friday feast: Chatting with Author Deborah Ruddell about The Popcorn Astronauts

Fanciful, imaginative, cheery and charming — The Popcorn Astronauts: And Other Biteable Rhymes by Deborah Ruddell and Joan Rankin (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2015) is precisely my cup of tea. Add mouthwateringly irresistible to the mix and there’s no doubt this exuberant celebration of food has my name written all over it.

I love Ruddell’s fresh take on perennial kid favorites like watermelon, strawberries, raisins, milk shakes, apples, brownies, mac and cheese, cocoa and birthday cake. Grouped by season, the poems take us from spring’s Strawberry Queen in her elegant red beaded suit, to summer’s cool pinkness at a Watermelon Lake with its “pale green shore” (and little black seed boats!), to a toothsome autumnal stop at the Totally Toast Cafe (4 flavors of marmalade), and finally to marvel at “The World’s Biggest Birthday Cake,” the stuff of your wildest winter dreams. Yum!

With generous measures of humor, sensory detail, exaggeration, cheekiness, surprise and adventure, Ruddell’s rhyming verses explore mealtime scenarios kids can readily identify with: the yucky appearance but lip smacking tastiness of guacamole, the picky eater (ogre) who’ll only eat one kind of food, the universal love of mac and cheese with its superstar status, eating comfort foods on gray days, lusting after someone else’s dessert, and the all-important dilemma of whether to eat that last brownie (um, yes!). Of course we mustn’t forget the momentous “Arrival of the Popcorn Astronauts,” a prime example of child-like whimsy at its best:

The daring popcorn astronauts
are brave beyond compare —
they scramble into puffy suits
and hurtle through the air.

And when they land, we say hooray
and crowd around the spot
to salt the little astronauts
and eat them while they’re hot.

The jaunty rhythms, various poetic forms and upbeat conversational tone keep this inspired smorgasbord from ever feeling predictable or clichéd, making it easy to get caught up in all the fun and enchantment.

Joan Rankin’s quirky watercolors define, extend, and enhance the deliciousness to the max. She depicts a world where humans and animals happily co-exist and her use of comic detail is brilliant. How much do I love her cupcake tree, personified peaches (which Ruddell so cleverly described as having “flannelpajamaty skin”), the all-too-inviting red-tented Cocoa Cabana, and the utterly genius Shakespearean drive-through?

Readers will love spotting and identifying the animal characters and the different foods they’re eating, carrying, or serving (suave penguins!). Every nuance of emotion is captured via pitch-perfect facial expressions and body language. I am particularly enamored with the “Recipe for Raisins” illo (those grapes drying on a clothes line are just too adorable). Ruddell and Rankin make a splendid team, perfectly in sync bite for bite. A culinary coup!

I’m thrilled Deborah is here today to tell us more. Feast on a few more sample poems following our chat. Enjoy!

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🍑 AUTHOR CHAT WITH DEBORAH RUDDELL 🍊

Love those popcorn astronauts. How did you come up with the idea for them? Did this collection start with that poem?

The popcorn astronauts idea had its genesis when my son was a little boy. We were waiting for our popcorn to pop, listening to the first thrilling stirrings of the popcorn. Ben said, “They’re getting into their popcorn suits.” That image stuck with me for years and years, then resurfaced when I first started writing poems. The “popcorn suits” became space suits for flying popcorn, and voila! … The Popcorn Astronauts!

“The Popcorn Astronauts” and “A Recipe for Raisins” were two very early poems that languished in my files for years, along with lots and lots of poems that I threw away. But these two seemed to keep calling to me, suggesting that I might be able to start a collection.

Deborah’s study

Which poem was the most fun to write and why? Which poem was the hardest? Do you have a favorite?

NO poem is ever easy for me to write. I am a slow and tormented poet! The hardest part is when I think I’ve almost got something, but it’s just out of reach. That happened with “Welcome to Watermelon Lake.” I had the image of the pink lake and the pale green shore, but making that image work as a poem was a struggle. Just when I thought I finally had it made, my editor suggested a third stanza in which I introduce the seeds! Argh!

