Blog: Of Tea and Mermaids
|Posted by Jena Benton on September 26, 2016 at 1:30 AM||comments (0)|
Changes are coming. I'm gearing up to change my blog, if not my entire website (as the technology isn't serving what I need any more). I've archived and categorized all of my blog entries (and the interviews are easier to find now) over on WordPress: https://jenabenton.wordpress.com/
All future entries will be over there (and I hope easier to subscribe to). I'll keep you posted on the changes to come.
|Posted by Jena Benton on September 11, 2016 at 10:25 PM||comments (0)|
Today I’m happy to introduce my readers to author Josh Funk. His books are hysterically funny AND rhyme. How funny? Well, his self-written bio says it all.
“Josh Funk writes silly stories and somehow tricks people into publishing them as picture books - such as the Award-Winning LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST, PIRASAURS!, DEAR DRAGON, the forthcoming Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast Sequel: THE CASE OF THE STINKY STENCH, and more. Josh is a board member of The Writers' Loft in Sherborn, MA and the co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conferences. Josh grew up in New England and studied Computer Science in school. Today, he still lives in New England and when not writing Java code or Python scripts, he drinks Java coffee and writes picture book manuscripts. Josh is terrible at writing bios, so please help fill in the blanks. Josh enjoys _______ during ________ and has always loved __________. He has played ____________ since age __ and his biggest fear in life is being eaten by a __________.”
You can learn more about him at www.joshfunkbooks.com and on twitter @joshfunkbooks.
Today, I get to talk with him about one of his latest books (he had TWO picture books released within a week of each other): “Pirasaurs!” That’s right, dear readers! DINOSAUR PIRATES!!!!
Me: From racing breakfast fare to pirate dinosaurs, I have to ask the dreaded question: where did you get your inspiration for “Pirasaurs!”?
Josh: I’ve always liked to think about what I want to see illustrated. Something I’ve never seen before or that would entertain me (and hopefully kids). And that sort of seeps into everything I write. I wanted to see a pancake and French toast race through the fridge causing catastrophic culinary chaos. I wanted see a boy and a dragon as pen pals. And I wanted to see a Pirate-Dinosaur adventure.
For this one, though, the story is sort of boring. In the wee hours of the morning on February 27th, 2013 I woke up (at 2:53 to be exact). I had the word ‘pirasaurs’ stuck in my head. So I texted it to myself (hence the time stamp) and went back to sleep. Two days later, I had a full draft.
Me: The Scholastic video trailer on your website is fantastic. They took your words and jumbled them up, but you’ve got a very catchy song! When you wrote this story in rhyme, did you imagine it in song? Or was it more a matter of the rhyme lending itself to a sea shanty naturally?
Josh: I’m so glad you like the trailer. I actually made it all myself. I recorded the song using the GarageBand app (entirely on my phone) - that’s me on guitar, tambourine, and all the vocals - with a little synth strings and keyboard. Then I used iMovie to create a slideshow-style video to go along with it.
I didn’t write the story as a song, but as PIRASAURS! is written in verse, I came up with a melody pretty early on (probably in the summer of 2013) that stuck with me. It was just about seeing how much I could fit in the 45 second trailer.
There’s so much you can do with computers on your own. I even created a ‘Which Pirasaur Are YOU?!’ Personality Quiz. https://www.boombox.com/c/quiz/256474/which-pirasaur-are-you
In case it wasn’t clear, I kind of like the promotion stuff.
Me: The illustrations by Michael Slack are quite fun in “Pirasaurs!” (and quite fitting). Did you collaborate with him at all? Did you include any illustrations notes? No spoilers, but did you envision a “bad guy” in your storyline leading a mutiny, as Michael did? How about a peg-leg tail?
Josh: The answer is no to everything! There were no illustration notes. I didn’t speak to Michael until it was done. And the peg-tail is all his brilliance. Most importantly, Michael added the entire plot about the mutiny - which frankly, I can’t imagine the book without it. I’m a little embarrassed even, because without the ‘bad guy’ and his plot, the book doesn’t make much sense.
I even had to cut a character for pagination purposes (Dreaded Steg originally had her own stanza). But Michael, who never saw a thing about that character, still added a stegosaurus to the crew. I asked Michael about this and he claims it was because of the line ‘With spiky tails we raise the sails’ and none of the others had spiky tails, but I still think it’s sort of amazing that he added back the exact character I had to cut without knowing.
PIRASAURS! is truly an example of both the words and pictures being needed to complete a book - but amazingly, we didn’t collaborate directly on any of it.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing “Pirasaurs!”?
Josh: I was surprised at how fast I could write a whole story given a personally imposed deadline.
I’ll explain. The PIRASAURS! you see in front of you is not actually the first version that I wrote. My editor at Scholastic took a version that was more of a concept book to acquisitions over the summer of 2013 and they ultimately passed on it. But my editor asked for a revision - or more like a rewrite. A story about pirasaurs, but with a plot.
Being unagented and unpublished at the time, I didn’t want to lose the attention of an editor at a big house, so I wrote a nearly entirely new draft in under 2 weeks (I kept about a stanza and a half. And now, that’s often how I write (which leads perfectly to your next question).
Me: What does your writing process look like?
Josh: I don’t really have a consistent process. I’m more of a ‘when the muse strikes’ type of writer. I usually get my best idea either in the shower … or in that period where I’m half asleep but not quite there yet (or when I’m woken up at 2:53am).
When I get an idea I’m excited about, I’ll probably write a first draft in a few days. And then spend the next few weeks/months(/years) revising.
Me: I read your guest blog in ReFoReMo not too long ago and was surprised to find a book I’d never read before (“Under a Pig Tree” by Margie Palatini). I had to track it down and read it. I was laughing out loud so hard, my husband insisted (I swear he did) on hearing parts of it read aloud. I won’t ask “what’s your favorite funny book of all time” (because it’s too hard to choose just one favorite!). But you ARE a funny book writer, so I must ask what other favorite funny books have you read and enjoyed?
Josh: UNDER A PIG TREE cracks me up. I borrowed it from the library and loved it so much that I went out and bought it the next day!
Right now I’m really into the TIMMY FAILURE Series by Stephan Pastis (reading with my kids). I love that style of absurd humor. And the MR. PANTS Series by Scott McCormick and R. H. Lazell. I can hear my kids laughing two floors away when they’re reading MR. PANTS (and should be sleeping!).
As far as picture books, CHICKEN CHEEKS by Michael Ian Black is a family favorite. Jess Keating’s PINK IS FOR BLOBFISH is not only hilarious, but it’s also Non-Fiction. Anna Staniszewski’s POWER DOWN LITTLE ROBOT is great. MOTHER BRUCE by Ryan T. Higgins is seriously funny. Pretty much anything by Samantha Berger, Kelly DiPucchio, Bob Shea - they’re all pretty hilarious!
Me: You have another story coming out this month with another cold-blooded creature (“Dear Dragon”). Dinosaurs. Dragons. Is there a love of reptiles? Or is there another favorite animal we might see make an appearance in future stories?
Josh: Yeah, that’s just a coincidence that PIRASAURS! and DEAR DRAGON were released a week apart. I’ve never really thought of myself as a huge reptile fan. DEAR DRAGON is a very different style than PIRASAURS! It’s about a boy and a dragon who are pen pals, but don’t know they’re writing to a different species. The illustrations show all the assumptions they’re making and misunderstandings they have throughout the year of writing letters until they eventually meet in person/dragon at the pen pal picnic.
I don’t know about any other animals or creatures you’ll see … but I guarantee they’ll be an appearance by Inspector Croissant in LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST: THE CASE OF THE STINKY STENCH - he’s Sir French Toast’s nephew. Together they all seek to find the source of a mysterious odor before the fridge is destroyed by … no, I’m not gonna say. No spoilers here (other than spoiled food, that is).
Thanks so much for inviting me to be interviewed! Happy Reading!
I can’t wait to read some of those recommendations! Though I have read a few of them and love them already as well. I admit that I ran around like a lunatic sharing Ryan T. Higgins’ “Mother Bruce” with coworkers, friends and family.
And guys, if you haven’t already checked out any of Josh’s books, you’ve got to! They are great reads full of laughter. Check out the video trailer he created (nice work Josh!) on the front page of his website. The song will stick in your head! And definitely give the book a read too! Hilarious stuff! Thanks for stopping by my blog Josh.
|Posted by Jena Benton on September 10, 2016 at 2:45 PM||comments (0)|
I've been waiting to share this one for quite some time. As you may know if you've been reading my blog for a while, I'm a great lover of the ocean. I'm also incredibly fond of fairy tales. Today's book combines both of those loves in the most fantastic way and absolutely tickles my fancy. The illustrations are adorable, it teaches kids about a sea creature that isn't common, and it just works on so many levels! I'm SO excited to tell you guys all about it! It's been SO hard to wait!
Henry Herz was previously interviewed by me for another picture book coming out earlier this summer:
He is a picture book author who loves fantasy and conventions to name a few things. You can learn more about him at his website here:
Now let's talk about his book "Little Red Cuttlefish" illustrated by Kate Gotfredson!
Me: What gave you the idea for this story?
Henry: I like the idea of wrapping fiction around non-fiction topics as a way of interesting young readers in STEM topics. That’s the literary equivalent of pouring melted cheese on broccoli to get kids to eat it.
I’m a big animal lover, and one of the most bizarre and cool creatures in the sea is the cuttlefish. Like their cousins, squid and octopuses, cuttlefish sport multiple arms and can squirt ink. The females have four arms and two tentacles, while the males have six arms and two tentacles. Smooth, dude! Cuttlefish never stop growing as they age. But most impressive of all is their ability to change their color instantaneously, like a chameleon on steroids. Watch some YouTube videos to see what I mean.
Me: I read in your bio that you love scuba diving. Have you ever seen a Cuttlefish in person?
Henry: Sadly, no. I have seen sharks, sea stars, sea slugs, lobster, shrimp, eels, and all manner of fish. Diving is like flying INSIDE a zoo, as there is life all around you. I understand there is currently a cuttlefish exhibit at Birch Aquarium (Scripps Oceanographic Institute in La Jolla, CA), so I’ll have to go visit them. Maybe get them to ink a copy of LITTLE RED CUTTLEFISH.
Me: What is the most amazing thing you’ve seen while scuba diving?
Henry: A friend and I began a beach dive. We were swimming out on the surface before diving. Suddenly, up pops a third head. Except this head didn’t have a snorkel, but rather whiskers. A sea lion wanted to see what we were up to. It totally reminded me of a dog. “Hey guys, wanna’ play?”
Me: What is your favorite undersea discovery that you made while writing this book?
Henry: Cuttlefish are amazing in so many ways. Their blood is green-blue because instead of iron-based red hemoglobin for transporting oxygen, cuttlefish blood employs a copper-based protein. Because that’s not as efficient as hemoglobin, cuttlefish employ THREE hearts, one for each gill and a third for the rest of the body. Three hearts means three times the love. Speaking of love, like many other species, cuttlefish males vie for dominance and mating privileges. Some clever males sneak past the dominant male into his cuttlefish harem by tucking in two arms to appear female and avoid a fight. Smooth, dude. Lastly, cuttlefish employ their camouflage not just defensively, but offensively as well. By rapidly changing their colors and “flashing”, cuttlefish can confuse and immobilize their prey, making it easier to grab them with their tentacles. Sushi time!
Me: The illustrations in this book are fantastic! Did you have any input on them for this story? Did you use any illustration notes?
Henry: Thanks on behalf of the illustrator, Kate Gotfredson. Yes, her work is a lovely blend of sweet, whimsical, and realistic.
Normally, authors who are not illustrators do not submit artwork with their manuscript. The publisher likes to choose the illustrator in that scenario. However, when I wrote LITTLE RED CUTTLEFISH, I didn’t know this. So, I reached out to an acquaintance to see if she’d collaborate. I provided significant art direction for this story, normally the domain of a publishing house’s art director. When she finished, my submissions were accompanied by her illustrations and, fortunately for both of us, Pelican Publishing loved the artwork.
Me: What does your writing process look like?
Henry: I often using a blank Excel spreadsheet as a storyboard template to map out what goes on each spread. From that, I write the first draft. What follows is a series of iterations as my sons, members of my critique groups, and other writer friends offer feedback. When I think the manuscript is ready, I send it to my agent.
