Monday, December 10, 2018

Meg Fleming and Diana Sudyka's Collaboration on 'Sometimes Rain'

Sometimes you come across a book that hits you just exactly, precisely, square-on right. Maybe it's a particular word choice that thrills you. Maybe it's an image that delights. When I picked up Sometimes Rain (October 2018, Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster), written by Meg Fleming and illustrated by Diana Sudyka, what struck me was the way the language and illustration so perfectly combine to complement each other and make for a powerful, evocative reading experience.

A celebration of the four seasons, Sometimes Rain takes young readers through the natural world's changing rhythms: snowfall, storms, sunny days, and turning leaves. There are endless launching points for discussion — focusing attention on what's happening outdoors in the natural world as well as indoors with our clothing choices, explorations of the calendar, celebrating holidays, how we deal with change, and how we interact with nature.

Diana Sudyka
The bio for Meg (I Heart You; Ready, Set, Build!) says she's a voice teacher, and her obvious love of language comes through with each word she's selected. And Diana's distinctive style (she's done the covers for Trenton Lee Stewart's Secret Keepers and The Mysterious Benedict Society series, Tricia Springstubb's Every Single Second, Gail Carson Levine's Writing Magic) makes you linger over every page.

This book will appeal to nature enthusiasts, the animal obsessed, STEM fans, the umbrella-and-boots crowd, poetry lovers — you name it. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews calls it a "celebration of the impermanence and unpredictability of seasons" and "a delight for pluviophiles and heliophiles alike." Add word-lovers to the list too.

I asked both author and illustrator to stop by for a chat, and they were kind enough to collaborate on this interview. I'm so grateful to Meg and Diana for taking time out of busy schedules to share a bit about the making of Sometimes Rain. And as an aside: I'm so happy to cheer on authors from my former hometown of San Francisco (Meg) and my current hometown of Chicago (fist-bumps to Diana).

Question: What struck me about Sometimes Rain and made it seem like a real standout from the pack is the perfect combination of lyrical language and evocative illustration. Each word, each image seem so well thought out. What's your creative process like? Does it come to you fully formed? Or do you labor over months and months for just the right detail?

 Meg Fleming: Thank you! Well, my creative process is a little different for every project. I’d say that most of my ideas begin with a whisper— one or two words maybe. Next, I get a strong emotional pull. Finally, whether in rhyme or prose, there’s some kind of pulse where I actually feel a beat, or a rhythm. While the whisper is like a subtle invitation or reminder, the emotion is harder to ignore. Emotion is persistent. It winds the strings of an idea until it’s so taught, I need a pen like a dog needs a bone. And once the pulse shows up— I can’t contain myself.

After that, it’s a pretty spastic and messy process. But it’s more fun than anything I know. I roll out a wasteful amount of butcher block paper and grab whatever writing utensil I can get my hands on and I start spewing stanzas until I’ve exhausted all possibilities. And then I piece the puzzle together—circling my favorite images and turns-of-phrase, and reordering words in exchange for a more satisfying rhyme or stronger emotion. And yes, I take words to the woodshed like you wouldn’t believe. I don’t like to waste them. I’m a firm believer in economy of words. So… you’re probably thinking… you sure said "sometimes" a lot.

I did. Sometimes was my whisper. It was my invitation. It’s the part that made me wonder more. And so, I let myself use it. A lot.

Diana Sudyka: Thank you! Meg’s words so beautifully evoke the essence of each season, and when I read the manuscript it made me think of my time as a child spent playing outdoors in every season here in the Midwest. Settling on what to specifically depict and visual motifs, though, was initially kind of messy. I was given complete creative freedom, and initially that’s wonderful, but when you have a more open-ended manuscript (i.e. something that doesn’t have a clear narrative, or based on a historical figure) it can become daunting. So…sometimes ideas do come to me more fully formed, but this was more a case of start sketching without a clear direction, and the themes will eventually take shape.

