“E-mergency” by Tom Lichtenheld and Ezra Fields-Meyer

E-mergency is illustrated and written  by Tom Lichtenheld and Ezra Fields-Meyer.  It was inspired by Ezra, a 15-year-old student and an expert animator, who created a short animation video titled  Alphabet House.  Kids of all ages and adults will enjoy the wit and humor, and laugh out loud when they read E-mergency.  Lichtenheld used ink, pencils and pastels to create his very detailed, bold and colorful illustrations.  Brilliant and funny!

All the letters of the alphabet live together in a big house.   The letters  rush downstairs for breakfast one morning, when E tumbles down the stairs.  It’s an E-mergengy!  A takes action and asks J to call 911.  The EMT’s arrive and take E to the hospital.  But, who will take E‘s place?  The obvious choice is O, who is well-rounded.  All the letters jump into action.  An announcement is made on television shows and in newspapers to alert the public that E is out of service and O will stand in.  “Pormanont injury could occur if pooplo uso E.”  D and C “travol to Washington to alort the govornmont.”  For some reason, E, is not recovering and the other letters must find the culprit who has been “disoboying tho lottor law!”  E-mergency is a cleverly crafted and illustrated book.

Author Interview With Tom Lichtenheld

Tom has joined us today to discuss the intriguing story behind E-mergency and his collaboration with Ezra Fields-Meyer.   Released Oct. 19 by Chronicle Books,  E-mergency has been named one of the Best Picture Books for 2011.  It also received a starred review the Booklist.  He is the author of 15 books, three of which have been NYT bestsellers:  Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site, Shark Vs. Train and Duck! Rabbit!  

How did you first learn about Ezra and his “Alphabet House” video?

Tom Fields-Meyer, a freelance journalist, decided to write a memoir about raising his son Ezra, who has high-functioning autism. As part f his research, Tom read other memoirs, among them Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.   Tom contacted Amy for advice and mentioned in passing that Ezra had an idea for a children’s book about animals.  Amy mentioned it to me and told me Ezra had done a video on YouTube called Alphabet House.

I viewed the video and was immediately intrigued by the idea of a letter being injured, wondering what would happen as a result.  Of course, everyone knows a person can’t work when they’re in the hospital, so I figured the same would be true of a letter; it would have to be taken out of commission while recovering and temporarily replaced by a substitute letter.  Chaos and hilarity would certainly ensue, especially if the injured letter was ‘E’, the most frequently used letter in the English language.

I contacted Tom and asked if Ezra would be interested in seeing what I could do to extend the story into a book, and he was very excited by the prospect.  From there, I wrote a first draft, sketched out the first half of the book, and put together a proposal for Victoria Rock, my editor at Chronicle Books.  Victoria loved the idea, so we were off and running.

Did you work closely with Ezra, and did he have specific ideas about what he wanted incorporated into the book?

Ezra’s big contribution was his video, which established the all-important, fundamental idea about of the story; one of the letters getting injured and being taken to the hospital.  From there, I had a pretty clear idea of what would happen as  a result of the mishap, so I wrote the manuscript then sent it to Ezra so he could see it taking shape.  One of the comments  I got from Ezra says a lot about him;  he asked that I give every letter a role in the story.  I took it to heart and, I think, delivered on it.  We’ve never met in person, but we had a wonderful Skype visit after the book was done, and I feel like I know him just from hearing stories from his dad and reading his dad’s book.

Were there any surprises for you?

After the book was done, Ezra went over it with his uniquely  analytical eye and, of course, found a couple of minor inconsistencies.  For instance, the front endpaper introduces the cast of the book, that being an alphabet, including  a question mark and an exclamation mark.  Ezra asked me why the period wasn’t included, since he appears once in the corner of a page.  I had to admit the oversight, but I wasn’t surprised so much as humbled by his exacting analysis.

I’m sure Ezra learned a lot from you, but what did you gain from the collaboration?

As much as I’m thrilled with the book we created together, meeting and learning about Ezra made the process of creating it a uniquely joyful and inspiring experience.  As I read Tom’s book, Following Ezra, I sent occasional notes to him about what I was learning.

  • I learned that The Social Contract, that unwritten agreement that allows societies to live in relative harmony, is a dauntingly complicated and contradictory arrangement when seen through the eyes of a literalist.
  • It occurred to me that people with autism are just doing in the extreme what the rest of us are doing every day; trying to find order in a disorderly world and seeking experiences that make us feel alive.
  • I remember thinking this after I read “The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Nighttime,” and learning about Ezra confirmed it;  we all exhibit traits of autism to varying degrees.  Who among us hasn’t been limited by some kind of social awkwardness, lack of self-awareness or irrational, ritualistic behavior?  Speaking for myself, there are times when I’ve felt like Ezra might be not only more well-adjusted than I am, but also more insightful!
  • I gained a new respect for Judaism, for its emphasis on memory, rituals, and healing a broken world.
  • Most of all, Following Ezra made me realize the healing power of patience, creativity, family, and community.

The Wall Street Journal  recently published an article written by Tom Fields-Meyer called “Embracing Ezra.”

Is Ezra still creating animations?  Is that his dream?

According to his father, Ezra created Alphabet House at age 12.   “Now he’s a tenth grader, and still very interested in animation.  He takes classes at a remarkable program in L.A. called Media Enrichment Academy, which trains special-needs children to use technology to express themselves in all sorts of creative ways.  He spent nearly two years on a detailed parody of the opening title sequence of “The Simpsons.”  He has a great sense of humor and a wonderful talent for drawing funny faces.   More recently he created a short movie based on a Shel Silverstein poem about two cardboard boxes who become friends.   He does dream about a career as an animator.  He also loves animals, and thinks about a career as a zookeeper.  Maybe he’ll end up animating animals.  Or zookeepers.”

What do you like best about your book?

I’d like to think it hits the sweet spot where silliness meets educational value.  I worked with a reading specialist to make sure it includes lots of language lessons within the jokes, so there’s some method to the madness.  If it’s embraced by children and teachers alike, I’ll know I’ve reached my goal.  As far as content goes, my favorite bit is where the letters are gathered around the Liberty Bell and they spell  out “THUD” while one of them says, “It just doosn’t havo tho samo ring to it, doos it?”  I giggled to myself as I drew that one.

Do you have any new books in the works that I can mention?

Yes, I have a book called Zero the Hero, written by Joan Holub, that will be released Feb. 28, 2012.  On my drawing board right now is a super-clever book written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

Thank you Tom for the interview!  Best wishes to you and Ezra for a successful book launch of E-mergency!  

Patricia

Copyright (c) 2011,  Patricia Howe Tilton, All Rights Reserved