Tag Archive for Kevin Lewis

5 QUESTIONS with Susan Verde, author of “The Water Princess”

 

 

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I fell hard for the book The Water Princess by Susan Verde, illustrated by Peter Reynolds and inspired by the life experience of Georgie Badiel. It struck me as timely, important, age-appropriate and lovingly, respectfully told. The tone felt right, the writing strong: “I can almost touch the sharp edges of the stars.” So I plucked up my courage and reached out to Susan for an interview.

Susan Verde, thanks for stopping by.

Thank you so much. I’m really beyond thrilled to be here!

Though we’ve never met, it seems like we have more than a few connections, including our love for Greenwich Village. These days you live in Easthampton on the south fork of Long Island. I’ve spent a lot of time out there. After retirement, my parents moved from my childhood home in Wantagh to Southampton. “Near the dump,” as my Queens-raised mother would hasten to point out. Don’t get the wrong idea, nothing fancy about us Prellers!

HAHAHA! When I was a child going to the dump was a big deal! We would sing “to the dump to the dump to the dump dump dump.”

I can hear it now, the Lone Ranger theme. Every visit my father would turn to the grandchildren and ask, “Who wants to go to the dump with me?” They were always eager to go. A magical place, I guess.

The dump is a bonding experience for sure. My dad used to take my kids there too. They loved the seagulls and the adventure. Hmmm . . . sounds like a story in the making, no?

It’s funny. On Facebook this morning, someone posted a writing prompt. And because I’m cranky and dislike that sort of thing, I wrote, “The whole world is a writing prompt.”

I couldn’t agree more! Need a good writing prompt? All you have to do is be present in the world. Doesn’t mean it will turn into a published manuscript but it doesn’t mean it won’t.

I admire your writing so much, and was especially impressed by The Water Princess, which was the result of a unique collaboration between Peter Reynolds, Georgie Badiel (whom I refuse to refer to as a “supermodel”), and you.

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Yes, it was kind of a random but interesting meeting of minds and souls. Peter met Georgie at a fundraising event, and she told him of her dream to share her story with children. They met again in Manhattan at the Women of the World conference. It was then that Peter really got a sense that Georgie had an important story to tell. He felt it needed a lyrical touch and knowing my style and knowing how to connect people (he really has a gift) he emailed me and told me, “You need to call this woman right now.”

Tell us about that first meeting.

Georgie and I met at at a Starbucks (where many of my projects begin) in midtown and she walked in so tall and striking and she just couldn’t wait to talk. I hugged her upon meeting because there was a wonderful familiarity about her (it was a hug around the knees basically as I am not so tall). We sat. She spoke. I listened. Her story was sad and hopeful and funny and beautiful. We were both crying after a good hour or so. I knew right away I wanted to tell this story and understood why Peter brought us together.

 

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You must have felt daunted, the idea of telling someone else’s story.

I had never really told someone else’s story so directly. My main concern was that I told it right. I was very careful with the gift of this story that Georgie gave me. I felt protective of it. She didn’t hesitate to share anything. I had lots of questions . . . wanted all of the details of the journey, the songs she sang, the kind of trees she saw and what she snacked on, what she felt like as she walked. Georgie was extremely generous and had no restrictions or rules or suggestions about style. It was very special to have a story like hers and then the opportunity to play with it and make it accessible to the picture book audience. I didn’t take that lightly.

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You did an incredible job. I sometimes think of a picture book idea as that black slab in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” no doors, no windows. How do you get inside? Then maybe a phrase comes to mind, a sentence that establishes tone –- you jot that down — and you’re in!

Honestly the “way in” for this story was the sky. It was really the secret doorway. I have been to Africa and I had my own memories of the African sky. It was really insane the way it felt so incredibly close and the colors and stars. I know that the sky was not the central message of the story or even anything Georgie talked about but for me it provided a context and a starting place. I imagined what this child, this princess, would feel about the sky (her kingdom) and what she — what Georgie — had to endure under this sky and the juxtaposition of the hardships and the beauty of the world. It informed the ultimate message of hope and gave me my entry point.

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I have such respect for writers who can take such a complex story and somehow find that essence. A distillation that uncovers a clear, uncluttered pathway. The storyline — like finding a path through the dark mysterious woods. Your manuscript is simple, poetic, and powerful. How do you that? I mean, what’s the thinking process for you?

