Archive for Interviews & Appreciations

Checking In with Ralph Fletcher: On Writing & Photography

Ralph Fletcher needs no introduction.

[Pause.]

[Whistles softly, drums fingers on desktop.]

[Really, people?]

Okay, fine: Ralph Fletcher has not only published 20 books for young readers, he’s also established himself as one of the foremost mentors to classroom teachers, helping to exhort, instruct and inspire effective methods of teaching writing. 

Simply put, Ralph is one of the most respected voices in children’s literature today, and it’s an honor to have him as my guest.

But that’s not why, humble readers, we’re gathered here today.

I wanted to ask Ralph about his photography, and how that practice might be connected to writing.

Here he comes now.

Greetings, Ralph. Thanks for stopping by.
   
You’re welcome. Funny that we have so much in common—both write books for young readers, and both have worked with the same editor—but we have never met. It makes me wonder….are you perchance avoiding me? ☺
   
I don’t think we get invited to the same parties. We have another connection: I believe we also both come from large families. I’m the youngest of seven.
   
I am the oldest of nine. A big family can be a cauldron for great stories.
            
It’s a cauldron all right. I’m a longtime admirer of your writing, and your work as a teacher of writing. Through Facebook, I’ve learned that you are an avid and accomplished photographer. Is this a longtime hobby or something relatively new for you?


   
Mostly, I’d say it’s a passion that has taken hold in the last 5-6 years. I don’t quite call it a hobby, but I’m certainly not Richard Avedon, either. I’m not sure what it is.
   
A photo buff — or a buff photographer? I’m confused. What were we saying?
       
I choose “buff photographer.” Seriously, there’s this prevalent idea in our culture that unless you’re making money doing something you can’t be serious about it. That’s flawed thinking.
          
Excellent point. It occurred to me that there are similarities between photography and writing. 
   
Yes. And I have been thinking a great deal about this subject. I’m writing a book for teachers about the links between photography and writing. Focus Lessons will be published by Heinemann this fall.
   
That’s great news –- and proof that I’m on the right track. Certainly, some links between writing and photography are fairly apparent. Both begin with noticing things, an appreciation and an awareness of the world around you.
          
That’s true. Like  many people I spend a lot of time in my head. Taking pictures certainly pulls me out of myself. It has given me a door into the tangible, visual world. That’s not a bad place to live.


   
I mess around with haiku for the very same reason. Do you think that taking photos has helped you as a writer?
   
I think so. For most of my career I’ve been a language guy.  The items in my tool box are words. I write books (for kids and for teachers), and I speak at educational conferences. Photography draws on a different part of my brain (the non-language part) that I’ve rarely used. It’s fun flexing these new muscles! But to get back to your question….I do believe that photography has helped hone my powers of observation. When you’re trying to get a really good photo of wild creature you find yourself paying close attention to your subject. You can’t help it.  And aren’t writers (like photographers) involved in the business of creating engaging images?


   
Patience is important, too. You can’t blast through it. And all the while, your antenna is up. Waiting and ready.
   
To borrow a sports metaphor: photography has taught me that you have to let the game come to you. You’re right: there is a lot of sitting and waiting. But suddenly it happens: a merganser followed by a string of swimming chicks. And I’m there, sometimes so close we’re practically breathing the same air. That’s special.   

You’ve shared some incredible photographs of birds in flight. But recently you made a comment about practicing your “street photography.” In what way do they require something different from you?


   
I do think there’s a lot of overlap. Whether you’re photographing a heron or a couple of people chatting on a park bench, certain principles apply. You try to make yourself invisible so “they” (your subjects) are not aware of you. It’s not because you’re trying to spy or stalk but you want them to act naturally, to be themselves. If you do that you might be able to enter their world  and see them as they truly are.
   
I often think of writing as the art of getting out of the way. That is, not intruding as the writer, “look at me!” — and instead letting the characters step forward.

Well said. You try to make yourself disappear so the focus of the reader/viewer is on the story you’re trying to tell.


       
Technical question: What kind of equipment do you use?
   
Can you picture me smiling? Because this question fingers a running joke amongst my group of friends. Many people have seen my photos and said: “Your camera takes great pictures!” And I’m thinking, well, ah, no, actually I take the pictures. I think there’s a mistaken notion that all you need to do is get an expensive camera. There’s a lot of craft involved, no matter what camera you used.
       
But hasn’t that been the issue with photography as an art form all along? Because it is so accessible, where even Uncle Bill can take a “decent” snap, people tend to think anyone can do it. 
   
Yes, we’ve definitely seen a remarkable democratization of photography in the last few decades. It used to be a rarified skill practiced by few. Now almost every middle school kid gets a smart phone with a powerful camera in it. Here comes everybody.


