Interviews

All interviews below were conducted between 2005 and 2009. Some information may be out of date.

Cynthia Faber Smith

Cynthia Faber Smith has been designing publications for diverse audiences for more than 20 years, including positions at Science magazine, Insight magazine, The Executive Office of the President of the United States, and the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Cindy earned an MFA from Vermont College, a BA from my very own alma mater, Furman University (Go Paladins!), and a publication specialist certificate from George Washington University. Cindy’s a (South) Carolina girl, just like me. We have so much in common, you’d think we grew up together. In fact, we practically did, just a couple of years apart and a few miles down the road from each other. I met her at the Highlights Foundation Conference at Chautauqua in 2005 and recognized that Southern drawl as my own. More recently, Cindy has become famous across all of Honesdale for her blue-ribbon wins at the Wayne County Fair, for Sour Cherry preserves, pickled beans, and a knitted shawl. She’s currently perfecting her chocolate cake recipe for this year’s competition. Watch out, Wayne County! Cindy’s got a golden touch with whatever she sets her hand to. She’s gonna be a contendah!

Tell us a little about how you came to be the art director at Highlights for Children.
The Highlights editorial offices are located in Honesdale, PA, a very small town in NE PA. Just so happens one of my oldest and dearest friends grew up in Honesdale. She moved back a few years ago, heard HFC was looking for an Art Director and thought I might be interested in applying. I was, I did, and it still blows my mind that I got the job.

Take us through your typical day at work.
I start the day as most people do, drinking a cup of coffee while I check my email. My emails are usually illustration sketches so I print out a batch, get them off to the editors, and then review what I have to do that day. I make lists sometimes when I need to feel organized. Otherwise, I tend to do first what I feel most like doing. Sometimes, I feel like designing. Other times, I’m hot to find a new illustrator and I’ll start combing through resources. I’m competitive with myself and will set a challenge to accomplish three designs or 10 assignments, etc… It may sound silly but it’s my form of play at work. I’m really happy when I beat myself at my own game! Mixed in with all this fun are corrections to pages and giving art direction to illustrators for revisions or solving some other little problems. Sometimes the little problems take my entire day and then I’m not very happy.

What is your submissions process? Do artists send samples or finished work?
With few exceptions, all the illustrations in Highlights are commissioned to accompany specific text.

You work in conjunction with the editors who choose the content of the magazine. As far as the art is concerned, which comes first? Do the editors choose the content and you later choose the artist to develop something to go along with the content or do you ever choose the artist first and then try to find the content that might fit their style?

The former. A big part of my job is selecting the appropriate artist for the tone of the content.

The look of Highlights has changed since you took the reigns of art director. What went into making the decisions to change the look and have you received much feedback from your readers? (We love the new look, by the way!)
I’ve been with Highlights for about three years. Shortly before my hire, Highlights recognized that they needed to review and renew Highlights from top to bottom. There were no “sacred cows” as my Editor-in-Chief, Chris Clark, puts it. Everything was examined for appeal and appropriateness. I was lucky to come into that process just as people were anxious to put a redesign into full-gear. I love the process of redesign and have had a career full of working on various redesigns. It was a love match. We tried to examine the magazine without being too tied to what had been done in the past but also without losing our unique Highlights “DNA.” We approached the redesign as EVolutionary, not REVolutionary. Every few months you could see some refinement rather than having one particular issue launch a new look/approach. The redesign wasn’t just about the look, there were also changes in kinds of features and word counts for stories, as well as a general refresh on what we wanted our content to be and a refinement of our target audience. There was some great news coverage of our 60th anniversary and the printing of our billionth copy in August 2006. Coupled with that PR was some discussion about the new look and where we see ourselves in today’s marketplace. In general, the response has been lovingly favorable.
Chris and Kent Johnson, our CEO, both emphasize that our goal from day one has always been to “help kid’s become their best selves.” The redesign was a retooling to make sure we were still compelling to today’s kids in order to continue to achieve that goal. The public has applauded that. Of course, some people just don’t like change and we’ve received those letters, too, mainly came from adults who want to “preserve” Highlights so it always looks as it did when they were children.

What is your favorite thing about your job?
The variety, I love working with such a broad range of topics and possibilities. I used to work for The White House. Everything I designed had to be navy blue with the Presidential seal on it. I once used burgundy and although the design was approved and printed, I was told later, “We don’t do that here.” Ever since that job, I have sought and thrived on variety in my work.

What is your favorite section of the magazine?
I’ve never thought about that before. Usually, the greatest challenge ends up being what I enjoy the most because there’s such a sense of accomplishment when I get it to work. Of course, you wouldn’t know that by the sound effects coming from my office! ARGHHHH……

What catches your eye in an art sample? What kind of work do you not receive enough of at Highlights?
I love seeing a unique style and I don’t see enough unique work. Too many illustrators have the same look and that’s a huge problem in children’s illustration.

What sorts of things do you do when you’re not art directing?
I walk every day during my lunch hour and often again after work. For the last few years, I’ve been on a mission to learn to cook well so I try a new recipe or two each week. In the summer, I love to garden both in my garden
(flowers) and a friend’s family garden (food). I usually “put up” lots of veggies and jams.

Do you write/illustrate/submit your own work, either at Highlights or any other publisher?
I have an MFA in creative writing but my writing is for adults. My MFA was one of those self-challenges in my life and not intended as a possible career. I do a few graphic treatments in the magazine but any other art I do is fine art, not illustration. I’m now planning a painting series that I hope to start in the Spring…another challenge.

A list of your Favorites. You know, favorite book, favorite place, favorite cartoon character, etc:

Favorites are hard for me. I like everything, but I don’t particularly like any cartoon characters. They are always getting into trouble and that’s stressful to watch because you just know that ACME anvil is going to squash them.

Kent L. Brown

Kent L. Brown, Jr. is currently the Executive Director of the Highlights Foundation. He is the former Editor in Chief of Highlights for Children magazine and Publisher of Boyds Mills Press. He recently transitioned out of both of those roles to focus his efforts on the work of the Foundation. A past-president of the Educational Press Association of America, Kent has served on the publications committee of the International Reading Association and is a member of the National Council of Teachers of English, the American Society of Magazine Editors, and the National Press Club.

An impressive resume, to say the least.

But whenever I think of Kent, I think of his infectious passion for children’s literature, his humble, sacrificial spirit and his personal email in January 2005 informing me that I had received a scholarship to attend the Highlights Foundation Conference at Chautauqua. Somebody believed in me! Somebody believed in my writing. And that is what sums up Kent Brown to a tee. He believes in our potential as children’s writers and is committed to helping us reach it, not for our own sake or for the sake of success, but for the sake of future generations of readers.

The Highlights Foundation exists to “raise the level of the offering of writing and illustrating for children.” What are some ways in which the Foundation accomplishes this goal?

Briefly, raising confidence in writers.  Our programs are staffed by carefully picked faculty, chosen for their humility and interest in helping others.  We avoid big egos and prima donnas.  Each of our efforts has a nurturing, non-threatening environment.  By respecting the talents (and often the tender feelings) of writers and artists we believe we can unlock their potential.

