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Talking Nonsense with Rivka Galchen

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Rivka Galchen about her new children’s book, Rat Rule 79, her first novel for younger readers, despite a long-standing passion for children’s literature. She’s penned articles for The New Yorker on Mo Willems and Curious George, not to mention having taught courses on kid lit. And while she’s probably best known for her adult debut, Atmospheric Disturbances, Galchen shows her versatility in Rat Rule 79, which effortlessly evokes the feel of childhood classics like Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.

Rat Rule 79 tells the story of a girl named Fred, who has had to move with her mother, yet again. She’s feeling fed up with this transient lifestyle, where the only things she can count on are there being noodles and the most delicious of sandwiches: peanut butter and pickles. (I can vouch for this wonderfully strange combo.) On the eve of her thirteenth birthday, Fred witnesses her mother vanish into a large paper lantern that has somehow appeared in their new living room. In planet pj’s and bunny slippers, Fred follows after her mother only to enter the Land of Impossibility, where animals can speak, rational thinking holds no water, and birthdays are illegal (orders of the Rat Queen).

Fred in planet pjs and bunny slippers
An unimpressed Fred, from Rat Rule 79

Much like Milo’s journey through the Lands Beyond (see below), Fred journeys through the literal, if illogical, zones of the Land of Impossibility on the dual mission of finding her mother and helping Downer (an elephant) and Gogo (a mongoose) free the Rat Queen. Galchen demands a level of linguistic sophistication from her readers, as the characters traverse The Stream of Consciousness, The Tantrums, the School of Unlearning, and the Shores of Treason (or Reason), among other regions, but she writes with such love and playfulness that even less adept readers will be swept up in this delightfully idiosyncratic adventure.

Map of the Lands Beyond, from The Phantom Tollbooth
The Lands Beyond, The Phantom Tollbooth

Without Further Adieu, the Interview

SMITH: As a successful author of adult books and a scholar of children’s literature, what was the most surprising thing you discovered about writing a children’s book, yourself?

GALCHEN: It sounds very sappy, but I find that when I write from love, that’s when the difficult dreamwork of writing is joyful. And that feels the same across every genre I’ve worked in—even, say, text messages. So maybe what surprised me most was how similar the emotional source of writing is across all genres.

SMITH: Rat Rule 79 is filled with wordplay. Does this reflect your own love of language? Was it liberating or challenging to write in this way?

GALCHEN: So much of my memorable early reading was the wrappers on Laffy-Taffies, the writing on the sides of cereal boxes. Then also, living with children, it’s an endless series of knock-knock jokes I don’t even totally understand, most of them puns I would never have thought of. I try to have fun with whatever I’m writing, even if it’s journalism. My feeling is that there’s a sort of transmission of energy that way–that if it was fun to write then, hopefully, some of that pleasure of composition carries over to the reader.

Also, living with children means endless language play. My daughter is six, and she has about 60 variants on the What-is-a-pirate’s-favorite-letter joke. (Answer: “Rrrrrrrrr!” I asked her once what was a pirate’s favorite instrument, and she said, “the harrrrrrrrp!”

Laffy Taffy wrapper joke: Why don't lobsters share? Because they are shellfish.
Comedy!

SMITH: Similarly, you continually sidestep conventional thinking throughout the story. What guided this choice?

GALCHEN: There’s a Tom Waits song (“No One Knows I’m Gone“) on the album Alice that has lyrics that feel like an old fable or poem. It’s from the perspective of one of the ghosts (I think!), and it does this little ‘trick’ that I love. It sets up a rhyme, but then doesn’t use it, so you end up hearing both the word that you thought you were going to hear, and the actual word that is sung. It’s easier to explain with an example. A stanza of the song ends with:
The leaves will bury every year
And no one knows I’m gone.

I love that little move—that you expect it to end with ‘here,’ because all the lines before were rhyming. And so in effect you hear, in your head, both here and gone at the same time.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I love to read (or look at, or listen to) things that set up an expectation and then swerve. My daughter loves this, too. All I ever have to do to make her laugh is to end a sentence the wrong way, or say Goodnight instead of Good Morning, or, when she was littler, put my socks on my hand instead of my feet, etc. I’m basically as easy to amuse as her. I love the opening of the novel Peter Pan, “All children, except one, grow up.”

SMITH: The Land of Impossibility has distinct regions that impact the characters within them in very specific ways. I loved the Sea of Technically True Things, which was so funny in its absurdity. Did you have any favorite regions? Did any take on unexpected shapes or qualities as you were writing?

GALCHEN: They were all so fun to write. I think we all have these places that live in our heads. I was curious to see what would happen when she met Nobody, for example. I knew Nobody would have some sort of wisdom to share, but I didn’t know what it would be.

Illustration of Fred and friends crossing the Sea of Technically True Things
“Oxygen snorters!” “Can’t talk to bees!”
Shouts of Insult Fish in the Sea of Technically True Things

SMITH: Being a child vs. growing up is a significant theme in this book. Can you talk a little about this?

GALCHEN: I’m one of those people who worships childhood and children. But I also see how there’s something so wrong in that; it’s a way of telling kids that, basically, they’re in decline, that growing up is a tragedy, even that maybe they won’t be as lovable once they become an ordinary adult like the rest of us. And I don’t really think that’s true! But at the same time, there is truth to it. So this book, though it wasn’t my plan, somehow works through those contradictory feelings. That’s why the Rat Queen passes a rule against getting older. And that’s why the rule, of course, runs into some problems.

SMITH: Obviously, The Phantom Tollbooth was an influence on Rat Rule 79. Were there other books, authors, or forms of writing that impacted it, as well?

GALCHEN: So many. One favorite that is less well known in the U.S. but is a classic in Australia is The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay. It’s about an animate pudding that can feed infinite people without getting any smaller, and the koala bear, penguin, and sailor with whom the pudding keeps company. The goofy picaresque journey of that book was important to me. Also Peter Pan. And in more contemporary work, I love the zany detail of writers like Abby Hanlon and Laurie Keller.

Illustration from The Magic Pudding, by Norman Lindsay
Illustration from The Magic Pudding, by Norman Lindsay

SMITH: Is there anything you’re working on now (for kids or adults) that you’d like to tell us about?

GALCHEN: I’m finishing a book about a witch trial from four hundred years ago! It’s pretty different from this one. But I’m also hoping to put together another book for children, a detective story.

Aaaand, Scene!

Be sure to check out Rat Rule 79, which hits the shelves September 24, 2019. The fantastic illustrations for this book, many featured above, were done by Elena Megalos.

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About the Author:

Julia Smith is a senior editor for Books for Youth at Booklist. She is a graduate of the MLIS program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is also an aspiring aerialist. Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaKate32.

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