Tag Archive for Kevin Henkes

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.



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.

James Preller Interviews . . . Author Karen Roosa

A while back, I stopped by Julie Fortenberry’s most excellent blog and noticed the cover of her new book, Pippa at the Parade. The author’s name was Karen Roosa.

And I thought, I wonder if that’s my Karen Roosa? My Karen was an old stall buddy from Scholastic, back in the mid-to-late 1980s. We were copywriters together, working on book clubs and catalogs. Neighbors, we shared a cubicle wall, but had lost touch twenty years ago. So I contacted Julie, who kindly passed along Karen’s email, and here we are: She’s a big-shot famous author and I knew her when!

– – – – –

Karen, it’s so nice to catch up with you. You must be excited about your new picture book, Pippa at the Parade. It takes a long time, doesn’t it?

It is great catching up with you too, Jimmy.   It really does take a long time to see a picture book published. I had sent a different manuscript to Boyds Mills Press in late 2006, and got a call from the editor saying that story wasn’t quite right for them, but to send others.  They were looking for stories that would appeal to very young children.

Actually, I’ve heard that picture books are trending younger these days; publishers seem to be looking for titles that will appeal to the preschool crowd. We’re seeing less of the text-heavy, William Steig-type picture book.

Yes, I think that’s true — picture books for the very young child. So I sent a collection of summer poems and the Pippa manuscript, and he replied about a month later in early 2007 that they’d like to publish Pippa at the Parade. My part was essentially done right then, but an illustrator needed to be chosen, the artwork completed, and the book printed. Two years, or even longer, is fairly common.

Tell us a little bit about the inspiration for the book.

I was trying to write a “musical” story, something rhythmical and fun to read aloud, but nothing seemed to work. Once I started thinking about feeling the rhythm through the sound of the instruments, the idea of a little girl at a parade came to me.

I get the sense that your first love is poetry.

I do love poetry, reading and writing it. Trying to pare language down to its essence.

Did you have any input into the illustrations? How did that relationship with artist Julie Fortenberry work? And be careful, Julie might be reading this.

I didn’t have any input, which is not unusual. My editor fortunately chose Julie Fortenberry, a fine artist and illustrator.  I saw her work online and really liked her style.  Then I just had to wait to see the finished illustrations.

What was it like when you finally saw the illustrations? It’s an exciting but also a frightening moment.

It was very exciting. The art director at Boyds Mills sent me a PDF last summer to check the text one last time.  It was then that I could see the illustrations for the first time and I really loved them, very whimsical and playful.  They fit the story perfectly. It was a thrill to receive the finished book in the mail.

I see you already got a great review from Kirkus Reviews. And I quote in part:

“The marching band booms by and the onomatopoeic text enlivens the rhythm, “Clapping hands! / Clappity-clap. / Band is coming! / Tippity-tap.” As each section of the parade passes by Pippa is enchanted by the many instruments, which include trumpets, trombones and drums. First the gymnasts flip past, then the ten-foot-tall man on stilts . . . Fortenberry’s rippling illustrations, at once serenely indistinct and lovingly detailed, combine misty, milky hues with thick, robust pastels, presenting a celebration of excitement and indulgence that can only be fully appreciated in childhood.”

Pretty nice, Karen — you too, Julia, and thanks for the use of your illustrations. Personally, I’m frightened by reviews.

It is a little scary. But I have to look. And by the way, congratulations on Six Innings being named an ALA Notable Book — very exciting.

Thanks. I’m sorry that I missed your first book when it came out, Beach Day, illustrated by Maggie Smith. You must have been thrilled when it was named a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the Year. Now it looks like you are on a roll. What’s next?

I have a couple of picture book manuscripts that I’m sending out, and I’ve always liked the idea of trying a longer story for older children.  Plus maybe poetry, short stories . . .

Well, obviously, the big bucks are in poetry.

Yes, of course!

We shared a cubicle wall for at least a few years back in the way back, the late 80’s, when we both worked as copywriters for Scholastic Book Clubs. Was I good neighbor? I tried to keep the music down when I had large parties. You never called the cops.

Those were good days at Scholastic. The 80s!

