Monday, April 14, 2014

Michele Weber Hurwitz and 'The Summer I Saved the World'

“It is very often the ordinary things that go unnoticed that end up making a difference.” This bit of wisdom imparted from a history teacher to 13-year-old protagonist Nina is the inspiration behind Michele Weber Hurwitz's sweet new middle-grade novel The Summer I Saved the World. . . in 65 Days. Nina plans to do 65 small, anonymous acts of kindness for her family and neighbors—one for each day of her summer vacation. And along the way, she learns about her neighbors, her family, as well as herself. Publisher's Weekly says it's a story that should "give hope to those who think one person can’t possibly make a difference."

Question: Where did you get the idea for The Summer I Saved the World. . . in 65 Days? What made you want to write this story?

Michele Weber Hurwitz: I had several thoughts that I wove together for this story. First, we hear so much about paying it forward and random acts of kindness, but sometimes the amount of problems in our world overwhelms me, and I wondered – does doing good really do any good? Is it making a difference?

Second, I read an amusing little item in my local paper's police blotter about a woman who called the police when a girl she didn't recognize was delivering cookies around her neighborhood. Something else besides chocolate chips could have been in those cookies, you know! Anyway, I thought, wow, how do people really react when random good comes their way? Perhaps it's not always in a positive way.

Third, I worried about how technology has altered family life and neighborhoods, and how we live in this era of a sort of "disconnected connection." Lastly, I read about a class at the University of Iowa where the professor had students write down each day three positive events or experiences – no matter how big or small – and how this changed their perspectives. I started doing that too. We tend to focus on the negative, or what goes wrong, instead of recognizing small, good things that go right every day.

Q: As with your debut novel, Calli Be Gold, you show ordinary kids being extraordinary in their own quiet way. Do you feel like you're building on a theme in your writing? Do you feel like you're doing your own good in the world, in having kids think about the nature of our day-to-day interactions with each other and the world?

MWH: I am a big fan of ordinary kids, and I think they're sometimes overlooked because they may not stand out in a crowd. My heart also melts for quiet kids, because I was one myself, and we live in such a "loud" world. When you think about it, ordinary is amazing. Quietly, sneakily, understatedly, wonderfully amazing. Ordinary is warm blueberry muffin. Ordinary is birds flying in a V and a favorite pair of jeans and a baby's first smile. Ordinary is everything!

Both Calli Gold and Nina Ross, the main character in The Summer I Saved the 65 Days, are contemplative, understated, ordinary girls, so yes, there is that connective theme in the two books.

Just as we admire a character for her bravery or confidence, I hope when kids read my books, they get the sense of how important kindness and being considerate are. I received an email from a girl named Lucy after she read Calli Be Gold. She wrote: "Calli inspires me to be open and kind to everyone. She makes me want to be myself. I love her honest thoughts and good heart."

I have that pinned up on my wall above my computer because letters like that are my inspiration.

Q: Sometimes books can be classified as "quiet" and garner little support from their publisher. But your editor, Wendy Lamb, introduces the book with a warm message for readers. Did you feel like your publishing house was behind your efforts? 

MWH: Definitely. Wendy is such an intuitive editor and has been a joy to work with. In the early drafts, I think she knew more about the story than I did! She gently encouraged me to go deeper into the story at points where I was skimming the surface. The publicity department at Random House also has been extremely supportive. But, I have to say, I'm much more knowledgeable this time about promotion. It's like your second baby – you know so much more what you're doing the second time around!

Q: In the book, your main character comes up with 65 "little things" she can do for others in her sleepy cul-de-sac. Was it hard to come up with all those ideas? Can you talk about your creative process for writing and organizing the book?

MWH: It wasn't hard to come up with the 65 things. There are a lot of characters in the book, and their situations and antics kept providing me with ideas. One reclusive neighbor never comes outside, so Nina bakes brownies and leaves them on his doorstep. Another, a widow with grown children, has broken her leg, and Nina thinks of many small but significant ways to help. I had a lot of fun writing about how some of Nina's anonymous good deeds go awry and a suspicious neighbor
(with an overactive imagination) takes them the wrong way.

