Archive for 5 Questions

5 QUESTIONS with Susan Verde, author of “The Water Princess”





I fell hard for the book The Water Princess by Susan Verde, illustrated by Peter Reynolds and inspired by the life experience of Georgie Badiel. It struck me as timely, important, age-appropriate and lovingly, respectfully told. The tone felt right, the writing strong: “I can almost touch the sharp edges of the stars.” So I plucked up my courage and reached out to Susan for an interview.

Susan Verde, thanks for stopping by.

Thank you so much. I’m really beyond thrilled to be here!

Though we’ve never met, it seems like we have more than a few connections, including our love for Greenwich Village. These days you live in Easthampton on the south fork of Long Island. I’ve spent a lot of time out there. After retirement, my parents moved from my childhood home in Wantagh to Southampton. “Near the dump,” as my Queens-raised mother would hasten to point out. Don’t get the wrong idea, nothing fancy about us Prellers!

HAHAHA! When I was a child going to the dump was a big deal! We would sing “to the dump to the dump to the dump dump dump.”

I can hear it now, the Lone Ranger theme. Every visit my father would turn to the grandchildren and ask, “Who wants to go to the dump with me?” They were always eager to go. A magical place, I guess.

The dump is a bonding experience for sure. My dad used to take my kids there too. They loved the seagulls and the adventure. Hmmm . . . sounds like a story in the making, no?

It’s funny. On Facebook this morning, someone posted a writing prompt. And because I’m cranky and dislike that sort of thing, I wrote, “The whole world is a writing prompt.”

I couldn’t agree more! Need a good writing prompt? All you have to do is be present in the world. Doesn’t mean it will turn into a published manuscript but it doesn’t mean it won’t.

I admire your writing so much, and was especially impressed by The Water Princess, which was the result of a unique collaboration between Peter Reynolds, Georgie Badiel (whom I refuse to refer to as a “supermodel”), and you.


Yes, it was kind of a random but interesting meeting of minds and souls. Peter met Georgie at a fundraising event, and she told him of her dream to share her story with children. They met again in Manhattan at the Women of the World conference. It was then that Peter really got a sense that Georgie had an important story to tell. He felt it needed a lyrical touch and knowing my style and knowing how to connect people (he really has a gift) he emailed me and told me, “You need to call this woman right now.”

Tell us about that first meeting.

Georgie and I met at at a Starbucks (where many of my projects begin) in midtown and she walked in so tall and striking and she just couldn’t wait to talk. I hugged her upon meeting because there was a wonderful familiarity about her (it was a hug around the knees basically as I am not so tall). We sat. She spoke. I listened. Her story was sad and hopeful and funny and beautiful. We were both crying after a good hour or so. I knew right away I wanted to tell this story and understood why Peter brought us together.



You must have felt daunted, the idea of telling someone else’s story.

I had never really told someone else’s story so directly. My main concern was that I told it right. I was very careful with the gift of this story that Georgie gave me. I felt protective of it. She didn’t hesitate to share anything. I had lots of questions . . . wanted all of the details of the journey, the songs she sang, the kind of trees she saw and what she snacked on, what she felt like as she walked. Georgie was extremely generous and had no restrictions or rules or suggestions about style. It was very special to have a story like hers and then the opportunity to play with it and make it accessible to the picture book audience. I didn’t take that lightly.



You did an incredible job. I sometimes think of a picture book idea as that black slab in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” no doors, no windows. How do you get inside? Then maybe a phrase comes to mind, a sentence that establishes tone –- you jot that down — and you’re in!

Honestly the “way in” for this story was the sky. It was really the secret doorway. I have been to Africa and I had my own memories of the African sky. It was really insane the way it felt so incredibly close and the colors and stars. I know that the sky was not the central message of the story or even anything Georgie talked about but for me it provided a context and a starting place. I imagined what this child, this princess, would feel about the sky (her kingdom) and what she — what Georgie — had to endure under this sky and the juxtaposition of the hardships and the beauty of the world. It informed the ultimate message of hope and gave me my entry point.



I have such respect for writers who can take such a complex story and somehow find that essence. A distillation that uncovers a clear, uncluttered pathway. The storyline — like finding a path through the dark mysterious woods. Your manuscript is simple, poetic, and powerful. How do you that? I mean, what’s the thinking process for you?

Thank you! That is such a huge compliment! I took lots of notes as Georgie spoke. Just words and images and then as soon as we parted after that first meeting the story just poured out. I tend to have a more lyrical style of writing. I like slices of life and the emotions they evoke so it was very natural to approach The Water Princess as a poem of sorts. I am also very connected to water and its movement. Because water is so central to this story it felt natural to have a certain flow but it wasn’t forced. I just kind of let the story direct me. The only sticky place was the title. Georgie really wanted the main character to be a princess as there was some royalty in her lineage but it also felt like a nice part of the message that even a princess needs to work hard and have hope to solve a problem. It was my son, who was 10 at the time, who said, “Why don’t you just call it The Water Princess?” Smart boy. In retrospect it seemed pretty obvious but that doesn’t mean we always see it!


I’ve been making a serious effort over the past year to get back into picture books. I have so many failed manuscripts, false starts, abandoned ideas. At a certain point I just look up and think, “Yeah, this one’s not happening.” Am I doing something wrong? Help me, Susan.

