Evanston-born author Jarrett Dapier says he thinks he was always a children’s book writer, even before he realized it.
For high school creative-writing prompts, for example, Dapier said he tended toward “absurdist, Shel Silverstein sort of poems.”
“I wrote a story once in my senior year in high school, from the point of view of a piece of dog food … in the bag. And it doesn’t know what happens when you leave the bag. And, so, it just wants freedom.”
The writer, born in Evanston and raised in Wilmette and Lake Forest, will be reading from his latest works, Jazz for Lunch! and Mr. Watson’s Chickens, on Sunday, April 24, at Madame Zuzu’s Tea Shop and Art Studio in Highland Park. Madame Zuzu’s was founded by Billy Corgan, lead singer and songwriter for The Smashing Pumpkins.
A former teen librarian at the Evanston and Skokie public libraries, Dapier, whose most recent children’s book Mr. Watson’s Chickens was selected as a National Public Radio Best Book of 2021, said he’s a firm believer that children’s books should reflect our true world.
He said the book’s plot came to him in a dream in 2016 when he was attending graduate school at the University of Illinois for Library Sciences.
“I dreamt I was reading Mr. Watson’s Chickens to first-graders, and I was the author in the dream. And I got up in the dark and just wrote [it all] down.”
In the story, two men who live together and love together have a variety of animals, including three chickens – but they start amassing more. The couple’s stockpile of chickens gets too large to fit in the backyard so the chickens move in.
The first half of the book is about the chaos that ensues from having that many chickens in the house, Dapier explained.
Soon, the chickens start putting a strain on their relationship and Mr. Watson’s husband, Mr. Nelson, tells him he has to choose between his chickens and his partner.
“Mr. Watson says, ‘Well, I can’t live without Mr. Nelson because my heart would be a broken egg,’ and so they go to find a new owner at the fair for the chickens.”
Eventually, a fair manager comes across the chickens and sees an opportunity for them to be a musical act at the fair, adopting them all, and leaving the men with a peaceful home that feels a little empty.
By the end of the book, Mr. Watson discovers three eggs under his pillow and they hatch, leaving the couple with three chickens once more.
”I love that instead of leaving him, Mr. Nelson says, ‘This needs to end. And I will help you,’” Dapier said. “Our loved ones can be going through something very, very hard. And it might be something that’s affecting you and your relationship … loving another person truly does mean loving through, like, pain and the good times.”
Dapier has also gotten a lot of comments about the fact that the queer couple is incidental to the story.
“They are a same-sex couple, dealing with an overwhelming chicken problem. And so, when … a lot of people have said, ‘I love that their relationship is not an issue,’ the love that they feel for each other is part of the plot.”
Dapier said one librarian told him that he’s gay, lives on a farm and loves this book because it “treats me like the rest of my life is normal.”
While Mr. Watson’s Chickens is his second children’s book, Jazz for Lunch! was his first. Both books were heavily informed by his background as a drummer.
“So when I write rhythm, the rhythm of the words is extremely important to me,” he said. “I read aloud every line and try to hear whether or not it sounds right. And it’s an instinctive feeling. I’ve been drumming since I was in third grade.”
Although he didn’t graduate from Evanston’s school system, he said that Evanston sustained him in a cultural and musical way.
Evanston record stores like Vintage Vinyl, Dr. Wax and Secondhand Tunes were “major destinations” for him and his friends. He also attended several hole-in-the-wall venues that played indie films.
In the 1990s, as a teen, he and his friends put together a garage band of original songs and performed them throughout Evanston and Chicago. They even were signed to a short-lived Chicago label, Fuse Records
As an undergrad Dapier studied creative writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but he said his dream job came to him when he was hired to work as a teen librarian at the Evanston Public Library. He eventually started a teen theater program at the library, where he would put on one production a year for teens.
Dapier says he enjoys being around teens because he finds them funny and their take on the world fresh and honest.
“I think they see through a lot of things that the adult world is sort of, like, pretending isn’t happening … It’s very easy for me to remember what it was like, and what was important, and how intense the feelings could be.”
Dapier’s live reading is scheduled for 10 a.m. April 24 at Madame Zuzu’s, and a trio of singers – made up of local Evanston teens – will join Dapier to perform a song from his book.