Tag Archive for one question interview series

One Question, Five Authors #5: “How has your work been affected by today’s political climate?” 

Welcome to the fifth edition of the “One Question” series.

My thanks to the five respondents below: Tanya Lee Stone, Jennifer Sattler, Lesa Cline Ransome, Barbara Dee, and Travis Jonker. For your answers . . . and for your fine work.

This is an issue that fascinates me, since it’s been the crucible for so many of us these past few years: How do we proceed under these conditions? As citizens, as artists, as storytellers, how do we respond? Does the job description, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, change?

Note: If there’s a published author or illustrator who’d like to participate in this series, please feel free to email me at jamespreller@aol.com. I’m also on Facebook. There’s a link to the previous ones in the series in the right sidebar under “categories.”

 

Tanya Lee Stone

For the past ten years, my work has focused on filling in some of the gaps in our histories; namely, true stories about women and people of color. Those stories have always been important, but perhaps now more than ever it is essential that they are more widely spread and that readers understand that we are all connected — in our pain and in our triumphs.

In Girl Rising, for example, which deals with the fact that 130 million girls globally are not being educated, I hope I have made it difficult for readers to ignore the fact that these are not “other” girls in “other” places — they are kids just like them — with similar hopes and dreams. And with this awareness of connectedness, I hope, comes increased activism. To that end, I structured the third part of the book around guiding readers toward activism without becoming too daunted by such large issues of slavery, early child marriage, and lack of access to education.

Lesa Cline-Ransome 

I have always enjoyed writing books that celebrate history, culture, heroic figures and the power of perseverance. When I began writing nearly twenty-five years ago, I was interested in finding the untold stories of everyday heroes—Satchel Paige, Marshall Taylor, and Pele, who rose above obstacles. Later I wrote about historic figures like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who had endured their share and more of injustices and hardships. My hope was that all children who read of these struggles would begin to understand how the pains of our past were met with fierce resistance.

And then the election of 2016 happened. And suddenly the distant past seemed not so far away as hate crimes rose and civil rights and protections of marginalized communities were rolled back. Each book I write now feels like less of a focus on history and more of a roadmap to how we must continue to have a voice. The word resistance has now taken on a new urgency, reminding young readers, not of our distant past, but of a world that continues to need voices to speak out against injustice. Now, more than ever, I am using the power of story to chart the progress we’ve made through the years, while reminding readers, there is still a mighty long way to go.

Jennifer Sattler

Right after the election in 2016, I was wondering, like everyone else I know, what on earth I could do to effect change. I can’t go door to door, or make cold calls. That’s not who I am. But then I read somewhere (I wish for the LIFE of me I could remember where) a woman saying, “Do what you do but with a new sense of purpose.” That really resonated with me. So, I wrote Bully. I needed it to still feel like one of my books. I didn’t want to preach or be overtly political. After all, my books are for young children, so I wanted to address something that a lot of them were now dealing with now more than ever.  Most of the books on bullying that I’m aware of have this sympathy for the bully and, honestly, VERY unrealistic expectations for kids to deal with the situation. The bully always comes around and becomes a friend. This has not been my experience . . . ever. As a mother, as a kid who faced bullies, and as a woman. I want kids to feel empowered. And most importantly, not alone.

 

Barbara Dee

In January 2018 my publisher offered on a full manuscript of a middle grade novel — plus whatever MG I wrote next. I’d never had a two-book deal structured this way before, and it struck me as both a vote of confidence and incredible pressure, because at that point I didn’t even have an idea for another book. As I waited for my editor to send notes about Book 1, the news last winter was full of stories about sexual harassment (including some about prominent kidlit authors). These stories horrified me; and the more I researched the origins of such behavior, the more I was convinced that we needed a #MeToo story set in middle school. I began writing very fast, telling myself it was just a draft for Book 2. But before I got to the end, I knew that this story, both timeless and very much a product of the Trump era, needed to be out in the world as soon as possible.  Fortunately, my publisher agreed to flip the order of the two books, releasing Maybe He Just Likes You next fall.

