Jarrett Dapier - The Lion & Dragonfly Interview
We loved getting to know a bit about Jarrett Dapier, the jazz-loving librarian and author of the exuberant delight Jazz for Lunch! We loved to learn about his inspirations, favorite children's books, and where he would love to spend his personal Night at the Museum.
Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, Jarrett.
Tell us about how you came up with the idea for your book Jazz for Lunch!.
JAZZ FOR LUNCH! was born when some of the words in the book flew right out of my mouth one afternoon when my daughter was 6. I've been playing jazz for my kids since before they both were born and on that particular day we were making lunch together and it was Benny Goodman on the radio (one of my daughter's favorites at that time). As we sort of danced next to each other while making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I said, “You know what we’re having? We're having jazz for lunch!" And then a few beats later I shouted, "Pit-pat the peanut butter!” and without skipping a beat, my daughter sang, “slap on the jelly!” Those two lines - mine and my daughter's - are in the book.
The next day, I was walking my son in his stroller and at the end of about a two mile walk, I started just rhyming aloud to him, "Walking with my Auntie Nina down to a club, we're gonna hear some music and then eat some grub, Nina's there for lunch almost every sing day, musicians hit the stage, and this is what they play: Jazz For Lunch!" I stopped and recorded those lines on my phone, which ended up being the first couple pages of the book.
But, maybe the book was born back when I was a kid. Jazz has always been an important part of my life ever since it hooked me from the get-go at 8 years old. That was when my mom took me and my siblings to a Chicago club called Andy's where they served lunch while a jazz quartet played most days of the week. I loved the energy of the place, and I loved the idea of spending lunchtime sitting in such a place alive and vibrating with jazz (even if it wasn't as hot and hopping as the club Eugenia created in her illustrations for the book). My mom's a talker and she used to tell me stories about Miles Davis, Jimmy Smith, and Ramsey Lewis and her love of jazz as a teenager growing up in Chicago in the 60s. She also took us to see Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea when I was in middle school.
Later, the first conversation I ever had with my wife was about Ella Fitzgerald - jazz became a huge part of the soundtrack to our lives together. It's an example to me of how jazz brings people together and changes their lives. I wanted to capture some of that sense in the book.
How did you come to collaborate with Eugenia Mello on this book? What was that collaborative process like?
I didn't work with Eugenia much at all. There was a short period when she neared completion of her illustrations that I was allowed to view the work and suggest changes, but I didn't have many. Eugenia and I never had a conversation together until the day the book came out when we interviewed each other on Instagram Live. I would love to collaborate with her on a future book, but on this, which is typical for most picture books, the author and the illustrator were kept siloed.
What is your favorite page of this book and why?
Ack, I have so many! I absolutely love the spread when Junior plays his drum solo on the kitchen pots and pans. Eugenia captured the joy, abandon, and intensity of my favorite jazz drummers in each of the different expressions on Junior's face. You asked about collaboration - one of the small ways I contributed to the illustration process was to send along my favorite photos of Art Blakey, "Philly Joe" Jones, Jo Jones, Buddy Rich, and Max Roach to Eugenia with the suggestion that she model Junior's expressions during his solo on them. As a drummer myself, it's hard to put into words the intense feeling of freedom I get when I play the drums with a group of musicians with whom I'm locked in. I think Eugenia captured it in pictures beautifully.
What inspired you to become an author/illustrator?
I don't think I could pinpoint just one thing. I've always wanted to write, and I think I've always written specifically for children and teens, even if I didn't realize it at the time. In high school creative writing classes, I either wrote Shel Silverstein-inspired humor/nonsense poems or short stories about teens falling in love. It's just naturally what I wanted to write.
In college, I wrote with adult audiences in mind, but my stories were almost always about children and teens and hewed closely to my own experiences (there was a lot I needed to process). Memories are definitely a huge inspiration. My memories of being a child and being a teen are incredibly detailed and clear - down to being able to remember what some random kid said to me on one random day in 6th period junior year, what color Converse a specific umpire wore during baseball games I played in 3rd grade, or where I was when I bought a Fugazi CD in eighth grade - and with those detailed memories are a lot of stories and material. I think my access to these memories helps me sympathize with what it's like to be a kid or a teen - the painful and the funny.
My family inspires me, too. I'm really energetic and constantly playing with words, coming up with stories, and trying out ideas when they're around. If I can make my daughter laugh, I feel like a million bucks.
Some other inspirations include reading picture books and chapter books aloud to my kids (which I sometimes still do even though they're 11 and 16), working with teenagers in a library setting and really delving into the amazing world of young adult literature since 2009, and also the works of Maurice Sendak, especially In the Night Kitchen.
On top of that: drumming. When I write I often hear a rhythm to the words that really locks in with something deep inside of me that loves how it sounds and wants more. Children love to hear rhythm and rhyme (and parents often like to read it) and they love to laugh, so writing for them feels like a natural, hopeful outlet for me.
What do you think are the ingredients for a great children’s book?
Picture books have to be great to read aloud. I think the best picture books are those that both adults and children enjoy. To me, that means the book often has to have rhythm, precise language, and intentional flow. That doesn't mean all books need to be in rhyme or bombastic like Oh, No! by Candice Fleming, but there needs to be a clear sense that the author is taking us along on a journey. When you look at classics like The Snowy Day or Where the Wild Things Are, there's a kind of world spun with the words and images that is very intentional and envelopes readers of all ages. I think that has to do with the rhythms in the book - and the fact that not a single word is excessive.
Humor is another ingredient that's crucial. It can be subtle, or it can be overtly silly. I love how Eugenia incorporated humor into the pictures like when Auntie Nina plays a stalk of celery like it's a trumpet. Even the most thoughtful, quiet, reflective book should incorporate humor somehow. Ezra Jack Keats was a master at doing this. One minute we'd be in the main character's unconscious while he dreams and then the next he's goofing off with his friends in an hilarious way.
Finally, it seems obvious, but the author needs to convey a sense of childlike wonder. This requires that the author actually have some kind of connection to their own experiences of being a child and have the ability to capture that in language somehow (or in pictures for illustrators) or really know children from spending a ton of time with them and listening to them with respect. Wonder can be found in all kinds of stories. Renee Watson conveys a sense of amazement at the artistry and power of Josephine Baker in Harlem's Little Blackbird, which is a non-fiction book, while Ame Dyckman's Dandy explores the beauty and preciousness of a single dandelion while also being really silly. A great children's book takes wonder seriously.
What is your favorite place to write?
I love to write in designated quiet rooms at libraries. They're so incredibly calming and aid my focus in special ways. Libraries have become way livelier and louder since I was a kid - not the repressive institution where you get shushed all the time (something which movies and TV still don't seem to understand - every time there's a library in a movie, even in 2022, it's a dead silent space and the librarian, usually portrayed as a stereotypical scold, is always shushing the main characters! Come on, do some research!) - and I think it's wonderful. Allowing reasonable noise and conversation is welcoming to people of all ages, serves families with young ones well, and allows for fun, raucous programming like comics festivals and musical events. That said, I do think libraries without designated quiet spaces do a disservice to certain patrons. Some people need the silence to focus or to settle their minds, and some people have sensory disorders or sensitivities that make noisy environments overwhelming for them. Our culture mistrusts silence, but it's necessary and people who need it deserve a public space where silence is protected. Phew! That was a long way of saying: I like to write at the library.
I also love to write in my basement. I have a large desk made out of an old door that allows me to spread out and a vintage stereo set-up that I love and allows me to play vinyl, CDs, and streaming with great sound. I know I went on and on about silence a minute ago, but I almost always write to music. Or I will write in silence and then reward myself with listening to a handful of songs really loudly and just get carried away. Music is my absolute lifeblood and the source of all creativity for me.
There’s a section of the book where you talk about famous jazz musicians, who is your favorite jazz musician?
This is hard for me to answer! There are so many. I'm partial to John Coltrane because he was my first jazz love, but I think if I had to pick one right now it would be Ahmad Jamal. Great piano jazz transports me unlike any other instrument (other than Ella's voice) and Jamal is an absolute master. 8 times out of 10 if I'm listening to jazz, it's usually piano. Which maybe makes sense since technically the piano is a percussion instrument - all those powerful little hammers striking the strings. I love the duet albums featuring Coltrane and a great pianist like Thelonious Monk or Red Garland. The perfect mix.
