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Interview with Willy Claflin

Willy Claflin Portrait

Willy Claflin is the author of four award winning LittleFolk picture books: The Uglified Ducky, Rapunzel & The Seven Dwarfs, The Bully Goat Grim, and The Little Moose Who Couldn't Go To Sleep. Willy’s retelling of original and classic traditional stories incorporates a unique wacky fairy tale persona with his trusted sidekick, Maynard Moose. Willy insists that Maynard is the actual author of these stories and that he, Willy, is merely the Moose-to-English translator of these whimsical tales.

Nikki: Willy, how did you begin your career creating stories?

Willy: As you probably know, I’m really a storyteller, not an author in the classic sense. I didn’t write any of my stories down on paper until I was at least 60 years old. I’m now 73, but I started telling stories in my early 30’s. I had a mountain of oral tales, some of which were told to my son. I used to tell stories because my dad always told me stories, and like many parents, I told stories to my own boy.

I was always intensely involved with early childhood education, working with stories and developing a curriculum designed to speak to kids’ imaginations. With all that interaction with children, one has the luxury as a teacher or researcher to sit down and just make up stories with kids.

Most of these kids were Kindergarten through 5th grade, so a fairly wide range. In that environment, where people are having fun and throwing out ideas, it became very natural and easy to generate a lot of stories.

Baby Moose from Uglified Ducky

N: What is the inspiration and origin behind Maynard Moose?

Willy: Maynard came along, because I used puppets in the classroom a lot. I was a reading specialist when he first appeared in schools. I had this tiny little cubicle in the school where the kids would come, and we’d work on their reading skills.

However, I noticed that they didn’t even read as well with me as they did in their own classrooms, and I figured out why. When they had to leave the classroom, there was a stigma attached: walk down the hallways, go into the little cubicle with a strange man who wasn’t their teacher and then relax and read. So I started bringing Maynard into my sessions.

At that point, Maynard could not make any combined sounds; he still can’t. Every time the word “the” would show up, he would sound it out as “t-he.” For the slightly more advanced kids, words like “Stephen” would be pronounced “Step-hen.”

All of a sudden the kids were running down the hallway to help the moose learn to read. I thought, “Wow! Something’s going on here.” That had a lot to do with Maynard’s growth and with my growth as a storyteller. The kids enjoyed this somewhat bewildered and confused moose whose heart was in the right place combined with imagination; they were happy to help him learn to read even if it meant having to read themselves.

N: Maynard started as a puppet. Where did he come from?

Willy: I was actually given Maynard, because I told stories to my little boy and folks found out. The original Maynard, at least in his current iterations, has only been alive since 1999, but I got the first one back in the late 70’s. It was actually a much smaller puppet made at a craft fair. Kind of like the Velveteen Rabbit, it eventually wore out.

By ‘83, I had left teaching and was a full time performer. My wife pointed out to me that Maynard was too small to really be seen by the audience, especially at a place like the National Storytelling Festival where you can have 1,500 people in a tent. So, we asked a friend of ours, a theater costume designer, to make the larger Maynard.

Later when I brought Maynard to a school where I would do teaching residencies, they would say, “How come he’s so much larger?” I’d tell them he had a growth spurt, and they just accepted that.

N: Is Maynard just a character or perhaps a reflection of your own traits?

Willy: The original puppet took almost a year to develop. At first, he didn’t speak at all. Originally, I tried him out with a Maine accent, but it didn’t work at all, so he sat quietly in a chair by the fireplace. My son had been waiting for Maynard to talk, but I wasn’t a puppeteer, and I didn’t really know how to do anything.

One day he came home from school upset because a kid in his class said something really mean about Moose. He said he thought Maynard would have his feelings hurt. I asked him what the kid said.

My son said, “I don’t know if I should tell you because the teacher said it was inappropriate,” but I assured him, and he told me, “Well, he said that moose are really, really stupid, and I thought that would hurt Maynard’s feelings.” Maynard was suddenly on my hand, and he started talking and said, “That’s not nice, I am not stupid. I am distremely intelligible.”

My son was delighted, and we started asking Maynard questions about where he got his education, and Maynard would explain that he went to Mother Moose Preschool. This turned into a family game. When my son came home from school, he would tell us about his day, and he would ask, “What did Maynard do at Mother Goose Preschool?” So, we’d get Maynard and ask him about his day, and he’s slowly evolved over the years.

N: Eventually, Maynard ended up in the stories published by August House.

