Archive for 5 Questions

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. 

5 QUESTIONS with Elizabeth Zunon, illustrator of “Don’t Call Me Grandma”

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I believe in Elizabeth Zunon. In fact, if we were at a roulette table right now, I’d gather all my chips and push them forward onto the square labeled “EZ” and let that big wheel spin. Elizabeth is a sensitive, perceptive artist who is just beginning to scratch the surface of her potential. Come, let’s get to know her better.

 

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Did you immediately know that this story by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson was right for you?

Yes! I could immediately picture what Great-Grandmother Nell would look like, and what kind of person she might be, both based on her memories and the fancy, frilly things she had in her bedroom. There are many strong women in my family who have been present all my life, and I’ve amassed some of their jewelry and baubles that I knew would be great reference for creating Great-Grandmother Nell’s world.

This book is about a young girl’s relationship with her great-grandmother Nell, who is a little scary. She’s not outwardly affectionate. And I see that you dedicated it to “all the strong and powerful ladies” in your life. Were you able to draw upon personal experiences while telling this story through pictures?

Maybe not actual personal experiences of being afraid of my own great-grandmother (nor my grandmother and great-aunts, who were all pretty affectionate), but I drew on my experience of having these strong, powerful, independent ladies as role models in my life. I was always enthralled at their stories of “the old days” and I used to love (and still do love) looking at old pictures of them, especially since they are no longer here to share their wisdom.

Your art rewards close scrutiny. The deeper I look, the more I see. You seem to enjoy textures, fabrics, working in layers, and yet your illustrations convey simplicity and immediacy. I wonder if you could select one piece and try to explain your process. I’m sorry, I guess I’m trying to ask the question: “How the heck do you do it?”

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Sure, let’s see how well I can verbalize my process . . .

I use my full-size sketches as the basis for my final illustrations. I placed the sketch for this spread onto my light table, and placed a piece of brown Canson paper on top (this paper is the skin color of Great-Grandmother Nell and the little girl). Next, I traced the sketch in pencil onto the brown paper, removed it from the light box, and used a brown brush pen to draw over all of my pencil lines. I used black pen to draw over the eyelashes, eyebrows and nostrils. I added highlights on the faces with pastel colored pencil, and painted the little girl’s hair with acrylic paint. I then traced the rest of the shapes in the image onto tracing paper (the clothing, pillows, bed, lamp, etc.) and rifled through my collection of colored and patterned paper to find the best fit for each item: lacy white paper for the pillowcase, solid magenta for the girl’s shirt, etc. I cut out each of those items in their chosen paper and glued them onto the illustration . . . . It’s a lot of tracing and cutting and gluing!

The book gives us a child’s glimpse into the mysteries of the adult world. Could you relate to Nell’s fascination with her grandmother’s “special dresser called a vanity”? That scene where she learns how to apply lipstick seems like a rite-of-passage for every young girl.

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I had a fascination with my grandmother’s dresser, which was not a vanity, but where she kept her jewelry box. She had pretty earrings and many elegant brooches she would wear on her coats and scarves. I don’t recall ever being taught to put on lipstick as a rite-of-passage . . . my equivalent would probably be getting my ears pierced, which I didn’t get done until I was thirteen. I’ve been collecting and making funky earrings ever since!

Maybe I’m thinking of my own life, where my sisters taught their little brother how to do it. The way you’d have to pucker the lips inward. There was always something cool about that. But of course you are right, that first ear-piercing is a big moment. Did you go to Crossgates Mall?

Yup, at Claire’s!

When the book shifted to the great-grandmother’s memories, you changed your style of illustration and went with a very wet watercolor. Tell us about that decision.

That was a suggestion from the Art Director Andrew Karre and Editor Carol Hinz. We needed to show that these memories were not as crisp and real in Nell’s mind as her current day life. I love playing around with watercolor (usually outside when I’m near a body of water) and it was great fun to try to create an actual illustration with watercolor.

I imagine that your workspace is just a mess. You are holding scissors –- snip, snap –- surrounded by decorative papers and fabrics. Am I correct? Do you have a photo you can share?

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Ehhhh, well it’s not a total mess. I try to keep it organized. Big messes stress me out a bit.

Thanks for those terrific photos. I see now that are precise, neat, everything is in its place — but sometimes it takes a mess to get you where you need to go.

I keep my big pieces of paper in a flat file, and scraps in plastic scrapbooking bins. When I’m collaging (is that a word?), my desk is definitely a mess of scraps of colorful paper and scissors of various sizes. If I happen to be working on collage in the living room, forget about keeping it neat. The tiny scraps of paper take over . . . the couch . . . the carpet . . . and I get these little ridges on my right middle finger and thumb from gripping the little nail scissors I use for intricate shapes . . . but that’s all part of the package! Vacuuming those tiny scraps out of the living room carpet once I’ve finished a project is an essential part of keeping my sanity.

You were born in Albany, NY (where you now reside), but spent much of your childhood in the Ivory Coast in West Africa. How do you think that influenced your aesthetic? Your sense of beauty?

Growing up in the Ivory Coast shaped my color palette and my love of pattern and geometric shapes. I miss living in the tropics! The warm winds, the beautiful mangoes, bananas, flowers, the bright, handmade clothing and everything else displayed at the market that I would pass on my walk to school every day all made a mark in the colors and shapes I use . . . and the palm trees! God, I miss palm trees . . . big fan palms, planted all in a row, lining the roads! Using warm colors and geometric shapes are just a part of me I guess! That nostalgia for my childhood home is a heavy feature in my work.

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But now in upstate New York you get all those shades of gray. Bet they didn’t have that on the Ivory Coast!

Not that I remember. There were gray days of course, but never cold and gray. Warm and gray is easier to take.

How did you come to children’s books? Can you identify any favorite books or illustrators?

Two of my favorite books as a kid were The Snowy Day written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats, and Cherries and Cherry Pits written and illustrated by Vera B. Williams. I took many art classes at Guilderland High School, and at the encouraging of my art teacher Ms. Brown, I applied to the Rhode Island School of Design (and other schools). I got into RISD and just went for it!

The Talking Heads went there. That’s what I think of when RISD comes up.

Yes, they did, haha! Ahhh, art school . . .

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I decided at the end of my Freshman year there that Illustration was what I wanted to study. I discovered many more illustrators there, including the work of Kadir Nelson which I really admire. I took many children’s book illustration and writing classes, and upon graduating in 2006, moved to Jersey City, NJ, found a day job working in a flower shop in Manhattan, and submitted my art portfolio to book publishers and sent out postcards, hoping to get illustration work. I attended monthly SCBWI meetings and events, and went to an SCBWI conference (I think at the Society of Illustrators?). There, I had a few person-to-person portfolio reviews with editors and agents. Lori Nowicki, agent of Painted Words, saw my portfolio, asked if I’d had any illustration jobs (I hadn’t landed anything yet), and said she knew which publishers my work would fit with. I signed with her and she’s been my agent ever since! A few months later, I lost my job at the flower shop, decided to move back to Albany, and within two weeks, Lori had gotten me my first book contract! That was My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey written by Jeanne Walker Harvey, published by Marshall Cavendish (now Two Lions Press).

I always want illustrators to write their own stories. I know it can be intimidating for some, out of their comfort zone. Do you have any plans to write?

Oh yes! I’m working on my first authored and illustrated book right now! It’s called Grandpa Cacao, due to be published by Bloomsbury Books in Spring 2019. I love language and the written word, but the images come to me first. Grandpa Cacao is a picture book about a little girl and her dad baking a chocolate cake while learning about the girl’s grandfather, a cacao farmer in the Ivory Coast who harvests and prepares the cacao before it becomes chocolate. It’s based on my father’s childhood memories of being on my grandfather’s cacao plantation.

I’m so glad to hear that. In addition, you have a new book that just came out, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, The Legendary Miss Lena Horne. If you don’t mind, please tell us a little bit about it.

liz-1It’s the story of African American singer, actress and civil rights leader Lena Horne. She’s probably most known for her movie (and song) “Stormy Weather”, but she had many other successes, including being the first black actress to sign a contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer film studios. She refused to play stereotypical black roles like maids and mammies in films, and was one of the youngest member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (at age two!). I loved illustrating Lena Horne’s story, especially since I listen to music when I work, and this is the first project where the person I was drawing and painting was the one actually singing to me!

Thanks for stopping by Elizabeth, I’m so happy for your much-deserved success.

 

In addition to her career in children’s books, ELIZABETH ZUNON also works part-time for the Albany Bureau of Tourism. No, not really. (Maybe she’s just not a winter person.) Elizabeth keeps a great website and Google’ll get you there.

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, and Susan Verde. Coming soon: 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 Verde, author of “The Water Princess”

 

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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?

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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!”

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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. 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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Lessons?

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.