Tag Archive for Deborah Kovacs

5 QUESTIONS with Nina Crews, illustrator of “Seeing Into Tomorrow”

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The first time I met Nina Crews, I was eating on the hallway floor of a school in Albany, NY. Just sitting there on the tiles, catching a few minutes for lunch during a book festival. Nina sat down across from me and, putting two and two together, I asked, “Are you the daughter of Donald Crews?” We had a nice chat that afternoon; a number of years passed; and now with the publication of her quietly remarkable book, Seeing Into Tomorrow, I reached out to Nina again. She’s an easy person to like, an artist with a deep commitment to children’s literature. I don’t have a powerful spotlight here at James Preller Dot Com, but this is an artist who merits our attention.

Here comes Nina now . . .


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Congratulations on your new book, Seeing Into Tomorrow. I’ve been waiting for this one since we first discussed it via Facebook about a year ago.

Thanks so much! I am so happy to have it out in the world!

Lately I’ve been on a major haiku kick of my own, reading and writing a little bit each morning. I’ve been reading through a collection of more than 800 of Richard Wright’s haikus. I enjoy taking them slow, savoring each poem, just a few pages before I start the day. I originally took Wright’s book out of the library, but soon realized that I needed to have my own copy, write in it, keep it on my shelf. How did you select the poems included here? That seems like an impossible process.

shoppingI know the Wright book very well! It was the source for the haiku included in my book. I read through it numerous times and also used a lot of post-its. Each review brought new discoveries, and also helped me clarify the direction of the project. There were really two main criteria that a poem had to meet for me to add it to my shortlist. First, I looked for poems that could resonate with children emotionally and second, for poems that could be portrayed through relatable everyday scenes.

I’m moved by the idea of Richard Wright turning to haiku late in his life, at a time when he was struggling through a long illness, sliding toward death. I sense that the process of writing these poems –- and seeing the world through them — comforted him. There’s terrible beauty in these poems.

Yes. I know what you mean. It was also a period of mourning for him. His daughter writes in the introduction to the haiku book that two close friends passed away in 1958. Even more significantly, his mother died in 1959. I imagine these losses put him in a very reflective mindset. His daughter calls his writing of haiku “self-nurturing.”

That’s a nice phrase, much better than “self-medicating.” With haiku, like yoga in a way, I believe the experience of writing them, of being present in the world, is more personally meaningful than the end product. Anyway, Nina, tell me about your cut-up approach to the photographs. I’m not a visual artist, but I used to fool around with that technique years ago, inspired by the work of David Hockney. It’s a lot of fun.

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I am a fan of David Hockney’s photocollages and studied them closely while I was working on this book. For the most part, my images were not created by cutting up a single image, but by closely cropping the scenes as I photographed. I’d start at one end of a scene and move my camera, over bit by bit, up and down, to the left or to the right to cover the entire area. I liked the movement that this technique created and wanted the additional variation that would come from shifts in perspective or focus as I moved around. If you look closely at Hockney’s images, you’ll see that he does this, too. I think it gives the final image a bit more “breath.”

Oh, I get it now. I assumed it involved scissors, a lot of cutting and snipping and pasting. Why did you feel that approach was right for this book?

I read a great essay about haiku that talked about how the poems should have a sense of movement in them. There are a number of ways one can show movement in photography –- motion blurs or sequential images for instance. This approach is another way of showing movement and I liked how shapes of the collage could create a gesture on the page with the child portrayed acting as an anchor.

I appreciated how the book begins with a haiku about a name written in the snow, which to me is a declaration of existence, “I am” . . . and how a signature returns later in the book . . . and you close with a hopeful vision of, or for, tomorrow. Nicely curated, Nina.

Thanks!

You focused your camera exclusively on African American boys for this book. Why boys?

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There were a few things that factored into this decision. Early on in my work on the book, I read Black Boy, Wright’s autobiography. In it, he describes how he experienced nature as a young child and the language he uses in those passages is similar to the language in his haiku. My exploration of shopping-1these poems became an exploration of Wright’s biography and photographing African-American boys made sense to me. It also struck me that there are not a lot of “nature” books with children of color, in general, and African American boys, in particular. I am pleased to give this “picture space” to young brown boys.

