Interview: Jennifer Trafton, author of Henry and the Chalk Dragon

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Jennifer Trafton’s much-anticipated Henry and the Chalk Dragon is a romp through the “what ifs” of an imagination run wild. It’s a companion for children feeling self-conscious about their creativity; a loving nudge to the adult who has neglected the things that once made them feel alive; a celebration of the courage it takes to make art and the friends we need along the way. Which means it’s for everyone.

Jennifer and I have been friends since the very first Hutchmoot, way back in 2010. We connected immediately over favorite authors and a shared love for the British Isles, and she’s since become a trusted confidante and partner in writerly accountability. It’s been a privilege to walk with her through the creation, revision, and fulfillment of Sir Henry’s quest. I love this book so much, and I’m delighted to see it coming into the world.

But don’t be deceived by its playful nature—I assure you, this story is one of those stories that has the power to shape peoples’ stories. If you’re not ready have your heart quickened, your dreams ennobled, and your friendships explode with collaborative creativity, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK.

I had the joy of chatting with Jennifer about some of the themes in Henry, as well as art in general, friendship, ritual, fear, and pygmy goats. (Incidentally, seeing as the interview took place via Facebook, a quick look at our message history managed to illustrate an awful lot of the very things we were talking about.)

L: So, Jennifer, I just glanced back at our chat history, and it seems to involve an inordinate amount of me whining about how hard it is to write, banging my head on my desk, and you promising to pray for me. And my desk.

J: That was you? I thought it was me.

L: Well I think it’s safe to say that both of our desks have seen significant abuse. And all head-banging notwithstanding, you’ve written an absolutely beautiful book.

The best children’s books, in my opinion, are the ones that can be enjoyed equally by the kids who read them and by the adults who might have the opportunity to read them aloud to the kids in their lives. Apart from the delightful humor in your book, there are several poignant moments adults can relate to, wherein a grownup confronts the abandonment of their own creativity and the limitations it has imposed on them—limitations which are depicted quite literally: Principal Bunk is glued to his chair, Miss Pimpernel is imprisoned on a raft made from her own bulletin board, and the Lunch Lady is held captive in a fortress of cafeteria tables and chairs.

I didn't want this to be a book about how kids are pure imaginative beings and adults are unimaginative doofuses; some of the grown-ups in Henry's world may have squelched or forgotten their creativity, but there's still hope for them.

Jennifer Trafton

But you don’t leave any of them there. Without giving too much away, you grant each of these characters a chance to embrace their creativity in an unprecedented or forgotten way. I think my favorite part of the whole book is when Principal Bunk recognizes his own drawing rendered by Henry on the belly of the dragon, and sits down on the pavement and cries. This is such an unexpected and thoroughly satisfying response. You seem to be issuing a gentle challenge here: It’s never too late to honor the things that made you come alive as a child. It’s never too late to be YOU.

The thread of grownups reawaking to their own potential is a redemptive current running through your book. Is this something you set out to explore, or was it a theme that grew naturally out of Henry’s challenges?

J: One of the wonderful (and astonishing) things about writing a book is that you don’t fully realize what the book is about until after you’ve written it—or sometimes after other people read it and tell you. I didn’t even realize that I had dramatized the limitations of the adults that way—literally held captive by glue, bulletin boards, and tables—until you just asked the question. But that’s a great observation, and of course that must have be there in my subconscious as I wrote those scenes. Now I’m looking forward to you explaining the rest of the story to me!

L: Ha! Love it

J: I set out to write about one boy’s imagination and the hilarious chaos it caused; my stories always begin that way, not with a theme but with a situation or a character that begs for my attention. But this particular story, as it grew, began to mirror many of my own struggles without my even realizing it until later. And that struggle to hold fast to some core of childlike creativity even as you are rocked by the currents of the grown-up world is a struggle I know very, very well. I’ve been held captive by many cages (often of my own making).

For so many adults, it is hard to recapture the freedom we had as children to let our imaginations out to play, to shake off the voices that tell us we’re “not creative,” that it’s too late for us, that making money is more important, etc. Sometimes we need to let the children remind us what it was like to be eight years old and full of visions of dragons—and to stir that up in us again. But I didn’t want this to be a book about how kids are pure imaginative beings and adults are unimaginative doofuses; some of the grown-ups in Henry’s world may have squelched or forgotten their creativity, but there’s still hope for them.

