Archive for Interviews & Appreciations

10 Things I Love (March 31st Edition)

 

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Blogs are dead, everybody knows it, the tweet spread the news long ago. Nobody reads blogs anymore. These days it’s all Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and short, short, short.

I get it, I do. We’re all feeling the time squeeze.

But because I’m childishly oppositional, I refuse to give up my blog. And I’m keeping my 8-Tracks, too. I started this blog back in 2008, so we’ve become attached. I like to have readers, but I’m not sure I really need them. It wouldn’t stop me from writing. There’s something about the open-ended blog format that offers room to spread out and say things, however long it takes. Whether anyone listens or not.

My pal, illustrator Matthew Cordell, used to blog with enthusiasm. One of his recurring features was his monthly-ish “Top Ten” lists, where Matt randomly listed some of his recent enthusiasms. It could be a song, a book, a movie, or a type of eraser (Matt was weird about erasers). It was always fun to read.

So I’m stealing it.

Here are ten things I’ve recently loved:

 

THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM

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I visited Cleveland with my son, Gavin, to check out Case Western Reserve University. The following day, we headed over to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was spectacular in every way. (Except for: The Red Hot Chili Peppers? Really?) I’m a huge music fan, so it was perfect for me. I found the museum strangely moving in parts, my heart touched. I could see that rock music was big enough, and diverse enough, to offer a home to people from every walk of life.

CARRY ME HOME by Diane McWhorter

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Amazing, fascinating, and at times brutal Pulitzer Prize-winning book that’s stayed with me long after the last page. It provides a dense, detailed account of the civil rights struggle centered in Birmingham, Alabama. Martin Luther King, the Klu Klux Klan, Fred Shuttlesworth, George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover, Bobby Kennedy, Bull Conner, and more. One of those books that helps you understand America.

FAN MAIL . . . WITH ILLUSTRATIONS!

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I’ve been ridiculously fortunate in my career, in that I’ve received a lot of fan mail across the past twenty years. But I have to admit, I especially like it when those letters include a drawing. There’s just something about children’s artwork that slays me, every time. This drawing is by Rida in Brooklyn.

BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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This book has been on my list almost since the day it came out — the buzz was instantaneous, and huge — but on a tip from a friend, I waited for the audiobook to become available through my library. Here, Ta-Nehisi Coates gives a powerful reading. It’s poignant to listen to an author reading his own words, particularly since this book is essentially a letter to his son.

“WINTER RABBIT,” a poem by Madeleine Comora

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We’re not here to bash Jack Prelutsky. Because, after all, Jack Prelutsky is hilarious. But, but, but. There are times when I worry that too many people think children’s poetry begins and ends with Mr. Prelutsky. That a poem for kids always has to be bouncy and fast and slight and funny, i.e., Prelutsky-ish. Well, here’s a poem I came across while reading Oh, No! Where Are My Pants? and Other Disasters: Poems, unerringly edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. I admire the heartfelt, beautiful sorrow of Comora’s poem. “I thought of his last night alone/huddled in a wire home./I did not cry. I held him close,/smoothed his fur blown by the wind./For a winter’s moment, I stayed with him.” The illustration is  by Wolf Erlbruch. Click on the poem if your eyes, like mine, need larger type.

EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT

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I’m so grateful that I live near a cool, little movie theater that makes room for small foreign films such as this, a mind-blowing look at life on the Amazon, spectacularly filmed in black-and-white. Click here for more details.

THE AMERICANS

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My wife Lisa and I don’t watch hours of TV together, but we do like to have a show we can share. We’ve been a loss for a few months, but recently discovered season one of “The Americans” on Amazon Prime. We’re hooked.

DAVID BROMBERG: “SAMMY’S SONG”

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We have tickets to see Bromberg this coming weekend. He’s an old favorite of mine, first saw him in 1980 on Long Island. I’ve just rediscovered “Sammy’s Song,” which I haven’t heard in decades. What a chilling coming-of-age story, brilliantly performed. Oh, about that harmonica part? That’s Dave’s pal, Bob Dylan, with an uncredited guest turn.

JIGSAW JONES

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I just finished writing my first Jigsaw Jones book after a long time away. For many years, Scholastic had allowed the series to die on the vine, with book after book slowly going out of print. It’s been a crushing thing for me to stand by helplessly and watch. But with the help of my agent, I got back the rights, and now Macmillan has plans to relaunch the series. I am thrilled. There are more than 10 million copies of those books out there in world, and it seems like every second-grade classroom in America has a ragged copy or three. Writing the new book, The Case from Outer Space, was such a pleasure. It felt like being home again.

THE DAY THE ARCS ARRIVE

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For an author, it’s a special day, always, always. That book you’ve been toiling over for months, years, finally arrives in book form. Uncorrected, unfinished, but for the first time you can hold it in your hands — a book! — and think, “I did that!” Note: Arc = Advanced Reader’s Copy. The Courage Test, a middle grade novel, will be out for real in September.

BONUS SELECTION . . .

THE BARKLEY MARATHONS

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I love documentaries of almost any nature, but I can’t recommend this one highly enough. A pure joy, with twinkling mischievous wit and surprising heart, too. If you like running at all — or not! — see this movie. About the toughest, wildest, and weirdest race in the world. Catch it on Netflix Instant!

“Teaching Is Believing” — My Short Essay over at THE NERDY BOOK CLUB

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I’m a big fan of Donalyn Miller.

Do you know her? As a classroom teacher, Donalyn made a splash with her book, The Book Whisperer. I met Donalyn during a trip to a reading conference in Dublin, Ohio, where I had the opportunity to hear her present to a large audience. She was impressive and her message was inspiring.

If you are an educator, you should read this book.

If you are an educator, you should read this book.

Long story short: Donalyn has made a deep impact bringing books and young readers together, and she does it without ego or self-aggrandising motives. There’s nothing phony about Donalyn. She’s simply a positive force in the world of children’s reading. My kind of people.

Several years back she started The Nerdy Book Club with, I believe, Colby Sharp. It’s an active, inspirational resource/blog for teachers and librarians who care about children’s literature. I recommend it. Over the past couple of years, Donalyn has allowed me to contribute a few essays, and I’m always grateful to reach that specific audience, and to participate in that grand conversation.

I’m happy with my recent essay and I invite you please check it out (link below). The idea came as the result of a few things going on in my life, particularly the end of my baseball coaching experiences. I reflected on what I had learned from those times coaching young people, and I connected those lessons to teaching and writing. But don’t go by me. Judge for yourself.

Here’s the opening:

I’m at loose ends.

For the first time in 16 years, I find myself not coaching a baseball team. During those seasons, I’ve coached a men’s hardball team, and all three of my children at various stages of Little League, including All-Stars and competitive Travel teams.

