Archive for 5 Questions

Housekeeping: Summer Hours, Book News, and So It Goes

Believe it or not, I’ve been keeping up with this blog for more than 9 years. The world has moved on to Instagram and Twitter and Podcasts, and yet I remain, still comfortable with this outdated form at a time when fewer and fewer people seem to want to read much of anything, especially blogs.

We’re in deep summer now, when readership of my blog hits an annual lull. Things are going to be quiet here for the next 6-8 weeks, and will pick up again when schools get back into session. Heaven knows that Staples is already gearing up new commercials urging us to get out and purchase our school supplies. Do you not have your notebooks yet? New crayons? Kleenex boxes?

But let’s resist that for now and just quietly work on our tans. Shall we?

In terms of news, Booklist offered up a review of the new Jigsaw Jones book, The Case from Outer Space, coming out this August. It’s so tepid I don’t know why they bothered. Oh well. I did get a kick out of this line:

“The story rambles a bit in a completely amiable manner . . . .”

Guilty as charged!

 

Up in the treehouse with Danika, Mila, Jigsaw, and Joey. Illustration by R.W. Alley from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE.

Illustration by R.W. Alley from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE.

Here’s the full review, which did nothing to cheer my soul:

Junior detectives Jigsaw Jones and his friend Mila take on a new case after two classmates discover space- alien-related clues in their neighbor’s Little Free Library. When their teacher starts dropping hints about a “special visitor from far, far away,” the stage is set for the big reveal at the book’s end. The story rambles a bit in a completely amiable manner, but this isn’t the sort of mystery that readers are expected to solve by examining the clues and deducing the improbable but inevitable solution. Fortunately, it is the sort of mystery that will please Jigsaw Jones fans, who know they can count on the series for likable characters and a bit of a challenge here and there. For example, when Mila passes an encoded note to Jigsaw, he explains the substitution cipher she used, and then lets readers decode it on their own. With short sentences, bits of humor, and engaging illustrations, the latest early chapter book in Preller’s long-running Jigsaw Jones Mystery series has plenty of appeal for young independent readers.

— Carolyn Phelan
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I am taking a break from my “5 Questions” interview series. Will likely continue come September. It’s hard to keep the energy up when there’s so little positive feedback. Writing into the void.
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Have a great 4th of July, everyone. This deeply troubled country was built upon a wonderful and worthwhile experiment of sound values. There is so much in our past of which we can be proud. There’s such a long way still to go, and it feels like we’ve lost our way. Let’s celebrate the America we dream of, the country we aspire to become. Light a sparkler for science, for the environment, for education, for justice, for tolerance, for decency, for love.
 
I still believe.
 
Happy 4th!

5 QUESTIONS with Hannah Barnaby, author of “Bad Guy”

 



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I think Hannah Barnaby can write anything. I first read her remarkable young adult debut, Wonder Show, and Hannah then followed that up with Some of the Parts. But now she’s pivoted with the bang-bang publication of two new picture books. Today we’ll focus on Bad Guy, illustrated by Mike Yamada. You’ll like Hannah. She’s thoughtful, perceptive, articulate and inspiring — even if I kind of hate her. What can I say? Jealousy is an ugly thing. I’ll try to be a better person next week.

View More: http://skipperphoto.pass.us/hannah-barnaby

Hey, Hannah. Thanks for coming by. I immediately noticed that your new book, Bad Guy, is a lot shorter than your previous works. And it comes with pictures. What’s going on?

Well, the thing about novels is that they take so long to read, and I know people are busy these days, and . . .

Actually, the truth is slightly more self-serving that that. While my second novel (Some of the Parts) was out with my editor, I went on a writing retreat. I knew I was supposed to be working on whatever novel would come next, but I had all of these picture book ideas jotted down in my notebook and in a fit of rebellion (or possibly laziness), I decided to work on a few of those instead. It was such a relief to think about story structure on that smaller, more concentrated scale! By the end of the retreat, I had three different stories that were in good enough shape to send to my agent. One was Bad Guy, another was Garcia & Colette Go Exploring (which comes out on June 6th). And the third . . . never sold. But two out of three ain’t bad!

Two out of three is fabulous. I think I’m 0-17 this year with a sac fly. When you write a picture book, do you page it out?

Not at first. I like my first drafts to be more open than that, so I can take few wrong turns and get a little messy. That’s usually how I find the less predictable path. But once I have a draft that works, I will often storyboard it to make sure that the pacing is steady and that I haven’t gone on too long with one particular part of the story. I think of picture books like stand-up routines—they have to be well-balanced and very structured, you have to leave room for the audience to laugh, and you have to know when to get off the stage.

Stand-up routines, huh? I think of my attempts at picture books as tragedies. There’s a lot of sobbing and snapped pencils. Anyway, did you interact with the illustrator, Mike Yamada? Or do you include art suggestions in your manuscript?

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Mike and I didn’t have any direct contact at all. People are often surprised to hear that—I think they like to picture authors and illustrators having coffee together, collaborating like Lennon and McCartney. But it’s pretty typical for all of the work and communication to go through the editor and the art director, and that’s a good thing. It protects the illustrator from being penned in by the author’s vision of the story, and allows him or her to construct the visual narrative without being unduly influenced. That’s where the magic is in picture books, for me: that alchemy between words and pictures that are created independently and produce an entirely new experience.

I did include a few illustration notes in the manuscript, but only so that Mike would be clued into the staging or the jokes that weren’t spelled out in the text. When Bad Guy describes his library books, for instance, and then says, “I had big plans,” I wanted to make sure it was clear what I meant.

Did your manuscript change a lot from earlier versions?

Looking back at earlier versions of the manuscript, you’d see that the text barely changed at all from submission to publication—maybe because it’s so spare (only 215 words), there weren’t a lot of editorial changes along the way. Well, except for one. Originally, Bad Guy’s woodworking project was a guillotine. My editor, Christian Trimmer, has a great sense of humor, but at some point he said, “There’s some concern around the office that a guillotine might be . . . too much.” I pointed out that Pepito builds a guillotine in Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline and the Bad Hat, but it was a non-starter. So we changed the woodworking book to a magic book, and Bad Guy builds a box to saw his sister in half instead. Still pretty edgy. But not as sharp.

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So the art finally comes in and you did . . . what?

Squealed, jumped up and down, et cetera. Art delivery days were always my favorite part of working as an editor at Houghton Mifflin—we would spread everything out on the conference table and walk around it, oohing and aahing. So I did that in my kitchen. And I made my kids do that, too.

There were a few rounds of email and a phone call or two with my editor, between sketches and finished art, to make sure all the details were right and to cut out a few extraneous words. Paring down a picture book text any further always seems impossible, but once the illustrations are in place, there are almost always a few spots where the editorial scalpel can be applied.

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People have always been fascinated with “bad guys” – and these days with shows like “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos,” we’ve even come to root for the bad guys. They are our favorite characters. Why do we like bad guys so much?

Because they’re complicated. Because they get to do things we never would. Because they break rules and embrace their id and make things interesting. Ever since Milton wrote Paradise Lost, the devil’s been the character that throws complications and color and energy into the story. But the trick is making sure your villain is complex—just as every superhero has a vice, every bad guy must have something they love. Even something as simple as orange Popsicles.

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This book turns on a joke -– spoiler alert: a gender assumption –- was that element there from the beginning?

The twist was always there, but it took me a while to figure out the phrasing. Because the story has so few words, I knew that whatever the “punchline” was going to be, it would have to be snappy. What I’ve loved most about sharing the book with groups of kids is their reaction to that moment—when I first hold up the book, all the boys hoot and holler, but when I read that final bit of text, the girls go wild.

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So you knew how it would end?

I did. I never want to moralize in my books, but I’m very aware of the responsibility of writing for kids and the power of stories to shape their worldview. So even though I set out to portray this little boy who fully embraces playing the villain, I knew all along that he would have to face the consequences. And I wanted them to come from Alice, his sister, rather than from his mother (who is up to a few tricks of her own).

I’m usually good with writing the first 2-3 pages of a picture book, the opening. But the middle, oh boy. That’s rough. What was hardest for you?

Oh, middles are the worst. Beginnings are fun and endings are thrilling, but middles . . .

The good news is that most picture books are built on reliable structures, with reliable patterns. I have done classroom workshops on story-building and it’s amazing how many different scenarios you can construct out of a character or two, a problem, and three (increasing) attempts at a solution. Once you get comfortable with that formula, you can mess around with it a little and twist it in different directions to get that unexpected angle editors are so often looking for.

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Could you expand on that? I mean, the formula part. And I wonder: Did you take creative writing in college?

Sure—so, most picture books that tell a real story (versus the “character portrait” books like Olivia and the conceptual/emotional books like Goodnight Moon and Love You Forever) are built on a pretty simple structural progression: a character has a problem and attempts to solve it in a series of escalating actions. The first try doesn’t work but informs the second; the second doesn’t work but informs the third; and the third does work, though perhaps not in the way the character intended. Along the way, the character grows and develops through these efforts, and maybe there are some other characters who help or hinder, and it helps a lot if there’s something funny like a banana or a sloth.

Or a sloth eating a banana! (Just brainstorming here, Hannah. Please continue.)

I only did one semester of creative writing in college, and it was an independent study with a children’s literature professor who also happened to be a picture book author. He was a storyteller, really, and working with him allowed me to dip a toe into the writing pool but still take an academic approach, which kept me in my comfort zone. (What I wrote was a pretty terrible first draft of a middle-grade novel about a boy whose voice is stolen by a witch. A silent main character is . . . not the best.)

Ha, yes, wrote yourself into a corner with that one. So what else is in the works? And try, Hannah, while answering this, to not make the rest of us feel too much like slugs on a couch. We feel bad enough about ourselves already.

Well, my second picture book—Garcia & Colette Go Exploring, illustrated by Andrew Joyner—releases on June 6th from Putnam. Two picture books coming out within a month of each other was a total fluke. I swear.

The tricky thing about this publishing business is that there are always things in the works that we’re not allowed to talk about, right? But I can say that I have a third picture book under contract with Houghton Mifflin—it’s called There’s Something About Sam, and it’s the story of a boy named Max who is convinced that there’s something odd about the new kid at school. (And he is right!) That will be illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf and published in 2019.

Novel-wise, I have shifted my focus from YA to middle grade and I have plans to work on a new manuscript this summer. For the record, this is a story that I’ve drafted twice before, but I still haven’t found the right path into the project. I have faith that it will reveal itself, but I also know the importance of showing up for the work. I invoke the spirit of Jane Yolen, who says, “BIC. Butt in chair. There is no other single thing that will help you more to become a writer.”

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Jane is so right about that. And what I like about that famous bit of advice is the demystification of the process. For example, on school visits kids often ask about “writer’s block.” I tell them that my father was an insurance man from Long Island with seven children. He never had insurance block. He just went to work.

Well, he might have had insurance block if he’d tried to make selling insurance feel more like being a rodeo clown. I tell kids that the thing we call writer’s block happens when we try and make a story or a character fit into the hamster tunnel that we think they should take, instead of letting them run all over the place and explore the whole Habitrail set-up. Forcing the story rarely works, and it definitely robs you of the unexpected surprises that make writing actually fun. But you only get those surprises if you’re in the chair, because they only happen at a certain velocity.

I find that I get my best ideas in the shower. Standing up. Often while shampooing. Also, I have discovered that I experience that thing called “writer’s block” when I am bored. I am writing something and I have bored myself. Not a good place to be. So then I have to figure out why that happened and move the story in a different direction. Sometimes that direction is the garbage can, unfortunately. One sure-fire solution — my first step — is to eat ice cream. It always makes life better, don’t you agree? I see that you also teach workshops. Do you enjoy teaching writing? I don’t even like giving advice.

There are two things that I really do love about teaching: the first is that I almost always find that I know more than I think I do, and the second is that I always learn something new. I don’t go into a classroom thinking of myself as an expert—more like a hobbyist who’s been doing this for a while and has some stuff to say—and I’m always determined to keep my mind open to what the students have to say.

9780399176753Oh, and there’s a third thing, which is that I sometimes get to teach with other writers who are really, really good at what they do. I’m slated to teach a class with Nicole Griffin at The Writing Barn in Austin next October, which I’m tremendously excited about. It’s called “Boys and Girls, Beasts and Ghouls,” and it’s all about how to create fully-realized, memorable characters.

Teaching helps me avoid getting too deep into my own head while I’m writing, and to externalize/vocalize the process to keep the mental pipes from getting clogged. It’s invaluable to me.

Plus, I love a captive audience!

Thanks, Hannah. And good luck with your work.

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, Robin Pulver, Susan Wood, and Florence Minor. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function. 

5 QUESTIONS with Florence Minor, author of “How to Be a Bigger Bunny.”

 

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I was happy to spend time with Florence Minor to discuss her creative process. A former film editor, Flo now writes lovely picture books for very young children. Each book has been beautifully illustrated by her husband, Wendell, and this interview features behind-the-scenes glimpses into rough sketches and early drafts — the whole glorious hot mess of making a book.

 

Greetings, Flo. Congratulations on your new book.

Hey there, Jimmy. Thanks for the congrats and for inviting me to chat on your blog!

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How did this story begin for you? I think, as writers, we live in a world of false starts and abandoned stories. Can you remember a moment when you thought, hey, this might actually be something.

As you well know, a published book often bears no resemblance, or little resemblance to the original manuscript. In the case of my current book, it began as a poem about a single dwarf bunny. I’ve always had an affinity for furry critters, and having met a couple of dwarf bunnies through a friend, I was intrigued by them. So, I wrote a poem about a day in the life of one of those little cuties and sent it off to my editor. She liked it, and made some suggestions, but after a number of revisions we decided that unlike my previous books, this one should be a story written in prose rather than poetry. I’m always up for a challenge, but I must admit that given my love of poetry, and the fact that my previous books were written in rhyme, this challenge was initially a bit unnerving. And while the hero of the book is still one bunny, the new storyline now revolved around a family of bunny siblings. So, I had to change hats and find my way to writing a very different kind of book. That said, once I sat down and started writing about Nibbles, Wiggles, Giggles, Jiggles, and of course, our hero, Tickles, it all began to feel very natural.

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You dedicated this book to your “editor extraordinaire,” Katherine Tegen. How does she help you? What’s that writer-editor relationship?

Let me begin by saying that I am one very lucky author to have Katherine Tegen editing my books. My relationship with Katherine goes way back (you don’t really need to know how many years, do you?), when Katherine was Wendell’s editor on the books he and Jean Craighead George created. I got to know Katherine first as a talented, insightful editor, and then as a friend. I had recently left my film editing career behind when we moved from New York to Connecticut, and as I was in the process of reinventing myself, I began working in the studio with Wendell, and being involved in the books he was working on . . . which led to numerous, enjoyable work sessions with Katherine and Jean. Wendell works with a number of wonderful editors, and as time and circumstance would have it Katherine was the one who offered me my first contract for a collaboration with Wendell. Because we already knew each other quite well, we were, and are on the same page in the way we see a book evolving. Our communication regarding storyline, revisions, edits and compromise come together in a very productive way to create a book we are all happy with.

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It’s a lengthy process from first idea to finished book. What’s the most exciting part for you? Signing the contract, seeing the illustrations, getting the finished book in the mail, signing a copy for a young reader? This interview??!!

Yes, it IS a lengthy process, and is not always without some frustrations until we hold that first bound book in our hands, but the most exciting part? How did you know I would say THIS INTERVIEW??? Well, almost. Honestly, it’s seeing the look on a child’s face when they connect with my book. Here’s a little story I love to tell, because it is as meaningful now, and always will be, as it was in 2009. That year, Wendell and I toured Pennsylvania with our book “If You Were a Penguin” when it was selected for their “One Book Every Young Child” program.

Early sketch.

Early sketch.

We visited elementary schools, libraries, even nursery schools throughout the state for a month. One hundred and fifteen thousand books were printed to give to the children in the state. In one elementary school we were asked if we would like to personally hand out the books to the children. Needless to say, we jumped at the chance. Now, if this was a live interview you would see tears forming in my eyes as I recount the response I received from one little boy. As I handed him his book he looked at me and said, “You mean this is my book to keep? I don’t have to return it?” It was the first book he had ever owned, and seeing the joy on his face is what this is all about.

Yes, those are the moments carved into the heart. Do you carry around a journal? Or are you someone who is writing in your head?

I should carry a journal (and maybe I will actually start to do that now!), but what seems to happen in the initial stages of a book, is that I am imagining and writing in my head. If I am in the studio I scribble some notes in longhand on copy paper, and eventually transfer them to the computer. If I am out of the studio, I jot down thoughts in the (old-fashioned) mini-FiloFax I always have with me until I am back in the studio. Once I get the basic storyline figured out, I write it out on the computer, and then do my editing on the computer, where it’s easy to save the numerous versions that invariably develop.

Obviously, you have a special relationship with the illustrator, Wendell Minor. At what point does he roll up his sleeves and get involved? Do you keep things separate? I can imagine it must be helpful to bounce ideas off him. To say, while passing the baked scrod, “Now, Wendell dear, about my book-crazed bunny Tickles . . .”

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So, not only did I luck out with a fantastic editor, I also get to collaborate with an amazingly talented illustrator! Our process varies from book to book. Sometimes I’ll complete a manuscript and then Wendell will do thumbnail sketches. Sometimes they reflect perfectly what I had in mind. Other times… they involve, shall we say, a little compromise and revision. What? You think I had THAT in mind for that page? Are you kidding me? But honestly, more often than not Wendell comes up with images I might never have imagined, and they are absolutely perfect! We might work separately in the studio, or over lunch or dinner, or as we did on our first book together, on the ferry to Nantucket to celebrate our anniversary!

 

Another sketch.

And yet another terrific sketch.

Nantucket! I once knew a girl from Nantucket! Wait, hold on, no, I’m thinking of the limerick. Nevermind! As we were discussing . . . . People are often surprised about that in children’s publishing, how the industry does not encourage authors and illustrators to interact during the creative process. I’ve always understood it as a method to protect the illustrator from the (well-intentioned, interfering) writer. Poor Wendell has no such defense. How does he cope? Is there a time when you tell yourself, I better shut up now.

No one can deny it: Florence and Wendell make a great team.

No one can deny it: Florence and Wendell make a great team.

From early on in his career as a book jacket designer/illustrator, Wendell’s process frequently was to have an open, and may I add, very successful dialogue with the authors for whose books he was creating covers. Before I even started working in the studio with Wendell I assumed that that was the way it happened in publishing. It came as quite a surprise to me when I learned that Wendell was pretty much an anomaly in that regard. So, when we started collaborating on picture books, the discussions and give-and-take felt natural to both of us. That said, there are moments when compromise isn’t always so easy, and as in any relationship, one does have to know how to choose one’s battles, and defer, and after working together for nearly 26 years (yikes!), I think we’ve got that nailed down.

One of Wendell's many famous cover illustrations.

One of Wendell’s many famous cover illustrations.

Do you think the book benefits from your more organic, back-and-forth partnership? Is the industry model broken? I ask as an author who writes the book and then just . . . hopes. I never get the chance to bully the poor illustrator! I’ll say this, your approach seems more enjoyable, a true collaboration, though possibly with more headaches.
 
Clearly, there is no shortage of books out there in the world that have done quite nicely without the kind of collaboration that works for Wendell and me, which is also the way Wendell works with other authors in the picture book world. In fact, he can’t even imagine NOT working that way.  And I can’t help thinking that in a perfect world, author/illustrator communication would enhance any project, especially in picture books when pictures and words are, to my mind, of equal importance. The end result of back-and-forth dialogue makes for a book that is more than the sum of its parts. BTW: no headaches — yet, anyway — and my hope for you is that you get to bully (I mean collaborate) with an illustrator on one of your books sometime SOON!

So far you’ve written books about a penguin, a panda, and a bunny. I have an idea for you. Are you ready? A three-toed South American tree sloth. Thank you, my work is done here. You may send my share of the royalty check to . . .

Not so fast, Jimmy. Those three-toed South American Tree Sloths are awfully cute, but I’m afraid your work isn’t quite done. Whenever possible I prefer to write about animals I have either met “in person” or have at least seen up close and personal.

But is that how it works for you? Do you start with the animal?

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I have been an animal lover since I was a child. I grew up with dogs and cats, and except for a few years when I was single and living in a “no pets” apartment, cats have been permanent apartment and studio companions. Of course, I am fascinated by animals of all types, and am intrigued by their various behaviors. Animals who have either been part of my life, or who I have seen in the wild, or even in zoos have provided me with many an idea for a book. Wendell and I also make a habit of visiting friends who have farms, which gives us the opportunity to spend time with various furry, feathered, and woolly critters. In fact, when visiting one friend’s farm, two calves were born on the day we arrived, so of course they were named Florence and Wendell!

Ha, that’s great.

There’s never a shortage of story ideas running around in my head, but since I also run the business end of our studio, I need to find a way to make more time for writing. I’ve put in an order for a clone, but unfortunately, it hasn’t shown up yet.

You have a background as a film editor. I’ve always felt there’s a strong connection between film and picture books. How did that past experience inform you as a writer?

You are so right about the connection between film and picture books. They are both all about storytelling, and telling those stories in ways that entertain and enlighten your audience. The process of storyboarding and editing are equally important in creating both a well crafted film and a book. As with any film, my initial manuscripts are always much longer than what works best for a picture book. Then comes the slicing and dicing part.


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My film editing experience especially has been extremely helpful in paring down the text for the books I write for a very young audience. Editing film often required leaving favorite shots or favorite sequences on the cutting room floor, which could be painful . . . but knowing that invariably that process makes for a better film, I was able to make the transition to cutting text from my manuscripts without feeling too much pain!

How do you make that connection with young readers? I mean, this story seems exactly right for a certain very young reader. An age of innocence, I think. How do you know what’s right?

I think every author likely has their own particular vision for how best to connect with their audience. Since I write for the very young reader I think about my (much) younger self, and what appealed to me. The feedback Wendell and I get from young fans shows me that stories about animals, and poetry, are very appealing to them as well, so hopefully I’m on the right track.

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I’m sure that’s true. What are you working on now?

I know this will shock you, but the book I’m working on right now is about the friendship between two animals. And that’s all I’ll tell you. As we say in the film biz … stay tuned!

I like that — better not talk about it before the work is solid. Thanks, Flo. I appreciate you stopping by. My regards to Wendell. I hope the whole drawing pictures thing works out for him.

Thanks again for the invite. It’s been great chatting. I’ll certainly pass along your regards to Wendell, and, by the way, call me crazy, but I have a very good feeling that this drawing thing is going to work out just fine for him!

 

51WQtdnWQCLAuthors 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, Robin Pulver, and Susan Wood. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function. 

 

 

 

 

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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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. 

5 QUESTIONS with Robin Pulver, author of “Me First: Prefixes Lead the Way”

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I suppose it’s true of most authors, but it seems especially true of Robin Pulver. She’s a lot like her books: Funny, warm, inclusive, smart — and a little silly too. Today we talk about the latest in her “Language Arts Library” series, and William Steig, and Mrs. Toggle, and the hurt of going out of print, and more.

Robin, thanks for coming by. Normally I like to keep the “5 Questions” series focused on one title –- so we’ll spend time on Me First: Prefixes Lead the Way from your “Language Arts Library” series. But I also want to learn a little bit more about you in general. Sound good? I wonder: When did you first dream of becoming a writer?

I never dreamed of becoming a writer. In 8th grade, I had to write an autobiography. The story of my 13 years was LOOOOONG, because I liked to write. At the end, I was supposed to tell my ambition (i.e. dream?), so I said “art teacher,” because I loved art class. I still do love art, so now it seems miraculous to me that my love of writing somehow led to writing picture book stories that are illustrated by great artists. My being an author evolved from liking to write, studying journalism in grad school, then realizing my personality wasn’t right for the kind of investigative journalism I admire, writing a couple of newspaper columns, doing public relations for an insurance company, studying fiction writing for adults, selling some short stories, reading to my kids, loving the books, writing for children’s magazines, and then selling one of my intended magazine stories as a book: Mrs. Toggle’s Zipper!

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That unlikely progression actually makes sense. There’s continuity to it. It’s like sailing. You don’t get there in a straight line. On your website, you tell a wonderful story about a day in your third-grade classroom.

