Jena Benton - Writer and Illustrator

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Blog: Of Tea and Mermaids

Simply 7 interview with Tricia Brown

Posted by Jena Benton on June 27, 2016 at 7:20 PM

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!



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