Thank you! That is such a huge compliment! I took lots of notes as Georgie spoke. Just words and images and then as soon as we parted after that first meeting the story just poured out. I tend to have a more lyrical style of writing. I like slices of life and the emotions they evoke so it was very natural to approach The Water Princess as a poem of sorts. I am also very connected to water and its movement. Because water is so central to this story it felt natural to have a certain flow but it wasn’t forced. I just kind of let the story direct me. The only sticky place was the title. Georgie really wanted the main character to be a princess as there was some royalty in her lineage but it also felt like a nice part of the message that even a princess needs to work hard and have hope to solve a problem. It was my son, who was 10 at the time, who said, “Why don’t you just call it The Water Princess?” Smart boy. In retrospect it seemed pretty obvious but that doesn’t mean we always see it!

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I’ve been making a serious effort over the past year to get back into picture books. I have so many failed manuscripts, false starts, abandoned ideas. At a certain point I just look up and think, “Yeah, this one’s not happening.” Am I doing something wrong? Help me, Susan.

Haha! I have a lot of those too but don’t give up! Keep getting it all out and ultimately something will click. You will feel it in your gut! Is that the way it works with writing for older kids? I would LOVE to tap into that process! I too have a lot of ideas and false starts in that arena. Maybe you can share your secret?

If I figure anything out, I’ll let you know. I liked that you were once an elementary school teacher. You’ve got your bona fides. I’m envious of teachers, because they are surrounded by stories, swimming in stories. There’s a great tradition of former teachers who go on to become excellent storytellers. It’s like: they know.

Being a teacher was one of the best times of my life. First of all it gave me a great excuse to buy tons and tons of picture books! It also gave me a chance to really observe what kids connect with and how to reach them where they are. What I learned and what still guides me is that kids are so intuitive and intelligent. They deserve stories that don’t talk down to them. They deserve stories that challenge them and also have deep themes and messages. Kids are a lot less “cluttered” and full of cynicism and doubt than adults. They understand more than they are often given credit for and they have a natural sense of empathy and ability which leads them to solve problems or at least attempt to solve problems more readily and creatively

For this book, you had a rare opportunity for a picture book author: you knew who was going to illustrate it. Usually we’re typing in the dark, without any clue how it will be presented visually. Do you think it guided you as a writer?

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Yes, Peter and I have been really fortunate to have such a special creative relationship. I know it’s rare for sure. I think it did guide my writing because I had a sense of the illustrations and wanted to write in a way that allowed him to “see” the story. Working with Peter is a wonderful collaboration and a complete joy. We have a very similar sensibility and mission and it feels like a dance in a way. We guide each other’s steps but put our own flare into the process. I also know how incredibly thoughtful he is with his art and the way it reflects and captures and moves along the emotion of a story. This particular project involved a lot of research and conversation among the three of us so it was especially collaborative.

You were instrumental in making the connection with the good folks at Ryan’s Well. Why was that important for this project?

img_0620That was not an easy task at all. Part of Georgie’s vision for this project was to actually bring water to her specific village first and foremost. I went to organization after organization to try and find a way to give them money from our advances to start creating wells and then continuing as the book sold. Much to our surprise it was super difficult to find an organization that went to Burkina Faso in the first place. Finally I just started cold calling water charities and happened upon Ryan’s Well. They were AMAZING! Incredibly receptive and willing to go to Burkina Faso directly. They were also a family-run organization started by Ryan when he was eight. It really captured everything about this project — the wells, the power of children, really a match made in heaven. In the meantime out of frustration Georgie started to create her own foundation, and has continued the mission.

So what’s next for you? There’s a new book about sneakers, right?

Yes, My Kicks will be out April 13th, illustrated by Katie Kath. I didn’t see the art until I got the proofs and was thrilled!

That’s typical for most authors, but very different from your work with Peter Reynolds.

Kathy captured the story and the part of me that is still a city girl and I couldn’t be happier but it was very odd and slightly nerve-wracking not speaking about anything after I handed in the text.

That’s such an essential childhood experience. Buying those squeaky new (too clean) sneakers, getting home, dirtying them up, and then running much faster than you ever have in your entire life. “Look at me go!”

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Right?!? I remember it in myself when I was a kid and I see it in my own children. They have sneakers that represent different parts of themselves and with every new pair I see them grow as personalities (not just in shoe size), challenging themselves in new ways. Sneakers are a kind of cool transitional items and vehicles for self-expression.

You’ve obviously given it some thought. Anything else coming up?