Now it’s over.

All I’m left with are memories, some friendships, and my accumulated wisdom, which can be reduced to a single, short sentence. So I’m passing this along to the readers of the Nerdy Book Club because I think it connects to teaching. And writing. And maybe to everything else under the sun.

When I started coaching, my head was exploding with knowledge. I knew all this great stuff! Boy, was I eager to share it. I had an almost mystical awareness of the game: tips and strategies, insights and helpful hints. Baseball-wise, I knew about the hip turn and burying the shoulder, how to straddle the bag and slap down a tag. The proper way to run the bases, turn a double play, and line up a relay throw. As coach, I simply had to pour this information into my players –- empty vessels all –- and watch them thrive.

But something happened across the years. I found myself talking less and less about how to play. Fewer tips, less advice. It seemed like I mostly confused them. The learning was in the doing.

I became convinced that the most important thing I could do was believe.

< snip >

Please click here to read the whole enchilada.

But before you go, here’s a nice quote from Donalyn that I figured I’d share.

Truth!

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13 Questions & Answers: On Childhood Memories, Writing Advice, Favorite Fictional Worlds, and More

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One thing about being a published author is that every blue moon your publisher asks you to do things. For example, I was just called on to answer a series of questions which will be published in the back matter of the paperback edition of The Fall (coming in October, 2016).

This is not usually my favorite thing to do. I enjoy talking about the work, the writing, but I’m not a fan of questions that focus on personality. At the Albany Teen Con this past year, the day’s events got kicked off with questions from the audience addressed to the panel of authors. Almost every question focused on personality. What’s your favorite food, etc. I realized that readers like to know this stuff, and that I have to get over it (to the degree I’m able).

So here you go, Dear Nation of Readers, a sampling of some of the Q & A which will appear in paperback later this year. The complete version is simply more than any single blog reader should be required to endure.

 

When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

pen-and-notebookAs a young kid, ages 8-10, I used to invent these elaborate dice games that revolved around baseball. Roll a seven, the batter strikes out; roll a three, he hits a double. I filled entire notebooks with the box scores of these imaginary games. Looking back across the decades I realize that: 1) Dice games? OMG, I’m getting old; and 2) I was experiencing, and passionately seeking out, the core experience of being a writer. I was alone with an empty notebook and a pen in my hand. Later in life, those fictional baseball statistics became words and stories. The clear dream of desiring to become a writer happened in college.

What’s your favorite childhood memory?

There are so many and they come in such a disordered jumble, like the splatters of an action painting by Jackson Pollack. I have snippets and impressions. Overall, the feeling is of being small in a crowded household. Being safe, being loved, being entertained. One story: I shared a room with two older brothers, John and Al, when I was quite young. John had an electric guitar and at night, he would turn off the lights and scare me with it. He’d hit a low note, make creepy noises in a deep voice, and I would hide in the darkness under the bed –- shivering with fear and loving it.

What were your hobbies as a kid? What are your hobbies now?

Do kids have hobbies? It seems like the wrong word for it. I’m sure I was pretty sports obsessed; I was active and athletic. Music has always been a presence in my life. The accumulated family record collection was pretty incredible, and for some reason I really connected to those records at a young age. The thing I wish for every young reader is to have passions, interests, things that get your blood pumping. In general, for me, that’s usually connected to the arts in some way. Books, movies, music, paintings, etc. But I have to admit, thinking about my teenage years, we spent a lot of time hanging out. Getting together with a few friends and doing a lot of nothing much. When I look at the lives of my own children, that’s a part that seems missing in today’s world. There’s just not enough free time. I loved hanging out! Is that a hobby?

What book is on your nightstand now?

James Marshall's fabulous characters, Martha and George.

James Marshall’s fabulous characters, Martha and George.

I mostly read adult books. I just finished with Norwegian Wood by Haruk Murakami, who is a beautiful writer; the book before that was Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner. Now I’m reading a nonfiction book about the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963, Carry Me Home, by Diane McWhorter. On the children’s front, I just reread every “George & Martha” book by James Marshall. They are hilarious and perfect.

What sparked your imagination for The Fall?

After I wrote Bystander, I received many requests for a sequel. And I always thought, well, no. I felt satisfied with that book, finished with those characters. But I realized that I was still interested in the subject matter, the social dynamics of young people at that age. I began to feel a degree of sympathy for the so-called bully. I wanted to try to write something from the bully’s point of view, perhaps to show a fuller picture than I was seeing in other books and articles. When I read in the newspaper about a girl who had killed herself because of being “terrorized on social media,” I set down the newspaper and immediately started writing in my notebook. It was that direct. I knew I wanted to tell the story of a boy who wrote some terrible things on her social media page. I kept wondering, “Can we be defined by the worst thing we do?”

What challenges do you face in the writing process, and how do you overcome them?

I’ve published more than eighty books in my life. The gift that comes with that is an awareness that sooner or later, eventually, I do get around to putting words on the page. In the words of a writer friend, “I know I can land the plane.” Even so, part of my “process” is that I go through unproductive periods. I’m lazy, unfocused, distracted, a mess. A period of self-loathing eventually sets in. It happens every year, these creative lulls, and every time I grow to hate myself for it. And yet, every time, I fight my way out of it. I recently learned something from cooking (and I hate to cook). It’s the idea of marinating. The chicken tastes so much more flavorful after we marinate it for a period of time. Now I see those quiet, supposedly “unproductive” times as perfectly necessary and valid; it makes for a better, richer book at the end. Even when it looks like I’m not productive, hey, check it out: I’m marinating!

If you could live in any fictional world, what would it be?

CourageTestFrontCvrI’m not really a “fictional world” kind of guy. The real world is quite enough for me. I am curious about the past, however, so if I could have a magical tardis like Doctor Who, and travel from place to place, and time to time, that would be great. The thing is, I believe that books do that for us. Books are the tardis, the magic portal into other worlds. I just finished a manuscript titled The Courage Test, and in order to write it I had to read in depth about the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06. What an amazing time, when America was new and wide-open and little known. When I want a fictional world, I read a book.

 

Who is your favorite fictional character?

I don’t make lists of favorites. First place, second place, third place, and so on. I’m just not built that way. Instead, they all sort of co-exist swimmingly in the gumbo of my mind. I love Gandolph and Hermione, Wilbur and Atticus Finch, the character in Hemingway’s Old Man in the Sea (did we ever learn his name?), that fabulous fat-bellied father in Hop on Pop. As a writer, I really enjoy slipping into the fictional world of Jigsaw Jones. He’s always a good time.

I do love writing about these two characters, entering their world.

I do love writing about these two characters, entering their world.