As for my creative process, I start with a character and his or her voice, and that drives my story.
I have a basic idea for the plot, but that seems to define itself as I write. I definitely edit as I go along. And I need time away from my computer to mull things over. I try to walk every day. I don't take my phone or listen to music; it's my thinking time. I live in Chicago and I really missed walking outside this winter! It's just not the same on a treadmill.

 Q: How much do you believe in the power of stories to shape young readers? What are the books that helped shape and influence you? The books you remember reading when you were young?

MWH: I think stories have enormous power to shape young readers. I hear from a lot of kids when I visit schools and the sentiments they share with me are thoughtful and perceptive. They get things so much more than we realize.

There are many talented authors whose books I love, including John Green (of course, who
doesn't?), Rainbow Rowell, Lois Lowry, Sarah Weeks, Linda Urban, Rebecca Stead, Jennifer Holm, and Tom Angleberger. When I was young, I was obsessed with Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell and must have read it a dozen times. I loved the story, but I also fantasized about the idea of escaping my suburban house and living on my own island, away from my two annoying younger brothers.

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from your books?

MWH: I hope kids will realize that small good things are much bigger than they seem. And, that doing good doesn't have to be about raising tons of money or spending a Saturday cleaning up a park (although those efforts are certainly wonderful). But more just about being a good person. Cliché, I know, but ask kids what they like best about their teachers. Invariably, they'll say: "she's nice." Ask yourself what stuck with you from your day. Maybe someone held a door open when your arms were full of grocery bags, or shared tomatoes from their garden, or made you laugh. We all know these kinds of gestures resonate, we just have to do them!

Q: What are you working on next?

MWH: After writing two middle-grade books in the voices of girl main characters, I wanted to explore writing in a boy's voice. I'm having some fun with that! I've also been working on an idea about two girls whose chance meeting during one winter break changes both of their lives. I need to do some walking to think more about these ideas, and hopefully, this spring's weather will cooperate!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Thinking Green With Holly Schindler's 'Sunshine and Lucky'

 Just in time for Earth Day comes an uplifting middle-grade read from Holly Schindler about the power one person can have in the world. The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky tells the story of fifth-grader Auggie Jones, who lives in a poor section of town with her grandfather, Gus. When a wealthy classmate’s father launches the House Beautification Committee, the homes he's targeting are ones like Auggie’s. But creative Auggie plans to prove that there’s more to her—and to her house—than meets the eye. Making use of old car parts and discarded machinery, Auggie and Gus discover a new artistic talent: turning other people's trash into treasure. Folk art, to be specific, prompting an interesting look at the meaning of art and beauty.

Kirkus Reviews says Sunshine and Lucky explores "vibrant themes of community, self-empowerment and artistic vision delivered with a satisfying verve."

Question: You are the author of two YA books. What made you want to write for a younger audience?

Holly Schindler: I taught piano and guitar lessons while chasing my first book deal. I really just thought the lessons would help me pay my bills. But when I started interacting with the kids, I was absolutely shocked at how similar they all seemed to the kids I’d known when I was in school! They were all so familiar, in fact, that I began to try my hand at writing for the juvenile market. Right at the very start, I tried my hand at both YA and MG—though my first publications were YAs, I’d actually been writing for the younger set all along, too.

Q: The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky is a fun story that will have young readers grabbing their arts and craft boxes and getting to work. Where did your idea for Auggie and Gus come from? What was the “ah-ha” moment like when you realized you had a story on your hands?

HS: All writers hit “make-or-break” moments, when rejection starts to play with their minds, and they wonder if they should just join the circus. I hit mine about four years into seeking my first pub deal. I pushed through it, obviously. When I got back to work, The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky was the first thing I drafted. Initially, it was a picture book. But the first editors who saw the book said the concept of folk art was too advanced for the picture book readership. So I went about reinventing the 1,000-word picture book as a 45,000-word MG novel. Not an easy task!

