FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #249: “I want to nok your adress so I can vist.”

postalletter-150x150

This one included a kind teacher as an intermediary, helping a student make a connection. We ended up shooting a few emails back and forth, but I didn’t post those here. Stacey wrote:

I have a letter I would like you to read and hopefully write back to this young man.  Thank you for your consideration.

image

I replied:

Dear Collin,

I hope I got that name correct.

First of all, my gosh, I love that you live in Osh Kosh.

What a name!

I’ve heard of it all my life, but you are the first person I’ve ever “met” who actually lives there. Are you a big Packers fan?

Thank you for reading The Case of the Stolen Baseball Cards. I’m glad you liked it. Usually it takes me two months to write a Jigsaw Jones book. The first month, I bang my head against the wall, hoping to find ideas. Guess what I’ve learned? There are no ideas in the wall.

Eventually I get down to work. I get my butt in the chair, open to a clean page, and start to write. That’s the trick, mostly. Getting in that chair, getting away from all the distractions — the tv, my cell phone, the dog, my children, and a million other things — and writing.

Outer Space_FCI just wrote the 41st Jigsaw Jones book, titled The Case from Outer Space. It is coming out in August, along with four other “classic” titles that have been hard to find the past few years. Jigsaw Jones is back! By November, there will be 9 Jigsaw Jones books available in stores. I’m super happy about that — and I know that it couldn’t have happened with readers like you.

And, yes, I depend on teachers like Ms. ______, too!

BTW, I live pretty far away from you, in a town called Delmar, NY, just south of Albany. I’d love for you to visit if you are ever in the neighborhood. Though I am concerned that the brownies might get stale.

That would make me sad. Stale brownies. Sigh.

I think the rice krispies treats, however, should travel well.

Come see me anytime. And thank you so much for your terrific letter.

James Preller

 

The Perfect Friend

My friend, writer Kate Klise, took this photo of a poster she saw during a recent school visit.

It’s pretty perfect, a great message to throw up on a wall.

 

17966583_10211007985054639_5092683476913930120_o

5 QUESTIONS with Susan Wood, author of “Esquivel! Space-Age Sound Artist”

 

Like everybody else on the planet, the millions and millions, I was captivated by Susan Wood’s brilliant picture-book biography of the composer, Esquivel! It’s bubbly and effervescent — whee-doop-di-doop! — well-researched and beautifully illustrated. A buoyant introduction to a singular artist. I was glad when Susan agreed to this interview.


 61Jzw6gPDhL

So one day you wake up and think: Esquivel! I want to write a book about him! Is that how it works?

Well, um, not quite! Over a few decades, I’ve written a lot about music, both as a journalist and an author of books for adults and children. My earlier music-related books for young readers were a blast to put together and pretty well received—the middle-grade Raggin’ Jazzin’ Rockin’: A History of American Musical Instrument Makers (Boyds Mills) was an ALA Notable, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Soldier (HarperTeen), a YA memoir I cowrote with Vietnam vet Dean Ellis Kohler, with a foreword by Graham Nash, was a CCBC Choice. So I was definitely itching to write another music book for the youth market. 

I’d also done a deep dive into the picture book format with Under the Freedom Tree (Charlesbridge), illustrated by the wonderful London Ladd. For that book, London and I visited locations together and shared ideas, and I got to see firsthand how an illustrator works. [Ed note: for a “5 Questions interview with London Ladd, click here.] Through that rich collaborative process I became (and remain) obsessed with the visual aspect of penning a great story. I thought about music makers whose work has kind of a “visual” feel to it, a sound that could be depicted in illustration. Esquivel, with all of his zany instrumentation and textural arrangements, came quickly to mind. The music is so fun, so evocative — I thought kids would dig it, even if they hadn’t a clue who the guy was. Honestly, I didn’t know much about Esquivel beyond the music; luckily, he led an intriguing life that could be shaped into a kid-friendly story arc.

illo_ch59

It feels like we’re living in the golden age of picture book biographies. We are seeing deeper, wider, more diverse “mini” biographies coming out each year. Would you agree with that?