There were just so many directions I could have taken! I was undecided if my illustrations should be a series of vignettes, or if there would be definite characters and narrative that we follow through the seasons. I eventually settled on four children as characters we follow playing through the seasons, then the images grew organically from there. The swirling line motif that you see throughout the book grew from being able to see the vapor from one’s breath when it gets cold, but me and Beach Lane liked it so much, we decided to make it recurring. I submitted some early roughs that ultimately we didn’t feel like were hitting the right mark aesthetically, so that was a little setback. But in hindsight, I am glad that we started over. I learned so much in making these illustrations.

Q: Typically, authors and illustrators aren't in much communication as the book goes through the publishing pipeline. Did you offer suggestions or comments to each other? Did you communicate at all?

Meg: I don’t think Diana and I had direct contact with each other until the whole creative process was complete, did we? I mean… we met in the usual way— I was crazy about Diana’s work and I stalked her Instagram account like any good writer should!

But there were a few times when Andrea Welch and Lauren Rille, our Editor and Art Director over at Beach Lane, reached out to me for clarification. Turns out, when you say "sometimes" a lot, there’s a vast amount of room for interpretation! Anyway. Andrea and Lauren asked me to describe what a few of those stanzas meant to me with the hope that it might inspire an image or idea for the story. I still can’t get over Diana’s beautiful interpretation of this story. I've said it before, and I'll say it a million times more: her work is magic!

Diana: Yes, that is typical. Having a go-between in the form of an art director in the initial stages of a project like this can be helpful in streamlining art direction and feedback, though. For Sometimes Rain I wasn’t directly in contact with Meg until she reached out after, I think, Beach Lane had shown her the second round of revisions I had made? Prior to this, there were a couple spreads I was really stuck on coming up with the right image, and Beach Lane reached out to Meg for some ideas. It was very helpful to have that input from Meg. Overall, it’s been so great to have contact with Meg. She has been so wonderfully supportive of what I created for Sometimes Rain. I often never hear what an author thinks of the work I did for their manuscript.

Q: I see this book as having staying power — teaching kids to recognize the seasons, what's happening in nature, how we interact with the natural world throughout the year, as well as offering a soothing, cozy reading experience. I wanted a cup of hot cocoa and a warm blanket when I read this! How do you hope kids and adults experience your book?

Meg: I am so glad to hear that this book got you all cozy and cuppa cocoa-y!

I really hope that Sometimes Rain inspires both children and adults to go outside and play. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, but it offers brilliant insight on how our connection to the outside world is slipping and what kind of impact that slip-up has on our relationships with each other and the environment. Diana’s illustrations in this book are nothing short of a magnificent romp through the seasons and I’m hoping it will give kids (and parents) a chance to unplug and listen, smell and feel the outside world in an everyday way.

Diana: That’s exactly what I wanted my illustrations to inspire: to recognize the changing seasons, to observe those changes throughout the year, and feel that there is beauty and opportunity to play in every season. That we are part of this cycle too. I often think of the book Last Child in the Woods and the massive shift we have seen in the way children play and a disconnection to nature. Adults too. How can we address climate change and be good stewards of the earth if we don’t support this critical, early bond children have with the natural world?

Side note from Kate: I had Last Child in the Woods on my mind when I wrote my Cupcake Cousins series — I was very interested in portraying kids interacting with nature during all seasons. Clearly there's something going on here!

Q: Reading Sometime Rain, I was reminded of a few other delightful books that have us in boots and out exploring the world. Specifically Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day. Do you see other classic or contemporary books that Sometimes Rain fits on the shelf with? Or books that inspired you as you wrote/illustrated?

Meg: I adore The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, and it makes me so happy to hear that Sometimes Rain provided an opportunity to pause and think on life in that way… dragging a slow stick through the snow. 

I'm happy to see Sometimes Rain on any child's bookshelf! I've heard a few reviewers note that they would set it on the shelf with Red Sings From the Treetops by Joyce Sidman as well as All The World by Liz Garton Scanlon and Marla Frazee.