The thinking chair.

You have such a wonderful sense of humor with a dash of finely tuned whimsy thrown in. Who were some of your early influences? Who or what inspires your writing now?

My early influences were my parents and the favorite books that were read to me and my twin sister as children. My mom was a musician/piano teacher who gave me a love of music. My dad loved words and had a wry sense of humor. He would recite poems (Casey at the Bat, Hiawatha, etc.) at the dinner table and as an accompaniment to our rope jumping.

Both of our parents read to us, and I can trace who I am as a writer straight back to some of those early memories. One of our favorite books was The Giant Golden Books Treasury of Elves and Fairies, illustrated by Garth Williams. In this book, the imaginary became real to me. There was a story called “The Cannery Bear” about a hungry bear in overalls who works in a salmon cannery. The story included a little pink bear with wings! And so, I became a writer who thinks nothing of turning popcorn into astronauts.

Deborah (left) with her twin sister Robin Luebs.
Booksigning cupcakes!

The other book that was dear to our hearts was Pantaloon, by Kathryn Jackson, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard. Pantaloon is a poodle with a sweet tooth who applies for a job as a baker’s helper. Robin and I pored over those mouthwatering illustrations for hours, especially an enormous, rose covered, pink and white cake. The food images captivated us like nothing else!

What inspires my writing now? Karla Kuskin was one of my first inspirations, and there are many, many more. If I had to choose one poet whose work is a North Star for me, it would be Alice Schertle. She can be witty or wise or both at the same time. I love that.

Another reason to love Deborah: she bakes a good peach pie!

What were some of your favorite foods when you were little? Were you a picky eater?

My favorite foods when I was little? I think I was pretty picky, because I have memories of trying to hide food that I didn’t like (asparagus!) and I was a beanpole. I do remember loving my mom’s creation of a bunny salad from a canned pear half with a cottage cheese tail and raisin eyes (though I hated raisins, and still do). Mom was a great baker of pies, and lemon meringue was my favorite.

Deborah at her NYC publisher’s, where she met with her editor Karen Wojtyla and saw Joan Rankin’s Popcorn Astronauts illustrations for the first time!

This is your third collaboration with Joan Rankin. What do you like most about the work she did for this project? Were there any special little touches that especially delighted or surprised you?

Joan Rankin always surprises and delights me, and this book is no exception. My two favorite spreads are “The Cocoa Cabana” with its endearing skating fox, and “How a Poet Orders a Shake” with its Shakespearean drive-thru window and the poet on horseback. But I truly love the whole book!

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🍋 SECONDS AND THIRDS 🍋

THE BIG QUESTION

I’m wondering if you would mind
or would you ever be inclined
or is there any outside chance
(because I’m asking in advance)
that you could maybe find a way,
that it would somehow be okay . . .
Well, here’s the thing I need to know . . .
I hate to ask, but here I go:
Soooo . . . do you think that you could share
that yummy-looking lemon square?

*

ONLY GUACAMOLE

Even though it’s lumpy and it’s avocado green,
like the porridge for an ogre or a troll,
nothing on the table makes my eyes light up
like a little guacamole in a bowl!

Only guacamole has that guacamole taste —
to explain it, I could write a dozen books!
That would take forever, so I’ll just say this:
guacamole’s so much better than it looks!

*

(click to enlarge)

A SMOOTHIE SUPREME

This smoothie’s a doozie —
you’re quite a gourmet!
Your brilliant concoction
just blows me away!

That eye-catching color
of yellowish-brown,
those delicate flavors,
so hard to pin down . . .

A whisper of pickle
is what I detect,
with glimmers of turnip
I didn’t expect!

A dusty old beehive?
A handful of hail?
Unless I’m mistaken,
the slime from a snail.

The mud puddle splashes
are really delish,
and the finishing touch
is that nubbin of fish!