 

Travis Jonker

In my role as school librarian, the current divisive political climate has made me more vigilant about the books in our collection and the books I read aloud with students. Themes of inclusion, kindness, and diversity have become even more of a focus. And it doesn’t always have to be an overt, “Hey, kids, here’s a book with a lesson about kindness.” Usually the more subtle the better. Now as a newly published author, I feel stories that in some way talk about universal themes — and I know I’m not making news here — tend to be more engaging. My favorite line from an Andrew Smith book is that, “The best books are about everything,” which I think means that good books reach for universal topics — love, death, fear, etc. In the podcast interview I did with Mo Willems, he said that every Elephant & Piggie book was addressing a “philosophical question.” So I definitely think about how a story I’m writing connects to larger ideas. With The Very Last Castle, the rough plot came first, but it wouldn’t have become a book without the themes of community and courage that came later in the writing process and gave the story depth. But I honestly can’t say any of that is a direct result of the current political climate. However, I do think it’s made me more sensitive to themes of inclusion, kindness, and diversity in the books I read and share.

 

One Question, Five Authors #4: “What role does music play in your creative process?”

Sound the timbrels, bang a gong, today the focus is on music. Welcome to the internet’s laziest interview series, where I ask just one question. My thanks to our five guests: Chris Tebbetts, Matt Phelan, Yvonne Prinz, Charles Smith, and Michelle Knudsen. Click on the “One Question” icon on the right sidebar, under “Categories,” to visit past editions.

 

Chris Tebbetts

99% of the time, I write alone and in silence. That said, I’ll add that some large percentage of my non-writing time is filled with music. And some amount of that time is filled with bad singing and (yes, I’ll own it) not-half-bad dancing. I sing in the car all the time, and I dance like a fool around my house whenever I get the chance. Because here’s the thing. I once heard a writer at a conference talk about using other artistic pursuits as a way of maintaining her connection with the kind of free-flowing creative mindset that can become elusive at the keyboard, when the job of writing is a daily requirement. And I totally agree. I love to sing and dance anyway, but more to the point, I believe in the tangible benefits of putting myself into that creative mindset on a regular basis, where there are no mistakes, no revisions required, no deadlines, and no audience to pass judgement. For the woman I mentioned above, it was knitting that got her there. Maybe for someone else, it’s doodling, or painting, or designing roller coasters. For me, it all flows from my love of music, and more specifically, from the way I use music to make a private fool of myself, every chance I get.

 

Matt Phelan

Music has always been a big part of my life. My parents started me off with The Beatles, Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Jackson 5 records when I was a kid and I just went from there. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life playing in bands, and a day rarely goes by without me fooling around on a ukulele, guitar, or piano.

I often make a playlist to listen to when working on specific books, both in the planning/writing stage and in the final drawing stage. The right music can instantly put me in the “space” of the story. I will usually include music from the time period of the book, but I’ll also go beyond that if the music fits the mood or spirit of the story. For example, Snow White takes place in the 1920s and early 1930s, so my playlist had pop songs from those decades, but also included some darker film scores from the 1930s and 1940s, like Max Steiner’s score for King Kong and various soundtracks by Bernard Herrmann. And for fun, I also included the Bryan Ferry Orchestra which is a great record that takes Roxy Music songs from the 1970s and 80s (which I love) and arranges them like 1920s hot jazz. Sometimes the music is not from the period but inspires the right mood anyway. I wrote and drew the climactic ending of The Storm in the Barn while listening to Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe.” Whatever works. For my latest book Knights vs. Dinosaurs, I had a song called “Swords of a Thousand Men” by the fairly obscure early 80s band Tenpole Tudors stuck in my head.

I just started listening to the newly released demos for The Beatles’ White Album and I imagine I’ll be obsessed with that for the foreseeable future. Luckily, no matter the book, The Beatles are always a safe bet.

 

Yvonne Prinz

I think a lot of authors don’t give a thought to music as they write but in my case it shapes the story. In some cases it is the story.

My head is full of music.