Am I right in recognizing Prospect Park, in Brooklyn, in some of these images.

Yes. I did photograph some scenes in Prospect Park. It is really an extension of my studio. Because the images for this book really depended on the right light and the right weather, I took advantage of every opportunity I had to get shots I might use. I also photographed extensively in upstate New York – Bear Mountain and the Hudson Valley.

You dedicated this book to your family. You certainly have talented parents, in Ann Jonas and Donald Crews. No pressure, Nina, just be amazing!

51Lz8Nj7V+LYes, they set a high bar. They also provided a lot of support and have been great role models. But beyond my parent’s role in my development as an author illustrator, I feel a great deal of gratitude to my family for many less tangible lessons. For instance, I am thanking my grandparents who told me about their childhoods on farms in the South and my parents for taking my sister and I on many walks in nature.

That’s your father, isn’t it, admiring the freight train. I see what you did there, since his book, Freight Train, was a Caldecott Honor Book. He always brought a great sense of design to his work.

Yes, I asked my father to do a cameo for this page. It’s a nod to his work -– Freight Train and Short Cut and also inspired by the fact that he enjoys watching trains with his grandchildren. That’s my son with him.

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I actually interviewed your father many years ago, in the early 90s, for a book I did with Deborah Kovacs, the out-of-print classic, Meet the Authors and Illustrators. He struck me as a calm, gentle, elegant, highly-cerebral kind of guy. I picture him in a bowtie.

He owns many bowties, though does wear standard neckties as well. He’s very stylish and one of my favorite people!

Well, Nina, I’m really glad we were able to share this time together. You have a lot to be proud of with this beautiful book. Well done!

Thank you! I have enjoyed our chat!

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To learn more about Nina Crews, visit her website. Nina’s book includes substantial biographical information on Richard Wright, adding depth and layers to a reader’s experience of the poems. 

To explore more interviews in the award-winning (not really) 5 QUESTIONS series, click here and scroll, baby, scroll. You’ll find interviews with London Ladd, Matthew Cordell, Bruce Coville, Lizzy Rockwell, Aaron Becker, Elizabeth Zunon, Robin Pulver, Jeff Mack, and many more.

 

James Preller Interviews . . . Deborah Kovacs, Part One

Back during the Archaean eon, the earth received a heavy bombardment of meteorites.

That’s about when Deborah Kovacs and I first met to discuss co-authoring a book for Scholastic Professional Books, eventually titled: Meet the Authors and Illustrators.

Wait, no, it wasn’t that long ago. Existence back then was not possible for current life forms due to the lack of oxygen, the absence of an ozone layer, and shortages of good, strong coffee. So let’s place this publishing event in 1991. A couple of years later, Deborah and I followed up with Meet the Authors and Illustrators: Volume Two. After that, we became more like Kiss during the solo album stage.

My sections from the previous two books, which concentrated on picture book authors and illustrators, was revised, updated, and recollected along with 15 new profiles for The Big Book of Picture-Book Authors & Illustrators (2001). Deborah went solo and wrote Meet the Authors, concentrating on writers of upper elementary and middle school books (there’s a bunch of sample pages here).

You can find the above titles where used books are sold. And you’d be fortunate, because those books are small treasures, filled with insights from the best artists and writers in children’s literature. For Deborah and I, working on those books was both an inspiration and a perspiration. It’s been a long time since Deborah and I chatted. But watch out, folks, here she comes strolling up my front walk! And guess what? These days she prefers to be called DJ (she’s like Sean Combs Puff Daddy P. Diddy that way — keeping it real).

Deborah Kovacs, er, I mean, DJ! So great to see you again. You know, we did a couple of books together, our roles neatly divided, and now I feel forever linked to you. It’s sort of like we went to the 8th grade dance together only to stand at opposite ends of the same gymnasium.