Willy: Yeah! August House used to carry all of my audio. When I would do a CD for kids, I would always include one or two Maynard Moose stories on the CD. August House took over the rights for the CD’s in 2000. Around 2007, just as the CD sales were starting to wane, we decided to turn the CD’s into books.

The Maynard books are retrofitted from oral-tellings. As the series went on, it became sort of the downfall, because essentially the later stories were written for adults and they were oral. Trying to transcribe them back to the page for kids was difficult. The later books were really sophisticated, even for adult audiences

Baby Moose from Uglified Ducky

N: The language of Maynard Moose plays a large role in your work. How do you incorporate this into your writing process?

Willy: The basics were just transcribing exactly what Maynard said. That’s where it started. Then we had to eliminate some of the more complicated or incomprehensible words and normalize the language.

It’s difficult to put Maynard’s voice on the page but we kept about two-thirds of the moose words. We actually thought this could work to our advantage, because we could introduce kids to the concept of a glossary. At the beginning of each Maynard Moose picture book there’s a glossary of moose words. Kids can have fun looking up the words to see what they mean in English.

N: And you have more characters than Maynard Moose.

Willy: I have a lot of characters. There are four or five other major puppet characters that perform as storytellers. If I’m doing a children’s assembly, I’ll tell a traditional folktale and introduce the guest storytellers, such as Maynard or, another primary character, Gorph. He’s a large bullfrog who’s a flyswatter percussionist and does rhythmical things. He’s sort of slapstick. There’s also a raccoon named Raboculis, who essentially has no impulse control.

N: Why did you choose Maynard Moose to be a consistent character or voice?

Willy: I used to have about 15 of these puppets, which I’ve narrowed down. In the end, they all had different roles. Maynard had always been the one who told longer stories so using Maynard’s persona meant fewer stories, and he sort of fell by the wayside. Then the notion came to us all that Maynard was the storyteller of the Northern Piney woods, and it settled there.

N: Maynard often tells familiar fairytales with his own twist; why does Maynard use this genre?

Willy: He started off that way an awfully long time ago. At the time, the notion of fractured fairytales didn’t even exist. Maynard evolved from this preschool Moose, and you couldn’t tell if he got everything wrong or if it was the moose civilization and culture.

He started off doing nursery rhymes that were wrong, which amused my son, like “Hinkery, Dinkery, Dunk, the Mouse Runned Up the Skunk.” In fact, I thought about doing a whole book of Mother Moose rhymes. We tried to take the nursery rhymes and figure out a way to scramble up the words, as Maynard, a very young moose, tried to remember how the rhymes were supposed to go.

Very slowly and naturally, Maynard’s voice began to evolve into some of the shorter stories. Back then, in the 70’s and 80’s, many kids still remembered most of the traditional folk and fairytales. They would all have that extra level of humor.

Later as it became apparent that most of the kids didn’t know those stories anymore, I tried two things: I would tell a traditional story first and then have Maynard do his version or I just wouldn’t worry about it and just tell the fractured version.

The traditional tales lasted well into the 90’s, and I believe they lasted as long as they did because of their strong plot structure. If you do a parody overlay on those tales, the plot is still going to be fascinating.

N: At the end of Rapunzel and the Seven Dwarfs, Maynard explains that some stories don’t have a moral at all. Why did you decide to take this non-traditional direction at the end of the story?

Willy: My personal belief has been that placing a moral at the end of a story is almost always a really bad idea, because it limits the possible meanings of the story. These classic stories can have many meanings. By emphasizing a specific moral, it kind of puts an end to that whole process of inquiry.

I’ve also discovered if you put a moral at the end of a story, kids think that you’re trying to teach them a lesson, and you’re using the story as a “sugarcoated pill”. I have a friend, storyteller Elizabeth Ellis who said, “For every story that you use to sell an idea, you should give one away for free.” Just like any work of art, you can explain what the Mona Lisa means or you could do an emoji level copy of it.

Privately, I think that moral is implicit in the story. However, with Maynard Moose stories, I deliberately made them the other way, that’s why Rapunzel is an unusual story. In the moose culture, every story has to have a moral.

Maynard himself says a story without a moral is just mindless entertainment. Maynard feels the opposite of how I feel. Almost all of his stories have an underlying moral at the end, I just don’t call it out.

With Rapunzel, I liked the idea that when Maynard gets ready to deliver his moral, all of a sudden he can’t find one. I thought it’d be funny if he turned that into the moral. So, you see the moral is, that some stories don’t have any moral at all.

Duckling from Uglified Ducky

N: What sort of techniques do you use to create a Maynard Moose story?

