Tag Archive for Phoebe Yeh

5 QUESTIONS with LIZZY ROCKWELL, author/illustrator of “Plants Feed Me.”

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There’s not a person in all of children’s literature whom I respect more than Lizzy Rockwell. She’s the real deal, the genuine article. We haven’t been friends for long, but every time I get a chance to speak with Lizzy — when we’re invited to the same book festivals, fortuitously — I am struck by her kindness and intelligence. I find myself wishing I was that nice, or that smart. Oh well! The truth is, children’s literature is in Lizzy’s DNA. And so she quietly puts good work into the world, day by day, book by book. I know you’re going to like her.

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Lizzy, thanks for coming. In honor of your visit, I’ve set out a delicious array of snacks. Let’s see, here’s some tinned corned beef; a bowl of cheese puffs; a plate of tilefish –- rich with mercury; microwaveable popcorn with bags lined with perflourooctanoic acid (you don’t want to know), and some Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli! Pretty sure that’s every food group. What’s the matter, Lizzy, not hungry?

Oh Jimmy, you shouldn’t have. No, I mean it, you really shouldn’t have.

Okay, fine, more perflourooctanoic acid for me! Lizzy, you know I’m a big fan. I have so much respect and admiration for your work. Your books are always clear, concise, and uncluttered. You strip away the superfluous, anything that might confuse or complicate. I think that’s your great, under-rated gift — your unique ability to hone in on the essence of a book. You make it look easy.

I don’t always share this with adults, but do readily with kids, I struggle a lot to get to that simplicity. My first writing project, edited by Phoebe Yeh at Harper, was Good Enough to Eat: A Kid’s Guide to Food and Nutrition. We worked on it for about four years. I did three entirely different book dummies, different texts, different illustrations. Getting a book to the point where it rings true and clear is not easy. But it should look easy.

Plants Feed Me also went through a major overhaul. Shortly before I was to start on finishes, my editor at Holiday House, Grace Maccarone, decided that it would be an even stronger book as a level D easy reader. Simple sentences, phonetic words, and 24 pages instead of 32. This affected nearly every sentence and picture in the dummy. After I wiped away my tears, I set to work, and was able to enjoy the challenge and learn from it.


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Wow, you are killing me with these names. I worked with both Phoebe and Grace at Scholastic, back in the 80’s. I named a character in Jigsaw Jones after Phoebe — Jigsaw’s partner, Mila Yeh. And Grace edited two Hello Readers of mine, quite popular for a time, both now out of print: Wake Me In Spring and Hiccups for Elephant.

I’m sorry, I interrupted. I think you were wiping away tears . . .

Explaining science in as few words as possible brings you to essential truths. It reveals a poetic simplicity to the universe. Science books, and all good children’s books, give readers a way to find clarity, pattern, and some predictability in their world, which can often feel chaotic.

The calm reassurance of the picture book.

Yes. My style of illustration is very direct and literal. I like lines around things, simple backgrounds and white space wherever possible, minute legible details when needed, and clear expressions on faces and in body language. I love early renaissance paintings and children’s art. Both teach me about getting to the essence of a thing.

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How do you even begin, when the topic is something as vast as plants? What’s that process for you? I’d think you’d be in danger of drowning in all that information.

Yes, the research phase of writing and/or illustrating a nonfiction book is delightfully distracting and open-ended. I would happily spend my whole life doing this part, if I could afford to. You read and look at fascinating books, you go fun places like farms, and zoos and museums, you sketch, you let your mind expand.

So deadlines are a good thing. And so are the perimeters of the picture book format: trim size, number of pages, limited word count. Unlike a lot of artists, I’m my most creative when I have limitations.

In this book, you both wrote and illustrated. Are you seeing it first? Or writing it?

With Plants Feed Me, I wanted to write a younger nutrition book recommending an unprocessed, plant-based diet. So I started with this message, but I also knew the botanical art would be fun to paint. When the words came to me, the pictures were implicit.

fe140b_daa93be0b256405991e8f41bddef5082-jpg_srz_493_608_85_22_0-50_1-20_0A Bird Is a Bird started with a desire to make pictures of beautiful birds. But it wasn’t a book, till the line, “A bird is a bird, because a bird has a beak,” floated into my head while I slept. Then I realized it would be a book about animal classification. All these birds look different, but they have these certain traits in common, most definitively, feathers. Noticing alike and different, is an essential skill in early science learning. A book is a fun way to make pretty pictures, but unless it has a point, that is an indulgence.

