It is a strong year for Back to School picture books. If it were a normal year two charming and clever books, Puppy Bus and Little Yellow Bus, would vie for the crown of Best New Back to School book. Yet this is not a normal year because it contains the arrival of Rick the Rock of Room 214.
The aspirations of the rocks in our lives have been the subject of deep philosophical contemplation for us humans from time immemorial. Consider Sisyphus. We understand that he felt a sense of futility in repeatedly rolling a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down. Yet how did the rock feel about it? Julie Falatko pulls back the veil on the inner world of rocks in her sensationally entertaining new picture book, Rick the Rock of Room 214. Rick’s there and back again adventure off and back on The Nature Finds Shelf of Room 214 is the sort of riveting exploration of aspiration, heart, wisdom and experience which philosophers have sought to decant for eons.
Falatko’s epistemological tour de force is mightily abetted by rock maestra Ruth Chan, whose wryly expressive drawings evoke laughter and smiles multiple times on every page. I caught up with Julie to find out more about what is clearly the Back to School Book of the Century.
Kenny: The Bark, like Rick the Rock, is an important member of Room 214’s Nature Finds shelf. Can you tell us a bit about their backstory. Do they have a name? Are those ski poles or just their Room 214 limbs?
Julie: That piece of bark is the one on the Nature Finds shelf who escaped danger to get to Room 214. If you’re a piece of bark, and you fall off a tree into the dirt, you decompose pretty quickly. That bark sees the luck of having been saved and placed on a shelf in the classroom.
Those are Q-Tips held up by something sticky. Clay, Silly Putty, gum. The bark accepts these kid-crafted arms with dignity, since it means being propped up. Ski poles, though! That’s something to think about.
I’m sure everyone on the Nature Finds shelf has a name! I only know Rick, though. Readers need to figure out all the rest of the names.
Kenny: How is Rick’s relationship with adventure transformed by having one? Was writing the book an adventure for you?
Julie: He likes having gone on an adventure. Now he knows. At first, he thought “having an adventure” had to mean exploding out of volcanos – something daring, risky, and unusual. But really, is there anything more adventurous than being inside an elementary school classroom? Well, OK, probably exploding out of a volcano is more adventurous. It goes: exploding out of a volcano, falling off a cliff and tumbling over a waterfall, and being in an elementary school classroom. Those are the only three possible adventures. Oh! And writing a book. OK: exploding, cliff/waterfall, classroom, writing. Writing every book is an adventure!
Kenny: The wild rocks seem a bit too stoic for their own good. If Rick hadn’t been rescued, would he have taken a turn in that direction? Are human children more like Rick or the wild rocks?
Julie: Rick will forever be an inside rock. You know how sometimes you’re walking with a kid and they lunge into the dirt to pick up a rock? That rock might look ordinary and inconsequential to you, a grownup, but the kid knows. The kid heard it. That rock was yelling, “Please, for the love of igneous, bring me inside. I’m freezing ALL THE TIME.”
I’m curious whether people will relate more to Rick or to the outside rocks. I’m thinking of people I know, of all ages, some who are vocal about appreciating the inside comforts, some who will brave the elements and list all of the big adventures they’ve had.
Kenny: Does Ruth Chan have a lot of rock friends? The rocks in the book are so charmingly and hilariously expressive that it is hard to believe they weren’t drawn from life.
Julie: OK, I know I just said it’s the kids who can hear the yelling of a rock who longs for the inside life, but also Ruth. Ruth is a friend to all rocks. She’s really a bit of a rock whisperer. If you have an unruly boulder in your life, you give Ruth a call. She’ll get it right in line. Wait, am I thinking of dogs? A boulder collie? Is that a thing?
Kenny: Your book so deftly and delightfully engages with topics like friendship, home and belonging that are sometimes presented with a heavy hand in picture books. Was a light touch something you were focused on in creating Rick?
Julie: Oh, thank you. I think it was more that, it would be weird if it was a heavy treatment of friendship, because it’s about a rock and some other stuff from outside. None of them are big serious specimens. Rick is, in so many ways, an ordinary gray rock. He’s not a shiny crystal. The moss barely has a face. The bark is essentially tree garbage. Wait, I see it, I guess I could have gone the angle of “even if you’re ordinary you’re extraordinary to me.” Sure. Yeah. That’s not how my brain works! I didn’t even think of that until right now. I’m more likely to lean into the ridiculous. That’s more fun for me, always.
Kenny: Thanks Julie!
Julie: Thank you, Kenny! Now I can’t stop thinking about the possibilities of a story where the bark goes skiing.
Julie and Ruth’s imaginative delight has so much to love, so many tones and elements, so many shades of humor, adventure and truth. The plot of Rick the Rock of Room 214 should also be its destiny. We should all take Rick off our shelves and bring him out into the wild world for a journey to meet a young reader.
The interview portion appeared originally in Publishers Weekly Shelftalker..