Archive for Interviews & Appreciations

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!

Interview: Lesa Cline-Ransome Steps Out

Lesa Cline Ransome is on fire, producing the finest work of her already-impressive career. Fresh off the award-winning success of When She Was Harriet, illustrated by Lesa’s husband, James Ransome (no slouch himself!), she has a promising new novel coming out, Finding Langston. Come spend a few minutes with us. We talk about writing, research, serial murderers, and so on.

I’m trying to remember when and how we first met. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Any recollection? It was at one of those “things” that authors sometimes do.

Well, I don’t want to brag, but I have a pretty good memory. I believe we first met at a NYS Reading Assoc. event, but the first opportunity we had to talk was in Princeton when we were walking together to the party after the book signing and you were telling me about a book you loved. I wish I could say my memory is so great that I recall the title, but I don’t.

Ha, that sounds like most of my conversations: “Listen to this song, read this book, see this movie!” And, of course, we’ve eaten wings in Buffalo and chatted just recently at the great Children’s Book Festival in Hudson. I’ve asked you this before, but how do you tackle a well-known subject like Harriet Tubman, a historical figure who has been written about, and written about, and written about in the past? It must be a challenge to bring something new to the conversation.

That was indeed the challenge in writing Before She was Harriet, which is why I waited so long to tell her story. If I can’t find a new and inventive way to tell a story, or provide information about a subject’s life that allows young readers to engage in a different way, then I really don’t want to write it. So, it was only when James told me that he had discovered the many other lives she lived, as a nurse, a suffragist, a union spy and general in the army, that I knew I had found a new way to tell her story and a way in which kids could learn something new about her heroism and a life dedicated to the service of others.

Speaking of James, what was it like working with the illustrator –- who happens to be your husband? Do you try to stay out of each other’s way? Do you peer over each other’s shoulders, give friendly advice? Do you cluck, “Hmmm, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” What’s the process like?

The only way we can remain married is to stay in our own lanes. I trust him as one of my readers who gives valuable feedback during the many stages of the manuscript and he trusts my input on the pieces he is working on, but trust is the key word here. We have to allow each other our space to create without too much input from the other in order to protect our creative process, and most importantly, our marriage. It helps that when I finish a manuscript he often doesn’t begin illustrating until at least two years later, which gives me some distance from the story.

I interviewed Leo and Diane Dillon about 25 years ago. They used to swap pieces of artwork, passing it back and forth, drawing on top of each other’s work. Amazing. 

Perhaps that is because they were both illustrators, but if James and I handed our work back and forth, I have a feeling it would not go as seamlessly. I feel we each have our strengths in our own fields and we need to respect those boundaries.

Tell us about your brand new novel, Finding Langston?

Finding Langston was such a joy to write. I’ve always written pretty long picture books, so the transition to middle grade was a natural one. After reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, I knew that there were pieces of story in that book I wanted to tell and I found it in the fictional Langston, a young boy travelling north from rural Alabama with his father after the death of his mother. In Chicago, Langston doesn’t fit with his country accent and clothes and he is bullied. But one day he escapes and finds his way into a library, a place he’s never been allowed to enter in the south, and his discovery of books and the poetry of Langston Hughes transforms his world in ways he never quite expected.

To be clear, it’s not that there weren’t libraries down South. But as a black boy, he wasn’t allowed access? The danger of an educated mind.

There were absolutely libraries in the south during that period, but very few that were integrated.  In rural areas, there were virtually none.  In Finding Langston, Langston would occasionally go into town with his father for supplies and he passed a building with a public library sign out front.  When he asked his father about it, he was told “it was a building for white folks, and that meant I couldn’t go in.”  When he got home and asked his mother, she said, “They don’t let black folks in libraries…” but when he discovers the library in Chicago, filled with blacks, his world is forever changed.

By the way, my goodness, that cover is gorgeous. 
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Probably no surprise that James insisted on illustrating the cover for my first novel. 

Nice to have connections. Obviously, a book like this involves a ton of research.

A ton, but writing so many picture book biographies meant that I had a lot of research on hand. And it can be incredibly rewarding to spend days researching trees native to Alabama or the elevated el trains in Chicago or the history of segregated libraries. I almost always find material for potential books.  

On school visits, readers always ask about ideas. I tell them that ideas are the easy part. It’s sitting down and doing the work that takes the real effort.

I agree.  It’s that tricky part of getting the ideas in your head to translate into a narrative that is engaging that’s the real challenge.

I have to say, Lesa, I am so impressed. You are really spreading your wings. I mean, it’s just a beautiful thing to watch. I’m really happy for you. Obviously, clearly, you are thriving — doing great and meaningful work. If we were in a bar, I’d say to the bartender, “Yeah, I’ll drink what she’s having.” What’s your secret?

Wow, thank you! I don’t know if there’s a secret, but I am incredibly curious about the world and people. And I feel there are so many stories to tell about courage, and hope and history. I am always inspired by the incredible books I read for pleasure, for my book group, that are recommended to me. I feel like I have so much growing to do as a writer, I have to keep plugging away.

Finding Langston is a departure for you. It’s exciting to see you take on a longer work. All those pesky words.

Definitely a departure, but a welcome one. Getting to go deeper into a character’s motivation meant that I grew to love Langston. When I wasn’t at my desk writing, I’d wonder about him, miss him. The hardest part was letting the book end.

I’m curious about that moment when you realized that, hey, wow, this is a book. A lot of ideas fizzle. You think you’ve got something, but it fades away. A dead end or just an unrealized notion. But sometimes there’s a moment when the story makes a turn and then you know, deep down, this is actually going to become a finished work! How did that work for you with Langston? Did it come during the research? During the writing? 

Nearly every time I make a plan to write a certain story, I take a turn into the story I am meant to write. The original version of this story is so different from the final version. That’s the best part about writing. Letting the story unfold the way it is supposed to.

Did you make an outline for Langston? Or try to find the path as you wrote?

I’m new to novel writing, so I approached it as an expanded picture book.  I didn’t make an outline, but I had a sense of how the story would unfold.  I think the beauty of storytelling is letting the characters lead despite what you planned for them.

Behind every great woman . . .

So what’s James working on these days?

He just completed a story he wrote called The Bell Rang and he is now starting another book with author Jerdine Nolan. James will also begin work soon on a pet project, The History of Football, with author Fred Bowen.

I have a vague idea that you live in Poughkeepsie, is that right? Isn’t that where the mass murderer had all those bodies buried under his house?

We moved from Poughkeepsie to Rhinebeck shortly after that event and we’ve been here for almost 15 years. That guy’s house was directly across the street from my childrens’ pediatrician. They were there for their annual physicals, and while we were waiting in a room, the nurse told me to not look out the windows. So, of course, I looked out the windows —

Of course —

— and there were tons of news crews and trucks outside. When she came in again, I asked what was going on and she whispered in my ear, that they had just arrested a serial killer. My kids still love that story. They feel like they were part of a historic event.

 

Uh-oh.

Is that where you are from originally?

I am originally from Malden, MA, so sorry to tell you I am a die hard New England Patriots fan. 

That doesn’t bother me a bit, Lesa. I grew up a Jets fan, but that part of my heart has shriveled up and died. I want to thank you for stopping by. I’m a big fan and thrilled by your much-deserved success. Keep on rolling.

Thank you!

——

I enjoy meeting and learning from other writers and illustrators. Hopefully you feel the same way. To explore more interviews from my award-winning (not really) series of conversations,  click and scroll, baby, scroll. You’ll find interviews with London Ladd, Matthew Cordell, Bruce Coville, Lizzy Rockwell, Aaron Becker, Elizabeth Zunon, Robin Pulver, Nina Crews, Jeff Mack, and assorted other big shots. You’ll also find some more random things under the “Interviews and Appreciations” icon on the right sidebar. We’re here to shine a light on the good stuff!

Some recent things from yours truly . . .

          

AND COMING IN JANUARY . . . a new series!

Poor Dead Sunflower: A Line from a Beatnik Poem

 

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“Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower?”

— Allan Ginsberg, “Sunflower Sutra.”

 

dying-sunflower

 

I’ve been reading The Nix by Nathan Hill, very much impressed by it. There’s a central character who reads and identifies with Ginsberg’s poem, “Sunflower Sutra,” particularly that line above. It resonated with me, too. This idea that we can forget who we are, lose touch with our natural beauty, strength, passion, goodness. How many of us have forgotten that we are flowers, born to bloom under the sun?

For the full poem, stomp on this link.