But from the very beginning, I saw Gus so clearly—it was as though I was looking through Auggie’s eyes straight at him. And her voice has always been crystal clear. From the first moment I saw Gus and heard Auggie’s voice, I think I knew I had a story. I held onto that all the way through multiple rewrites.

Q: Auggie taps into her inventive, imaginative side in resolving some of the challenges she faces. Does your story have a message for readers about thinking creatively, and reusing and repurposing what we have around us?

HS: I love repurposed items. I always have—even before anyone used the words “repurposed” or “upcycling.” When I was a kid, I went to auctions with my folks—farm auctions were always full of needlework on reused burlap, or stools made out of a Coke crates, or dresses made from feedsacks. My favorite part of Auggie’s story is her poetic eye—she doesn’t see things as they really are, but as they could be (which is why she speaks so heavily in metaphor and simile). Her ability to see things as they could be is a big part of why she becomes an artist, why she can pick up a rusted pipe and see a dancer. I’d like to think that after spending time with Auggie, readers will have acquired a bit of her poetic eye, and begin to see the broken necklace in their jewelry box or the busted remote control car under their bed in a new light.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your writing? What do you hope young readers take away from your stories?

HS: I hope young readers feel inspired; I hope they feel their voices matter, every single one of them. I hope they feel as though the world can be anything they make of it.

Q: What will we see from you next?

HS: My next YA, Feral, releases this August.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tracey Fern Sails for Adventure With 'Dare the Wind'

Who doesn't love a daring adventure story when she sees it? And when it's a non-fiction picture book? All the better. When it features a brave lass at the helm? Unbeatable. And there we have Dare the Wind: The Record-breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloud
by Tracey Fern and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully, published only last month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Dare the Wind tells the story of young Ellen Prentiss, who was born "with saltwater in her veins." Her father nurtured her interest in the sea, and Ellen learned navigate and sail on her own. When Ellen grew up, her love for adventure never waned, and her husband was given command of a clipper ship built for speed. With the Gold Rush on, Ellen raced from New York, around the tip of Cape Horn, and into San Francisco to stake her fortune. She not only navigated the clipper safely, but she set the world record for speed along the way.

Question: You're a Massachusetts gal, and so was Ellen Prentiss. Is that what drew you to her story? Could you talk about the "ah-ha" moment when you decided to write a book about this daring seafarer?

Tracey Fern: I'm always on the lookout for great real-life stories that feature a unique person mixed with a dash of adventure or discovery.  My "ah-ha" moment came when I picked up David Shaw's book, Flying Cloud, on a whim.  I knew instantly that I had to write about Ellen. Ellen's story – a young woman performing a traditionally male role, clipper ships, a race, storms – had it all! It was an added bonus that she was from Marblehead, Massachusetts, which is one of my favorite towns.  I love walking the narrow, cobbled streets, imagining Ellen learning to navigate ships in the harbor.

Q: All of your books are about lesser-known characters in history. Where do you get your ideas? And how do you know whether to run with an idea or not? Can you talk about your creative process?

TF: I find ideas from all types of sources.  I've always been an avid reader and many of my ideas come from books, magazines, newspapers, and websites. But I've also gotten ideas from things I've heard on National Public Radio or TV. I have a huge "idea" file that I constantly add to whenever I run across an interesting story. Many of these ideas go absolutely nowhere, but I find that if I return to an idea a few times, then it's time to do a bit of research to see if I think the character is unique enough or interesting enough to support a picture book. I usually work on multiple projects simultaneously, so that if I get stuck on one, I can set it aside to percolate while I work on something else. A picture book can take me several years to write, with multiple revisions and lots of input from my writer's group until I think it is ready to submit to an editor.

Q: You seem to mine history for your books and magazine articles. What draws you to narrative non-fiction? 

TF: I'm not sure why I'm so drawn to history. I've always just been a bit of a history nerd. Something about real people and their stories is very inspiring to me.  I love to figure out what motivated them!