Yes! A formative moment, when I look back. I had a third-grade teacher I adored. She was only 19. Miss Hamrick. One day she sent me to the back of the room to write a story. No regular school work! I wrote “The Flowers that Talked” and at the end of the day read it aloud to my classmates. (Never since have I been able to write a story in one day!)  Maybe that was early prep for an author visit to a school.

Good old Miss Hamrick. God bless the teachers who recognize our strengths and say, “I believe in you.” Robin, I became a fan after your first book, Mrs. Toggle’s Zipper. She’s a kind, warm-hearted elementary school teacher who gets trapped inside her “big, puffy, fuchsia-colored” winter coat. The feeling of community in that school comes through loud and clear.

The story was inspired when my daughter’s zipper got stuck at school, and the nurse called me to say they were going to have to cut the coat off, so I should bring another coat for her to wear home that day. I wrote about a teacher’s coat because I thought kids would find that funnier. I used the word “fuschia,” because I liked the sound of it, not being sure what color that was! Recently, when I re-read “The Flowers that Talked,” (Mom saved it), the community of flowers reminded me of Mrs. Toggle’s classroom. Makes me wonder about my versatility! But I do have a basic belief that “it takes a village to raise a child,” and the school and classroom qualify as communities.

Mrs. Toggle is such a lovely character. And a great teacher. All four of the “Mrs. Toggle” books are warm, full of gentle wit and kindness, wonderfully illustrated by our mutual friend, R.W. Alley. I hope you are enormously proud of those books, they are an absolute triumph.

That is so nice of you to say. SO NICE.

It’s only the truth.

A teacher once told me that no teachers would like the Mrs. Toggle books. “They’re too sarcastic. The only smart person in them is the custodian. I decided you must be married to a custodian!” (I’m not. He’s an allergist.) He said that at one of my first school visits in a lunchroom full of guests! Funny, how those criticisms stay with a person, even though the book did so well. So, again, thank you!

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You experienced a professional writer’s full journey with that series.  The books enjoyed great success –- well reviewed, embraced by classroom teachers, beloved by countless readers. And then, over time, you had the painful experience of watching them go out of print. I know how that feels. It’s not death, exactly, but there’s definitely a sense of loss.

It’s hard! At book festivals and signings, I hear, “Mrs. Toggle is my favorite!” (One teacher even told me that her daughter named her blanket “Mrs. Toggle.”) And yet, those books have long been out of print, and the original publisher exists no more. Bob Alley has indicated that he’d love to re-illustrate them in his updated style (which is wonderful! See Mrs. Toggle’s Class Picture Day and Saturday Is Dadurday). Wouldn’t it be nice to have a 30th anniversary edition of Mrs. Toggle’s Zipper? I know that a lot of adult teachers loved Mrs. Toggle when they were children. Now I’m whining. Sorry.

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No need to apologize, I opened that door and I appreciate your honesty. We like to think of a book -– a good book -– as something that will endure. Not immortality perhaps, but something that lasts. It’s painful to learn that it’s not generally true except in the rarest of circumstances.

And the older I get, the more I realize that’s true. One of my favorites, Alicia’s Tutu, was out of print after 6 months.

Heartbreaking. I’ve been there. You look at your life’s work, your accomplishments, and poof. Like it never happened. Now it’s my turn to apologize for whining.

It’s confidence shaking and demoralizing, isn’t it, after so much trying, waiting, revising, finally getting a book accepted and waiting for it to come out. Then, as you say, poof!

Let’s shift gears. Rereading your “Mrs. Toggle” books, I was struck by the amount of story, the pure word count. Over the years, we’ve seen the picture book market get younger and younger. We don’t see many with a lot of words anymore. The emphasis has shifted decidedly to the pictures. Do you find that to be true in your experience?

Might this have to do with shortening attention spans in all ages? Including parents? But I’ve heard that there’s movement toward longer-text books again. I hope so. While I greatly admire authors who can write in such spare text, often way under 500 words, my natural word count seems to be 1000-1250 words. Hey, picture books are for all ages. Often these books use challenging vocabulary, and younger kids absorb that during read-alouds (an adult reading to a child inspires the child to learn to read herself). Older children — adults too — enjoy the story and the fine art in a good picture book.

