Tag Archive for James Preller Interviews

A Conversation With Charise Harper: On Embarrassment, Creativity, and Being a Bad, Bad Sister

“I think of it as a kind of
sketch comedy show,
in comic form,
devoted to the topic of
embarrassment.”
— Charise Harper

 

 

Sound the timbrels! Roll out the tasty morsels! It’s a great day here in the musty, dusty offices of James Preller Dot Com. We’ve got a special guest, one of the great creative spirits in all of children’s books, the original Crafty Cat, and a personal favorite of mine, Charise Mericle Harper. And here she is now.

Wait a sec, hold on . . . don’t be shy, Charise. Ah, here we go.

 

Welcome, Charise. You know, I’m embarrassed to say this –- but I’m fuzzy on how we first met. Wasn’t it at the old Sunnyside Book Festival (which later morphed into the Chappaqua Book Festival)? I think you were new to the rough and tumble, bunny-eat-bunny business of children’s publishing.

That sounds about right. I loved that festival, all the bunnies were very friendly.

I read somewhere that the biggest fear for a middle-grade student is public embarrassment. Do you think that’s true?

Well, I’m not sure if it’s the biggest one – but I bet it’s up there. This is an age where everyone is trying to balance the “who am I at home” vs “who am I at school” and also decipher the unwritten social norms of behavior so they can fit in. That’s a lot. There is a lot of trial and error, and it’s all in front of a crowd. And, it’s a crowd who can’t wait to share their opinions. Yikes! That sounds like a nightmare

Do you have a favorite embarrassment story that happened to you or someone else?

I’m not good at favorites. It’s hard to choose just one –- I get embarrassed a lot.

Your book is breezy, charmingly illustrated, full of insight and compassion, there’s something funny on every page -– and yet! It reads almost like a survival handbook. So Embarrassing is something of a hybrid.

It’s a “Hey, this happens to everyone” book –- you might feel better about stuff after reading it –- but no promises. It’s story and fact mixed together. That’s probably going to bug some people –- especially people who like their food to be in separate areas on a plate.

I loved those plates and always wanted one. It was probably the best thing about TV dinners. Build that wall (!) between the peas and mashed potatoes!

I have to admit I wanted those plates too!

I loved the orderliness of it. Every food group in its place. “Hey, String Beans, huddle up! Creamed Corn, I’m looking at you!”

I guess I made more of a stew. But, aren’t we living in a stew-type environment? Don’t we have to slog through the muck to find the facts –- each and every day. I think kids can do this. They can enjoy the story and maybe learn at the same time, and sometimes the story itself is the thing that’s important. I’m hoping it’s a book that generates some after-thought. Maybe a reader will re-imagine one of the scenarios, when they’re bored, because their phone is dead.


I like that idea, the after-thought. I’ve thought of a couple of my books as good “talking books.” That is, the book serves as springboard for lively conversations, to the point where the discussion is likely more valuable than the book itself.

Absolutely. We don’t get to see that happen with our books, but wouldn’t it be great. Maybe something like, after looking through this book Grandma told everyone an embarrassment story that we had never heard before and we all laughed and laughed.

A fear of embarrassment can really limit us from experiencing new things, it can close us off at a time we should be open.

That’s deep, but true!

It’s why I’ve never gone off the high dive at the town pool, and why, I suspect, I never tried out for school plays. The fear of the Worst Possible Scenario — which always involves public humiliation — keeps many of us from putting ourselves out there.

Good thinking on the high dive.

Terrifying. What if everyone laughed at me?

No one wants to make mistakes. I know it’s not easy, but I wish we embraced mistakes a little more. Mistakes means you are trying something new, taking a chance, pushing yourself. No one expects the first draft of a book to be perfect, you have to work at it, edit it. That pretty much goes for everything in life, yet we are not always allowed editing time. Very often, we are judged on our first draft.

As a writer, I sometimes think of books as these giant, perfect eggs. How do you get inside? How do you tell the story? Where to start? You might have an idea -– embarrassment -– but you can’t write it until you slip in through a secret door. Then there’s a moment when you’re inside and you know how to proceed. How did this book come about for you?