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THE POPCORN ASTRONAUTS: And Other Biteable Rhymes
written by Deborah Ruddell
illustrated by Joan Rankin
published by Margaret K. McElderry Books, March 2015
**Starred Reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus**

Click here for Deborah’s favorite Guacamole recipe!🙂

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poetry fridayLaura Purdie Salas is hosting the Roundup today at Writing the World for Kids. Take her some freshly popped popcorn and enjoy the full menu of poetic treats being shared in the blogosphere this week. Hope you’re having a terrific Poetry Month so far!

 

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*Interior spreads posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2015 Deborah Ruddell, illustrations © 2015 Joan Rankin, published by Margaret K. McElderry Books. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2015 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

42 thoughts on “friday feast: Chatting with Author Deborah Ruddell about The Popcorn Astronauts

  1. Jama! We are of like minds today! And I have to say… when I picked this book up, I instantly thought of you, my foodie-friend!🙂 Love hearing more about Deborah’s writing process, and the twin pic is adorable. And YOUR pics, Jama! I love the carrots on the book page. Priceless! xo

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    1. Isn’t it just the MOST delicious book? Love the peach poem you shared today. I didn’t realize before Deborah had a twin — and both so talented.🙂

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  2. Of course I knew you would love this book, Jama! And so do I. Deborah’s work appeals to me for all the reasons you listed, but especially for her always whimsical air and unexpected turns of phrase. Love that nubbin of fish, for example! Wonderful interview, too – thank you both!

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  3. I’m so looking forward to this one! Love Deborah’s other collections. Her admission to being a “slow and tormented poet” speaks to me — I worry over poems forever before I feel they’re ready to go. Thanks for the interview, Jama.

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    1. I was surprised when she described herself that way — because her work is so fresh and spontaneous. She makes it look so easy but of course it’s not.

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  4. I have not heard of this book until now, Jama, but I feel like you’ve just introduced me to a long lost friend. Fanciful poetry is my cup of tea and The Popcorn Astronauts has just moved to the top of my to-read list!

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  5. And my wish list grows ever longer! How is it possible that I haven’t heard of this book? Love the mouth-watering poetry and the sweet illustrations. Thank you so much for sharing this one, Jama!

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  6. Love the freshness of popcorn astronauts and the mango-eating rabbits on a grey day! It was reassuring to hear that Deborah struggles with her poems & nice to hear about the ways her parents inspired her.

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    1. Yes, it was especially cool that both parents read to Deborah and her sister Robin — they both grew up to be children’s book people.🙂

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  7. Amazing but true, my book friend at school with whom I exchange picture books all the time just brought The Popcorn Astronauts to me yesterday! I haven’t even opened it yet, & now I will for sure The poems look just right for my granddaughters, both foodies but in their own particular way (like us all). I also love the look of Pantaloons, & that poem, The Big Question, very funny. Thanks, Jama!

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    1. What good timing, Linda — I know you and your granddaughters will enjoy this one. If you haven’t seen Pantaloon, that’s another good one to share with them🙂.

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  8. Seems to me like maybe they DID create this book just for you, Jama…. But I’m glad it’s available to the rest of the world — I. Must. Get. Soon.! What an incredibly delightful interview (loved the nod to Alice Schertle) – hearty thanks to you both. (And those illustrations – absolutely inspired!)

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  9. I agree with Robyn — they wrote this book just for you! And I, too, can’t wait to get my hands on it!!

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  10. This book looks awesome! I love those little popcorn astronauts, and the story of how that poem came to be. I’m the smoothie queen around here, so I started that poem with high hopes, but (sigh) that is NOT my kind of smoothie:>) Just put this on my tbr list. Thank you, Jama and Deborah, and congratulations, Deborah!

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  11. I always learn something new about food and poetry reading your blog, Jama! This book looks amazing – possibly a mentor text for whimsy poetry (doesn’t get any better than Popcorn Astronauts). I also love your “enhanced” illustrations with the help of Cornelius. =)

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    1. Yes, it’s the perfect book to inspire kids to use their imaginations! Mr. Cornelius is pleased you like his pictures — it’s his special way of entering each of the poems.🙂

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  12. “The hardest part is when I think I’ve almost got something, but it’s just out of reach.” It’s like Deborah’s sitting in my head!

    What a great combination of poems and pictures. This will be in the library’s order next week!

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