   
I will acknowledge that having decent equipment does help. I shoot with a Canon 7D Mark II. I use various lens. It’s great to use a telephoto lens when shooting birds, but a telephoto is impractical when you’re walking around the street. Plus those lens can be heavy.
   
Ah, that explains your buffness. Thank you, Ralph. I respect and enjoy your work -– in any medium. And I look forward to your upcoming book, Focus Lessons, that brings photos and writing together. Do you have a cover we can share? A publication date?

 


        

     


September 2019 (I think). No cover yet. The book will feature about 60-70 of my photos, and explore connections between photography and writing, especially in regards to teaching writing.


Good luck with it, Ralph. I wish you the best. 

CHECKING IN with Matthew Cordell: Because I was getting worried about frostbite

JP: Hey, Matt! I’ve noticed that you seem to be taking a morning walk each day, sketchbook in hand, regardless of the weather. That’s cool. Or in this case, freezing. Um . . . just wondering . . . is everything okay with you? What’s up with that?
MC: For years, I’ve been trying to incorporate some light exercise into my daily routine. I’m by no means athletic, but the older I get, the more it seems I’m expected to do such a thing. (Sigh.) We have a treadmill in our house and I find it horribly boring to get on that thing, even with music or tv on. I also find it boring to just walk around our suburban neighborhood.
So what changed?
Back in November, I made this really cool trip out to Bozeman, Montana, for a book festival and school visits. And I was fortunate enough to spend some of that time in Yellowstone. I realized on that trip that I was perfectly willing to get out and exercise (walk) if the scenery was beautiful enough. And I’ve got some great forest preserves near my house, so it all just kinda clicked after that trip. Another thing I’ve been trying to do for years is keep a daily (or semi-daily) sketchbook routine going. Doing a bit of daily drawing that has nothing to do with the books I’m making. Drawing that has nothing to do with deadlines or expectations.
So this is not the next big book from you? 
I wish I could figure out a way to turn this into a book somehow, because it’s been a lot of fun for me and good for my well-being.
Maybe a picture book involving hypothermia . . . ? 
But getting a book out of it is not really the point. I guess everything like this is for the greater good anyways, so it all helps fill the well or whatever that expression is.
In my own way, I can relate to what you’ve been doing.  For the past year I’ve been trying to begin my days by writing at least one haiku. Today I wrote two bad ones about mud. Who cares! I did my best. It’s not about the finished product. It’s about the benefit of paying attention to the natural world. That’s a Mary Oliver line, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” That’s true regardless of your spiritual inclinations. In other wordsdon’t just do somethingstand there. Attend, notice. But in your case, it seems like a head space thing. You aren’t actually drawing what’s in front you, right? 
Yes, that’s exactly it! Sounds like you are doing the writer’s equivalent of what I’ve been up to. That’s cool. And no, I don’t usually draw what I’m looking out on my walks. I love drawing animals, so I’ve been doing a lot of that. I grab images off of Google and save to my phone. I’ll occasionally do a self-portrait while out in the cold. Self-portrait is great, immediate subject matter that you don’t have to think too much about. I think I’ll draw more from life when spring comes and everything starts coming alive again. It’s just not terribly inspiring to me to draw a bunch of leafless trees and snowbanks. 
Oh, I guess you didn’t read my post about the beauty of bare winter trees. It made a huge splash on the interwebs. 
One of the things holding me back was up until recently I never knew of a good pen to draw with that would emulate the sketchy desk-bound dip pens I love to use. An illustrator pal (and fountain pen aficionado), Steve Light, tipped me off to a type of refillable pen that had just the right line I’d always been looking for. So the daily morning walk/exercise doubles as a daily art/exercise. It’s all good for the soul and brain to do this stuff. It makes me feel better for the rest of the day. It clears my head. It’s good to get away from the desk and emails and studio and do it. It’s definitely cold!
We got a puppy about two months ago. A highly energetic dog that needs lots of walks. So I’m getting out there in every sort of weather –- and most of the time, I feel glad I’m out. A dog forces you to venture out into the world, wrap that wool scarf around your neck, whereas otherwise I might stay indoors, laptop open, hovering over Facebook’s angry icon.
I don’t really notice the cold after about 10 minutes into the walk. It helps to layer up. Snow pants and everything.
love my silk long johns.
It’s interesting, because this whole thing started for me in the dead of winter. I’m looking forward to experiencing this throughout the different seasons. Drawing outside is probably a lot easier when it’s 70 degrees. I wonder how it will be when it’s 90 degrees.
Um . . . sweaty? 
Different challenges in the summer. Maybe I can use the sweat for some watercolor work.
Okay, that’s pretty gross. Otherwise, I’m glad we had this little talk. I stalk you on social media, naturally, and I was growing concerned for your mental health.
It never occurred to me that any of this looks a little unusual until I started posting about it on social media. Several concerned friends have been like, “Why the heck are you out there drawing in sub-zero wind chills?”
Some days I can only tolerate taking my glove off just long enough to draw a simple line drawing. But it feels like an accomplishment when I do it. I realize I could just do walk and do the drawing indoors before or afterwards. But there’s something really invigorating about pushing myself in that way. Going outside and staying outside to do both of these things I want to do. It’s just nice to draw outside. I do really enjoy all of it. I guess when I think about it, it is kind of unusual or ridiculous in a, like,”extreme sport” sort of way. Yes, I totally just equated this very mild activity with extreme sports.
No, I mean, Matt, I’m serious. I really love my long johns . . . 
MATTHEW CORDELL IS THE AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR OF THE 2018 CALDECOTT MEDAL WINNER, Wolf In the Snow.
-M
HIS NEW BOOK, Hope, COMPLETES HIS “WISH” TRILOGY. 
          

