Monday, August 31, 2020

Emily Ecton's 'Great Pet Heist' a Laugh-Out-Loud Caper

I've long been a fan of the hilarious Emily Ecton, a former Chicagoan and wonderful member of the local children's writing community who now calls Virginia home. Pick up any of her eight middle-grade novels (The Ambrose Deception, Project Jackalope) and you'll see her humor showcased throughout, as well as her sheer sense of fun. Emily's latest, The Great Pet Heist (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, June 2020), had me at hello. From the moment we meet the ragtag collection of animals as well as their perfectly named human, Mrs. Food, we're in for a delightful, utterly engaging ride.

A former producer and writer for NPR's comedy quiz show Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell MeEmily clearly understands comedic timing and delivery. And as a devoted dog owner, she gets the nuances of living with pets and the very real possibility (probability?) that they have lives outside of what we see when we're home with them.

In The Great Pet Heist, described as Ocean's Eleven meets The Secret Life of Pets, an apartment dog named Butterbean sees its owner slip and fall, and head off to the hospital. What's ahead, Butterbean asks. Enlisting a few neighboring animals in a scheme to support themselves in case Mrs. Food can't care for them anymore, the clever pets plan a heist. 

I laughed from start to finish, and I'm so happy to learn there's a sequel in the works! It's called The Great Ghost Hoax, and in it Butterbean and the others investigate a haunted apartment in their building. It should be out next year. Emily was nice enough to talk about how this book came to be.

Enter here for a chance to win a copy of Emily's "The Great Pet Heist"!

QUESTION: Where did the idea for The Great Pet Heist come from? Was it a fully formed story or did you have just one or two characters in mind? Can you talk about the evolution of the project?

EMILY ECTON: I read a newspaper article about a woman who'd left all of her money to her dog, and I started thinking about what would happen to a pet who thought he'd inherit a fortune and then found out that he wouldn't. What would he do? That's how I came up with the idea for the heist, and then it was just a matter of putting together the heisting team.

Oscar the mynah bird was the first character who I knew would be in the book (since he's the brains behind the operation), and Walt the cat and Butterbean the dog weren't far behind. Before I started writing, I had to figure out how the animals would pull off the heist, which special skills they'd need to make it work, and which pets would make the best team.

Q: Are you a plotter or a pantser? What drives the storytelling for you—working from the character or from the plot?

EE: I'm definitely a plotter! I like to have all of the major details worked out before I start writing—it makes it easier for me to keep track of where I'm going, so I don't have to revise as much afterward. (I don't love revising.)  

Emily's brilliant dog Howdy
But I think character and plot are both equally important in developing a story. Even though I have a pretty clear outline when I start, the plot choices have to come from the characters or they won't work. Butterbean wouldn't suddenly start doing research on the computer, for instance, no matter how much I wanted her to. She'd need to be a different dog to make that plot point work.

Q: Mrs. Food, animal quirks, laugh-out-loud hijinks. I found The Great Pet Heist to be hilarious. Do you find humor hard to write? Do you look to other authors or shows for inspiration?

EE: That's great to hear! I have a background writing in comedy, so at this point, I think it's easier for me to write humor than to write more serious stories. I get inspiration more from news stories or random things that I see that spark ideas, but books that have humor in them are some of my favorites—I love authors like Terry Pratchett, Jaclyn Moriarty, and Polly Horvath.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Lori Degman Shows Off Rhyming Skills in 'Travel Guide for Monsters'

Anyone with an interest in rhyme should race to their bookstore right now and pick up one of Lori Degman's wonderful picture books. This Chicago-area author knows her way around stressed syllables and similar sounds, as she demonstrated in Just Read (Sterling, 2019) illustrated by Victoria Tentler-Krylov and Cock-A-Doodle-Oops! (Creston Books, 2014) illustrated by Deborah Zemke. Lori is a master at zingy wordplay and she's done it again with her latest adorable picture book, Travel Guide for Monsters (Sleeping Bear, 2020) illustrated by Dave Szalay, which Kirkus calls a "giggly geography lesson for trip planners and daydreamers." 

I reached out to Lori to talk about her books and how she cracked the code on writing rhyme.

QUESTION: Can you talk about your creative process? How do ideas work through your mind—do they evolve slowly over a stretch of time, or do they appear fully formed?

LORI DEGMAN: Usually, I get the idea for the story and/or the title immediately. Then I figure out the opening and how I want it to end, and go from there. Plotting is where I struggle most, so it usually takes a while until I finally figure out the middle. For my stories that are a series of vignettes and don’t have typical plots, like Travel Guide for Monsters, Just Read, and Like a Girl illustrated by Mara Penny (Sterling, 2019), I finish my first drafts pretty quickly, once I’ve decided on the rhyme scheme and the book’s structure. I tend to work on more than one story at a time. I’ll open up several stories on my laptop and start with one, then when I get stuck, move on to another. That suits my ADHD brain well.

Q: Rhyme is hard, but you make it look effortless. How much refining and reworking did you do in writing Travel Guide for Monsters?

