In her memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” a National Book Award finalist, Roz Chast tells the story of her elderly parents’ decline and death. Her new children’s book, Around the Clock (Simon & Schuster, $17.99), is a sunnier, sillier tale. In it, the New Yorker cartoonist takes readers on a whimsical tour of a day in the life of 23 children, showing the funny things they do at each hour of the day. (“From 7 to 8, Billy’s muse/ tells him to paint the room chartreuse.”) In a phone interview from her home in Connecticut, Chast talked about her new book and how it fits in with her other work.
Was “Around the Clock”comic relief after the memoir?
Yes. It was really nice to change gears and shift into a different kind of book.
How did the idea of portraying 23 children in a slightly odd activity each hour of the day come about?
I just had this picture in my head of kids doing silly things, maybe because, as a kid, I never did. And I had in mind these funny little rhymes. Sometimes the picture would be an illustration of the rhyme, and sometimes it would be a little different. So Pete is sipping from his favorite cup, and you don’t see in the rhyme that he’s created this complete chaos around himself in the kitchen.
Is writing for children different from your work for, say, the New Yorker?
Not completely. I don’t think any of my kids’ books talk down to kids. I might not use completely complicated language, but it’s kind of fun to put in a few words that kids may not know — they can ask their parents what it is. Chartreuse. It’s such a great word! I remember learning what the color chartreuse was as a kid because we had this wall that was a yellowish green. It was not a word that came up a lot when you’re 4 or 5.
Is your writing for children sillier?
I think my cartoons are pretty silly. People stuck up on the wall with Velcro?
The memoir is remarkable — funny, tough, heart-breaking. Has it changed your writing?
I don’t think so, but I’m glad I explored the longer form. When I have an idea for a cartoon, I might do one panel or four panels or maybe four pages. Even when I put together a collection, it’s a collection of stand-alone ideas. Doing the memoir was different — it has a narrative, a beginning, middle and end. There’s an overarching idea of what the book is. I think I’ll do it again.
I’m curious about your connection to both words and images. When you go to create something, what comes first?
Mostly words. Not always. The wonderful thing about the cartoon form is it’s a combination of words and pictures. You don’t have to choose, and the contribution of the two often winds up being greater than the sum of its parts. So there’s the cartoon where in the words the boy Andy has a morsel of cake, and then the cartoon has this huge slice of cake. Hopefully also, the child says, “Mom, what’s a morsel?”
Burns’s short story collection, “The Missing Woman,” is being published in April. She is head of creative writing at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.