I started with a vast personal knowledge of embarrassment, then I did some research and finally, I worked with my editor to develop a list of topics to discuss. Having chapters devoted to each topic was helpful. It provided the framework to keep me in check. I can ramble and easily get sidetracked. There isn’t one big linear story in this book. We have consistent narrators, but the characters jump in and out of different stories. I think of it as a kind of sketch comedy show, in comic form, devoted to the topic of embarrassment.


I think of you as one of the purest creative spirits I’ve ever met. It’s one of the reasons why I admire you so much, Charise. You are constantly making things: doodling, cutting paper designs, embroidering clothes, creating videos or imaginary creatures, writing stories, whatever zany thing you come up with next. Every day, you bring a sense of playfulness to your world. Is this something you consciously try to do?


First off – WOW! And thank you. I really think it’s something I have to do. I don’t know why, but the process of making things keeps me calm and grounded. I’m jumpy and nervous, and my brain is always zipping around with me trying to catch up. In my old age, I’ll be the elderly woman on the side of the road trying to sell her hand-painted sticks.

Okay, I love that image of you. Could you please do that now, please??!!

Who knows where things are going in this crazy world. It’s good that I have a solid back-up plan, isn’t it? I should probably start collecting sticks before someone else takes my brilliant idea.

Professional question: Some people in our business are extremely aware of the marketplace, the news from Publishers Weekly, what’s hot and what’s not. Are you someone who pays attention to all of that?

I know it’s there, but I don’t even have my pinky finger on the pulse of what’s new and cool.

Ah, that explains the clogs.

I wish I were a little more market savvy, but it doesn’t seem to hold my interest. I post pictures on Instagram, but other than that, I’m not very social on any media.

Hey, before we go, I’m very excited to read your upcoming book, a graphic novel/memoir about you being a horrible sister. It sounds like a special project. Could you tell us about it?

YES! I’m super excited about it. I haven’t written a true story about myself before, so it was a little strange to have to type my own name in the manuscript and then talk about myself, in the third person, to my editor.

And in this case, you didn’t do the illustrations. How did that feel? Was it hard to give up control?

It felt FANTASTIC! Rory Lucey did a great job and I’ll never be able to thank him enough.

Anything else you can tell us about it?

The book is called Bad Sister. I put my brother through a lot during his formative years. The most obvious damage was knocking out his front tooth. It wasn’t on purpose, but still it could have, and should have, not happened. It was my fault!

Because: Bad, bad, bad Sister.

That was a turning point for me, but just because you suddenly want to be good, doesn’t make it so. You have to change your behavior and the opinions of those around you, this is an interesting part of the story as well. Knowing about my own past behavior, I was very watchful of my own daughter, and I can say, she was not like me. She was and continues to be a marvelous big sister to her little brother. So I’ll take that as progress!

Thanks so much for stopping by, Charise. Good luck with the books! It’s always a pleasure to connect with you. 

Thank you, Jimmy.  Fingers crossed we can meet again soon, and in person!  I would like that.

Charise Harper can be found on the interwebs. Or, failing that, on a highway near you . . . hawking hand-painted sticks. And as for me, I’m the author of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series. All Welcome Here is my most recent picture book, illustrated by Mary GrandPre. And coming in Spring of 2021, my new middle-grade novel, Upstander. Thanks for stopping by. Onward and upward with the ARTS!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Conversation with Lori Mortensen: About Edward Gorey and the Craft of Picture Book Biographies

“As I delved into the research,
I couldn’t wait to write an equally memorable
picture book biography
about this curious,
whimsical,
one-of-a-kind artist.” 
— Lori Mortensen

I’ve been making an informal survey of picture book biographies of late, a favorite genre. So many great titles out there. One of the best is Lori Mortensen’s NONSENSE: The Curious Story of Edward Gorey. Here is an oddball, innovative, breezy, confident, utterly charming book that lives up to its subject. No small accomplishment: a book that Edward Gorey deserves. So I’ve set out a bowl of mints, fluffed up the throw pillows, put on my hazmat suit, and invited Lori over for a chat. Come, let’s say hello.

 

How did this book and subject come about for you?