Absolutely. And I couldn’t be more thrilled, because biography/memoir is totally my thing. I’m always curious about what makes people tick, why people do what they do, how they navigate their lives — I’ve written/co-written bios/memoirs of rock ‘n’ roll trailblazers Gene “Be-Bop-A-Lula” Vincent (Race with the Devil, St. Martin’s) and Eddie “Summertime Blues” Cochran (Three Steps to Heaven, with Bobby Cochran, Hal Leonard) and rock photographer Tom Wright (Rock & Roll Turned Inside Out, foreword by Pete Townshend, Hal Leonard), and my picture book bio of artist Grant Wood (American Gothic, illustrated by Ross MacDonald, Abrams) comes out this fall. My PB biography of another painter is currently making the editorial rounds, and I’ve got a long list of other interesting folks whose stories I’d love to tell in the picture book format.

amgoth-copy_med_hr

I find writing picture book biographies far more challenging than penning bios for the adult market. You’ve got to distill a pretty full sweep of a person’s life into just a few pages. So every word’s gotta count!

I imagine you begin by reading everything. It must be easy to become overwhelmed by the material. This guy had an entire life and you have less than 32 pages.

Yes, I read as much as I can find and track down as many primary sources as possible—print and broadcast interviews, letters, documents, photos, articles, and such. At some point in my research, I’ll notice patterns, or themes, or how events build upon each other, and then I know it’s time to start writing. I can tease out those things, piece them together, move them around and shape and polish, and if I’m lucky, a compelling story will emerge. All the while, I’m keeping the visual component in mind—are there enough illustration opportunities in this tale?

Do you ever feel like you can’t do it?

28446Oh yeah. That’s when I close the file and go work on something else. Let it percolate on the back burner while I go about other business. Inevitably, as I’m walking the dog or doing dishes or driving my daughter to the ballet studio or my son to a robotics competition, I’ll usually have some kind of epiphany about how to move forward. Sometimes it takes days; sometimes it takes months. With Under the Freedom Tree, it took a few years to figure out how to tell the story of the first contraband slaves of the Civil War — as a picture book in free verse!

Because: obviously! Let’s see, I think we’re about the same age. Like you, I became aware of Esquivel’s music in the ‘90s when the lounge music thing was blowing up.

Back in the ‘90s I was working as an arts and entertainment correspondent for the big daily newspaper in southeastern Virginia, and record companies would send me their new releases for review. I remember receiving an Esquivel reissue, popping the CD in, and being completely blown away. What was this?! Way too clever, whimsical, and well crafted to be cheesy Muzak, yet super easy to listen and zone out to. Really genius.

esquivel-spread

The acid test for any book about music is whether it sends a reader back to the records. And you achieved that. I’ve been listening to Esquivel all week.

I’m so glad! It’s such brilliant stuff, isn’t it? And now thanks to YouTube and other sites, anyone can listen. And watch! Have you seen those amazing old Ernie Kovacs videos, kitchen appliances and office furniture dancing to Esquivel? So fun.

Music has always been important to you.

esquivel_hifif_med_hrMusic’s a huge part of my life. When I was a kid, my mom was a piano teacher, organist, and choir director, and my dad sang in her choirs. Of course, I did the requisite piano lessons, but also played clarinet and bassoon in school band and orchestra. Two of my brothers play drums, and my other brother is a professional guitarist. So lots of music going on at our house growing up! Though I graduated from NYU film school, it was an internship at Island Records—helping to create press releases for their smaller boutique labels—that really got me interested in writing about music, not just listening to or playing it. My first “real” job was at a NYC PR firm that handled music clients exclusively; when I left super-expensive NYC to return home to Virginia, I became a music journalist, writing for newspapers and magazines. Eventually I turned an article I wrote about ‘50s singer Gene Vincent into a book proposal, St. Martin’s Press bought it, and my first book was published in 2000.

When I was in college and beyond, I enjoyed a long correspondence with an American poet named Kenneth Irby. He sent me great letters and was always encouraging about my lousy poems. What he said, over and over again, was “follow your enthusiasms.” And I’ve always held that as a central tenet to my writing. Trust in those things that quicken your heart. It seems to me that you are doing the same thing.

18727580._SY540_

That’s great advice. Reminds me of the words of wisdom a respected kidlit editor gave a writer friend of mine when she was struggling with what project to tackle next. “What do you love? What do you want to be known for writing?” the editor asked her, and I think about that every time I’m contemplating the next book. For me, it’s almost always music and art—visual arts, performing arts—usually in bio form. I want to be that “musicians and artists” chick.

You’ve said that Esquivel’s music creates pictures in your head. But in the book-making process, your job as the writer was to use words to create pictures in the head of the reader, and, significantly, in the illustrator’s head, too. You wrote, for example, “It sounded like a crazy rocket ride zigzagging through outer space!” I loved how you attempted to match in language the music that you heard.

