'Ivy and Bean' creators Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall
The creators of Ivy and Bean — author Annie Barrows and illustrator Sophie Blackall — laugh when told they are considered superstars in some households. With tongue in cheek, Barrows jokes, “If you’re 7, we’re like the hottest thing in the world.” In fact, the Ivy and Bean series is pretty hot, with over 2.5 million copies sold. But adults love the series, too. Ivy and Bean seek excitement and face challenges that readers of all ages can relate to and laugh along with. The characters are Simpsons-esque, and the pictures are just adorable.
Lucky for us, there’s a brand-new adventure, Ivy and Bean Make the Rules. In it, we find rambunctious Bean and her bookish friend Ivy setting out to create their own camp to rival the gung-ho girl-power day camp Bean’s sister, Nancy, attends. Activities at Ivy and Bean’s Camp Flaming Arrow include Houdini-like escapes, Komodo dragon hunting, zombie attacks, and an ancient battle reenactment. We talked to Barrows and Blackall by phone about the success of Ivy and Bean and where they get some of their ideas.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is your ninth adventure with Ivy and Bean. Was the success of the series a surprise to you?
SOPHIE BLACKALL: I had no doubt. Annie’s a genius, clearly. [Laughs]
ANNIE BARROWS: [Laughs] Great. I love this woman.
Blackall: I think the beauty of the books is that each one leaves you wanting more, and that’s not just me. Kids just devour them. When I’m near kids they tell me, in these sort of plaintive voices, “Why aren’t there more? Why does it take so long to make them?” Which is fantastic. I mean, it’s exactly what you want.
Barrows: Well, I’ve got to say I was totally surprised. You know, I wrote these at the end of a long period of pretty much not really ever spending any time with anybody over 7. And so I was more or less writing those first couple of books very specifically for the people I was hanging out with. Then to realize that there were people I didn’t even know who were reading the books — and what’s more, they were liking the books — it was a big shock. Right about the third book I realized, people I’m not related to — little people who I’ve never seen — are reading about Ivy and Bean, and it was just a complete thrill, but it was also utterly shocking. I mean, my worldview broadened entirely. So now I try to act mature about it, like “Ha ha, I knew it all along.” But I didn’t.
Blackall: Both of our kids are older now, but they still clamor for the next manuscript to come in and they can’t wait to read them.
So how did you two connect? Annie, were you familiar with Sophie’s work? Or was it the other way around?
Barrows: I had seen her work in a book that was published by my publisher. What was that? The book about the princess.
Blackall: Ruby’s Wish?
Barrows: Yes, Ruby’s Wish. But I didn’t even know that my publisher was approaching Sophie and — I told Sophie this story before — I had this hideous dream before I knew that Sophie was doing sketches for Ivy and Bean. I had this terrible dream that the books had been published. That Ivy and Bean had come out and they hadn’t told me that it was happening. And I opened up a manila envelope and there was Ivy and Bean. It was illustrated, and the illustrator had turned the girls into squirrels. [Sophie laughs.] And it was the most hideous nightmare. I woke up sweating and then, about a week later, I got a manila envelope from Chronicle Books and I opened it up, and there were Sophie’s sketches. And it was like the light, the angels sang, the trumpets flew, and the halos fell upon the earth, and it was perfect. And I thought they found somebody who gets it so inside herself that this was exactly what I hoped for and I didn’t even know it.
Sophie, are there any images that you recall being straight from your kids?
Blackall: I have a boy and a girl, Annie has two daughters, and my youngest son is just Bean through and through. Bean is modeled quite a bit on Eggy — that’s his unfortunate name — and I think boys recognize this in Bean, because many boys have come up to me and told me how much they like it, how much especially they like Bean. It’s not even anything overtly tomboy, but I think she just gets boys and I think boys get her.
Barrows: And I think she has impulse control issues that are certainly familiar to many boys.
What kind of a kid were you, Annie? In the reading department.
Barrows: Oh, I was the Ivy person. I would read and read and read until somebody would come and stop me. They had to stop me. Every once in a while my mom would come and take the book away and say, “Go outside. Get some fresh air. You can’t come back for 15 minutes.” No, I was not the Bean type. But I want to say that I have a very soft spot for kids who are not interested in reading, and I feel like they often end up feeling like there’s something wrong with them, that they’re defective because they don’t like to read and… I hope that Bean is showing she’s not defective, she just doesn’t like to sit down and read. That’s cool. It’s important to me that both Bean and Ivy are portrayed as fine, even though they’re on the opposite ends of the spectrum in that regard.
In Ivy and Bean Make the Rules, Bean sets out to make her own camp when Nancy goes off to her Girl Power 4 Ever camp. What gave you the idea for the book?
