This article was originally published in the September 2017 Princeton Echo.
Every now and then you see someone who seems to have stepped out of the pages of her own books. I recently had that experience when I met the animated children’s book author Anica Mrose Rissi outside of Small World Coffee. She was wearing a striped sailor shirt with bright red ponies on it, and had just returned to Princeton from a trip to Deer Isle, the small island off the coast of Maine where she had grown up and honed her imagination as a storyteller.
This prolific author of five Anna, Banana books, (the most recent, “Anna, Banana, and the Little Lost Kitten,” came out in May), a picture book, “The Teacher’s Pet,” (released in June), and a young adult novel, “Always Forever Maybe,” (scheduled for June, 2018), radiates positive energy. She credits her parents and Deer Isle, which is only nine miles long and five miles wide, with giving her plenty of time to read and day dream as a child.
Rissi also loved to make up games, dances, and rules for her family to follow, but her favorite thing was making up stories. “At an early age, even before I could write myself, I’d ask my mother to write down the words to the stories that I made up,” she says. One of her first, which she still owns, she named Anica’s Book of Poisonous Things.
When Rissi watched her older brother head off to kindergarten and first grade, she was jealous because she was certain he was going to school to write books every day. She could hardly wait to do the same. On her first day of kindergarten, however, she came home angry and sad because they didn’t write one book. Her mother handed her a notebook and told her to go out in to the garden and write. She did. The result was a story about Mabel’s first day of school and all the books she got to write because she had a good teacher.
Rissi — along with more than 75 other authors and illustrators — will share her work with a new generation of readers and writers at the Princeton Public Library’s annual Children’s Book Festival on Saturday, September 23.
Despite her passion for writing, Rissi’s road to being the full-time writer she is today was a long one. At Yale she was an American studies major, with a concentration in media, politics, and popular culture. Her senior thesis was about how presidential candidates in 1976 and 1980 used their wives in their campaigns, and focused on how differences in those years indicated larger shifts in race and gender issues in the social and political climate of the country.
After graduating from Yale, she moved to Brooklyn and spent 14 years as an editor for Scholastic, Simon and Schuster, and Harper Collins, where she edited fiction, non-fiction, middle grade, and young adult fiction. Eventually she specialized in edgy contemporary fiction, and in launching and building the careers of debut authors, often coming up with ideas for young adult authors.
It was only as she was reeling from a breakup that Rissi turned to writing. “I needed a distraction from this broken-hearted thing that I was going through,” she says. “I needed something else to focus on, something else to obsess over besides that sadness, pain, helplessness, frustration, anger, and hurt. I needed someplace else to pour those emotions other than back onto myself.”
In the midst of her personal turmoil, she remembered a title she had made up in a brainstorming session that she had filed away in her brain for years: “Anna, Banana, and the Friendship Split,” a story about a break of two third-grade friends. “It was cathartic to pour all those feelings into a very messy, emotional first draft,” she says. “It was even more cathartic to rewrite and revise it — keeping much of the real, raw emotion while infusing the story with humor and hope.”
Rissi spent more than two years working on the project and took her own advice that she shared with writers: when you finish the book put it in a drawer and think about something else for a couple of months — don’t touch it. “Here I was healing by writing my way back to myself and I ended up with a story that I was pretty proud of.”
When the book was first submitted to publishers, Rissi prepared herself to experience first-hand how writers feel when they receive rejection letters. But instead she got an offer from Simon and Schuster with the caveat she had to write four books to make a series. Rissi is now working on her seventh Anna Banana book, “Anna, Banana, and the Sleepover Secret,” due next fall. She also has two more picture books in the works and is currently drafting a second young adult novel, planned for a 2019 release.
These days kids always ask her if the characters in her Anna Banana books are based on her own life. “Anna is much sweeter than I was,” she admits. “I was bossy and like to take charge.” She says she did give Anna a loving family much like her own. “My parents were incredibly supportive and amused by my wild leaps and creative endeavors.”
However, Anna’s father is a stay-at-home dad who is a writer and her mother works at an office. In real life, Rissi’s father (now retired) was a family physician on Deer Isle and her mother is a violin teacher.
The real deal is Anna’s beloved dog, Banana. She is drawn completely from Rissi’s life with her dog, Arugula, the most autobiographical character in the books. She confesses that she has a co-dependent relationship with Rooga, who is right beside her on the couch when she’s writing. “When I’m not sure what will happen next, I’ll look at Rooga, and if she stretches and yawns, then Banana does the same.”
Rissi says that her recently published debut picture book, “The Teacher’s Pet,” (brilliantly illustrated by Zachariah OHora), is her most autobiographical book to date. It tells the story of a mischievous-yet-loveable class pet, which is, again, very similar to her beloved Rooga. “We’ve done a lot of training but she is not always the best behaved dog in the world,” she says. “Rooga has very good jumping skills and will steal things off the top of the refrigerator, so we have to hide food from her when we’re away.”
About that broken heart? It broke wide open with joy when Rissi met her husband, Jeffrey Snyder — who is the director of electronic music at Princeton University and director of PLOrk (Princeton Laptop Orchestra) — on the online dating site, OkCupid. On their first date, she mentioned that she played the fiddle in a country band and liked to listen to classic country music such as George Jones and early Dolly Parton.
Snyder said he liked the same music but didn’t tell her more than that. When she got home after their date and Googled him, she found out that he played in an electro-country band, “Owen Lake and the Tragic Loves.” She promptly sent the link of the band’s website to her friends with a note: “This is going to be my new boyfriend.”
She was hooked. She loved his taste, his music, and the weird funny photographs that he took. Soon she would be writing song lyrics and playing her fiddle in his band. “I changed my life all at once: quit my job, moved out of Brooklyn, got married, and moved to Princeton. It was jarring in multiple ways.”
Rissi has lived in Princeton for two years now and she is finding her way. Her first friend in Princeton was John who works at the post office. From there she began to meet other writers, including Megan McCafferty, whom she met at the dog park, Claire Legrand, and Amy Jo Burns. She loves the library, Labyrinth Books, breakfast burritos at Small World, walks in the Witherspoon Woods, and all the ice cream shops in town.
Rissi likes to do her writing in the morning. “We live across the street from St. Paul’s School so I need to get started before recess,” she laughs. “If I’m already engrossed in my work by recess, I can tune it out because screaming children are literally 10 feet from my couch.”
As she’s getting ready to leave Small World Coffee, she is stopped by stranger, who says she is a fan. The two women talk and Rissi learns that her newest friend is, of all things, a screenwriter. Of course! Only in Princeton! They exchange e-mails and promise to stay in touch.
Children’s Book Festival, Princeton Public Library, Saturday, September 23, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. More than 80 authors and illustrators are signed up. For the full list visit www.princetonlibrary.org.
Owen Lake and the Tragic Loves, Unruly Sounds Music Festival, Princeton Public Library. Sunday, October 1.
More on Rissi: www.anicarissi.com.