SLJ talks to writers Bruce Coville and Elizabeth Levy, coauthors of Amber Brown Is Tickled Pink (Putnam, 2012), a tribute to their dear friend and “Amber Brown” creator, Paula Danziger, who passed away in 2004.
Tell us about your relationship with Paula.
Coville: Paula was my best friend. She was also Liz’s best friend. Liz and I have long referred to ourselves as “the other best friend.” Starting in 1992, Paula and I read our works in progress to each other, commenting, teasing, tweaking as we did. I heard every word of the “Amber Brown” books as she wrote them, just as she heard every word of whatever I was working on. We developed a total, raw trust in each other. It was a glorious thing.
Levy: Paula and I were a great example of grown-ups getting over the ‘hump’ from “we should get together” to intimate good friends. Because we both started in children’s books in the 1970’s, we’d see each other at conventions, be on panels about humor, hang out in each other hotel’s room, and say, “We have to see each other in the city.” Finally one day in the 90s, Paula said, “you and I have to put up or shut up.” After that, I don’t think a day went by that we didn’t talk, not just about work, but about love and family and friendship.
How did Amber Brown is Tickled Pink come about?
Levy: Paula and I shared the same agency, Writers House. [Literary agents] Amy Berkower and Jodi Reamer asked if I would consider continuing the series, both for the many readers who miss Amber and for her family. I wasn’t sure, but then I thought if Bruce and I could do it together, we might be able to recreate the fun and joy of being with Paula. Especially during Paula’s last illness, Bruce and I developed our own friendship—always remembering Paula’s words: it’s okay if you love each other, just don’t love each more than you love me. I was tickled ‘pink’ when Bruce, after some hesitations, agreed that we should try it.
How difficult was it to take over a well known kid lit character?
Coville: The challenge, the only real challenge—but an extremely daunting one—was to be true to Paula/Amber’s voice. What made it possible was that Liz and I knew Paula and Amber so well. Liz and I both have our own style and our own voice. To write this book, we had to let go of those things and surrender to Paula’s voice. It was both scary and oddly liberating to do so.
Levy: Although I had read all the books, I didn’t know them as intimately as Bruce did, since Paula had literally read each word out loud to Bruce. I reread them all and I saw that Paula had created an arc for Amber, living through her parents’ divorce, surviving change. Actually, to my surprise, in the books, Paula had laid out an outline for future books and Paula didn’t like outlines unless she could scrapbook them. Also, Margaret Firth, Paula’s long time editor and friend, created an Amber bible for us, and the fact that she and Susan Kochan, Paula’s editors at Penguin, know the books so well has certainly helped.
Did you find yourself asking “What would Paula Do?”
Coville: Constantly. Paula was the third presence in the room at all times.
Levy: But, not being Paula, we haven’t gone online and ordered ‘WWPO” bracelets, but of course it’s never too late.
There’s very little mention of technology in the book. What that a conscious decision?
Coville: It’s a constant struggle. When do the Amber stories take place? Paula was working on the first one in 1992, twenty years ago. The world has rolled on, but Amber is only about a year older. We’re slowly trying to merge technology in, without violating the feeling of the series as it exists so far. It helps that Amber is young enough that it is not unrealistic for her not to have her own computer or cell phone, though that is rapidly changing.
Levy: We kind of inch our way through it, but really the stories and friendships are so strong, that it’s more fun to get Amber together with her friends in one room or on the phone. And the truth is Paula loved the telephone.
Is there a real Amber Brown?
Coville: Oh, yes! Paula modeled Amber on her niece, Carrie. It was Carrie’s grief at learning that one of her closest friends would be moving out of town combined with Paula’s pain at learning that she would be losing one of her dearest friends to HIV/AIDS that led to the first Amber book, Amber Brown is Not a Crayon. Carrie continued to inspire other aspects of the series as well. The happy footnote to that is that Carrie now teaches in international schools and has been based in Taiwan and Egypt. Paula would be inordinately proud of her.
