Artie Bennett is the executive copy editor for a children’s book publisher and he writes a little on the side (but not the backside!). He would be hailed as “the Dr. Seuss of your caboose” for his much-acclaimed The Butt Book, his first “mature” work, which published in 2010. His “number two” picture book, fittingly, was entitled Poopendous! What more fertile topic could there be but poop! His third picture book, Peter Panda Melts Down!, an adorable storybook but a departure from butts and poop, published in February 2014. Artie gets right back on track, however, with the uproarious Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My!, which disgorges in August 2014.
Artie lives deep in the bowels of Brooklyn, New York, where he spends his spare time moving his car to satisfy the rigorous demands of alternate-side-of-the-street parking and shaking his fist at his neighbors. He is pleased to share the visionary promise of The Butt Book, Poopendous!, Peter Panda Melts Down!, and Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My! with a wider audience.
The Show Me Librarian says: “Bennett’s use of rhyme is excellent; his stanzas flow and exude joviality in a manner that few writers since Dr. Seuss have truly mastered. Simply put, these books are a joy.” For more info, visit his website . . . before someone else does!
What unhealthy habit will you never give up?
Few know this about me, but in this no-holds-barred interview, I will reveal all. It pains me to fess up to a grave addiction. But I have a major ice cream habit—we’re talking twelve-step caliber!—and I require three scoops of the glorious stuff before lights-out. It’s a terrible thing this Chunky Monkey on my back, but it’s my only vice (“vice cream”?). My cholesterol has risen too high—and my doctor and I know precisely the reason why. But I’m no longer in denial. I’m now proactive! And to keep from ballooning beyond the bounds of our apartment, I now alternate my daily intake of dairy ice cream with soy-milk, coconut-milk, almond-milk, rice-milk, even hemp-milk-based (what will they think up next?) ice cream. This way I can indulge my habit in a guilt-free and gluttonous fashion. And as soon as I complete this interview, I’ll be three scoops to the wind!
What is the most interesting piece of trivia you can think of?
In researching the rather ripe subject of Poopendous!, I stumbled upon the curious fact that wombats, alone in the animal kingdom, have cube-shaped poop, described as resembling rather pungent dice. No one knows for certain why this adaptation came about, but one scientist speculated that because their poop is square, it won’t roll away in the wind—perhaps off a cliffside—and alert some passing predator to the vulnerable wombat just above. I put this fact to good use in a chant verse: “Rabbit pellets, raccoon tubes, owl whitewash, and wombat cubes!” Now, had the wombat, which is native to Australia, not been a prolific producer of peculiar-shaped poop, I don’t know what I would’ve done. I would’ve been left with three-quarters of a great verse—and despondency! Also, wombats proved the perfect solution. They’re a two-syllable animal, with the stress right where it was needed. And it’s a fun word to say. Go ahead. Try it. Amazingly, the Creator gave wombats cubic poop—and gave me the tail end of a fun and informative couplet!
What one thing have you kept over the years for no good reason?
I keep a shoebox full of old baseball cards from my boyhood, a lifetime ago. It’s not so much that they have great sentimental value, though perhaps they do. But my hope is that someday their desirability will skyrocket and I’ll be offered buckets of money to part with them. I mean, who doesn’t need a Joe Pepitone rookie card!
What is the most revolutionary TV show of all time?
We don’t have cable and, therefore, don’t watch as much TV as we should, but I can’t get enough of The Simpsons. After twenty-five years, the adventures of the original dysfunctional family and the good citizens of Springfield, USA, are still fresh and hilariously funny. The show ushered in a new era of adult animation. Just look at all the cartoons that have followed! We know the characters now, in all their complexity, so thoroughly that they almost feel like neighbors. And we see ourselves in their experiences. The mere fact that the show has survived so long is unprecedented—indeed revolutionary—itself. The colorful characters have left their mark on popular culture and shaped our language, contributing such catchphrases as “D’oh!” “Don’t have a cow, man!” and “Eat my shorts!” It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s still very good—in fact, as the plutocrat Mr. Burns would say, “Ex-cel-lent.”
What one thing is unfortunately true?
That ice cream is fattening! But seriously, folks, that children—and adults—are reading fewer books than ever. This is distressing news. And that’s why it gratifies me so when librarians and educators tell me that my books show children how much fun a book can be—and jumpstart a lifelong love of reading. After all, it’s only a small step from The Butt Book to Dostoyevsky.
What do you never leave home without?
Pen and paper. I’m constantly jotting down scraps and snippets of verses. Ideas assail me, wherever I go. They enter my head regularly and I’ve got to capture them before they evaporate. Also, I never leave home without my trusty water container, to stave off imminent dehydration.
What movie deserves a sequel?
One of my all-time favorite movies is Casablanca. It has patriotism, romance, high adventure, nail-biting suspense, a great theme song, and bursts of humor. And it’s filled with memorable quotes, such as when former antagonists Rick Blaine and Vichy captain Louie Renault walk off down the fog-shrouded runway, and Rick (Humphrey Bogart) says, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” What a magical ending to a sublime film! What makes this quote so powerful is that Rick’s and Louie’s backs are to the camera, so we never see Rick utter these words, as the music begins to swell. But now that I think about it, Casablanca is a perfect film. And a sequel would never rise to its level.
Perhaps my all-time favorite film is The Wizard of Oz. Growing up, I would await its return every spring with rapt anticipation. In fact, my forthcoming picture book, the hilarious Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My!, which publishes this August, is my homage to this cinematic gem. The title is, of course, a zany tribute to the song “Lions and Tigers and Bears (Oh My!),” which Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow break into upon hearing a frightful roar as they conjure up what horrors may await them on their journey to see the Emerald City.