Thank you! Fortunately, Esquivel and his various record companies gave me plenty of hints, with album titles like Other Worlds, Other Sounds; Infinity in Sound; and Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music. Esquivel liked to use vocals as instrumentation too, replacing familiar lyrics with (often nonsensical) sounds like “zu-zu-pow!” I had fun trying to come up with written representations of the sounds of different instruments — how would you describe what a rumbling tympani drum or blaring trumpet actually sounds like? My terrific editor at Charlesbridge, Yolanda Scott, is a singer — in an amazing coincidence, with the world’s only orchestra devoted to Esquivel’s music, Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica — so she was helpful with this, particularly for some of the more obscure instruments such as the boobams. (Just looked back at some of our e-mail exchanges and cracked up. Yolanda: ISSUE #4: sound of boobams (pp. 14-15) I think we need to get rid of the “Beeda” and replace with another syllable. I agree that “eee” doesn’t sound drummy. Me: Does BUMPA-DUMPA-BOODA-BUM sound drummy enough?)

Ha, that’s hysterical. When it comes to inventing words to match sound effects, I always think of Don Martin from Mad magazine as the absolute master. Pffft-Frack! He’s a favorite of mine.

 

pffft

 

Did you know the work of illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh before this book?

No, I wasn’t familiar with Duncan. When Yolanda let me know who they had in mind to illustrate, I went right to Duncan’s website and was delighted. He was the perfect choice for this project! I’m thrilled that with Esquivel! he’s racked up yet another Pura Belpré Honor award. The books he’s written and illustrated are all so beautiful. Plus, he’s a genuinely nice guy.

16300024_10154611807622935__med_hr

Describe your feelings on the day you first saw the illustrations.

Seeing the finished art is one of the very best parts of the picture book process. You know the story, you’ve seen the sketches, but nothing compares with the final artwork in all its gorgeous glory. It’s always exciting to see an artist’s interpretation of your words; often it’s far beyond what you’d even imagined! I especially love how Duncan got the groovy late ‘50s/early ‘60s fashions and aesthetic in there while still being true to his style based on ancient Mexican art.

Just to clear something up for me: You used to write under the name Susan VanHecke. Is that over? Are you working your way through the alphabet: V-W-X?

Ha! A few years back, I was reading the memoir Joey Ramone’s brother wrote about their relationship, and I was struck by how this tall, pale, gangly kid named Jeff Hyman—just ruthlessly bullied for the way he looked and for his OCD—made a completely fresh start for himself by changing his name to Joey Ramone. I’d always been teased about my maiden name, and the married name, which I’d never been fond of and everyone always mispronounced and misspelled, was never mine in the first place. Since I was making fresh starts in several areas of my life, a name change just felt right. So I took my cue from sweet Joey Ramone (gabba gabba hey!), and the easy-to-say, easy-to-spell Susan Wood it is. There may or may not be a smidge of patriarchy-smashing buried somewhere in there too…

What’s next, Susan? Do you have plans for a new book?

skydivingbeavers_jacket_med_hrLet’s see. My picture book about a daring wildlife relocation by parachute, The Skydiving Beavers: A True Tale (Sleeping Bear), publishes April 15, and American Gothic in September. I need to confirm with the publisher, but I think my Little Red Hen retelling with a Mexican twist comes out in 2018, as does another picture book biography (nonmusic) that I can’t really talk about yet.

Any candidates for another music biography?

I’m working on a proposal with Albert Glinsky to adapt his definitive biography for adults of Russian musician, inventor, and spy Leon Theremin — yeah, that theremin — into a YA. And I have a few other ideas for music biographies, both YA and PB. So many musicians I’d love to write about! I’m also a professional copyeditor specializing in music texts, so when I’m not sweating over my own stuff, I live vicariously editing other authors’ music-related work.

Thanks for stopping by, Susan. Hopefully we get to hang out someday.

SUSAN WOOD keeps a swanky website that you can easily find, so I’m not going to provide a link. Do it yourself, people. Leave me alone. I’m not your slave. And get off the damn lawn, I just seeded.

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed here: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, London Ladd, John Coy, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, Susan Verde, Elizabeth Zunan and Robin Pulver. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function. 

If My Siblings Were Album Covers

I’m the youngest of seven children. I grew up with a rich inheritance of music. As my brothers and sisters went off to college and other experiences, many of their albums found their way upstairs in the crappy stereo cabinet, their divergent tastes all mashed together. It was amazing, and I’m still in awe of that great motherload of music I got to hear at any early age.