Knowing when a manuscript is ready to submit is tricky for me. I’m impatient, so I want to send the book out about three times before it’s really ready. It’s also challenging deciding which feedback to incorporate. Many times I’ve received contradictory critiques from different writing partners. One must strike the right balance between sending too soon and over-polishing the story and losing its original spirit and charm.
Me: Where do you dream of scuba diving someday?
Henry: I’ve been fortunate enough to dive off Cancun and Tahiti. Anywhere the water is equally warm and clear sounds good to me.
I admit that I've never scuba dived, but snorkeling in Hawaii in Hanauma Bay (on Oahu) with those beautiful colored fish changed my life. I had to go back several times to do it again and capture the experience with an underwater video camera I rented so I could share it with my students. They love to see those underwater videos and try to find the fish that they know and recognize. Flying inside a zoo is probably one of the best descriptions I can imagine about that experience (even if I'm only on top of the water).
I'm so delighted to relive that same experience while reading this book. I can't wait to share it with my students! Dear readers, if you too are a fan of the ocean and of fairy tales, I cannot recommend this book enough. Nor can I rave about how adorable the illustrations are! Go to Henry's website and learn more about it (and see the cover!) here:
|Posted by Jena Benton on August 23, 2016 at 12:00 AM||comments (0)|
I'm excited to talk with Diana Murray once again. Her THIRD picture book is coming out TOMORROW and it's absolutely a cutie! "Ned the Knitting Pirate" is a fun take on being yourself (and it has a mermaid!). Is it any surprise that this sea-loving-blogger loves this book? I think not! How exciting to have not one, not two, but THREE picture books come out in one summer!
If you missed my first two interviews with Diana, be sure to check them out. Her books "City Shapes" and "Grimelda: the Very Messy Witch" are also worth a read. If you want to know more about her, be sure to visit her website here: http://www.dianamurray.com/
Me: “Ned the Knitting Pirate” is another funny picture book! What inspired the idea of a pirate that knits?
Diana: It was an episode of Anthony Bourdain (a travel and cooking show) in which he visited Sweden and met some extreme snowboarders who knitted their own hats. The snowboarders also happened to be descended from vikings. I just thought it was an interesting juxtaposition. Also, I tend to like tales that are gender-benders. So that's where the spark of the idea came from.
Me: I love that! Proof that you CAN get inspiration from TV and random shows of interest to adults only! I also love the illustrations for this. Did you leave illustration notes at all for the illustrator as you wrote the story? Or did you leave the art side of things alone for this project?
Diana: I do add illustrator notes sometimes, but usually only to clarify things. The artistic vision was all Leslie! I think she did an amazing job.
Me: I am madly in love with mermaids. I love the mermaid that swims silently throughout this story. Was that something you had envisioned? Or was it something Leslie Lammle came up with all on her own?
Diana: That was Leslie! And it was such a wonderful surprise! Seeing the illustrations is probably the most exciting part of the process for me. It's a whole other perspective, and vision, and skill set being brought to the project.
Me: I would have to agree. Though I've only had a doodle done for one of my manuscripts so far, I framed it and put it above my writing desk as inspiration. What is one thing that surprised you in writing “Ned the Knitting Pirate”?
Diana: I gave up on the first draft of NED. I thought it might be too weird. But about two years later, I came back to that draft and everything suddenly seemed clear to me. A fresh pair of eyes can make all the difference.
Me: Wow! Two Years! Though, honesly, that's really encouraging. I have a couple of manuscripts I've shelved as well. Maybe after enough time, I can make it back to them to figure out how to rewrite them. Since I already asked about mermaids, I have to ask about one of my other loves. I see that like me, you have a love of tea, but do you think Ned does too? Is this something he might teach the pirates to love next?
Diana: I'm pretty sure that all the pirates drink strong black tea in the morning. But in the evening, perhaps Ned could teach them the benefits of a nice cup of chamomile and kelp tea--his own concoction--paired with toast and sea jelly.
Me: LOL! I love it! I see that you have 5 other books coming out in the next few years. Are they all picture books? Are any of them sequels with Ned? Do you foresee any sequels with Ned?
Diana: There hasn't been any talk of a NED sequel. I guess we'll see. Most of the books I have coming out are rhyming picture books, but one of them is an early reader.
Me: I know you used to go on fishing trips as a child. Did you dream of becoming a pirate yourself someday? Do you still like to go out in boats?
Diana: Haha! I'm far too timid to be a pirate and I get far too seasick to go in a boat. I've been on some boats in the past, but not anymore. However, I DO like kayaking. These days, it's my oldest daughter who likes to go fishing and boating with her dad. Me and my younger daughter usually do something else, like get ice cream and watch a movie.
LOL! Funny story: LOTS of Alaskans like to kayak. BUT I've had a fear of kayaking for years because they usually show pictures of doing it on the open sea. And then there's those photos of whales coming up under kayakers. I feared that with my clutziness I'd tip the darn thing over while stuck inside (I envisioned the original native kayaks where you have a hole to get into and sit inside an enclosed boat) and drown. It wasn't until this last summer while visiting friends in Sacramento that I finally tried it, on a nearby river where we spent the 4th of July. I quite enjoyed it as well! I was surprised that I had feared it for so long. Maybe just like Ned's fellow pirates, I had to try it out for myself before I could fully appreciate it.
I hope your book birthday with Ned is a joy Diana. It's a fun read aloud. I highly recommend those of you that read this blog track it down and read it. Especially if you love pirates with their own unique sense of style.
|Posted by Jena Benton on August 15, 2016 at 11:10 PM||comments (0)|
Today's author is the amazing Miranda Paul! She is a picture book author who writes both nonfiction and fiction. Her three nonfiction books have already won her a lot of awards (such poetic writing!), and this summer she has two fiction picture books coming out. She is a former educator (always a soft spot for me as a teacher) and the current Mentorship chair for We Need Diverse Books™. You can learn more about her at her website here: http://mirandapaul.com/ Her Twitter handle is @Miranda_Paul and her facebook page is Facebook.com/AuthorMirandaPaul
She joins us today to discuss her latest book, "10 Little Ninjas" (illustrated by Nate Wragg), that was just released last week. It's a clever new twist on the "10 Little Monkeys" story!
Me: You have been on a roll! Two picture books out this summer, another one due out next year and your picture books published last year have gained a lot of recognition and acclaim. What is it that draws you to writing picture books?
Miranda: They’re fun! They’re rhythmic! They allow me to explore while writing. Then I get to inspire and entertain others once they’re out in the world. Each word matters in picture books, because there are fewer of them. I love that each tiny word is important; it’s sort of like children in our world.
Me: I understand you’re married to a writer too. How does that work? Do you share ideas? Critique each other’s work? Or do you work alone so as not to affect the other person’s work?
Miranda: Baptiste and I definitely bounce things off each other, and critique each other’s work when it’s ready and if we think we’ll be each others’ best critiquer. Most of the time, we work independently on projects (even when we’re collaborating), because our schedules are opposite—but we make appointments to work together when we need to, like for an upcoming nonfiction project we’re really excited to announce soon.
Me: “10 Little Ninjas” is a very cute concept. Were you originally thinking all of the kids were in one family (as is traditional with the 10 Little Monkeys story), or were you imagining a slumber party? Where did your idea start, and where did the illustrator pick up?
Miranda: I was definitely imagining one family with 10 kids, who sneak out of their beds (and creep closer and closer to Dad’s room). My husband is the baby of 10, and my grandma had seven babies and took care of 14 foster babies. You should see what our family reunions look like! What the illustrator added was who the sensei was—Mom! It makes the story complete, and I’m thrilled to see the diverse family, because families in reality are much more diverse than they’ve historically been depicted in picture books.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Miranda: How many stanzas I would delete—completely—or rewrite, how many drafts there’d be, how many rejections I’d get. After all, it’s just a rewrite of “10 Little Monkeys” right? Wrong! I love how my editor helped me shape it so that it revs up in the beginning, and winds down to a sleepy end. Even concept books have plots and layers.
I was also surprised by how many ninja stories have been published since I wrote this one all those years ago. I don’t write to trends, and panicked about a year ago, worrying it’d never find a place in the market (apparently the sales and marketing department also had this conversation). Then, to my surprise, Amazon named it a Best Book of the Month (August 2016) and it became the #1 New Release in Children’s Counting Books.
Me: I know that (much like me) in the past you have been a teacher. What did your writing process look like while you were working an all-consuming job like teaching? What does it look like now?
Miranda: It looked pretty frantic and manic then, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning or during breaks. Hmmm...still looks pretty frantic and manic now. Guess the biggest difference is that I do tend to get a little more sleep now...but that could also be because my kids aren’t toddlers anymore.
Me: Any advice for other picture book writers?
Miranda: Thank a librarian or teacher today. Your job (or dream job) wouldn’t exist without them. Remember that they are champions and heroes of literacy.
Me: You have mentioned that you like to travel and have been to many different countries. Dare I ask, where was your favorite place to visit? And where is your favorite place to live? Is there some place you haven’t been yet that you would love to go see?
Miranda: My family and I love hanging out at La Tille, a UNESCO Heritage site in St. Lucia. Sometimes we’re the only ones there. It’s like the rainforest is ours, and we swim at its base.
I feel like I could live anywhere—but Wisconsin is home.
As for places I’ve never been, I want to experience the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
Thank you Miranda for your insight! I'm glad to know that those "avoid the trend" panic attacks happen to successfully published authors as well, and that they might not mean anything anyway! I think that just brings it all back to the adage of writing the story that you have to tell, that is true to you. Your voice will tell it in a unique way that only you can write, just as you did here. "10 Little Ninjas" is a wonderful rewrite, but it definitely has that Miranda Paul spin on it that only you could have written. I'm glad you perservered through all the editing (& rejections)!
Check out "10 Little Ninjas" today you guys. It's bound to become a read aloud classic that will be republished for many years to come. She also has four other picture books already published and two more to be released next year! There are many exciting reads to look forward to from this gal.
Trainbots – illus. Shane McG
One Plastic Bag – illus. Elizabeth Zunon
Water is Water – illus. Jason Chin
Whose Hands Are These? – illus. Luciana Navarro Powell
Coming in 2017
Blobfish Throws a Party – illus. Maggie Caton
Are We Pears Yet? – illus. Carin Berger
|Posted by Jena Benton on August 8, 2016 at 8:15 PM||comments (0)|
Surprise! It’s already time for another Simply 7 interview. I meant to publish this one on the book’s birthday, but I got a bit sidetracked with the wedding (now done) and somehow missed the fact that the book’s release date got bumped up and has already come out!
Today’s picture book author, Henry Herz, has written several picture books and has a couple coming out this year. He loves to write fantasy and science fiction, and has participated in literature panels at a variety of conventions. His active resume is not quite what you’d expect from a fellow picture book author, which makes him all the more intriguing! You can learn more about him at his website here: http://www.henryherz.com/
Henry joins us today to discuss his latest book (illustrated by Lisa Woods), “Mabel and the Queen of Dreams,” which cleverly takes a passage out of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and turns it into a bedtime story!
Me: What draws you to writing picture books?
Henry: I’m drawn to picture books by a couple of factors. First, picture books offer kids their first exposure to reading. It’s a magical time when you first discover WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, and realize that books and your imagination can take you anywhere. Second, I enjoy the heavily illustrated nature of picture books. Given that most authors and illustrators don’t communicate directly during the production of a picture book, this is a serial collaboration. But that approach can offer readers two complementary interpretations of a story, the written word and the illustration.
Me: You seem to be fond of literary adaptations. What inspired you to use Shakespeare for a picture book?
Henry: I can see how you might draw that conclusion given my first four traditionally published picture books are adaptations. But that doesn’t mean I only WRITE adaptations. It’s just turned out the adaptations are what sold first. My fifth picture book, DINOSAUR PIRATES (Sterling, 2017) is not an adaptation, nor are the stories I have out on submission.
That said, there is something that tickles my funny bone about taking a familiar folk tale and tweaking it. Fractured fairy tales are quite popular – consider INTERSTELLER CINDERELLA by Deborah Underwood or NINJA RED RIDING HOOD by Corey Rosen Schwartz. And anyway, who better to adapt than the Bard himself? It is to be hoped that MABEL AND THE QUEEN OF DREAMS may spark in young readers some interest in reading more Shakespeare.