I was the envy of all the girls in my class . . .

Not really us, but should have been.

I think of those interviews all the time. I took the picture book folks, while you profiled authors of longer works, including such luminaries as Jean Craighead George, Katherine Paterson, Madeleine L’Engle, Lloyd Alexander, and many more.  Who were some of your favorites?

I think of those interviews all the time too. I did 80 interviews in all — really all the greats of that time (early 1990’s). Along with those you mentioned, I often think of the conversations I had with Joan Aiken, Lynn Reid Banks, Virginia Hamilton, Elizabeth George Speare, really everyone involved. They were all so friendly, accessible, interested in the project, and above all generous. Every one of them a hero(ine) of mine, then and now.

I agree. I only intensely disliked one very famous author. Considering the ratio, that’s pretty good.

My ratio was the same. But I still enjoy that author’s work, and realize that it’s not an author’s responsibility to be personable.

It was such a privilege to talk to those people. I keep remembering snatches of advice, different comments that authors or illustrators made. That must happen for you, too. Can you think of any examples?

I was just thinking this morning about Jerry Spinelli telling me he wrote his first novels during his lunch hour at his job at Rodale, shutting his office door for one hour every day.

I remember Kevin Henkes almost sheepishly explaining that he could never get his young children down for a nap. So he’d drive them around in the car until they dozed off. Then he’d park, pull out a notebook, and write. When there’s a will, there’s a way.

I remember Elaine Konigsburg telling me that “the difference between being a writer and being a person of talent is the discipline it takes to apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair and finish.”

Very true. Sooner or later, the butt has to find the chair.

I remember William Armstrong explaining that central to his method of cogitation was the fact that he wrote in pencil and kept his pencil sharpener at the farthest possible place in his house from his workroom, so he would be forced to get up and walk around when he was thinking of an idea.

Oh, I like that. Charlotte Zolotow once gave me a phrase that I think of all the time. She was trying to answer that impossible question, where ideas come from. She talked about how they came to her when she was walking around, doing the dishes or any manual task, and said almost as an aside: “When you’re thinking that you’re not thinking.”

Even though I’m not an illustrator, I sometimes brainstorm by drawing pictures. There’s also a huge rock out in the field next to my house that has helped spark more than one good idea (you sit on it and do nothing at all, and usually, “something” comes).

Man, I’ve got to get one of those idea rocks. The truth is, I’ve never been good at sitting and thinking. It always seems to flow better when I’m involved in something physical — when I’m doing other stuff. You know what’s funny? I often think of a reference that author Phoebe Gilman said on this topic. She compared it to that classic Sesame Street skit, featuring Don Music. He bangs his head on the piano in despair, “Oh, I’ll never get it right!”

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This could start a whole other flood of conversation, but did you know that I started my career at Sesame Street, in the days when Don Music (and his gang) were in full force?

Was that you? I thought it was Beaker.

Beaker was on the Muppet Show, silly. Though he had some close relations on Sesame Street, specifically the Martians and the Two-Headed Monster. I was lucky enough to work at Sesame Street in the early days when all the original Muppet folks were around. Jim Henson has been a lifelong inspiration to me — really to everyone who ever worked with him, I bet.

That must have been a fantastic experience for you. I once worked at a Beefsteak Charlies, so I can relate. I mean, all the beer, wine, and sangria you can drink — that’s a certain kind of genius and the kids loved it, too. Anyway, I’ve always wondered, was Oscar really such a grouch? Any truth to the rumor that Don Music was forced to retire due to post-concussion syndrome? And is it also true that Bert and Ernie couldn’t stand each other off-set?

Those are all nasty, scurrilous rumors. I believe the folks who put this show together were (and are) among the world’s greatest creative and positive forces for the good of children. There are a couple of generations of people walking around the planet who had the benefit of this influence at a very early age. Of course, one could argue that with this great early influence, the world should be in better shape than it is.

Hey, I blame this whole Twilight thing on The Count. The resemblance is uncanny. Same nose, same eyes.