Q: Both Ellen Prentiss and Barnum Brown of Barnum's Bones – as well as the subjects of Buffalo Music (Clarion, 2008) and Pippo the Fool (Charlesbridge, 2009) – have wonderful things in common: They pay attention to details. For Ellen, it's reading the sea. And for Barnum, it's finding fossils amid the everyday landscape. What is it about paying close attention to the little things that made for success for these two characters? What are you trying to show young readers?

TF: It's interesting that you ask! I've never thought about this similarity and wasn't consciously trying to show this to young readers. But I do know that as a writer, I try hard to pay attention to the "telling details" that help me show character traits! I seem to be drawn to somewhat obsessive characters – people who are passionate about what they do. I think I try to show young readers that following a passion can result in some amazing things!

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your books and writing?

TF: I hope to write books that young readers will enjoy and will want to read again and again. I hope my books are rich enough with character and detail and significance and fun that readers will not only enjoy the story, but will also be intrigued enough to explore the subject further. Creating more history nerds would be awesome!

Q: What will we see from you next?

TF: I'm very excited about my next book!  It will be a picture book about Noah Webster entitled, W is for Webster, to be illustrated by Boris Kulikov, who also illustrated Barnum's Bones. It will be published by Margaret Ferguson Books at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

WWII Nurses' History in Mary Cronk Farrell's 'Pure Grit'

March is not only Women's History Month, it's also National Reading Month. So what better way to celebrate the two than with a gripping read about some remarkable women at a crucial time in America's history. Mary Cronk Farrell's Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific (Abrams, February 2014) is designated for a third- to seventh-grade audience, but its appeal is much broader. I've talked about this title with parents and grownup friends as well as my own kids, and I simply cannot recommend this book enough. Not only does it detail the harrowing accounts of what these brave women went through, but it also looks at the frustrating treatment they endured upon return to the United States.

Pure Grit tells the story of U.S. Army nurses who enlisted for peacetime duty during the early 1940s. When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II, their lives were turned upside down. One hundred and one American Army and Navy nurses serving in the Philippines suddenly found themselves treating wounded and dying soldiers in makeshift jungle hospitals. Told with page-turning urgency and illustrated with archival photographs, Pure Grit conveys the plight of these nurses struggling to help the wounded while bombs were exploding all around them.

Captured by the Japanese as prisoners of war, the nurses went on to endure three years of disease and near-starvation. This is a part of American history I knew nothing about, and I am so grateful Mary Cronk Farrell devoted the time necessary to write Pure Grit. It truly is a story of sisterhood.

Question: Pure Grit is incredibly well-researched. How long did this project take you from "ah-ha" moment to written manuscript. Can you talk about how you researched the manuscript and the people you connected with along the way?

Mary Cronk Farrell: I worked on researching Pure Grit over a span of about five years, though I was not focusing steadily on the project. I made concentrated efforts for a few months at a time and then would need to turn my attention elsewhere, for instance I also researched and wrote Journey to the Top of the World during this time as well as writing two drafts of a novel and researching and writing an historical picture book manuscript.

This worked well for Pure Grit because it took time to search for the nurses’ family members, other people I wanted to interview, and photographs. I followed a number of dead ends, as well as being passed from person to person to track information and waiting to hear back from people. In some cases, I have email and snail mail conversations that carried on over two or three years. I had not done a project of this scope before, but my stop-and-go, zigzag method is common, I suppose, for a working writer.

My favorite part was connecting with the nurses’ grown children, and, of course, meeting Retired Army Nurse Mildred Dalton Manning who was the last surviving POW nurse. She lived to be 98 and died a year ago this month.

Q: This is a book that stayed with me long after I'd finished reading it. I called up my parents and told them to look for it, and I've asked friends about their knowledge of these American nurses' experiences. Your book seems appropriate for adults and young readers alike. What made you target a young audience?

MCF: At this point in my career, I am focusing on writing for young people, so that is the main reason I targeted that audience for this book. But I always imagined adults would read it, too. There have been other books written for adults on the topic, but Pure Grit will reach a different segment of adult readers. I intentionally wrote the story to be a quick read for people who live busy lives, and included many photographs to make the story accessible to people who are used to getting information through images.