“It’s never too late to honor the things that made you come alive as a child. It’s never too late to be YOU.” YES! I couldn’t have said it better.

L: Maybe my subconscious passed that one to the surface since we were talking about Ray Bradbury yesterday. That’s really the essence of what he urges in his writing advice, isn’t it? Tapping into sources of your childhood delight?

I think Bradbury would love “Henry,” by the way.

J: Yes! In fact I have a Bradbury quote right here: “I was in love, then, with monsters and skeletons and circuses and carnivals and dinosaurs and, at last, the red planet, Mars. From these primitive bricks I have built a life and a career. By my staying in love with all of these amazing things, all of the good things in my existence have come about.” In Zen and the Art of Writing, he talks about how what we love as a child we love freely—we are taught to un-love things as we grow older because of the mockery or criticism of other people. And Henry himself is in the danger zone already—hiding his passion from the eyes and the laughter of others. But what Bradbury did (and what he encourages others to do) is to STAY IN LOVE, because those childhood loves are the mulch from which creativity grows.

L: Speaking of delight, there are an awful lot of smiles in your book.

I love the way that you acknowledge a child’s innate intuitiveness by the names Henry gives to each one of them, from Miss Pimpernel’s Be-Nice-to-Me-I-Haven’t-Had-My-Coffee smile “which wasn’t her happiest”, to the dragon’s triumphant Look-How-Fabulous-I-Am smile. In short, there are a thousand things a smile can say, sincere or otherwise. Could you talk a bit about the role of smiles in Henry’s Quest? Do you think that children are more sensitive to/influenced by facial expressions than adults might like to admit?

J: The thread of smiles throughout the book was another example of how a story often leads the writer instead of the other way around. They just kept popping up everywhere. So many different smiles. Smiles that flew. Smiles that melted. Smiles that fell out of purses and came unglued. Again, not a theme I was consciously trying to add to the story but simply an outgrowth of the kind of character Henry was and the unique way he saw the world. That’s an interesting question about children being sensitive to facial expressions—I don’t know, but I certainly was as a child. I was constantly watching grown-ups, reading their faces like books, detecting nuances of emotions that I didn’t fully understand yet.

L: I love Mrs. Penwhistle’s smile, the one that flutters around on wings. That’s just gorgeous. And the way it comes to rest on her face at last as she’s finally allowing herself to enjoy and enter into Henry’s imagination.

J: I wish I had a brilliant answer about where that idea came from, but I don’t. It’s just the way my imagination works.

L: Your imagination is a vast and colorful country, and it needs no explanation. But it seems like Henry’s mom might have some abandoned creativity of her own—am I right? She is, after all, the one who painted his door with chalkboard paint.

J: I agree! His parents may not entirely understand his wild imagination, but they’ve obviously encouraged and nurtured it.

L: I think your next book needs to be about Henry’s parents. Or Jade. I love Jade. I see a lot of you in her.

J: I’ve had ideas about subsequent stories, but also like a book that ends with just the hint of things beyond.

Jade is a lot cooler than I am.

L: I completely disagree with that statement. The only person I know who has a stronger handle than Jade on the redemptive properties of words in general and poetry in particular, is you.

J: But I would be pretty useless in a real adventure, I’m afraid. Unless I truly could fight a dragon with poetry.

L: You ARE fighting dragons with poetry—who says metaphorical dragons are any less scary and dangerous than real ones? Besides, letting a book out into the world is about the coolest adventure I can think of.

But, seeing as this is no venue for a Big Fight, I’ll move on to the next question.

J: Point taken. This journey of writing has certainly been an adventure, and I have battled many a metaphorical dragon in my heart.

L: Atta girl. So, the friendships in Henry are really quite nuanced. In a general sense, Henry chooses kindness over his own ideas of “perfect” art, and the collaboration that results between him and his classmates transcends what he would have been able to accomplish on his own. What’s more, Henry’s close friends are the ones speaking the truths into his life—about himself and about his art—that he desperately needs to hear. How have friendships influenced your creative journey?

J: Oh goodness. Hold on while I write another book about that.

L: That was a beaut, I know.

J: There’s a moment in the Henry and the Chalk Dragon that’s significant for me, when Henry has to overcome the hurtful lie, “The world doesn’t care about your art. The world will laugh at you.” And the answer to that lie is the quiet reminder of those specific people who love him and understand him: “This person cares, and this person cares, and this person cares, and this person cares . . .” And that’s enough.

