Andrea J. Loney has a heart for kids who feel different. From Bunny Bear (Illustrated by Carmen Saldana, Albert Whitman & Company), the story of a bear who acts like a bunny, to her latest, Double Bass Blues, (illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez, Knopf Books for Young Readers), a book inspired by music-loving students who told her that no one would be interested in a story about them.
She describes herself as “a small, bespectacled chick of African-American, Jamaican and Panamanian descent escaped from her tiny suburban Jersey town to study writing in New York City.” She graduated from New York University, earned an MFA and joined a traveling circus, traveling with clowns, elephants and carnies. She’s written for Hollywood (Chicken Soup for the Soul), 1999-2000), worked as a teacher, written novels, performed comedy and is now an author of middle grade and picture books. And now, get ready, because she’s topping off the excitement by talking about Double Bass Blues on THE KIDS ARE ALL WRITE.
What inspired you to write Double Bass Blues?
I grew up in a family full of musicians. My grandfather studied at Juilliard and during World War 2 he traveled as a piano soloist in Europe with a London orchestra. My mom plays piano too. I played the marching xylophone, the glockenspiel, and the marimba. Many afternoons in my high school days were spent lugging a heavy bell set home after class. And my sister’s kids (who are all named in the dedication) play various musical instruments as well.
But the idea for Nic specifically came from my life as a computer teacher. I was running an after school program for Black and Hispanic boys in LA, and some of my students were frequently late or absent. But when they got to class, we all had a great time and they did amazing work. When I finally asked them what was up, they revealed all the obstacles they’d encountered to make it to my classroom — walking long distances, missing bus connections, bullies, girls teasing them, people making them feel bad for enjoying a computer class, and more.
One day in class, after I asked one teen what kind of stories he’d like to see written about a kid like him, he just cocked his head and replied, “Nobody wants to see who we really are, Ms. Andrea. Nobody cares about us.” Ouch. His words broke my heart into a zillion pieces that day, but they also gave me the drive to write Double Bass Blues.
Tell us about your book journey. How much did the book change from the time you got your idea to when you finished the manuscript? Did it find a home right away?
At first the story for this book was two different stories — the story of a kid listening to the sounds of the world around him and creating a new song from that, and the story of a kid playing an instrument one way in the school orchestra and another way with his jazz-playing grandpa. Eventually I realized that they were the same story. Then one night, I sat down at my kitchen table with a legal pad and wrote the whole thing out. There were maybe nine word changes from the submitted manuscript to the published book.
This book found a home fairly quickly, but not right away. My fantastic agent at the time, Jill Corcoran, was a fierce champion of the story, so she kept submitting it until she found someone who could see the vision. That person was the ever-awesome Erin Clarke of Random House Knopf.
What was your inspiration for the child at the heart of the story?
There were two inspirations for Nic. One was a cheerfully tenacious young student at the after school computer class I’d taught. The other inspiration was my oldest niece, who liked to switch from classical to jazz style when she was learning how to play the cello.
Was there anything about the illustrations by Rudy Gutierrez that surprised or particularly delighted you? Do you have a favorite spread in the book?
Rudy Gutierrez’s illustrations just blow me away! I love how he captures the world inside and outside of Nic with color and movement. Even when the book is just sitting there on the table, the whole story seems to pour from the pages in waves of constant motion.
The thing that surprised me the most is that Nic looks like a younger version of the cheerful and tenacious student I’d taught in that after school program! I never described the kid’s hair or his complexion or his sweet countenance, but Rudy somehow managed to capture it all.
What do you hope that kids will take away from Double Bass Blues?
After experiencing Double Bass Blues, I hope that kids will tune into the sounds all around them and notice that there is music everywhere. I hope that it might encourage them to be kind to strangers, because we never know what kind of burden another person is carrying and why. And I hope it might inspire them to take up a musical instrument — I’m a huge fan of music and arts in the schools.
You’ve had a pretty extraordinary journey, including working in a circus and on a television show. Can you tell us how that has affected your approach to picture books?
When I was at the Big Apple Circus, they had a special program called “Circus of the Senses” for children who were either hearing-impaired, visually impaired, or both. The performers would put on their regular show, but sign-language interpreters would translate the show for the sighted children and audio interpreters would describe the show in vivid detail to the hearing children. Both sets of kids were equally thrilled by the performances. Experiencing a show I’d seen a zillion times before as just audio or just visuals really informed my approach to picture books. What do the words do? What do the pictures do? When to they overlap? How do these overlapping senses elicit tension and emotion?
As for my script writing experience, it’s probably part of why I spend so much time running each picture book idea through my head from beginning to end, as if it were a movie, before I write any of it down.
Is there anything you’re working on now that you’d like to share about?
Yes! In September 2020, Charlesbridge will publish a picture book anthology called No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History, illustrated by Jeanette Bradley, and edited by Lindsay H. Metcalf and Keila Dawson. It features poetry about 14 different amazing youth activists. I am so thrilled, delighted, and humbled to be a part of it.
Thanks so much for visiting us on The Kids Are All Write, Andrea! Is there anything you would like to add?
Thanks for having me!
Don’t miss Double Bass Blues, which comes out Oct. 22. It has already received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and Horn Book. Plus, if you leave a comment, you are entered for a chance to win a free autographed copy.
You can visit Andrea on Facebook here: Andrea J Loney, Author
On Twitter: @AndreaJLoney
And her website: andreajloney.com