Can you tell us what the writing process was like as coauthors of this book?
Coville: Liz said from the beginning that we were going to do this as if we were writing a play in the old George S. Kaufmann/Moss Hart-style of collaboration. We did not use fax or email. Instead we sat together at the big kitchen table in Liz’s apartment, each of us at our own laptop, discussing and typing, and then rediscussing and comparing what we had written. And, really, it was a three-way collaboration, because we were always aware of Paula, and trying to be true to what she would have done at each juncture of the story.
Paula loved to bring in the things around her, things she was experiencing, as she wrote. I think the most “Paula moment” in our writing was when we took a break and walked over to the Rickshaw Dumpling Bar for lunch. When the cashier offered another customer a “Frequent Dumpling Card” we could hardly wait to get back to Liz’s place to work that into the book. It made for a lovely chapter, and the process was pure Paula.
Levy: I am so excited that it actually worked. It’s like having a wonderful daydream come true, and isn’t that why we all fell in love with our field of writing for children in the first place?
Can either of you take ownership of any particular part of the book?
Coville: The series was clearly heading toward Amber’s mom getting remarried, and we knew that would be the crux of this book. As it happens, my youngest son had gotten married less than a year before we started work on the book. Because his bride was from Australia but they were being married here, my wife and I put on the wedding. So I had had several months of close-up observation of what goes into putting on a wedding and what some of the issues and traumas were likely to be. Very specifically, the wonderful couple who performed the music for the wedding became the models for Herman and Rose in the book. But, really, I think we work so closely that by the time we’re done it’s hard for us to say who put what into the story.
Levy: Well, in the new book Amber is facing moving out of her old house. At this very moment, I had to clean out my apartment for a renovation, and am surrounded my boxes. I have no trouble conjuring up Amber’s hate of boxes, and lack of focus. I would make a focus pun, but it wouldn’t be publishable.
What were some of the unusable Amber Brown titles you came up with?
Coville: Now that is a very impolite, but very amusing question. The answer to the precise question is “No, I don’t think there are any we can share, as they were mostly not fit for polite company.” I can tell you that now that we’re working on a new volume current events have intruded, and we keep talking about writing “Fifty Shades of Amber.” But I didn’t say that, and I’ll deny it if you quote me.
Levy: Bruce let the ‘cat-of-nine-tails’ out of the bag.
So there’s another Amber Brown in the works?
Coville: Absolutely! We’re working on it right now. Watch this space for further developments.
What do you think Paula would say about “Tickled Pink”?
Coville: I hope she would feel that we had been true to the series and captured her voice. But I also know that she would have been deeply annoyed that she wasn’t here to write the book herself.
Levy: And she would have included more crafts project and shopping!
How is Amber Brown different from the books you each write?
Coville: Well, in my case, it’s the fact that Amber is so grounded in the real world. I could not bring in aliens, monsters, or ghosts, all the tropes I love to play around with. Amber’s world is fourth grade as it really is. Fortunately, I spent four years as a fourth grade teacher, so even though I had to let go of my beloved monsters, I was not totally at sea.
Levy: Amber is a challenge to me because she is so unafraid of honesty. Often, my characters take a whole novel to face their problems. That’s why I love mysteries. It gives my characters something to do, while they’re inching their way to coming to terms with who they really are. On the other hand, “I, Amber Brown,” tells you what she is thinking from the get-go. I’ve come to love her.
What books do you each have in the works?
Coville: This fall I have a book called Always October coming out. It is a total fantasy-weirdo-monster adventure, the polar opposite of what Liz and I were trying for with Tickled Pink. I just finished directing a full cast recording of it, and I’m feeling pretty happy with it.
Levy: I’ve actually gone back to my Jewish roots and written a time travel book about Levi-Strauss. I’ve always been fascinated that something so quintessentially American as the blue jean was started by an immigrant Jew. And Levi was also a great philanthropist. It’s a new series based on the very old idea of Tikkun Olum, “Repair the World.” And since I’m an old Jew, yes, it does have jokes.