What was your favorite picture book growing up?
I don't have a lot of memories of picture books. I can tell you all the chapter books I read in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades, but hardly any picture books come to mind. That said, The Cat in the Hat was my favorite. I broke my arm when I was 3 and had a prolonged hospital stay because it was a weird break and I needed to keep my arm in traction. My parents tell me that they read me that book aloud to me so many times that year that it fell apart.
I definitely have incredibly vivid memories of Dr. Seuss books, especially that one, Yertle the Turtle, and The Sneetches. One thing that has been incredible about reading to my kids is when I read them a book I must have loved as a kid but I'd forgotten and I turn the page to an illustration that returns me instantly to being a preschooler. Like that scene in Ratatouille when the critic eats the bite of food at the end and he suddenly sees his childhood. One of the books that did that for me was Cars and Trucks and Things That Go by Richard Scarry. I pored over that one a LOT when I was young and it was an inspiration for my book, Mr. Watson's Chickens.
What children’s book (other than your own) are you recommending to friends at the moment?
Breda's Island by Jessie Ann Foley. It's a beautiful, emotional middle grade book that evokes the beauty of the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland in such an incredible way, it made me feel like I was there while I read it. It's a book for kids who want a mystery about family and its origins - one that explores the complexities of families when they split apart and is full of great Irish lore. The main character is sent from Chicago across the ocean alone to live with a pretty scary grandfather she's never met on an isolated seaside Irish farm for an entire summer. I think that premise alone is so intriguing to upper elementary and middle school kids.
I also highly recommend The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! by Carmen Agra Deedy. It's a great picture book about an irrepressible rooster who will not be silenced even when the local dictator forbids singing. It's a great book for kids (and adults) about the power of freedom and shouting down those who would take it from us.
If you weren’t an author or illustrator, what would you most like to be? What is your (other) dream career?
I'm a young adult librarian, and I currently teach library science classes at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, so I think I'm already working in my other dream career! I love working with patrons of all ages - especially creating programming with teens, helping preschoolers find great picture books, and helping parents looking to support their children's budding reading growth. I also love teaching students who are committed to keeping libraries alive.
That said, if I were to pick a dream career that was absolutely outside the realm of possibility for me because I am hopeless at chemistry and math, it would be a pediatric pulmonologist. I would love to work with children as a specialist specifically in a children's hospital. I'm astonished and inspired by the heroic staff at children's hospitals and the work they do. Having grown up with sometimes debilitating asthma, I think I could convey empathy to young ones struggling to breathe, and it would mean a lot to relieve their suffering.
What do you hope your audience takes away from reading Jazz for Lunch!?
I hope families are inspired to cook food together and dance to jazz while they do it! I hope that children see themselves and their family and friends in Eugenia's illustrations. I hope that kids also see how music can be shown with streaks of color, how cooking food can be music, and how poetry can be a tap dance. I want them to see that art and cooking and writing and music require skill and improvisation, that working with other people often deepens our creations, and that creativity is boundless.
What are you currently working on?
I'm working on a graphic novel about students in middle school. The story has to do with the intricacies of finding friendship at that age, bullying, and how anxiety disorders can affect both. It also involves skateboarding, horror movies, and peregrine falcons. It's been slow going, though. Middle school was such a deeply miserable time for me that, even though a lot of the book I'm writing is comical, returning to those memories and really thinking through them makes me sad. And so many things make me sad these days that it can be hard to sit down and work on this.
What museum would you most like to spend the night in?
The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. All those prehistoric bones and incredible stuffed creatures housed in a soaring, grand, historic building... It would be surreal. I'm curious to see if any of the mammoth skeletons or stuffed ibexes come alive at night.
Which superpower would you most like to have?
Invisibility. I think if I could become invisible at will I could get my hands on documents and recordings and other materials that could stop some of the worst political figures and business executives on Earth who do so much harm to people. But, a friend told me that any action taken while invisible, no matter how defensible, would end up having unforeseen consequences that would undermine my mission of justice and end up hurting the people I want to help. But who's to say that's inevitable? I don't know. I sometimes yearn for this totally fictional and impossible power so much I make myself miserable. Maybe I should write a book about it.
Interview by Abby Gallagher