Haha! I have a lot of those too but don’t give up! Keep getting it all out and ultimately something will click. You will feel it in your gut! Is that the way it works with writing for older kids? I would LOVE to tap into that process! I too have a lot of ideas and false starts in that arena. Maybe you can share your secret?

If I figure anything out, I’ll let you know. I liked that you were once an elementary school teacher. You’ve got your bona fides. I’m envious of teachers, because they are surrounded by stories, swimming in stories. There’s a great tradition of former teachers who go on to become excellent storytellers. It’s like: they know.

Being a teacher was one of the best times of my life. First of all it gave me a great excuse to buy tons and tons of picture books! It also gave me a chance to really observe what kids connect with and how to reach them where they are. What I learned and what still guides me is that kids are so intuitive and intelligent. They deserve stories that don’t talk down to them. They deserve stories that challenge them and also have deep themes and messages. Kids are a lot less “cluttered” and full of cynicism and doubt than adults. They understand more than they are often given credit for and they have a natural sense of empathy and ability which leads them to solve problems or at least attempt to solve problems more readily and creatively

For this book, you had a rare opportunity for a picture book author: you knew who was going to illustrate it. Usually we’re typing in the dark, without any clue how it will be presented visually. Do you think it guided you as a writer?


Yes, Peter and I have been really fortunate to have such a special creative relationship. I know it’s rare for sure. I think it did guide my writing because I had a sense of the illustrations and wanted to write in a way that allowed him to “see” the story. Working with Peter is a wonderful collaboration and a complete joy. We have a very similar sensibility and mission and it feels like a dance in a way. We guide each other’s steps but put our own flare into the process. I also know how incredibly thoughtful he is with his art and the way it reflects and captures and moves along the emotion of a story. This particular project involved a lot of research and conversation among the three of us so it was especially collaborative.

You were instrumental in making the connection with the good folks at Ryan’s Well. Why was that important for this project?

img_0620That was not an easy task at all. Part of Georgie’s vision for this project was to actually bring water to her specific village first and foremost. I went to organization after organization to try and find a way to give them money from our advances to start creating wells and then continuing as the book sold. Much to our surprise it was super difficult to find an organization that went to Burkina Faso in the first place. Finally I just started cold calling water charities and happened upon Ryan’s Well. They were AMAZING! Incredibly receptive and willing to go to Burkina Faso directly. They were also a family-run organization started by Ryan when he was eight. It really captured everything about this project — the wells, the power of children, really a match made in heaven. In the meantime out of frustration Georgie started to create her own foundation, and has continued the mission.

So what’s next for you? There’s a new book about sneakers, right?

Yes, My Kicks will be out April 13th, illustrated by Katie Kath. I didn’t see the art until I got the proofs and was thrilled!

That’s typical for most authors, but very different from your work with Peter Reynolds.

Kathy captured the story and the part of me that is still a city girl and I couldn’t be happier but it was very odd and slightly nerve-wracking not speaking about anything after I handed in the text.

That’s such an essential childhood experience. Buying those squeaky new (too clean) sneakers, getting home, dirtying them up, and then running much faster than you ever have in your entire life. “Look at me go!”


Right?!? I remember it in myself when I was a kid and I see it in my own children. They have sneakers that represent different parts of themselves and with every new pair I see them grow as personalities (not just in shoe size), challenging themselves in new ways. Sneakers are a kind of cool transitional items and vehicles for self-expression.

You’ve obviously given it some thought. Anything else coming up?

Peter and I have a sequel to I Am Yoga called I Am Peace out in September and then I have something with John Parra about street art and a few more special things in the pipeline. Also trying to keep the kid’s yoga and mindfulness alive and raising three wonderfully crazy children! Life isn’t dull that’s for sure. I am very grateful for it all and especially grateful to have been invited to speak here with you!

Believe me, most people are not that excited. I’m truly glad we got this chance to hang out together. I knew from your books that we’d get along.

Thank you James! I’ve enjoyed this so much!


headshot3SUSAN VERDE keeps a website that’s worth visiting. She’s published a number books, including I Am Yoga, You and Me, The Museum, and coming in April, My Kicks: A Sneaker Story. In other words, she’s awesome and she’s my new friend.

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed in my “5 Questions” series include: 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, and Matt Faulkner. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function. 

Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Robin Pulver, Susan Wood, Hannah Barnaby, Kevin Lewis and more.



5 QUESTIONS with Matt Faulkner, creator of the graphic novel “Gaijin”

Today we visit with Matt Faulkner. His award-winning graphic novel, Gaijan, has never been more darkly relevant than it is today. It’s a good time for middle-grade readers to know this powerful story, and to become aware of this chilling, “round ’em up” period in American history. 

GAIJIN cover

Welcome, Matt, thanks for visiting my blog today. You might appreciate this: I first became aware of you with the publication of The Amazing Voyage of Jackie Grace in 1987. I loved that book –- so richly imagined and, I still think, an accurate depiction of a child’s imagination. Bath time has never been the same for me.

You’re very welcome. I’m happy to spend some time talking with you and happy, too, that we can share our conversation with your blog readers.

Oh, you mean Chet and Gladys? They’re awesome.