You’ve recently transitioned from your role as publisher of Boyds Mills Press to allow you the opportunity to focus entirely on the Foundation’s work. How did that decision come about and does it mean the Foundation will be venturing into new areas?

Ah, yes, not only that, but have transitioned in some other jobs with Highlights.  While I still have duties in the overall Highlights corporation, my major focus is moving toward the foundation.  This move has been the result of careful planning and the good fortune to have colleagues who are strong successors.

Initially, I’m focusing on the Foundation doing a better job of letting the writing community know about our programs.  The Whole Novel Workshop program, conceived and launched by Carolyn Coman, fills a need and shows great promise. I continue to develop our financial aid programs.  In 2008 we will be building a retreat center to enhance the Founder’s Home workshops.  There are a number of special programs we have planned, and we are having discussions about offering programs in other locations.

A dream of mine is to assemble and inspire writers in countries that are transitioning from a colonial tradition of literature.  We have a vision of aiding writers from a number of African countries to further develop unique and authentic children’s books and stories specific to their cultures.

Tell us a little about the Writer’s Conference at Chautauqua. How many years has it been in existence, what is the mission of the conference and what is your favorite part of the conference each year?

To start at the end, my favorite part is seeing people leave at the end of the week.  The change in confidence and commitment is visible.  Time has proven that we have been able to inspire and aid many in their quest to find their place in serving children.

The very first Chautauqua conference was 1988.  We have learned a lot over that time, but know we can always refine and improve our week at Chautauqua.   Our mission at this conference is to help each attendee move from where they are to a more comfortable place.  I really think the week is more about belief than specific craft.  Our caring faculty and staff set the tone.

How are scholarship decisions made?

We award scholarship aid on three factors:  Talent, as evidenced by a writing sample.  Commitment, as evidenced by writing history; for example, a person who has submitted twenty stories and had them all rejected has shown more commitment than someone who is planning to submit soon.  And the third factor is financial need, determined by some standard instruments similar to those used by college scholarship programs.

The initial rankings are done by a committee, needs-blind, I think its called.  So the applicants are scored without regard to need; after that a needs formula is applied.

Are scholarships available for only the Conference at Chautauqua or also for the Founder’s Workshops?

We now have grants which aid a minimum of one in ten attendees.  I hope to expand that program.

You obviously have a great love for children’s literature and for children’s writers. How did this great affection develop?

I don’t have much so much affection for writers as I do a passionate commitment to readers.   And I’ve
found the majority of writers share the passion for readers.  It became clear to me that my role in serving readers was not as a writer, and I long ago gave up thinking I would ever be a writer.

What are your interests outside of your work with the Foundation? In other words, what do you do when you’re not single-handedly encouraging/developing the next generation of great children’s writers?

Well, I don’t do the foundation single-handedly at all. I think we have figured out how to take passionate writers and illustrators, put them together with caring teachers, and feed them pretty well.  Then the magic happens.

 But I also enjoy building, digging holes with my backhoe, and fiddling on the farm.

What are some ways we can help the Highlights Foundation achieve its goal of encouraging excellent literature for children?

I like to think that there are three ways that our friends can help.

First of all, by putting to work the sparks that we may have fanned in our programs.

Second, by leading others to our programs.

And, for a few that are able, by helping finance our scholarship program.

A list of your recent or not so recent favorites: 

Novel —  I still marvel at What Jamie Saw.  I read some books and I wonder afterwards, how did the writer do that?  Jamie is one that evokes that wonder.
Food —  I’m trying to have fewer favorites in smaller quantities.
Place —    I like staying home in the country.  And sharing that home area with others.
Sport –   I love to fish when they bite.
Holiday/event —  Ground Hog Day is one I admire, because the folks in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania,  have built such a great PR and community pride event around a silly idea.

Tracie Vaughn Zimmer

Tracie Vaughn Zimmer considers herself a teacher first after working with students of nearly every age and ability. She attended Ohio State University where she majored in special education, and received her master’s degree in reading from Miami University of Ohio. In addition to writing poetry and novels for children, Tracie creates teacher guides, book club guides and curricula which are sought after by both award-winning authors and publishers. All of the guides are available for free on her popular website:www.tracievaughnzimmer.com.

Tracie’s most recent release, Reaching for Sun, was published this year by Bloomsbury and has recently been named to the Booksense Summer Picks list for 2007.

I’ve had the personal privilege of sharing a cuppa joe with this wonderful author. As a consolation for those of you who don’t have the chance to meet her in person, I’d highly encourage you to spend a few hours with her Reaching for Sun. You’ll find it to be time well invested!

Reaching for Sun is one of my favorite reads this year. I love that you’ve given us an honest portrayal of a girl with disabilities in a book that does NOT revolve around her disabilities. By the end, although Josie’s own voice and confidence is stronger, there is still heartache in her life. And yet, the book ends with great hope. Did you deliberately inject the story with this hope or is your process more organic?

I wanted it to be honest and all kids walk around with some kind of heartache, this I believe. Hope is necessary in children’s books. I don’t always find it in the first drafts though.

 

*Tell us about some of the response to Reaching for Sun. Which responses have been the most special?

The most amazing thing has been hearing from families of children with disabilities. It was something I took very seriously (and worried about immensely, holding Josie up as some kind of symbol) and I am so grateful that so many families have found Josie not just believable but worth knowing.

 

*Tell us about your next project.

I just finished my first prose novel titled THE RIVER PALACE (and I feel like I’m cheating on poetry, to tell you the truth). It is an historical fiction novel set in the summer of 1853. An adventure story told through the eyes of a BOY on a circus boat! Quite a departure for me.  I have two other books coming out next year besides The River Palace- 42 MILES is a poetry/narrative collection about a girl learning to define herself and STEADY HANDS: POEMS ABOUT WORK are portraits of people doing their jobs. 2008 is going to be thrilling and busy!

*How do you approach each book? Does it start with an idea, a phrase, an image? Do ideas come easy or do you really have to search for them?

I have lots of ideas but most of them tank. I always have a notebook handy though in case I get a good one. An idea that keeps coming back (like all that laundry that never seems to disappear) is usually a good sign that it has staying power but I often don’t know until I’m drafting. If I lose faith or don’t want to work on it is a reason to let it go.

*Whose work do you admire? Poetry? Picture books? Novels? 
Poetry- I’ve interviewed many of my favorite poets here. http://www.tracievaughnzimmer.com/poetry_house_interviews.htm

And here’s a list of some of my favorite poetry books EVER:
http://www.tracievaughnzimmer.com/guides/printerfriendlypoetrybooks.htm

I’m always buying and reading poetry though and I need to update that list!

Picture books
Julia Durango (and not just because she’s my writing partner but the woman is a genius, thatsallIgottasay!!)
Lisa Wheeler cracks me up!
Carol Boston Weatherford  (MOSES is a fave from last year)
Mo Willems (kids AND adults love his books. Wish I could do that!)

