The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Maggie Pouncey
A love of stories and storytelling
is one of the surest lifelong gifts you can give your children.
~ Maggie Pouncey
Maggie Pouncey was born in New York City and grew up there and in Amherst, Massachusetts, and New Haven, Connecticut. She received her B.A. and M.F.A. from Columbia University and has taught writing workshops in many contexts, from poetry workshops for third graders in Long Island, to essay writing for inmates at a medium security prison through the Bard Prison Initiative. She is the Co-Founder of Stories Bookshop + Storytelling Lab, a children’s only bookshop in Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband and two sons. Maggie is the author of the novel Perfect Reader (Pantheon 2010).
Her debut picture book, A Fort on the Moon, releases tomorrow!
Welcome Maggie thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your debut picture book and writing.
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
For the past five years I’ve been building and running Stories Bookshop and raising my kids, so I write during stolen moments, wherever and whenever I can. My favorite parts of writing are playing with language and creating relationships between characters, so I love making picture books. Also, because I’m not an illustrator, I love the collaborative element, that your vision comes fully to life through another person’s talents.
Your bookshop looks amazing! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I was a mischievous kid! I loved to climb crazy parts of my house. And once, when I was 8, my best friend and I ran away from school as a protest against a perceived injustice!
Mischievious indeed. What inspired you to write A Fort on the Moon? (How much, if at all, did Where The Wild Things Are influence your ‘did it’ or ‘didn’t it’ happen ending?)
I was inspired to write this book watching my boys, Felix and Dominic, play together. Like most kids, they are very good at playing, and they are always creating complicated games with rules I can’t totally follow, with this intuitive imaginative connection. I think of this as play intelligence and most adults kind of lose that muscle somewhere along the way (with the notable exception of children’s book illustrators who awed me in this regard every week at Storytime in our Storytelling Lab at Stories!) I think imagination is the sacred superpower of children, and I wanted to create a story to honor the imaginative bond between siblings, and all young kids who are allowed to play. As a bookseller, I was also reading many wonderful books about all the myriad ways to be a girl, and not as many about boyhood and how soulful and sensitive and brave and compassionate it could be. So I wanted to write that book.
And yes! I do indeed love Where the Wild Things Are and no doubt it was a formative early influence on my imagination, too! I love a story that doesn’t wink over a young reader’s head to the grown-ups, but instead commits fully to the world its built.
I like your premise of "soulful, sensitive, imaginative" boys. The only other one I can think of quickly is Iggy peck, Architect. What was the hardest part of writing A Fort on the Moon?
I really like writing description and I was trained to write fiction for adults where I could really let that impulse rip! I had to pare the words down a bit to leave space for the pictures.
Picture books do seem deviously simple. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
Too many favorites to name! William Stieg, Arnold Lobel, Roald Dahl, E.B. White, Maurice Sendak. As wonderful as those creators are, and as much as I still treasure their books, looking at that list with my 2020 eyes, I can’t help noticing they are all white men! I really believe we are living in a golden age of children’s books now — that was a big part of why I wanted to open a children’s only bookshop in Brooklyn—and so much of that is a direct result of the growing diversity of the storytellers. Thank goodness for that.
It'll be exciting to see where children's publishing goes from here. How has owning and operating Stories Bookshop helped you in your writing? (Did running story times help you with pacing & maintaining kid’s interest?)
Running Stories reignited every day my passion for storytelling and how important it is, especially in our screen addled age, for kids to grow up steeped in stories. We held eleven Storytimes a week, most of them staff led, one a week with an author/illustrator, and all filled with merriment and imagination and a deep, rich sense of community. We closed our brick and mortar in July due to the pandemic and I miss those times so much.
I also learned so much hand-selling my favorite picture books to customers in the shop. I learned that what customers big and small are looking for most of all is to be transported—whether in time or space, or to a new way of seeing their city or their planet or their relationships. Picture books are a form of travel—you enter a new world through the pages. We need that kind of exploration now more than ever.
I totally agree with you. Is there something you want your readers to know about A Fort on the Moon?
Mostly, I hope families find joy reading it, especially in this difficult moment! I hope kids feel admired and appreciated and seen. I aspire to be as playful and creative as the kids I know.
The brother's creativity and joy in imagination and adventure definitely shines through the book. How long did it take from first draft to publication? What was the hardest part of the process for you? The easiest?
Making books is a slow process so it took a few years. I like to fiddle with a manuscript for a long time before it feels done. It’s like a poem you can keep coming back to and refining and polishing. Then you work with an editor and wait for the illustrations and there’s copy editing and many passes back and forth. The waiting can be challenging, but also what a gift to have something as sweet as a finished book to look forward to and anticipate!
What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer? Any advice for unpublished and/or un-agented authors?
I published a novel in 2010 and when my agent first sent that manuscript out SO many editors passed on it and it was just absolutely soul crushing! But I learned so much from that hard time and its ultimately very happy ending, and in the process I got so much better at navigating rejection and keeping my head down and simply focusing on making my work as strong and true and irresistible as I possibly can. Being an artist of any sort requires both deep wells of resilience and fierce passion for doing the work, so my advice is to invite the rejection, keep sending the work out, and keep working on what you love!
Beautifully said, Maggie. Did anything about the illustrations surprise you (when you got to see them)? What is your favorite spread? [Did you have any illustrator notes in the manuscript?]
Text © Maggie Pouncey, 2020 Image © Larry Day, 2020.
Oh, it was absolute heaven to see the illustrations for the first time. I love, love, how the blue of the sky is so warm and lush – the night sky is so bright and inviting. Who wouldn’t want to try to build a fort on the moon in that world? I had written some notes about the odds and ends around the house the boys use to build their spaceship, The White Dolphin, as well as the fort, but I was open to other ideas too! Larry Day did a brilliant job drawing these fabulous inventions.
I would! How are you staying creative? Or things that you are doing to stay sane?
Not an easy task at this stage of 2020. I try to make time to play with my kids every day. I made a rule that we have to make something every day –a drawing, or a building out of Magnatiles, a silly song, or chocolate chip cookies. Reading great books helps. Also, as the days get darker earlier and we are at home a lot, lighting some candles and unplugging from our devices.
I like the idea of unplugging and playing by candle light! Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I have another picture book in the works about a mother and daughter, inspired by a silly seeming but actually rather profound word game my mom and I used to play.
That sounds intriguing. Is there something you wish you could tell your younger self or kids today?
To my younger self AND to all the kids today: You are so much stronger and braver than you know!
Last question, what is your favorite animal? Why?
We have two cats, Peach and Plum – they are brothers like Fox and Dodge, but to my knowledge they have never yet traveled to the moon.
But, you never know what cats get up to at night! Thank you, Maggie for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on A Fort on the Moon.
To find out more about Maggie Pouncey, or get in touch with her: