I was happy to spend time with Florence Minor to discuss her creative process. A former film editor, Flo now writes lovely picture books for very young children. Each book has been beautifully illustrated by her husband, Wendell, and this interview features behind-the-scenes glimpses into rough sketches and early drafts — the whole glorious hot mess of making a book.
Greetings, Flo. Congratulations on your new book.
Hey there, Jimmy. Thanks for the congrats and for inviting me to chat on your blog!
How did this story begin for you? I think, as writers, we live in a world of false starts and abandoned stories. Can you remember a moment when you thought, hey, this might actually be something.
As you well know, a published book often bears no resemblance, or little resemblance to the original manuscript. In the case of my current book, it began as a poem about a single dwarf bunny. I’ve always had an affinity for furry critters, and having met a couple of dwarf bunnies through a friend, I was intrigued by them. So, I wrote a poem about a day in the life of one of those little cuties and sent it off to my editor. She liked it, and made some suggestions, but after a number of revisions we decided that unlike my previous books, this one should be a story written in prose rather than poetry. I’m always up for a challenge, but I must admit that given my love of poetry, and the fact that my previous books were written in rhyme, this challenge was initially a bit unnerving. And while the hero of the book is still one bunny, the new storyline now revolved around a family of bunny siblings. So, I had to change hats and find my way to writing a very different kind of book. That said, once I sat down and started writing about Nibbles, Wiggles, Giggles, Jiggles, and of course, our hero, Tickles, it all began to feel very natural.
You dedicated this book to your “editor extraordinaire,” Katherine Tegen. How does she help you? What’s that writer-editor relationship?
Let me begin by saying that I am one very lucky author to have Katherine Tegen editing my books. My relationship with Katherine goes way back (you don’t really need to know how many years, do you?), when Katherine was Wendell’s editor on the books he and Jean Craighead George created. I got to know Katherine first as a talented, insightful editor, and then as a friend. I had recently left my film editing career behind when we moved from New York to Connecticut, and as I was in the process of reinventing myself, I began working in the studio with Wendell, and being involved in the books he was working on . . . which led to numerous, enjoyable work sessions with Katherine and Jean. Wendell works with a number of wonderful editors, and as time and circumstance would have it Katherine was the one who offered me my first contract for a collaboration with Wendell. Because we already knew each other quite well, we were, and are on the same page in the way we see a book evolving. Our communication regarding storyline, revisions, edits and compromise come together in a very productive way to create a book we are all happy with.
It’s a lengthy process from first idea to finished book. What’s the most exciting part for you? Signing the contract, seeing the illustrations, getting the finished book in the mail, signing a copy for a young reader? This interview??!!
Yes, it IS a lengthy process, and is not always without some frustrations until we hold that first bound book in our hands, but the most exciting part? How did you know I would say THIS INTERVIEW??? Well, almost. Honestly, it’s seeing the look on a child’s face when they connect with my book. Here’s a little story I love to tell, because it is as meaningful now, and always will be, as it was in 2009. That year, Wendell and I toured Pennsylvania with our book “If You Were a Penguin” when it was selected for their “One Book Every Young Child” program.
We visited elementary schools, libraries, even nursery schools throughout the state for a month. One hundred and fifteen thousand books were printed to give to the children in the state. In one elementary school we were asked if we would like to personally hand out the books to the children. Needless to say, we jumped at the chance. Now, if this was a live interview you would see tears forming in my eyes as I recount the response I received from one little boy. As I handed him his book he looked at me and said, “You mean this is my book to keep? I don’t have to return it?” It was the first book he had ever owned, and seeing the joy on his face is what this is all about.
Yes, those are the moments carved into the heart. Do you carry around a journal? Or are you someone who is writing in your head?
I should carry a journal (and maybe I will actually start to do that now!), but what seems to happen in the initial stages of a book, is that I am imagining and writing in my head. If I am in the studio I scribble some notes in longhand on copy paper, and eventually transfer them to the computer. If I am out of the studio, I jot down thoughts in the (old-fashioned) mini-FiloFax I always have with me until I am back in the studio. Once I get the basic storyline figured out, I write it out on the computer, and then do my editing on the computer, where it’s easy to save the numerous versions that invariably develop.
Obviously, you have a special relationship with the illustrator, Wendell Minor. At what point does he roll up his sleeves and get involved? Do you keep things separate? I can imagine it must be helpful to bounce ideas off him. To say, while passing the baked scrod, “Now, Wendell dear, about my book-crazed bunny Tickles . . .”
So, not only did I luck out with a fantastic editor, I also get to collaborate with an amazingly talented illustrator! Our process varies from book to book. Sometimes I’ll complete a manuscript and then Wendell will do thumbnail sketches. Sometimes they reflect perfectly what I had in mind. Other times… they involve, shall we say, a little compromise and revision. What? You think I had THAT in mind for that page? Are you kidding me? But honestly, more often than not Wendell comes up with images I might never have imagined, and they are absolutely perfect! We might work separately in the studio, or over lunch or dinner, or as we did on our first book together, on the ferry to Nantucket to celebrate our anniversary!
And yet another terrific sketch.