Willy: I put the moose on my hand, I turn on a recorder, and I just let him start talking. Sometimes I suddenly get an idea and jot down a notion or two. Other times, I’ll sit at the word processor and make believe its Maynard sitting there without thinking too much about it.

After about an hour of writing or recording as Maynard, there might only be five minutes of interesting material that I can use. I compose orally, and it’s almost essential for me to be in the Maynard Moose persona, which I guess is true of any author that writes in the first person.

N: When you don’t have Maynard on your hand, does he ever seep into your daily life?

Willy: On stage, I could just improvise for a whole hour and not worry about it at all. I think at hyper-speed on stage, but in private I could easily walk into a wall. I kind of go blundering through life, losing things, and being very confused. My wife also said I’m very near-sighted, the way moose are. In fact, “Moose” is actually my nickname.

N: What sort of advice would you give someone who wants to write books for children?

Willy: I’ve talked to other children’s authors and almost all of them will give you their process: how they think up stories, how to work with an editor, and how to market the book, etc. My problem with that format is I’d have to say, “First, develop a puppet character, put it on your hand and record the puppet!”

As far as marketing goes, I think what you really need to do is learn nothing about the children’s book market and then break every rule there is, because that’s what happened with me. So, I don’t know!

I’ve learned a lot, of course. I’ve learned the difference between storytelling with a puppet and what need’s to be in a children’s book.

For example, once you build a house, then you know how to build one, right? I feel very much that way about children’s books. I feel like the first book, and even Rapunzel, was pretty much on the right track. They were a little long, a little wordy, but then I kind of veered off course. With every book, I was experimenting.

Now, after four books, it’s clear what people easily relate to. It’s really been an unusual method for me, and a trial by error process in which I’ve learned some painful lessons about what makes a good children’s book and what doesn’t work so well.

By the way, the only way I can get any creative work done is to be completely unplugged. I can’t even have access to my phone, because I can’t resist it, if I hear a ding or a beep. It’s hopeless, so I have to totally quarantine myself.

N: What would you do differently for your next book?

Willy: Maynard has his short fables, along the lines of the Uglified Ducky, any one of which could make a short book, but packaging three of them together could work nicely as a short book of fables. Especially, now that I know how to simplify the language and that I don’t have to include every adult joke in each story.

Another problem for us has been the intensive artwork. We had James Stimson, the illustrator, do 30 elaborate, saturated color plates. There’s just no way, without a huge budget that we can continue to do that for every book.

We’re also looking for a crossover audience. The language is really intended to appeal to 3rd through 6th graders, but the classic picture book format primarily appeals to Kindergarten through 2nd graders. For Maynard, we need to find an “in-between format” and then simplify the stories a little bit.

N: What steps would you advise someone to take if they wanted to begin telling stories?

Willy: The storytellers I know fall into three categories: people who tell traditional tales, people who tell personal stories, and people who do storytelling from imagination. The process of arriving at the topic of a manuscript may be slightly different.

In every case, most of the storytellers I know, almost never memorize anything, although there may be lines of their stories that they’ve told so often they never forget them.

All the storytellers I know work from picture to picture in their minds. They’re visualizing the stories as they’re telling them. They’re sort of in the world of the story. Without being the official author, you could tell "Little Red Riding Hood" or "The Three Little Pigs," because you know by heart how the story goes. The more you tell it, the more things you think up to put into the story.

When you’re telling a story, you can tell by the audience’s reaction what parts they really like. It’s like sailing a boat: all of a sudden, you can feel the momentum going in one particular direction, and you expand on that. Or if there’s a part that you think is great, but the audience isn’t reacting to it, you have to face the fact that it’s not working, and you either need to revise it or eliminate it.

In terms of the craft of making up stories with your imagination, to me, it’s mostly a matter of doing it over and over again. It’s almost like digging a ditch, that’s the good and the bad news. The longer you do it, the easier it will be. It will get better. So you need an audience and some kind of feedback.

Fortunately, there are a lot of local storytelling groups and storytelling guilds all around the country that can provide the audience and feedback. For example, the National Storytelling Network, has groups that meet in almost every state, there are festivals, clubs, etc. Any opportunity that you can tell stories to an audience, the more quickly you will evolve as a storyteller.

For me, learning to tell stories is very experiential. Paul Simon had a wonderful tune called, “Song About the Moon,” and he had this line that goes, “If you want to write a song about the moon, do it!” Find a story that you really like, that really energizes you. That’s absolutely crucial or find an idea that hooks you, that you believe in so strongly that you have to turn it into a story. That’s the key.

Moose from Uglified Ducky


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