Novels
A Single Shard and Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park
Winn Dixie and Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Patterson (The. Best. Children’s. Book. Ever)
A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Schlitz    WOW. HF at its best
RULES by Cynthia Lord
Bird by Angie Johnson

YA
Looking for Alaska by John Green  (brain crush on Mr. Green)
The First Part Last by Angie Johnson
Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger
His Dark Materials Trilogy by Pullman
Attolia series by Turner
All of Joan Bauer’s books
Sarah Dessen’s books (ALL!)
Etc.
Etc.

Sorry. I’ll stop. You know I can get carried away with booklists…

* A List of your Favorites:
Food: Chocolate
Music: Lori McKenna
Film: Out of Africa
Place: woods
Holiday/Event: Christmas
Cartoon character: Snoopy
Sport: Olympic Haiku (okay, okay, it’s not a sport, but it should be…)

Linda Urban

Linda Urban grew up in suburban Michigan in a house like all the others on her block.  At nine, she read Little Women, decided she wanted to be Jo March, and dragged a card table and folding chair into the unheated room above her garage, so she could write in the cold, like Jo did in her attic.  Linda has a degree in Journalism and a Master’s in English, both from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.  She studied film and television at UCLA, but preferred working in a bookstore to writing her dissertation.  After a decade or so of serving as Marketing Director at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California, Linda began writing for kids.  She and her family now live in a red saltbox house in Central Vermont.  She prefers writing in front of her wood stove and stays away from the attic.  There are bats up there.

I’d love to know a little about the evolution of A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT. What sparked the idea, how long did it take you to write it and how much did the story change from conception to publication?

In 2004, back when I was still a bookseller, I was chatting with David Small and Sarah Stewart (*The Money Tree*, *The Gardener*, *The Library*, etc.) We were talking about music and I said that when I was a kid I wanted to play piano, but my dad had been seduced by the gadgetry of the organ during a visit to the mall.  David said something about what a good story that would make and how he could just see the illustrations.   I guess his comment settled in my subconscious somewhere, because a few weeks later, while driving to work, the first two lines came to me and I rushed into my office and wrote them down.  Actually, I wrote the first 3/4 of a picture book in the 30 minutes before my office-mate arrived at her desk and I wrote the rest the next morning.

I polished it up a little and sent it to a publisher and also to friend-of-a-friend Lisa Wheeler (PorcupiningSixteen Cows,Mammoths on the Move, etc.).  Both replied at about the same time with the same comments:  this is funny, the voice is just right, this is not a picture book, this is an outline for a novel.

I was focused on writing picture books at the time and did not think I had it in me to write a big long novel, so I put it aside.  After I sold my first picture book, *Mouse Was Mad*, my editor, Jeannette Larson, asked to see whatever else I had around.  I sent her that manuscript saying, I know this isn’t a picture book, but I like it.  She said she liked it, too, and no, it isn’t a picture book just yet.  But maybe it could be, or maybe it could be something else.  She said she’d be happy to look at it again if ever I decided to work on it.

Then a bunch of stuff happened.  I got pregnant with my second child, I left my job, we sold our house in Southern California, we moved to Vermont. During that time I wrote when I could and was working on a historical novel that earned me the 2005 WIP grant from SCBWI. That paid for child care a couple of mornings a week and I finally had some regular writing time again.

I finished a lousy draft of that historical (which currently resides in a taped-shut box under the guest bed, by the way) and had a little grant money left, so used that babysitting time to see what I could do with this piano story.

Jeannette and I email each other from time to time and in one of those emails she asked what I was working on.  I was about 60 pages into Crooked (which I was just calling Piano at the time) and asked if she wanted to see it.  She did.  So I bullet-pointed the rest of the plot and sent it to her. A couple days later she offered me a contract for it.  That was in February of 2006.

How much has the book changed from that point until publication? How has the editorial relationship benefited you as a writer?

If you mean were the chapters super short right from the beginning, the answer is yes.  I write short.  And that style really suited Zoe’s sense of the world — little episodes, little moments that stack up one on top of another and make us who we are.

Jeannette did notice, however, that the longest chapters were all in the back half of the book and she encouraged me to look at adding just a bit to a couple chapters in the front half in order to balance things.

We didn’t really change much about plot or structure.  But what Jeannette was so good at was finding all the little changes that added up to a stronger, deeper book.  For example, there is a scene late in the book where Zoe’s friend Wheeler gives her something that he has made.  As I originally wrote it, Zoe’s reaction was mostly internal and brief, there mostly to mark the passage of time before another event in the scene. Jeannette, I think, sensed that this moment had potential to be something more.  That gift would be a hard thing to make, she said.  Even if Wheeler was extremely talented, it would probably still look like something a kid made.  Do you think Zoe might comment on that?  And the scene that emerged resulted in the title of the book.

Jeannette always asks the right questions and she knows how to nudge.  I trust her — which is probably the most important thing.  And she is unflappable, which helps me keep my head where it needs to be. I sent her a partial on Crooked because I trusted her to be able to see what I wanted to do and to be kind if I wasn’t quite there.  I feel like I can try something ridiculous and she will respect the intention — even if the output isn’t exactly something that belongs between hardcovers.

One of my favorite things about the book is all the hilarious names you come up with for the courses that Dad takes from Living Room University. How much did you have to work for the humor in this book and how much of it just comes naturally? It’s not a “jokey” type humor, but more an everyday silliness, a natural quirkiness you’ve given your characters. Do you consider yourself to be funny or did the humor in the book really just naturally come from your writing true to life characters?

I’m kind of funny, sometimes, but not stand-up comedian funny.  In person, I’m most funny with I’m with people I know really well and trust a lot.
Then I feel comfortable being myself and saying whatever idiocy comes to mind and my friends laugh, mostly because it is me being me.  But I’m not a joke-teller and I can’t be funny-on-demand.  I love how you say “everyday silliness”.  I think that is right on target.

My current WIP is not as funny.  The MC is shy and earnest, so it isn’t in her voice to comment on the same kinds of things that Zoe does in Crooked. So, yeah, some of the humor comes from voice and story.  The other part is setting.

There is an awful lot that is funny about suburbia.  Commercial culture is awfully funny, too.  The fake enthusiasm, the “clever” wordplay, the world-dominance of mega-brands.  That is funny.  Okay, and frightening, too.  But funny is one of the best ways to beat frightening, I think.

How do you approach each book? Does it start with an idea, a phrase, an image? Do ideas come easily or do you really have to search for them?

I sure wish I knew.  Crooked is the first novel I’ve completed and the second I’ve started.  The other book, a historical, came from an event which interested me.  I had access to some information that most people don’t get to see and I thought maybe some day I’d write about it.  And then one morning a voice showed up on the page and I had two chapters.

That poor novel.  It deserves to be written right.  The main character is interesting.  The historical event is worth exploring.  But a very bad thing happened to that book.  I started thinking ABOUT it, instead of IN it.

