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Ralph's World frontman and playwright team up for big-top picture book
*Sawdust and Spangles* by Ralph Covert and G. Riley Mills, illustrated by Giselle Potter
Musician Ralph Covert and playwright G. Riley Mills, longtime writing collaborators, join creative forces again to bring the story of a 19th-century circus showman who dared to dream big to young children. Sawdust and Spangles, quirkily illustrated by Giselle Potter, breathes imaginative new life into P.T. Barnum contemporary W.C. Coup's fancies. Covert and Mills took the time to treat readers with a quick Q&A. Why does the idea of the circus appeal so strongly to children?

G. Riley Mills: I think the scale and spectacle of the circus, along with the colors and animal acts, make it irresistible to kids.

Ralph Covert: There's also something about the idea of "running away to join the circus" which seems to resonate with the idea of pursuing one's dreams. It's a very vivid metaphor.

How did you “stumble” across William Coup’s story? What were you looking for when you found his memoirs and felt compelled to tell his story, initially with the stage play “Sawdust and Spangles”?

GRM: Ralph and I decided to write a play set in the world of the circus. We found Coup’s memoirs, “Sawdust and Spangles: Stories and Secrets of the Circus” (which was long since out of print) in a research library at DePaul University in Chicago. After reading the first few pages on microfiche, we fell in love with Coup and knew we wanted to tell his story. And since the book was on microfilm, we had to print it out, one page (and 10 cents at a time)! Quite a process!

RC: Actually, I think it was 25 cents a page! And worth every cent...

Musician and *Sawdust and Spangles* co-author Ralph CovertWhat was making the transition to a picture book from a script format like?

GRM: It involved going back to the memoirs and the research material we had compiled ten years earlier while writing the play and re-imagining the story as a children’s book. We found that it lent itself perfectly to that format.

RC: With the book, we focused much more on Coup himself, and giving an overview of how his dreams shaped his life.

Was this book – or are your other co-written works – an even collaboration, or is one of you the idea man, one the scribe, the editor, etc.? What makes you an effective team?

GRM: That information is classified.

RC: Ha! Gary and I have known each other and worked together so long, it's almost as if we write with the same pen when we're on a project. It's usually very hard for us to remember who started or finished a particular sentence.

Was it your idea to turn Coup’s story into a picture book, or were you approached by Abrams hoping to cash in on the growing popularity of Ralph’s World?

GRM: Abrams had the idea to take the stage play and re-invent it as a children’s book.

RC: Tamar Brazis, our editor, had been a fan of my non-kids music work from long before Ralph's World. She was drawn to Coup's story and the world of the circus.

Was Giselle Potter on board for the illustrations from the beginning? What makes her style of illustration so complementary to a story such as Sawdust and Spangles?

GRM: Giselle’s work is folksy and playful and easily accessible to kids. Plus the fact that she is a well-known illustrator and had an association with the Ralph’s World album covers made it a perfect fit.

Playwright and *Sawdust and Spangles* co-author G. Riley MillsAre you working on or planning further collaborations on picture books, plays, or any other projects?

GRM: “The Nutty Nutcracker,” another children’s book based on one of our plays, will be published by Chronicle Books in 2009, with illustrations by Wilson Swain.

Will there be other iterations from the two of you of the “Sawdust and Spangles” story targeted to younger, young adult or adult readers?

GRM: We hope so, since it is a world we love, filled with amazing true-life characters.

RC: All exhibits truly as advertised!

How do you see the circus of today – and the strength of its appeal – as different from that of Barnum and Coup’s day?

RC: The biggest difference I see between the modern circus and the circus of Coup's day is that there are so many other competing entertainment options today Back when Coup was around, there was no television, very few zoos, very little entertainment at all beyond books and pianos in the parlor- not to mention very little chance to experience the wonders of the world first-hand. If you think about it, the circus was the only chance people had to ever see many of these animals for themselves, and when the circus came to town it was a very big deal, the highlight of the year in many ways. It's impossible for the circus to have that level of impact today.

GRM: It is interesting that the new Barnum and Bailey show is moving away from the three-ring productions and back to a more intimate, one-ring show. Just like the earlier circuses when Coup was starting out.

Did you consciously gloss over any perceived “dark side” to the reality of circus – the mistreatment of animals, say, or the un-P.C. Jim Rose aspect of sideshow as “freak” show?

GRM: We wanted to include the sideshow aspect of the circus but do it in a way that was not demeaning or degrading. That is why we chose to steer away from using the word “freaks.” As far as the treatment of animals, the conditions were often very brutal, but Coup took very good care of his animals, even designing a giant baby bottle for the baby elephant when the animal’s mother died!

RC: Also, remember that being P-C is a very modern concept. At the time in history that the book took place, a real live elephant and a bearded lady were both equally strange and marvelous. Similarly, in a child's imagination the boundaries of what is P-C or not P-C are still innocent and vague, and we wanted to show the world of the circus without sermonizing.

And Gary's point about Coup's treatment of animals is a good one -- he was one of the few circus owners who took pride in taking care of his animals. Not having to gloss over details like that with Coup is one of the reasons we were so deeply drawn to him and his story.

*The Nutty Nutcracker* stage production inspires second children's book collaboration between playwright G. Riley Mills and musician Ralph CovertCoup’s tale follows the rise and fall and rise again to greatness arc that might once have been chronicled by a traveling minstrel. Has Sawdust and Spangles inspired any songs?

RC: Yes, in fact when we were working on the picture book I wrote a song called "Sawdust and Spangles" which tells Coup's story. Re-reading the material stirred the spirit of the story, and it just kept coming out in different forms! The song will be included on the new Ralph's World album, "The Rhyming Circus," which is scheduled for release Spring of '08. The title track of the album doesn't involve Coup, but I suppose must be inspired by the same process!

Does the crossover from music into literature mean that BEA or ALA conference attendees might be treated to Ralph’s World performances?

RC: Sounds like fun to me!

Covert's first solo children's book, Ralph's World Rocks!, will be published by Holt in August 2008. It features some of his best Ralph's World songs with illustrations by Charise Harper. It will include a section with words and chords for people to play along and most likely a 3-song CD, including one new song, "Do The Math."

Covert and Mills won a Jeff award for "Sawdust And Spangles" as best new play in Chicago, which was their first collaboration. They won the same award for their next effort, "Streeterville," the largely-true story of Captain Streeter, who established his own territory in Chicago which still bears his name. Their third work was a play called "The Flower Thieves," which has been produced a mere handful of times- but it includes a real circus! Covert has also used the circus motif in his songs before, most notably "The Amazing Romero," which can be found in acoustic version originally on his second solo album, Birthday, and a new full-band electric take on Good Examples Of Bad Examples: The Best Of Ralph Covert & The Bad Examples, Vol. 2.. While both albums are suitable for all-ages, the latter mostly culls his electric adult work that's okay for kids and grown-ups alike. editor Sharon Schulz-Elsing interviewed G. Riley Mills and Ralph Covert via email, in conjunction with the CUK review, about the authors' first picture book for children: Sawdust and Spangles.

© 2007


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