Peter and I have a sequel to I Am Yoga called I Am Peace out in September and then I have something with John Parra about street art and a few more special things in the pipeline. Also trying to keep the kid’s yoga and mindfulness alive and raising three wonderfully crazy children! Life isn’t dull that’s for sure. I am very grateful for it all and especially grateful to have been invited to speak here with you!

Believe me, most people are not that excited. I’m truly glad we got this chance to hang out together. I knew from your books that we’d get along.

Thank you James! I’ve enjoyed this so much!

 

headshot3SUSAN VERDE keeps a website that’s worth visiting. She’s published a number books, including I Am Yoga, You and Me, The Museum, and coming in April, My Kicks: A Sneaker Story. In other words, she’s awesome and she’s my new friend.

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed in my “5 Questions” series include: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, London Ladd, John Coy, Bruce Coville, and Matt Faulkner. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function. 

Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Robin Pulver, Susan Wood, Hannah Barnaby, Kevin Lewis and more.

 

 

5 QUESTIONS with MATTHEW CORDELL, author/illustrator of “WISH”

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Today we hang out with Matthew Cordell, one of my favorite people in children’s books. Usually Matt and I can laugh it up with the best of them, just a couple of regular guys talking about our favorite books and rock bands, but today we got serious. In this edition of “5 Questions,” Matthew opened up his heart, and it got real.

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You know I love this book, Matt. I read it again last night, over my 15-year-old daughter’s shoulder. I do that to Maggie, stick picture books under her nose. Anyway, at the end she turned to me and said, “I really like it.” And then, “Oh, you’re crying.”

And I was. This book gets me every time.

Oh, I really appreciate that, Jimmy, and thanks for sharing with Maggie! It’s interesting to hear from folks who let me know that Wish made them cry . . . I never imagined myself being an author of a book that would have that kind of an effect on a reader. I mean . . . when I was writing it and later illustrating it, I would occasionally tear up over the very personal nature of the thing. And I thought maybe it would have a similar impact on folks who would read it. That they would read Wish and see their own story or stories in it. So when I hear from folks who say it has struck an emotional chord, it’s just really, really rewarding.  

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It’s one of the counter-intuitive things about art: the deeply personal sometimes becomes the most universal. Yours is a book about, in part, a miscarriage. An extremely common occurrence –- sources estimate that up to 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage –- yet it’s a deeply private experience that isn’t widely discussed. We grieve in silence, and very few people are even aware of our loss. Tell me about the beginnings of this story. Did you draw a picture? Write a few words? Were you even thinking book?

You’re very right. Life after miscarriage is a very dark, very alienating place to be. On our road to parenthood, Julie and I found ourselves in this place more times than we ever would have expected. It never occurred to me at all that anything related to that experience would ever be made into a book, certainly not by me. But I had just put my book hello! hello! into the world, which had a family-oriented focus to it. So I found myself searching for the next story I wanted to tell. For another big moment as a parent. And I realized that one of my biggest moments of being a parent was the journey and struggle of trying to become one.

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I don’t know if you remember, but the one time I visited your home, you showed me an early manuscript. We obviously knew it would be a challenging topic, one that might be hard to make appealing for children, yet I strongly felt that this was an important book for you to create.

That was a terrific visit! After years of knowing each other online and having collaborated together, we finally met face to face. I wish we lived closer to each other so we could do more of that.

You and Julie drove me to Wisconsin to eat brats. It had to happen.

I do remember sharing the book with you and talking about it at length. I was grateful to have your input. When I was ultimately ready to show it to my editor, Kevin Lewis at Disney-Hyperion, thankfully he took to it right away. Kevin knew this story well, from someone close to him that had been down this road in some way. It affected him personally. And as he showed it around at Disney-Hyperion, more and more folks came forward with similar reactions.

Let’s discuss the editing process for this book. I recall that your early draft was more direct about the loss suffered. Sadder, perhaps. Now looking at the published work, it seems that aspect has softened.

When I first thought of making this book, it was to tell the story of how our daughter (and our son too) came to be. It was a kind of love letter to my wife and baby. A book I could read to this little one someday and say, “Look how much it took to bring you into the world. Look how much we wanted you, and how much we went through, and how incredible all of this is. How incredible YOU are. And how tremendously grateful we are to have you here.” A large part of this story was the waiting.

Tom Petty got it right, didn’t he? The waiting is the hardest part. Because of all those hardships — the obstacles, the disappointments — that come with the waiting. After a while, you wonder if the bus is ever going to come.