Anything else from those wonderful interviews you’d like to share?

I remember Madeleine L’Engle’s impressive presence, her height, resonant voice and sympathy. I remember Virginia Hamilton talking about how tortuously difficult it was to start writing a new book after M.C. Higgins the Great won the Newbery. Most of all, I will never forget Katherine Paterson describing her anguish at knowing she had to write the scene in Bridge to Terabithia when Leslie was going to die. She put off writing the scene as long as she could, and it broke her heart to have to finally put it in writing, because the story was based on an event in her son David’s childhood.

Also, it’s such a dramatic moment, pulling on those heartstrings, it had to be handled in exactly the right way. And she nailed it.

Many years later, when working at Walden Media (where I still work today)  I got to know Katherine and David and the rest of their family pretty well as we made the film of “Bridge to Terabithia” (on which David was a screenwriter and producer). My colleagues and I were so proud to support the family’s perspective as the film went through the inevitable grind of screenplay development.

I saw that movie! What a daunting task, to take a truly beloved, revered book and turn it into a film. You really don’t want to screw it up.

You just can’t.

Gosh, I wish some publisher would come along and ask us to write one of those books again. There’s been a whole new crop of talented folks.

Word.

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Sorry, faithful reader, but this concludes Part One of our interview with Deborah Kovacs. Scroll through to find Part Two when DJ talks about her own writing, bizarre ocean creatures, Charles Dickens, Sarah Palin, ALA Midwinter, her work at Walden Media, Ingrid Law (Savvy), and much more — including a list of some of her favorite books from 2009.

Okay lazybones, if you prefer, click here to leapfrog over to Part Two.

Pretty Lights on the Tree, I’m Watching Them Shine

Sometimes you can hear a song a hundred times and on a random afternoon it will hit you in a new way. Whap, right upside the head. As a huge Bob Dylan fan, that happens to me frequently, where I’ll suddenly appreciate, say, Dylan’s piano technique on “Blind Willie McTell” — and need to hear that song every day for weeks.

That happened to me recently with “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home),” written by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and Phil Spector.

Specifically, these simple lines:

Pretty lights on the tree
I’m watching them shine
You should be here with me

Those lines have all the qualities of a successful haiku except for the syllable count — that attention to concrete detail, the lean clear prose (no purple or wasted words), and a darting movement from exterior, objective reality to an interior emotional state, where “outside” and “inside” become linked through juxtaposition.

I admire lines that can be as unadorned as, “Pretty lights on the tree/I’m watching them shine.” I love how that straight description conveys an inner depth (I’ve talked about that quality before, most recently here). I think it’s difficult to pull off, using simple words, yet evoking a depth of feeling that lies somewhere below language.

“You should be here with me.”

And, absolutely, it’s Darlene Love’s vocal performance that puts it over the top.

A lot of people have done this song, with mixed results: U2, Death Cab for Cutie, Mariah Carey, John Martyn, Hanson, Bruce Springsteen, etc. But nobody, but nobody, touches Darlene Love’s version, produced by Phil Spector on this 1963 LP: “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector.”

On this essential disk, Spector lends his signature “Wall of Sound” treatment to a number of secular holiday tunes, enlisting the vocal talents of the Ronettes, the Crystals, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, and Darlene Love. A few years back, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #142 on its list of 500 greatest albums of all time — not bad for a holiday album.

Here’s Darlene Love on a 1995 visit to “Letterman” — just a stunning version, given the full arrangement it so richly deserves. Violins and cellos, nine backup singers, a horn section, random percussionists pounding on the kitchen sink, and . . . snow!