Interestingly, I find picture book ideas in many different ways, from a title randomly popping into my head at the library (Mousequerade Ball), to my neighbors’ dogs escaping from their backyard and racing down the street (Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg). For NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, I was out on my morning walk and happened to catch a podcast about Edward Gorey on Stuff You Missed in History Class. As I listened, his name and dark style sounded very familiar, and I was sure he’d illustrated a memorable book from my childhood. When I arrived home, I searched my bookshelves and found The Man Who Sang the Sillies, a collection of silly poems written by John Ciardi and illustrated by Edward Gorey. One of the most memorable poems, “The Happy Family” began:

Before the children say goodnight,

Mother, Father, stop and think:

Have you screwed their heads on tight?

Have you washed their ears with ink?

The poem was accompanied by Gorey’s illustration of children scrambling around their bed trying to catch their floating heads. As I delved into the research, I couldn’t wait to write an equally memorable picture book biography about this curious, whimsical, one-of-a-kind artist.

 

Let’s pause here to give up a cheer for creativity and morning walks. So, Lori, how does one undertake a picture book biography? I mean, getting started. Just read everything, take lots of notes, and wait for genius to strike?

 

 

Once I’m intrigued by a subject, I jump into research and see what I can uncover. These days, there is a treasure of online resources right at our fingertips that include museums, historical sites, newspapers, experts, archives, photos, libraries, and books. As I research a subject, I copy links into a document along with the information I’ve found until I’ve gathered a firm foundation of information. Research takes time as I buy, borrow, and read as many books as I can about the subject. When my initial research phase is complete, I organize the information into chronological order, so I understand the information in the order that they happened. As I study the information,
an underlying theme or thread emerges. In the case of NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, the path seemed clear — how Edward Gorey, a child prodigy, created a sweet and sinister style that has influenced a generation of creators from Lemony Snicket to Tim Burton.

 

It seems like picture book biographies of late are more focused on “slice of life” storytelling, rather than a comprehensive cradle-to-grave treatment. The genre, perhaps once a little stiff, is bursting with creativity and freedom.

I love picture book biographies. Because they are a mere 32 pages, authors have a daunting, yet exciting challenge to shine a light on the most intriguing and meaningful aspects of the subject’s life for young readers. Sometimes that results in a “slice of life” approach, where writing about the achievement alone is key. Other times, it’s about the subject’s journey from birth to their achievement that shows how their childhood influenced their accomplishment (as was the case with my book about Edward Gorey), and lastly a biography that spans their entire life, from birth to death.

As you noted, picture book biographies are more creative than ever, and it was a delight and a pleasure to write NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, and share his unique story with today’s young readers.

At a certain point, you must have far too much material for a picture book. How do you reconcile all that great info that you didn’t include? Is it agony? I see so many books increasingly cluttered with back matter –- one recent title I came across had 8 pages of it! — and I’m not a fan.

You’re right! Picture book authors have to make tough choices and sometimes scenes that I would have liked to include just don’t make the final cut. That was especially true for my picture book biography, Away with Words, The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, about Victorian traveler, Isabella Bird, who was the first female member of the Royal Geographical Society and wrote 10 books about her exciting explorations. Talk about tough choices! Hopefully, I chose the best.

And as you noted, extra information is often included in the back matter. While you don’t want to go overboard, back matter often includes a more complete life-to-death narrative, author notes, timelines, and glossaries. Back matter is especially important element for today’s nonfiction books so they can offer as much as possible in the STEM/STEAM market for schools and libraries.

This book is written in free verse. Tell us about that decision.

Since Gorey was a unique personality, it seemed only right to tell his story in a unique way as well. I read a lot of picture book biographies and took special note of tone, structure, and arc. One of my favorites has always been Strange Mr. Satie, by M.T. Anderson. With each page, Anderson’s unique details drew me into this musician’s strange life, full of odd circumstance, eccentric decision-making, and controversial musical excursions. With all that input brewing in the background, I began writing about Edward Gorey.

 

It wasn’t long before a quaint, quirky voice emerged that seemed to already know where it was going. This was a happy occurrence because so often it’s a process of trial and error with many false starts. When I wrote this story, however, everything seemed to fall into place as if there was a sign pointing the way.

While writing it, did you have any awareness of how the book will be illustrated, or by whom? Chloe Bristol’s illustrations strike the perfect note. She’s just amazing. Lucky you!

Interestingly, even though I’m not an illustrator, I always have images in mind when I write. In fact, I write my manuscripts with scenes and page turns in mind because that’s what picture books are all about. When authors take these elements into consideration, it will make their manuscript even more appealing and effective.