I set out to write a book about a child’s imagination gone wild. but the story ended up being one that I, more than anyone else, needed to hear. Because you’re right: I have fought dragons, and the worst of my dragons are Fear and Self-doubt. During the many revisions of this book I was going through some of the hardest battles I’ve ever fought against those dragons. I’ve had to learn to be brave, like Henry, when making art and letting it out there into the world felt like an impossibly scary thing to do.

But during this same period I’ve also been surrounded by an incredibly supportive community of friends—friends (like you) who have refused to let me wallow in fear and have spoken truth to me time and time again, friends who have been like Jade making my journey feel like an epic quest rather than a loser’s march. I would not still be writing today if it weren’t for those specific people who cared about me and my imagination so tenderly.

At the last Hutchmoot conference, our speaker Diana Glyer talked about resonators—people who not only praise and encourage but echo back to us the goodness of what we create even we can’t ourselves see or hear it clearly. I immediately thought of Henry and his resonators, Oscar and Jade. And I thought of the Rabbit Room community itself, and how it has been a roomful of faithful resonators for me over the past six years.

There is a moment in the book when Henry must face his classmates with all of his imagination hanging out there for everyone to see, and in a reversal of all his fears, they don’t laugh. In fact, they pitch in and become part of his quest. My moment came when, at Hutchmoot, I got up in front of my community and read a chapter of this book and everyone laughed, which for me (unlike Henry) felt like the best gift I could possibly have been given: a roomful of resonators telling me, “We care.”

People thanked me afterwards and I thought, “No, you’ve got it all wrong. I should be thanking YOU.” Writers are solitary artists, but this is the closest thing to collaboration I’ve ever experienced. That’s why I’m so happy Rabbit Room Press is publishing this story. This is, in a very beautiful and personal way to me, a Rabbit Room book.

L: That is so powerful, Jennifer. I loved what Diana had to say about resonators. And this all leads into what I wanted to talk about next, which is the age-old connection between art and fear. If I had to point to the heart of your book, I would turn to Mr. Bruce’s wonderful words to Henry: “You have to be brave to be an artist.” I love the way you acknowledge the dangers, as well as the joys, of letting your art out into the world. Once we’ve made something and let it go, we have little to no control over how it will be received or interpreted in the wide world. Can you speak to the tension between the temptation to shield one’s work from the public eye, and the fears that come when a work takes on a life of its own? How has the fear of being misunderstood impacted your own journey as an artist?

J: You’re not throwing me any softballs, are you?

L: No, I haven’t yet, that’s for sure.

J: Well, I could write a whole post on this topic (and probably will), but let me just say a few things.

Henry is an artist, of course, but he’s also (at least in his imagination) a knight, and the connection between those two roles is, first and foremost, the need for courage. I want to emphasize again that this isn’t where I started, back when the story was first coming to life for me. Henry began as an eight-year-old Don Quixote character in my brain, and as I explored the vast and wild terrain of his imagination I gradually realized that my young knight had the eye of an artist, and would naturally love to draw.

But as soon as he became an artist, then I had to be as truthful as I could about what being an artist (any kind of artist, including a writer) feels like … at least for me. And for me, it has always felt like playing in my childhood bedroom, hidden away from the eyes of the world, reluctant to let anyone but the most trusted people inside to see. It is a terribly vulnerable thing to allow the most precious of your inner visions, the things that most make you you (because if they weren’t expressions of your heart, you wouldn’t be a true artist) out into the open. People might laugh. People might misunderstand. People might shrug their shoulders and not even care. You might, when your art is out in the open, realize that it’s all wrong, that it’s not good or beautiful or worth seeing. It might be twisted to mean something it doesn’t mean. It might hurt someone. So much safer to keep it all hidden away, locked inside.

So much safer for the artist, perhaps, but so much sadder for the world.

It is an act of great courage and great intimacy to show the world your art—courage usually reserved for the fiercest knights, and intimacy usually reserved for the closest friends.

I think some people think that, because they’re afraid of making art (it can be hard!) or showing people their art, they must not be very good artists. Sometimes we need to remember that everyone feels this way at some point, and that it’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay that we need someone to remind us, as the bus driver reminds Henry, “Be brave.”