Me: I see that you list your two sons as co-writers. How does that work? Do they give you the ideas and you fill in the details? Or do all 3 of you sit down and write the story together?
Henry: This is a tradition we began years ago, when we first collaborated on our self-published high fantasy early chapter book, NIMPENTOAD. I draft the story and they review it, giving me feedback from a young reader’s perspective. They have also been instrumental in selling the book at book fairs, farmers markets, etc. They’re even better salesmen than they are writers.
Me: Did your own children have a hard time going to sleep? Were they an inspiration for Mabel?
Henry: No, our kids were pretty good about going to sleep. We established a familiar pattern of reading to them, giving them some milk, and letting them watch a soothing video. That seemed to establish a habit for them.
Initially, my thought was simply to write a picture book on Shakespeare. As I scanned through some of his works, I came across Mercutio’s soliloquy in Romeo and Juliet. Since the fairy queen influences sleepers’ dreams, it struck me that this could serve as the basis for a bedtime picture book.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Henry: Bedtime picture books are really different animals than “normal” picture books. In the latter, writers are expect to create a story arc with rising tension as the protagonist struggles to surmount obstacles on the way to victory. With a bedtime picture book, writers must sooth the reader. Instead of a triumphant finish, my approach was to offer the promise of vivid dreams if the child closes his or her eyes and goes to sleep.
Toward that end, the illustrator, Lisa Woods, did a great job linking the imagined scenes with bedroom elements. For example, notice the subtle presence of the bed cover’s checkerboard pattern in many of the illustrations.
Three things surprised me in writing MABEL. First was how well-suited Mercutio’s soliloquy was for a bedtime picture book. Second, I didn’t anticipate how the story would morph during the writing. In the final version, Mabel’s mom tells her a story, so this is a story about telling a story. Part-way through, the narration subtly shifts so that it sounds like it is the Fae queen speaking rather than Mom. As the story progresses, little Mabel gradually gets in bed, lies down, then puts her feet under the covers. She eases into the world of dreams.
The third surprise for me was the ability of a single word to convey tone. In MABEL, the Fae Queen’s chariot driver is an ant in a worn grey coat. Almost magically, the word ‘worn’ conveys decline and sadness. It’s subconscious, but a subtle mental shorthand occurs. This is the queen’s chariot driver, so he should be dressed meticulously. The use of a worn coat implies a decline in fortunes of the Fae Queen. Her ancient rule and power have faded with age, like Tolkien’s elves departing Middle Earth for Valinor.
Me: Any advice for other picture book writers?
Henry: The shorter version is to be tenacious. Never stop honing your craft. Never let rejections stop you from moving forward with your writing.
The longer version is a post I did for Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo at https://taralazar.com/2014/11/20/piboidmo-day-20-henry-herz/
Me: I have to ask, what is your favorite quote from Shakespeare?
Henry: Henry V’s St. Crispin Day monologue. It chokes me up every time.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Ohhhh! That is a really great quote. It is incredibly moving, whether Kenneth Branaugh says it, or it's just referred to (like in the "Band of Brothers" tv miniseries). Though I admit I watched a spoof of it just recently in the first season of Black Adder that had me giggling.
And this book is joining the ranks of other Shakespeare books of note this year like "Will's Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk" written by Jane Sutcliffe and illustrated by John Shelley. Though honestly, Shakespeare has been and will continue to be adapted for many years to come as the Bard knew what emotional notes to strike. Just as Henry did here! It's such a unique twist on such a great section of Shakespeare's writing that I'm just floored at its brilliance. Hie thee hence to a bookstore dear reader and see just how amazing it is!
|Posted by Jena Benton on August 7, 2016 at 10:30 PM||comments (2)|
Diana Murray has THREE picture books coming out this summer, her debut summer as a picture book author nonetheless! I interviewed her about her first book "City Shapes" here: http://jenabenton.webs.com/apps/blog/show/44076269-simply-7-interview-with-diana-murray
She has a great sense of humor, is a mom to two children and a goldfish named Pickle. You can learn more about her at her website here: http://www.dianamurray.com/
She is joining us today to discuss her latest book "Grimelda: the Very Messy Witch" (a very funny story about a very cute witch who is organizationally challenged).
Me: This book, “Grimelda: the Very Messy Witch” is funny! Do you find it hard to right funny stories?
Diana: No, I love writing funny, wacky stories! Of course, I can never be sure if it will be funny to other people. But I typically find that if I can surprise myself while writing or even make myself chuckle, then I'm probably on the right track. I also test things out on my husband. If he smiles or laughs, I know it's working. If he's rushing through the text and asking me, "Is this much longer?", then I know it needs work. I have critique partners who are writers, as well, but he's always my first reader.
Me: Do you know any messy witches? Was Grimelda based on anyone you know?
Diana: Um, yeah. Grimelda is pretty much me in witch form. I really try not to be messy, but it's so hard, because I'd rather spend the time on more creative endeavors. I'm constantly losing things. And yes, sometimes I'll even resort to buying a new something-I'm-missing because I can't take searching anymore. Naturally, I always find the missing item shortly afterward. I also think it's fun to find surprises when I finally get around to a thorough cleaning. It's nice to find that pair of sunglasses I lost last year--a kind of reward for rolling up my sleeves. My children can also relate.
Me: You have another story coming out next year with Grimelda (“Grimelda: Spooktacular Pet Show”). Did you have the sequel already in mind when you sold the first story? Did you enjoy revisiting the character? Are there other stories with her in your future?
Diana: Not at all! I had no idea there would be a sequel. The publisher was particularly interested in character-driven picture books. My agent and I met with them at their office to discuss some of the stories I was working on, back in 2012. When they offered me a book deal (a few weeks later), it was a two-book deal. After I signed the contract, the editor and I brainstormed some ideas for the sequel. I was thrilled to be able to go deeper into Grimelda's world. It was SO fun. I'm not sure if there are more Grimelda stories in my future, but that would be wonderful.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing “Grimelda: the Very Messy Witch”?
Diana: When I got the first revision letter from my editor, Katie Bignell, it seemed like a tall order. I was surprised that I was able to accomplish what she wanted. I was also surprised by how much I agreed with her. She was an amazing editor. Sadly, she's no longer with that publisher. Earlier in my career, I had a more difficult time revising. I was more reserved and scared to cut things out. Now I'm like a revising ninja with a machete.