In the case of Nonsense! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, I didn’t have any idea who would illustrate it, but it seemed likely that whoever illustrated it would have the same sweet and sinister style as the subject, Edward Gorey. I was delighted when Versify brought Chloe Bristol on board because her style was the perfect match to tell Gorey’s story.

What’s next for you, Lori?

That’s always a great question because one of the wonderful things about writing is that there’s always something exciting just around the corner. In 2021, I’m looking forward to the release of my humorous picture book, Arlo Draws an Octopus, inspired by the countless hours I spent as a child trying to draw at the kitchen table where I had my own share of crumpled “disaster-pieces” just like Arlo. In between releases, I’m tapping away at the keyboard, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding my next story to life, and waiting for good news that’s just around the corner.

Thanks for swinging by my swanky blog, Lori. Yes, the mints are free. Sure, of course, go ahead, take all you want — pour the whole bowl into your pockets. Okay, that’s fine. Anyway! Have a safe trip home, Lori. Thanks for inspiring us!

 

Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s author of more than 100 books. Recent releases include NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey; If Wendell Had a Walrus, illustrated by Matt Phelan; Away with Words, the Daring Story of Isabella Bird, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell; Mousequerade Ball, illustrated by Betsy Lewin; and many more. Coming in May, 2021, Arlo Draws an Octopus, illustrated by Rob Sayegh Jr. Please feel free — because, after all, you are free — to visit Lori’s unimaginatively-named website at lorimortensen.com. 

On Dogs, Grief, and Kindness: A Conversation with Author Audrey Verick

 

I’ll admit it: Audrey Vernick is one of my favorite people on the planet. I’m crazy about her. She’s very funny, a terrific writer, and she loves baseball. Though Audrey might not readily admit it, she is, in fact, infinitely kind. What more could anyone ask for? Audrey has a new middle-grade novel coming out early this May, After the Worst Thing Happens, so I invited her over to visit with my Nation of Readers to talk about dogs and grief and life’s other inspirations. But first, let’s take a minute and gaze at this book cover, illustrated by Helen Crawford-White.

 

Audrey, you are well-known for your collaborative efforts, including picture books that were co-authored with Liz Garton Scanlon as well as two works of middle-grade fiction with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. What happened this time around? Were you not able to get somebody else to do half the work?

They got wise to my scam.

Art by Norman Rockwell.

Figures. You Tom Sawyer’d them! “Boy, am I ever having fun white-washing this fence writing this book!”

Actually, some books declare themselves as a joint project and this book, which I started writing seven years ago, before I’d ever collaborated on a novel, did no such thing. But it is a brilliant concept, finding someone to write HALF A BOOK with you! I highly recommend it.

 

 

I sometimes hear writers claim that “the book wrote itself.” I need one of those! With my books, I do all the work. It’s exhausting.

Amen! It’s why my challenged work ethic is better suited to picture books. Novels take forever.

You credit Liz in the dedication for her support? How did that work, exactly?

I had written and abandoned an awful start to this book. I dreaded getting back to work on it, and sent it to her, hoping she’d say, yeah, stick that one in a drawer for a long time and by that I obviously mean forever. But she was really moved by how raw and tender Army was and she friendly-insisted that I keep going. She’s very wise, so I generally listen to her.

Army is a twelve-year-old girl whose parents are in the disaster business. They do repairs to homes and businesses after floods, fires, and storms. I laughed at the name of their business: Never Happened. You’re funny. But that’s not just a quick joke. It becomes a metaphor for one way of dealing with disasters of the heart.

Yeah. I’m sure an insightful person would have a lot to say about how emotionally vacant many of the parents in my books are, but yes, Army’s mother, in particular, is a big believer in out of sight, out of mind. Never happened. No sense in dwelling. It’s a less than perfect ideology for Army as she struggles with genuine grief for the first time in her life.

So you went ahead and did it: the dog dies.

Audrey Vernick: Dog Killer.

I admire how you handled it. The death wasn’t used to emotionally manipulate the reader –- it occurs off the page, to soften the blow –- and yet Army’s grief is real. As a long-time dog owner, I know that death and loss is built into the experience. Children love their pets.

Dog death, or pet death, is often the first true, deeply felt tragedy in a child’s life. Also, I want to be clear that anyone who picks up this book knows from reading the flap copy that the dog dies. It happens near the beginning.