In regard to Jackie Grace, thanks, that’s very kind. It was my first author/illustrated book and only the second book I’d worked on. It was tremendously exciting to get that manuscript purchased and also very misleading to me. The misleading part was that I actually sold that manuscript to Jean Feiwel over the phone back in 1985. She really dug the illustrations I’d just done on my first book — a version of Jack and the Beanstalk — and was enthusiastic to get me moving onto another project. We started talking about blackrotarygif2Jackie Grace over the phone and she indicated that I’d have the contract if I just send in a few sketches. And that’s what happened. I can assure you, James, I’ve never sold a manuscript to anyone, ever again, over the phone.

Yet I keep expecting it to happen. My bad.

I agree, phones aren’t what they used to be. So you’ve been at this business a long time. I published my first book in 1986. I think we are all confronted with different ideas of success, but lately I’m most proud of simply having survived. You know, just hanging around all these years through the ups and downs. It can be a tough, cold business. As I recall the line from an old PW article, “children’s publishing is a bunny eat bunny” world. But we’re still alive and kicking.

Oh yes, survival is sweet.


The fact is — for us to be here, doing what we started doing over thirty years ago is a victory. There have been more than a few times over the past 30 years that I wondered how in God’s name I was going to move forward — how was I going to make enough money, how was I going to stay inspired, how was I going to stay sane within the pressures of being a husband/father while working as a freelance author/illustrator (and all that that implies). So yes, to have this discussion right now — this is a good thing.

Congrats to the both of us.

Speaking of congratulations, I’m so impressed by your graphic novel, Gaijin, which I believe is not only a terrific book, it’s an important book. Tell us about the origins of that story. I gather it has personal significance for you.



Thank you.

Gaijin: American Prisoner of War came from an experience I had as a child and from the experiences my relatives had during WWII. During the summer after fifth grade I read a bunch of books about children who’d survived the Holocaust. It just seems that the librarian who handed me the first book kept right on handing them to me when I’d complete one. Eventually, my mom placed a piece of paper with a name and address before me — a return address from an envelope. She told me that our family had been in a concentration camp in California.


Early character study, sketch, from GAIJIN.

Early character study, sketch, from GAIJIN.

I imagine that I was incredulous — after all, concentration camps were something horrible in Europe, not America. Not so, my mom said. She helped me to understand that my great aunt, Adeline, along with her daughter and grandchildren, had been placed in the Japanese American internment camp called Manzanar, during WWII. This was because Adeline, an Irish American, had married a gentleman of Japanese descent and hence, their children were part Japanese. At that time in America, this was enough to send a child to a prison camp in the desert.

At what point did you decide that this story would be best told as a graphic novel?

Fairly early in the process of developing the story I realized that the format of the graphic novel would help me best express the way I felt about the material.


You didn’t begin your career as a graphic novelist. What attracted you to that medium?

Of late, I feel more and more that this — the graphic novel — is my medium. I don’t feel that I am in any way a rigorous student of this medium. However, I know that I tell stories best in a visual format. For me, a story flows far more readily when the images and text are free to roam across the landscape of the spread, as they can in a graphic novel. It’s far more film-like. The format feels more like the experience of watching a film and to me, creating the frame work of an imagined film for my readers is what I reach for in any book, but most especially in creating a graphic novel.

I can see that, and agree about the cinematic qualities.

It’s interesting that you mentioned my first author/illustrated picture book, Jackie Grace, because that was seen as a bit of a risk in 1986. Why? Because it didn’t follow the traditional picture book form and was, actually, a graphic novel for 6-to-8 year olds. This was kind of a big deal back then and I recall editorial discussions which addressed this risky thing — a graphic novel picture book. It was simply not done in 1985. However, it is done now. And I’m going to do as much of it as I possibly can in my allotted time.

When I look at many graphic novels, I often think, “Wow, that’s a lot of work.” Can you take us through to process of creating this book? How it began? How long it took?


The idea for the Gaijin began to take a more concrete form following 9/11 when I started to hear the talk of various pundits who were advocating internment for another minority group, American Muslims. That pompous, paranoid talk got me to nail myself to my desk and begin the sketching. But it took another 9 years before Gaijin was sold to Disney/Hyperion and it wasn’t published till 2014.

The book was created in traditional materials — graphite, water color and gouache. I used a brown/blue palette (reminiscent of the olive drab and khaki uniforms) for scenes set in the day time. The hero’s dream sequences were created in a hot, acidic palette.

I spent a a good deal of time doing visual research — visited the sites of both the Tanforan and Manzanar internment camps etc., and created three variations of the sketch layout.

Wait, what?

Yes, that’s right, three separate layouts for the 130-page graphic novel. A little crazy, yes, but I think this was something that had to do more with my inexperience of creating a graphic novel than anything else.


Sample of an alternative sketch.

Sample of an alternative sketch.


It was fascinating how you introduced the news of Pearl Harbor. Koji and his mother don’t at first realize how it will affect them personally. But the next day they begin to learn, in ways large and small, that the world has changed.

From my research I learned that Pearl Harbor in 1941 simply wasn’t a place that every American was aware of the way it is today. There was so much that was left unexplained and therefore became the source of fear for both Japanese Americans and white Americans. It was important for me to express as best I could this sense of surprise, looming terror and dread.


