“Johnny and the Seven Teddy Bears of Sin” is a verse fairy tale for young adults and adults. The protagonist is Johnny Meryevan, a small boy living in Victorian London, under the care of his grandfather. Johnny’s a pretty credulous kid. When Mr. Meryevan tells Johnny that there are seven evil teddy bears, one for every deadly sin, and that Johnny has to behave or they’ll get him. Johnny buys it, and believes he has been told off to go out and stop the bears. As it happens, when Johnny challenges them, they are happy to do their utmost to corrupt this kid.
Before I proceed with the interview I have to make a note to the reader, as this is a children’s/YA blog, one may wonder if this book fits that criteria. My answer is, I’m still not sure. I knew prior to reading this book that, at best it would classify as a mature YA book, and now that I’ve finished it, written a review, and interviewed the author I still believe it fits that category. This is NOT a book for youngsters, or even younger YA readers. It has scarey and mature content, one swear word, one reference to alcohol, and some very difficult words (aspidistras?). With that being said, I am not naive enough to think that the more mature YA audience hasn’t been exposed to these things- I’ve seen some of the video games and TV shows they watch. I based my judgement on the content. I feel the story, the presentation, and message is indeed suitable for a mature YA audience. I would not recommend this to anyone under sixteen years of age. Please do not make the mistake of confusing the fact that Teddy Bears is in the title that it is a children’s book
This project began as an update of a very old sort of story that used to be the mainstay of literature, the medieval morality tale. Literature in eras when literacy was low tended to use verse really consistently, because rhyming schemes and clear meters made texts memorable and performable. The authors of medieval morality tales used verse so that their work could be shared and enjoyed by audiences. Spoken word artists and rappers use verse structures for this reason today. It was natural, when I set out to write a modern day morality tale that I used verse, because I want this to be a story that is shared. The specific verse format I’ve used is fourteeners, rhyming couplets of 14 syllables, because it lends itself to a fast reading and a fully realized narrative.
But what was the point of updating medieval literature? Is that really something people are going to be interested in? What do you think the reader will get from reading Johnny?
Well first, I hope that any reader will be vastly entertained. But yes, I do think that that there is a point to updating medieval themes. They are creepy. The medieval era had little understanding of psychology, and their literature never really had much internalized character development. Instead all the struggles a person went through in life were understood by externalizing, anthropomorphizing and codifying them in a very formal way. We still do commonly make use some of this symbolism. Death as a hooded figure literally coming and getting you is a medieval idea that we still find very frightening today. The seven deadly sins is similarly still applicable, even when you remove them from their Christian context. What I hope the readers will like in this book is watching Johnny wrestling with himself, building himself into the kind of person he wants to grow up to be, as we all did. That’s a universal theme that I think we are all interested in. It happens that in “Johnny and the Seven Teddy’s” the elements of his character that he struggles with have been represented as, well, teddy bears.
And why did you choose to make the seven deadly sins teddy bears?
I liked the idea because teddy bears also have to do with externalization. Teddy bears come to have the character and traits that you assign them. I know my own bears had very real personalities, but of course that was something I created for them from myself. It seemed a natural parallel with the seven deadly sins as characters.
What was unique about the setting of the book and how did it enhance or take away from the story?
The setting from the story is 1856 London. That has some importance as background to events that happen in the book. It is also a time and place when attitudes towards children were very different than today. Moreover, today’s audiences are generally aware of what that adult-in-miniature, sink-or-swim, be seen but not heard, Victorian childhood was like. Thank you, Dickens. This setting allowed me to believably isolate a young child with nobody to really talk to except teddy bears.
What research did you have to perform to back up your story? Any research which really opened your eyes or gave you new respect for a topic or profession?
As I’ve said, the goal was to write an update for an older form of literature that would appeal to modern audiences. I had to read a lot of medieval texts, and a lot about the sins. Did you know each sin has its own assigned colour, and its own animal? The historical debates that people have had just trying to classify sins, or work out which was the worst, sidetracked me for weeks. Did you know that people have been writing about the deadly sins for more than two thousand years? Of course, back then there were eight. I have strong hopes that this book will add meaningfully to what is already a very rich literary tradition.
Thank you to James for joining me today and for a wonderful interview. Make sure to enter the Rafflecopter form below for your chance to win one of 3 ebook copies of Johnny and the Seven Teddy Bears of Sin. Leave of us a comment while you’re here too, we love to hear from our readers. Many folks look to the New Year to try to become better people, or to give up bad habits. With this in mind, and the fact that Mr. Venn’s book deals with sins, let us know what your New Year’s Resolution is.
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