What I couldn’t have known when I wrote an early draft of this book is that the very day I heard this book would be published I was in the midst of a beloved dog, Hootie, dying. She had just turned seven. So the doggie-grief parts? Truly and deeply felt.

 

Yet this is a book about what happens after the worst thing happens. Most significantly, Army, the 12-year-old main character, encounters a new neighbor, Madison. Tell us about her. What drew you to that subject matter?

This book came together so oddly. I was hit by three images, all of which hit me, inexplicably, on the same tiny stretch of sidewalk up the block from my
home over a period of years. First—I passed a ServPro van, which has the tagline painted across the back, “Like it never even happened.” I was drawn to that idea, of erasing disaster (especially in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which hit my community hard).

There’s a scene early in the book in which Army sees a young child she doesn’t know walking alone down the middle of the street, barefoot. This happened to me.

And years later, in that same spot on the sidewalk, that child’s mother told me that her young daughter often wandered and was once spotted on the roof of her house. All of those combined to become this book. Oh, and the way the dog dies -— that almost happened to our dog, Rookie (who thankfully lived a very long life).

It’s challenging to write a book about a grieving character. Most folks don’t want to read sad books that depress us. We can just watch Fox News instead. Yet in After the Worst Thing That Happens, there’s so much humor and kindness and quirkiness, and that’s what shines through for me: Army’s journey and growth. Booklist recently came out with a very positive review. I thought they nailed it with this line: “Vernick’s story covers so much, but it manages to weave the different elements into a cohesive whole, with Army at the bright center of it all. The subjects are heavy, but Army’s young voice infuses them with humor and warmth.”

Army really surprised me. There are a lot of adjectives people could use to describe ME and kind isn’t likely one of the first for most people.

Personally, the word “short” leaps to mind.

Wow, Jimmy. Thanks! At a recent school visit, I listened as the first group—kindergartners and first-graders—settled into the media center. One boy looked me over and then leaned over to the kid sitting next to him and said, “The author’s not very big.”

Ha! Not that there’s anything wrong with that. On a completely unrelated note, let’s interrupt this interview to pay tribute to NBA legend Mugsy Bogues. 

 

Okay, we’re back!

Army’s drive to do this kindness for neighbors who need help really surprised me. In fact, I worried that her desire to be so proactively helpful to relative strangers would come off as unbelievable, because at the start I wasn’t clear what exactly would drive that when she was mired in grief.

I believed it for a couple of reasons. First, kids are like that. It’s one of the great things about our jobs, we get to see these young people in action and many of them are downright amazing. In a world that sometimes feels hopeless, they remain our best hope. Army, who has been brought so low –- her heart just aches and swells –- almost feels a physical need to put something positive into the world. To give, and love, and care. She’s really a terrific kid, I liked her very much. And I believed in her. Well done!

Thank you, Jimmy P.!

 


Audrey Vernick lives in New Jersey, near the ocean, with her family and one black dog. Her new book will hit the shelves on May 5th, 2020, published by Holiday House. Presales available now where fine books are sold. Also look for
Scarlet’s Tale, a picture book illustrated by Jarvis — that’s it, just Jarvis — coming in July.

On Emotional Literacy, Community & Quilting: A Conversation with Author Lizzy Rockwell

There is not a single person in all of children’s literature who I admire more than Lizzy Rockwell. She is everything a children’s book artist, and citizen of the world, should be. Lizzy has not only dedicated a lifetime to making books, she connects with readers and community members and quietly makes a difference in the universe. She does it without fanfare or ego; Lizzy simply puts her head down and goes to work. I invited her over to chat about her latest book, How Do You Feel?

Hey, Lizzy. I’ve been thinking about your book, How Do You Feel? It features a repetitive structure, with just four words on a spread. “Deceptively simple” would be one way to describe it. And maybe that’s true of a lot of your work. There’s much more at play than immediately meets the eye.

Hi Jimmy! Happy winter. How are you? No, I mean it, tell me, how do you feel? Deceptively simple question, right?

I’m fine, thanks. But, actually, now that you ask –- hey, I see what you did there!

I guess the whole point of the book is to take a moment to just ask the question, “How do you feel?” with sincerity, and then really listen to the answer. I think so often we ask questions in a way that suggests what we want the answer to be, not necessarily what the answer actually is.