One thing that stood out for me in my research was learning that the racism as expressed by whites on the west coast toward Japanese Americans following Pearl Harbor was more than just a response to the attack. That racism was very old and very deeply rooted within California laws. There were many, many whites who were simply waiting to take advantage of the fear that the attack engendered and couldn’t wait for the removal of Japanese Americans so they could take possession of their farms, their homes and shops. From what I’ve learned, as much as it was about fear and racism, it was also greed that fueled the Japanese American internment.

That’s a great point, and I think it’s something we are seeing today. The old hatreds have existed all along, waiting for the right atmosphere in order to emerge. Like Voldemort’s followers, the Death Eaters, waiting for the signal in the sky. Suddenly it’s “safe” to haul out those repressed prejudices into the light of day. But my comments aside, I think you admirably refrained from imposing any obvious editorial judgments in your book. You let the story speak for itself.

Yes, I did try to refrain from inflaming what is already a hot issue. I didn’t think any editorial refinements or judgment on my part would do much to make the point any clearer. In short — we, as a nation, failed on a vast scale. We grossly mistreated over 120,000 people — half of whom were children — because of their race.

It’s shocking and heartbreaking that this moment in American history –- a troubled, dark, confusing time –- is still so relevant to today’s America. What are the lessons to be learned here, in your opinion?



It’s best to keep it this simple: They’re all our children.

The Japanese American children which we, as a nation, imprisoned in Manzanar and over twenty-five other remote prison camps from 1942 till 1945 were all our children. Similarly, the Syrian child that drowned and whose body was photographed on that beach was our child, too. As a species, we are either going to accept and work with this reality or we’re going to continue to suffer.

Thank you for those thoughts, Matt. I know I asked a lot of you today, but only because I think we need to hear your voice now more than ever. What can we look forward to from you in the future? Have you got a new book in the works?

Thanks for asking. I’m currently working on illustrating a four picture book series about American ideas, ideals and people, written by Ruby Shamir and edited by Jill Santopolo at Philomel.

In addition, my agent, Abi Samoun of Red Fox Literary, is currently shopping two graphic novel ideas for me right now — one is called Burrito Fever, which tells the tale of the annual march of 10,000 crazed bunnies in search the perfect burrito.

The other story is about a young Japanese American who joins the army during 1944 and fights in France with the all Japanese American 442nd Combat team — the unit most decorated for it’s size in U.S. army history.

Again, thanks for inviting me to talk about my work with you, James. I wish you all the best with yours.

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed in my “5 Questions” series include: 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, and Bruce Coville. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function. 

Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Robin Pulver, Hannah Barnaby, and more.

5 QUESTIONS with Bruce Coville, author of “Hatched”


Big day here at James Preller Dot Com. Nevermind the mess. Kick those balloons out of the way, pick the confetti out of your hair later. We’re thrilled for today’s visit from the nearly-legendary author Bruce Coville! Or should I say the impossibly prolific? The glistening-domed scribe? Words are so hard sometimes. Anyway, I’m glad to have Bruce here, an author of wit and wisdom and unfailing good cheer (so long as he doesn’t open a newspaper). 

Bruce Coville - credit Charles Wainwright


Bruce, welcome. I’m eager to discuss Hatched, the second book in your “Enchanted Files” series. I should let readers know that each title in the series is a stand-alone, they don’t have to be read in any order. Or at all, I suppose!

Hey, don’t let people off the hook that easily. Of course they should read them all!

I guess the literary term for this book is “epistolary,” in the broadest sense. Not limited to letters, but inclusive of documents, cell phone photos, newspaper accounts, journal entries, and so on: multi-textural. It’s a highly entertaining way to deliver a story. Tell me about what attracted you to this narrative device.


Actually, I’ve been trying for some months now to remember how I first thought of it! I think what happened was that when I was working on the proposal for the first book in the series, which was originally titled Diary of a Mad Brownie (long story there!), I realized I had a lot of information I needed to convey that the main character would not put into his diary, for example things about his world that he would take for granted but that would not be common knowledge for a young reader. Once I started down that path, I realized what a good source of humor such documents could be, especially with ironic juxtapositions.

It seems like you are having fun. It comes through in the book. I can imagine you giggling to yourself as you typed.

Totally! When kids ask if I like writing, I always explain that there are days when my head feels like oatmeal, and I think the only way I can get something out of the keyboard is if I plant a geranium there.

Other days I’ll write something so fabulous it makes me laugh out loud and hug myself. Naturally, I have a lot more oatmeal days than I do scream and hug myself days. Thing is, you have to live through the oatmeal to get to the hugs.

Or something like that . . .

I think someone on the interwebs needs to create a meme right now with your face and the words, “You have to live through the oatmeal to get to the hugs.” Back to the book — the design is fresh, clean, and inviting. Fabulous covers, especially. As a hot-shot author, did you have input into that aspect of the publishing process?

In this case it’s rather a long story.

That seems to be a trend with you. Try to hurry it up, I rent by the column inch.


The first book (born Mad Brownie, but called Cursed in paperback) got great reviews, but did not do as well as we had hoped. In retrospect, I think the title was all wrong for the audience. It made adults laugh, but mostly just baffled kids.

Random House, bless its collective heart, believed in the project enough that rather than drop it –- which some other publishers might have done -– they literally went back to the drawing board and came up with an entirely new look that everyone seems to love. (Which shows what I know; I thought the art for the first cover was great!)


