Witches & Pie

PieAbout two years ago, Sophie and I headed down to our local pie shop to talk about what to do next. The 9 Lives of Alexander Baddenfield had just come out, and we wanted to collaborate on a second project, but in a totally different way.

The pie shop is called Four and Twenty Blackbirds. It’s in the Gowanus. Important conversations are better with pie.

9 Lives was created the way most books for kids are: with the author’s job finished before the illustrator’s begins. Normally, author and illustrator never even speak. This would have been difficult in our case—we sat next to each other in the studio—but the book still didn’t feel like a true joint effort.

Our next project we wanted to create entirely together. Not just in terms of character and plot, but using a back-and-forth process in which the writing responded to the illustrations as much as the other way around.

This was a really exciting idea, but how to begin?

Over coffee and pie crumbs, I pitched Sophie two ideas. The first was a new one I was excited about; the second, a decade-old concept I had never managed to get off the ground. Sophie was not so excited by my excitement, but was immediately taken with the second idea, such as it even was. All I had was a setting—Benevento—and the idea that it was overrun with witches who made life for the local children a constant chore.

Johnny is playing this down. What he actually described were thrilling fragments of ancient Italian witch lore: flying goats, boiling rivers, household spells, witches rubbing oil in their armpits. He had me at “goats”.

Sophie and I settled quickly on featuring a group of kids rather than a single protagonist.

We took our own kids up to my farmhouse one snowy weekend. In between building an igloo, lighting fires, and frying cheese, we sketched out Primo, Rosa, Emilio, Maria Beppina, and Sergio.

We would tell each of their stories individually, but their books would overlap, both narratively and physically. So in one book, you hear a kid tell what happened when they get caught by a witch, and in another, you see what actually happened. What’s more, a picture in one book might connect to the illustration in another, or show the opposite perspective, or be identical except a change of color.

Our hope is that kids read and reread these books again and again, gaining new understandings as they go.

It’s a paradox that kids in the upper-single-digit years consume massively complicated story lines in their films, TV shows, and comics, but read relatively simple literature. By keeping the stories simple but layering meanings, we’re hoping to create a rich literary environment for early readers.

We also want to create books that kids feel like they can own. For that reason, we chose a size that fits easily into smaller hands.

That said, we also wanted the books to creep to the edge of scary, to the point where kids feel the thrill of trepidation pulling the title off the shelf.

Many pies later, and a trip to the real Benevento for me, and lots of time in libraries for both of us, not to mention writing and drawing and testing the patience of our editor and art director, we offer for your enjoyment, The Witches of Benevento.

We never finished the igloo.

Johnny & Sophie