Let’s pause here for a salute to the decade . . . and yes, I wore a black Members Only jacket. Their tagline: “When you put it on, something happens.”

A  touching tribute, Jimmy. That job at Scholastic was one of the best ever.  It was great being cubicle neighbors with you. I actually do remember a lot of parties on our floor.

As one of the few heterosexual males in the department, I used to joke with Craig Walker that I felt personally responsible for all the sexual tension in the building. It was pretty much up to me, Greg Holch, and the mail room guys. The pressure on us was enormous. I’d come home from work exhausted.

That’s funny, Jimmy, but you might be exaggerating a little.

Never! Eva Moore was the editor of Lucky Book Club back in those days. Each month, we had to read and describe more than 30 books for both teachers and young readers. It was quite an education, wasn’t it?

You’d get your box of books from Craig Walker for Seesaw Book Club, I’d get mine for Lucky Book Club, and I remember quite a few conversations about Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog.

I remember getting advice from Ed Monagle, the Chief Financial Officer for Scholastic at the time. Ed was a money guy, not necessarily a book guy. So one day he tells me, in his avuncular way, “Jimmy, you should really make up one of these popular characters. Look at Clifford the Big Red Dog. He’s a dog. He’s big. And he’s red. How hard can that be?”

I remember Ed and can hear him saying that. If only it were that easy!

Yeah, I told him I’d get right on it.

It was great working with Eva, and reading all of those books really was a terrific education in children’s literature.

Not to mention posters of cute kittens.

I recall many cute kitten posters in my box . . . and also glow-in-the-dark Halloween stickers.

Do you have any favorite memories from those days? I remember writing the first hardcover catalog, when Jean Feiwel launched the line back in 1986 or so. It had four books, total. Harry Mazur, Norma Fox Mazur, Julian Thompson, and I forget the other book, I think it was some kind of “stay away from strangers” type book. Anyway, we came up with an awful catalog cover that Jean absolutely (and correctly) hated. A simpler time.

I remember meeting Joanna Cole because the Magic School Bus was really big at that time, Ann M. Martin when she came in for the Babysitters Club, and a lunch with Norman Bridwell.  I still have the big red plush Clifford from our table that day.  It was a lot of fun just being immersed in children’s books all day with others who had the same interests.  And the camaraderie was great.

There’s a long gap from after you left children’s publishing to when you published Beach Day. It’s like the missing seventeen-and-a-half minutes of the Watergate Tapes – except it’s like seventeen years. What have you been up to –- and why or how did you decide to get back into it?

I left the city in the early 90’s and moved to Pennsylvania.  My children were very young and I wanted to try freelance writing. I’d send out manuscripts, but had no luck for a long time.

Many others have been defeated when faced with the same situation. What kept you going? Any advice?

I think it’s important to not give up. You never know when your story might match an editor’s tastes and needs for their list at that particular moment. I still have a huge stack of rejection letters. Occasionally a publisher would jot, “Send us more,” so I kept at it. One day I received a letter from an editor asking if I’d be willing to make a few changes in a manuscript that I’d sent; after tweaking the text a bit back and forth, Beach Day was published.

Did you celebrate?

I jumped up and down on the kitchen floor.

Okay, Lightning Round. Favorite children’s books?

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and the books of Kevin Henkes, Kate DiCamillo, and Mo Willems.

Kevin Henkes is just spectacular. I really admire his work. Such a talent, almost in an Old School tradition. Mo Willems is great, too. I met Kate a couple of times, I liked her a lot, very down-to-earth. She has a wonderful essay on her website, titled “On Writing.” You have to read it. Go on, I’ll wait.

Okay, I just finished. That is fantastic. It is all about really seeing, then doing the work of writing. Sitting down to write. Rewriting. And then somehow mysteriously having those ordinary moments undergo a magical transformation on the page.

What about favorite adult books?

Atonement by Ian McEwan, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, the poetry of Mary Oliver, Basho, and William Carlos Williams.

I’m a huge fan all three poets, though moreso Basho and Williams. My favorite Basho line is, “The journey itself is home.”

Last question: Favorite movies?

The Crying Game, Pan’s Labyrinth, Once, The Graduate, The Ice Storm.