Frank Hodge, Remembered

When I learned that Frank Hodge had died, I immediately thought of all the people whose lives he had touched. Frank had that indelible knack. We quickly became entangled in his fiendish web of book people. Writers, teachers, readers, librarians: Hodge-Podgers, all. Somehow we were all mixed up in this beautiful community together. And it was fun. Full of laughter. Impromptu read-alouds. Mischievous zingers. Kindness. Frank made us feel not only validated, but gloriously celebrated, as if our work really, really mattered. You don’t see that much these days. But for Frank, it was like air. It was breathing. He represented something that feels nearly lost today, the way we hear stories about editor Ursula Nordstrom and think, oh gosh, that must have been something. 

I decided to reach out to different folks who knew Frank, to see if they would like to share a few words, a memory, a photo, something. The response was overwhelming but not surprising. Please forgive me if I failed to connect with you. Feel free to leave a comment. 

 

Cynthia DeFelice

When I was a young, aspiring author who didn’t believe in herself (that could still describe me, except for the “young” part), I came home to see my answering machine blinking. It was a long, effusive, incredibly affirming message from Frank Hodge — Frank Hodge! — telling me how much he loved my third book Weasel. I listened to it over and over again, and couldn’t bring myself to erase it. Eventually I had to replace that machine. But Frank’s words made all the difference in my brain and in my career. Those were heady days; Frank’s conferences were so full of joy and enthusiasm and positivity about ideas and books and the power of literature. I miss that, and I will miss him.

 

Mem Fox

Frank changed my American life and brought me to the attention of thousands of readers who would never have otherwise known me. I’ve been feeling lost and miserable since he died. I’m all by myself, as it were, down here in Australia, with a massive lump in my throat and no one to hug, i.e. no one who knew Frank.

I adored Frank. He was one of the world’s extraordinary people: outrageous, brilliant, and incredibly generous, occasionally difficult, with a wicked sense of humour and a love of salacious gossip—and a distaste for vegetables of any colour, much to my endless horror. Our conversations went far into the night but I never had to take my make-up off afterwards because I’d already cried it off, with laughter.

 

Bruce Coville

Reader’s Digest used to run a regular feature called “My Most Unforgettable Character.” For me, that would be Frank Hodge, who was a great force for good and joy in the world of children’s books. As anyone who ever attended one can testify, Frank’s conferences were one-of-a-kind events. An image that I still carry with me –- something I saw on numerous occasions –- is that of coming into the book area after Frank had done one of his presentations and not being able to see the sales tables at all because the throng of teachers and librarians trying to get at them was four deep. That was how good he was at getting people excited about books.

His conferences were always themed, and there is one that will always remain my favorite. I had been hanging around with him in the store on Lark Street, chatting about one thing and another, when we got to talking about how much kids loved scary stories. Frank promptly decided that he should focus a conference around that, and thus was “BOO!” born. An entire conference devoted to scary stories. How delicious! Without informing him of what I had in mind, prior to my presentation I dressed up as my “half mad twin brother, Igor.” When he introduced me this shambling, long-bearded, fur-coated hunchback came down the center aisle. He reacted perfectly, and I was never sure whether I had actually fooled him or he was going along with the fun. When I got up beside him I pulled aside my fake beard and said, “It’s me, Bruce!” We were still laughing about it years later.

Frank showed me innumerable kindnesses when I was just getting started, as I know he did to countless other writers and illustrators. His conferences were one of a kind –- and so was he. We will not see his like again.