I am afraid ALL THE TIME. And I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I can’t just wait until the fear goes away before I write anything. Bravery means picking up my sword (or my pencil) and diving into the fray no matter how I feel. I’ve also had to slowly push away my anxiety over what will happen to a work of art (or a work of fiction!) once it’s free in the world and has a life of its own. As Mr. Bruce tells Henry, all you can do is make the best thing you can, love it as hard as you can, and let it go. Then: make something new. Well, I loved Henry and the Chalk Dragon the best I could, and now I’m letting it go and trying to make something new.

L: Jennifer, you are an interview-question rockstar. Thank you for such a vulnerable answer!

J: Thank you for asking such thoughtful questions!

L: You have a rather Dickensian gift for naming characters. I know you’ve got a beautiful story about the naming of Persimmony in The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic. But in this case, did you think of your characters first, and then the names? Or was it the other way around?

J: That is a high compliment indeed, because Dickens is my HERO when it comes to character names. Uriah Heep, Ebenezer Scrooge, Mr. Fezziwig, Mr. M’Choakumchild, Poll Sweedlepipe…. I mean, come on! He was a master! And the characters are as quirky and memorable as their names.

Every time I do a school visit, the kids basically run through the names of all my characters and ask, “Why did you name her_____? Why did you name him ______?” And I don’t always have an interesting answer, because the fact is that I just love to play around with sounds until I come up with something that makes me laugh and that feels like the character I’m naming.

Henry popped into my brain as a character with a name already attached—he was never anything but Henry to me. Oscar similarly dropped into the story already named. Jade was a bit more difficult—I tried so many different names on her for size, but the one I kept coming back to was “Jade” because it fit her personality—solid, no nonsense, yet with a hint of something mysterious and mystical. I didn’t know any Jades when I named her—now I do! For all the other first and last names in the story, I just had a lot of fun smooshing together bits of words, existing names, and sounds. “Penwhistle,” for example, is a play on Pendragon (because Henry wants to be one of King Arthur’s knights).

Oh! Here’s a funny story: in the early drafts, Henry’s teacher was a bit of a shrew, and she didn’t really have her own arc. I named her “Mrs. Garrunchy,” which made me giggle because it sounded like both “grouch” and “crunchy,” and she was in danger of being eaten by a dragon. But I completely rewrote her character, and when I did that name no longer fit her personality. The new teacher, whom Henry had a crush on, needed a flowery name, yet something that also hinted at heroism and adventure. “Miss Pimpernel” was born!

I still love the name “Garrunchy” though, and I’m claiming it for a future book.

L: That’s fantastic. We’ll definitely look out for a Miss (or Mr.) Garrunchy down the line!

And Miss Pimpernel is perfect, by the way. The minute I met her in your book, I pictured swordplay and romance, à la Baroness Orczy.

Okay, I haven’t asked you an easy question yet. But here’s one more doozy, and then I’ll ease up on you.

So, Henry’s chivalry. I love it. But it’s not just a cute little attribute. It’s a genuine regulator of his actions, a governor in the engine of his art. It helps prescribe his treatment of people, and it nudges him back to kindness when he goes astray. We all know there’s as much need to acknowledge the dark, sad things of life as there is to point to the great “eucatastrophe” of the ultimate happy ending. But how would you say that the “chivalrous” worldview ought to direct the kind of art we bring into the world?

J: I’m going to neatly sidestep your doozy by saying that I deliberately left this an open question in the book. As Henry wonders, is there a chivalry for drawing things? That’s exactly what I want a reader to go away pondering, and debating with other people. And therefore, your question is an excellent question. And therefore, I refuse to answer it. Ha!

p.s. I did, however, just write a list of slightly tongue-in-cheek chivalrous rules for writers, which will be published on a blog soon.

L: How perfect! Do let us know when it’s published!

(That was an exceedingly graceful sidestep, by the way. Perhaps people will take up the debate in the comments…)

J: Would you like to see my super-sneaky sideways sword swipe?

L: I’ve been wanting to ask. Can you give us a demonstration?

J: <swish swish swish CHOP>

Next question!

L: Lawful heart, that was close!

All right, a couple of easy ones to wrap up.

What are some of the things you do to nourish your own creativity? Do you work on a fixed routine, or does a more flexible schedule suit your writerly temperament? Twyla Tharp talks about ritual in the lives of artists, certain practices or physical activities that tell your subconscious mind, “Okay, it’s time to work.” (Mine is a fresh pot of PG Tips, for what it’s worth.) Do you have any rituals that help ease you into your creative space?

