Bonnie Ferrante: My guest today is Sal (Salvatore) Barbera, author, illustrator, and artist. Welcome Sal. Please tell us in three or four sentences a little about yourself.
Sal Barbera: I’m an “it’s never too late to start writing” writer. I wrote my first book a few years ago. I believe laughter is the best medicine, and that’s actually why I wrote my first book, to make my mother-in-law laugh. I heard that Charley Chaplin once said: “ A day without laughter is a wasted day.” Those are words I live by.
Ferrante: Why did you choose to write picture books as opposed to any other genre?
Barbera: I’m a visual person and I love to draw. When I write, I draw the characters as I’m writing the story. It helps me to visualize it as I go along. I didn’t actually choose to write picture books, it just turns out that what I write and draw is also ideal for picture books.
Ferrante: You have written “I show kids how to deal with difficult personal and social situations using humor, diplomacy and intelligence.” What kind of situations are you talking about?
Barbera: In Mary Elizabeth The Spotless Cow, she arrives at a new farm where every single cow has spots, and she’s totally spotless. She’s instantly thrown into an adversarial situation when they immediately don’t like her and won’t have anything to do with her. It’s a situation ‘different’ kids experience when they’re at a new school or camp or even the community pool. These are stressful situations for children, and they need to figure out how to get their peers to like and accept them. There are many kids that have to deal with being somehow different from the other kids. And being ‘different’ can lead to bullying and prejudice.
In another one of my books, Ernie The Dysfunctional Frog, Ernie can’t understand why he can never seem to do what the other frogs can easily accomplish. In every situation, he seems to fail or lag behind, while the other frogs do the same thing so easily. The surprise of this story is that there’s a very good reason why this happens. And that’s what makes him different from the other frogs. The themes of love and friendship are woven through this story as well as a big dose of humor and diplomacy.
Ferrante: Are you a full-time or part-time writer? How does that affect your writing?
Barbera: I’m a writer. But for me, it’s very much an inspiration thing. When I hear or see something that sparks an idea I go into writing mode. I don’t sit down every day at a set time and write just to write something. But I do think of something funny or interesting every day, and many times I’ll write that down as an idea for a story.
Ferrante: Mary Elizabeth The Spotless Cow is about exclusion. Why did you feel this was such an important topic? What personal and social ramifications do you think exclusion causes?
Everyone wants to fit in and be accepted. Especially by their peers. Children can be profoundly hurt by being excluded from a group. It’s a horrible feeling to be rejected or ignored by people that you want to like and accept you. The key is what you do when that happens. You can be dejected and turn against them. You can be sad, feel rage or worse, become suicidal.
It’s how you deal with exclusion that determines your character. The secret is to figure out a way to turn their cold shoulders around and be welcomed into the group for who you are.
That’s where humor, diplomacy and using your intelligence (brains) comes in. Mary Elizabeth was rejected by the entire group at first. But she figured out a way to not only overcome the rejection and make friends, but also to open their eyes to the unfairness of their prejudice. Proving, in her case, that it’s what’s inside that counts more than appearance. And, that she is a lot of fun to be around when you get to know her.
Ferrante: What makes your book stand out from the crowd?
Barbera: It’s not typical to find an author that’s also an artist and does their own illustrations. My unique drawing style, fun relatable characters and humor throughout the story make my book stand out. I love to draw animals, it’s a lot of fun to make them ‘human’, and this story is filled with wacky and whimsical looking cows. It is a journey of discovery for kids and their caregiver’s while reading this story. The ‘aside’ humor for adults makes reading Mary Elizabeth The Spotless Cow a welcome addition to every children’s library.
Ferrante: Why did you choose to write about a cow instead of a child or any other animal? What challenges did this raise?
Barbera: I chose cows because of the spots. All ‘Prejudice’ needs to fuel it is someone or something that’s different. Spots. No spots. If all the cows couldn’t see, spots wouldn’t be an issue. If one cow couldn’t see, that cow would be different and probably treated differently. Mary Elizabeth The Spotless Cow is about social prejudice. The biggest challenge created by using cows was figuring out how to overcome the spots to become accepted. I think it’s neatly accomplished and makes for a better story.
Ferrante: Mary Elizabeth The Spotless Cow has her own television show on the web. Tell us about this. How is it created? Who performs in it? How often is it aired?
Barbera: Thank you for asking about the upcoming web show! We are launching on YouTube mid August. (Fingers crossed). My wife, Sheri, and I came up with the concept for Sweetles® TV Show (web series) a few years ago. The first idea was to help kids learn about social skills and good behaviors in a fun and wacky way. Think Sesame Street meets Monty Python. It’s evolved into more of a comedy/variety show for the entire family to enjoy.
The show includes nutsy goofballs (people), silly animation, assorted puppets, music, comedy and a lot of fun! All of that meant learning a whole bunch of new software programs to create and edit video. Plus making, buying or modifying and animating an assortment of puppets and other show characters. Once that was finally accomplished, then we researched how to set up a studio for filming. That took over two years. It’s truly been a labor of love.
We’re currently at the stage of writing the scripts and filming the show! So far, there are four of us writing, performing and filming. The goal is to post Sweetles® TV Show once a week, with a segment just for kids called “A Sweetles Dream®” featuring my children’s book characters including Mary Elizabeth The Spotless Cow. Even her sister, Sister Mary Catherine: The Holy Cow With a Bad Habit, makes an appearance! It should be a lot of fun.
Ferrante: What your plans for future projects include?
Barbera: I have a number of books in the works in the “A Sweetles Dream®” series. And we’d love to license my characters for products to go with the books. We already have a wonderful Mary Elizabeth puppet that’s ready to go into production. And, if Sweetles® TV Show is a hit, it would be great to bring it to television.
Ferrante: What type of service to others or good deed done for other people do you personally find the most rewarding?
Barbera: It’s Laughter. I try to make as many people laugh as possible. Every single day. There’s nothing more rewarding than to see someone’s face light up, smile and laugh. Especially if they’re tired, sad, lonely or seem depressed. My father-in-law is in an assisted living home, and my wife and I always make a point of getting people there to laugh every time we visit. Laughter is the best medicine.
Ferrante: What is the coldest you have ever been in your life, and what is the hottest?
Coldest? We used to do Christmas decorating when we lived on the East Coast. Putting up Christmas lights outdoors in New Jersey when it’s 2F (-16C) degrees. “It looks beautiful”, I said, through chattering teeth.
Hottest? I live in Arizona. Even after visiting here for the first time in 1989 when there was record heat of 118 (48C) degrees! We still loved and and still moved here. But, as Frank Sinatra said, “it’s a God forsaken blast furnace!”.
Ferrante: 118F would kill me but 2F is a lovely winter day where I live.
If you could change the ending to any movie you have ever seen, what movie would it be and how would you alter the way it ends?
Barbera: That would have to be ‘Close Encounters of The Third Kind’. The movie ends with Richard Dryfuss leaving his wife and two children behind to go off in a space ship with a bunch of aliens. That’s not right. I would change his character to a bachelor.
Ferrante: I agree. It seemed as though he didn’t give leaving his children a second thought.
Thank you so much, Sal, for your interesting answers. I appreciate the time you put into them. Best of luck with your books and your upcoming web show. Send me a little note when it launches and I will alert my readers. It’s such a unique and gutsy enterprise I wouldn’t want to miss it.
Mary Elizabeth The Spotless Cow will be reviewed on this blog February 6, 2017.
Note: the three random questions are from “Chat Pack – Fun Questions to Spark Conversations”.