 

Matthew McElligott

The field of children’s literature is filled with brilliant, generous people, none more so than Frank Hodge. He helped countless readers to find the perfect book, and countless authors (including me) to find their way in the world of publishing. He was warm, witty, and a raconteur of the highest order.

Frank had a big heart, although his love didn’t extend to technology. For years I was his tech support guy, and he always seemed to need an awful lot of support. It took me years to finally understand why; Frank preferred it when his computer was broken.

It was easy to drop by the store. I worked nearby, and told Frank to call whenever he had an issue, but he stubbornly refused to pick up the phone. Whenever something would go wrong—say, he forgot the icon to get back into his email inbox—he would sit down and write me a letter, then shut down his computer. Days would pass.

To make sure I couldn’t reply too quickly, Frank made the letters difficult to read. One letter was typed on the back of a paper napkin from Price Chopper. Another was typed in random chunks, scattered at odd angles across the page. His masterpiece was a long strip of paper tape with sentences that started and ended halfway through. It took the better part of an afternoon to figure that one out.

There was nothing quite like a Frank Hodge letter, just as there was nothing like a Frank Hodge bookstore, conference, or conversation. I’m blessed I could experience them all.

 

Joe Bruchac

Frank was such a wonderful, unquenchable spirit. It’s hard to think of him without a smile coming to my face. All those decades that he ran Hodge-Podge
Books, his teaching, the festivals he put together. For so many years it seemed as if his energy was everywhere in the world of children’s literature.

One story that I remember about Frank is an incident he told me about when he had to have surgery some years back.

Shortly after his surgery a nurse came into his room and said “It’s time for you to get up.”

“No,” Frank replied, “it is most definitely NOT time for me to get up. If I try to get out of bed now I will fall flat on my face.”

But the nurse was insistent, not realizing she was reading the wrong chart.

“All right,” Frank said he told the nurse. “If you insist!”

At that point in the story, Frank started laughing.

“What happened next?” I asked him.

“Well, what do you think happened?” he replied. “I got out of bed and fell flat on my face.”

And then he laughed even harder!

 

 

Loren C. Green

I first met Frank when I was waiting tables at his favorite spot. When Frank learned I was studying to be an English teacher, he invited me to Hodge-Podge to enjoy some of the new books. I was so intimidated that it took me almost two years to gather the gumption to take him up on his offer. I was terrified that Frank might wonder what I thought of a book and I had no confidence in my ability to recognize or articulate my thoughts.

On that first visit, Frank offered me a pile of books and ordered us lunch. We sat in his backyard sanctuary and by the time I left six hours later, I had a second stack of books to read and a new job helping to ship books all over creation.

Almost thirty years later, my friendship with Frank remains one of the singular defining ingredients of my life. Visits with Frank always morphed into adventures and his endless trove of stories was, reliably, equal parts mirth and tutorial. Like the books and the authors Frank championed, he was a master at imparting insight and emoting compassion while disarming with humor. He never did overcome his fear that his own writing might not measure up, but I was blessed with countless chapters of his story and their lessons have helped shape me.

These last two years, I struggled to visit Frank as often as I should have but when I could muster the courage, Frank would do his best to ask after the goings on in my world and he never missed an opportunity to tease me mercilessly, somehow stealing a narrow path through the closing fog to reprise his role, for another moment, as the perennial rascal prince.

 

Gail Denisoff

One quick story — Frank came to speak at my school (I was a school librarian in Schenectady and teaching at Woodlawn school at the time) and of course that required picking him up at the bookstore in Albany since he didn’t drive. We were talking in the car on the way to school and he was surprisingly unsure about how effective he would be working with the kids, especially at the middle school level. I assured him that they would love him.

He spent the day sharing books with classes and had the kids, grades K-8, enthralled as only he could do. A few weeks later, a mother stopped by the library to tell me that she had never been able to get her 7th grade son to read but after that day with Frank, he wanted her to get him several of the books Frank shared. She did and said he hadn’t stopped reading ever since — she even caught him reading with a flashlight under the covers when he should have been sleeping! She was almost in tears telling me this and Frank was so pleased when I shared that story with him.

 

Karen Hesse

Frank had the chutzpah to dig up my home phone number back in 1992 and call me after reading my second book, Letters from Rifka. I remember sitting on the stairs in my tiny old house listening to this complete stranger lavishly praise my writing while my children clamored in the background, longing for dinner. He flattered me for over an hour during that first phone call! When he was not complimenting my work we were discussing literature and writing and favorite books and authors. How could I help but fall in love with Frank. He championed not only my work, but the work of so many. He was funny and wry and sly and ironic and sensitive and bright and brave and a beloved friend to writers and artists everywhere. I will always be grateful to Frank and his early support of my work. But also his support of so many others struggling to find an audience for their unique and compelling voices. Frank made a difference in the world. He will be missed.