Diana: Oh, I love Ezra Jack Keats. The Snowy Day is so elegant and brilliant. When I was creating my illustrations for Sometimes Rain, the book that was in the back of my mind most. So was I Am a Bunny by Ole Rison and illustrated by Richard Scarry. I love this early era of Richard Scarry’s work. The detail he gave to the flora and fauna in Bunny’s world are field-guide worthy, and of course each season is beautifully represented. There is a painting of Bunny surrounded by butterflies, and in Sometimes Rain my illustration of the dog chasing butterflies was sort of my homage to that scene by Scarry.

Q: You're both so talented, it's exciting to think of what else we'll see coming from you. What's in the works?

Meg: I do have a few projects in the pipeline — one I can talk about, one I can’t talk about, and others that that are still seedlings. I am thrilled about my next book that will hit the shelves in Spring 2020. It’s called Here Comes Ocean, illustrated by Paola Zakimi and published by Beach Lane Books, and it follows a child who discovers that along with every rolling wave comes a new ocean creature and with that another possibility for adventure. And I have another book after that… but it’s still top secret!

Diana: It was such a great experience working with such a talented writer as Meg. In May 2019 Abrams will be releasing When Sue Found Sue about paleontologist and explorer Sue Hendrickson who found the most complete T-rex skeleton. It’s written by Toni Buzzeo and illustrated by me. And then I illustrated What Miss Mitchell Saw by Hayley Barrette about astronomer Maria Mitchell. It should be out in Fall of 2019 also with Beach Lane. Beyond this I am really hoping to publish my own author/illustrator project.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

'Breakfast Club' for Middle School in Dana Alison Levy's 'It Wasn't Me'

Picking up one of Dana Alison Levy's deftly written middle-grade novels, you know you'll find a satisfying balance of humor and earnest emotions. Author of the irresistible The Misadventures of the Fletcher Family, its sequel The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island, and the rollicking This Would Make a Good Story Someday (all published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers), Dana is back with It Wasn't Me and what Kirkus Reviews calls (in a STARRED review, no less!) “A timely, introspective whodunit with a lot of heart.”

Jax Fletcher from previous books is among the five suspects of a hate crime perpetrated against a middle-school classmate — photos defaced with gay slurs and threats, another incident in the school’s darkroom. In an ode to the 1985 John Hughes movie The Breakfast Club, the six are rounded up to resolve the crisis, forced together to hash through complex feelings and complicated issues.

Publishing today, It Wasn’t Me has already been named a Junior Library Guild Selection, an Amazon Editor’s Best Book of November, and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2018. Dana was kind enough to take the time for a few questions:

Question: With your previous titles, you’ve shown you have a great sense for comedy as well as a talent for exploring relationships. What do you enjoy more — writing the funny stuff or digging into more serious topics?

Dana Alison Levy: Writing funny stuff is…well…fun! I really enjoy it and find it comes pretty easily. (Though it is always interesting when editorial notes include things like “What kind of noise would butter make hitting someone’s face?” or “Would she have time to think all of that while falling into the shower stall?”).

All of my books touch on some more serious topics, even while I try to make people laugh, but It Wasn't Me is definitely the most serious. And I found I wanted to dig in, to push my characters a bit more, to make things harder for them, so that they could struggle through and hopefully find a way forward. We are living in challenging times, when a lot of kids feel alone, certain that no one else can understand them. I hoped that by putting Theo and the others through some hard conversations and uncomfortable moments, readers could find their own truths.

Q: This feels like a nod to The Breakfast Club. Where did the inspiration come from for this story? What made you write It Wasn’t Me?