Barrows: What seemed to happen a lot with my kids, and then their friends, and a bunch of kids I know is that… the idea of camp was so wonderful and intriguing and seductive. And they’d look at the pictures and there’d be all these kids having a rip-roaring time. [Laughs] I would read the description of the camp: “Oh, it’s going to be so much [in a singsong voice] fun fun fun fun fun fun fun fun,” and then they’d get to the camp and there’d be rules everywhere. My kid would come home and say, “They said safety first,” which is just completely antithetical to my family’s idea of a good time. Our family motto is actually that first rule of Bean’s, which is “You can only have as much fun as you are willing to get hurt.” And so when my kids would come home, they’d be so disappointed: “There’s rules. They keep telling me to stop doing what I’m doing.” And I thought, “It’s a grown-up idea, it’s a grown-up idea, these camps full o’ fun,” and I thought, “Well, what would Bean do?” Well, what Bean would do is she’d make her own and she’d make her own rules such as “You can only have as much fun as you are willing to get hurt.” And so I was sort of just riffing on that idea, that parade of camps that most kids deal with now. And that the idea of unleashed fun — the anti-camp and the camp that causes mass defections from all the other camps — just seemed like it was going to end up in Dionysian frenzy, which is exactly where I like all the Ivy and Bean books to end up.
Ivy tends to name-check very interesting historical figures, and in this one, everybody plays ancient queen Boudicca. How do you come to choose these historical references? In other books, it’s Mary Anning or Lise Meitner.
Barrows: When I first wrote the book, the first draft had a lot more of them in there. I read children’s biographies a lot, and I’m always finding out interesting things, and Boudicca is just this woman who takes matters into her own hands — and she has red hair. It seemed like the kind of story that would be so intriguing to Ivy. Again, in the interest of mayhem, it seemed like a really good inspirational tale. So that’s the one I ended up with. I started out with a bunch of different ones. For a while they were all playing Helen Keller, but [laughs] they kept bumping into stuff so I had to change it.
I love your use of slang words, like dang, easy-peasy, doofus, whoa nelly. It’s all funny stuff. What are your favorite slang words? Slang phrases.
Barrows: I really like “ding dang.” [Laughs] It cracks me up every time I type it. This “ding dang” thing. You know, a lot of the stuff I get from kids. There was this one day that I was waiting outside a third-grade classroom door for the school to begin and the bell rang and the kids trailed in and the very last kid trailing in was like, “Ugh,” walking so slowly and he said, “Next train for boring is leaving now.” And I laughed so hard I thought, “I’ve got to use that in a book.” I find that stuff all over the place. [Laughs]
Sophie, I’ve noticed Bean has these wonderful illustrations on her shirts. Do you put a lot of thought into what Bean is wearing?
Blackall: I do, and I’ve kind of painted myself into a corner because now she couldn’t just wear a plain T-shirt or I’d have angry letters.
Barrows: [Laughs] From me.
Blackall: There was a while where my son, when he was younger, did want me to actually make a version of all those T-shirts for him, which, of course, I promised to do and never did — because I’m a bad mother. [Laughs] Short-term memory, you give them a banana instead. [Laughs] No, I have fantastic fun with their clothes, and I’ve been known to kind of follow schoolchildren in the morning on my way to the studio when they’re all lining up and taking photographs with my phone and I know someday this is going to end badly. I’m going to get hauled off by a teacher. I love the way they layer crazy outfits and all the things piled on their backpacks and the odd socks, and all their little wonderful attempts to be individual.
Is there a real Monkey Park, because that (monkey) fountain is quite a thing.
Barrows: That I made up out of my own little head.
Barrows: When I was little, I lived down the street from this very strange old lady who had a mansion, and we were forever trying to get into the grounds of the mansion, and one of the things I remember was there was this hideous, giant, hideous, cornucopia-slash-trencher. Plaster, brightly painted, shiny, fascinating, bulging grapes spilling out of it. So I was sort of trying to capture the bizarreness of that. But the monkey — I don’t know where that came from, it’s just a monkey.
One last question for both of you: Are there any Hollywood plans for Ivy and Bean? Has Hollywood come knocking?
Barrows: Maybe they’ve knocked and I haven’t been at the door. But no, I haven’t heard any knocking. I think that they’re completely missing the boat on this one. As far as I know, there’s nothing in the hopper. How about you, Sophie, have you heard anything?
Blackall: No, no. There was an Australian company that wanted to make it into a television series. I don’t know what happened with that. No. Any minute, though, I think.
Barrows: Oh, yeah. [Laughs] It’s being turned into a musical here in California. The Bay Area Children’s Theatre is making a musical out of it, but that’s not precisely Hollywood.
That’s exciting, though.
Barrow: Yes, it is. I went to the working rehearsal where they were thrashing out the song opportunities, and it was very fascinating to see our characters turned into tap-dancing, singing people. It was amazing.
Blackall: Oh, glorious.
Barrows: I’ll tell you, if that doesn’t make Hollywood knock, I don’t know what will.
Ivy and Bean Make the Rules is in stores now. The First Annual International Ivy and Bean Day will take place on Oct. 13 at bookstores and libraries around the country. Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall will be appearing together at Symphony Space in New York City on Oct. 18.