 

Daniel J. Mahoney

Frank was a wonderful guy. He heard of me when I published my first book. He said that he “wanted to meet a local boy who made it in the children’s book business.” He invited to his store, and to his famous “Let the Reading Begin” conference, where I met a lot of great people. I’m sad to hear of his passing.

 

 

Jerry & Eileen Spinelli

Eileen and I have long been happy and proud to count ourselves among the first of Frank’s anointed “Hodge-Podgers.” We have little pins to prove it. Personally, Frank was there at the birth of my first novel. I remember getting a call at work (somehow he’d  tracked me down) and hearing him say nice things and wondering, Who is this guy? Next thing I knew we were having dinner in Albany and Lark St. had already begun to sound magical.

Frank’s “Newbery Corner,” a photo taken at one of his conferences: Kate DiCamillo, Linda Sue Park, Karen Hesse, and Jerry Spinelli.

 

Linda Sue Park

Frank Hodge’s conference was the very first one I was ever invited to. It must have been 2001; I had two books published with a third coming out…. That ‘third book’ was A Single Shard, which won the Newbery Medal in 2002. Frank invited me back again that year, which is when the photo was taken.

I don’t seem to have a photo of Frank and me together, which I sorely regret. It meant so much to me to be invited to speak at that conference so early in my career, and I will always be grateful to Frank for that boost.
Patricia Reilly Giff

So many memories…

One night, at the beginning of our friendship, Frank introduces himself and asks me to speak to his class. Frank, a legend; I a new writer, unsure of myself.

How does he know this? Somehow he does, somehow I speak in his class, not once, but whenever he asks me.

We sit in his backyard one lovely summer afternoon talking about books and writers, and rarely, but sometimes, we disagree. I close my eyes, thinking. Is he ever wrong? I learn so much from him. I bask in our friendship.

Our family opens a bookstore in Connecticut. On opening day, a bus pulls up in front of the door. Frank has come all the way from Albany bringing friends, bringing readers, to cheer us on.

Even now as I write, I think of him. I wonder if he’d think my idea is worthwhile, if the characters come to life.

How grateful I am for Frank, lover of books, of story, of friendship.

Eric Luper

Of the 28 books I’ve written, two of them are dedicated to Frank Hodge. The first time we met, I was an aspiring writer. A friend suggested I introduce myself to a local kidlit luminary she described as a mix between Garrick Ollivander and Winnie the Pooh.

I printed my manuscript and headed to Hodge Podge Books, his tiny shop huddled beneath a brownstone on Lark Street.

Frank seemed delighted to meet me until he asked his first question: “What are your favorite children’s books?”

I knew this question carried weight. After all, this man literally ensconced himself with books. Unfortunately, the only characters that popped to mind were Garrick Ollivander and Winnie the Pooh.

“Right now, I’m reading Harry Potter.”

He flipped through my manuscript. “And you’d like me to read this?”

“If you have time.”

Frank tossed my pages into the trash. “Talk to me after you’ve read some good books and revised.”

Then, this curious, little man shuffled around his store gathering books from the shelves–books by Coville, Sachar, Anderson, DeFelice, Lubar, Gardiner, DiCamillo and Spinelli. “Talk to me after you’ve read these.”

The weeks that followed were the greatest writing lessons of my life, and the beginning of a great relationship with a brilliant mentor and friend.

 

Franki Sibberson

It is always a treat to visit independent bookstores when I visit new cities. I was fortunate enough to visit Hodge-Podge Books when I visited Albany many years ago.  I quickly understood that Hodge-Podge Books was a special place because of Frank Hodge.  He not only knew books but he came to know people and make him part of his book community quickly. He was committed to everyone in the book world. His love of books brought people together and those of us who visited his bookstore that day felt lucky to be a small part of all that he created at Hodge-Podge Books.

 

 

 

Suzanne Bloom

If only I could find it. That single-spaced two sided letter from Frank; densely woven with appreciation and well-considered comments. Something I could wear like a warm winter scarf.

Let’s get the guilt out of the way. I didn’t call or drop a line. I thought there would always be next week. A quick visit to Frank’s store might only last 2 hours. And I made too few trips. But each one was a master class in the art of picture book making, plus some gossipy asides. Don’t ask me what the gossipy asides were; long forgotten now. The book-lined walls brought the space in closer with just enough room to open a large volume or two. You could explore or, better yet, let Frank find a work, just for you; then Frank-splain the beauty of it. He gathered, curated and matched books to readers. It was like a book/dating site.

He built bridges between writers and readers, and grew a community of devotees. I daresay we all made new friends because of Frank.