Pretty soon I was doing a lot of Cover Your Ass writing — explaining things about race and class and gender and religion instead of just letting the character experience them and explain them from her own limited point of view.  I kept thinking about My Responsibility To History and What Would the Jazz Community Say or What Would Evangelical Christians Think and not just letting the MC do her thing.  I really mucked things up.

Now, back to how books start.  My best writing sneaks up on me.  A voice appears.  A phrase.  I slide in.  Time goes away.  Sounds go away.  I am in the story letting it spool out, following where it leads.  This doesn’t happen as often as I’d like.

Idea books — the kind where I say:  Wouldn’t a boy with a blind basset
hound be a great idea for a picture book? — are DOA.   But sometimes a
phrase comes to my head, like:

Elvin Sheldon was born in a bucket.

Okay.  Then what?

His mama didn’t mean it to happen that way.  She was craving peas and thinking that a little trip to the garden might ease the pain, and next thing she was lying flat amongst the lettuce heads and Papa didn’t have time to take off his gloves.  The bucket was the cleanest thing round for catching a baby. 

Again, then what?

Mama always wished there’d have been a catcher’s mitt around or a suitcase or something.  Then maybe Elvin would have turned out to be an ace ball player or world traveller instead of another dirt-fingered farmer like the rest of them.  And then Mama might have taken him with her when she left.

She left?  Oh.

Okay, so that was on the spot and fairly lousy, but an illustration of the way it comes — a phrase cranking up up up the hill of a rollercoaster and then whoosh! following it around and down and hoping you’ve got enough momentum to get you through the loop-de-loop.  Lots of times, I don’t.

How many “works-in-progress” do you usually have “in progress” at one time?

When I started writing, I had only one child.  She was little. She liked naps.  I played around with lots of picture books, most of them lousy, but that was okay.  Now I have two kids and deadlines and nobody naps, so I find myself with less time to play, so there are fewer projects going on at once.

Right now, I’m doing one last line edit for Mouse Was Mad (picture book forthcoming from Harcourt in Spring 2009) and working on a novel.  That’s about enough . . .Except about a week ago I had been butting my head against a particular problem in the WIP novel and decided to spend one evening writing something else to loosen things up.  I’ve got a couple thousand words in that are fun and playful and very different from anything else I’ve written.  Maybe it will turn into another project, but I wouldn’t count it as something I’m actively working on at the moment.

I know this is an impossible question but: Whose work do you admire? Poetry? Picture books? Novels?

Yeah, pretty impossible.  So I’ll just mention a few things that hit me now as I sit at my desk.

Novels:

Patricia MacLachlan — oh, to write so powerfully and so economically.

Sharon Creech — my favorites are those books that are about everyday things that matter in a big way to the people involved.

Cynthia Rylant — Queen of the Right Word.  Mr. Putter had cranky knees.
Cranky.  How about that?  You don’t need to get into age and arthritis and explanations a 7 year old could care less about.  But cranky?  Seven year olds know from cranky.

Sarah Pennypacker — I love Clementine (and would LOVE to write something that Marla Frazee would illustrate) but my true heart connection is for Stuart’s Cape.  Honest and true and yet off-the-wall surreal.

Also, I really loved Cindy Lord‘s RULES.  It is a masterwork, I think.  Upon a third or fourth read, you can pull back enough to watch how carefully crafted it is — nothing extraneous, every scene resonating and reflecting the others, but reads one and two are pure story and emotion and the author and her work are hidden.  I think it is easier to write a book with lots of writerly flash than one that lets the reader feel like the story exists on its own.  It takes a real writer to let the story take center stage and Cindy did that brilliantly.

And non-children’s writers:
Richard Russo — want to write funny?  Read Straight Man.  That’s your text book.  Also, Russo can have you knowing a character in a paragraph.

Wendell Berry — His characters take longer to know — but that’s part of the charm of them.  The people in his Port William books have long interconnected lives, big flaws, big hearts, and idiosyncrasies too honest to be called quirky.

Poetry:  I wish I knew children’s poetry better.  Actually, I don’t know much poetry at all — but I do so love Billy Collins and Ron Koertge.  Those men tell whole stories in three stanzas.

Oh and Picture Books — that is an art form I’m only at the rim of understanding.

I mentioned Marla Frazee above.  She is genius, and under-recognized.  I know this is not the place to launch a rant about how female artists are routinely overlooked by the Caldecott committee, so I’ll leave it at this: they are and that’s wrong.  Anyway, I love Marla’s work and am especially fond of her author/illustrator books like Walk On and Roller Coaster, though Mrs. Biddlebox (by Linda Smith) and Seven Silly Eaters (by MaryAnn Hoberman) are also amazing.

Kevin Henkes gets me, too.  All those mouse books are so just right for their readers.

For some reason, though, I really want to be talking about picture books instead of their writers and/or illustrators.  So here is a small list that I love and that I find inspiring:

The Gardener
The Tub People
The Old Woman Who Named Things
Miss Rumphius
Sixteen Cows
Dr. DeSoto
Owl Moon
Oxcart Man
Goodnight, Gorilla
The Carrot Seed
How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World
Andrew Henry’s Meadow

There are lots of other picture books that I admire and adore, but these are the ones that make me want to write.

Are you a part of a critique group? What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of relying on critiques from fellow writers?

I am in a writers group that includes Susan Sandmore, Myra Wolfe, Kelly Fineman, and Tracy Holzer.  We do critique for each other, but mostly we are cheerleaders and friends.

I am also in another crit group but we’re not very active.  Everyone in it has another, primary crit group and we serve as back-up, mostly.  Still, I’m glad to have those writers in my corner when I need them.

What really helped me more than anything for Crooked was to have a writing partner.  Myra Wolfe and I challenged each other to write just 500 words a week and we exchanged them every Friday.  We didn’t crit, we just encouraged — sometimes asking a question or two that might keep the imagination working.

I found that having somebody waiting for the story kept me going.  Myra expected words.  She expected them to make some kind of sense.  I couldn’t let her down, because I wanted to read what she was writing, too, and if I quit, then she might and I would never get to know what happened to her characters.  So I wrote.

Later I shared the story with Kelly and Susan, who I also knew from Verla’s.
Their comments were so insightful and interesting and I knew these were women I wanted in my writing life.  So we formed New Best Friends, along with Tracy Holzer. The rest is email history.

I don’t see a downside to having a good set of critique pals. I think that bad critiquers, though, could be fatal.

What do you enjoy besides writing?

I read.  I knit. I bake bread and eat it. I dream about planting blueberry bushes and a small apple orchard and keeping three sheep named Adrienne, Blanche and Celia — but not until the kids are older.

A List of your Favorites:

Food:  Apple Pie
Film: Too hard to choose just one.  Among the favorites:  The Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Sarah, Plain and Tall; It’s a Wonderful Life; and anything with Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, or Katherine Hepburn  — especially Philadelphia Story which includes all three.
Place:  Right here.
Holiday/Event:  Also hard to choose, but I am very partial to the Rupert, VT Old Home Days which usually includes a parade of fire trucks and a lot of fried dough.
Sport:  For watching:  Football.  For playing: does Scrabble count?