U.S. Army Nurse Corp Women imprisoned in Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila, Philippine Islands, 1943. (courtesy of Sandy Thor) 

Q: Fire in the Hole, Journey to the Top of the World, Daughters of the Desert. History and historical fiction seem to be your genres of choice. What draws you to this type of storytelling?

MCF: I’ve always loved learning history, but I’m not sure why. As a child reader, historical fiction was my favorite genre. In my middle-school years I read an average of a book a day and most of them were historical fiction. I do know that I’m drawn to stories of people who’ve overcome adversity, because I’ve needed to learn how to do that in my own life. Books have always been an inspiration to me during the rough patches of life, and being able to write one like Pure Grit, which I know will inspire others, is an honor and privilege.

Navy Nurses in Leyte shows U.S. Navy Nurses liberated from Los Ban᷈os Internment Camp, Laguna de Bay, Philippine Islands, February 23, 1945.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your writing? What do you hope to achieve?

MCF: Besides inspiring people through telling the story of these women’s resilience and courage, I hope readers will ask what we can learn from history. I hope people will be moved to have compassion for our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Not feel sorry for them, not ignore them because they volunteered for duty, but truly see their needs and be moved to listen to their pain and share their struggles.

Q: What will we see next from you?

MCF: My next book is a biography of Labor Leader Fannie Sellins, who was shot to death on the picket line in a 1919 Pennsylvania coal strike.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Kicking Off Women's History Month With Tanya Lee Stone

Once upon a time, when my husband was just a little guy, he believed that all doctors were women. That's because his own mom was an MD. So it made perfect sense to him that this was how the world worked. But as we know, that's not the way it was. Medical schools today are graduating women at roughly equal numbers as men. But there was time when simply the idea of a woman aspiring to be a doctor was laughable.

With the picture book Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell (Henry Holt, 2013), Tanya Lee Stone takes readers back in time to see what it was like through a young girl's eyes. Named a 2014 Amelia Bloomer Project book, Who Says shows what Elizabeth was like as a young, curious girl. And how she got the idea to become a doctor from a sick friend, who confided that she would rather be examined by a woman than a man. It lays out the challenges and frustrations Elizabeth encountered as she pursued her dream and opened the door for countless other women to pursue theirs. It's a great book to celebrate Women's History Month.

Question: While you have written teen fiction, your specialty seems to be non-fiction. You are the author of at least 15 non-fiction books for young readers – including Courage Has No Color, The True Story of the Triple Nickles America's First Black Paratroopers (Candlewick, 2013) – and 10 non-fiction picture books. What draws you to this genre? Were you been bitten by the research bug early in life?

Tanya Lee Stone: I was an outdoor, tomboyish kid who loved to read and grew up on the rocky coastline of Connecticut, so I feel as though my entire childhood was based in field research! If you pair that with the fact that I am continually amazed by the extraordinary things that "ordinary" people do (there is really no such thing as an ordinary person), it's easy to understand my attraction to non-fiction.

Q: Many of your books focus on pioneering women – Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as well as Amelia Earhart, Ella Fitzgerald, and early female astronauts. Why write about these women?

TLS: The fabric of our history is so riddled with holes that I've been compelled to do my part and fill in as many as I can. This comes down, for me, to stories about women and people of color who have been largely left out of the record.

Q: With Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors? you lay out the challenges Elizabeth Blackwell faced in stark terms for the youngest readers to understand. Who do you hope to reach with your picture books? And what do you hope to accomplish?

TLS: My picture books are both for the standard picture book age range (4-8) as well as for older readers because of the topics I tend to choose. There are two things I'm generally interested in accomplishing with my picture books – capturing the essence of someone incredibly cool who we as readers are not particularly familiar with, and inspiring readers to dream big and not let anything stand in their way.

Q: Parents Magazine named Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors? the Best Non-Fiction Picture Book of 2013. And Booklist listed it a Top 10 Youth Biography. What do awards like these mean to you? Do they help you connect history and non-fiction to even more young readers? 