Thanks, Karen. I’m really glad to reconnect with you after all these years. I wish you all the success in the world, you deserve it. And as a parting gift, I was going to give you a plush version of Clifford the Big Red Dog, but you already have it. So I guess I just saved eight bucks. Sweet!

As a consolation prize, please enjoy this video of Mr. T’s fashion tips — “Hey, everybody got to wear clothes!” — and be glad we survived the 80’s with (most of) our dignity intact. (The link works, but it might take a double click.)

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James Preller Interviews . . . Matthew Cordell

In the past, I’ve had the opportunity to interview many children’s book authors and illustrators. In the clumsily named The Big Book of Picture-Book Authors & Illustrators (the title was soooo not my idea), there are profiles of 75 different, urm, authors and illustrators, including Barbara Cooney, Donald Crews, Mem Fox, Kevin Henkes, James Marshall, Barbara Park, Brian Pinkney, Jon Scieszka, Peter Sis, Mark Teague, Charlotte Zolotow — and more.

But I haven’t done that in a while. Until – oh, what the hey! — I decided to try it here. For, like, free. Beats the price of gas, and better mileage, too. I might even make this a recurring feature. So if, Dear Reader, you enjoy reading this kind of thing, encourage me with a friendly comment in the “Friendly Comments” section.

My first guest is Matthew Cordell. Primarily an illustrator — Toby and the Snowflakes by Julie Halpern, Righty and Lefty by Rachel Vail, The Moon Is La Luna by Jay M. Harris — Matthew has recently completed his first self-penned title, Trouble Gum (Feiwel & Friends, Fall ’09). And I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the book we worked on together, Mighty Casey, which you must purchase right now (Feiwel & Friends, Spring, ’09).

Hey, Matt. What have you been doing today?

Hi, JP. Um. Woke up and did my cholesterol-lowering daily jaunt on the treadmill. Then answered email — some business with an editor, an art director, an agent. Then had breakfast. Now here we are.

Wow, I’m impressed. I used that same time to stare vacantly out the window, mumbling and gripping a cup of coffee.

I’m mumbling in my coffee too. We are so self-employed.

It must feel like a big accomplishment to write your first picture book, Trouble Gum. I didn’t even realize that you artists could spell. Tell me about that. Does it take a different part of your brain to write? Was it words first, then pictures? How does that happen?

Spelling aside, writing for me is very, very hard. Trouble Gum is big for me. This will be my first published picture book as both author and illustrator, but not my first picture book idea. I’ve had many. And they always start the same way — visually. With a single image in my head. Then I try to wrap a story around that. It usually bombs hard, but this one
stuck. One of my downfalls as a “writer” is that I can’t stop editing. I write one story about ten different ways and can’t decide on one. Which is how this story happened too, but I had two willing and excellent editors on this who helped keep me calm and focused, Liz Szabla and Rebecca Davis.

How does it work for books you don’t write? I’d guess that different editors send you manuscripts from time to time. How do you decide which ones to accept?

At this point, I’m really aligning nicely, publishing my author-illustrated work with Feiwel and Friends. And regarding my illustrator-only stuff, I used to pound the pavement solo and try to find work that way. But last year, I got picked up by my rock ‘n roll agent, Rosemary Stimola, and she’s been keeping me well stocked with work. Honestly, I haven’t met a manuscript I didn’t like yet. I have turned down projects due to time constraints — if I have a job that conflicts with a proposed project and due dates can’t be moved.

So you’re basically saying you’ll do anything for money.

Wasn’t it one Ludwig Bemelmans who said, “It’s all about the Benjamins.”

I love your blog, by the way. It’s so informal, loose, and friendly. You seem really willing to share your work — even the crummy stuff. Oh, you know what I mean: rough sketches, incomplete ideas, doodlings. It feels like you are open and really enjoy the process.

I love the crummies — a real accident aficionado. It seems to work well as blog fodder. I think everyone, doing whatever they do, finds a different groove to do the thing she/he does so it works for her/him. These differences are what make decent blog news. And for people who know very little about art-making, it’ s all news.