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Yes, the insufferable waiting for years for a successful pregnancy. Not knowing if it would ever happen. Seeing other people all around us get pregnant with little or no trouble. Wondering why that wasn’t happening for us. Wondering if something was wrong. And in that time, we did suffer some losses. Needless to say, that was a huge part of the story for me. Overcoming loss and starting over, it was all so terribly devastating and challenging to Julie and to me.

I’m just so glad that you can share that with the world. That’s the thing, Matt. You put it out there. Exposed, raw, real. And in the process, you turned it into something beautiful.

Initially, I felt like I really needed that tough part of the story to be in the book, to make it as honest as possible. I never used the words “death” or was too specific when I’d written it. But the art I’d proposed was very bleak and dark. Near absolute darkness, really. I remember I had a full spread of blackness surrounding a small spot illustration of the huddled together couple. An overwhelming darkness is how life felt after a miscarriage. When I showed it to my editor, he had some reservations, understandably.

The heartbreaking art that Matt had to make, but that didn't make it into the final book.

The heartbreaking art that Matt had to make, but that didn’t make it into the final book.

Such a powerful piece of art, Matt. I am moved by that spread. But in the final analysis, I think you and Kevin Lewis were wise to keep it out of the book. It was too strong. You didn’t want heartbreak to become the message.

Much of the book was about hope. It was about the heartbreak too, for sure, but I never intended the scales to tip more toward the darker side of the story. But it was feeling quite dark at that stage in the editing process. The waiting and not knowing was the all-encompassing struggle that this story tells. To add a death in there would be a significant — possibly overwhelming — moment for the book. In general, death in a picture book is never going to be easy, considering the age of many of its readers. But in Wish, we agreed, bringing in this moment of loss would be a stopping point for the story. After considering it, we let the sadness in the book become more ambiguous in the final manuscript and art. 

I think it succeeds beautifully. Were the characters always elephants? Why did that feel right?

wish_study_elephantsYes, the characters were always going to be elephants. I knew I wanted them to be animals and not people, so it would open it up to all different ethnicities. I wanted people of all races and walks of life to see themselves in these characters. A picture book with human characters can be more limiting in that respect. And very early on, I can’t remember the exact moment — I knew they should be elephants. Elephants are strong and smart and stoic. And they make lasting memories with the ones they love. I saw a nature program once about these two circus elephants that had become super close to each other, emotionally speaking. Sadly, they were eventually split up and moved to different circuses at different locations in the world. Many years later these two elephants were reunited at an elephant sanctuary. The caretakers weren’t sure they would remember each other. Or worse, they worried they might be defensive or aggressive toward each other. So they reintroduced them tentatively with fencing between the two. Even after years and years of separation, they instantly remembered each other and nearly broke down the bars to get to each other and be together again. That kind of emotion and devotion and breaks-your-heart beauty . . . I really wanted that for Wish.

You know, Matt, I see that you are enjoying great success of late, all of it deserved, and none of it surprising. But of all your books, this is the one that makes me the most proud of you. It sprang directly from the heart, as natural as a flower, and it shows on every page, in every illustration.

Well, thanks, Jimmy. That is really kind of you and you’ve played a big part of any success I may have stumbled onto. You’ve been a great friend and ally and I’ve loved being witness to your many great successes and accomplishments too, over these however many years I’ve been making books in this little world ours.

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I don’t think I’ve been a big part of your success, Matt, but I have been a big fan. So: okay, um, gee. I guess we’re supposed to hug it out now, my brother. Please give my best to your family, always.

 

457060MATTHEW CORDELL envisions Wish as part of a trilogy. Dream comes out in Spring, 2017, followed by Hope at a later date. He has made a great many books, and friends, along the way. I’m glad to among the latter, though I’d be tickled to be the former. His hilarious wife, Julie Halpern, was a school librarian and is now an accomplished author in her own right. She’s also a terrific mother.

 

 

ABOUT THE “5 Questions” Interview Series: It’s a little project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. 

Coming next week, Matt Phelan (Snow White) Scheduled for future dates, in no particular order: Jeff Newman, Bruce Coville, London Ladd, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, and more. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES, and scroll till your heart’s content. Or use the handy SEARCH option. 

Guest so far:

1) Hudson Talbott, “From Wolf to Woof”

2) Hazel Mitchell, “Toby”

3) Susan Hood, “Ada’s Violin

4) Matthew McElligott, “Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster”

5) Jessica Olien, “The Blobfish Book”

6) Nancy Castaldo, “The Story of Seeds”

7) Aaron Becker, “Journey”