April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Literary Classics, Short and Sweet with Scott Nash|Up Close

1605-UpClose_Scott-NashThe conceit of Shrunken Treasures (Candlewick, Apr. 2016) is that classic works of literature—massive novels, myths, and epic poems—can be compressed into delightful bite-size bits of nonsense, with the help of a device called a Versizer. Nash retells and brilliantly illustrates works such as Hamlet, Frankenstein, and Moby-Dick with vibrant digital cartoon art and witty, spirited verse and a healthy dash of humor.

Can you tell us a bit more about your amazing invention, the Versizer, which shrinks massive tomes to a single page (or two)? Is this device available on Amazon?
Thank you! The Versizer is an incredible invention, perhaps the most significant invention since the creation of the Non-Sense-Orator. Most kids I know have both, although I have met many adults that don’t seem to have either. Seriously, I tell kids that the Versizer cannot be purchased for any price but that it resides in their brains.

You seem to be a true Renaissance man, with an obvious love of literature. How did you decide which classic works to tackle in this anthology?
I’m not sure I’m a Renaissance man, but I was perhaps a Renaissance boy. I spent quite a lot of my childhood searching and messing around outdoors, in my dad’s shop and in the library. My parents had a set of green leather-bound books of classic literature in our living room that included some of the titles that were [featured] in Shrunken Treasures. These were grown-up books I used to pore through, I think in some part to understand the adult world. I became familiar with literature through these, “Classics Illustrated Comics,” movies, and, eventually, the original works. Don Quixote, Jane Eyre, Moby-Dick, these stories filled my heart, as did many others. Sadly, my selections for Shrunken Treasures were made by process of elimination in that I couldn’t (or perhaps haven’t been able to) find a way to make them work. Hence, there is no Jane Austen, no James Joyce, no Thomas Hardy in this book. I did manage to adapt The Metamorphosis, The Odyssey, and 1001 Arabian Nights though, which was no small achievement!

Your website says that you are a longtime student of kid culture. What have you learned about kids over the years and how does it inform your work?
Years ago I founded a design studio called BIG BLUE DOT that researched and specialized in what we called “Kid Culture.” It was a crazy idea for a studio that turned out to be wildly popular and we found ourselves consulting for companies like Nickelodeon, PBS, Hasbro, and Disney. One of our cardinal rules was that we never, ever called ourselves EXPERTS. This is based in my belief that it is better to be a perpetual student of something than an expert. This perspective, when applied to kids (or any subject for that matter) creates a certain respect for the subject. I truly respect kids. Anyone who has seen me present to a classroom or large assembly will see that I do not talk down to any of them. What I have learned from kids has made me hypercritical of cloying and pedantic kids media—not because kids don’t like cloying and pedantic media but because their tastes and interests are more complex and diverse.

Educators seem to not only love this book as an engaging way to introduce serious literature but also as writing prompts.
Educators are creative and progressive (or not) and will likely use my book in creative and unexpected ways. They are very good at making what might seem to be nonsense useful. I recently gave a TEDx talk called “The Importance of Childish Nonsense: A Primer for Adults and Lost Children”. In it, I describe how nonsensical thinking can lead to sensical ideas. I feel confident that educators will find similar potential in the nonsense I create in my books.

Have you had any reactions to the book from kids yet? I would pay good money to hear you tell the story of Jane Eyre (to the tune of “Three Blind Mice”). Have you considered recording any of these selections?
I’ve been surprised and delighted to find that the book is popular with a wide range of kids. Because some of the poems are based in song I’ve found that toddlers delight in having the stories sung to them. School age kids, who have an awareness of some of the classics in which the stories are based enjoy the creativity in riffing. Adults who generally know the literature get a kick out of what is meant by Hamlet’s “digging himself a hole.” I’m glad that you mentioned Jane Eyre matched with “Three Blind Mice” as it is one of my favorite mash-ups in the book. The structure of the novel is sadness and tedium contrasted by excitement. It’s like a song, regular reputation of verse and chorus. “Three Blind Mice” popped into my head as I was thinking about the structure of Jane Eyre. “Three Blind Mice” is actually a really strange and interesting song structurally. It alternates a dirge-like rhythm; “Three-blind-mice” with a crazy scramble of beats and words that enthusiastically trip over one another. I can see why Art Blakey loved the tune. Once the idea of Jane Eyre and “Three Blind Mice” having similar structure was in my head, I could help but try to make the mash-up happen.

You may not be surprised that I have in fact thought about performing or recording a version of both Jane Eyre and Moby-Dick. If I do, it will be a new form of kid’s music. I have a bass-baritone voice and I have spoken to a musician friend about creating a sort of Leonard Cohen version of the songs with backup singers. I’m not sure he really got the idea but in my mind it works wonderfully.

1605-UpClose_Nash-ShrunkenTreasureYou have written and illustrated dozens of picture books over the years. Do you see Shrunken Treasures as a breakthrough book or as a natural extension of the work you’ve done for younger kids.
Most everything that I do is approached as something new. If I get an idea that sticks with me and I can’t help but pursue that idea, not to bring it into my preexisting world but to create a story and pictures that best suit the idea. That’s why my books take on different forms in both writing and illustrative style. With Shrunken Treasures I believed that the idea of creating nonsense verse out of the classic literature that I love would be best illustrated in a style that was reminiscent of Golden Books.

Since this is SLJ’s writing issue, can you talk about the value of using humor, puns, and irony in introducing these classic plotlines?
One of my literary heroes is Lewis Carroll. Not only did he create Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, one of the most inventive and enduring books in history, but he also developed an approach to logic that helped to develop the way I think. His work is infused with the idea that playing with words and ideas can and should be fun. Shrunken Treasures was for me a puzzle to be solved. That is, how might I playfully reduce great works into children’s verse? The answer for me was to strip the stories down to their plotlines and use humor and puns for kids and irony for their parents. I think kids will connect with the plotlines for the same reason we all connect with [them]. They are great. I hope that parents and adults who are familiar with the works will appreciate the ironic humor.

Can we look forward to a second volume of short and sweet literary classics? Given your professional résumé and love of youth culture, may I suggest Peter Pan?
Wow, that’s a great idea! I’ve been messing around with the idea of creating “versized” versions of operas, but children’s classics might be even better. Let me run a few through the machine and see what comes out.

This article was published in School Library Journal's May 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Luann Toth About Luann Toth

Luann Toth (ltoth@mediasourceinc.com) is Managing Editor of SLJ Reviews. A public librarian by training, she has been reviewing books for a quarter of a century and continues to be fascinated by the constantly evolving, ever-expanding world of publishing.