I sometimes wonder what would happen to William Steig today? I mean, I’m sure he’d triumph in any era, but I wonder if the response from editors might be, “too many words.”

Oh, I love that you wonder that! William Steig was my first inspiration. Amos and Boris! The characters! The fantastic vocabulary! I bought that book for myself before I ever “dreamed” of writing books for children or had children of my own. (I learned from your pal, Matthew Cordell, that Amos and Boris was his early inspiration as well.)

Steig was amazing. He published his first children’s book at age 60. You got an earlier start. Then about 15 years ago, you hit upon an idea to write a story about punctuation, titled Punctuation Takes a Vacation. And now here we are here, celebrating the sixth title in the “Language Arts Library,” Me First. These books are about grammar, yes, but each one is playful, exuberant, and even a little wacky. How do you make a book about prefixes so lively and lighthearted? Where do you even begin?

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It took me three intense years to write Punctuation Takes a Vacation. A huge stack of attempts and fumbling approaches. (I persisted!) When I told my editor, she said, “It’s so light-hearted, I thought you wrote it in a day.”  NO. They’ve all been a struggle for me.

Whenever an author talks about how a book “wrote itself,” I want to scream. My books don’t ever write themselves. I do all the work!

I keep at it because I love language and word usage. For Me First!, I did tons of research. Not only about prefixes, and what prefixes are taught at what level, and how they’re taught, but also about Abraham Lincoln, to find appropriate nuggets to use from his life. (I HAD to use the fact that he stored reminders to himself in his stovepipe hat.) When I learned that Leadership Day is observed in schools, I felt I’d found the connection to make between prefixes and the qualities that made Lincoln a great leader. Then I set out to write a story using lots of words with prefixes! I hope these books share my love of language with kids.

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What’s your relationship with illustrator Lynn Rowe Reed? It must have evolved over the years. At what point is she brought into the process?

We have a strong on-line friendship, but I’ve only met her once, when we presented together at a conference. She waits ever so patiently (well, not really, she spurs me on!) for me to come up with a story and gets to work on it once it’s been revised and edited. Her illustrations are bold and lively and colorful. They’re the reason I’ve been told that toddlers love these books and carry them around! The first editor who rejected Punctuation Takes a Vacation said, ”Who on earth could illustrate this?” Luckily Lynn could.

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Yes, Lynn does a rather incredible job with those books. Her sense of playfulness is a big part of the overall appeal.

Which is another reason kids of all ages enjoy these books. They’re used in nursery schools and all the way through college.

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I understand that you meet with a writer’s group. Tell us a little bit about that, why you like it, how it works, and so on.

The writers’ group I’m in now has lasted for 20 years, with some comings and goings. Shall I name names? Bruce Coville, Kathy Coville, Vivian Vande Velde, Ellen Stoll Walsh, MJ Auch, Patience Brewster, and Cynthia DeFelice. (We meet once a month, centrally at Cynthia’s home.) Our relationships are deep, supportive, and inspiring. We read from our work aloud and then critique (usually going around the room). I spend each meeting wondering how I got so lucky and privileged to hear their works in progress. There is all kinds of hilarity as well.

Thanks for coming over today, Robin. You just made a rough year a little kinder, a little softer. Keep up the great work!

Wowee zowee. Maybe not as beautiful as the real Mrs. Pulver, but hopefully a fair approximation of her kindness and spirit.

Jigsaw flashes his business card. “Wowee zowee.” Maybe not as beautiful as the real Mrs. Pulver, but hopefully a fair approximation of her kindness and spirit.

It was fun to think about these kind and thoughtful questions. Thanks so much, Jimmy. I look forward to seeing you again and to reading your next books (including the one I have a special interest in, Jigsaw Jones: The Case from Outer Space).

Yes, I modeled a secondary character after you, the charming “Mrs. Pulver.” Jigsaw questions her as a witness in a case that concerns her Little Free Library. She’s lovely and kind, just like you, and I was glad to sneak that sly tribute into my book.

ROBIN PULVER is the author of many wonderful books including Thank You, Miss Doover; Axle Annie, and Saturday Is Dadurday, and many more. 

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, Matt Faulkner, Susan Verde and Elizabeth Zunan. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function.