Kids often ask me about “Writer’s Block”. They seem fascinated by the idea. For me, Writer’s Block is just another way of saying that I’m bored — that I’m boring myself. It’s a sign to change things up. Is that true for you? Do you ever get stuck as an artist? And if so, how do you deal with it?

I don’t think I’ve ever been completely “blocked”. I, too, have been somewhat bored at times, with myself, my approach. But it’s so easy to get re-inspired. There’s so much incredible work out there — in both writing and illustration. Inspiration gets me going
again. I like what I’m doing in illustration, but I don’t want to churn the exact same thing out over and over. I like to change a bit here and there — add to and develop in subtle ways. With style and with the tools I use.

At this point, we’re both sitting around, twiddling our thumbs, waiting for Mighty Casey to hit the stores and rock the free world. We’ve both been finished with our part of the work for a long while. How does it feel when you finally get that finished book in your hands? Is it exciting, anti-climatic, disappointing? Will you do the Dance of Joy?

Let me start by saying that, as an illustrator, my single greatest feeling is at the moment of completion. The moment that the art is finished and fresh, successful, and alive and about to go into a sturdy package to FedEx. Now, as for the book itself, man, I’m so self-critical. It’s hard for me to let loose and fully celebrate my own accomplishments. So, honestly, I often look at books hot off the press and immediately think of things I could have done differently. I know. It’s not healthy. Possibly because the publishing process takes years from start to finish. Long after I wrap a book, and it’s published, my new work might have taken a new direction. I probably haven’t seen that art for a long while, either. But then I look at it again, and again, and again (cause that’s what I do), and remember and love it again. And I DO get excited and I do NOT dance. One thing that is, without fail, cool: throughout the process I see my books in various oversized, untrimmed, unfinished ways — single drawings on larger pieces of paper, untrimmed print proofs, or even floppy old F & G’s. To see the final book the first time, professionally designed and trimmed and jacketed — it’s always a unique thrill. Mighty Casey is gonna look great. Thanks to our uber-talented art director, Rich Deas!

What about school visits? Have you visited classrooms? One writer I spoke with, Tedd Arnold, said that it helped him “keep track of their squirmy little reality.” How do you make sure your work connects with young readers?

Aw, man. Public speaking is a minor terror to me. As mainly the book’s illustrator, I’ve not yet felt the pressure to aggressively promote. I kind of felt that each book belongs more to the author — the artist is support player. Which is, I understand, not entirely accurate with the picture book genre, but I’ve used that sweeping conclusion to my own benefit. Having
said it, I haven’t done a ton of stuff with schools. I have done some stuff when I first fell into this biz, with my first picture book, Toby and the Snowflakes. Cause that was written by my main squeeze, author and wife-to-me Julie Halpern. We promo’d together at a few schools and bookstores. It was easier for me to go in as a team. But it’s really something I have to overcome. Can’t hide in the studio forever!

How’s that working out for you, living with a writer? I hear they can be insufferable.

Truthfully, I think my writer might have more to say about living with her illustrator.

Okay, now for the Lightning Round. Favorite children’s books?

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Mouse Tales, Martin Pebble, Leon and Bob, The Lorax, Olivia, Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!, The Monster at the End of this Book.

Favorite musicians?

Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, The Who, Woody Guthrie, George/Ira Gershwin, Toots and the Maytals, Vinicius de Moraes, Hank Williams, Fugazi.


It’s a Wonderful Life, The Big Lebowski, Rushmore, The Matrix, Rear Window, American Splendor, Breaking Away, Vertigo, The Aviator, Sideways, Raising Arizona, Singin’ in the Rain.


William Steig, Saul Steinberg, Francesco Clemente, Art Spiegelman, Michel Rabagliati, Chester Brown, Martin Kippenberger, Jean-Jacques Sempe, Cy Twombly.

Dessert? (And for some reason, I just know you are going to say, pie. Maybe it’s the Southern-roots thing.)

Even though I do enjoy many varieties of pie, I must disappoint you by answering cake.


How’d you know?

Is there another kind? Anyway, Matthew, I see that our time is up. Thanks. You’ve got a great spirit. I know your career is just beginning to take off — great things ahead. I hope we can actually meet-meet one day, outside of Cyberspace. But until then, we’ll remain Brothers in Blog!