I interviewed author and illustrator J. Scott Fuqua about his book, Calvert the Raven in The Battle of Baltimore. The book focuses on Baltimore during the War of 1812 to teach history student Daniel that despite what he believes history isn’t boring.
Is it difficult writing to a young audience in terms of tone and maturity?
Not really… Maybe I’m just immature, but it’s easier, and often a bit more comfortable to write from a child’s point of view. I actually enjoy approaching the world in a wondering, concerned, confused, and very wide-eyed way. It’s just cool to be able to see something amazing for the first time, to acquire knowledge so easily, and to speak your mind about topics that you don’t understand or find boring. At the same time, I in know way believe that kids are all the same. I know that many young people are cowed by anxiety, social issues, and stress at home. Still, there is a magic and joy to youth that I try to acknowledge. In other books I deal with the more difficult issues, subjects that also come to me without too much difficulty what with the fact I had a very difficult and unique childhood.
The War of 1812 is not well remembered what made you focus on that?
I focused on the War of 1812 for two reasons: The first is because it is always sort of thrown in with all that junk around the 4th of July, the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary war. But it really is it’s own thing. War had changed. This country had changed. At the same time, the United States was walking the line between success and failure. It was a strange, very important moment in history for the world that very few people acknowledge. And the second reason I focused on the war of 1812 is sort of my own hang up. I believe that kids and their parents sort of relegate the birth of this nation to mythology, to huge important people doing huge, breathtaking things, the type of which nobody in this day and age could ever manage. But this isn’t true, so I tried to show the readers and Daniel, the boy in the story, that life then is as real as life now, that everyone, from kids to adults, was at risk, that real people sweated in their wool clothing, that real people fought exhaustion, pain, fear, and discomfort to do something, on an individual level, that is about finding the emotional strength necessary to make something that is unlikely, like a victory in Baltimore, come true.
There are probably a ton of ideas you have for children’s books, how do you decided which ones to actual write and illustrate?
I decide what to write by choosing the stories I like the most. But I’ve always written what I’ve wanted. I’ve always done that. I mean, writing is not a hugely lucrative career, so, if you can’t live in an exclusive neighborhood or go out to dinner at expensive restaurants (which I wouldn’t want to do anyway), then you might as well do what you want. Also, I write very issue driven work, the type of books and stories that deal with the things that I feel are important for kids and adults to consider, like race, mental illness, bullying, history, capitalism, and even death. I mean, I really do what I want to most of the time.
Which do you find more challenging the writing or the art?
Well, to be honest, writing is harder. Writing is about a few things, saying well and saying correctly and, most importantly, saying uniquely (or oddly, which is what I attempt to do). Strangely enough, I don’t love singers who have typical pop-star voices. I can’t stand them. I want something different and original, even if it has a few warts. I’m the same way with writing. So writing can be harder, while the art feels more like exciting, difficult, and sometimes maddening play. I enjoy the art enormously, because when I produce my art, I just let my brain go and try to create something that is always visually surprising. So both writing and illustration are wonderful professions, and rewarding in their very different ways, yet I find writing more challenging and difficult than illustration. It just is.
Did you doodle as a kid in class and if so did you send copies of your books to the teachers who told you to stop?
Doodled all of the time… I couldn’t hear well if I wasn’t doodling, then, in order to keep my attention, the teachers would tell me to stop or take away my drawing paper and I went nearly deaf. Nothing made sense anymore.
As for going back and giving teachers who told me to stop doodling one of my books, I haven’t. However, once I enjoyed telling a former teacher that I had become a successful writer. The reason I was so happy is that I am dyslexic, and, in high school, a few teachers kind of shook their heads and thought I was a lazy at spelling and memorizing math formulas, and believed out-loud that I wouldn’t amount to much in regards to an education or intellectual acuity. And that teacher was one of those individuals, the rat.
You have an affinity for Maryland, will you be making a children’s book of The Wire?
Hmm, a children’s book about the wire. Maybe. Well, at least about kids and the hopelessness of living in a world overrun by violence and joblessness and drugs. I’d like to write something like that, because, no matter what kind of information folks unfamiliar with city life are presented with, when they don’t see it personally, they can’t as clearly understand how oppressive and impossible it is to overcome a world like that. Of course, I think there is hope, but I don’t think we’re doing a very good job of getting that across right now. I mean, if I could earn seven dollars an hour dunking frozen French fries into bubbling oil tanks or a few hundred in an afternoon selling, I’d probably start selling too. Of course I wasn’t presented with this scenario as a kid. I can still imagine the calm of a decent home. I knew I was going to college. So, the question becomes: What if you didn’t know where you’d be in a few months (dead, jailed, fearful, bullied, trapped, hungry) much less four to five years from now?