TLS: There are so many wonderful books that come out every year that don't get the attention they deserve, and it is always a huge honor to be highlighted with these kinds of accolades. Honors like these are also important in terms of elongating the life of a book and helping to keep it in print (and with nonfiction this can be even trickier than with fiction), as well as calling attention to it for readers who might otherwise miss it. For example, the Parents' Magazine press likely alerted a lot more parents than might have known about it. I am extremely grateful.

Q: Do you feel that the publishing world is more interested in non-fiction books these days than in the past? Was there a time when it was hard to sell your non-fiction work?

TLS: That's a bit of a tricky question, depending upon your perspective. While it is true that things like the Common Core have brought more mainstream, trade/bookstore-type attention to non-fiction, it has also been an area that has been strong for a long time because of the need for good non-fiction for kids in the school and library market.

Q: Where do you get your ideas for the next project? What will we see from you next?

TLS: I am always doing research, and always coming across things that elicit emotional responses from within, which can be negative or positive. Things I come across in the news or doing research that make me say, "Wow, how cool, I didn't know that!" are equally compelling to me as when I find something that makes me outraged or confused. I have several books in the pipeline, and the next one up (in 2015) is a picture book about Jane Addams called The House that Jane Built. After that, be on the lookout for more long-form narrative non-fiction from me, as well as new picture books. Thank you so much for getting in touch and Happy Women's History Month!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Kandinsky's Art Inspires Barb Rosenstock's 'Noisy Paint Box'

Picture book biographies are one of my favorite genres. Not only because they tend to feature remarkable people who change the world in one way or another, but because they distill the messiness of life into easily understandable bits. Betty wanted to fly, but people said a girl couldn't, so Betty proved them wrong. Josephine wanted to dance, but America treated her poorly, so she found a place where she was loved and accepted.

With The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky's Abstract Art (Knopf, releasing tomorrow), Chicago-area author Barb Rosenstock tells the story of a young boy who opened his paint box and saw colors differently. Young Vasily Kandinsky could hear colors singing and see vibrant sounds dancing, and he didn't want to paint the way everyone else was painting at the time. So he listened to his own voice and, over time, became a brilliant force for a whole new form of painting: abstract art.

Beautifully illustrated by Mary GrandPre, best known as the artist for the Harry Potter books, The Noisy Paint Box has already garnered starred reviews from top journals, including this from Kirkus: “A rich, accomplished piece about a pioneer in the art world.” Barb's other wonderfully detailed books have earned her praise as well: Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library, recently named an Orbis recommended book; The Camping Trip that Changed America, illustrated by Mordecai Gerstein; and Fearless: The Story of Racing Legend Louise Smith.

Question: Your picture books cover pioneering stock car racer Louise Smith, a ground-breaking camping trip with President Theodore Roosevelt and conservationist John Muir, and Thomas Jefferson's library. Now, with The Noisy Paint Box, you dive into the life of abstract artist Vasily Kandinsky. Where do your ideas come from? How do you go from "a-ha" moment when something catches your eye to finished manuscript?

Barb Rosenstock: I wish I had a better answer than "my ideas are random" but "my ideas are random." I wish they weren't. Something I'll read or see about a person or event will catch my imagination, and then it's research time. I'm looking for its importance to kids or to curriculum and also for a focus to build a book around. How it goes to finished manuscript, well, like everyone else, it's just create, revise, repeat.

Q: What inspired The Noisy Paint Box? How and why did you choose Kandinsky? 

BR: I saw an article titled The Man Who Heard His Paintbox Hiss while I was reading about folk artists and just had to find out what THAT was about. Turned out it was about Kandinsky. I told you my ideas are random. If I run into it, find it interesting and it doesn't already exist, I'll take a stab at it.

Q: You seem to prefer picture book biography and narrative non-fiction to other genres. Why? How did you land on this form for your writing? 

BR: I was a big history buff, even when I was in elementary school. I may have been the only fourth-grader who secretly hung out in antique stores. My reading preferences followed that interest, almost always historical fiction like the Betsy Tacy stories or Little House on the Prairie, but I never dreamed of being a writer. However, when my sons were young they liked "true stories" – emphasis on stories – and it was hard to find interesting, well-written, non-fiction or biography that didn't sound like a textbook. I started noodling around writing a bit, and here I am.

