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.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Patricia Hruby Powell's Biography 'Josephine' Dazzles

Josephine Baker's fascinating life has been examined in books, films, and documentaries. But perhaps none is so beautifully done as Patricia Hruby Powell's picture book Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (Chronicle Books, January 14, 2014). Illustrated by Christian Robinson, Josephine tells the inspiring story of this boundary-breaking performer and champion for racial equality. A biography written in verse, Josephine is already collecting a jewel box of starred reviews, including one from Kirkus that says it's "celebrated with style and empathy."

Question: You're a former dancer, so it's easy to see the interest you might have for writing about another dancer. But why Josephine Baker? What drew you to her story?

Patricia Hruby Powell: It wasn’t till I hit my more advanced adult years that I took a close look at Josephine and was smitten. Her style, verve, her originality—as seen in the early film footage and the three movies she made—are irresistible. But when I was a serious young dancer—of Graham, Limon, and Cunningham techniques and of ballet, who became a choreographer and concert dancer—I did not take Josephine Baker seriously.

In my more recent capacity as a children’s librarian, surrounded by unfocused preteen African American girls, I thought Josephine could be a wonderful role model. Josephine had phenomenal confidence. Blind confidence, perhaps. That’s what drew me.

Q: Josephine is both beautifully illustrated, immensely informative, and well-written. And it clocks in at a whopping 104 pages! It is not every picture book that gets an editor's green light to reach 100 pages! How did you win over your editor? Did the size of the book begin to worry you at any point?

PHP: Josephine evolved, you might say. I’d written it first as a 1,000 word picture book, received a lot of agent and editorial attention, but ultimate rejection. I then wrote it as a YA verse piece imagining Paul Colin-like black and white illustrations. Never mind that there’s really no such thing as a novella-length verse YA volume, I was writing what I wanted, as we’re always advised to do.

I was monumentally lucky that my eventual agent picked Josephine out of a cover letter description—I mean it’s not what I was submitting to her—and she asked to see it, liked it, and offered representation. That was in December 2009. That 7,500-word Josephine received praise but, again, ultimate rejection. Until…

An inspired editor at Chronicle asked me to cut the word count in half. Which I did. My dream editor acquired Josephine in October 2010, and we added some of those deleted stanzas back in.

My editor intended a long picture book of 48 pages, I think. Then it was 64 pages. When I was told it would be an astounding 104 pages, I panicked. What was this book going to cost? I was told a normal $17.99. I calmed down. All along the way, I was told how much everyone at Chronicle loved the book. So I guess they were taking a chance. Which made me feel terribly responsible. I’ve got to say, I’ve felt panic along the way on numerous occasions.

Q: Could you talk about your creative process? The personal recollections from Josephine Baker are woven into the storyline seamlessly, but this must have taken a lot of writing and revising to pull off. How long did you work on this manuscript, both researching and writing?

PHP: Josephine was a storyteller. She wrote five autobiographies—all in French—which required me to kick-start my school French. But those autobiographies supplied plenty of quotes.

Josephine Baker was overly energetic, which leads to hyperbole. I had to tease out the truth, or what I saw as the truth of her story. There are wonderful English language biographies as well. But some writers believed all her stories. I’d read so much about her, from her, and viewed so much footage and listened to her interviews on obsolete recording technology (thank heavens for the University of Illinois Library) that I felt I knew her extremely well.

Once acquired and Josephine was sent out for scholarly approval, a few of my facts were challenged. For instance, even some scholarly books cite Josephine’s birthplace as East St. Louis. (I think that misconception grew from Josephine’s story that she was in the middle of the East St. Louis race riots of 1917. But really, Josephine saw the battered people once they fled East St. Louis, Illinois, and crossed the bridge into St. Louis, Missouri). Josephine felt things strongly. She was a passionate artist. Her experience of seeing the devastated people from the East St. Louis riots was life-changing. But she was born and raised in St. Louis.

My Josephine had a long path to publication. But I was also working on other manuscripts over those years from 2005 to the 2014.

Q: Razzmatazz, vagabonds, ramshackle, effervesced! Your word choice is rich and full of meaty, mouth-filling words, and choosing to write in verse lends an urgency to the book's tone. It is clear you labored over every word. Can you talk about your decisions for word choices and writing style?

PHP: I love words. I create a word bank for each of my books. When I hear or think of or read a word I might use, I write it down. Bits of paper are scattered throughout my house. And my purse. Yes, I have notebooks and legal pads, too. Hopefully all the words will get gathered and transferred to the computer or a 3-by-5 card.

Josephine is a subject that invites scintillating words. Who knows how razzmatazz got in my brain? Josephine put it there. I tried to become Josephine to see how she felt—so I danced her. She danced me some of those words.

Q: I thought I was familiar with Josephine Baker's life story, but your book delivered some wonderful surprises. Were you already aware of her war service and piloting experience? Were there moments when you were surprised by Josephine's life?

PHP: I knew only the bare facts when I began. I was surprised all along the way. And in immense admiration of her.

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

PHP: I hope they will think, I can do anything I set my mind to. I hope they will dream up things no one has ever thought and do those things. I hope they will be instilled with Josephine’s confidence.

Q: What will we see next from you?

PHP: A YA documentary novel in verse (working title: Loving vs Virginia) about the interracial couple Mildred Jeter (black) who married Richard Loving (white) in Virginia, 1958. Interracial marriage was illegal in 24 states in 1958. The Lovings were arrested in bed, banished from their pastoral home to the slums of Washington, D.C. It took nine years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor. It’s a love story.