 

What’s the best advice you have ever received about writing?

Jane Yolen talks about “BIC.” Butt in chair! If you want to write, you have to sit down and do it. Talking about it won’t get the work done. Also, from other sources, write from the heart. And . . . the day you send out a book submission, start a new one. The worst thing you can do is sit around and wait for someone else’s approval. Be true to yourself, that’s another one. Trust that good work will find its way into the world. And lastly, you don’t have to write your book in order! You can bounce around. Write the scene that feels most urgent at that moment. You can always go back and fill in the empty spaces at

The new paperback cover to THE FALL (September 2016). Now available only in hardcover.

The new paperback cover to THE FALL (September 2016). Now available only in hardcover.

a later time. Every book is different, and requires different things from me as a writer. For The Fall, that was a book I very much wrote out of sequence. I think this was because of the journal format. By the end, I had a lot of separate piece I had to weave together, like sewing a patchwork quilt. The challenge was that Sam’s mind -– like any mind -– would bounce freely from the present to the past and back again in an instant. One minute he’s remembering something that happened a year ago, then he’s back in the present moment looking at the rain outside the window. Writing a book that offered up that time-traveling experience was a real challenge, since I didn’t want to confuse the reader in the process. Um, er, what was the question?

 

What advice do you wish someone had given you when you were younger?

I don’t know, I think life has to teach you through experiences as you go along. I’m not convinced that anyone can tell us the secrets, you know? We have to stumble along and fall and learn and grow. When I look at my own children, I wish for them to be open to new people, new experiences. Not be too judgmental. To greet the world with open arms and an open mind. But I can also see that part of growing up, developing into your own unique self, is to look at aspects of the world and think: “Not me, not me, not me.” In a sense, we need those walls to build a sense of our own home place. So do I have any advice? Be kind, be kind, be kind.

What do you want readers to remember about your books?

Every book is different, so is every reader. Simply to be remembered at all is the goal. To have somehow made a lasting impression, whatever it might be, is a huge accomplishment for any writer. I hope that my books are open enough –- porous, in a way -– that each reader is free to respond in his or her own way. It’s not a case of, “Here, this is the message.” It’s more like, let’s take this trip down the path. Keep your eyes and ears open, keep your heart open. The thoughts you have along the way are entirely your own.

If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?

Flawless grammar. Yes, I’d be the dullest superhero in the world (not the most dullest).

What would your readers be most surprised to learn about you?

chicken_lgI can juggle a chainsaw, a bowling pin, and a live chicken. Also, I didn’t know that I’d be a writer at an early age. I wasn’t even much of a reader. It came later. In my teens, as I said early, my main focus was on hanging out. I’m pretty good at it, by the way. So that’s what I’d say to you, Dear Reader: Hey, you never know!

SCARY STUFF: Highlights from My Interview at the “Awake At Midnight” Blog

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I want to direct readers to a recent interview I did over at the Awake at Midnight blog. My gracious interlocutor, Sean, was well prepared, asked great questions, and best of all, genuinely respects and values the craft of scary stories. Honestly, it was one of the better blog interviews I’ve ever done — so thank you, Sean. Great work.

Please start clicking wildly right here to get the whole kaboodle in full glory. In the meantime, here’s a few random sample selections, just because.

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Talking about a favorite scary book from childhood:

“At a young age, I endlessly pored over those illustrations. They were frightening and fascinating. I can close my eyes and still picture them. That’s the thing I’ve learned about scary. It jars you. It upsets you. It disturbs your universe. And for that reason, it sticks to you.”

 

From SWAMP MONSTER.

From Scary Tales: SWAMP MONSTER.

On how to judge if a story is too scary?

“For starters, I decided that children today are quite sophisticated. They’ve all watched Harry Potter. If they picked up a book by their own choosing that’s called “Scary Tales,” the worst reaction would be for them to shrug and say, “That wasn’t scary.” They are seeking a certain quickening of the senses, the heart beating faster. You don’t go on a roller coaster and hope it travels at cautious speeds. For readers at this level, which I’ve seen range from grades 2 all the way up to reluctant readers in grades 6, I decided that no character would get killed. In the end, everyone comes out okay. I would deliver the reader back to a safe world. As for your other question, how do I know? Well, I don’t. I can’t know. But I’ve learned that the best children’s writers have a natural sense of their audience, a way to tap into the age group that is completely outside any sort of calculated analysis. I think we see that in everyday conversations between adults and children. Some folks can make that connection, others simply can’t.”

On how to convey shivers without getting too intense for young readers:

“I always think of Alfred Hitchcock, that close-up of the footsteps slowly climbing the stairs, step by step. I decided that the best sentence for my purposes was: The doorknob slowly, slowly turned. It’s all about tension, the twisting knot in the stomach, anticipation and suspense -– rather than the bloody payoff and cathartic release.”

Scary Tales: ONE-EYED DOLL, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno.

Scary Tales: ONE-EYED DOLL, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno.

On why scary stories are important:

“Many brilliant scholars and artists have spoken eloquently about the value of a good, safe scare: The experience of it, and the experience of moving beyond it. Whew, you know? I survived. I have decided that some of us actively seek the bone-rattling thrill of having our universe disturbed. A feeling of “up-set-ment.” As a parent watching the development of my children, I’ve come to believe that growth follows a simple, reliable pattern. There’s a period of disequilibrium, followed by equilibrium, in an endless pattern, like a set of stairs going up, up, up. You can’t grow without some sort of “dis-ease.” A new school, a new job, a new friend. You grapple with the changes and adjust. A lot of people want to be scared; they like it. There’s value in having our universe disturbed.”

 

Art by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: NIGHTMARELAND.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from Scary Tales: NIGHTMARELAND.

Again, I’m not looking to steal content from Awake at Midnight, just hoping to wet your whistle (and whet your appetite). See what I did there with my fancy grammatical flourishes, wet and whet used correctly? There’s lots more over at Sean’s place.

Thanks for stopping by.

Kurt Vonnegut, via Circe Berman in BLUEBEARD, on a Writer’s Happiest Moment

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I read Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut a while back, somehow it had eluded me until then, underlining passages and adding stars and all sorts of enthusiastic marginalia. Today I keep coming back to one particular passage, which I’ll share below. I don’t think you need much setup, so now this:

She asked me what had been the most pleasing thing about my professional life when I was a full-time painter — having my first one-man show, getting a lot of money for a picture, the comradeship with fellow painters, being praised by a critic, or what?

“We used to talk a lot about that in the old days,” I said. “There was general agreement that if we were put into individual capsules with our art materials, and fired out into different parts of outer space, we would still have everything we loved about painting, which was the opportunity to lay on paint.”