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The snow’s coming down
I’m watching it fall
Lots of people around
Baby please come home

The church bells in town
All singing in song
Full of happy sounds
Baby please come home

They’re singing “Deck The Halls”
But it’s not like Christmas at all
‘Cause I remember when you were here
And all the fun we had last year

Pretty lights on the tree
I’m watching them shine
You should be here with me
Baby please come home

They’re singing “Deck The Halls”
But it’s not like Christmas at all
‘Cause I remember when you were here
And all the fun we had last year

If there was a way
I’d hold back this tear
But it’s Christmas day
Baby please come home

Here’s Bono and the gang giving it a go:

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In this recent cover by Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard eliminates the celebratory element that has crept into recent versions, to capture the sadness and longing that is at the song’s (true, I think) core.

If there was a way
I’d hold back this tear
But it’s Christmas day
Baby please come home.

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Come back on Monday for the first of a two-part interview with my old friend, author/editor Deborah Kovacs.

By Dickens: Rewriting Christmas

Charles Dickens has been wildly (and unexpectedly) popular around here lately, with children’s authors speaking about him in revered tones, and not just because of the holiday season.

As Carmen Deedy, author of 14 Cows for America, told me in a recent interview:

I just re-read Great Expectations this summer, and there were places  where I laughed out loud. What a wordsmith, what a keen observer of human nature. Dickens made you see the human being within the characters. Why, even the loathsome and repulsive Miss Haversham (the elder) becomes a pitiable creature by book’s end. And his descriptions, and the marvelous names for his characters . . . ya know, I AM aware that it’s not cool to love Dickens anymore. I mean, a full page devoted to describing a room? But, oh, what a room . . .

What’s more, author Lewis Buzbee — in another recent interview — revealed that his new title, due in Fall, 2010, will be called The Haunting of Charles Dickens. And just the other day, I saw that my cyber-friend and fellow author, Kurtis Scaletta (Mudville), recently blogged a strong defense of Mr. Dickens’ great works. The money quote:

When people disparage classics as boring, stuffy books nobody wants to read, it’s clear they haven’t read Dickens, whose books are crammed with excitement, great characters, and everything we want a novel to be. That’s hardly surprising, since what we expect of a novel has largely been formed by the works of DIckens in the first place.

Oh, and that’s not all, dear friend of jamespreller.com. In an upcoming interview (we’re almost done!), author and all-around “book person” Deborah Kovacs gushes about Dickens, too. I’m telling you, it’s in the air, the great revival of interest in the old master.

From The New York Times:

Charles Dickens left behind one, and only one, manuscript for “A Christmas Carol,” the tale he wrote in 1843 of an unfeeling rich man and the boy who pricked his conscience. Kept under lock-and-key for much of the year at the Morgan Library and Museum, the manuscript is not widely available, one reason, perhaps, why it has been all but impossible to track the many revisions Dickens made to the manuscript as he struggled to get his story right. A high-resolution copy of the manuscript’s 66 pages, which you can examine below, may finally change that.

Ángel Franco/The New York Times

Click here you can examine each page of the manuscript, even toggle back and forth between hand-written and typed versions.

To read more about Dickens and the story behind this classic ghost story, written under financial pressure (that great motivator, fiscal panic!), click here and enjoy. For book lovers and those who enjoy the writing process, Christmas just came early.

One thing Carmen Deedy was wrong about: these days, it is very cool to like Dickens.

“So How’s the New Book Going?”

Today, I got asked this question three times before ten o’clock: “So how’s the new book going?

It’s a well-intentioned question, and it comes from friends. I don’t know how to answer, in part because I don’t know the answer. It’s not like I get daily phone calls from my publisher, “We just sold seven in Maine!”

I guess I could say, “Um, no word from The Today Show or Oprah just yet — though my publisher did send an ARC to a blogger in Boise, Books I Feel Like Blogging About . . . And Other Stuff! So we’re hoping!”

Though I first published at age 25, in 1986, I don’t have a lot of experience in the hardcover world. My first hardcover, Cardinal and Sunflower, went to HarperCollins and sank like a stone. “Temporarily Out of Stock” on Amazon for the past nine years. It did not earn back the modest advance, was never picked up in paperback. I don’t think that’s an atypical story. How’d that book go? Um, it went, but thanks for asking.

