I have a two-year-old son. He is very cute. He is also the most stereotypical boy reader I’ve ever encountered in my life. Trucks, trains, construction equipment, you name it. Unsurprisingly he’s also keen on community workers so every other day we read through Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. Or, when we’re feeling a bit jaunty, we’ll reach for Everything Goes On Land by Brian Biggs. Combine that with his other relatively new obsession with the Brownie and Pearl books (also illustrated by Mr. Biggs) and you’ll understand that Chez Bird is The House That Biggs Built.
When I heard that Mr. Biggs had a new series coming out from Abrams called Tinyville Town, I was naturally curious. What’s interesting about the books and the series is that rather that conform to the usual Scarry model, the stories examine “the city” as a concept in and of itself. So we had a talk about it and the more he spoke about it, the more interesting it became. The end result is this interview. Bear in mind that this isn’t just about Brian’s work on the series. In the course of this interview he delves into some really interesting ideas about the influence of Italo Calvino, city planning, what Sesame Street did along these same lines, and what we mean when we say something is “timeless”. I urge you to pay particular attention to what he has to say about gender roles and picture books as well.
By the way, I usually do interviews where the interviewer (me) and the interviewee (in this case, Mr. Biggs) are represented solely by their initials. Today, for obvious reasons, that’s not going to work out.
Betsy Bird: I’m interested in how this series tackles the idea of “the city” as more than just one of those random places that people live. Historically, Americans mostly lived in the country. Now we mostly live in cities but books that convey how interconnected we all are to one another there aren’t all that common. So what was the impetus for starting this series in the first place? And what, if you’ll forgive me, makes it different from your average everyday Richard Scarry fare?
Brian Biggs: To be honest, the argument could be made that the impetus for Tinyville Town came from a blog-entry you wrote about Everything Goes back in 2011. That series was definitely about vehicles, but I think you were on to something when you wrote that the first book, Everything Goes On Land, was really about my love for cities. Three years later, when I was playing with the idea of a series of little books about people and their jobs, it occurred to me that this, too, was potentially an excuse to draw another city and explore the streets and buildings within.
I’d put it on the record that Italo Calvino is just as big an influence here as Richard Scarry, and that’s not something you can say for just any board-book for three-year-olds. I read Invisible Cities when I was living in Paris, in 1991, just after college, and the book adjusted the way I looked at these random places that people live, as you write. I could close one eye, and Paris was a chaotic mass of people moving about, with no order, no sense. I could look with the other eye, and it was a latticework of streets and alleys with recognizable patterns and clear intents of the designers. I could squint, and imagine the connections between people in my neighborhood, from the taxi drivers to the family that ran the Chinese restaurant below my building to the woman who operated the laundry across the street. I don’t want to get carried away here — Tinyville Town is not a philosophical prose poem on the nature of our existence. But when later that year I left Paris for the Fort Worth suburb of Euless, Texas, I was able to find these stories there as well. Euless and Paris are nothing alike, yet they are. People go to sleep there, and wake up there, and go to work there, and live their lives there.
When I was a kid, I watched a lot of Sesame Street. Sesame Street did a great a job of finding connections and figuring out how to make a Brooklyn city block relevant to this kid watching tv in Little Rock. That neighborhood sure looked different from my neighborhood. But what I identified with were the people who lived there and their relationships to one another. Bob and Maria and Gordon, and even Oscar and Ernie and Big Bird, interacted with one another in ways that I did and my parents did with neighbors, and the guy at the grocery store, and the mailman. It wasn’t lost on me that, years later in Texas, what Euless and Paris had in common were those same people living vastly different yet very similar lives.
So, Sesame Street is a show that teaches numbers and the alphabet, and entertains kids so their parents can get the laundry done. But it’s much more than that, isn’t it? By hanging these lessons on this setting and with these people, Sesame Street teaches us so much more. Yes, Tinyville Town began as a simple series of little books about people with jobs. A day in the life of a fire fighter, and a veterinarian, and a librarian, doing the things that these people do. And while it might be difficult to explore the nature of existence and sociology in 24 pages, I’m hoping that these influences and these roots give me a stage that’s a little bigger than what might be immediately visible, and a setting in which I might be able to do a little more than count to ten.
Betsy: You’ve done books that take broad concepts and then define them in simple terms that no one else has really thought of before. Your “Everything Goes” series, for example, was both broad and meticulous. Are you doing something similar here?
Brian: Oh, sure. At least, I hope so. The structure of the series is built on this very idea. The larger picture books in the series, “Tinyville Town Gets to Work” being the first, are about the town. How the people of Tinyville Town work together to get something done. These books are the “broad” you mention. The smaller board books are the “meticulous,” each telling the story of one citizen of Tinyville Town. Visually, Tinyville Town doesn’t fill the page the way that Everything Goes does. There aren’t the hidden details and birds with hats. The surprises reveal themselves more slowly and are more relevant to the stories of this town.
Betsy: I mentioned Scarry earlier, and I suspect that of all the classic children’s authors of the past he’s the one you get compared to the most. We’ve this feeling that he’s “timeless” in some way (though anyone who has ever eyeballed Ma Pig’s Jane Fonda-esque headband in Cars and Trucks and Things That Go would take issue with that statement). “Timeless” is a goal of a lot of authors. It’s a kind of key to perpetual publishing. Is that something you consciously think about when you make a series like this one or does it not concern you?