Nantucket! I once knew a girl from Nantucket! Wait, hold on, no, I’m thinking of the limerick. Nevermind! As we were discussing . . . . People are often surprised about that in children’s publishing, how the industry does not encourage authors and illustrators to interact during the creative process. I’ve always understood it as a method to protect the illustrator from the (well-intentioned, interfering) writer. Poor Wendell has no such defense. How does he cope? Is there a time when you tell yourself, I better shut up now.
No one can deny it: Florence and Wendell make a great team.
From early on in his career as a book jacket designer/illustrator, Wendell’s process frequently was to have an open, and may I add, very successful dialogue with the authors for whose books he was creating covers. Before I even started working in the studio with Wendell I assumed that that was the way it happened in publishing. It came as quite a surprise to me when I learned that Wendell was pretty much an anomaly in that regard. So, when we started collaborating on picture books, the discussions and give-and-take felt natural to both of us. That said, there are moments when compromise isn’t always so easy, and as in any relationship, one does have to know how to choose one’s battles, and defer, and after working together for nearly 26 years (yikes!), I think we’ve got that nailed down.
One of Wendell’s many famous cover illustrations.
Do you think the book benefits from your more organic, back-and-forth partnership? Is the industry model broken? I ask as an author who writes the book and then just . . . hopes. I never get the chance to bully the poor illustrator! I’ll say this, your approach seems more enjoyable, a true collaboration, though possibly with more headaches.
Clearly, there is no shortage of books out there in the world that have done quite nicely without the kind of collaboration that works for Wendell and me, which is also the way Wendell works with other authors in the picture book world. In fact, he can’t even imagine NOT working that way. And I can’t help thinking that in a perfect world, author/illustrator communication would enhance any project, especially in picture books when pictures and words are, to my mind, of equal importance. The end result of back-and-forth dialogue makes for a book that is more than the sum of its parts. BTW: no headaches — yet, anyway — and my hope for you is that you get to bully (I mean collaborate) with an illustrator on one of your books sometime SOON!
So far you’ve written books about a penguin, a panda, and a bunny. I have an idea for you. Are you ready? A three-toed South American tree sloth. Thank you, my work is done here. You may send my share of the royalty check to . . .
Not so fast, Jimmy. Those three-toed South American Tree Sloths are awfully cute, but I’m afraid your work isn’t quite done. Whenever possible I prefer to write about animals I have either met “in person” or have at least seen up close and personal.
But is that how it works for you? Do you start with the animal?
I have been an animal lover since I was a child. I grew up with dogs and cats, and except for a few years when I was single and living in a “no pets” apartment, cats have been permanent apartment and studio companions. Of course, I am fascinated by animals of all types, and am intrigued by their various behaviors. Animals who have either been part of my life, or who I have seen in the wild, or even in zoos have provided me with many an idea for a book. Wendell and I also make a habit of visiting friends who have farms, which gives us the opportunity to spend time with various furry, feathered, and woolly critters. In fact, when visiting one friend’s farm, two calves were born on the day we arrived, so of course they were named Florence and Wendell!
Ha, that’s great.
There’s never a shortage of story ideas running around in my head, but since I also run the business end of our studio, I need to find a way to make more time for writing. I’ve put in an order for a clone, but unfortunately, it hasn’t shown up yet.
You have a background as a film editor. I’ve always felt there’s a strong connection between film and picture books. How did that past experience inform you as a writer?
You are so right about the connection between film and picture books. They are both all about storytelling, and telling those stories in ways that entertain and enlighten your audience. The process of storyboarding and editing are equally important in creating both a well crafted film and a book. As with any film, my initial manuscripts are always much longer than what works best for a picture book. Then comes the slicing and dicing part.
My film editing experience especially has been extremely helpful in paring down the text for the books I write for a very young audience. Editing film often required leaving favorite shots or favorite sequences on the cutting room floor, which could be painful . . . but knowing that invariably that process makes for a better film, I was able to make the transition to cutting text from my manuscripts without feeling too much pain!
How do you make that connection with young readers? I mean, this story seems exactly right for a certain very young reader. An age of innocence, I think. How do you know what’s right?
I think every author likely has their own particular vision for how best to connect with their audience. Since I write for the very young reader I think about my (much) younger self, and what appealed to me. The feedback Wendell and I get from young fans shows me that stories about animals, and poetry, are very appealing to them as well, so hopefully I’m on the right track.
I’m sure that’s true. What are you working on now?
I know this will shock you, but the book I’m working on right now is about the friendship between two animals. And that’s all I’ll tell you. As we say in the film biz … stay tuned!
I like that — better not talk about it before the work is solid. Thanks, Flo. I appreciate you stopping by. My regards to Wendell. I hope the whole drawing pictures thing works out for him.
Thanks again for the invite. It’s been great chatting. I’ll certainly pass along your regards to Wendell, and, by the way, call me crazy, but I have a very good feeling that this drawing thing is going to work out just fine for him!
Authors and illustrators previously interviewed here: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, London Ladd, John Coy, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, Susan Verde, Elizabeth Zunan, Robin Pulver, and Susan Wood. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function.