There’s a subcategory of books I like to think of as “talking books.” That is, the book, in the right hands, serves as the starting point for valuable conversations. How Do You Feel is very much that kind of book.

Yes, the whole point of art is to elicit a reaction or a connection with the viewer or reader or listener or watcher. So I do like works of art that are very open-ended and ask more questions than they answer. I write a lot of non-fiction, and even there I don’t feel my job is to just provide information and facts, as much as to spark curiosity and exploration. I often use question marks somewhere in my non-fiction texts. This is the first book where I use only question marks.

 

As adults, we assume we’re supposed to be the suppliers of the answers. We dispense the info. We’re big and we know stuff. But a better gift is to help readers learn the right questions.

Yes, I totally agree.

One of the reasons why I love your books –- why I have so much respect for your work –- is that you have a clear sense of who your books are for. You work with intention and purpose. It strikes me that you know these young children, and you know exactly what you are attempting to do with this book. How do you stay in touch with your audience?

I think young kids are just the most interesting people in the world. No offense Jimmy, you are very interesting too, especially for a grown-up.

It feels like there’s going to be a “but” in this.

But —

I knew it!

— three-year old kids absolutely fascinate me because they give great insight to the human condition. They are emotionally honest and very insightful. Even though they can’t easily regulate emotions or even name them, they feel them and notice them in others much more readily than we do. And the world is wide and fresh, and language is this new superpower, so they have a knack for articulating big existential truths and questions. I find them quite philosophical. I think some of these powers will be diminished and replaced by new ones as they become more verbal, and more social. I just feel it’s a privilege to chat or play with these little people and get a window into that profound point of view. I have some young friends, I have a vivid memory of being a mother to young children, and I spend a lot of time as visiting reader and workshop leader in preschools.

Tell me about that role, visiting preschools. How does that work? 

I volunteer to read at preschools in my community, whenever I can. For three years, 2015-18, I was hired as an artist-in-residence to teach literacy workshops with three and four-year-olds in the Head Start preschools in Bridgeport, CT. I ran about twenty-four sessions a year. On a given day I would visit two classrooms and work with the kids, with staff support, for 40-minute sessions. I would read a book of mine, model a drawing on the easel, then they would “write” and illustrate their own little booklet which I made from folded and stapled copier paper. Each booklet had brightly colored card stock for the cover, and stickers for writing the book title and author name.

What have you learned about emotional literacy? Are young children confused about their feelings?

I think that kids are searching for the words to name their feelings, because words are powerful, and being listened to is powerful. But I think they are better at actually feeling emotion and expressing it than we are, or they will be by the time they get to middle school. But they do need to be equipped with the language and strategies for managing feelings. I read Marc Brackett’s book, Permission to Feel, and it gives excellent actionable guidelines for making schools, homes and businesses more emotionally supportive, and filled with more serene and connected people. I love that this is becoming a high priority in public schools. By focusing on the emotional lives of these little people, we give them lifetime skills at a crucial moment of their development. While doing so, we learn how to be better and more emotionally aware people.

Was your manuscript always this sparse? Did you have that vision from the beginning?

I had tried writing emotional wellness books in the past. They were all terrible. Since being a mother of young kids, and writing books about physical wellness (Good Enough to Eat: A Kid’s Guide to Food and Nutrition, and The Very Busy Body Book: A Kid’s Guide to Fitness), I wanted to write a book promoting emotional health. And, like those books, I wanted to write in a tone that made this self-care stuff seem like the reader’s idea, not mine. But my texts for the emotion books just kept sounding like greeting card copy. I finally realized, when I saw these great Level A, four-words-on-a-spread books from the Holiday House I Like to Read series, that I could approach this theme best, by saying almost nothing at all.

  

Yes, the writer clears out of the way for the illustrator to tell the story.

Most of our emotions are expressed not so much with words, but with body language, facial expression and tone of voice. And most emotions are triggered by events outside of our control. So by focusing on the visual narrative, I could show the most variety and nuance. By capturing a crucial moment in time, I could provide the opportunity for my reader to step back, study the clues and act as emotion detective. By leaving the explanatory language out, I kind of demand that someone else fill in that missing piece, which gets kids talking.