DAL: This was one of those books that sprung fully formed, Athena-out-of-the-head-of-Zeus-style. From the first moment I thought of it, I had the main characters, the story arc, the setting…it really hasn’t changed that much from that first spark. These characters and the premise are definitely based on the iconic Breakfast Club teen hit from the 1980s, but reimagined for middle school. And instead of spending a day in detention, they were spending a week digging into a restorative justice effort. It offered so many possibilities: a discussion of stereotypes, a deep dive into school communities and how they function (or don’t), and a lot of comedy. It was so clear in my mind, actually, that I spent a few days madly Googling middle-grade titles in case anyone had already written it, and I just didn’t know it.

The piece that I really wanted to explore, beyond the characters, was the idea of restorative justice. I am fascinated by this challenging and complex but ultimately really effective way of looking at crime, punishment, justice, and redemption. Restorative justice is used in schools, tribal courts, juvenile centers, and more. The process the students engage with in It Wasn't Me is a version of something far more complicated and sophisticated. But it dovetailed so neatly with my initial question of “Who are these kids, really? And what lies behind the stories they share?”

Q: Why do you write for middle-grade readers? What made you choose this audience?

DAL: I have always thought that books for elementary, middle-school, and high-school readers are some of the best books ever written. From picture books to YA novels, there are true literary gems in all these categories. I thought this as a kid, as a college student and young adult, and as a parent. And I believe it with all my heart as an author. Middle-grade readers (kids roughly ages 8-14) are going through such a challenging and interesting time. The world is opening up in both good and bad ways, and there are so many questions: huge questions about inequality and injustice, more personal questions about bodies and friendships. Books offer a vital way to get some answers. Or at least not to feel so alone.

Q: You’ve been publishing a book a year, give or take. What’s the deal there? Don’t you sleep? Can you talk about your creative process? What does your writing life look like?

DAL: Hah! Well, first of all, it’s more a book SOME years…I didn’t have a 2015 book, and won’t have a 2019 book. So the rhythm is a bit erratic. But the irony is that I write really fast, and I have plenty of ideas, but it still takes a looooooooong time to go from idea to actually writing. I can’t really explain it, often I feel like I’m wasting time, but I’m coming to realize it is part of the process. I liken it to a computer program updating in the background…it’s moving along, slowing everything down, and you can’t see anything happening, but it’s necessary. I think my stories deepen and develop in the back of my brain while I’m doing other things. Usually, once I start writing, it goes pretty quickly. I do typically outline my books, and then follow the outline, writing in a linear way. I am always gobsmacked by writer friends who write the climax, then go back and write some cool scene that takes place early in the book, then write another chapter that just begs to be written…and finally stitch it all together. I pretty much start at the beginning and write straight through to the end.

Q: What are you working on next?

DAL: I have my first young adult novel coming out in 2020, which I’m really excited about! It’s a contemporary YA called Above All Else, about two teens who have been planning for years to climb Mount Everest the spring of their senior year. But now that they are in Nepal and starting the climb, they have to face the realities of who they are now, what dreams they really carry, and how they feel about each other and the mountain they're climbing. It’s definitely an adventure story and a friendship story and a love story all wrapped up together. I’m also working on a few different middle-grade ideas…some further along than others. The ideas are always the easy part. It’s getting them out of my brain and onto paper that’s the challenge!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Stepping Up to the Plate With Heather Lang's 'Anybody's Game'

In celebrating Women's History Month, we've heard about bold women who changed society through their ground-breaking actions, from astronaut Mae Jemison to marathoner Bobbi Gibb to "dangerous" activist Jane Addams. Through the #31Women31Books campaign, we have stacks and stacks of picture book biographies ready to introduce us to even more historical figures who upended traditional roles and set women on entirely new and exciting courses.

One of those figures is Kathryn Johnston, who broke barriers for young baseball fans in the 1950s. In Heather Lang's exciting Anybody's Game: The Story of the First Girl to Play Little League Baseball (Albert Whitman & Company, March 2018), illustrated by Cecilia Puglesi, we see how this dynamic girl changed Little League forever.

Heather is no stranger to topics like this, offering up an impressive list of titles spotlighting barrier-busting women: Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark, Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine, The Original Cowgirl: The Wild Adventures of Lucille Mulhall, and Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman, Olympic High-Jump Champion. She took a few minutes to talk to us about her fascinating books.