Q: The Noisy Paint Box has already earned starred reviews from top journals, and your other books have earned awards from the Amelia Bloomer Project, Junior Library Guild, and Bank Street, to name just a few. With books that are so thoroughly researched and well-written, how long does it take to fully explore your subjects? And what is your process like for writing and refining the story and specific language? 

BR: Thanks for the compliment! I actually found out we got a fourth star from School Library Journal today! Depending on the book, I would say six months to a year of research/writing. Ten days is my shortest book, two years is my longest. I don't write in a set order. For example, I almost never do all the research and then write a picture book. Instead I tend to do some research, write a draft for tone, style, or focus and then do further research to flesh out details in subsequent drafts.

All in all a bit circular. Then I'll do anywhere from five to 10 drafts to get the language perfect, especially the verbs. I'll never get the punctuation and stuff right, 'cuz I'm terrible at that, I just finally give up when I feel it's readable enough for my agent or editors. Later, I constantly judge the information on whether it serves the story, and judge the story on whether it serves the information. I'd still be rewriting books that are already published, so it's good that they take them away from me.

Q: Your illustrator for The Noisy Paint Box is Mary GrandPr√©, the artist who illustrated the Harry Potter series. In the children's book world, this puts you in some pretty heady company! How did you feel when you learned you would be working with Mary?

BR: I've been so blessed to be paired with phenomenal illustrators across the board. Allison Wortche, the Knopf editor of The Noisy Paint Box, understood this book's message. Her team chose the perfect artist to bring Paint Box to life. And Mary's genius added so much to the story. I have to confess, I didn't know Mary was the artist behind Harry Potter until the day we were paired up and then, yeah, I just walked around beaming for like three months. Okay, I'm still beaming.

Q: I loved the idea behind The Noisy Paint Box, that we don't have to be defined by what others dictate. What do you hope young readers take away from this book? And from all your stories? 

BR: That being yourself is good enough. That each of us is born with talents or instincts toward certain things and that we should always respect our guts and not hide our strengths to fit in. Also, that talent or wanting to change something is not magical, it takes work too. It's gratifying for me to learn about people in history who believed in themselves and their work. I hope in a small way my books contribute to supporting self-acceptance in children who typically too easily give up their uniqueness to satisfy others.

Q: What will we see next from you?

BR: March 1st of 2014 is the release of a new picture book titled The Streak: How Joe DiMaggio Became America's Hero. We did it in conjunction with some researchers from the Baseball Hall of Fame and Louisville Slugger. I'm a non-athlete in an athletic family, so this one is for my (now almost grown) boys who got me started on this crazy writing adventure. I couldn't believe there were no DiMaggio picture books. So I wrote one!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Pat Zietlow Miller, 'Sophie,' and a Squash for All Seasons

I love vegetables, much to my youngest son's dismay. Love me some spinach, asparagus, all kinds of mushrooms. And especially now in Chicago's deep, dark winter, I really love squash – as a creamy soup, or perhaps baked with a bit of brown sugar. That's why Pat Zietlow Miller's picture book Sophie's Squash (Schwartz & Wade, 2013) caught my eye. It tells the story of a girl who loves squash too. Only instead of letting her parents cook it up in a dish, Sophie makes a best friend of it. Bernice, as the squash is named, tags along with Sophie everywhere she goes. But as the weeks and months pass, Bernice begins looking a bit mushy. What will Sophie do?

Sophie's Squash tells a charming story of friendship, with energetic illustrations by Anne Wilsdorf. It earned starred reviews from journals like Booklist, Kirkus, and Publisher's Weekly, as well as School Library Journal, which wrote in a delightful review, "With lessons on life, love, and vegetable gardening, this tale will be cherished by children, and their parents will be happy to read it to them often."

Question: Picture books cover a wide range of topics, from naptime to pirating the high seas to cows that type. So why a girl and her squash? Who and what were the inspirations for this story?

