that they make a great pair, in part because they like getting into mischief.  But also, they are such good friends precisely because they're so different.  They get themselves into all sorts of adventures, wind up in trouble and then figure a way out.  Annie Barrows creates spot-on humor for children just becoming interested in chapter books.

Great Kid Books: What inspired you to write the first Ivy and Bean book, especially as a chapter book for younger readers?
Annie: It all started when my daughter was 6 1/2, at the end of 1st grade.  After we read the Magic Tree House series and Junie B. Jones, we ran out of stuff to read. There was a big, empty hole.  I was looking for a chapter book that was age appropriate and at the right reading level.  I was floundering around the library looking for something - something that was more than easy readers and not the full blown novels for older children.  I thought, "Something needs to be done about this!  This is terrible!" Then I thought: "Wait a moment, I'm a writer.  Maybe I should write a book for these kids."

For this age group, children like stories that reflect their own reality.  Later on, books for children get so heavy.  I wanted to create a light-hearted experience, something that was fun to read.

Great Kid Books: Do you draw on any of your own childhood experiences when you're writing?
Annie: Oh, yes.  I steal from my daughters' experiences.  I watch the kids around me.  The years I was developing Ivy and Bean were the years I spent hours on the playground, at the park, on play dates with my daughters.  The plot lines also come from things that I did as a kid.  Doomed to Dance came from my own experience wanting desperately to dance, and then finding out that it was so unbelievably boring that I didn't know what to do with myself.

Great Kid Books: What are some of the challenges of keeping a series fresh and exciting as you write sequels?
Annie: It is something I think about a lot. I think the challenge is not to write to write to grown ups, but to kids.  It's easy to amuse myself as a grown up, but I have to ask myself, "What do the kids want?"  I try to get back to the kid level, the kid brain.  What do the kids I know want?  Amusement for grown ups in Ivy and Bean is often the discrepancy between what Ivy and Bean think and what we know as grown ups.
But for kids, the humor is often in seeing that Ivy and Bean make their games work.  It's a subversive sense of humor, but not enough to upset the world around them, not enough to break anything irreparably.  Ivy and Bean have enough power to make the world they envision, but not enough to change the order of the world they live in.  Kids like physical humor, but they also like seeing that Ivy and Bean can create solutions that are real solutions.

Great Kid Books:  What authors or books influenced you as an early reader?
Annie:  So many.  My favorite book of all time was Little Women.  But I read it way too soon.  At seven, I was very confused about Beth dying.  The book said she "went out with the tide" and I thought, Gee, that's a funny time to go on vacation.  This experience is something I try to keep in mind when I'm writing for kids--don't get too figurative on them.

I loved books by Edgar Eager and the Little House books.  But the most influential books for me as a writer of Ivy and Bean were the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace.  They have the same basic structure as Ivy and Bean: two girls who don't really like each other become friends.  They are masters of their very small world. They reimagine and repurpose the stuff of daily life.  They have adventures--no real peril but lots of creativity.  I always found that very satisfying.

Great Kid Books:  Now that your children are older, do you still read together?
Annie:  Yes.  I am trying to prolong this forever.  My oldest is now 13 and is mainly reading by herself.  But my 9 year old loves to draw--it's her favorite thing.  And my favorite thing is to read aloud to her.  So I read aloud to her while she draws.  I also push the reading level a little - the books I read are a little bit longer than she would read on her own.  Right now we're reading the most fabulous book, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier.  It's set in Transylvania, but there are no vampires!  It's a cross between the story of the twelve dancing princesses and the frog prince.

Great Kid Books:  What advice do you have for parents as they try to share the love of reading with their children, and as they look for books to read with their children?
Annie: There is something I did when my children were little.  Whenever they asked me to read to them, I stopped whatever I was doing and read to them.  It was a surefire way of getting my undivided attention, and I think that created a good strong bond with books.

It's important to choose books that aren't just the classics.  I try to choose books to read with my children that are fun and funny, to mix in all sorts of different books.  I still read picture books with my daughter.  I don't think reading should be a lesson.  It should be something we turn to for joy.  Sometimes it should just be restful.

Great Kid Books: Thank you so much for your time, and for all that you give our kids.

Ivy and Bean books are available at your local bookstore or library.  If you make a purchase by clicking through to Amazon, Great Kid Books receives a small percentage, which will be used to buy more books to review.


  1. Little girls get so excited when they see this series. The other day a customer came in with the name of a book on a piece of paper.

    It was Doomed to Dance.

    Thanks for this interview Mary Ann, sometimes its nice to see where the stories come from.

  2. I am so glad that Mary Ann mentioned her love of the Betsy-Tacy books, by Maud Hart Lovelace. Those were my absolute favorite books as a young girl, and they are timeless and lovely. I know this is all about children's books, but everyone should also read Mary Ann's book, "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society". It's so wonderful!

  3. Ooops! So sorry -- I meant to say Annie, not Mary Ann. Mary Ann was her aunt, with whom Annie co-wrote the Guernsey book. Sorry! I haven't had my coffee yet today.

  4. My daughter is stuck in that void you describe right now and she LOVES Ivy and Bean, We just finished Doomed to Dance and laughed out loud all through.

    Thanks so much for a great interview.

  5. We, too, are in love with Ivy and Bean. My daughter waited with such anticipation for Doomed to Dance and she laughed aloud all the way though it... and I couldn't wait until she was done so I could hear her tell me what happened. (And then read it for myself!) Thanks for these wonderful books.

  6. We are in love with Ivy and Bean ... my daughter talked about it so much at school that the librarian bought the complete set. Now they're BOTH giggling all the time!

  7. So nice to learn more about this delightful series. Yay for Ivy and Bean!

  8. My daughter and I also went through that exact same drama, not finding anything age-appropriate past Junie B. and Judy Moody. We've loved reading Ivy and Bean together! Thank you Annie for creating this wonderful series! I loved the Guernsey letters as well. Great interview!

  9. I just received this nice email:

    I loved the first Ivy and Bean the minute I saw it because of the cover. But the writing is so kid-real that I fell in love with the story as well. Very interesting to read your thoughts on series and how you do research on play dates and in the park, Annie. That probably contributes to that ‘realness’ I so appreciated in your book.

    Thanks for a very interesting interview, Annie and Mary Ann.

    ~ Joan Holub

  10. I've got to get my hands on the Ivy and Bean books! Thanks for this interview. :)

  11. I love your first sentence, about hearing kids laugh out loud when they're reading. And I really enjoyed the interview, especially the bits about how Annie encouraged her own kids as readers. Thanks!

  12. Great interview! About a month or so ago after feeling the same big hole, my 6 year old daughter and I discovered the Ivy + Bean series. I can't sing this series enough praise. I recommend it to every friend with a daughter of the same age. It is written perfectly to suit my daughter, her age and her interests. And reading it I've also recalled so many fond memories of time spent with my childhood friends.

    My daughter and I read through the first 5 books in the series in about a month. The 6th book is sitting on the shelf. We can't bear to read it without a 7th waiting in the wings. Luckily, there's a sneak preview of the next Ivy + Bean adventure tucked away in the back of the book. Dare I say..write Annie write!

    Coincidentally, I just recently wrote a recommendation for "Ivy + Bean" on simplekids.net. Have I mentioned how much I love this series? ;-)