Question: Who is Kathryn Johnston, and how did you learn about her?

Heather Lang: Kathryn Johnston was the first girl to play Little League Baseball. Back in 1950 girls weren’t welcome on Little League teams. Kathryn loved baseball more than anything and wanted desperately to play on a real team. So she cut off her braids and tried out as a boy!

As a child, I adored baseball. I didn’t go anywhere without my mitt and played catch constantly with my father and brother. I played on a travel softball team in fifth grade, and I continued to play throughout middle school and high school.

When my kids began playing Little League, those special memories came flooding back. I decided to see if there was a story there. When I read about Kathryn’s struggle to play, I tried to imagine what my childhood would have been like without baseball and softball, and that was the spark for Anybody's Game.

Q: What is your creative process like? How do you find ideas, and how do you take them from spark in your mind to bookshelf?

HL: Sometimes I go looking for ideas, and sometimes they find me. When I go looking for a person to write about, I usually start with a subject that interests me. One day I made a list of my top five fears, and two picture book biographies came from that exercise: Swimming With Sharks and Fearless Flyer. Exploring and researching personal fears (like sharks and flying) is challenging, but so rewarding!

I read widely to identify the right person to write about, but I always have a gut feeling when I’ve found them. Next the treasure hunt begins, and I dig into the research. No two research experiences are alike. One of the things that surprised me most is how generous experts are with their time and knowledge. And I try to do experiential research for every book, which can be a little scary sometimes. I have been paragliding, scuba diving, and horseback riding all in the name of research! My favorite research moments by far are meeting with the women I am writing about. I was so fortunate to spend time with Alice Coachman, Eugenie Clark, and Kathryn Johnston.

I don’t start writing a first draft until I have done a lot of research, thinking, and free writing about the book. What is the story going to be about? How am I going to enter this story? What’s my angle? Is it going to be focused on an event or cover a larger time period? What are the themes? What narrative style suits the story? Will I incorporate quotes? What’s the narrative arc? There are so many choices, false starts, twists, and turns. I am fortunate to be in an awesome critique group who supports me every step of the way.

Q: Your stories spotlight remarkable women from history who many people might never have heard of.  What are you trying to accomplish with your books?

HL: I always try to create a book that will teach and inspire kids. There are so many lesser-known women from history who have accomplished extraordinary things. I hope kids will see how these brave women from the past made things better for us today. Nothing makes me happier than when kids want to dig deeper into a topic or person. And I hope my books will inspire kids to follow their own dreams and persevere through challenges.

Q: Who has been the most fascinating woman you’ve written about?

HL: Yikes that’s a tough one. If I had to choose, I’d say Eugenie Clark, who was the first scientist to dive in and study sharks in their natural environment. I was amazed at her courage and the depth of her knowledge and passion. I got lost in the research. I read dozens of her scientific publications, even though I knew I didn’t need to for the book, and I have become a huge shark fan. I began the project with an intense fear of sharks and could never have anticipated that journey from fear to passion—all inspired by Eugenie Clark.

Q: Who’s next?

HL: My next picture book biography is about tree canopy biologist Margaret Lowman, and it is near and dear to my heart for so many reasons. Meg was one of the first scientists to really climb up into the canopy and explore its enormous biodiversity. She has done such important work to protect our trees, and she works tirelessly to mentor girls and women interested in the field. Last summer I spent an incredible week with Meg in the Amazon!

She is a phenomenal person and scientist.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Cynthia Grady on a Librarian for Japanese Internment Children

On this date in American history—on February 19, 1942—President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the forced relocation and incarceration of more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry into camps located in the the western interior of the United States. Specifically targeting Japanese residents living along the Pacific coast, an estimated 60 percent of those rounded up and imprisoned were American citizens. 

History is fascinating but also useful. Crucial. Essential. If we don't know it and learn from it, we truly are doomed to repeat it. 

