Babes to Teens Past
By Beverly Rowe

Interview with Elizabeth Levy


I had a chance to talk with Elizabeth Levy about her new Robert and Sam Vampire books.  Here is what she had to say:


Elizabeth Levy
The Vampire State Building

When I read Elizabeth Levy's new book, "The Vampire State Building," and then looked up her other books, I knew she was someone I really wanted to interview; she has contributed so much to children's literature and their love of reading.

Bev: Elizabeth, we are so pleased that you could visit with us. Could you tell us about your growing up years?  A biographical sketch?

Elizabeth: I grew up in Buffalo, New York. My mother, particularly, loved to read, and she also loved The Marx Brother Movies, so I learned early that both reading and laughing were important.  I had one brother, Larry, who was four years older. His favorite game was to pretend to strangle me.  I also had a lot of cousins. They are now among some of my best friends, and I learned early how to survive in the rough and tumble of family.  I think I've always loved to write about the humor and jokes that goes on in families and the teasing and testing of love.

I loved to daydream and to read.  I was quite messy as a kid, and I had terrible handwriting.  I had a wonderful teacher, Ms. Sugarman who taught me not to be afraid of making mistakes.  I eventually wrote a book about her called, "Keep Ms. Sugarman in the Fourth Grade." 

I loved my elementary school, and I think that is a one reason I love writing for that age.  I went to Pembroke College which was then part of Brown University in Rhode Island.  I had a wonderful history teacher from Texas who taught me a lot about writing. After graduation I came to New York City and had a variety of jobs, including working as a researcher for ABC News and Howard Cossell.  I've always loved sports. I worked briefly on Senator Robert Kennedy's campaign.  After he was killed, I met someone who suggested I write children's books and I've been doing that ever since.


Bev:  Who were your favorite authors as a child?

Elizabeth: I was always Alice in Alice in Wonderland, or Nancy in the Nancy Drew mysteries.  I also loved horses. I loved all the books by Marguerite Henry and the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley.  I even wrote Marguerite Henry and asked her to adopt me. I told her my life belonged to horses.  She wrote me back and sent me a picture of Misty.  Ever since I try to answer all my fan mail.


Bev: Robert and Sam are great characters...someone that modern kids can really relate to. What other books are they in?

Frankenstein Moved in on the Fourth Floor
Zombies in the Park
The Night of the Living Gerbils
The Vampire State Building

I love Robert and Sam.  They are somewhat based on my nephews, Ben and David. They are also clearly my brother and me.  I love writing about them, and now their cousin Mabel. They live in New York, which has been my home for over thirty years, and they love New York the way I do.  They're newest adventure is called The Vampire State Building.  I had just finished the book and was doing some rewrites on September 11, 2001.  In the morning, the Empire State Building was the third tallest building in New York. On that terrible day, it became the tallest.  I felt I had to rewrite the book to express what Sam and Robert would feel about our city after the event, and I knew they would have to look toward Ground Zero from the observation deck.


Bev: My have been at this for 30 years?  What inspired you to write children's books, and especially books that were funny and a bit scary?

Elizabeth: I was working in politics, and after Robert Kennedy was killed, I wanted to write for kids about how much fun people have when they're really involved in work they love.  I think too often politics and history are presented as boring, but while you're in the middle of it, making mistakes, and trying to do good, you do laugh a lot.  My next book was a mystery, starring Fletcher, the first Something Queer Mystery.  I've recently had a wonderful time reviving Fletcher in new mysteries illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein.  I've always loved mysteries.  I don't like to be scared. I've always needed to comfort myself, by either keeping busy or laughing or being with friends.  I think it's how we get through the hard times, and I wanted my characters to do that too.


Bev: You write everything from pre-elementary picture books and scary stories to historical nonfiction ...I'm sure that each type offers special challenges.  Which ones do you most and least enjoy writing, and why?

Elizabeth: When I'm writing non-fiction, I long to do fiction.  And when I'm writing fiction, I long to be doing the research for non-fiction.   I love the gathering of details.  I love to do research for both fiction and non-fiction.  I found out how to do taxidermy for the Night of the Living Gerbils, and I just went on a Wagon Train for the next book in my American History series, Westward Ha! Ha!


Bev: "America's Horrible Histories" sounds intriguing!!  Is this a series? If so, what are the titles and subjects in the series?  Tell us about them.

Elizabeth: We're changing the name of the series to "America's Funny But True History."  I've always loved those true, funny details that make history so real.  While history is certainly not always funny, I believe that kids learn better when they're laughing.  I also believe that if we can laugh at our history, it's hard to hate.  I became fascinated with the fact the America is not new. We have a long, ancient history. I decided to try to look at history through a very long lens. 

Who Are You Calling A Woolly Mammoth? 165 million to 13,000 years ago
Awesome Ancient Americans   13,000 B.C.E. to 1000
Are We There Yet?   1000-1650
Cranky Colonials   1650-1760 Revolting Revolutionaries 1760-1800

I am currently working on a book about the West tentatively titled, "Westward Ha! Ha!" 1800-1850


Bev: Some stories are told from the viewpoint of a cockroach.  Tell us why you chose Mel as the narrator.

Elizabeth: He is my tribute to Mel Brooks.  He can comment on history and make jokes that I might not be able to in my own voice.   Also the cockroach has been around since dinosaurs roamed in America, and he's still here. I want kids to realize that history, even our own history, is worth learning.  We so often can laugh with the ones we love, and I want kids to love their own history, the way I do.  I even have a cockroach puppet of Mel that I take to visit schools.