Brian: It does concern me, and I’ve had discussions with Traci, my editor, about ways to make Tinyville Town “timeless.” But I haven’t really worked out exactly what this means, or even whether it is a good idea or not.
For example, one of the first things I decided about this series was that there are no mobile phones in Tinyville Town. When we see a group of people standing at a bus stop waiting for the bus, they were going to be reading books and newspapers, not staring like zombies at their smart phones. I can’t tell you how long it’s been since I saw someone waiting at a bus stop with a book, but there is just something about that scene that I could not bring myself to include. On the other hand, I think readers really like to see things like that they recognize. Early on, in the first Everything Goes book, I have a driver cutting through traffic, talking on his mobile phone. Kids often point this particular detail out. They know it’s something you’re not supposed to do, and they love it on the next page when we see the same driver pulled over by the police car, getting a ticket. Twenty years from now, will a reader know what the heck is going on there? Will we get pulled over in the future for talking to our robot helpers on our telepathic com-links while our automated flying Google cars get us from place to place? Will this scene render Everything Goes dated and dull?
When I was researching firefighters for Tinyville Town, I learned that firehouses aren’t built with sliding poles any more, for insurance reasons. And the firehouses that do have them, don’t use them. But when you talk to kids about fire stations, a pole is still among the first things they want to see. I gotta have that pole, even though it’s an anachronism. So, what is it that makes a book “timeless,” anyway? Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. I had no idea what a steam shovel was, and that book was big-time dated when I read it in the 1970s. But I loved it. It’s timeless. Not because a steam shovel was still a relevant piece of cool construction technology, but because the theme of “new and improved” versus familiar and reliable, and the David and Goliath story buried in that book will always be relevant.
Betsy: So I did this post the other day about gender and how construction workers (and even their equipment) are shown to be both male and female or simply male. Some folks wrote in saying they’d never seen a female construction worker in all their livelong days. You, however, do give professions of every sort dual genders (I was always quite grateful for the female pilot in Everything Goes in the Air). How do you reconcile this with a real world that isn’t always as gender neutral as we’d like it to be?
Brian: I’m going to quote a friend here, who told me that “even if it isn’t seen, that doesn’t mean it’s right and it doesn’t mean things should stay that way. If kids can see it, it’s easier for them to imagine being it.” This friend recently became one of the few female electrical linemen in Philadelphia. A while back, when she saw some early sketches I’d posted for I’m a Firefighter, she pointedly asked me why there were no women working at the Tinyville Town fire station. I couldn’t believe I’d let this get by me. And I was so so happy she’d pointed it out. Did I ask myself how many women really are firefighters? Do I need to go by all the fire stations in Philadelphia to see how many women work there before I can include them in my book?
This ties in directly with the discussion about timelessness, doesn’t it? Ten years ago there was this big brouhaha when someone noticed that the Busytown books he was reading to his kids were different from the ones he had when he was growing up. At some point the publisher had redrawn many of the characters and even some complete scenes to reflect a more modern sensibilty. A father bunny rabbit had joined a mother bunny rabbit in the kitchen preparing dinner. The “pretty stewardess’” job description had changed to “flight attendant” and the “pilot” was no longer “handsome.” The mouse in the canoe was no longer wearing the potentially offensive and stereotypical feathered headdress, and a menorah had been added onto the holiday celebration. These changes came along right around the time I was reading Scarry’s books to my own kids, and as a responsible parent, I was pleased. There was a part of me, the sentimental child within, that wondered if I should be angry at this absurd kowtowing to political correctness, but do I want my daughter thinking that flight attendants are supposed to be pretty? Do I want my son to think that husbands are supposed to be waited on by their wives? These books aren’t supposed to be snapshots of a particular time. They’re not Little House on the Prairie.
Before 2008, one could set a tv show in the near-but-still-far-away future by having a U.S. President be African American, or female. It was maybe somewhat conceivable, but it hadn’t happened yet. Now, there’s a fairly good chance we’re going to elect a female president this year, which would mean that in 2020 there will be a generation of kids who don’t know how impossible this so recently seemed. To these kids, those 43 previous white guys are mere history. That’s just amazing to me.
People have never seen a female construction worker? They’re not paying attention.
Betsy: What’s the ultimate goal with this series?
Brian: Well, of course, the ultimate goal is to create an entertaining, satisfying series of books that kids like to read over and over again. I actually don’t think much about teaching lessons when writing these things, and I don’t think that reflecting the world I live in, or I want my kids and eventual grandkids to live in, is any sort of political agenda, and certainly not a hidden one.
I don’t expect Tinyville Town to be some kind of a catalyst for change. Really, I just want a kid to read I’m a Firefighter, make loud siren noises as the fire truck speeds through town, and cheer when the fire at the bakery is put out at the end. If she then goes to bed thinking “I want to be that,” well, that’s just gravy, isn’t it?
I want to thank Brian for taking quite a bit of time to put down these thoughts for us today. Tinyville Town Gets to Work hits shelves September 6th alongside the board books Tinyville Town: I’m a Veterinarian and Tinyville Town: I’m a Firefighter. And yes, in case you were wondering, there is a librarian on the horizon as well: