Holiday House sat down with Will Hillenbrand to talk about his new picture book Mighty Reader and the Big Freeze.
What was your inspiration behind writing Mighty Reader? Tell us about how this book was inspired by your own story.
Origin stories are a little bit like finding the headwaters for a mighty river. Maybe you want to find out where the Nile began or where the Amazon River started. You go to the headwaters and then you find out they branch off this way and that way. Some aquifers are underground and some are in plain sight, but they all contribute.
So how does that relate to the inspiration? It relates in this way: There are many beginnings. . . . some that go back to my childhood as a student, and some that are currently developing as an adult. It’s over a broad canvas that these ideas come together and are folded into the story that becomes what the reader sees.
I suppose that’s the magic of a story. That when a reader sees it, it’s complete, but when writing and drawing it, you have to be able to respond to many different sources and memories. That’s what authors and illustrators work with: folding their experiences and their memories into something brand-new.
But almost always there is a spark that ignites or brings all these independent thoughts into one place. They gather around the fire of that spark and those experiences blend into the idea that burns brightly for the reader.
When I was a child, I had a learning disability that I didn’t know about, and deep inside I wished there was someone who could have rescued me.
As an adult I made that person the hero of my book . . . and he’s also my hero because Mighty Reader rescues me, too.
We all love dogs, and the ones portrayed in your book are adorable! How did you settle on a cast of canines over all the other animals out there?
That’s easy! I think I’m part dog. A lot of people say that my eyes remind them of a beagle or a basset hound. Uh, I think it’s the hound. I don’t know why . . . I just love dogs and I don’t need Dr. Doolittle to tell me what they’re saying. I feel like I can hear what they’re
saying. I don’t think I’m a dog whisperer, but I do listen to the animal characters because I think we do that for any species of animal that we feel a kinship with. And dogs have always been my kindred spirits.
And now for a little bit more about that: When I thought about making these individual characters, I did think of people that I know—there’s always a person that’s connected behind the characters that I create. And I can’t tell you which character is my brother in this book, or which is my friend, Therese, but I know who they are and you might have fun guessing at that.
There’s a fun cameo in Mighty Reader: your book, Spring Is Here! What prompted you to include this fun Easter egg?
It relates to the title, Mighty Reader and the Big Freeze. In this case we have Barkley’s “big freeze” in the book, which happens because he is nervous about reading an unfamiliar book aloud to the class. If the book had been pre-read to Barkley he would’ve had no trouble, but whenever we’re given something to read that we haven’t seen before it can make us nervous, especially in front of our peers. And that’s exactly how Barkley felt. Spring Is Here was a perfect book for him to read because it’s a book where a spring thaw comes, and Barkley needs a thaw because he was frozen up. So, using Spring Is Here was about finding a way to unfreeze that worked for Barkley and hopefully works for other children as well. . . . or adults.
Your spouse, Jane, is a teacher and provided some tried-and-true advice for this book. What are some top tips to inspire a reluctant reader?
Jane knows a whole lot more about this than I do because she works directly with students. One of the most important things that she does is introduce children to lots of great books in the classroom, which are read at least half a dozen to a dozen times every week. For me there’s nothing that creates interest like being given something that you’re really keen about. You want to find out more. You want to solve problems. You want to be able to roleplay those characters. And being exposed to lots of books is a key way to bring a reluctant reader into the world of freedom that is reading.
But there are many powers in reading and one of them is not only being introduced to books but reading books to a peer in what I and other people would call partner power. That’s going to be explored in the next book with Mighty Reader. So, look forward to that and more powers to come, all to help those reluctant readers find their wings for reading.
If there is one thing you could tell young readers about life, what would you say?
Life is a story. It is YOUR story. You’re the author of everything about your story. And hopefully when you read other stories you’ll find out where the story arc is for you, how to participate in that, and how to be the author of your choices in life and just be you.
What was your favorite book growing up?
My favorite book. . . . well, I had many favorite books, but the book that I remember the most in my childhood was the one that was read to me by my grandmother. On a rainy day she read to me Peter Rabbit. I went down the rabbit hole with Peter and loved the illustrations and the story.
Who is your favorite superhero besides Mighty Reader?
That’s an easy one. My favorite superhero besides Mighty Reader is Superman. I love Superman and I’ve read his comics and seen his movies. And I’ve used those old comics to help inspire me to make Mighty Reader.
Where can our readers find you online and on social media?
You can find me on my website. It’s simply my name all together as one word: willhillenbrand.com. What will you find there? Well, you’ll find my bookshelf and if you click on a cover you’ll find out a whole lot more about that book and its reviews, but you’ll also find book trailers or process videos that will tell you more about a book that you’re interested in or maybe you’ll find a new one you want to learn more about.
You can also see paintings and things that I work on when I’m not doing my books. You can find that all
on my website. And, of course, for teachers there’s a whole activity area so if you’d like to have activities to go along with my books, you’ll find that in one of the dropdown menus.
Now, for social media: If you are on Facebook you can find my fan page by looking up my name. You don’t have to have a Facebook account to be able to see that. If you “Like” my page, then of course anytime I put a post up you will be notified. I’m also on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.
Watch Will Hillenbrand’s Q&A video!
About Will Hillenbrand
Will Hillenbrand is a celebrated author and illustrator whose published works include over sixty books for young readers. In addition to his own self-illustrated titles, he has illustrated the works of writers and retellers including Verna Aardema, Judy Sierra, Margery Cuyler, Judith St. George, Phyllis Root, Jane Yolen, Karma Wilson, Maureen Wright, Daniel Pinkwater and Jane Hillenbrand. Will has lived almost all of his life in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he grew up as the youngest of four boys. He now lives in Terrace Park.
Will is the illustrator and author-in-residence at Kent State University.