I asked her in turn what the high point was for writers — getting great reviews, or a terrific advance, or selling a book to the movies, or seeing somebody reading your book, or what?

She said that she, too, could find happiness in a capsule in outer space, provided that she had a finished, proofread manuscript by her in there, along with somebody from her publishing house.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“The orgastic moment for me is when I hand a manuscript to my publisher and say, ‘Here! I’m all through with it. I never want to see it again,'” she said.

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AUTHOR TO AUTHOR: A Conversation with Audrey Glassman Vernick

 

I’m not exactly sure when Audrey Glassman Vernick became a blip on my radar, but suddenly she was blipping everywhere. I felt like one of those guys in the mission control tower, trying to determine if this green blip was a “friendly” or an incoming missile. Ultimately, I decided that Audrey was a rising star.

I had the chance to meet Audrey personally, as opposed to through her books, at the 2015 Princeton Children’s Book Festival (thank you, Alison Santos!). We were at a backyard gathering, tired and happy after a long day. I bravely introduced myself, and we enjoyed a brief, easy conversation. I liked her immediately.

Anyway, I invited Audrey over to my swanky blog for today’s conversation. Here she comes now . . .

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AGV: Why, it is swanky!

JP: I know, thanks. It’s the Picasso poster, isn’t it? I saved it from college. 

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That’s the definition of class. It’s not just a hand or flowers. It’s both! And thanks for having me.

Glad to have you. About a month ago I read a bunch of your books. I was especially taken by Edgar’s Second Word, illustrated by Priscilla Burris. I even wrote to tell you how much I loved it, calling it “a small masterpiece.” Do you remember your reply?

I hope my first response was thank you. And I suspect my quick follow up was that you were one of approximately six people who read that book.

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Yes, you were gracious. But you also mentioned that I was one of the few people to have actually read it. Which just goes to show that this is a crazy business. Your book has so much heart. It’s expertly constructed, like a well-built cabinet. We learn Edgar’s first word, “NO!” early on, so there’s a built-in tension: What will his second word be? That curiosity keeps us turning the pages. I was worried that the second word might be a letdown, but you totally delivered.

Thank you! Tension (and the building up thereof) is my very least developed writer skill, so extra thank you!

I interviewed James Marshall back in the early 90s, and he maintained that a strong ending for a book was essential. I’ll always remember what he told me: “The ending is what people remember. If the book fizzles at the end, they remember the whole thing as a fizzled book. It’s important to have a very satisfying ending for the reader. They’ve entered a world and now they are leaving it.” Wise words, and again, I think you nailed it with Edgar’s Second Word.

Let’s stop right here so I can faint. James Marshall!

I know, I was bragging to impress you. He’s one of my children’s book heroes. I can vividly remember our conversation. Heck, I can remember picking up the phone. James was friendly, funny, genuine, completely unpretentious.

George and Martha are the two main loves of my life. They are quoted with solemnity in the Vernick home.

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Do you have a favorite line?

A truth about me (which does not go over well with kids at school visits): I am unable to pick a favorite anything except sports team (Yankees). Unable. So I could write some great lines here but then, minutes later, I’d erase and replace. (It is not easy being me.) Also, you sort of have to be looking at George and Martha along with reading their words to get the full picture. All that said, an oft-repeated line that comes to mind (you won’t even believe how lame this is) is:

 

“Boo!” cried George.

“Have mercy!” screamed Martha.

 

Nice, subtle. His humor is always natural, never seems forced. You never get the feeling that Marshall is trying too hard. 

The blog I had and still kind of have was in large part an homage to those two, about literary friendships.

Oh, nice idea. There’s Frog and Toad, of course. Do you know the book Patrick and Ted by Geoffrey Hayes? It’s pretty perfect.

I do not. But I shall seek it out. Pronto!

I blogged an appreciation of it a while back. Let me see, it’s around here somewhere. Here you go, click on the link

A scan from PATRICK AND TED by Geoffrey Hayes.

A scan from PATRICK AND TED by Geoffrey Hayes.

Back to your question.

Wait, there was actually a question?  

The ending! You asked about the ending! It was the first, and only, thing I knew about the book when I started writing it. I received an email from a college friend whose young not-book-loving son (Edgar!) sat through his mother’s read-aloud of Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? and, at the end, said, “Again.” I shared that with my wise agent, Erin Murphy, who said, “Well obviously you’re going to use that in a book, right?”

Right.

I don’t know if this happens to you, but when a book fails to sell, fails to reach an audience, I tend to slowly, inexorably begin to think of it as a failed book. And by extension, I begin to see myself as a failed writer. Intellectually, I know that’s wrong, but that’s my reality. So that’s why I’m dwelling on Edgar a little bit here. I want to be sure that you know it’s a great blipping book!

That’s a very George-to-Martha thing to say (maybe not the blipping part). Thank you! I have my dysfunctions when it comes to this publishing business. I suffer some jealousies. I focus on benchmarks I have not achieved. But I am pleased to say that in this one particular case, I still really love this book. Priscilla Burris’ illustrations are unspeakably sweet and perfect.

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Yes, she did a terrific job. The right tone. 

And the people who read it respond so well to it. It just didn’t find its people. That happens. It wasn’t the first time it happened to me. A nice side note is that it was named a highly commended title by the Charlotte Zolotow Award for Outstanding Writing in a Picture Book.

First Grade Dropout, illustrated by my pal Matthew Cordell, turns on a lovely mistake. A boy absent-mindedly calls his teacher, “Mommy.” Where did that idea come from?

Some years I take part in Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo), in which you try to come up with a picture book idea each day of the month. One day I wrote “kid calls teacher mommy,” something I know happens in my sister’s second-grade classroom with some frequency. (I’ve since learned it happens in nearly every classroom.)

Yes, it rings true. That’s probably why it’s funny.

FirstGradeDropoutIt sat on that list for years because it wasn’t a story yet, just an incident. One day I decided to give it a try. In my experience, you sometimes have to start writing a picture book to find the story. And that voice just came out. It happened again a few months ago, when I was looking for a follow-up to that book. I brainstormed ideas with my editor, but while we had fun and shared lots of embarrassing elementary-school memories, we didn’t hit upon anything usable for a book. Once I started writing, though, I found the idea for Second Grade Holdout, which is coming out next year (because Matt is F-A-S-T as well as fantastic).

I am crazy about Matt. I once slept in his guest room. He even drove me to the airport. Strangely, Matt insisted on dropping me off sixteen hours early, which was confusing.

You are wise to be crazy about Matt. He’s kind and funny and so talented. Immensely likable.

Well, let’s not get carried away, Audrey. He’s okay. But I’ll be hog-tied if I let Cordell hijack this interview! So, yes, you discovered the idea for Holdout . . . through the act of writing. Jane Yolen’s famous “butt in chair” advice. How do you actually get work done, Audrey? Do you have a time clock where you punch in each morning? Or do you wait for inspiration?