I was raised by a classical musician who vacillated between Shostakovich and Abbey Road. Music played around the clock in our home. I worked for minimum wage in record stores and now I own three of them with my husband (and a bunch of other music nuts). That in

spired The Vinyl Princess, the story of a cheeky girl who works at Bob & Bob Records and judges people by the music they listen to. I took breaks from the story just to build the soundtrack (I can’t listen to song lyrics while I write).

All You Get Is Me is a social justice story about farm workers set in Northern California. My character “Roar” (short for Aurora) is a reluctant farm girl.  I listened mostly to plaintive pastoral soundtrack music like Mark Knopfler and Ry Cooder as I wrote. When it was finished I created a soundtrack with a lot of Tex-mex, Hispanic artists, Mariachi, things a migrant farm worker might listen to.

If You’re Lucky is a thriller set on the dramatic coastline of Northern California. My main character is a schizophrenic teenager named Georgia. I listened to Django Reinhardt and modern gypsy jazz players. My secondary character is a Juilliard trained guitarist of Roma heritage. It’s a dark story. I fantasized about being the music supervisor on the movie a lot.

 

Charles Smith

Music plays a crucial role in my creative process as a poet. Different poems call for different types of moods and music helps me convey that mood. In my book, Brick by Brick, it focuses on how slaves built the White House. To reflect the back breaking work, I looked to negro plantation spirituals sung during slavery and prison work songs. There’s a specific cadence and there’s call and response. This helped guide the pacing. The use of repetition also helped with emotional impact. In most projects, I’ll often use music to establish a rhythm that conveys what I want to say. For instance, in the case of a non-fiction project I’ve been working on that focuses on a motorcycle rider, I wanted the words to move fast like a motorcycle so I looked to fast paced hip-hop. But sometimes I’ll go very traditional and look at the structure of a song and mimic it in a poem. For instance, using a chorus to hammer home a point or image. Overall, the biggest role that music plays is acting as grease to loosen up the creative wheel to help me say what I want to say.

 

Michelle Knudsen 

When I’m writing picture books or early readers, I generally can’t listen to anything. But for novels, I’m nearly always listening to music while I write. I like to create a playlist for each novel filled with songs that capture the feeling of the book for me. The playlist for my upcoming novel Curse of the Evil Librarian (book 3 in my Evil Librarian trilogy) includes songs like Tool’s “The Grudge,” Bryce Fox’s “Horns,” and Melanie Martinez’s “Tag, You’re It.” There are a couple of tracks by Halsey and a few by Depeche Mode and a whole lot of My Chemical Romance. I’ve also got a few songs from Les Misérables in there (this year’s fall musical in my characters’ high school) and one from The Scarlet Pimpernel, which was the featured musical in book 2. (There’s more, too, but that seems like a pretty representative sample to go with.) Listening to this playlist instantly puts me in the right mental/emotional/creative place to work on the book, whether I’m actively writing or outlining or going for a walk to try to work out tricky plot problems in my head. The only rule is that I’m not allowed to listen to it at any other time—it’s book music only, no matter what.

One Question, Five Authors #2: “Tell us about one book or comic you loved as a child.”

Welcome, readers, to the second installment of “One Question” — the interview series where I do as little work as possible. Personally, I always enjoy hearing authors talk about books they love — particularly those books that made a difference early in their reading lives. The books that helped light the fuse.

Much thanks to our five guests below: Paul Acampora, Rachel Vail, Don Tate, Audrey Vernick, and Julie Fortenberry. Click here to read the debut installment if you missed it the first time around.

 


Paul Acampora

In those years that astronauts were still wandering around on the moon, I discovered The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary. The book featured Keith and Ralph, a couple boys about my age (at the time) in an off-the-beaten-track world that seemed a lot like my own. Keith and Ralph had families and rules and squabbles and accidents. They wanted adventures and they made mistakes. They were just like the cousins and friends and classmates that surrounded me. It’s true that Ralph is a mouse who rides an awesome red motorcycle, but that’s not really the point. Rather, The Mouse and the Motorcycle made it clear to me that real-life adventures were possible. And if Beverly Cleary is right (spoiler alert: she is) adding friends to the mix makes real-life adventures almost inevitable. When I grew up, I did indeed get my very own awesome red motorcycle just like Ralph’s. I don’t have the motorcycle anymore, but I still have the friends which means I’m still having the kind of real-life adventures that books are made of.