In improvisation, in music or comedy, that’s called leaving space. You aren’t filling in every gap, thereby giving your creative partner — in this case, the reader — more room to enter.

Oh, I like that term! 

David Bromberg, the musician, talks about that. He’s widely considered a gifted and generous accompanist. He says that the key is to know when not to play. In other words, to leave space. That resembles your process, which is often a stripping away, trying to get down to the essence?

Oh yes definitely. But I think this is true of most of the art I love. What’s there is precisely what needs to be there. What’s left out, in between the spaces, is up to me to ponder.

I appreciate the way you are connected with your community. Tell us a little bit about your quilting projects.

For the past twelve years I have been making community quilts with a bunch of wonderful people in Norwalk, CT, where I lived when I started the project in 2008. (Now I live a couple of towns over in Bridgeport.) We are an intergenerational group of senior citizens, adults, and kids (elementary school to high school). We meet in the community room of public housing complex for seniors, and almost every Friday after school till dinner time, we roll sewing machines, cutting mats, boxes of unfinished projects, snacks and a quilting frame out of a tiny closet and set to work. We make quilted objects for personal use and as teaching samplers, and simply as an excuse to get together and have fun.

We have also made seven, to date, quilts that hang in public places. For these installation quilts, I design them on a theme, with areas of the quilt which will showcase fabric art made by a variety of individuals. Once on the quilting frame we sit around and hand quilt them at our meetings, and they go on tour for pop-up quilting bees in public places like schools, libraries, and festivals. I have two public quilts in the sketch stage right now which will be unveiled in the fall (yikes!). We are a big family. We are called Peace by Piece: The Norwalk Community Quilt Project.

Any new books coming out in 2020?

The All-Together Quilt is being published by Alfred A. Knopf in October 2020. A labor of love all about a labor of love.

Fun fact: Lizzy is the extremely proud daughter of Anne Rockwell, author of more than 100 titles and a pioneer in nonfiction for very young children. Anne passed away in 2018. Lizzy Rockwell lives in Bridgeport, CT, and can be found on the web at lizzyrockwell.com. She’s kind of my hero.

Author Interview: Celebrating Kathy Blasi’s Picture Book Debut, “HOSEA PLAYS ON”

 

“Fourteen years of writing,
revision, submission,
rejections, more revisions,
setting projects aside and starting new ones.
And boatloads of self-doubt.
But glimmers of hope, too.”

— Kathy Blasi

 

JP: Kathy, I am so happy to be holding your DEBUT PICTURE BOOK in my hands. You’ve traveled a long, hard road to reach this point. Now here we are: this beautiful book with your name on the cover. How does it feel?

KB: Ahh, to finally get an acceptance after years of stories not quite getting there, through getting close via an agent only to have that relationship end.
Now, with my new book, I have a sense of complete joy in seeing my words brought to life — through an astute editor, Ada Zhang, who championed the piece, a publishing house which embraced it, and through stunning illustration. I feel a sense of accomplishment and validation in not giving up over the course of years of ups and downs. I feel humbled and honored to bring to readers this particular story of a beautiful, everyday person, and I’m thrilled Sterling felt there was a place for it on bookshelves.

 

Before we get to the book itself, can you give us some background on your writing journey?

My first book, A Name of Honor, was released in 2006 through Mondo, an educational publisher. That was quickly followed by a nonfiction book about sports, also with Mondo. Not-so-fast forward to 2016, with the acceptance of Hosea Plays On, my third published book (though not the third I’ve written), due out in January 2020. Yes, that is 14 years. Fourteen years of writing, revision, submission, rejections, more revisions, setting projects aside and starting new ones. And boatloads of self-doubt. But glimmers of hope, too.

 

What in particular helped keep you hopeful?

Good rejections! It’s not easy for those outside of this business to grasp the concept of a “good rejection.” Early on, I received “Dear Author” responses to my work. Then, the “Dear Ms. Blasi” variety. Oh, and the ones with my name and pointed feedback. I knew I was getting somewhere. That if this is a continuum, I cannot give up. I could be embarrassed by that span of 14 years. But giving up would have been more embarrassing. I look at that span as a testament to always learning, to building bridges through respecting the business and the process, and above all, not giving up.

 

Do you participate in a writer’s group?