For ten years, I wrote Jigsaw Jones books — and there was never any professional reaction, other than the letters I’d get from kids (fabulous!) or random comments I’d receive from teachers and parents. But hey, let’s not forget the ultimate measure: royalty checks. All that creative work gets reduced to simple mathematics. If it’s a big number, the book went well; if it’s a small number, disappointing, worrying. Those Jigsaw Jones books were never reviewed. Series paperbacks, you know. The kids seem to like ’em, but. If one was better or worse than another, nobody said so. After a while (read: after the first book), the publishing folks at Scholastic didn’t much read them either, other than those young editors who did so as part of their job description.

The furnace beckons. If sales go well, my publisher asks for more. If sales go down, the furnace grows cold. They try burning something else. It’s almost entirely outside of any concept of quality. (Perhaps that sentence was too generous, I’m not sure.) The numbers don’t lie. And again, this is a business. I get it. Chug, chug, chug. The train has got to keep moving down that track.

I want to be clear about this: This doesn’t make anybody a bad guy. It’s reality. I don’t curse the sky when it rains. But I’m not going to pretend the sun is shining, either. Books are products, after all; they must move. For most of us — who don’t land on the New York Times Bestseller List, or who don’t somehow cut through the clutter, as they say — it’s just how things go. Don’t cry for authors, Argentina.

Now, of course, writers today can get another helpful number over at Goodreads — if they dare. At the present moment, four people read Bystander, two reviewed it, and the score is 2.67. Or something close to that. I’m guessing that somebody didn’t care for it much. I have a nervous disposition; I generally don’t read reviews.

So how’s the new book going?

No parades yet. One official review, which was brief and mildly positive (read: bums me out they didn’t love it), and that’s about it. I think, in truth, that’s the way things go for the overwhelming majority of authors. It’s not like the world changes. Or even stands up to take notice. With Six Innings, I was lucky. Some good things happened. A blog review here, another there. A starred review, then another! It took time for the book to find an audience, and it was astonishing to me when a year later it hadn’t fallen off a cliff. Miracle  of miracles, it was named an ALA Notable Book. I mean to say: It kicked Cardinal & Sunflower’s butt up and  down the block.

With Bystander, who knows. I wrote the book, it’s out there, it’s out of my hands — like a little craft I built of balsa, cork, Krazy Glue, and dowels. A boat I pushed out into the water. I don’t control the journey. It floats, it sinks, it gets caught up in a current and travels hundreds of miles. I’m that kid staring helplessly at the edge of the pond. Swim, boat, swim. Go find readers.

I also get useful advice, like that same boy, now at home plate, after he swings through a fastball. “Elbow up, head in, lay off the high ones.” In this case: Hire a publicist, get an agent, promote yourself, go on Twitter, make a Facebook page, film a book video and put it on Youtube, etc.

Do you blog? Oh boy, do I ever!

Anyway: Please check out this short, satiric piece in The New Yorker, “Subject: Our Marketing Plan,” by Ellis Weiner. Every author should read it. A tip of the hat to Deborah Kovacs for bringing it to my attention. The one-page article begins:

Hi, Ellis—

Let me introduce myself. My name is Gineen Klein, and I’ve been brought on as an intern to replace the promotion department here at Propensity Books. First, let me say that I absolutely love “Clancy the Doofus Beagle: A Love Story” and have some excellent ideas for promotion.

To start: Do you blog? If not, get in touch with Kris and Christopher from our online department, although at this point I think only Christopher is left. I’ll be out of the office from tomorrow until Monday, but when I get back I’ll ask him if he spoke to you. We use CopyBuoy via Hoster Broaster, because it streams really easily into a Plaxo/LinkedIn yak-fest meld. When you register, click “Endless,” and under “Contacts” just list everyone you’ve ever met. It would be great if you could post at least six hundred words every day until further notice.

If you already have a blog, make sure you spray-feed your URL in niblets open-face to the skein. We like Reddit bites (they’re better than Delicious), because they max out the wiki snarls of RSS feeds, which means less jamming at the Google scaffold . . .