You seem to have a sense of how the mind of a child works when he or she encounters a book. Or is that an intuitive sense? I mean, okay, let me try to approach this question a different way. It’s become a cliché for many writers to say that they don’t think about audience. They only serve the story and blah, blah, blah. I’ve personally never felt that way. And in your case, you also strike me as an artist who is exceptionally aware of your intended audience.

I think exclusively about my audience. I don’t think that’s a compromise or hindrance to my creativity. I was a child once. That part of me gets to live on through this work. And it’s a profoundly interesting way to continue to look at the world. Childhood is when our brains are at their most agile and expansive. Language emerges, we start to give names to things and feelings, we begin to remember and predict, we start to notice others, we develop theory of mind.

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Your work is marked by sensitivity and inclusiveness. You have always included children of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. On a personal level, why is that important to you?

Because I do think a lot about my readers, I know that they like to find themselves in a book. And this is the most diverse country in the world. The “school-days” series (Career Day, Presidents’ Day, 100 School Days, etc) I did with my mom, Anne Rockwell, at HarperCollins has a multicultural classroom of kids. There are hints about cultural heritage, but mostly they are just friends at school, where they have shared experiences and a shared culture. This kind of natural diversity is important in books. Books that are about culture and heritage are important, but so are books that simply model the diverse and inclusive world that was Dr. King’s dream. It’s mine too.

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My husband, Ken Alcorn, and I have raised our family (two grown sons, now 24 and 27) in diverse communities. For 11 years we lived in Norwalk, CT. one of the most diverse cities in the country. The schools are filled with kids from all levels of economic status, and a multitude of ethnic backgrounds. Even though I now live in Bridgeport, CT, I am still involved in after-school arts programming in Norwalk, working with kids (mostly young teens) from low income households. Doing this work made the abstractions of injustice and poverty, especially as they manifest along ethnic lines, very real to me and activated me politically. I hope you wouldn’t know it to look at my work, but I am keenly aware of the responsibility I have creating media that may affect how people make assumptions, and behave towards one another.

In a world where the gritty, innovative, and “cutting edge” gets most of the attention, I think you possibly create the least edgy books in children’s publishing. There’s a refreshing innocence to your books.

I am going to take that as a compliment!

Please do. It’s totally a compliment.

fe140b_8e4b7616f5420c93d7ec569d9e084241-png_srz_153_145_85_22_0-50_1-20_0My eyes are wide open about the ills of the world. But I think for the age reader I am reaching, there is a need for books that model social ideals, and books that make knowledge as accessible and inspiring as possible. For a young child facing great hardships in the real world, a book can be the respite that is deeply needed. Books for older children, like you write so well, can and should present a more complex world view.

I believe we first met in a hotel lobby a few years back. And I might have exclaimed something like, “Is Anne Rockwell your mother? I love her books!”

Yes, I get that a lot! I love her books too! Another thing we have in common. And my father, Harlow Rockwell. illustrated many of the books she wrote. Their small studio was off the dining room.

So you are in the family business. Do you ever wake up relieved by the fact your parents weren’t, say, morticians? Or claims adjusters?

Well, it was certainly more fun to look over their shoulder and see what was in the works.

You’ve illustrated quite a few books for your mother. It’s always a huge responsibility to illustrate any writer’s books -– but your own mother. What’s that like?

Yes, we’ve collaborated on 17 books, the most recent are with Simon & Schuster, Library Day (2016) and Zoo Day (January 2017). They are about commonplace real world experiences, edited by Karen Nagel.  But library-day-9781481427319_lgwhen a trip to the library or the zoo, is your first trip to those places as a child, there is nothing commonplace about it.  My mom is great at recognizing how epic every new experience can be for a young child.  They are great fun to illustrate. Of course, illustrating my mom’s texts is humbling, and can even be intimidating. She is the only writer I have worked with who is also an illustrator (and one of my favorites to boot) so in the beginning, I could be hindered if I let myself worry if this is how she would have done it, or how my dad would have done it. But when I read a text of hers, I know the point of it, and understand better than usual how to proceed. I grew up with her books as some of my favorite bedtime stories, and I observed and even participated (doing color separations) in the production of them as a young adult. This has been a huge privilege. I don’t take it lightly.  

Thanks for coming by today, Lizzy. Hopefully I’ll see you again in real life!
 