Me: Grimelda isn’t your average witch. There are quite a few things in this story that I’d never heard of before in other witch stories. How did you go about inventing her world and surroundings? Was it a matter of letting your creativity run free? Or was it a matter of making up words that helped fit into your rhyme scheme?
Diana: Definitely not the latter! That's a big no-no. You never want to let the rhymes drive the story. You need to stay in control. Sometimes a rhyme does add an element of surprise, but you only use it if it fits, and seems natural, and you like it. It shouldn't appear forced. When it comes to fictional creatures, they can be however you want them to be. There was a lot of talk in my crit group, for example, about whether there were boy witches in Grimelda's world. Doing a bit of world building was extremely fun for me. I wanted Grimelda to be a classic, striped-tights-wearing witch. I also wanted to incorporate a lot of elements that are contrary to "normal" standards. For example, liking mess instead of cleanliness, liking "rot sauce" instead of "hot sauce"--that sort of thing. Something to let readers shake their heads in disapproval, but in a delighted way.
Me: What does your writing process look like?
Diana: I write every chance I get. Whether I'm on vacation or waiting for the bus. It's gratifying and I feel like I'm going crazy when I don't get some writing in.
Me: I understand that you have a goldfish named pickle. In this story, Grimelda can’t find her pickle root. I’m sensing a theme. Are you a fan of pickles?
Diana: I LOVE pickles! My mom used to make them herself. And lots of other pickled things, like tomatoes, and cabbage, and peppers. But my daughter named the goldfish so that had nothing to do with me. Come to think of it, both of my daughters like pickles, too. To me it was funny, though, that Grimelda might use a witchy herb to make something pickle flavored. If I had a jar of grated pickle root, I'd sprinkle it on everything! Also, "pickle" is a funny word. It just is.
LOL! I absolutely have to agree. The funny thing is, when I was younger, I remember watching an old movie called "The Glass Slipper" (with Leslie Caron). It was an interesting adaptation of Cinderella where the fairy godmother was kind of this doddering old lady who was treated like the town witch. SHE said that she had favorite words and one of them was pickle! And she paused to prounounce it slowly. I laughed, but that scene had a profound impact on me and the way I thought about words. It made me wonder what my favorite word would be. Yeah for witches and pickles! LOL!
What favorite words do you have dear readers? Not sure? Run out and read a copy of "Grimelda: the Very Messy Witch." There are some fantastic new words in it that just roll over the tongue in the loveliest of ways. It's a great read aloud! Thank you again Diana for stopping by!
|Posted by Jena Benton on July 22, 2016 at 1:30 PM||comments (2)|
I'm excited to say that the Simply 7 interviews are taking off like hot cakes you guys. I've been able to ask some very talented authors questions about their books and their writing craft. There are quite a few lined up in the next few months that you will really enjoy (and I've found them incredibly insightful).
Today's Simply 7 interview is with the wonderful Pat Zietlow Miller. Her latest book "Sophie's Squash Go to School" is a delightful sequel to the first award winning book (i.e., "Sophie's Squash"). It's a "first day of school" story that hits the mark about the emotional struggle for kids making new friends. She has several picture books out now, another one due out this year, and many more to come I'm sure! You can learn more about her here: http://www.patzietlowmiller.com/
Me: What draws you to writing picture books?
Pat: I’ve said this before, but picture books have an almost magnetic pull for me. They draw me to them like nothing else and compel me to spend time with them, admire them and try to replicate them. Done right, they are perfection in 32 pages.
I like all kinds of books, but picture books will always hold the biggest part of my heart.
Me: This book is a sequel (to “Sophie’s Squash”). How did that come about? Were you asked to write a sequel because the character was so well rounded (or after the book won awards)? Or did you always have a sequel in mind?
Pat: Initially, I did not have a sequel in mind. I thought Sophie would be a stand-alone book. But then, when it did better than anyone expected, my editor and I started talking about other adventures Sophie could have.
Me: This book is just as fun as the first one. How did you feel about writing a sequel? Was it something you wanted to do? Did you enjoy being able to revisit the same character again?
Pat: At my editor’s request, I came up with a few options. We picked the one we liked best, and I started work. It was fun to get into Sophie’s world again. I very much wanted to keep the humor and heart of the first book.
Me: Do you foresee any other sequels to the Sophie stories?
Pat: Right now, I have no other plans for Sophie. But readers know she is strong-willed and persistent. So if she has ideas about what she should be doing, I’m sure she’ll let me know.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Pat: How much pressure I felt to get it right. The first book did so well so unexpectedly that I didn’t want to let Sophie or Bernice down with a subpar story. I wanted to come up with something that was a worthy follow up. It took some time and a lot of back and forth with my editor.
Me: Any advice for other picture book writers?
Pat: Write stuff that is important to you. Study other books for their structure and style, but stay true to your inspiration. One of the things that made Sophie popular was its very quirkiness. A girl falls in love with a squash and everybody is like, “Sure, that’s completely normal.”
It seems odd, but I’ve heard from so many families wanting to tell me about their kids who formed attachments to squash, watermelon, eggplant, apples, bananas and heads of garlic. There was some universal truth there after all.
Me: Do you like squash? Do you grow it? Eat it? Have a favorite type of squash? Or have you not been able to eat it since writing these stories with Sophie?
Pat: I do like eating squash. Especially butternut squash. I like it roasted. I like it in soup. And I like it in fun things like ravioli. I still do eat it, but now I feel slightly cannibalistic whenever I do. I do not grow it, but I buy it whenever I can.
Thank you Pat for your insight and for joining us today! I'm very excited about your this picture book. Check out her book! It really is worth a read and a study of how to take a character into a sequel that rings true to the first story.
|Posted by Jena Benton on July 12, 2016 at 7:05 PM||comments (0)|
It's time for another exciting Simply 7 interview with a picture book author. This time Diana Murray has kindly agreed to answer some questions. Her first picture book, "City Shapes," just came out in June. She has 2 more books coming out this summer (one in July and one in August), as well as one next year.
Diana is a writer of children's books and award winning poetry. She moved to the US from the Ukraine when she was only 2 and has lived most of her life in New York. You can learn more about her on her website here: http://www.dianamurray.com/
Me: What draws you to writing picture books?
