Tag Archive for James Preller Interviews

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.

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!

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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!