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

Coming soon: Bruce Coville, London Ladd,  Jeff Mack, Matt Faulkner, 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”

8) Matthew Cordell, “Wish”

9) Jeff Newman, “Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly?”

10) Matt Phelan, “Snow White”

 

 

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #69

Yikes, I’m getting behind on my fan mail — I can only marvel at how Santa must feel! How in the North Pole does he keep up with it?

I know! Santa has those eager little helpers.

I’ve got to get me some . . . Elvises!

Wait, hold on. That’s not right. I mean: cute little Elfs elves.

Urm. Hmmm. I was thinking something more along the lines of this . . .

(Excuse me, my wife is on the phone. This won’t take a minute.)

“What’s that, honey? I can’t . . . could you stop screaming . . . no, it was a joke . . . I’m just . . . PUT DOWN THE GOLF CLUB . . . yes, dear . . . yes, dear . . . you know I’d never . . . [CLICK] honey? . . . sugar lips? . . . dumpling?”

Oh, hey, I’m back! Gee, this is awkward. Actually, I’ve decided that life might be more peaceful around here if my helper looked like this . . .

In any event, let’s answer some mail before I get into any more trouble!

Dear James Preller,

My name is Aditya. I am 9 years old.  I live in Hong Kong.  I go to Glenealy School.

I am one of your greatest fan! I love your books especially The Jigsaw Jones Mysteries.They are the best books I have ever read! I have read so many of your books right now.

I want to ask; Do you have a friend called ‘Milla Yeh’ like Jigsaw Jones? And is your dog SLOBBERY like Jigsaw’s dog?

I hope to get a reply from you,

From one of your greatest fan.
Aditya V

I replied:

Aditya,

Thanks for your email. It’s so cool to hear from you all the way from Hong Kong!

That’s far away from where I live, in upstate New York. I just looked at the website for your school — it seems like a happy place. Do you wear a blue-and-white checkered shirt? When I was in elementary school, I had to wear green pants, a white shirt, and a green tie. Every day. For six long years.

I hate the color green. Sigh.

I have a friend named Phoebe Yeh, who is very proud of her Chinese heritage. I worked with Phoebe many years ago at Scholastic. She is now a very important editor at HarperCollins. I don’t think she minded that I stole her last name for my books. It was my way on honoring her a little bit.

As for the name Mila, boy, that’s caused a lot of confusion over the years. I once knew a girl name Mila (pronounced My-La), and I always thought it was a nice, unusual name. But I realize that some people pronounce it Me-la, such as the actress Mila Kunis. Anyway, that’s often how I come up with names for characters. I borrow them from people I know, kids I meet on school visits, or from old baseball players (Joey Pignattano, for example). Who knows, maybe I’ll steal your name one day. Aditya sounds like a swell name for a new character. Do you think she’d be nice?

There was a slobbering dog I remember from my childhood, owned by a kid around the block, Harry McCrystal (that’s a great name, too, by the way — funny how some names just feel right). Harry’s dog was this huge, black, clumsy Newfoundland — and it drooled slime all day long. It was a gentle dog. Harmless. But on hot summer days, watch out, or he’d slime you something awful.

Have you ever seen one?

Pretty cute, huh? That’s exactly the image I had in my mind when I wrote the first Jigsaw Jones book. But the illustrator had a slightly different idea. My current dog, Daisy, is a golden doodle. She’s not too smart, but I’m happy to report that she does not SLOBBER.

Thanks for writing, Aditya . . . all the way from Hong Kong!

JP

James Preller Interviews . . . Author Ellen Miles

I’ve been cleaning and vacuuming all day because we’re having a special guest. Ellen Miles has spent her adult career involved in children’s books in some capacity, as an editor, an advocate, and a writer. Ellen has recently enjoyed rising popularity with her “Puppy Place” series for Scholastic. But more than any of those credentials, Ellen is here because she’s my friend.

And look, that’s her walking up the front path.

Ellen, it’s so nice of you to stop by.

Thanks for having me. I truly appreciate this opportunity to procrastinate in a brand-new way.

Do you remember when we first met, back around 85-86, when we both worked at Scholastic? Craig Walker was there, throwing punchlines at people like Phoebe Yeh, Brenda Bowen, Holly Kowitt, and Jan Carr. I was a junior copywriter and . . . you were in mailroom, right?

I was the junior elevator operator. Actually I was the editor of the TAB book club, which is for middle school kids. My job was to figure out which thirty or so items to offer each month, ranging from serious fiction to posters of kittens in sunglasses.