J: Rituals? Oh, I have rituals galore. First, I drink a cup of tea and daydream about how wonderful it would be to have written something. Then I sit down and try to write something. I suddenly realize three things: (1) it’s been at least 36 hours since I last scoured the Internet for pygmy goat pictures, (2) I absolutely definitely positively have at least six undiagnosed illnesses, (3) I will never ever have another good idea again, ever, (4) my paper is blank, and (5) I’m such I complete failure that I’ve forgotten how to count. At this point I begin my rituals of wailing, banging my head against the nearest available hard surface, raising my fist against the unfriendly sky, and sobbing on my long-suffering husband’s shoulder, “Mmmm mcan’tmmmm mmdooooo mthissmmmmmmm I’mmmmmma failuremmmmmm” (muffled by his now-soggy shirt sleeve). Rinse and repeat (the shirt and the rituals) several times . . .

L: Wow! That sounds fun! (And all too familiar . . . )

J: Then I open up to a new page in my journal and make a list, in the prettiest handwriting possible, of all the things that inspire me.

I misspell a word, tear out the page, and start over, because you can’t possibly do anything on a list until the list is perfect and beautiful. [Editor’s note: This is not precisely true. She would never “tear” out a page. She’d cut it out neatly so no one would ever notice a mistake had been made.]

L: Of course you can’t.

J: Then I sit back and admire all the wonderful, inspiring things I could do—like go for a walk, reread a favorite book, make another cup of tea, or spend an hour drawing to clear my mind.

It is such a beautiful list, after all, that it must work. And then I color in the letters.

L: Absolutely.

J: Usually in sunset colors, because it is not possible to write anything without at least the close proximity of something vermilion.

L: Truth. The thing that amazes me is that none of the writing books have picked up on this yet.

J: I know!

L: You know, I’ve always said that you and Sarah Clarkson and I should write a writing book. Or, more accurately, I think we should write a “care and feeding of writers” book for the people around us.

J: I think it should probably come with a paid counselor visit for our loved ones.

L: Yes, agreed. Or at the very least we could make it a top-tier Kickstarter reward.

I know who could do the lettering for the pages. It would be the most beautiful book in the world.

J: I can letter anything as long as I don’t have to do what the letters say.

I’ve lost track of my rituals. Was I supposed to ever get to the writing part? I think somewhere in there is a big bowl of ice cream and a “You’ve Got Mail” / “Miss Potter” marathon viewing.

L: That sounds about perfect.

So, let’s wrap it up with some of the most burning questions of all. Chocolate or vanilla?

J: Do you even have to ask?

L: Ha! No!

Okay, Anne Shirley or Emily Starr?

J: Anne.

Sorry, Emily.

L: That was sneaky.

Okay, this may be the toughest of all: Bantams, Orpingtons, or Silver Cuckoo Marans?

J: Which breed of Bantams?

L: Your choice.

J: Cochins. I like my chickens in pants.

L: Ah, yes, they are the dandiest, to be sure.

Well, Jennifer, you’ve been a champ. Thanks for the generosity of your answers.

J: You are an epic interviewer.

L: I think it might have more than a little to do with the fact that you and I never run out of things to talk about.

J: Now that’s the truth.

L: But this has been so much fun. Thank you, again, and Godspeed, Sir Henry!!

J: Sally forth!

L: Jennifer forth!

J: Lanier forth!

*sound of hoof beats galloping off into the distance*


Henry and the Chalk Dragon is available in the Rabbit Room Store (and wherever great books are sold).

Profile photo of Lanier Ivester

Lanier Ivester is a “Southern Lady” in the best and most classical sense and a gifted writer in the most articulate and literal sense. She hand-binds books and lives on a farm with peacocks, bees, sheep, and the governor of Ohio’s leg. She loves old books and sells them from her website, LaniersBooks.com, and she’s currently putting the final touches on her first novel, as well as studying literature at Oxford.


3 Comments

  1. Helena

    There were some truly unflattering snorts during the “writing process” portion of this interview. I refuse to say who’s responsible.

  2. mayajt

    Hey Jennifer, what’s your reason for choosing Emily over Anne? (I agree with your choice, but I wondered why…)

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