Eileen Spinelli

Eileen Spinelli is an award-winning author and poet whose work includes the 1991 Christopher Award winner, Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch; Lizzie Logan Wears Purple Sunglasses; When Mama Comes Home Tonight; Sophie’s Masterpiece; The Best Time of Day; and Polar Bear, Arctic Hare.
She learned to handle rejection at an early age, after being told that her 2nd grade composition, a story about a princess and a prince, was the worst in the class. (It might have something to do with the fact that the teacher had assigned a composition on food groups.) Ah, but even back then one could see an important key to Eileen’s future success. Follow your heart and you’ll find an audience for your stories.

For more information, see Eileen’s website, www.eileenspinelli.com.

*Thank you so much for agreeing to “chat” with me. I’ve enjoyed so many of your books through the years and consider it a privilege to be able to have this “peek” into your writing processYou’ve had such a successful career in children’s books. Do you follow your heart or do you write to try to fit the market?

Definitely–my heart.

*You seem to have a gift for rhythm and fun language. Do you consider yourself, first and foremost, a poet or more of a storyteller instead? In other words, do you pay more attention to phrases and individual words or to story arc?

I find “language” to be my strength. I tend to agonize over plot.

*Tell us a little about your process to initial publication. Have you always been a writer?

Yes. Since I was six years old. I seem to have been born with a love for words in my bones.

I wrote for our school newspaper–so that would be my first publication.

But my first published work outside of school was a poem for which I was paid ten dollars. I was 18 years old. And the “call” was a thin envelope in my mailbox.

*How do you approach each book? Does it start with an idea, a phrase, an image? Do you keep an idea file?

There is no one way. Sometimes it’s an idea. Sometimes a phrase. Sometimes an image. I keep an idea notebook–just a steno pad really.

*What are you trying to accomplish with each book? Do you have one overarching goal for your books?

Not really. I don’t usually think in terms of a goal. More in terms of process and is this a fun, meaningful or interesting way to spend my time.

Goal comes in later–when I’m putting things together and looking towards finding a publisher.

 *Tell us a little about your most recent book release (or the next one).

 I have two novels in verse coming out.

WHERE I LIVE, Dial

SUMMERHOUSE TIME, Knopf

What I like about doing a longer project is that I get to visit with the characters longer…get to explore more feelings …get to follow more “avenues”.

 *Whose work do you admire? Poetry? Picture books? Novels?

 If I start naming names I’m sure to miss someone…so I’ll just say that there is a wondrous feast of books, stories, poems out there which delight and inspire me.

Having said that–I will name one name: Jerry Spinelli.

*What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?

I hang out with my family. We have 16 grandkids!

I go to the movies. Watch DVDS.

I go to the theater.

I try to teach myself Italian.

I travel.

I “treasure hunt” at yard sales, flea markets and thrift shops.

I spend time with friends.

I cook. Clean. Do laundry.

I listen to music.

I host tea-parties.

read!

*What do you do to market your books?

I do conferences. And my grandkids’ schools/classrooms. And some writing workshops.

*Are you agented and do you feel it’s important for a children’s author to be agented?

Yes. Though I sold my first two books on my own.

I think it’s great to have an agent.

It may be hard to get an agent before you sell a book–so for beginning writers I’d say not to be discouraged. Just keep sending your work out on your own.

*You publish with many different houses. (You had 8 books come out in 2004 alone!) How do you manage to be so prolific?

Funny–I’m not feeling so prolific. Life gets very busy. I may go weeks and not write.

Then I start wondering about all the stories/poems that are not coming to fruition because I’m not sitting in my chair!

*A list of your favorite things:

Food: Pasta, pizza, chocolate

Music: Broadway tunes…music from the 40’s

Film: Out of Africa…I Am David…Love Actually…Sense and Sensibilty…The Queen…
(you can see I’m a film buff!)

 Place: Home. Venice. London and the English countryside. Halifax, Nova Scotia

Holiday/Event: Christmas Eve

Cartoon character: Cathy

Sport: Basketball (to watch–I don’t play!)

Pam Muñoz Ryan

Pam Muñoz Ryan, has written over thirty books for young people that include picture books for the very young, (MUD IS CAKE, MICE AND BEANS, HELLO OCEAN) picture books for older readers (AMELIA AND ELEANOR GO FOR A RIDE, WHEN MARIAN SANG and NACHO AND LOLITA) to middle grade and young adult novels (ESPERANZA RISING, BECOMING NAOMI LEÓN, RIDING FREEDOM.) ESPERANZA RISING received the Pura Belpre Medal, the Jane Addams Peace Award, an ALA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults, the Americas Award Honor and other accolades. Most recently, BECOMING NAOMI LEÓN received the ALA Schneider Family Award, the Tomás Rivera Award, an ALA Notable book and the Pura Belpre Honor. She is twice the recipient of the Willa Cather Literary Award for Writing (The Willa).  Born and raised in the San Joaquin Valley of California, she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at San Diego State University and now lives in north San Diego County with her family. For more information, Pam’s website iswww.PamMuñozRyan.com.

*Can you tell us a little about your writing process? How many drafts do you average for each book?

It’s not really a process but rather a very messy evolution. I start in a scene and go from there. I start like most writers start – with a very bad first draft which becomes something to fix, and change, and hopefully make better. It’s hard to know the precise number of times I rewrite because with the computer, there are many times in which I revise a manuscript but don’t print. I would say that I rewrite each story, regardless if it’s a picture book or a novel, somewhere between twenty and thirty times.

 *How many books do you work on at one time?

If I’m working on a novel, I usually just work on that particular story. But I’m always thinking down the line, especially if I have projects under contract, so that if I’m reading or at the bookstore, I’m  paying attention to research or resources I might need in the future.

*How many times a day do you get an idea for a book? In other words, do you have many more ideas than you will ever find time to write? Do you keep an idea file and find that more than one idea works its way into the same book?

I have many more ideas that I’ll have time to write. I do have a “manuscript ideas” file but I find I read it only when I’m adding something to it. It’s an exercise, really. Not something to which I make myself feel compelled to follow.  I don’t get an idea for a book every day. Like many writers, I often interpret real-life situations, articles, or an overheard saying as a possibility for a book idea. I don’t follow through every time, but that process is an exercise, too. I’m always considering, collecting, and discarding ideas. And sometimes laughing at my often ridiculous presumptions.

*You do such a great job at capturing the “voice” of a young girl in both BECOMING NAOMI LEÓN and ESPERANZA RISING. Would you ever try to write from the perspective of a male main character? Would you find it more difficult?

I have ten chapters written for a future novel and it’s in the voice of a boy protagonist. I didn’t find it more difficult. But I’m surrounded by boys so that might have something to do with it.

**Do you focus more on your readers or on the story itself as you are writing?

Initially, I become immersed in the story. I start all of my novels “on scene” with the main characters and my stories evolve from there. As I continue to rewrite, I evaluate the progress of the plot and the pacing of the story, wanting very much for the reader to want to turn the page. That’s always a pervasive goal for me.

*Do you write to try to fit the market or do you follow your heart?

I pay attention to the business of publishing because it’s my job, but I don’t allow it to overwhelm me.  And besides that, trends are hard to predict!  It takes about two years for me to research and write a novel so if it publishes and happens to match a market trend, it’s most likely a random coincidence. I also tend to be one of those people who doesn’t want to do what everyone else is doing. I suspect that once a trend in publishing is publicized, that an avalanche of writers will attempt the same. That said, I would encourage aspiring writers to look for gaps or needs in publishing, which is a different issue.

*Do you continue to read current children’s literature and do you find it difficult to read while you are in the middle of finishing a manuscript?

I don’t read as much if I’m on a deadline and writing all day. It’s a time issue. But I do read a lot.

 *Tell us a little about your most recent book release (or the next one).

 Paint the Wind will publish in fall 2007. It is an adventure story about a girl named Maya and a wild horse, named Artemisia. Maya is a prisoner in her grandmother’s house in California. She is forbidden to play or have friendships. Every word is strictly monitored. Even her memories of her mother have been erased, except within the imaginary world she has created. A world away in Wyoming, a tobiano colored Paint horse runs free, belonging only to the stars. And holds the key to Maya’s memories. The story is about how these two worlds intertwine. To research this book, I went on two research rides, one in May of 2007 into the eastern Sierra mountains for a four day ride to see wild horses and in July 2007, on an 8 day ride near the Red Desert of Wyoming, where I slept in a tepee on the banks of the Sweetwater River, rode 6-8 hours a day and tracked a harem band. It is there that the story is set.

*What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing award-winning books?

First, not all of my books have been award-winning, but that does sound lovely, so thank you. My successes are the tip of a very big iceberg of rewrites, discarded manuscripts, rejected manuscripts and “start-overs.”  But when I’m not grappling and wrestling with words, I like to read, travel, go to movies (I love movies and theatre), get together with my family and ride horses. I ride about once a week.

 *What are some keys to maintaining a good relationship with your editors?

I’ve had many different editors over the years. Imagine fifteen colleagues and how idiosyncratic they might be and how you approach, confront, or interact with each one differently. Like any working relationship, I’ve had stellar ones and I’ve had one that were much less than stellar. When I receive a direction letter from an editor, I’ve learned to let it sit for a few days until I make a decision about how to proceed. An editor’s comments are for my consideration. It doesn’t mean I must “obey” them. But, I pay very close attention to what an editor says because he or she is often right and has brilliant suggestions that make my writing better.

Melinda Long

Melinda Long is the best-selling author of HOW I BECAME A PIRATE and the more recent PIRATES DON’T CHANGE DIAPERS, both of which are illustrated by David Shannon. Melinda is also the author of Hiccup Snickup, illustrated by Thor Wickstrom (Simon & Schuster, 2001), and When Papa Snores, illustrated by Holly Meade (Simon & Schuster, 2000). She lives with her husband and two children in Greenville, South Carolina, where she is a middle school teacher.  For more info, check out http://www.melindalongbooks.com.

*Tell us a little about your process to initial publication. Have you always been a writer?
I’ve been a writer since my mother convinced me to write a story back in the dark ages when I was six and bored.  I loved it right off the bat.  I started sending off pieces for publication right after I got married in 1984.  Shortly thereafter, I started collecting rejection slips.  12 short years later, I found an agent who liked my work and agreed to represent me.  He sold my first book, WHEN PAPA SNORES, to Simon and Schuster within weeks.  When he called me to tell me they were considering the book and would probably buy it, I started screaming.  I think my husband and kids thought I was having a stroke or something.

*How do you approach each book? Does it start with an idea, a phrase, an image? Do ideas come easy or do you really have to search for them?
All of the above.  Sometimes it’s just a catchy first line.  The ideas really do come easily.  Developing them into real stories is the real trick.

*Do you write to try to fit the market or do you follow your heart?
First, I follow my heart. Then I find a way to make it fit the market.

*Tell us a little about your most recent book release (or the next one).
PIRATES DON’T CHANGE DIAPERS was released March 1st this year.  It’s the companion book to HOW I BECAME A PIRATE.  In the story, Braid Beard and his crew return for the treasure they buried in Jeremy Jacob’s back yard, but in the process they wake up his baby sister and end up having to babysit.  Since “pirates don’t sit on babies” confusion pretty much takes over and Bonney Anne takes control.

*Whose work do you admire? Poetry? Picture books? Novels?
Maurice Sendak, David Shannon, Judith Viorst, Madeline L’Engle, C.S.  Lewis, Lois Lowry,  Robin McKinley, Dean Koontz,  This list could take pages so I’ll stop now.

*How do you help to market your books?
I do an awful lot of signings and school visits.

*What are the keys to maintaining a good relationship with your editor or agent?
I stay in touch and keep it friendly.  A sense of humor goes a long way.

*What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing best-selling picture books?
Acting, spending time with family, reading

*Any plans for a venture into writing other genres? Perhaps a novel?
I’m working on a young adult novel right now. It’s a ghost story.  I  hope it will eventually hit the bookstores, but we never know about  these things until they happen.

*A list of your favorite things:

 Food: Mexican

Music: Rock

Film: Fantasy/Adventure

Place: home (Greenville, SC)

Holiday/Event: Christmas and then Halloween

Cartoon character: Spongebob

Sport: Basketball

Mary Ann Hoberman

Mary Ann Hoberman is a poet and author of many books for children, including A House is a House for Me, winner of a National Book Award. Other popular titles includeThe Seven Silly Eaters and the You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You series. She received the 2003 Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, given by the National Council of Teachers of English. She has taught writing and literature from the elementary through the college level. She co-founded and performed with both “The Pocket People”, a children’s theatre group, and “Women’s Voices”, a group giving dramatized poetry readings. For more information, visit www.maryannhoberman.com.

*You expected to become a writer from a very early age. What contributed to your love of words and story?

Above all, listening to fairy tales.  And for whatever reason I made up rhymes and stories for as far back as I can remember.  I seem to have been born with a fascination with words.

*Do you consider yourself more a poet or a storyteller? 

Probably more a versifier and a wordplayer.

*Tell us a little about your daily schedule. Do you make time to write every day? 

When I was younger, I used to write every morning, but I am much less disciplined now.  These days I write in fits and spurts, depending on what I’m working on or playing with.

*How do you know when one of your poems is finished? Do you ever feel it’s perfect and shouldn’t change a word, or do you finally just give in to the words you’ve chosen?

That depends on the poem.  When you work in form and rhyme, your choice of words is very limited – the same words must express the feeling, meaning, music, and cadence of the poem.  When I start the poem, usually with a cluster of words, I know the right words are out there – it’s just a question of finding them and reeling them in – rather like catching a slippery elusive fish!  But when I finally get the right words, I usually know it!  Sometimes the poem will remain unfinished for days, weeks, or always, because I couldn’t find that fish!  I seldom settle for the good-enough word – because a good-enough word is usually not good enough.