If you were looking at an abstract piece of art, what would your general reaction be?
My response would be exactly what my Old World grandmother would have said when confronting a Kandinsky or a Klee: “From this, he makes a living?”
If every activity in life were an Olympic sport, what would you win the gold in?
Gymnastics features an event with the parallel bars. I would add the sport of parallel parking. I’m definitely Olympic timber, able to squeeze my Dodge Neon into the narrowest of parking spaces on my first attempt.
What expression or cliché do you find yourself saying a lot?
I avoid clichés like the plague, but I do come with pet expressions. One that I employ, perhaps a bit too much, is “Too much!” I love its pithiness and brevity—and its widespread application. There’s also a quote from Shakespeare that I’m prone to utter. Upon seeing the ghost of his murdered father, Hamlet tells Horatio, his skeptical friend, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” How true. How very, very true.
What are the biggest challenges you have had in the realm of your art?
One of my biggest challenges is self-imposed. I write exclusively in verse and am burdened with a perfectionist streak, which causes me to agonize over every single syllable. I tweak and revise endlessly until I get things just right. And then I tweak and revise some more. It’s important that my rhymes be stout and true. I abhor lazy rhymes. But perhaps even more important is that the cadence of the verses be fluid. If the stress happens to fall on the wrong syllable, the verse will jar the ear. And since I’m going to be reading it aloud, I can’t have jarring, discordant verses. They would catch in my throat. Audiences would hiss and boo. And that would never, ever do.
In my latest picture book, Peter Panda Melts Down! (which was published in February), charmingly illustrated by the virtuoso Seattle-based artist John Nez, I took on a new challenge. I felt the story needed a refrain, so I composed one—“Uh-oh. Here it comes. Here comes that frown. Peter Panda melts dowwwnnn!” In putting it together, I had to order “Rewrite!” multiple times until I had a refrain that I was fully pleased with. It gives the book a playful musicality, even beyond its being in verse. The repetition provides comfort, because children know that it’s coming. Reading it aloud is now that much more fun, for youngsters eagerly recite the refrain. And I generate some joyous surprise when I add an unexpected, jocular twist or two to the familiar refrain.
Do you do anything special to get your creative juices flowing?
Exercise. I’m a great exponent of regular exercise. I believe it’s the one true panacea. Exercise can unblock your blocks and spur creativity. And for me, exercise means getting in the swim of things. I come up with some of my choicest verses while doing my laps. I swim every weekday, faithfully, before work, though it entails getting up before the chickens. But it’s worth it. After I dry off, I expeditiously jot down any verses I may have just conjured before they slip back into the pool. And if I’m stuck on a particular verse and not content with its rhyme or rhythm, I often come up with solutions while I’m swimming. I find that swimming clears my mind, opening it up to inspiration. And while I often dread other physical activities—oh no, not the treadmill!—I never balk at my morning swim. Now, not everyone is a swimmer, so I’d recommend you unblock your blocks via your preferred sport or activity, be it motocross, marbles, or mumblety-peg!
Who do you consider a literary genius?
Dr. Seuss is certainly a literary genius and he’s been a great inspiration to me. I wrote The Butt Book with his wacky anatomical books in mind—The Foot Book, The Eye Book, The Tooth Book, The Eyetooth Book, etc. I loved these books as a lad, and I still do. In fact, I dedicated Poopendous! to him (“to Dr. Seuss, my meuss”—I think he might’ve enjoyed that little pun). His books informed my childhood and taught me the joy of wordplay. They shaped my personality. I remember how my excitement could not be contained whenever I’d bring home a new Dr. Seuss book from the library, for I knew it would take me to the outer reaches of the imagination. To my bottomless delight, several reviewers have compared me, favorably, with the good doctor. It’s enough to give me a swell head!
When did you know for certain that you wanted to pursue a career in writing? Have you ever questioned that decision?
My father worked in construction. He’d come home exhausted by the rigors of his work. But late at night, after everyone was tucked away in bed, he’d take out his composition book and write. And he wrote feverishly. Poems, short stories, novellas would pour from his pen. My dad never had the good fortune in his too-short life to see his work in print. He accumulated a drawerful of rejection slips, which arrived with great regularity. But my dad was undeterred. He kept writing, for he had something to say.
I was so proud of his doggedness. And it gave me an early regard for the power of words and the majesty of books.
My sister and I inherited my dad’s itch to write. She’s currently beavering away on her memoir, which I hope she completes soon because my porous memory is in need of refreshment. And she’s even promised to portray me in a favorable light.
When The Butt Book was published by Bloomsbury in January 2010, I was officially an author—and I couldn’t have been prouder. And when I see the smiles and hear the titters and guffaws of youngsters at my events, I’m filled anew with an unquenchable joy.
One side note has been that reviewers have mentioned how helpful Peter Panda Melts Down! can be for parents of tantrum-tossing children. And how it can introduce a discussion about difficult emotions in an easy, light-hearted way. It gladdens my heart to hear such things. And I’ve never questioned my decision to write.
How did you pick your writing genre?
There’s a juvenile delinquent lurking somewhere deep in my soul, urging me to write my superfun picture books. So I answered that still, small voice.
What are your words of wisdom for someone starting out in the field of writing?
I would tell aspiring writers to read as much as they can. It will help them find their own unique voice and give them an appreciation for a well-turned sentence. And when it comes to getting published, the watchword is “persevere,” especially in the face of rejection. Every writer experiences rejection, some more than others. All the greats had drawers crammed with rejection slips. But if you have an original voice and you have something to say, you’ll eventually find your way. Who knows? You could be the next . . . Artie Bennett!
How do you know when a book is finished?
It was easy with The Butt Book. It concludes with a flurry of wordplay, leading to “The End.” Here is the stirring finale: