Allison Pataki & Marya Myers, NELLY TAKES NEW YORK

I'm really excited to here today with both Allison Pataki and Marya Myers. Allison is a best-selling author of four novels with a fifth novel coming out in spring of 2020. She wrote a beautiful memoir about how she coped with her husband’s stroke while pregnant called Beauty in the Broken Places which I interviewed her about on the podcast. Now she’s published Nelly Takes New York, the first children's book in a new series. A former news writer and producer, Allison graduated from Yale University. Her books have been translated into more than eighteen languages. She currently lives in New York with her husband, children, and rescue pup. Mayra Myers, her childhood best friend, is an early literacy author and editor. Another Yale graduate, Mayra has a master’s degree in early childhood education and special education from Teachers College at Columbia University. A former teacher, coach, tutor, and travel lover, Marya now lives in Washington DC with her husband and child.

 

Welcome Allison and Marya to “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”

 

Marya Myers: Thank you for having us.

 

Allison Pataki: We’re happy to be here.

 

Zibby: This is such a treat. I know these girls are so busy on book tour and going all over the place. It really means a lot that they took time out to meet in person. Thank you for coming in. You two are best friends who decide to write a book together, which is every girl and their best friend’s dream. Tell me how this came about and how you went from the idea to having it be here on the table with us.

 

Marya: We were originally inspired, my oldest niece actually lived in California at the time. I wanted to bring her back to her New York roots. We’re thinking about this idea. Allison and I lived together in New York, went to college together. We grew up together and when we were in New York, had all these little adventures ourselves on the weekends when we had time, wander around the city and see what we could find. As our careers took shape, I worked in education. Allison was writing. Now we have families. It was a natural progression. We wanted to put all these adventures down on paper.

 

Zibby: Tell listeners what Nelly Takes New York is about.

 

Allison: There's this little girl Nelly who, along with her mischievous little pal, the beagle named Bagel, wakes up one morning in her New York City home. Even though she knows her city and she's a very street-smart little girl, she hears her city being referred to as the Big Apple. She takes that literally. She and Bagel set off to find this big apple. Throughout this day of an adventure and this series of false starts, they end up having a lot of fun and meeting a lot of people and seeing the Big Apple before ultimately coming to the realization at the end that it’s a more abstract concept and that they have experienced the Big Apple, which is the community. It’s the New Yorkers. It’s the wonderful landmarks and museums and parks and sites and sounds of their city.

 

Zibby: Did someone actually say “I'm looking for the Big Apple”? Did your niece say that thing? It was just inspired by?

 

Marya: No, it was just inspired by. Children can take things so literally. To think about it through a child’s eyes, when you say you're going to the Big Apple, “Excuse me? What is this large apple that I'm visiting? No, I'm going to New York City,” and that wonderful imagination that a child has that they could be looking for something literal such as the big apple.

 

Zibby: This was such a great story, especially for my kids who live in New York. It’s all the different places. I found it interesting what you chose to include and not include, include and exclude. I do know that word. You did choose to include the 9/11 Memorial, which was an interesting choice, and then not to include other landmarks like The Met. Tell me how you went about choosing which ones to include.

 

Allison: You could write forty versions of Nelly Takes New York and have her visit entirely new landmarks and museums and sites each time. There are that many wonderful things to see in New York. Ultimately, we did have to pair it down. We did pick places that are important to us and specifically in our experience living in New York, Central Park and The Museum of Natural History. For us, the 9/11 Memorial was very meaningful because it provides this moment of gravitas in the story itself. It has more weight than some of the more lighthearted adventure spots. 

 

Also, we were thinking about this. We were friends. We remember so distinctly, the morning of 9/11. Kids these days, that's not a part of history to which they have a personal touchstone or memory at all. We think it’s a very important part of our history as New Yorkers. Growing up, Marya’s family worked in New York City. My father was governor during 9/11. The 9/11 Memorial is obviously hugely personal to both of us. It seemed like a natural moment in her story and a natural spot to include and to hopefully educate the children in a sensitive way that's not too heavy for them but teaches them that this is an important part of our history.

 

Zibby: I actually haven't brought my kids down to this museum yet. I lost my best friend on 9/11. In the videos downstairs, I'm actually in the video under her speaking and giving a speech at her funeral and pictures of us in college. Reading your book, maybe they're ready. Maybe I should take them to see it so they understand. Is it too upsetting? I feel the same, there's a Holocaust exhibit right now going on. Should I take them? Do you want to expose your kids to the pain or protect them? I don't know. It’s hard to know as a parent.

 

Marya: You're educating them, though. It’s a great conversation to have with them because you never know what questions they might have. You're able to add a personal touch to it to make them feel and understand. Kids are stronger than we think. They just want to learn and know more. For the young children that weren’t alive on 9/11, it’s a great way to introduce them to the history of the city and have that conversation.

 

Allison: We walked a fine line in terms of how to approach it because initially, our first drafts had more text. The people there were a little bit more emotional. We have that they're walking slowly. They're holding hands. Through a young girl’s perspective, some people looked very sad. Some people are looking at the memorial and crying. We paired down the language a bit because we knew that we could also tell half of the story with the illustrations. Ultimately, that is a conversation that each parent approaches with their child differently. My three-year-old now is asking me questions that I have no idea how to answer. Where does someone go when they pass away? Everyone has to approach it differently. We knew we wanted it in there and then left room so that depending on the age or the sensibilities of the kid or the parent, it’s a stop but it doesn't totally detour the story.

 

Zibby: It was great, the illustration too, because we’re also trying to find what Bagel is up to in all the pictures. That one, I don't think I noticed it the first time. Then you have to really search. It gets you back to their story. How involved were you with the illustrations?

 

Marya: We were very involved in the whole process, which was wonderful. We had an amazing, amazing illustrator, Kristi Valiant. She made the city come alive. You’d almost think it was a photograph, looking at some of the illustrations. Then you also know such a whimsical, beautiful nature of Nelly and Bagel. There's such humor in the illustrations. Her ability to capture the sense of the character through our words was really, really wonderful. We were able to go through the editing process and talk about things we liked. Maybe we’re hoping for this change, this change. We really felt involved and as if our baby was taken care of.

 

Zibby: Did you get to select her?

 

Allison: Yes. It was wonderful. Our publisher had a first choice. We had the same first choice. It aligned very well. They were wonderful to empower us at every step of the process from choosing her to then going through drafts of her illustrations. She was great. Everyone's like, “The book is good, but the illustrations are beautiful.” We love what she did.

 

Zibby: I feel like other children's book authors, they don't get to choose. Then they don't even get to comment, even really established authors. I heard Kwame Alexander speak. Now I'm forgetting his book, which was beautiful. I think it’s called Brave or Strong or something. He didn't get to pick. When he gave a comment -- he said this in a speech I went to see -- the author was like, “I don't comment on your words. You don't have to comment on my drawings.”

 

Marya: Whoa. That is so interesting.

 

Zibby: I assumed you were going to say, “No, but aren’t they great?” How nice that you got to be involved. I always think how can people not be involved? It’s part of your work.

 

Allison: I know. It is.

 

Marya: It’s telling half the story.

 

Allison: It was so interesting from my experience as a writer of adult fiction where obviously there are no illustrations. I'm doing everything with my words. To then experience this process of storytelling where we were constantly cutting and pairing language because fifty percent of the story was going to be Kristi’s illustrations, that was a really interesting learning experience to think about every word and to know that a whole half of the story was going to be told by something other than your language. It was neat.

 

Marya: It provides a nice access point for kids who might have trouble reading the words or with the comprehension. They can feel like they can sit down and look the illustrations and still get a sense of the story and interact with whomever they're reading with. It’s a nice entry point for all readers.

 

Zibby: Take me through how you two collaborated. Did you get together in person? Did you do it through some sort of Google Doc? How did you do it?

 

Allison: Our first session, we sat down together in person this month six years ago. Over the course of a long weekend -- it was Memorial Day weekend 2013 -- we banged out rough drafts after having spoken and outlined and thought very extensively prior. We banged out rough drafts for New York and our next city, which is Paris. That was so fun and a collaborative brainstorming session. Subsequently, the challenge was to find the time in our lives, in our respective careers and families to determine when it was the right time to actually pursue this project as more than just a fun thing we were doing in our free time. It worked out so perfectly because in these past six years, Marya has had this amazing career in education and with children's books. I've been able to build my career as a writer. We've both become moms. We've both become aunts many, many times over and have so many children in our lives now. It really aligned perfectly with the timing.

 

Zibby: Your memoir, Beauty in the Broken Places, was really one of my favorites. It was so good. 

 

Allison: Thank you. I'm not crying this time. 

 

Zibby: That's okay. You can cry. Someone once asked me, “Has anyone ever cried on your podcast?” Yes, I'm so bad about it. How does this differ? It’s obviously memoir and a children's book, they're night and day. It’s both the act of sitting down and doing it and everything. How did you approach it? How did you find the difference?

 

Allison: Well, I'm not crying, so there's that. That's a big thing, though. A memoir, that was a moment of reliving over and over again the worst experience of my life, whereas a children's book, what I say is it feels by comparison like I'm jumping into an ice cream sundae. It’s fun. Children are fun to speak to. They're fun to read with. It’s light. There's a sense of whimsy and adventure. It’s really different. A lot of what I'm doing with Beauty in the Broken Places is speaking to caregivers or survivors of stroke or brain injury. That's really meaningful. I always say that's the most meaningful book I've ever written just because the way it connects me with readers in such a deep, visceral way. It’s unlike my fiction. Then this is really different too because it’s children. It’s fun. It takes months to edit your adult novel. We edit these children's books a lot quicker because there are so many fewer words.

 

Zibby: Did you think about Nelly going to Paris? You always knew it was going to be Poppy? You want to change the name for each one?

 

Allison: Readers can look through Nellyand find Poppy. Poppy is in there. So is Baguette, her little Bagel counterpart. She makes a number of cameos in this book. Our idea was that these girls were going to be different in each city because it was going to be a local to each city who really knows her city and her own little sidekick. They were going to have overlap. They would make cameos and help each other out.

 

Mayra: We wanted it to be a new girl in each city to show that they were locals. They lived there. You can find adventure in your own home. You don't need to travel the world. Not everyone has the means to travel the world. You can walk out your front door in a place that you've lived your whole life and still find a fun adventure.

 

Zibby: That's excellent. Are they ever going to meet? What do you think?

 

Allison: Absolutely. Maybe they have met in here. Maybe Nelly will be making cameos in future books like Poppy makes a cameo in hers. I think one of your four kids will find Poppy or Baguette.

 

Zibby: I'm sure they will, perhaps right now. [laughter] My daughter has climbed under my chair. I'm trying play it cool.

 

Allison: There's your mission. You have to find the little Parisian girl.

 

Zibby: I've already bribed my son to do something else. Now it’s wasted TV. [laughs] The view from the Empire State Building, I wanted to flag that page because that was one of my favorite moments in this whole book. What did you feel like when you saw that illustration? Were you blown away like I was? It says just “Wow.” 

 

Mayra: Nelly said it best. You're speechless. It’s a beautiful, beautiful view of the city. It’s an illustration. It’s not a photograph. The glow from the colors and the page, the sun is setting, you feel the weight of that moment for her in that illustration.

 

Allison: I have that spread hanging in my playroom.

 

Zibby: Do you really?

 

Allison: Because it’s my favorite. It was a really brilliant idea by the publisher to say, “I don't think we even want words on this page. We’re going to do a full spread. We’re going to see the Big Apple. We’re going to let the illustration really speak.”

 

Zibby: There's so many places you can take this whole thing. You've probably already thought of them. You can have the Nelly and Poppy dolls. It would be so neat if you were able -- I know Nickelodeon does this with books. You can be like, Sadie and the Paw Patrol or whatever. If you put Your Kid Goes to New York or wherever they're from, you could customize the books, give them as birthday gifts or something if you wanted to commercialize it.

 

Allison: I also love Nelly experiencing New York at different times of the year. Certain seasons in New York are so amazing.

 

Zibby: Even like you said in the beginning, you can write so many different books. Go for it. You could get us all through the city.

 

Allison: Nelly Takes New York is the first in a series called Big City Adventures. We will go to different cities with the girls and their mischievous little sidekicks, so Nelly Takes New Yorkand then the next one is Poppy Takes Paris. It’s a way to educate kids while also having fun and reading with them. It makes the city adventurous and accessible whether you live in the city or whether you've never been to the city.

 

Zibby: How are you two integrating this with your other full lives?

 

Allison: Good question.

 

Zibby: Even just this part. This is a lot of time and travel. How are you doing this?

 

Allison: Supportive parents, husband.

 

Mayra: I currently live in Washington DC. We have a lot of support, friends, family, husbands, siblings. I actually think my two-year-old niece is currently entertaining my four-month-old. We’re putting her to work, so a lot of support. It’s nice that everyone is cheering us on and we’re able to take the time to enjoy this. It’s so much fun to do it with your best friend. There's such a level of comfort and respect. To know that we met twenty-two years ago, twenty years ago over spaghetti and meatballs, to think that now ourselves would be doing this is pretty incredible.

 

Allison: It’s pretty fun. As you said, it’s a dream come true.

 

Zibby: What about your other books? Are you working on adult books?

 

Allison: Yeah. We’re both still working full time. My next adult fiction is coming in February of 2020, so just have to slate it in. If I'm doing this for a week, then there will be other projects next week.

 

Zibby: That's exciting. I just interviewed a time management expert who wrote this book called Time to Parentwho lays out all of your time and demands on the time into eight different sections. Her name’s Julie Morgenstern. This is lifesaving for me. I won't go into it too much detail, not like cross-promotion here, not even on purpose. I find myself struggling. Where do I fit in all these different things and the kids and the work? Which things should come first? Thinking about it more analytically versus emotionally like, “I feel guilty if I spend too much time on this,” I found it really helpful. Now I've been telling every friend I can since then. This is the key that I needed before. What else is coming next? You have your book coming out.

 

Mayra: I work for an education nonprofit. We've been writing children's books that go with a phonics sequence in early reading. That's been really fun to play with language and illustration in a totally different way because they're so controlled. There's only a certain amount of words that kids have between kindergarten, first, second grade, and above. I've been writing children's books through my work and publishing through work that way. It’s been great.

 

Zibby: You have a lot more stops on the tour?

 

Allison: Yeah. We’re keeping busy. It’s good. There are a lot of fun, enthusiastic kids who will share the story with us.

 

Mayra: We have a signing tomorrow evening in Brooklyn at BookMark Shoppe, on Saturday at Book Culture on Columbus, Saturday morning.

 

Zibby: I love Book Culture. Maybe we’ll be there. Maybe we’ll come to that.

 

Allison: Sunday, we have one at the Village, at WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn.

 

Zibby: One question on collaboration because I'm sure a lot of people debate, “Can I do this project with a friend? Which friend?” What do you think made you guys such a good team? What characteristics do you each have? What do you think made it work so well?

 

Mayra: That's a great question. We've always had a nice connection. We are different people too. We've always shared a nice respect for each other in different ideas and things that we bring to the table. It strengthened our friendship and added a new dimension to it. Aside from the personal life, the family life, when we were younger, the relationship life, and everything like that, now we’re sharing our careers together. That's such a new facet to the relationship. That's been really, really fun. To be able to share an idea and say, “I actually don't think that would work. What if we try this? I disagree,” even just having that basis of friendship to be able to speak our minds to each other has made this process fun and easy.

 

Allison: It really helps that we lived together in New York. We've experienced this city together at so many different ages and points in our life. We came into New York on field trips as students, all the way up through living in an apartment together after college, to now being moms and experiencing New York that way. We both love kids. We both love reading, from us reading Harry Potter as kids to now reading books to kids. Both of our careers have taken us in a way that's been centered around books. We share that. We've loved exploring cities and having adventure whether it’s right outside our door or halfway across the world. We've always both shared that curiosity and that interest for going to find adventure wherever you are, which is ultimately what Nelly is doing as well. We have a similar spirit in that way.

 

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring children's book authors or authors in general?

 

Mayra: Keep writing. Write down your ideas. Also, especially for children's books, think about the world through the eyes of a child. We've gone through so many things as you get into adulthood. There's something so fresh and fun about the way a child views the world and experiences new things. The world can be opened up to them through children's literature. That's so important.

 

Allison: Everybody has a story. Everybody is a storyteller. Whenever people tell me they have an idea, I say do it. You have to just sit down and do it. Your first draft is not going to be your final, best draft. Just get started and tell the story.

 

Zibby: Thank you guys so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”

 

Allison: Thanks, Zibby.

 

Mayra: Thank you for having us. This was fun.

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