Pat Zietlow Miller: This book was inspired by my daughter, Sonia. She fell in love with a butternut squash when she was 3 or 4, and carried it around like a baby. As a beginning writer, you always hear that you should never base a story on something cute your child did. I generally think that’s a good rule, but it obviously did not apply here.

In my defense, I did add several plot points that did not really happen, so the story truly is fiction. But Sonia, who is 11 now, is very proud to have inspired the story.

Q: It's one thing to have an inspired story, but it's another thing entirely to win over an agent and editor. Was Sophie's Squash a hard sell? What was it like to take the manuscript out into the world?

PZM: It was hard to sell the manuscript – I think for two reasons. First, it was one of my initial manuscripts, and I was still learning a lot as a writer. So the story went through many revisions as I worked with my critique group, studied more and incorporated feedback from editors. Some of the versions I sent out early on just weren’t ready for publication.

Even once the story was more polished, it took a while to find a home. I did not have an agent at the time and was sending the story out through the slush pile. So it often took many months to hear back. And when I did, it was often a form rejection.

But I did get glimmers of hope along the way – a few nice notes written in the margins of a rejection and a few revision requests. Those things kept me going and trying.

I think this story got between 15 and 20 rejections before Anne Schwartz at Schwartz & Wade said “yes.” And I’m so glad that the book ended up with her. She and Lee Wade have loved it and supported it and been extremely encouraging. It was worth the wait.

Q: Sophie's Squash is your first book, and it has earned at least four starred reviews in top journals. That's no small feat! What has the experience been like for you? How long had you been writing for kids before Sophie hit?

PZM: I still can’t believe the starred reviews. I’m thrilled, but I consider myself very fortunate. It certainly was not something I expected. I had been seriously working toward my goal of publishing a picture book for four years before this book sold. I had sold a few stories to Highlights magazine before selling Sophie, but I was very much a newbie.

I did have experience writing, however. I’ve worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor and corporate communications employee. And I’ve read picture books all my life, so the rhythm and flow of them was definitely embedded in my head.

Q: Can you talk about the books that we'll see next from you? Will we encounter Sophie again?

PZM: Here’s what’s currently in the works:

• Wherever You Go. This picture book is coming from Little, Brown in Spring 2015. It’s a rhyming look at the various roads in life with a reminder that everyone controls their own destiny. Eliza Wheeler is illustrating. Yay!

• Sharing the Bread. This is a rhyming picture book for younger readers about a family that prepares Thanksgiving dinner together with everybody pitching in. It’s coming from Schwartz & Wade, and the wonderful Jill McElmurry is illustrating.

• Sophie’s Seeds. There IS more Sophie coming from Schwartz & Wade. In this book, Sophie starts school and explores the ups and downs of having human friends. But don’t worry, Bonnie and Baxter are never far away. Anne Wilsdorf is illustrating again, of course.

• The Quickest Kid in Clarksville. This picture book, set in 1960, tells the story of two girls who idolize Olympic sprinter Wilma Rudolph. They both want to be just like her, and they compete to see who’s the fastest before discovering that not all races have just one winner. This is coming from Chronicle in 2016.

And, I’m always writing new stuff. I think one way to keep yourself sane as a writer is never to pin all your hopes on one story. Have lots of stories going on so you always have something to work on and improve.

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from your stories? What do you hope to accomplish as a writer?

PZM: I want to write books that reflect universal childhood truths. Those little moments that make readers nod (or wince) with recognition. And if I can make people laugh, that’s cool too.

My two favorite responses to Sophie’s Squash came from very different readers. One was an email about a little boy with autism who had fallen in love with a miniature pumpkin after Halloween. He was loving it and asking his mom if he was being a good daddy to it. She was worried about how sad he’d feel once it rotted. So she read him my book and they planted the pumpkin just like Sophie planted her squash.

The second came from a fellow writer who told me her mother-in-law, who has advanced Alzheimer’s, really enjoys the book too. My friend said, “Not many books bring a smile to her face, but this one does. She's always loved babies, and I think her imagination is equal to Sophie's!”

When I hear stories like that, it isn’t hard to sit down at the computer and get back to work.