Somewhere in the middle. I am not disciplined. With picture books, I write when inspiration strikes, but with novels I need to force myself to sit and write. And I have to come up with sad little bargains to keep myself in the chair, writing.

Such as?

I’m only allowed to sit in the comfy chair with the heated blanket when I’m working on a novel. And once I’m there, it’s still a whole bargaining thing. If you finish the chapter, you can shower. Or eat breakfast. Or walk the dog.

Oh, that poor dog. Getting back to James Marshall, you share a great trait with him. You’re funny. And even better, you are able to write funny, which is a distinct and rare talent. There’s never enough of that in children’s books. Children’s publishing went through a biblio-theraputic period where every picture book had to be about something important. Laughter lagged behind.

I agree that there’s never enough funny. But there are so many more now than there used to be. The books that were considered funny when I was a kid and, for the most part, when my kids were little, were more amusing than genuinely funny. Lots of modern picture books are flat-out hilarious. It’s a really fun time to be writing them.

Can you name a few of your favorites?

See previous explanation of ever-changing favorites. That said, I believe the Pigeon books kind of burst the door open to a new kind of funny. Bob Shea’s books often crack me up and I have serious title-envy about his Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great. Like debilitating jealousy.

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Deborah Underwood’s Cat is a brilliant new character.

I really liked Ryan T. Higgins’ Mother Bruce and Julia Sarcone-Roach’s The Bear Ate Your Sandwich.

Good to know. I understand that 2016 is going to be a big year for you.

I have four books coming out.

Wow. Girl is on fire. You realize I kind of hate you now? A little.

I can both understand and accept that and will just quickly add that it’s possible I have four books coming out in six months -— the pub date for the last release of the year has not been set.

Shoot me now. I mean: I’m sooooo happy for you!!!!!

Aww!

I’m curious, how do you do it? I find that writing picture books can be so difficult. I’ve been seriously trying for the past year and everything comes out half-baked, half-finished, half-awful. There are times it feels like throwing darts in a darkened room. It’s so easy to go down the wrong path. I wonder if you can talk about your process a little bit. Do you begin with a character?

I write both fiction and nonfiction picture books, and for the nonfiction ones, I look for a subject, get obsessed, research and write.

Do you first clear the topic with an editor?

I float it more than clear it. Or maybe those are the same. I am not writing with a contract, to be clear.

And for your fiction titles?

Just about every one has been different. Sometimes, the title comes first and leads the way to the story. Teach Your Buffalo to Play Drums was the first of those for me. Once a whole first page came to me, unbidden:

“Zander was a monster. This wasn’t strange as his father was a monster. His mother too. Oddly, his sister was a fairy. And his dog was a skunk.”

That last sentence just killed me. (And then, as with many lines I love, I had to fight to keep it.) That’s from Unlike Other Monsters, coming out in June.

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And his dog was a skunk. That’s a funny line. Comedy gold! Sometimes with the right sentence, even just a few words, or the right rhythm, a door seems to open. You can suddenly find your way in.

I don’t think any of my picture books has started with a character, which I didn’t realize until you asked. With novels, it’s always character. But it’s usually title/concept or incident that gets me started with picture books.

Getting back to what you said about going down the wrong path -— to me, that’s what is so great about picture books! If you do it in a picture book, you erase the last 100 words and go back to the fork. With a novel, hacking out 50 pages feels like pulling out a minor organ.

I maybe once cried when cutting 10,000 words from my book, Six Innings.

The first novel I wrote, Water Balloon, I wrote these extra 50 pages before the story really got going. I so wanted credit for those pages.

Even so, picture books have to be “just so.” You know? I feel like there’s more forgiveness in a longer work. More room to wander. With a picture book, basically 30 pages, there’s not a lot of space to get lost. That’s why I’ve concentrated on longer works, because I felt it gave me more control over my (and the book’s) fate. 

I adore picture books. I love writing them. I love the very fact of them. I enjoy every step of picture book writing and revising. But getting a first draft of a novel done -— the avoidance I have to fight is embarrassing. I’m in that place now. At least ninety percent through a novel I’ve been working on for years. I am looking forward to being done but not to what I have to do to be done.

That’s how I feel about exercise.

Me too.

I could be wrong here, but it seems there are not many folks that are exclusively writers who have built a reputation in picture books. There’s Tony Johnston, Eve Bunting, Ruth Krauss, Mem Fox, Charlotte Zolotow. It’s not a long list. Mac Barnett, of course, is doing great work now. Though it was only last week when I first realized that he wrote Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. I had previously thought of it strictly as a Jon Klassen title.

Well, crap. I guess I knew that but I never knew it in words. Thanks.

You’re welcome! I like that you’re a big baseball fan. Where’d that come from?

When kids ask this at school visits I always give the super-articulate answer that goes something like, “It’s hard to say why you like what you like. For example, I love pizza. Why? Because it tastes good.” Note to self: Work on that response.

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I was on a panel recently with a bunch of seasoned writers –- Todd Strasser, David Levithan, others –- and they all had such great, pithy answers to audience questions. I was like, “Damn, I have to raise my game.” The whole staring and stammering thing won’t cut it.

I don’t think anyone will ever say that about me. You know what impressed me about that Vernick? Pithy answers.

Pithy can feel too slick on some folks. I like your stammering authenticity.

My love of baseball -— sunny days (I will always take a day game over a night game); the fact that it’s a sport without a clock, with a lot of time for a mind to wander, to wonder, to draw connections; and it’s a sport with an immensely rich history (albeit one with very few women in it).

I associate baseball with my mom, who is still a huge fan at age 89. She taught me how to throw, how to catch. So there’s a lot of transference there: by loving baseball, I’m expressing love for my mother. Also, I loved playing, and still do. Now that I’m finished coaching (had a 15u travel team last season), I’ll probably return to a Senior Men’s Hardball team next spring. Read that as: Old guys clutching their hamstrings. We’re all still boys at heart. Did you ever get to play?

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First I have to say I just love that, your connection to your mom there. Organized sports for girls didn’t exist when I was younger. I played softball at camp and was sometimes good. In my neighborhood, it was mostly punchball in the street. A neighborhood of girls. Seriously, I think there was only one boy and we were terrified of him because he once threw a firecracker at my sister.

He was probably terrified, too. Don’t we all throw firecrackers when we’re afraid? I know you are a Jersey Girl, and a mother, but outside of that, I don’t know much about your background.

Okay, first of all, no. I grew up in New York City -— in Queens. I’ve lived in NJ 19 years. Wow. That’s a long time. But I definitely do not identify as Jersey Girl. Strike that from the record!