I have writing colleagues with whom I exchange manuscripts. We critique each other’s work online, via phone, and/or in person. They all make me a better writer. One writing friend, Elizabeth Falk, and I frequently meet at local libraries or at one of our houses. We spend the day plugging away and taking breaks to discuss about what we are working on. There’s something magical about working away and being able to look up and say, “When you have a second, I’d like to bounce something off of you.”

 

What helped you keep going, when at times it must have felt like you were running into a brick wall?

My writing peeps, absolutely. Brick walls have a way of propagating self-doubt. The external voice of rejection that suggests you’re just not good enough. But the voice of my discerning readers, holding the bar high, urging me on — is louder in the end. And for that, I’m so grateful. Another thing that keeps me going is after the sting of a rejection, over which one has no control, is to send it (or something else) again. The only person who is in control over sending out your work — is you.

 

What inspired you to write this particular story?

I credit my inspiration to insomnia and the magical hour of 3AM when in an effort to distract myself from the runaway thoughts in my head, I turned to reading the news. I read an article about Hosea Taylor’s passing, and his story tugged at my heartstrings. I had to learn more. I started with the reporter, Sarah Taddeo of the Democrat & Chronicle, who wrote the story, the beginning of a trail of breadcrumbs. When I learned of what Hosea did with the money folks placed in his saxophone case, I knew I had found the heart of a story I wanted to write for young readers.

 

You have a poet’s eye for detail and lyrical language, all told with directness and economy. “Fingers fluttered. Keys clicked. Smoky notes lifted through the air, treading along to waiting ears.” There’s a musicality to your language. Is that the result of endless revision?

What a lovely thing to say! Once my early draft took shape, part of my revision process was to focus on word choice that could carry a tune, so to speak. To build a cadence for the read-aloud experience. Similarly, I incorporated sound wherever I could, such as coins dropping and the sound of a truck passing over a bridge.

Your illustrator, Shane Evans, did an amazing job bringing Hosea and his music to life. Do you have a favorite spread or moment in the book?

Shane did a beautiful job, indeed. I love the whimsical element he brought to the story. My favorite spread is that of Hosea playing his saxophone in the rain. When I wrote the story, I saw the three words “Hosea played on” standing alone, precipitated by the drum roll of the page turn. I wanted the reader to pause and take that in. With a leap of faith, the author must let the illustrator, editor, and art director do their jobs. Shane nailed it. 

Actually, Kathy, you and I have a funny connection with Shane. Back in the previous century, in 1999, I ghost wrote a book for Shaquille O’Neal, titled Shaq and the Beanstalk and Other Very Tall Tales. It’s actually a pretty entertaining story of six fractured folktales, all featuring Shaq (“Little Red Riding Shaq,” and so on). Shane illustrated the book and his name is included on the cover. My role went uncredited, of course — ghosts are invisible, that’s the agreement — and such is life when you ghost a book for a celebrity. I’ve been quietly rooting for Shane, whom I’ve never met, all these years. 

What an interesting connection! I like to believe that your quiet rooting led us all right here. Here’s another interesting connection. Shane lived in Rochester during his high school years and visited the market where the story takes place.

What’s the best writing advice you ever got?

Two things stand out. First (I will credit Elizabeth Gilbert and Jane Yolen): show up. Talking about writing and wanting to be a writer are not actually writing. Show up to the blank page, or the messy page, because the status of those pages will not change on their own. Work hard, so that eventually that and opportunity will intersect. This often, as is the case with me, requires balancing family life and another career.

Second: Once you are writing, focus on what’s in front of you (Kate Messner). You have no control over how long it takes editors and agents to read your work. You have no control over their decisions on your work. And you have no control over the schedules of others in the process, once you are under contract. Focus on the new piece. Or the one that needs revising. Have multiple projects going at once.

 

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Begin by writing for you and the story you want to tell. That’s where the bones come from — from your excitement, interest, and passion for the story. That’s what will sustain you.

Surround yourself with those with similar interest and ambition. Join a writers and illustrators group. Join SCBWI and/or one of its regional chapters. There is a treasure trove of information and inspiration waiting for you. Learn all you can. Read all you can. Write. A lot!

Kathleen M. Blasi is active in the children’s literature community. She has long served as an organizer for the Rochester Children’s Book Festival. Readers may visit her online at kmblasi.com and on Twitter @kmblasi.