That's why stories like Cynthia Grady's Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind (January 2018, Charlesbridge) is such an important book. Illustrated by Amiko Hirao, it tells the moving story of Clara Breed, a librarian in San Diego who corresponded with her young Japanese American library patrons during World War II when these children were locked up in internment camps. 
It's a a hard story for kids to understand, but it's useful, crucial, essential for them to know. And to realize that even in the United States, a shining beacon to the world of the principles of tolerance and freedom, that an entire population could be so cruelly treated and see their individual rights as American citizens so heartlessly and systematically trampled.

Author Grady (Like a Bird: The Art of the American Slave Song, I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery) pulled powerful direct quotes from the children's letters, which are archived at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. I reached out to her to find out more about her creative process in bringing Miss Breed's story and those of her young friends to a new generation of readers.

Question: How did you come across this story? 

Cynthia Grady: I first learned of Clara Breed's story in about 2002. I had read a review of a documentary that had been put together by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. The film featured her work on behalf of Japanese Americans during World War II and long afterward, and the children she knew and corresponded with during the war.

I had been a librarian for about three years by then, and I was learning quickly how many librarians, past and present, have worked for social change. I wanted to be that kind of librarian. I wanted to know more about Clara Breed, but I couldn't find anything published—I did find articles written by her and a book she had written, and I learned more about her life by digging into some pretty old documents, but nothing that satisfied my curiosity about her. So, I decided to try to write a book about her myself.

Q: Everyone has a different way of going about gathering information. What was your creative process like?

CG: I began my research with secondary sources—reading all kinds of books about the war against Japan. Then I read published memoirs and poetry written by those Japanese Americans who lived in the prison camps. I visited museums and attended historical society lectures. I read government reports and I listened to congressional hearings that took place decades later.

Finally, I read the letters that the children wrote to Clara Breed. More than 250 letters are held at the Japanese American National Museum. While I knew I wanted Write to Me to be a picture book, I was mistaken, at first, to think I should only use the letters from the youngest children. The teens and young adults detailed the experience of their confinement in a way that the younger children weren't able to, and I'd wanted the letters the children wrote to tell their story as much as possible.

Q: This book is deeply researched, which takes so much time. Did you have some hiccups along the way?

CG: Unfortunately, at that time (about 2006 by now), the letters had not been digitized, so any further research would require me to return to LA. I was living and working in Washington, D.C., at the time, so that wasn't going to happen any time soon.

Like so many stories you hear, this book had a long road to publication. I began sending it out in 2006 and it was promptly returned with kind notes of "this is too slight" or "It feels more like a magazine article than a book." That sort of thing. One publisher asked me to expand it in very specific ways, which I appreciated. I worked on it for another year and resubmitted it. That editor kept it for a year and a half, but finally decided against it, another year later.

In the meantime, I re-worked it as a picture book biography in poems. I'm more comfortable with poetry than anything else, so I decided to play to my strengths. But I heard more of the same from still more publishing houses: "This should be a verse novel rather than a picture book of poems..." "The writing is lovely, but . . . ."

I'd all but given up on the Clara Breed manuscript, and I had expressed my exasperation about the whole thing at a writing retreat in 2014. An editor eating lunch at the same table overheard my conversation and asked me to send the manuscript to her. She had me cut, cut, cut the manuscript so it was back to nearly what I had written in the first place! Then over the following two years, we reworked it, especially the back matter.

Q: Writing teaches us many things as we see a project through. What did you learn along the way?

CG: I discovered through this whole process that I love doing back matter! Writing nonfiction still terrifies me, but I might try it again because I loved writing the end-notes so much.

Each project I've taken on comes together differently, so it's hard to comment on my creative process. I do have regular (almost daily) writing sessions that always begin with poetry, and then afterwards, I dig in to my current project. When the creative juices stop flowing, I usually need to stop, go for a long walk, and begin work on a new quilt, so my writing output is slow going, and my quilting progress even slower.