Done. Both my parents were from Queens, so I like this better, anyway.

I live near the ocean. When I lived on eastern Long Island —- my home before this one, and Boston before that -— my house was a block from the Long Island Sound. I hope to always live near a big body of water. My present and future dogs probably hope so too.

Have you written a dog-and-ocean book yet?

I cannot sell a dog book. It kills me.

I hear hedgehogs are trending. Or was that five years ago? It’s hard to keep up.

I wrote literary short fiction for adults before writing for kids. It’s a very good way to learn to accept rejection.

So how did you get into children’s books?

It’s a sad story. You’ve been warned.

When I was in my early twenties, my mother was taking a children’s writing class at the New School in NYC and she sent the first novel she wrote to one publisher (Dutton) and it was accepted. She died two months later, a pedestrian on the sidewalk, hit by a car around the block from my childhood home.

200px-Morning-glory-C6295bMy family was reeling for years. And in that time, we had to work with my mother’s very patient editor. My mother hadn’t even received her editorial letter at the time of her death, so all the revision fell to us. As you might imagine, we didn’t want to change a single one of her words. So that was my first step, as the literary executor of her estate. (The book, The Morning Glory War, was published in 1990 and received a really nice review in the Sunday Times.)

Wow. You must have taken a deep breath before typing that out. Like, “Okay, here goes, you asked.” I know that feeling, Audrey, since my oldest is a two-time cancer survivor. I’ve lost two brothers. These are not happy stories to tell at parties. Oftentimes, it’s easier not to get into it. And you’re right, it is sad, but it’s also an incredible story.

Yeah, as I wrote that out, I could see clearly that my family led me here.

Years later, I fell in love with the art of an outsider artist named Tim Brown, showed his art to one of my sisters, and she said that it belonged in a children’s book. Together, we wrote that book.

Which book is that?

Bark and Tim: A True Story of Friendship.

Hey, um, Audrey, this is nice and everything but . . . are you going to leave? I mean, ever? Or am I supposed to feed you now? I guess I have a pull-out couch . . .

Yeah, maybe tomorrow I’ll start pulling my stuff together. I could walk your dog. Do you have a dog?

Daisy. And two cats. And three kids. And four . . . well, it all stops at four. I don’t have four of anything.

I’m sure you have four readers of your blog!

Oh, dozens more. Dozens! We’re basically talking to ourselves here. It’s like the Cone of Silence in “Get Smart.” But before you go, is there anything you can share about your upcoming books? 

Okay, since you asked:

The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton, illustrated by Steven Salerno, nonfiction about a Philadelphia girl playing professional baseball from age 10.

 

The real Edith Houghton.

The real Edith Houghton.

 

I Won A What?, illustrated by Robert Neubecker, about a boy who hopes to win a goldfish and ends up with something a wee bit bigger. And better.

Unlike Other Monsters, illustrated by Colin Jack, with the opening page mentioned above. And a novel, Two Naomis, written with my dear friend Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich.

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How did you co-author a book? It’s seems difficult, fraught with peril. How did you handle it?

I have co-authored four books. Two Naomis was the first novel. We each wrote from the point of view of our own Naomi. So my chapters were the even-numbered ones — individual writing of separate chapters. When I co-wrote picture books, first with my sister and most recently with Liz Garton Scanlon, we just back-and-forthed a lot. Both experiences were really freeing and so much easier than doing it alone.

So what’s for dinner?

Get out! 

But before you go, by way of thank you, please accept this set of steak knives as a parting gift. I wish you all the luck in the world, Audrey. Keep up the great work.

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Remembering Vera Williams: Artist, Activist, Inspiration


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Vera Williams passed away at age 88 on October 16, 2015. I wanted to make note of it beyond a quick comment on Facebook, but her death came at an inconvenient time for me — though, I’m sure, it wasn’t the best timing for Vera, either. I can type that glib phrase because I’m confident that she would have agreed, and laughed out loud. Vera laughed a lot.

We never met in person, though of course I read and admired many of her books, most particularly “More, More, More,” Said the Baby, which I adore. It’s one of those rare things, a nearly perfect book about something as simple and profound as love. I had the pleasure of interviewing Vera over the phone, back in 1990. We chatted for an hour or so. She was lovely and warm and generous and completely genuine, just as anyone who had encountered her books would imagine.

21Williams-Obit1-SUB-blog427She was also, I learned, deeply political. No one had to scold Vera Williams about the importance of diversity or any such thing. Her politics were personal, and she recognized that the personal — as well as the creative — was always political. We are talking about values, really. The things that are important. Vera actively cared about the world and the children who inhabited it. She marched, she protested, she stood up for things. It’s on every page in every single book. For me, as someone who often looks around at this world in heartache and dismay, and who also writes for children, I find myself increasingly searching for appropriate ways to express those values in my own life and work. Vera, I think, helped show the way. You just go ahead and do it, as natural as breathing, come what may.

She will be missed.

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Below, here’s my two-page write-up as it was published in my book, the clumsily titled, The Big Book of Picture-book Authors & Illustrators. Like so many of my books, it’s long out of print, but I often spy it in tattered condition on school bookshelves during visits. I’ve been lucky enough to interview folks like Tedd Arnold, Molly Bang, Aliki Brandenberg, Norman Bridwell, Ashley Bryan, Eve Bunting, Barbara Cooney, Donald Crews, Mem Fox, Kevin Henkes, James Marshall, Barbara Park, Jerry Pinkney, Patricia Polacco, Faith Ringgold, Lane Smith, Peter Spier, Bernard Waber, Charlotte Zolotow, and many, many more. It’s sad to think how many of them are gone. Vera Williams was one of the best.

I will remember her with fondness and respect, forever grateful for the books she left behind.

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Great Article: “Horrors! This Child Is Reading Horror!”

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Thanks to Google Alerts, I found this terrific & timely article by Paula Willey in The Baltimore Sun. Willey does a great job here, writing calmly and directly about the value of “scary books” for (some) young readers.

My lovely daughter, Maggie, some years back. To our surprise, she loves horror. Loves it!

My lovely daughter, Maggie, some years back. To our surprise, Maggie loves horror. Loves it!

Personally, I got into scary books late in life, after many school visits where I met young readers who loved that shivery, edge-of-the-seat feeling. This is not just a Halloween thing, btw. An affection for horror goes year round. After raising two boys who never cared for horror — and openly said so, I should add — my sweet Maggie came along and she loves those creepy, crawly feelings. Go figure.

Another reason why I wrote “Scary Tales” in the way that it’s written — short, fast-paced, easy-to-read, series format — was because of all the reluctant readers I’ve met over the years. I’ve had them in my own kitchen, munching Doritos, blithely telling me how they don’t like books. So I challenged myself to write stories that attempted to be so entertaining & enjoyable that even these boys would read to the last page (they are, alas, almost invariably boys). I wanted them to experience that proud, “I just finished a whole book” feeling. And to then realize, “Hey, I kind of liked it. I’ll try another.”

In the old days of publishing, we’d call books in this category “Hi-Lo.” High-interest, low-reading level. My estimation is that “Scary Tales” is written somewhere on the 3rd-grade level, but with stories that appeal all the way up to 6th grade. The look is cool and edgy, so there’s no stigma to reading “baby” books.

Here’s a snip from the article. Thank you for the kind mention, Paula Willey!

ONE-EYED DOLL.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from  SCARY TALES: ONE-EYED DOLL.

Picture, if you will, a smiling, well-adjusted child. She’s tucked into a corner of the couch, reading happily, quiet but for the occasional giggle. Is that an “American Girl” book she’s reading? A silly fractured fairy tale? On the cover, you spy a slime-drenched, bloody snake; the title is spelled out in dripping, neon-bright letters: “The Zombie Chasers: World Zombination!”

Horrors! This child is reading horror!

Many grownups are a little uncomfortable when a kid exhibits a taste for stories of terror and mayhem. They worry that their children will become desensitized to violence or will have nightmares. Some just want their kids reading “better” books. There’s a perception that scary books like the “Goosebumps” series by R. L. Stine are of low literary quality and have no value.

It’s true that “Goosebumps” books, along with series like James Preller’s “Scary Tales,” “Spooksville” by Christopher Pike and P. J. Night’s “Creepover,” are short, formulaic, and written at a fairly low reading level. However, librarians know that these books sometimes play a crucial role in inviting children into reading, or helping a reader bridge the gap between books he is beginning to find “babyish” and longer books with more complexity.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: NIGHTMARELAND.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: NIGHTMARELAND.

Many people who grew up to be very accomplished readers — and writers — claim to have read nothing but “Goosebumps” for years when they were kids.

In addition, children are very aware of their ability to handle scary stuff. When I help a child pick out a book, I’ll often ask, “How do you do with scary books?” Of all the questions that I ask during the book selection process, this is the one they answer most forthrightly: “No scary books!” or “I can handle medium-scary.” And then there’s the little angel who proclaims, “The scarier the better!”

 

For the full article, click here.

Paula Willey is a librarian at the Parkville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library. She writes about children’s and teen literature for various national publications and online at unadulterated.us. 

 

 

“A Deserving Porcupine.”

 

Yesterday I reread Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon.

It was published 60 years ago, btw, in two-color.

Weird format, too.

And, of course, it’s perfect.

But what I keep thinking about these past 24 hours is that throwaway phrase, “a deserving porcupine.”

Do you recall it? Possibly not.

Harold thinks about a picnic, and pies, and being Harold, he goes a little overboard.

He hated to see so much delicious pie go to waste.”

Here’s what kills me:

So Harold left a very hungry moose and a deserving porcupine to finish it up.”

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Ha.

That phrase: a deserving porcupine.

How did Crockett Johnson even think of that? Out of all the available adjectives for a porcupine, he deemed this particular one “deserving.”

What did it do to deserve such treatment? I guess we’ll never know, but it feels to me like there’s a story there, somewhere off the page. The deserving porcupine appears on only one page of the book, then off Harold goes, in search of a hill to climb . . .

I should add this postscript:

TheFallIt’s pub day for my new book, The Fall

I really think everybody should buy it. That would be awesome. Thanks!

An Interview with Chris Sheban: Illustrating Book Covers, from Rough Sketch to Final

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Chris Sheban is a talented artist who has illustrated the covers to some books that you might know and love — all without fanfare. You probably didn’t realize it was him, if you even thought about it at all.

Here’s just a few you might recognize:

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I was very happy when my editor, Liz Szabla, told me that Chris would be doing the cover of my 2008 book, Six Innings. I was eager to see it, and nervous, too, since I couldn’t imagine what he and art director Rich Deas might come up with.

I waited and hoped until one day a jpeg of the cover art arrived in my email.

I was relieved, ecstatic, verklempt. Or go ahead, Dear Nation of Six Readers, insert your own baseball metaphor here. It was a home run. A stand-up triple. A squeeze play, um . . . oh, whatever. I loved it. That luminous blue-green.

Sad to say, I failed to thank Chris. Because I had never met the guy, and we had no interaction whatsoever, and I was raised by wolves. We were only connected by this one book, still clinging to semi-obscurity, and that was it. I should have reached out to Chris, sent a card or box of HoHos, but I didn’t.

for preller interviewRecently Chris appeared on Facebook, sharing a trove of rough sketches in addition to samples of light-infused finishes. I don’t know how Chris achieves it, but his work glows. He was also, I realized, a process guy. Organized too; he saves everything. I wrote to Chris and said, more or less, you may not know me, but I want to thank you for that terrific cover.

Actually — I just looked it up — and I wrote exactly this: “I’ve always been grateful to you for that beautiful cover of Six Innings; it only make sense that we don’t know each other on FB too.”

Chris wrote back and said something I didn’t expect. He said that he loved the story and loved working on it.

I was like, “You actually read it?”

Because up to that point, I didn’t realize that illustrators could read. Kidding! (A little.) But I honestly didn’t expect that he read the whole entire stinkin’ book. When I commented on that, Chris explained, “Absolutely read it. Yes, and read the others, too. Trying to get a feel for the story. Never easy to make one image sum up a whole book.”

So that’s when we got the idea to take this conversation to another level, complete with sketches and rough drafts.

Here you go, sit back and relax . . .

CHRIS SHEBAN: So after reading the manuscript, the first rough thoughts look something like this.