Did you get to write those clever phrases on the posters, like, “Hang In There!” Or my current favorite, “Cattitude!”

No, that task went to the editorial assistants. I wish I got the royalties for “Hang In There!”

I hate to say this, but they even made it into a book about “inspirational art of the 1970s.”

In that job, I also got to edit some original fiction. One of the best parts (aside from the lifelong friends I made there) was that I got to read People magazine at my desk, since part of my job was to be on top of current trends.

What did you learn as an editor that helps you as a writer today?

That editors are not the enemy. I love the editing process. I’ve always seen editors as equivalent to coaches for athletes — an editor is just someone who helps a writer be and do her best. I also learned a lot about the basic craft of writing.

Okay, sure. But if editors aren’t the enemy . . . then who is?

I don’t know about you, but I’m my own worst enemy.

You seem to have found a true home in the wilds of Vermont.

I love Vermont with all my heart and it’s hard to imagine living anywhere else. As a kid I spent all my summers here and I think I always knew I’d end up here when I was a grownup. Not that I’m a grownup yet.

Vermont is incredibly beautiful, has a low population thanks to its long winters (which I love, both the winters and the population that is), and feels like an island of progressive sanity in a world gone awry. It’s no surprise that Vermont was the first state to come in for Obama on election night, and that it gave Obama the highest percentage of votes of any states save D.C. and Hawaii. Living in Vermont, it’s easy to be green, non-materialistic, local, and all that other good stuff that other people are just catching on to.

I am your basic NPR-listening, granola-crunching, Subaru-driving, compost-making, do-gooder liberal, so I fit right in here. I was enough of a city girl to resist Birkenstocks for many years, and while I have finally capitulated to those I still vow to never wear a denim jumper over a turtleneck.

Hold on, you’re not one of those hippies I read about who threw their Birkenstocks at Karl Rove’s car?

Did you know that Vermont was the only state Bush never visited during his time in office? Maybe it’s because if he did show up we planned to prosecute him for war crimes.

Back to your fabulous career before this becomes too much like “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.” It seems like “The Puppy Place” series is doing really well. Tell us about it.

The series is about a family who fosters puppies, and each book is centered on a different puppy. The books are sweet, easy to read, and crammed with doggie love and doggie info. They always have a happy ending (as the tagline says, “Where every puppy finds a home”), and there’s no dark stuff unless you include the occasional housetraining “mistake.”

Hey, poop happens.

Exactly. The series came about when our old friend, Craig Walker, knowing that I loved dogs and knew a lot about them, suggested I write some books about puppies. “Something where we can slap a big picture of a cute puppy on the cover,” is what I remember him saying.

Yes, I can hear Craig saying exactly that.

There are now thirteen Puppy Place titles in print with at least five more coming down the pike, and I’ve sold more than a million copies in the US, the UK, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and Australia. Kids and dogs have a strong mutual attraction, and young readers seem to love these books.

I’ve talked to other series writers about this. I guess we all have a little bit of an ugly step-sister kind of experience. On one hand, the books are bought and read and loved. But at the same time, they are critically ignored, never reviewed, seemingly unread by the “people who matter.”

Sometimes I like the freedom and anonymity of not being reviewed. It seems that the world of literary children’s literature and YA is a feverish contest for awards and reviews and recognition, and I sometimes wonder whether people are writing for kids or for the adults on the awards committees. I’m definitely writing for kids – and frankly I’m also writing to pay the mortgage. It’s hard to imagine having the luxury of writing anything I wanted, without worrying whether a publisher would publish it or readers would buy it. Maybe someday I’ll have that luxury and it’ll be interesting to see what I produce.

I hear you about the mortgage. I wrote two books about Norfin Trolls under the name Mitzy Kafka. I worked as a ghostwriter. I wrote an unauthorized biography of “The Rock.” I wrote a picture book adaptation of the direct-to-video classic, “Slappy and the Stinkers!” There’s almost nothing I wouldn’t write. I wrote four books based on an unpopular toy — a toy “craze” that never got crazy — under the name, Izzy Bonkers. Let’s see Jean Craighead George top that!

I can top that: I once wrote some books based on video games. Then there’s the crowning glory of my writing-for-hire ouevre, my novelization of that classic film, Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas! Many of my friends still think my coolest gig ever was writing Scooby-Doo books.