 

Rachel Vail

One book I really loved as a kid was Blubber, by Judy Blume. I remember wondering as I read: how did she KNOW? Not just about the overt, senseless, casual cruelty of some kids, but also about MY complicity in the cruelty: the rotten, rotting feeling of seeing somebody be mean to a less powerful kid, and deciding to do nothing. Choosing just to go along, because otherwise I’d be putting myself in danger. And it felt like that, no exaggeration: like danger. Judy Blume captured the complex ethical calculus of being a kid, making choices — the truth of it, the power and the cost of it. Humor and relatable details made the story feel real, but the empathy I felt for every character is what made it feel TRUE. I was particularly moved by the respect Judy Blume was showing to me as a kid, as a reader, as a person. (I felt she was writing for me, in particular, of course. Her writing is that intimate.) She was telling it to me straight, and trusting me to think through what it all meant. There were no tidy resolutions, no morals to print on a poster. It was just, here’s how we sometimes treat one another, and how it really feels. What do you think?

 

Don Tate

I wasn’t a big reader when I was a kid. It is embarrassing to admit — especially to kids! I had trouble with comprehension and retaining what I’d read. So I tended towards the visual. My favorite book was our Better Homes and Gardens Illustrated Medical Encyclopedia. I loved it because of the cool illustrations. I also loved our Funk and Wagnalls Young Students Encyclopedias. They were heavily illustrated. Inside, I learned about all kinds of things, but I was drawn most to the diversity inside. I learned about people from all over the world, I saw people who looked like me. In high school English literature classes, I pretty much refused to read what was presented to me as classics. The Grapes of Wrath, Greek and Roman Myths, Poe, I just couldn’t get into those. I sketched my way through those classes. I didn’t become a reader (for enjoyment) until I was in my early 20s, when I discovered the book Black Boy by Richard Wright. It was a memoir about his life. In Richard Wright, I saw myself. After that, I became a lover of reading. I read all of Richard Wright’s books, and especially loved Native Son.

 

Audrey Vernick

I was a voracious reader as a child, in part because I lacked the kind of friends I read about in books. I had friends, but our relationships never seemed to measure up to the epic friendships in the books I loved most.

The book that hit me right in the center of this spot was The Secret Language, written by the legendary children’s editor Ursula Nordstrom.

Victoria was only eight years old when shipped off to boarding school. What?! Boarding school? My brain had to grow and shift to entertain this new-to-me reality. Vicky was shy and miserable and hated boarding school (this reader, who faked sickness to get out of day camp, could relate to that). And then, impossibly, a strange and funny girl, Martha, befriended Vicky. And shared with her secret words — leebossa, ick-en-spick, ankendosh.

When I think about this, I’m almost inclined to feel sad for young-me, but the truth is I found literary friendships very satisfying. They fed me something I needed — in a way that actual eight-year-old friends could not.

Unexpected friendships. That’s still a pretty sweet spot in my reading — and writing — life.

 

Julie Fortenberry

The Little Golden Picture Dictionary (the original 1959 edition) left a lasting impression on me. I still have my copy. Each page has eight words with descriptions like, “alligator—The Alligator has sharp teeth,” and “kitchen—Mother cooks in the kitchen.” (Later editions have been updated to correct a few unenlightened words and descriptions.)

I’m still fascinated by the little Tibor Gergely illustrations. (Gergely was mostly self-taught, but studied briefly in Vienna. In 1939 he emigrated to New York where he illustrated several New Yorker covers.) It’s so obvious that he loved his job. The pictures are detailed but uncomplicated. And like a lot of Golden Book illustrators, Gergely’s style is both realistic and cartoony. His illustrations of people and animals are great, but even his illustrations of mundane objects (glove, iron, pie) are still intriguing to me.

I don’t remember anyone reading this book to me, so I guess I was able to decipher most of it on my own. I think it was the first time I saw the world arranged in an orderly way. The whole book is very tidy and sunny, like the best kind of kindergarten.