That original cover artist had actually already done a crackerjack cover for Hatched, but it was replaced with the cover you’ve seen, and quite rightly described as “fresh, clean, and inviting.”

Because of the “epistolary” aspect of the books, I have indeed been involved in the design aspects of the interiors, much more so than usual. Much discussion of typefaces has ensued. And the artist, Paul Kidby, has been wonderful at coming up with different illustration styles, as the documents are supposed to be from a wide variety of sources.

You’ve long been interested in the magical, fascinated by the fantastic, always with a healthy dose of humor and playfulness. Publishing trends may come and go, but that’s always been your sweet spot. You’ve been ahead of the times and you’ve been behind the times, inhabiting your own planet, yet always working away, doing your own thing. Writing Bruce Coville-type books.

As the great Popeye so often said, “I yam what I yam.”


Where did that interest come from? Is it something that goes back to your childhood?

Oh, definitely. But, changing styles aside, I think the mix of a compelling story with goofy humor is something that all kids love, always. Whatever is currently in style has as much to do with publishers seeking the next big thing as it does with actual kids. Okay, that statement is less true for YA fiction, where there are definite trends and fads. But for a large subset of the 8–12 year audience fantasy, science fiction, and adventure –- all leavened with humor –- will never go out of style.

This may sound silly, since this is a book about an imaginary creature, but what kind of research went into it? You are writing within a tradition, after all. You can’t just make it up. Can you?

Oh, I do a vast amount of research for these books. Obviously studying the creature that will be at the center of the story is vital. And not just because you’re writing about a figure for which there is a lot of existing lore. The delicious side-effect is that the research actually sparks all kinds of plot ideas. A good example would be the armband worn by Alexander the Great that plays an important part in the resolution of Hatched. That whole strand of the story came about because in the initial research I learned that there is a story about Alexander harnessing a pair of gryphons in an attempt to reach the heavens.

But the research isn’t restricted to the magical aspects of the story. I needed a place for Gerald, the griffin, to stay where he could avoid being seen. Once I decided that the Catskills would be perfect for my purposes, I had to research the area and its lore.

And doing a backstory for the gnomes that are also key to the book led to studying some Dutch history. I was fairly amused when the translator working on the Dutch edition queried me about naming their colony New Batavia, since Dutch kids learn that Batavia was the original name for Jakarta. I was able to tell her in return that the reason that city was called Batavia to begin with was in honor of the Batavi, a tribe that led a revolt against Rome in the first century AD, and that in the 1500’s there was a movement (“The Batavian Revival”) to claim the tribe as the forebears of the Dutch people as part of a nation-building/myth-making effort.

Really, I become a fountain of useless information when I am working on something like this!


It took you all the way to page five before your first “stinky fart” joke. I believe “unicorn poop” is mentioned on the same page. Get a hold of yourself, Bruce! How in the world are you going to win a Newbery with this kind of attitude?

Brief story: The late, great Paula Danziger was a close pal of mine. She once told me about a snot joke she had put in one of her Matthew Martin books. Her editor wanted her to take it out. Telling me about it, Paula said, “I told him it stays. And that’s why I’ll never win the Newbery!”

But she sure had a lot of readers!

Seriously, you are willing to go there. The facile answer is that you’ve never grown up. But I wonder if you have anything to say about the place of “low humor” in children’s literature? Besides uproarious laughter, you must have gotten a few complaints over the years.

Actually, I used to have an entire speech called “The Importance of Bad Taste in Children’s Literature.” The essence of it was that as a writer I believe you have to start where the child is, not where you want to take them.

urlLook, if you say to a kid, “This book provides a deep and meaningful meditation on the meaning of life, and will prove to be important to you and the person you are to become,” the kid’s response is likely to be “That’s nice, but I have an important video game to play.”  

But if you start the book with some slightly naughty humor, then catch them with the story, they will follow you anywhere. And that is when you can also provide something deeper and more meaningful. On the other hand, if you gain the gift of a child’s attention but don’t go on to also feed his or her heart, I count that as a failure.

I like that, Bruce, well said. If you gain the gift of a child’s attention . . . .

Another meme!

The book is built upon the relationship of Brad –- a human boy -– and a Griffin, Gerald Overflight. Obviously, characters from different worlds. You like to write about that nexis where the magical and the modern world come together.


Tell us your thoughts about Brad. Are you an author who has it all mapped out beforehand, or are you discovering him as you write?

Oh, I was totally discovering Brad as I wrote. One day when I was only partway into the book the editor contacted me and asked for a description of Brad to give the cover artist. (This was before the style change.)

To be honest, describing the main character is not a strong point with me . . . I mostly like to leave room for readers to imagine themselves in the lead roles.

In Elmore Leonard’s classic phrase, you leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.

But it is important for most covers. They asked if Brad could have dark hair and eyes, and maybe despite his Scottish heritage (something that later changed anyway) be not too fair-skinned.

My reply was that as far as I was concerned he could be black. I was being a bit flip. But that email exchange led to me deciding to make Brad of mixed race, which in turn helped make him a much richer and more interesting character in the final version.

Ah, that opens the door an entirely different conversation about diversity and representation in children’s books — a topic we can’t possibly due justice to today. Maybe we can tackle it another time. Because look: we made it through to the end without you jumping on a chair and screaming about Donald Trump. You’ve shown admirable restraint.