I’ll find it. It made me feel like I might be a real writer and exhorted, encouraged and expected me to carry on. Perhaps you too, earned his approbation. Even if you didn’t get a letter, in the spirit of Frank and his love of the world of children’s literature, carry on!

 

Simon James 

Making books can be a lonesome experience, locked away in a room somewhere, wrestling with projects for months on end, but Frank always knew how to let the sunshine in. A phone call or a letter from Frank was a moment when the pressure lifted off and the very reason why you were struggling with those projects immediately came into sharp focus. His love for what you created always broke through your own moments of despondency or doubt. Often, we talked for several hours on transatlantic calls, joking at each other’s expense. We both enjoyed a deprecating humour that led us to insult each other with as much good nature as humanly possible.

Despite his gift for reaching out to others through books, Frank was a very private man. Perhaps there was a price to pay for his selfless enthusiasm and running the bookshop below his home. I stayed with him many times on my visits to schools around Albany. His personal living quarters above the shop were modest and unpretentious. His bedroom back door led outside to a wooden stairway above the backyard. Frank kept a long piece of string tied to that door, it ran to a safety pin attached to his pillow. This was for Crisis, his beloved cat, to be able to go outside in the night. When sufficiently cold, Frank would wake up and pull the string to swing the door back to be almost shut, until Crisis wandered back in again. This went on all through the year whatever the weather. I can remember trying to sleep in his spare room in the loft wondering why it was so utterly freezing at night. One Winter, I ended up with bronchitis. I could hardly speak. Naturally, I wanted to cancel some school visits, but Frank would hear nothing of it!

Frank was a superb presenter of books. He knew how to bring out the best from a text he loved. His warm, inquisitive voice and exquisite timing instantly held audiences spellbound. He held the book in one hand whilst gesturing with the other, like some high priest. He was a master at this, yet completely self-effacing at the same time. He was also openly opinionated; as vocal about the books he didn’t like, as he was about the books he loved. He made every book he read aloud urgent and desirable, one that you simply had to add to your collection.

Yet another talent of Frank’s was his gift for the lost art of letter writing. I am very glad I still have the many letters he wrote to me. When I read them they make me laugh, principally because of the way we mercilessly took the mickey out of each other. Nothing was too serious, except our friendship. I will miss him.

 

Cheryl Harness

Boy oh boy, how I hope that, in the blue beyond, somewhere off in the Afterlife, that ultimate hodgepodge, the joyful souls of book lovers and writers are gathered ’round their newly-arrived soul mate, their oh-so-kindred spirit, that of Francis Hodge.
At least, I’m trying hard to envision the scene, as well as the time way back in the early 1990s when I first visited Albany, New York’s swellegant little bookstore on Lark Street and met Frank Hodge, its greathearted proprietor. How did I, a shy, newbie author-illustrator from Colorado, come to be there? Because Frank had taken an interest in my first historical picture book, Three Young Pilgrims — talk about Thanksgiving! Little did I know then that the charming, soft-spoken gent with whom I’d shaken hands was one of the truly great champions of books for young readers. What did you want to know and/or need to learn? He could tell you. What lies beyond that ultimate veil? Now, if he could, he’d tell us that too. So we mortals are left to speculate. And read, thank goodness. And imagine — trying to envision, for instance, all of those word lovers who’ve gone on ahead, saved a place for Frank, now taking him by the hand.

 

 

A page from Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Ghostwriter, featuring Hedgehog Books and an owner named Frank. It even includes his cat, Crisis. I dedicated the @ 2000 book to Frank — but then again, it seems like we all eventually got around to dedicating something to him. Just that kind of guy, I guess. — JP.

 

A Few Frank Facts . . .

Frank’s famous store may have been only 240 square feet –- yet it’s impact was enormous. The business hummed along, built around Frank’s close connection with hundreds of teachers and librarians. He enjoyed a lively and jocular relationship with the UPS drivers that daily sprinted in and out the door, burdened with boxes of books. The first “Let the Reading Begin” conference began in 1985 and ran for 17 years. These were always insanely elaborate and over-the-top events. Frank believed authors and illustrators were royalty, and treated them lavishly. Expenses be hanged! After a pause for double-bypass surgery, Frank briefly revived a downsized version of the old conference, but it became too much, even for indefatigable Frank Hodge. The store logo was created by Mark Teague.

 


 

One Question, Five Authors #2: “Tell us about one book or comic you loved as a child.”

Welcome, readers, to the second installment of “One Question” — the interview series where I do as little work as possible. Personally, I always enjoy hearing authors talk about books they love — particularly those books that made a difference early in their reading lives. The books that helped light the fuse.