Diana: There are many reasons I adore picture books as a genre. I like the blend of art and words. The way the words and the pictures each tell part of the story. I also love how picture books are typically a shared experience. And finally, I love kids! They're so full of imagination and wonder. So it's particularly fun to write with kids in mind. And technically speaking, I like the challenge of writing a complete story in so few words. It's harder than it looks.
Me: Since your book “City Shapes” is about exploring a city, what is your favorite city? Was that the city you envisioned as the setting for the book?
Diana: I grew up in New York so I did write with that in mind. But the publisher wanted to keep the illustrations and descriptions somewhat neutral--not just NYC-specific. I think that was a good way to go. I wouldn't say New York is my favorite city, but I will always think of it as home, so that makes it special. I also love Anchorage, Barcelona, Paris, Palma de Mallorca, Montreal, and lots of other cities.
Me: You have three books coming out this summer (1 every month). Did you sell all three stories at the same time? Do they all rhyme? If yes, do you feel boxed into writing or selling only picture book stories that rhyme now?
Diana: Yes, they all rhyme. It would be fine for me to write something in prose but my rhyming stories typically turn out better. Probably because I enjoy writing them more. NED THE KNITTING PIRATE and GRIMELDA THE VERY MESSY WITCH sold simultaneously to different publishers. But both releases were pushed back by several years. Meanwhile, we sold CITY SHAPES. Even though it sold later, it came out first because there were no delays.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing “City Shapes”?
Diana: After the manuscript was accepted, the editor sent me a bunch of notes for revisions. She wanted me to add more shapes. I really didn't see how it would be possible at first, but finally, I managed to incorporate "diamonds" and "stars" as additional shapes. With revisions, it's always surprising when something seems so difficult at the start, but then you figure out a way to pull it off.
Me: The illustrations in this book are absolutely gorgeous. Did you have any say in them? Did you give Bryan Collier any illustration notes? Did you specify the choice of the city?
Diana: I did use some illustration suggestions, simply to make sure that my text was clear. For example, I labeled the different neighborhoods ("midtown skyscrapers", "downtown brownstones", etc.). Other than that, after I saw the illustrations, my editor and I did have some notes in terms of how the text and illustrations related. But in terms of the overall vision? That was all Bryan. And seeing the illustrations was definitely the biggest surprise for me. Bryan added things that never occurred to me. And I agree that the illustrations are gorgeous! Me: Any advice or insight for other picture book writers? Diana: Finding some good critique partners or a good critique group is key. Not only do you get valuable feedback, but you hone your own revision skills. It's also important not to be discouraged by rejections. Just keep working on your craft and keep plowing forward.
Me: Anchorage, Alaska (where I live) is my favorite city. I know you’ve traveled up here before. On a trip to Alaska, you said you discovered that hat hair can be stylish. Is that because you wore hats constantly? Or because you became a fan of hairy hats?
Diana: Ha ha! I went in November (back in the 90's) so it was pretty cold and I was always wearing a hat. When I went inside and took it off--voila!--hat hair. But I had a short, shag haircut at the time, and it looked particularly good when tousled.
LOL! I wish I could say the same. Unfortunately, I avoid hats, even in winter up here. Thank you for joining us today Diana! Run out and get a copy of it today you guys. You won't regret it. It's full of gorgeous details and reminds readers to give the world around them another look. Check out the one illustration below to get an idea of what I mean. GORGEOUS!
|Posted by Jena Benton on June 27, 2016 at 7:20 PM||comments (0)|
I’m very excited to talk with today’s author, Tricia Brown, and her new book “Zig, the Warrior Princess.” Just look at this fabulous goofy cover! http://triciabrownbooks.com/meet-zig/
Tricia is an Alaskan author who has written many picture books (“The Itchy Little Musk Ox,” “Patsy Ann of Alaska,” “Charlie and the Blanket Toss,” and “Bobbie the Wonder Dog: a True Story” just to name a few!). She has also written a few books for adults about Alaska. You can learn more about her at her website here: http://triciabrownbooks.com/about-the-author/
Now, on to the Simply 7 interview with Tricia!
Me: What draws you to writing picture books? How is that different from writing for adults? Do you have different approaches? Is it harder or easier?
Tricia: The books I’ve written for adults are not really stories—they’re largely produced by collecting and synthesizing information in some way. So there’s a driving guide to the Alaska Highway, a couple of fact books, a reference guide to wild lands, a collection of quotes from mushers, and many others. All were fun and satisfying in their own way. But the children’s books reach a tender spot in my writing life. I think about the audience when I write, and I’m intentional about communicating simply, but in a way that will push them a bit. I want them to talk about how the book makes them feel, to wonder, and to stimulate vocabulary and comprehension. When I do school visits and get those thank-you notes afterward, I can tell what parts of a story really hit the mark. Sometimes I get some utterly adorable artwork. Meeting my readers in person and chatting with them, that alone gives me a deep sense of satisfaction.
Harder or easier? It’s harder for me, because I’m inventing something new rather than researching and shoehorning information into a book. But I’ve figured out some things along the way to ease the difficulty level. I also think it’s important to have one or two value-added pages of non-fiction in the back of a fiction book to add another dimension to the subject. That’s good, both for parents and teachers, but also welcomed by a child with keen interest who wants more. For Zig, on the last page I included a photo of the real dog walking with Jeff and her puppies, along with a detailed caption listing their names. I want the readers to do that “Awwwwww” thing there.
Me: The illustrations in this book are gorgeous. I particularly love the goofy picture on the cover (as I mentioned before). It’s so great! Do you enjoy collaborating with illustrators (if you do)? Do you get any say in what they do? What was special about the illustrations for this book?
Tricia: We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback on that cover. It’s from an actual photo of Zig just enjoying her little self. The illustrator is Cary Porter, and together we had just finished another book in the traditional publishing route when I engaged to write Zig. In our first book, the publisher contracted with Cary to illustrate Bobbie the Wonder Dog, a WestWinds Press book. I didn’t have much to do with him during that process, because there was an art director involved and it was his first children’s book. In the traditional track, the writer may see sketches and check drawings for errors, etc., but the editor and/or art director is the main contact. We never even spoke to each other. But for Zig, we worked together closely. I oversaw all aspects of getting the book into print.