Bev: What has been your biggest writing challenge?

Elizabeth: To dig deeper  Certainly in the history books, I have to dig deeper to get the best facts and to talk to historians about the different interpretations of history.  But no matter what I write, the challenge is to dig deeper into the emotions that we sometimes hide through humor. 

It is easy to hurt someone's feelings with jokes  You have to be careful with humor just as we have to learn to be careful with each other.  My characters are always learning that hard lesson and so am I. In My Life As A Fifth Grade Comedian, I tried to deal with the fact that my character can't just say, "I was only kidding."  Also there is a big difference between being sarcastic and truly funny.


Bev: Do you read for fun now?  What kind of books and which authors are your favorites?

Elizabeth: Right now, I'm reading a lot of books on the West, the Gold Rush and the Texas Rangers.  One of the wonderful things about being involved in children's books is that some of my favorite writers have become friends.  I love to read books by Paula Danziger, Paul Zindel, Richard Peck, I am always amazed at the depth that children's book writers bring to their work.  I also love to read mysteries and adult novels.  I thought Lovely Bones, written from the voice of a 14 year old was very powerful. 

Bev: What are your favorite children's web-sites?

I love the helpfulness of almost all museums' and historical societies' websites.  If I have a question, I can usually email someone and get the answer.  I so appreciate their willingness to take the time. I do my basic research through books.  I have to read enough so that I know what questions to ask.


Bev: Children have such wonderful imaginations....what advice could you give your fans for developing their own storytelling skills?

Elizabeth: Every year I do a volunteer writing project with fifth graders at my local school in New York City, PS 11.  I love to talk to kids about making sure that you put all your emotions into your writing.  Sometimes it helps to think of two opposite emotions:  What makes me laugh/ what makes me cry….I love/I hate.

Usually in short sketches, you'll find a clue to a story.  It's important to really think about what you would deeply feel as you write.  It's too easy to go for the quick joke.  Since I write so often about brothers and sisters, I have the perfect opportunity to write about love/hate, silly/serious, scary/comforting.  I want kids to think hard about what they really love then share laughs and scary moments with the people you love.


Bev: Do you have any other thoughts that you would like to share with us?

Elizabeth: Thank you for helping to create a community on line for those who love to read.  I think there is such a natural desire to want to talk about the great and funny books we love and to find out more information about each other. 


Bev:  Elizabeth, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.  It has been a great pleasure!  We are looking forward to your new book on the West, and more Robert and Sam adventures!


Vampire State Building
By Elizabeth Levy
Illustrated by Sally Comport
Harper Collins Juvenile Books - September 2002
ISBN: 0060000546 Hardcover
Reading Ages 7-12

Reviewed by Beverly J. Rowe, MyShelf.Com
Buy a Copy

Elizabeth Levy's newest Robert and Sam story is just in time for Halloween reading. "The Vampire State Building" has some vampire lore, and a creepy fear that Sam's new friend from Romania might be a vampire. Eleven-year-old Sam plays chess with 12-year-old Vlad Clinciu from Bucharest, via the Internet. Both boys are very good at the game and enjoy the give and take of internet chess.

Sam and Robert's pesky cousin Mabel becomes an Internet friend to Vlad's sister, and discovers that Vlad is a "Grandmaster" chess player, and that he is coming to New York to play in a chess tournament and may actually compete against the current world champion.

Vlad has not told Sam about the pending tournament, or that he is a world class chess champion, but has led him to believe that he is a beginner, like Sam.

Sam is very upset when he finds out that his friend may have been less than honest with him. Vlad and his family come to New York and are met enthusiastically by Sam's family. Mabel and Robert suspect that Vlad is a vampire, since he has the same first name as "Vlad the Impaler," comes from the same city, and has crooked teeth, that actually look pointy.

Levy handles the post-September 11 realities of New York City with great sensitivity. This well-plotted story of enduring friendship has outstanding characters and lots of laughs, along with the excitement of New York City and the chess tournament; it will encourage those reluctant readers to look for more books by Elizabeth Levy.

Dracula Is A Pain In the Neck
By Elizabeth Levy
Harper Collins - Revised edition 2002
ISBN: 0-06-440146-4 - Paperback
Children / Reading Ages 9 - 12

Reviewed by Beverly J. Rowe, MyShelf.Com
Buy a Copy

Robert and Sam are going to camp Hunter Creek, but it's Robert's first trip away from home and he just can't go without his special pillow. Sam calls him a baby for wanting to take his pillow. Robert insists that it's Dracula's pillow, and takes his one-armed, one-fanged, plastic Dracula doll along to camp too.

When spooky things begin to happen at camp, Dracula gets the blame. Robert and his friend decide to hide Dracula, and they bury him in the woods; then the haunting really begins. Everyone hears the unearthly howling in the woods, and things disappear! The boys are sure that the real Dracula is at large and trying to get even for mistreating the Dracula doll, and for making fun of Dracula himself; even the counselors are getting spooked. Sam and Robert decide to investigate to see if they can catch Dracula in the act. Will he get them first?

A fast-paced story with great characters, Levy combines a serious story with just the right amount of creepy fun. It would be a great read-aloud story for your Halloween party!

When you think of fall sports, FOOTBALL is at the top of everyone's list.  Here are some new books to get you in the mood, and to help you keep your football facts straight.
Official NFL 2002 Record & Fact Book
Coaching Kids Flag Football by Danford Chamness

My Greatest Day in Football: The Legends of Football Recount Their Greatest Moments (Greatest Day Series)

Rites of Autumn: The Story of College Football by Richard Whittingham, Roger Staubach

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