Much thanks to our five guests below: Paul Acampora, Rachel Vail, Don Tate, Audrey Vernick, and Julie Fortenberry. Click here to read the debut installment if you missed it the first time around.

 


Paul Acampora

In those years that astronauts were still wandering around on the moon, I discovered The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary. The book featured Keith and Ralph, a couple boys about my age (at the time) in an off-the-beaten-track world that seemed a lot like my own. Keith and Ralph had families and rules and squabbles and accidents. They wanted adventures and they made mistakes. They were just like the cousins and friends and classmates that surrounded me. It’s true that Ralph is a mouse who rides an awesome red motorcycle, but that’s not really the point. Rather, The Mouse and the Motorcycle made it clear to me that real-life adventures were possible. And if Beverly Cleary is right (spoiler alert: she is) adding friends to the mix makes real-life adventures almost inevitable. When I grew up, I did indeed get my very own awesome red motorcycle just like Ralph’s. I don’t have the motorcycle anymore, but I still have the friends which means I’m still having the kind of real-life adventures that books are made of.

 

Rachel Vail

One book I really loved as a kid was Blubber, by Judy Blume. I remember wondering as I read: how did she KNOW? Not just about the overt, senseless, casual cruelty of some kids, but also about MY complicity in the cruelty: the rotten, rotting feeling of seeing somebody be mean to a less powerful kid, and deciding to do nothing. Choosing just to go along, because otherwise I’d be putting myself in danger. And it felt like that, no exaggeration: like danger. Judy Blume captured the complex ethical calculus of being a kid, making choices — the truth of it, the power and the cost of it. Humor and relatable details made the story feel real, but the empathy I felt for every character is what made it feel TRUE. I was particularly moved by the respect Judy Blume was showing to me as a kid, as a reader, as a person. (I felt she was writing for me, in particular, of course. Her writing is that intimate.) She was telling it to me straight, and trusting me to think through what it all meant. There were no tidy resolutions, no morals to print on a poster. It was just, here’s how we sometimes treat one another, and how it really feels. What do you think?

 

Don Tate

I wasn’t a big reader when I was a kid. It is embarrassing to admit — especially to kids! I had trouble with comprehension and retaining what I’d read. So I tended towards the visual. My favorite book was our Better Homes and Gardens Illustrated Medical Encyclopedia. I loved it because of the cool illustrations. I also loved our Funk and Wagnalls Young Students Encyclopedias. They were heavily illustrated. Inside, I learned about all kinds of things, but I was drawn most to the diversity inside. I learned about people from all over the world, I saw people who looked like me. In high school English literature classes, I pretty much refused to read what was presented to me as classics. The Grapes of Wrath, Greek and Roman Myths, Poe, I just couldn’t get into those. I sketched my way through those classes. I didn’t become a reader (for enjoyment) until I was in my early 20s, when I discovered the book Black Boy by Richard Wright. It was a memoir about his life. In Richard Wright, I saw myself. After that, I became a lover of reading. I read all of Richard Wright’s books, and especially loved Native Son.

 

Audrey Vernick

I was a voracious reader as a child, in part because I lacked the kind of friends I read about in books. I had friends, but our relationships never seemed to measure up to the epic friendships in the books I loved most.

The book that hit me right in the center of this spot was The Secret Language, written by the legendary children’s editor Ursula Nordstrom.

Victoria was only eight years old when shipped off to boarding school. What?! Boarding school? My brain had to grow and shift to entertain this new-to-me reality. Vicky was shy and miserable and hated boarding school (this reader, who faked sickness to get out of day camp, could relate to that). And then, impossibly, a strange and funny girl, Martha, befriended Vicky. And shared with her secret words — leebossa, ick-en-spick, ankendosh.

When I think about this, I’m almost inclined to feel sad for young-me, but the truth is I found literary friendships very satisfying. They fed me something I needed — in a way that actual eight-year-old friends could not.

Unexpected friendships. That’s still a pretty sweet spot in my reading — and writing — life.

 

Julie Fortenberry

The Little Golden Picture Dictionary (the original 1959 edition) left a lasting impression on me. I still have my copy. Each page has eight words with descriptions like, “alligator—The Alligator has sharp teeth,” and “kitchen—Mother cooks in the kitchen.” (Later editions have been updated to correct a few unenlightened words and descriptions.)

I’m still fascinated by the little Tibor Gergely illustrations. (Gergely was mostly self-taught, but studied briefly in Vienna. In 1939 he emigrated to New York where he illustrated several New Yorker covers.) It’s so obvious that he loved his job. The pictures are detailed but uncomplicated. And like a lot of Golden Book illustrators, Gergely’s style is both realistic and cartoony. His illustrations of people and animals are great, but even his illustrations of mundane objects (glove, iron, pie) are still intriguing to me.