I used a pen name for a lot of my work-for-hire jobs, but sometimes I forgot to do that, so if you Google me certain books come up that make me feel like I’m walking around with toilet paper stuck to the bottom of my shoe.

That’s so great, Ellen. I’ve done about half-a-dozen rescue jobs, where a manuscript was so bad it was beyond editing, so they sent it to me for a torched-earth rewrite. Hey, I just remembered another one: I did a picture book adaptation of the second Pee-Wee Herman movie, “Big Top Pee Wee.” You know, the one Tim Burton didn’t make.

I once wrote about how to choose a dog dish, for a pet website.

You enjoy getting fan mail, don’t you?

I love it. It’s the best part of the job. Kids send me pictures of themselves and their dogs. They decorate their letters with drawings. They tell me that my books ROCK!!!! and that I’m the best author ever, they give me ideas for future plots, they tell me about books they’re writing. I have my favorites hanging on my study wall and I read them over and over. The bottom line about series writing vs. literary writing is that whether or not my books have lasting merit, they do get kids excited about reading, and to me that’s the best possible outcome. Nothing compares to the thrill of getting a letter from a kid who says, “PS, Before I read your books I never liked to read. Thanks for making reading more fun,” or from a parent who writes to say “Thank you for making our daughter into an independent reader.”

I have to say, Ellen, you strike me as really happy these days.

I am happy. I love where I live, and I have a great job, a terrific boyfriend, and wonderful friends and family.

You, um, have a boyfriend? Don’t tell me he’s one of those hulking lumberjack types they’ve got running around in the mountains up there?

No, he’s more of a SNAG, you know, a Sensitive New-Age Guy. Drives a Volvo, communicates well, cooks, vacuums, does the grocery shopping. Not that he’s a total sissy. He’s built all his own houses and he’s out chainsawing right now.

So tell me, Ellen. Just between us. Is there a part of you that wants a big hardcover book, where some reviewer like Lisa Von Drasek from The New York Times takes you seriously as an artist?

I would definitely like to develop as a writer and I’m curious about what I might be capable of, but no, I have never felt a deep urge to be a Critically Acclaimed Writer. I’m not one of those who always wanted to be a writer, and who has a passionate need to tell my story to the world. I fell into writing sideways. It’s the best job I can imagine and I’m good at my craft, and for now that’s enough. That said, of course I’m working on a middle grade novel on the side, though I have no expectations for where it might go or if I’ll even ever finish it. It’s really just an experiment and a way to learn more about writing. I’m in a writer’s group with two writer friends, and their support and encouragement and guidance is a wonderful thing.

Hey, I loved that photo you sent. You look so content and relaxed to be sitting with that small group of kids. Where was that taken?

That was a party given by a fantastic reading-mentoring program I’m involved with, called Everybody Wins. The Vermont chapter honored me this year with an award for my contribution to children’s literacy. They threw a happy, chaotic kids’ party during the day and had a gala Book Bash for adults in the evening, at which I (yikes!) had to make a speech. I’ve mentored three girls over the years and have shanghaied my mom, my brother, my sister-in-law, and several friends into becoming mentors as well. The program is elegant in its simplicity — all you do is go to the elementary school on your lunch hour and read with a kid for forty-five minutes — and yet it has an amazing impact on the kids and on the mentors as well.

I’ve participated in a similar program here. (Of course, nobody threw me a fancy gala.) It’s neat when you see some of those kids again, five, ten years down the line. You spy each other across a room and, it’s hard to describe, but you both know you had that time together. And they know you were there – you cared enough to show up every week — and nothing can take that connection away.

One of my former mentees, who I first met when she was in third grade, is now in eighth. We’re still friends and always will be. She came to my gala. (So sad that you’ve never had a gala.)

Believe me, Ellen. It is enough — more than enough — that you’ve had one. And now I see we’re out of time. Please keep this handsome set of carving knives as a parting gift!

Thanks, Jimmy! It was fun.

Wait, almost forgot the Lightning Round! Favorite books?

Ellen Tebbits, Beverly Cleary; War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy.

Albums?

Nashville Skyline, Bob Dylan; On Green Dolphin Street, Miles Davis; Something New, The Beatles (the first record I ever owned).

Movies?

The Last Waltz, Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, Amarcord. I know, none of these books, movies or albums were created within the last twenty years. I’m a fogey, what can I say?

Type of Dog?

I’d say Labs. Or any kind of puppy.