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
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?
Moved in on the Fourth Floor
in the Park
Night of the Living Gerbils
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 goodness...you 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.
Are You Calling A Woolly Mammoth? 165 million to 13,000 years ago
Ancient Americans 13,000 B.C.E. to 1000
We There Yet? 1000-1650
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!
By Elizabeth Levy
Illustrated by Sally Comport
Harper Collins Juvenile Books - September 2002
ISBN: 0060000546 Hardcover
Reading Ages 7-12
by Beverly J. Rowe, MyShelf.Com
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.
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
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
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