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JAMES PRELLER: I like that, “rough thoughts,” not “rough sketches.” Would it be accurate to say that you see them more as ideas than as drawings?
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CS:  Absolutely. At this “thumbnail” stage, I’m more concerned with the idea. What will make the most impactful cover. Composition is important. Should I focus on the pitcher, the batter, how big should I make him, etc. I’m not thinking about color yet. That comes later. You usually don’t know where the title type will go, but you want to consider that as well. Looking at some of these sketches, I’m not sure I was following my own advice. The pitcher in this sketch at the bottom right looks a bit more like a sasquatch than a human. I’ll worry about that later.
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JP: Sasquatch would have made a great closer. Or designated hitter (he can mash, but he can’t field.) Anyway, yes, this is like a writer’s sloppy copy. You don’t want to get bogged down with confining notions of quality.
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CS: I work by attrition…if I just do 112 sketches, one is bound to be decent, no?
JP: That’s exactly how I write haikus. I start with 112 syllables and whittle down from there. While the ultimate goal might be finding “the right word,” when I start out I’m pretty much looking for “any word.” And by “any” I mean: ANY. Just trying to defeat that blank, white page.
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CS: When I was working on the cover art for Because of Winn-Dixie, I inadvertently left a great big hole in the middle of the art. The girl and dog were down below, with the mobile homes above. And in the center? Not much. There’s no hard and fast rules about title placement, but generally it’s towards the top or bottom. Generally. You don’t want to draw the eye dead center, where there’s nothing going on but dirt. But I did. The solution? Put the title there!
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JP: How big are these sketches?
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CS: Each thumbnail is roughly an inch and a half to two inches. Easier to see the whole picture quickly. I sketch on tracing paper.
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JP: Tracing paper! I have such happy memories of tracing paper. My father had his own insurance business and I used to go to his office on rare weekends — he had a new-fangled “electric” typewriter and boxes of tracing paper. I drew and drew and drew, usually copying from the Sunday comics. What else have you got, Chris?
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CS: Well, here’s a few more rough sketches:
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JP: Too cool. As you delve deeper, you seem to be zeroing in on the drama between pitcher and batter, as opposed to other sketches that are more pulled back. A tighter focus.
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CS: Yes, maybe a little more. Sometimes pulling in close can add a bit of drama. I’m not sure why I had the kid sweating in that one sketch. Was there sweating in your story?

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JP: My characters never sweat; they perspire. This is literature, after all.
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CS: I’m sorry. The sweat may have been a reaction to how I was feeling at the time, worrying about making a half-decent cover. Yes, now I remember. That was me.
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JP: Wow, look at this sketch. It has a sculptural quality, as if baseball had been around in the 1500s and Michaelangelo was, say, a season-ticket holder at the Colosseum, chasing foul balls, shoeing away cats.
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CS: The pitcher looks a little disjointed to me. And is that an oven mitt on his left hand? 
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JP: Why yes, I believe that is an oven mitt. Obviously this was before the game had evolved, back when players such as Ty Cobb and Three-Finger Brown wore oven mitts. Ho-ho, I digress, a little levity there folks, free of charge. I love this glimpse into your process, Chris. Any number of these would have made terrific covers.
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CS: After a little back and forth with the art director, a direction is chosen, then I’ll work up a rough color comp which I’ll use as reference for the finished piece.

JP: How much back, and how much forth, exactly? There must be times when you think, “ACK, they picked the wrong one!”-

CS: That’s the danger of sending too many sketches. Inevitably, most will be mediocre, some awful, but maybe there’s one or two that are decent. You hope they go for the best one. If they pick an awful one, you have no one to blame but yourself, because you did it in the first place. Sometimes I’m an idiot.

JP: Actually, once upon a time I packaged books for Scholastic. My art director and I had to go through the “approval by committee” process many times. It’s a lovely experience if you enjoy water torture. There’s a skill in the choices you present, as well as the ones you hold back. Sometimes you try to direct the response; other times, you honestly don’t know.

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CS: I tend to fall into the latter category, the “I honestly don’t know if it’s a good cover idea, or just plain bad” category. Sometimes having that second (art director) or third (editor) pair of eyes and opinions really helps if you feel like you don’t have a clue. When sending multiple sketch ideas, I gently suggest which one or two I feel are the best . . . then they pick a different one.

 

JP: At this point, you turn to color.

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CS: These rough color sketches are just pencil sketches that I photocopy to a larger size, then paint with watercolor and some pastel.

JP: Isn’t that cheating?
CS: Yes, probably so. It would really be cheating if I photocopied the sketch up to size, painted on it, and sent it in as finished art. Actually, that’s something I’m hoping to pull off some day. Cut out all the in-between steps and finicky final art stuff that you worry and fuss over for too long, and end up with a lifeless piece of art.
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JP: Well, that’s the constant danger, isn’t it? The over-worked, over-wrought piece of art, like a late-period Steely Dan album. When it gets too polished, you might lose the raw vitality. Refine it to death.
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CS: Haha. Steely Dan, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder. It’s frightening and depressing to think that with age comes your artistic “Muzak” years. I’m currently working on using the actual rough sketch, with all its grainy, searching lines, as an underdrawing. By working over the top of that, you can keep some of the looseness of the line work showing through. I do this while listening to early Steely Dan.
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JP: I’ve seen that strategy before, though my mind is drawing a blank on good examples. It sort of honors the layers of process while also, as you say, keeping the looseness. It’s not something you typically see in cover illustration. In musical terms, it’s the punk aesthetic, where they felt that something powerful had been lost during the refinements of the genre. Down with Pink Floyd! Up with the Sex Pistols! And yes, let’s value the mistakes! It’s that core belief in raw energy at the expense of, cough-cough, revision and improvement. The trick is finding that elusive balance.
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CS: I doubt the author ever gets to see the sketch ideas. This is awkward . . . maybe there’s one here that you like better than what we ended up with. Sorry.
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JP: No, no, I love the cover you ultimately came up with — except, of course, my name should have been bigger (but I always say that). Every time I look at that book, I feel grateful to you. Seriously. Also, I respect and understand the process. I’m the boss of the words, not the cover. There comes a point where the author needs to get out of the way in order to allow the visual artists to do their work without interference. Not me chiming in with, oh, “I imagined him with freckles!” or whatever other suffocating, literal-minded idea I might have.
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CS:  Anyway, from this point the final drawing/painting is done on watercolor paper. The graininess happens with the addition of Prismacolor pencils on the rough surface of the paper.
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JP: You know, when people describe Disney World as a “magical” place, I always groan inside and think, How about commercial? Or, I don’t know, admirable in its efficiency? But when I look at your work — and the journey it takes to reach the final cover — it really does feel like something almost magical has occurred. Not awesome, in the cliched, verbal tic sense of the word, but awe-some. Or awe-full, full of awe. Thanks for sharing this with me and my Nation of Six Readers. We’re like the Iroquois that way, btw (but not at all). I’d love to talk more about your books another time, where you live, your picture books, your favorite music, hobbies, whatever. Just basically get to know you better. Can you come back soon?
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CS: I would love to. However, after I read what we’ve discussed, it may send me into a mild depression. I may be reluctant to expose my pedestrian nature again.
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JP: I hear you, Chris. All of my favorite artists and writers are filled with self-doubt. Can there by any other way? Otherwise you are dealing with raging egotists, and I hate those people. I like your modesty and self-effacement. But know this: Your talent shines forth in everything you create. I admire and respect your work.
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CS: As George Gobel famously told Johnny Carson, “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?” Thanks for inviting me. I really enjoyed it (I think).
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