One game I played a lot involved a small garbage can set up on a table and a wadded up piece of paper. I’d pretend — for hours, it seemed — to be players on the New York Knicks. I’d invent elaborate games, acting out shots, keeping score. I was Dave Debusschere, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Dick Barnett, Bill Bradley. That classic 1969-70 team. And all the while, I rocked the house. Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Donovan, Spooky Tooth, Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly, on and on, endlessly.

Proust can have his madeleine cake. But in terms of generating memories, there’s nothing for me like the associations that come with specific songs and albums. Today I decided to show one album cover for each sibling. Not necessarily their favorite, or most representative, but one that always brings them to mind.

FlowersLP

My brother Neal was a Dylan fanatic, and definitely my most influential brother when it came to music. He loved to sing, something that the rest of us never attempted. He was singular in that regard. This album always makes me think of him. Could have gone with early Dylan or “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

the_band_huge

I can’t hear this great album without flashing on my brother Al. I also remember him talking to me about Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” Problem is, Al’s not really a Hendrix guy.

yes_theyesalbum

This one is slippery. Compared to Neal, Billy didn’t have super refined tastes from what I recall. He kind of bounced around, listening to whatever. I do remember his red-and-white box of 45s, which I loved flipping through. But this album will always remind me of a specific day. It was Billy’s return from Vietnam. He came home with a great stereo system, as so many soldiers did, including a “light box” that flashed along to the music. A bunch of his friends and I, his adoring and much younger little brother, crowded into his bedroom when he played this album. Hey, yours is no, yours is no disgrace.

4bb0b9653f3f92f05bfdf18daf573879

Almost went with Dan Fogelberg here. Or James Taylor. Jean definitely had the classic teenage sister tastes — the sensitive songwriters — along with her Richard Brautigan novels. I still have a soft spot for most of it. Even the dreaded Fogelberg.

Oldies-But-Goodies-Vol-9-cover

Kind of a cheat here. Barbara in my mind was the least musical, in that I find it hard to recall her ever being particularly enthusiastic about any particular album. She did have this fantastic collection of 50s records — “Oldies But Goodies” — and I enjoyed playing those fun songs over and over again. “Alley Oop!”

6--and-12-string-guitar-4f4d06718e457

My brother John introduced me to this album. I remember him telling me about it, and playing it for me. I also remember playing the Doors “Waiting for the Sun” album in his bedroom, acting out “The Unknown Soldier” in front of a mirror, falling on his bed at the sound of the gunshot. I did that a lot. Just a little boy playing with his brother’s records.

It occurs to me now that I still love all those albums. It’s partly transference, I’m sure. When I play some of this music, I hear my life reverberating back like a distant echo in the hills. Just lucky, I guess. Let the good times roll.

Bill Watterson on Creativity, Inspiration, Playfulness, and Artistic Integrity

4f7dd2ab3558e43106243135c5ecb0b8

Today, thanks to the genius Brainpickings site, I discovered a wonderful commencement address by Bill Watterson, the creator of the Calvin & Hobbes comics.

I have so much respect for the integrity and wisdom of this artist. Here’s a small sample:

“If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.

[…]

At school, new ideas are thrust at you every day. Out in the world, you’ll have to find the inner motivation to search for new ideas on your own. With any luck at all, you’ll never need to take an idea and squeeze a punchline out of it, but as bright, creative people, you’ll be called upon to generate ideas and solutions all your lives. Letting your mind play is the best way to solve problems.

[…]

A playful mind is inquisitive, and learning is fun. If you indulge your natural curiosity and retain a sense of fun in new experience, I think you’ll find it functions as a sort of shock absorber for the bumpy road ahead.”

Go ahead and click here. You might be inspired.

As for the comic above, I think Mr. Watterson is correct. And I am sure he’s writing from personal experience. There’s nothing like a deadline for a kick in the pants.

Students often ask about writer’s block. They seem fascinated by it. I tell them that my father was an insurance salesman with seven children. He never had insurance block. Nope. He just went to work.

In this profession, when you are stuck?

Make something up!

I discussed this with author Todd Strasser the other day at an event in Walkill, NY. He agreed and said [sic]: “No reader ever opens a book, points to page 112, and complains, ‘You just made this part up.'”

Because: of course.

It’s how we roll.

Thank you, Bill Watterson, for your great shining example.