That’s because I’m tired of having to replace keyboards after I pound out a message that sets them on fire!

51SX43Um+qL._AC_UL320_SR216,320_BRUCE COVILLE was born, raised, and still lives in the Syracuse, New York, area, where he is king of all he surveys. He has written many books and enjoys visiting schools, because that’s where they keep the kids.


Authors and illustrators previously interviewed in my “5 Questions” series include: 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, and John Coy. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function. 

Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Matt Faulkner, Robin Pulver, and more.

5 QUESTIONS with JOHN COY, author of “Their Great Gift”



I don’t know what it is with Minnesota, but there’s a lot of great children’s book people from that state, and John Coy is a shining example of all that is great and good in the land of lakes. Each year John quietly adds new quality work to an already outstanding career. Ask anybody in the business about John Coy, and you always hear the same thing: Big Respect. But on the basketball court, they say: No Hops. Today I’m happy to talk about his timely book, Their Great Gift: Courage, Sacrifice, and Hope in a New Land, featuring the photographs of Wing Young Huie.


John and Wing.

John and Wing.


Hi, John. In a way, this book began on a basketball court twenty-five years ago. That is, through friendship. Give us a little bit of background on your relationship with photographer Wing Young Huie and the genesis of this book.

Wing and I met each other playing pick-up basketball in St. Paul. We were often on the same team and he’s got a deadly outside shot. I learned quickly that getting him the ball with the game on the line was a good way to keep the court. Later I played with him in a weekly game for years and we’d go out afterwards as a group. I’ve been a fan of Wing’s extraordinary photography for a long time.

That’s great. I share that in common with you. I play in an old men’s baseball league — hardball, still — and I value so much that companionship of men from assorted backgrounds. It’s an escape and a release and a pure joy. But tell me. Why did this particular topic of immigration speak to you?

Hmong boy scouts

This book had a much different process than any of the other picture books I’ve made where I have not known the artist. I was having lunch one day with editor Andrew Karre and he said, “I’ve always wanted to do a book with Wing Young Huie.” I told him that Wing and I were friends and that I’d love to do a book with Wing. Andrew suggested I write something that would work with Wing’s photographs. Wing has over 35,000 photographs, but I knew he had many of recent arrivals in Minnesota and I’d always wanted to do a book about arriving in a new land.

For Their Great Gift, the photos came first. It was your task to write something that pulled it all together. Is that right?


Actually, the text came first. I wrote it thinking about the stories I’d heard of different people in my family coming here. After Wing saw the text, he and I got together and he suggested changes to make it broader and more inclusive. I talked with people who had come here from other countries and incorporated their suggestions as well. Our goal early on was to make the story open so people could bring their own thoughts, experiences, and questions to it.


In order to write this, you had to think deeply about the nature of America, and the role that immigration has played in our country’s development. What did you discover in the process of writing this book? Did anything surprise you? Did you feel sadness? Inspiration? Pride?

This is a subject very close to me. My uncle didn’t speak any English when he started school and I was brought up hearing stories about how difficult it is to give up a life in one country and start anew in another one. I also heard about
how hard the immigrant experience could be and how some people were not welcoming to new arrivals. As I got older I read more about it and realized this is a very old story in the United States — who is welcome and who is not. I also became interested in how often aspects of being an immigrant are passed down in families, often without us even being aware of them. In terms of emotions, yes sadness, inspiration, pride, but most of all a deep appreciation of the struggle so many people go through to get here, so often so the children and grandchildren will have greater choices. Just typing that sentence about sacrifice brings tears.


I don’t think most people can fully appreciate how difficult it is to write simply about a topic of great complexity. What was the process of winnowing down like for you? I mean, after you removed your forehead from the plasterboard.

I’ve been thinking about this story for twenty years. I’m sure some of that winnowing was going on in my mind, but I also knew the power of Wing’s photographs.

You had that ace up your sleeve.

Right away, I knew the less text the better so that people could bring their own family stories to the topic by seeing the photographs.

Same spread.


Interesting, so the text had to be sparse, leaving an open space for readers to enter with their own stories. But even so, you still had to try to arrive at the essence of the immigrant experience. And that means throwing away a lot of images and pages and pages of text.

Yes, that’s exactly the process. Wing and I would discuss a single word for over an hour trying to get it right. Once Wing and I settled on text, he began the process of choosing images for particular pages. We had a wonderful team with his gallery director Stephanie Rogers and editors Andrew Karre and Carol Hinz and designer Danielle Carnito at Lerner. Since we all live in Minnesota, we could get together and discuss text, images, fonts, and design. Together, we went through many discussions before arriving at the place that felt right.

There’s a great power to Wing’s photographs, the simplicity of just “giving face” to the contemporary immigrant experience. Do you think that’s the ultimate takeaway for this book? A recognition that these are real people seeking the same basic things for their families?


I always want readers to choose their own takeaways. I will say that when I read this book, I have never had kids and adults pay more attention than I do with Their Great Gift. Wing’s images are so powerful that they speak directly to us and cut through so much of the noise around us.

Okay, let’s address it. Were you ever concerned, in this time of heightened sensitivity to “cultural appropriation,” that this wasn’t your story to tell?