*In your opinion, what makes a good poem? 

Go to Emily Dickinson’s definition.

*Do you write to try to fit the market or do you follow your heart? 

That depends.  I never have written anything that I did not want to write simply because I was told it would sell.  On the other hand, when a book of mine has done well and the editor has suggested that I try more of the same (the YOU READ TO ME series, the SINGALONG series), I have done so with pleasure.  But mostly, I get an idea for a book and I write it because I want to and if I am lucky someone wants to publish it.

* What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing? 

Above all, spending time with my family – my husband, my children and grandchildren – and with my friends.  Reading – especially poetry. Observing nature.  Listening to music.  Gardening.  Going to concerts, movies, theatre.  Travelling.  Walking along the beach with our two dogs, Pico and Maria.  Crossword puzzles and sudoku.  In the summer a little tennis and biking.  And thinking – always thinking – about words.

*How do you help to market your books? 

I go to various conferences, do interviews, bookstore visits on occasion.  Not so many school visits as I used to do.  Pretty much I try to do what my publishers ask me to do, within reason.  But I don’t do nearly as much as some authors I know – I’m older, for one thing, and don’t have quite the energy I used to.

*Tell us a little about how you start writing each book or poem. Does it start with the idea, or perhaps a phrase or image? Do you write quickly or do ideas sometimes take years to develop? 

Most of my books start with a title.  Poems with a phrase or cluster of words.  Often these ideas come to me while I’m walking – it’s all about rhythm and cadence.  Everything I write takes time – but sometimes it’s only a small amount.  Other poems and books are started, get laid aside, picked up again, and eventually are concluded – or not!  I have dozens of unfinished poems and stories in my files.

*Have you written in genres other than picture books and poetry? 

I’ve written plays, both for children and adults, travel articles, essays, etc., and I just recently completed my first novel for children.  But most of my publishing success has been in picture books and poetry for children.

*Tell us a little about your most recent book release (or the next one). 

Three books are out this Spring and Summer:I’M GOING TO GRANDMA’S  (Harcourt); MRS. O’LEARY’S COW (Little, Brown); and the 4th YOU READ TO ME book – SCARY TALES (Little, Brown, out in August).

*Which of your wonderful books is your favorite or which did you especially enjoy the process of writing? 

My very favorite is a tiny little book, long out of print, that my husband Norm illustrated.  It’s called HELLO AND GOOD-BY and contains many of my favorite poems.  I love writing the YOU READ TO ME books, especially knowing that Michael Emberley is going to illustrate them!

*Do you participate in a critique group? 

Somehow writing groups have never worked for me although I’ve participated in one or two on occasion.  Somehow the kind of writing I do goes better without any outside imput before submission.  But recently, when I started writing my novel, I began to meet with one other writer whose work I respected and who is an excellent critic and that turned out to be enormously helpful, mainly by keeping my nose to the grindstone.  And it’s fun to talk shop!

*Whose writing do you admire? Poetry? Picture books? Novels? 

Children’s poets?  The usual heroes:  Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne.  Picture books?  Maurice Sendak, Margaret Wise Brown, Ruth Krauss,  Arnold Lobel’s FROG AND TOAD, and dozens of others – it is such a rich and varied field!  Novels?  I’m a 19th century English fan:  Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontes, Dickens, Hardy.  I read many modern novels, enjoy them, but seldom return to them the way I do to the English ones.

*Do you have any advice for new writers? 

Write!  Regularly!  Do as I used to do, not as I do now.  Keep a notebook and/or journal.  Read!  Not only children’s books, indeed, not primarily children’s books.  Poetry, fiction, non-fiction.  When something you read pleases you, try to figure out why.  A good exercise for poets is to imitate a poem you like, making it about a different subject, but following its form, cadence, sentence structure, etc., exactly.  This will teach you a lot and it’s fun!

*A list of your favorites: 

Food: Bread and butter
Music: Folk, Show, Classical
Film: Wuthering Heights w. Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon
Place: Paris.  The Greek Islands.  Connecticut
Holiday/Event: Thanksgiving with all of our family together
Cartoon character: The Little King
Sport: Tennis, both as participant and spectator

Linda Ashman

Linda Ashman took the long road to a career in children’s books, with stops along the way as a real estate analyst, and in various jobs with social and environmental organizations. It was the job she didn’t get that suddenly made her realize what she wanted to do with her life –write children’s books. And write them she has! She is the critically acclaimed author of more than 15 picture books, with more on the way. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband, Jack Hicks, their son, Jackson, and their dog, Nicky. If you haven’t visited her website (www.lindaashman.com), you’re in for a treat!

*Tell us a little about your process to initial publication. Have you always been a writer? (Feel free to throw in the story of “the call” to let you know you’d be published.)

Blame it on vocational unhappiness.  I was a real estate analyst in New York and Los Angeles, but my heart wasn’t in it.  So I got a master’s degree in Urban Planning, and wound up working for an environmental program at UCLA.  My heart still wasn’t in it.  When I got turned down for a job I’d really, really wanted, I broke into sobs and said to my husband, “All I ever wanted to do was write children’s books!” This came as a complete surprise to both of us, but my incredibly supportive (some might say foolish) husband said, “Then do it.”  So I quit my job and started writing.

Two years (and many rejections) later, I sold my first book.  That book—BABIES ON THE GO—started out as a collection of poems about nocturnal creatures.  As I was doing the research, I noticed that many animals have interesting ways of carrying their young (I was pregnant at the time, so it’s no coincidence that I felt a certain kinship to them).  It occurred to me that perhaps I could write one poem—a picture book—instead of a poetry collection, which I did.  I sent the story to Allyn Johnston at Harcourt, who had reviewed one of my manuscripts at an SCBWI conference and offered to look at other work.  Her assistant called, said she liked it, but wondered if I’d be willing to make a few tweaks.  I tweaked, sent it back, and some weeks later they bought it.  I was elated, of course, and even more so when they signed up Jane Dyer to illustrate it (once I got over the shock that the book wouldn’t come out until 2003, six years after I’d sold it!).

 *How do you approach each book? Does it start with an idea, a phrase, an image? Are you a veritable fount of ideas or do you search for them like needles in a haystack?

I do have lots of ideas, actually, not that they help much. I keep an enormous “idea file” — a big folder filled with scribbled notes I’ve accumulated over the years.  Whenever I’m starting something new (always the hardest part for me), I go sifting through the file, hoping something will leap out at me.  I can think of exactly one time this strategy actually worked (for RUB-A-DUB SUB), but still I keep returning—hope springs eternal, as they say.  When I think about how each of my books has started, it seems more serendipitous than strategic—I’ll get an idea, or hear a line in my head over and over again. Since I typically write in verse, rhythm is a huge part of it; I can’t make any real progress on a story until I get the rhythm right.