LD: I’m lucky that rhyming comes pretty easily to me—I have a good ear for meter. Still, I spend a lot of time tweaking the meter to make it as close to natural speech patterns as possible, so the reader doesn’t have to think about how they’re reading it—they just read it as if it were prose. For Travel Guide for Monsters, once I decided on a location and the behavior I wanted to highlight, it came pretty easily. One thing I’ve learned is, at least for me, writing in rhyme is easier than writing in prose because of the parameters it creates. But editing in rhyme is much harder. If you make one change, it has a domino effect and other words and lines need to be changed. In prose, you take out a word, phrase, or sentence and that’s it!

Q: What helped you most in the writing and revising of Monsters? Reading out loud? Creating a dummy to get a feel for page turns? What devices really help you bring a manuscript to its best possible version?

LD: I always read my stories out loud—even the non-rhymers. I also ask other people to read them so I can hear where the meter is off or where they trip up. When I don’t want to bother my friends and family members, I’ll paste the story in Text Edit (on Mac) and it will read it out loud. Because Travel Guide for Monsters doesn’t have a plot, I didn’t have to worry about page turns. I did have to think about the order of the locations they’d visit. 

I always check to make sure I don’t use the same words multiple times or more than once for the rhyming words. I’ve only made one book dummy, and it helped a lot with reducing the word count and for creating page turns. It was for Norbert’s Big Dream (Sleeping Bear Press, 2016), which is my only published book in prose. It’s something I’m sure I’ll do again when I have a “near submission ready” prose manuscript. 

And of course I have to mention my many critique partners who always give me thoughtful and helpful feedback! The best thing is when they tell me a manuscript is submission ready—I know I can trust them, so I can send it out with confidence!

Monday, August 17, 2020

'Me & Mama' Author-Illustrator Cozbi Cabrera Does It All

There seems to be nothing Chicago multimedia artist Cozbi Cabrera cannot do. Her talents range from gorgeous illustration to lyrical written word to delicate textile art. Just glimpsing her website, visitors get an immediate sense that she is a special creative force to behold. In 2020, Cozbi has two children's books hitting shelves—Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, written by Illinois' own Suzanne Slade (Abrams, April 7th); and Me & Mama, for which she is both author and illustrator (Simon & Schuster, coming August 25th)—joining a stack of others titles that she has either written or illustrated. And lucky participants in November's SCBWI Illinois Interactive 2020 virtual conference will get to experience Cozbi's incredible talents upclose, as she works with artists in breakout sessions.

Cozbi has drawn national attention with her handmade collectible cloth dolls, called Muñecas. And her growing collection of children's books (including Thanks A Million, written by Nikki Grimes and published by Greenwillow Books; My Hair Is A Garden, Albert Whitman) have earned starred reviews. We thought it would be interesting to hear from Cozbi about her creative process.  

QUESTION: Both Exquisite and Me & Mama feature such loving depictions of the everyday, as well as evocative images of sheer joy. Can you describe your creative process and how you approach a story and illustrating picture books?

COZBI CABRERA: When illustrating a manuscript I've received from a publisher, I'm careful not to "over-read." That first reading is simply to grasp the scope and nature of the content and to see if I love the language or can pinpoint its strengths. I'm reading only to say yes or no. 

In the case of Suzanne Slade's EXQUISITE, I fell in love with her rhythmic, inspired, and well-researched prose. I was delighted to dig in and tease out the visual details of Gwendolyn Brooks' life. I reserve that closer reading for when I'm ready to break the manuscript into page turning chunks. I'm relying on a fresh reading, or the power of the first impression. This is where I can imagine scenes in my head and sketch out thumbnails in a variety of ways. 

I want those drawings to be relevant while throwing the stone of intention a little further, a bit like a visual reading in between the lines or the visual body language for the message. Sometimes I'm able to capture something right away, or am alerted that I need to do further research. Other times, I'm doing what I call "putting the junk down"—getting those obvious solutions on paper. This immersion affords me the ability to scratch a little deeper to find a better answer, to find the heart, while I'm washing the dishes, or just waking up the next morning.

I think our everyday surroundings are steeped with insight and tell a story.  Anthropologists would agree, I love to insert those clues. As far as emotion is concerned—it's the artist's job to help rearrange the viewer's emotional furniture, as painter Jim Parker used to say, to reaffirm what connects us and reveal the heart of the matter.

Q: You're an artist in a variety of media. Do you prefer working with fabric, creating dolls and quilts? Or do you find painting more satisfying? Or does writing feel equally satisfying?

CC: I've always enjoyed working in a variety of mediums. Each discipline is like a plant in my garden, requiring its own care, attention, and tending. It keeps me humble as a wide-eyed infant tumbling into limitless rabbit holes. There is no end to the many levels of mastery and powerful distinctions in each discipline. Naturally, there are points of confluence, where my work in one medium feeds into the next. I think of it as facets of the same stone, or expression.

Q: Do you have multiple projects going at once? Or do you like to focus on one thing at a time? And what is the next project we'll see from you?

CC: I always have many things in the fire. I'm able to get it all done by prioritizing and eliminating unnecessary chatter, wasteful actions, and emotions. I keep returning to play and to laughter. It's my most productive frame of mind. When I was younger I'd answer my phone in sympathy and allow someone to do an emotional dump, zapping my energy allowance and polluting my creative headspace. That headspace is really like a garden, you can't let just any weed grow or anything waltz in and trample underfoot! It's the octane and every creative has a responsibility to stand guard to protect it so it can expand. 

So, though there are many projects, I throw everything into the one that I'm prioritizing—it's the only way I'm able to get those flashes of insight when I'm drifting off to sleep or just waking up. Those insights are like gifts, but they don't present themselves until I've done the heavy lifting, and sometimes that work is giving the task before me my full concentration, even if it feels like I'm knocking on the door and it's not letting me in, or stumbling in the dark. Will I show up the next day, and the day after that? At times, week after week, after week? That's when the gift shows up—once it's been earned and I've shown myself approved!

I can speak about one of the next picture books, a biography about Elizabeth Jennings Graham, written by Amy Hill Hearth, to be published by Greenwillow Books/Harper Collins. And of course, there's a doll commission and several textile projects quietly taking shape at my sewing table.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Patricia Hruby Powell's 'Lift as You Climb' Spotlights Ella Baker

Lots of Illinois authors have new books hitting shelves right now. And while so many important national issues are rightly demanding our attention, it can feel like new picture books or novels serve little purpose. But they do. Now more than ever, it's important that we talk to young readers about American history, about the brave members of society who fought for justice and pushed the national dialogue forward, who challenged the status quo. Patricia Hruby Powell's Lift as You Climb: The Story of Ella Baker (Margaret K. McElderry Books, June 2020), illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, does just that. 

Powell is the author of award-winning picture book biographies, including Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, illustrated by Christian Robinson, and Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case, illustrated by Shadra Strickland. With Lift as You Climb, she turns her attention to one of the most influential female figures in the Civil Rights movement.

QUESTION: Ella Baker shunned the spotlight and preferred to work behind the scenes. Why did you choose to tell her story and bring her life to young readers' attention?

PATRICIA HRUBY POWELL: Ella Baker was a hero—both as a Black rights and women’s rights advocate. She believed that rather than one strong leader, it’s better to have many local leaders. What a great model for young activists! We need young activists more than ever right now. We need to remake our world. 

Ella Baker’s grandparents were enslaved people, who, once emancipated, worked, then bought the land on which they’d worked while enslaved. They became leaders of their community. The book includes stories of Ella working with Dr. Martin Luther King and a hundred Black preachers, of Ella and the young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members, but one story that is not in the book is this: Ella Baker told Dr. King that she didn’t think that a movement run on one charismatic personality was a healthy movement. She asked him, what did he think would happen once he was gone? She was right, of course. Sadly, the movement pretty much fell apart when Dr. King was assassinated. 

Ella Baker and Dr. King had huge respect for one another but they didn’t always see eye to eye.

While Dr. King was recruiting the “elite” into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP (that’s the lawyers, educators, preachers, doctors), Ella felt it was as important to recruit the “common” people and particularly, women (maids and clerks). At the same time Ms. Baker was showing the powerful Black men, who she worked alongside, to respect her as their equal. The preachers were accustomed to working with women who were subordinate to them—serving women. 

They had a lot to learn about respecting women as leaders. Poised, respectable, wise Ella challenged them and broke ground for women.

Q: What is your creative process like? As a dancer, you've spent a lifetime focused on movement. And even in your writing, movement and energy pulse through each line. How are you able to convey such vitality on the page?

PHP: I identify first and foremost as a dancer. I’ve been a dancer much longer than I’ve been a storyteller or writer. I live inside my dancing body. I am my body, which may sound a little corny. I don’t mean the shell of my body, but my kinesthetic body. My moving body. And I write from who I am, as we all do. 

I cannot sit still for long. I think best when I’m moving—walking, swimming or working out in water, bicycling, skating, dancing. I record notes on my phone or on slips of paper (or if necessary, in my brain;-). Then I return to my computer for the writing. But the thinking happens when I’m on the move. Sometimes I enact my characters, moving as I see them moving on film, and try to discover who they are, physically. I feel that I can “become” them by moving as they do. Try it.

I recommend turning on music, inserting earbuds, going a little ways out into the country where there are fewer eyes upon you and dance. I do this while watching my dog run through fields tracking bunnies and jumping into ponds. So nature helps too. Thoughts rush in. 

Q: “What do you hope to accomplish?” is a refrain throughout the story. What do you as a writer for children hope to accomplish?

PHP: I always want children to love reading. I hope that they’ll be fascinated by my stories and want to read extensively. But nowadays, more than that, I want young readers to become inspired to be social activists. I want them to figure out what they care about, and work for that. There is SO much in our society that needs correction. 

Activism? Maybe you’re excited or concerned about Black Lives Matter, the vote, police reform, gun control, zoning laws, segregated education, the health of the Earth and our environment, sustainable living, renewable resources. The list goes on and on. 

Helping other people gives you a life purpose—especially in this challenging time. We need to remake our world. Everyone will win.

We all need to ask ourselves, What do I hope to accomplish?