Yes, this was a discussion that Wing and I had from the beginning. I started out telling the story from my own personal experience and then tried to move outwards to make it as broad and open as possible so that others could see themselves in the story. I am very grateful to all the people who shared their stories in the process.

Did you any have specific sources you went to for inspiration? Books, speeches, images? I’d guess that you started writing this book . . . by reading?

This book started in listening to people’s stories. The more we’re able to listen to other people’s stories, the more we’re able to understand who we are.

As a writer, I had this experience only once, when I wrote Bystander. I could imagine the book being discussed, to the point where I thought of it as a “talking book.” I saw the novel as a means rather than an end, sensing that the conversations after would be more important than reading the book. I feel that way about your book too, John — a good way to begin an important conversation.


I think that there are a number of conversations happening that are long overdue. Sometimes the conversations aren’t easy, but that’s what happens when there are things we haven’t been talking openly about for a long time. I’m appreciative of people who’ve made their own sacrifices to bring these conversations forward.

Your book ends with a question. Did you always know that’s where you were going to end up?

That question was there in the first draft. I’d given a talk at a young authors’ conference and discussed the people who’d come before me that allowed me to be in the position I was. I asked students to think about who in their family had made a significant sacrifice to provide them the opportunity they had. And then I asked them to think about what they were going to do with this gift.

UnknownYou’re a good man, John Coy. Before I let you go, could you please tell us a bit about Gap Life, your new book for YA readers?

Thanks for asking. It’s the story of Cray Franklin whose parents will pay for college but only if he studies what they want. That’s not what Cray wants and he struggles to find his own way. I’ve been fascinated by how many people have told me stories about not being able to study what they wanted and how deep this goes. Cray meets some remarkable people who help him get to places he didn’t expect.

I’ll add it to the reading list. And again, congratulations on Their Great Gift.

Thanks for asking me to answer these questions. I really enjoyed thinking about it. Very glad to be on the same team with you making books.


The “5 Questions” Interview Series is a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function, which works swimmingly. 

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed include: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, and London Ladd. 

Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, Robin Pulver, and more.




5 QUESTIONS with LONDON LADD, illustrator of “Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglas”




Today we’ll meet London Ladd, the supremely talented illustrator behind Frederick’s Journey (2015), written by Doreen Rappaport. In the process of this interview, you’ll discover what I’ve already learned — that London is a soft-spoken, modest, quietly determined artist with a bright future ahead of him.

London I’m so glad to have you here. Now I can shine my full 15-watt bulb on your awesome talent. I hope you’re wearing sunglasses. Are you ready for this?

Thank you very much. I’m honored to talk to you and share. I’m ready!

As an illustrator who does not write his own books (we’ll get back to that later), you depend on quality manuscripts coming your way. What was your experience first reading Doreen Rappaport’s manuscript for Frederick’s Journey? She’s such an excellent writer and researcher. Are you visualizing images right away?

It was amazing because Douglass is one of my favorite historical figures so this was a dream come true for me as an illustrator. Doreen is great!!! My first time reading her script, images and scenes immediately popped into my head — and as I read it again and again, more would come up. Some would end up in the book, some didn’t.

douglass sketch thumbs

Okay, so you accepted the job. What’s next? Do you freak out for a week, filled with self-doubt? Or are you a guy who rolls up your sleeves and dives right in? I mean, you are staring at words typed on a bare page. How do you start? Sketching with a pencil, or what?

I wouldn’t say freak out, but take a deep breath, exhale so I can could be focused and determined to do an outstanding job. First I read the script from beginning to end without stopping. Then I read a second time while quickly writing notes and sketching in pencil rough ideas. I’ll repeat the process a few more times. Usually 1/4 of the pages roughly sketched before the next phase . . . research.

In the illustrator’s note at the back of the book, you describe going to places where Frederick Douglas lived, visiting his grave in Rochester, New York, even growing your hair long like him. It sounds like you employ similar techniques to a method actor who seeks to inhabit the character he’s portraying. Tell us about your process of –- I don’t want to say becoming Frederick Douglas -– but your effort to get inside this very strong, historic figure.

fj 3


Since I look a little like him — I have spots of gray in my hair and facial hair — I decided to grow it out. While my hair was growing I read his powerful autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and watched documentaries of him and the slave era.

So your first big move was to wait for your hair to grow?

Well, while that was happening I also traveled to various important landmarks during his life like his home in Washington DC, Fells Point in Baltimore, and his grave in Rochester. Everything about the book was a magical experience. I’ve never enjoyed working on a project as much as Frederick’s Journey. That’s why I was so immersed.

Tell us a little about the materials you used to create these paintings. And, um, for the sake of my Nation of Readers, just pretend that I’m a complete idiot and –- I know, that’s a huge leap! –- try to use small words.

LOL . . . it’s pretty simple. 


I use acrylic paint with touches of colored pencil and pastels on primed illustration board. When sketches are approved by the publisher I put the drawings on board, then start painting with thin layers of acrylic paint while adding thicker layers while applying colored pencil and pastels for desired effects. I’ve been illustrating books for 10 years but I’m still developing my artistic look with each project. I really enjoyed the challenges painting them.


Oh, yeah. “Pretty simple.” Sure. Do you work from models?

