As part of the #SchoolBooksThatRock fun over on Instagram, I started the week by promising a taste of Peter Brown’s My Teacher is a Monster! (No, I am not.). At the time, I thought that would mean writing a review. Little did I know, instead, I would get the chance to pick Peter Brown’s brain about his back to school beauty. What a treat! Without further ado, I give you Caldecott winner, Peter Brown.
TiaT: Peter, why don’t you start by telling those who haven’t read My Teacher is a Monster! (No, I am not.) a bit about the story.
PB: My Teacher is a Monster! (No, I am not.) is the story of a troublemaking student named Bobby, and his monster of a school teacher, Ms. Kirby. One Saturday morning, Bobby runs into his monster teacher in the park, which was the last place he expected to see her. But rather than run away, he sits beside her on the bench, and Bobby and Ms. Kirby have a conversation. At first, it’s a little awkward, but slowly they begin getting to know each other, as people. And by the end of their time in the park, Bobby is beginning to think maybe Ms. Kirby isn’t a monster, after all.
TiaT: Why did you decide to write about a difficult relationship between a teacher and student?
PB: Classrooms are filled with a wide variety of personalities, so there’s bound to be a little friction, here and there. But if everyone feels respected, I think those different personalities can make for an even better learning environment. So how do we make everyone feel respected? I think the best way to accomplish that is for everyone to get to know each other, as individuals. Not just as students and teachers, but as artists and readers and athletes and explorers and sons and daughters and brothers and sisters. Once everyone feels respected and accepted, including teachers, the stage is set for learning. Those are the kinds of thoughts that inspired me to write this story.
TiaT: So then, is there a monster to be found in the story?
PB: Good question. Ms. Kirby is either a very special kind of monster, who can switch between looking human and looking like a monster, OR the monster was just in Bobby’s imagination. We may never know the truth…
TiaT: Did you have a particular teacher from your childhood in mind when you wrote the book?
PB: I had a couple of “monster” teachers when I was young. But of course, once I got to know them better I realized they actually weren’t so bad. In fact, one of them did something that changed my life: after seeing how much I loved drawing, she helped me sign up for an after school art class. Suddenly, I felt like a real artist, which helped me develop a sense of confidence, which helped me focus on achieving my dreams. Even after all that, this teacher and I never got along perfectly. But at least when she was roaring at our class I knew there was another side to her.
TiaT: You have such a great feel for the nuanced relationship between teacher and student — what research did you do to be able to get this right?
PB: My mom is a teacher, many of my family members and friends are teachers, and I’ve gotten to know plenty more teachers because of my career in children’s books. So I interviewed quite a few teachers while developing this book. I asked about how they handle difficult students, and more importantly, I asked them about their own childhood experiences with difficult teachers. I also interviewed a handful of children. I was a little worried that perhaps there were no more “monster” teachers left, and kids today wouldn’t understand what I was getting at with this book. But as it turns out, “monster” teachers still lurk in the halls and classrooms of even the best schools. Which makes me happy. For a well-rounded education, you have to learn how to deal with “monsters.”
TiaT: How did you decide what Ms. Kirby was going to look like?
PB: That was tricky because there are two Ms. Kirbys: The monster version and the human version. The two versions had to be similar to each other, but not TOO similar. It took a while to work out her design. Ms. Kirby is only about thirty years old, but to a 2nd grader, a thirty-year-old seems ancient. My dad used to describe unpleasant old people as “dinosaurs,” and I eventually decided to make the monster teacher look like a dinosaur: green, scaly, big teeth, and claws. But what about the human version of Ms. Kirby? I decided to put her in a conservative black dress, to reinforce that she’s a little old-fashioned. And then I made her face plain, but kind. I liked the idea that she was actually a normal looking person, but Bobby’s imagination was so big that it distorted her into looking completely different.
Here’s a look at the evolution of Ms. Kirby from Peter’s sketchbook:
TiaT: Can you let us in on what you are currently working on?
PB: I recently published my first novel for children, The Wild Robot, which was a really exciting challenge. And now I’m working on the sequel, which doesn’t have a title yet. The first book is about a robot named Roz, who’s stranded on a remote, wild island, and learns how to survive by studying and befriending the wildlife. I don’t want to spoil the story, so I can’t say much more than that. But the first book has a very open ending, and book two will, I hope, bring a satisfying resolution. I’ve had to do much more research for these books than for my picture books, which has been so much fun. If I hadn’t studied art I was planning on studying zoology, or technology, and these books have allowed me to rekindle those old interests.
Also, I recently finished illustrating the sequel to Creepy Carrots!, which is entitled Creepy Pair of Underwear!. Both books are written by Aaron Reynolds. Each story is about a rabbit named Jasper who’s being haunted by ridiculous, silly things. These books have been a lot of fun to illustrate, they’re basically paranoid thrillers, film noir in picture book form.