 *Do you focus more on your readers or on the story itself as you are writing?

I don’t tend to think of potential readers when I’m writing, unless it’s going badly.  Then “the reader” becomes a judgmental, schoolmarm-ish figure who hovers over my shoulder, snipping “Who would want to read this?”  Never a good sign when she shows up.

*So many of your books are in rhyming verse. Do you consider yourself a poet, first and foremost?  

I love writing poetry, and all but two of my books are poetry collections or written in rhyme.  And certainly it’s the form that comes most naturally to me.  But first and foremost?  I don’t know.  I also write a mean economic report and a pretty good market study, skills I might have to fall back on some day.

*Do you write to try to fit the market or do you follow your heart?

I’m not sure it’s possible to write for the market since there’s such a huge lag time between what’s popular now and what willbe popular by the time your story gets published—who can predict?  The things I write about seem to come from things I love (my son, my dogs, nature), and things that fascinate or amuse me.  So I write and just hope the stories will find a market.  Still, I can’t say I completely follow my heart all the time, either.  If that were the case, I’d write more stories about things that are important to me—caring for the planet, working out conflicts peacefully, living more simply with less “stuff” — things like that.  In fact, I have written books like this, but — not too surprisingly— they never sold.  The message has to be wrapped in a good story, something I haven’t quite managed to pull off.

*Tell us a little about your most recent book release (or the next one). 

I have a book coming out with Sterling next spring called STELLA UNLEASHED: NOTES FROM THE DOGHOUSE, illustrated by Paul Meisel.  It’s a collection of poems told from the point of view of a dog named Stella, a thinly disguised version of my own dog, Nicky, a 15-year-old Lab/Australian Shepherd mix.  Nicky is usually in my office when I work (she’s a few feet away as I write this), and one day I looked over at this soulful, funny, devoted friend and started writing a poem from her point of view.  I was surprised and pleased (though maybe I should be alarmed) at how easy it was to speak for her — probably the most fluid writing experience I’ve ever had.  My editor for the book, Meredith Mundy Wasinger, is a fellow dog-lover and has been a joy to work with.

I have another book due out in spring 2008 as well.  ALPHABRATS is an A-Z collection of poems about naughty children, published by Dutton and illustrated by Nancy Carpenter.  I wrote the book when my son Jackson was two years old (he’ll be nine when it comes out; talk about delayed gratification!).  At the time, we were reading lots of Mother Goose rhymes together, which happen to be full of naughty behavior.  Jackson—like most kids, I suspect—found the naughtiness fascinating and often hilarious, which gave me the idea for the collection.

*You seem to break some of the “rules”, writing in rhyme when we hear editors don’t want rhyme or writing tender, quiet books when all the rage is supposedly “raucous”. And you break the rules so well! How do you get away with it? J  

Well, I don’t always get away with it, actually; I get plenty of rejections.  Still, I think it’s a misconception that editors don’t want books written in rhyme. Yes, there are some who don’t like rhyme, but what editors really don’t want is BAD rhyme—jarringly inconsistent rhythm, sentences mangled to make rhymes, too many “easy” rhymes which make for dull reading (e.g., you see/for me; it’s true/I do).  But for those who feel compelled to write in rhyme, I’d suggest reading POEM-MAKING by Myra Cohn Livingston for the fundamentals, and then read lots and lots of books by those who do it well (which makes for a good segue to your next question).

*Whose work do you admire? Poetry? Picture books? Novels?

So many!!!  Here are just a few:

Poetry and rhyming picture books: Mary Ann Hoberman, Jeanne Steig (ALPHA BETA CHOWDER doesn’t have a dull rhyme in it), Lisa Wheeler, Linda Smith, Doug Florian, Jane Yolen and Dr. Seuss (my first book report was on HORTON HEARS A WHO in first grade).

Picture Books:  When Jackson was small, there were certain authors and books we’d read over and over again (and almostnever get sick of).  This list includes mostly books from that period, as well as a few others I’ve discovered more recently:  Phyllis Root (Jackson loved CONTRARY BEAR, and I wish I’d written BIG MOMMA MAKES THE WORLD), William Steig, Sarah Stewart, Ross MacDonald, Wong Herbert Yee, Peggy Rathmann’s OFFICER BUCKLE AND GLORIA, Susan Meddaugh’s MARTHA books, Amy Hest’s BABY DUCK books, John S. Goodall’s hilarious wordless books (NAUGHTY NANCY is a particular favorite), Else Holmelund Minarik’s LITTLE BEAR books, James Marshall’s GEORGE & MARTHA series,  and pretty much any books illustrated by Mark Teague, David Small or Marla Frazee.

Novels: We’ve been reading lots of middle grade novels as a family for several years.  Favorite authors include Roald Dahl, Sharon Creech, Karen Cushman, Beverly Cleary, C.S. Lewis, E.B. White, Louis Sachar, Richard Peck, Kate DiCamillo, J.K. Rowling, Carl Hiaasen, Andrew Clements, Dan Gutman, and Wendelin Van Draanen’s SAMMY KEYES books.

*What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing award-winning picture books?

When not working, I like to spend time with my husband and son, read, think, walk, garden, visit the Denver Botanic Gardens, do yoga, kvetch with my dear friend Sally, explore bookstores and libraries, and hang out at Peet’s Coffee, alone or with a friend.

*Any plans for a venture into writing other genres? Perhaps a novel?  

At the urging of my son and husband, I recently attempted a chapter book of sorts.  I got off to a decent start then petered out.  Jackson, in particular, wants me to finish it, but I’m struggling.  I do hope to write other sorts of stuff eventually, but no immediate plans.

*A list of your favorite things: 

I suspect you were looking for short answers here, but I tend to over-think things.

Food: I happen to love vegetables, which is good since I don’t eat meat.  Lest I sound too healthy, I also love chocolate chip cookies and coffee, and chips, guacamole and margaritas (on the rocks with salt, thank you).
Music:  Oh, lots of stuff, but the CDs that always seem to be in the car include Guster, Lyle Lovett, Richard Shindell and Emmylou Harris.
Film:  I rarely see films these days, except for child-appropriate rentals (most of which I sleep through).  We did manage to see Little Miss Sunshine this year, which was hilarious in a grit-your-teeth sort of way.  All time favorite might be To Kill a Mockingbird; Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch became my model of the ideal man when I saw it as a kid.
Place:  So many come to mind, but here are just a few:  the moors where the Bronte sisters walked in Haworth, England (something I dreamed of seeing since reading their books as a girl and loved when I finally visited); a sheep farm where we once stayed on the South Island in New Zealand; Victoria, BC; Santa Fe, NM
Holiday/Event:  Jackson’s birthday (February 15th) and the vernal equinox (spring is my favorite season)
Sport: Ha! Until 4 years ago when Jackson discovered sports, they didn’t register on my radar screen.  Now, I know teams’ and players’ names in football, baseball and basketball, and have even learned to throw and catch flying spheres of various dimensions.  And I actually enjoy going to baseball games, especially evening games at Coors Field.

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