Cary illustrates from photographs and other research materials a lot of the time, and his rich, textured work is all produced digitally. That means if there’s a problem on any one of the many layers in an illustration, he can fix it. SO different from the old days of asking an illustrator to overpaint an area if there was an error, or to add white paint behind the text so it could be read. That was pre-Photoshop.
That’s why I tapped him for Zig—this method was faster, plus I knew he could produce realistic imagery and do it with his special style. He and I routinely Skyped and discussed ideas for what should happen on each spread, and because it was just the two of us, there was more flexibility. We needed that because the timeline was ridiculously fast. Also, Cary and his wife welcomed a baby boy during our book-birthing process, so that was another factor. “Baby yet?” “Any news?” and he just kept working. As a first-time father, he thought he’d have more time for illustrating during paternity leave. (Ha ha!) But he pulled it off!
Me: Did you co-write “Zig the Warrior Princess” with 4-time Iditarod champion Jeff King? Or just consult him for stories about Zig? How did that collaboration work?
Tricia: Jeff is an old friend. About ten years ago, I had helped him and his then-wife, Donna Gates, to publish his story collection, Cold Hands, Warm Heart. Later, about five years ago, he and I produced a revised second edition that he again self-published with my help, and that worked well. In 2012, Jeff asked if I would open and manage his first Husky Homestead Shop in Denali Park. So I had a summer adventure, spending several months working in the park, and on my day off, I signed my own books in local hotels. My knowledge of his relationships with the dogs and his Denali Park operation deepened. About that time Jeff suggested I write a children’s book about his great leader, Salem, an old Golden Harness winner who was still a crowd-pleaser at the Husky Homestead. I started a draft, but life interrupted, and I never got the momentum to finish.
Last fall, Jeff approached me again, asking me to write a book for this summer’s tour season, and have Zig as the star. Zig had been a puppy at the Husky Homestead when I was working in the Park in 2012, and that memorable cover image was taken that very summer. Jeff said she was the most talented dog he’d ever had in his entire career, and as you can see, she is personality-plus. He told me they called her the Warrior Princess and why. So I began in a dead run. This book was MY Iditarod race. I’ve never worked so fast and hard to meet a deadline, writing the story, lining up Cary to create the illustrations, working with my favorite print broker/production guy, and arranging for an award-winning book designer who’s a friend as well as a long-time colleague.
For the text, I interviewed Jeff to learn more about his relationship with Zig and their time together. I asked specific questions that would lead to good ideas for scenes. Like, “At the finish line, how can you tell if the dogs are happy?” or “What are some of the most special times on the trail when you’re training?” “Have you ever embarrassed your dogs?” I drew out some terrific stories and insights.
Me: What do you find unique to being an Alaskan picture book writer?
Tricia: When I entered the field in the mid-1990s, few publishers were solely focused on developing Alaskan content. Alaska Northwest Books was one of the first to dedicate a couple of editors to acquiring and developing Alaskan authors and illustrators, and I was lucky to be one of them for Children of the Midnight Sun. Shelley Gill and Shannon Cartwright were leaders in establishing their own imprint with Four Paws Publishing, even throwing all of their personal finances behind it. Some of their early books are classics now, and they’re not done yet. Many years ago, Four Paws was acquired by Sasquatch Books in Seattle. Shelley and Shannon are still prolific, both as publishing partners and as independents. The Richters developed their own self-published line of board books and hustled to get them placed in major tourism outlets. Alaska Geographic released a few children’s books, and UA Press has waded in. Debbie Miller set a gold standard for nonfiction science-oriented picture books with national publishers. There’s great momentum now, regionally and nationally.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Tricia: I was surprised at how malleable the book idea was, even as I began to write. Usually I know where I’m going. I became aware that “a book about Zig” would have a twofold purpose: a remembrance piece for parents and grandparents who visit Jeff King’s Denali Park operation, yes, but primarily, an engaging book for children who’d receive the book as a gift. It had to be a “real” book, not just a promotional piece, so narrative was primary. I included cool details about the Husky Homestead to prick the memories of visitors, like snuggling puppies during picture time and Jeff’s talks and demonstrations. I wanted to answer, What’s it like when the tourists go home and the business of racing is at hand? But most important were those Jeff-and-Zig adventures, and playing with the duality of Zig as both a princess and a warrior. Wrestling all of the pieces into a single narrative (in Zig’s voice) was my challenge.
Me: Any advice for new picture book writers?
Tricia: Be like a mechanic. Take the object apart, examine it, and put it back together to really know how it works. Do that with the content of children’s books that you admire, those that have won awards, both with the story arc and with the content and pacing of illustrations. Mechanically, if you have 32 pages, it helps to figure out what’s going to happen (identifying the “problem,” building tension, reaching the climax, etc.) on each page as you’re writing. If you disassemble a story and see that, oh, here, by a certain page, something had better be coming to a head. You can do that and gain an understanding of what has to develop before and after that point.
Examine what makes a satisfying ending as you read other works. Why did you respond in the way you did? Learn to guide the feelings of the reader to a specific destination with word selection.
Write lean. This is my flaw. But strive to tell your story with fewer than 1,000 words if you can. Use powerful words to do the work for you.
Don’t talk down to children.
Remember that you will likely edit out more words once the illustrations are in place. You’ll see redundancies. The editor will see problems. Be willing to let words go.
Me: You have several nonfiction picture books about dogs, including “Patsy Ann of Alaska” and “Bobbie the Wonder Dog.” Why are dogs a favorite subject for you? Do you think they’re better than cats?
Tricia: We have two dogs and a cat, so I must remain impartial, but (whisper) Cats are my favorite! I’ve written a cat book, too, called Groucho’s Eyebrows, illustrated by Barbara Lavallee and based on a family pet. But really—think about what’s required in a kid story: action. Now think about a cat. There you have it.
LOL! Thank you Tricia for the great insights. If you guys would like to buy a copy of this amazing book (Seriously! Look at a couple of the illustrations below! They’re gorgeous and the story is FUNNY!), it is only available at the Husky Homestead store here: http://www.huskyhomestead.com/husky-homestead-shop-books-and-audio-visual/ (On the same page, you’ll also find Tricia’s Musher’s Night Before Christmas for sale!) It would make a great gift for any dog lover!