I don’t remember anyone reading this book to me, so I guess I was able to decipher most of it on my own. I think it was the first time I saw the world arranged in an orderly way. The whole book is very tidy and sunny, like the best kind of kindergarten.

One Question, Five Authors: “How Do You Celebrate on the Day the Book Arrives?”

Greetings, my Nation of Readers (though perhaps “wee village” is more like it). Anyway, I’m grateful to anybody who stops by. I started this particular spot more than 10 years ago. During that time, I’ve tried to self-promote relentlessly in a way that’s not too grotesque . . . to provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the creative process . . . and to shine a light on different artists and illustrators whose work I admire. Usually that’s taken the form of long, sprawling interviews which require considerable time and effort. 
Recently I had a new idea: Ask the same question to a number (5) of authors and illustrators. I hope in this way we’ll illuminate the process and, hopefully, help introduce you to some of the great people who are out there, doing such high-quality work.
And, hey, less effort for me!
Today’s question: “How do you celebrate on that day when the box arrives, and you finally hold a finished book in your hands?”
Let’s hear it for our special guests: S.A. Bodeen, Matthew Cordell, London Ladd, Laurie Calkhoven, and Lizzy Rockwell. Huzzah!
S.A. Bodeen
I’ve done different things over the years. Most recently was when copies of The Tomb arrived. Per usual, I ripped it open and took one out and removed the jacket to look at the actual book. (Yes, I do that every time.) Then I read the jacket to see what state I live in. (Sometimes they get it wrong. In their defense, I move a lot.) Then I put the jacket back on and showed it to my husband and he said “We should celebrate.” If the box arrives before dinner, we go out. Last night the box came after dinner (I made fish tacos, which were actually killer), so I suggested Culver’s, where he had a root-beer float and I had a vanilla malt.

Matthew Cordell

I’m probably my own toughest critic when it comes to my books, so I’m always a little nervous about opening up a box of finished books. It’s a little weird to look at something you made many months or over a year before you see the finished product. As artists, we are (or should be) constantly evolving and getting better as we work. So, a lot can change in a year’s time. I guess my personal celebration is flipping through a book several times. The first time with one eye closed probably. Each time looking at it gets a little easier on the eyes. Each time, seeing less of the flaws and more of the achievements and fond memories from the time spent collaborating and creating. Then it feels good. Then I take a picture and share it on social media. I hope that isn’t too bleak of an answer to your question.

London Ladd

It’s an easy question. After I open the package I touch and squeeze the book because I like feeling it before opening it. The new smell, the stiffness of the hardcover, the heartwarming note from the publisher…all of it really makes me so happy. Afterwards I look at the front cover and back to check out the design and font, I still get a thrill seeing my name on the cover :).  I open it and quickly scan the book jacket and then examine through the pages for all the things I should have done better and make mental learning notes on what not to do for the next book. I really love creating pictures books but I strive to be better.

 

Laurie Calkhoven

I’m afraid I’m a sad failure when it comes to celebrating my work. Part of the reason is the question of WHEN to celebrate. The day I accept the offer? The day –- weeks later –- when the contract arrives for my signature? The day – even more weeks later –- when the countersigned contract arrives with the advance check? The day that lovely box of books arrives? What about publication date? I DO usually pop a champagne cork or two with my writer’s group when I accept an offer. The other milestones are hit or miss depending on deadlines and whatever else is going on in my life. Sometimes I buy myself a piece of jewelry or a ticket to a play when the check arrives, but publication dates tend to pass without any notice from me. Lots of writers throw book parties (and I happily attend), but the idea of having one for myself makes the introvert in me want to run for the hills.
Lizzy Rockwell
I can’t say I have a ritual with this, but it is always a thrill. Like most thrills, it is mixed with a bit of fear. What if I find a mistake, what if I think I could have done better? Once it’s a book, all those choices that I agonized over are now finite. It’s so gratifying to see all the hard work by the editor and art director that pulls it all together. Things like end-sheets, typography, color matching, printing, paper quality, that I have nothing to do with, make such a difference. And it is the first time I have held the book in my hands, and read it start to finish, in color, while turning the pages. I always make a physical dummy booklet to draw my sketches in, so I can see and feel how the pacing goes as you turn the page. So until I see the printed book for the first time, that narrative continuity has been broken up into distinct parts over the many months that it takes to do all the editing, and complete the finished art. So there is a deep satisfaction when the book finally arrives in the mail (a year after I last saw the paintings). It’s my chance to hold the physical object, read, look, and turn the pages and finally see it as a unified work of art.
If readers care to suggest questions for future posts, please make a comment below!