Always!!! Besides using myself I use family members, friends, anyone who fits the character. I might ask you if necessary!

Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Do you have a favorite moment in the book? I love the contrast from Frederick’s younger days, when he is vulnerable and hungry, forced to eat from a trough, to when we see him later, hunched over a newspaper -– a reader can sense the power he’s acquiring in that moment.


We see him later in a classic heroic pose, with our perspective looking up at him. He grows in stature as the book progresses. I’m also impressed by that huge, tight head shot that occurs late in the book. You turn the page and it’s like, wow, very stark and effective. There he is, the man. When you finished that painting, that must have been a good day.

Thank you! Yeah, it took me a week to paint that page because I would paint it for a few hours, stop, work on other image from the book then continue working on it the next day or two or three until I was happy enough with it.



There are so many images I love but I would have to say the first three pages: Frederick being taken from his mother (the agony of his mother’s guttural scream as he’s taken), fishing in the river (the comfort of being with his grandmother peacefully fishing, soothing sound of the river and warmth of the sun setting), and separating from grandmother (the sadness in his eyes and his low volume sobbing as young Douglass realizes his grandmother is gone, possibly forever and surrounded by strangers). I see them as linked together as one range of feelings, emotions and sounds.


Yes, enough for a life’s journey in just three pages. It’s amazing what he accomplished after that. Do you have plans for writing your own books, too? I really hope you do. You seem like a quiet guy and, of course, those are the ones who surprise people. Any areas of interest you might want to explore?

I’m usually quiet but sometimes I can have a playful personality. Believe it or not when I was younger I wasn’t quiet . . . . I blame the deadlines for that.

I know you are working really hard right now, London, holding down two jobs in addition to your work as an illustrator. It’s impressive. All I can say is keep it up, keep pushing hard, because you are on the cusp of even greater success.


Thanks, I have a few ideas brewing. I presented one to my agent, Lori Nowicki at Painted Words, and she really liked it so we’ll see where it goes. I don’t want to share anything until a contract is signed. Also my daughter is studying illustration in college so it’s my ultimate dream to work together. She’s so creative I know it will be a lot fun.

I am so glad to hear that. I know it’s a difficult jump for many illustrators to make, a leap outside of your comfort zone. But I push you in particular, London, because we are now in a much needed corrective phase in children’s publishing. We are hearing the call for diversity, and it’s been answered in all sorts of ways. Which is well and good. However, a cautionary note: it’s not nearly enough for white people to write inclusively. It can’t stop there. The diversity movement must be about power. About control and author-ity. Children’s literature needs your story; we need to hear your voice in full. It’s not enough, in my mind, for you to illustrate a white person’s story about slavery, regardless of the integrity of the writing. We need children’s literature to embrace your living story — your sense of humor, your playfulness, your experience, your thoughts and feelings. The good news is that I believe the publishing industry has never been more receptive than it is today. So, yes, I wish you luck with that manuscript. And how nice for you to share that experience, fingers crossed, with your daughter.


Thank you!!!  I definitely understand what you’re saying.  Also it’s vital to have more diversity with the decision-makers in publishing like art directors, associate art directors, editors, graphic designers, etc.  
Exactly right. And CEOs, too, while we’re at it. Somewhere I read that you loved comics as a kid. It’s amazing how often I hear that from illustrators, the singular importance and impact of those old comic books. But I don’t really see that visual influence in your work. Am I wrong about that? Or is that something you might try down the line?

True, visually my books don’t look like comics but what influenced me about comic books was the storytelling, emotional depth, and action sequences. I try to bring those elements into my books. Some of my favorite comics were graphic novels, so I would love to illustrate one down the road.

I’d like to see that, too. Hey, London, before I let you go, I see you are a Syracuse guy, born and raised. Do you always wear that orange sweatshirt? And also, favorite Syracuse basketball player of all time. I’m guessing . . . Sherman Douglas. Am I right?

No love for the Shermanator? Here's Etan Thomas instead. Yes, London, big dude.

No love for the Shermanator? Here’s Etan Thomas instead. Yes, London, big dude.

Lol, no I don’t wear the sweatshirt anymore because it can get really warm in the studio and I’ve built up so many layers of paint from cleaning my brushes on it. Sherman Douglas was an amazing player but actually one of my favorite all-time players at SU was Etan Thomas. He wasn’t a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school, but during his four years he worked hard developing his game, earned his degree, and had a productive NBA career and is currently involved with community work. What I admire about him was how he worked hard to overcome any challenge. I can relate to that. Plus when I was a student at SU I saw him on campus one day and he was a big dude.

People sure do love the Orangemen in upstate, New York. My good friend went to Syracuse and tells a story about waitressing for some of those players. Let’s just say that she will forever hate on Derrick Coleman. Anyway, what are you working on right now?

I’m working on Midnight Teacher: The Story of Lily Ann Granderson by Janet Halfmann. It’s about a woman who was born into slavery during the mid 19th century who learned to read and write. She secretly taught other slaves to read write at the risk of her life. After the Emancipation Proclamation she started a school to teach former slaves to read and write. What’s so exciting is illustrating such an amazing woman many people might not be familiar with.

I’ll look forward to it.

Thank you, James, this was a lot of fun.


The “5 Questions” Interview Series is a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function, which works well. 

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed include: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, and Jeff Mack. Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, and more.