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I first met author Michael Sussman when I reviewed his debut picture book OTTO GROWS DOWN, illustrated by Scott Magoon. I LOVED IT! In fact, OTTO remains one of my favorite picture books of all time, and I often refer to it when teaching humor and picture book workshops.

Michael wrote me a lovely thank-you email and we became fast friends and critique partners. He went on to write novels, but now he’s back to picture books and his latest, DUCKWORTH THE DIFFICULT CHILD, is creating a kidlit buzz for its retro vibe and dark humor.

Michael, I’m so thrilled to have you back in picture books! It’s been a while since OTTO GROWS DOWN!

OTTO is the boy who wants his little sister to disappear, and she does. In DUCKWORTH, he himself “disappears,” but he didn’t want to!

For fun, can you compare and contrast OTTO and DUCKWORTH as characters?

What a wonderful question!

First off, I want to thank you, Tara, for all your help in promoting OTTO GROWS DOWN, and for being such a wonderful critique partner for so many years.

To my mind, what links Otto and Duckworth is that they both face dire circumstances which they must overcome without any help whatsoever from their parents. Unbeknownst to his mom and dad, Otto is trapped in backward time and will disappear altogether if he doesn’t figure out how to return to the present. Duckworth’s parents are oblivious to the fact that he has been swallowed by an enormous cobra, and he is left to his own devices to escape from inside the snake.

In contrast to Duckworth, Otto has a loving family, but must come to terms with an interloper: a new baby sister. In order to overcome his understandable resentment and animosity toward Anna, he must grow up and become aware of his burgeoning love for his sibling.

Duckworth is an only child and is faced with a far more difficult predicament: narcissistic parents who are utterly oblivious to his needs and concerns. Although Duckworth is as successful as Otto at conquering his life-and-death dilemma, the ending of his story remains bittersweet, as he is still stuck with woefully inadequate parents.

Poor Duckworth, stuck with oblivious parents who seem like the despicable adult characters in a Roald Dahl story. DUCKWORTH, as a whole, has a very nostalgic energy, like a picture book from days long ago. Did you get any inspiration from “dark humor” authors of the past?

DUCKWORTH is my homage to the classic picture book, THE SHRINKING OF TREEHORN, by Florence Parry Heide and Edward Gorey, soon to be a motion picture directed by Ron Howard. I love the dark humor of Gorey, Dahl, and William Steig’s SPINKY SULKS.

What is it about those dark humor books that you admire? Why did you want to pay homage to them?

I guess I just like dark humor in general, and have featured it in both my picture books and novels. Dark humor presents unpleasant and taboo aspects of life in a satirical manner, taking the edge off and relishing in the absurdity of the human condition. In stories, it allows authors to address potentially painful topics—such as sibling rivalry in OTTO and poor parenting in DUCKWORTH—in a manner that’s less threatening and more enjoyable than a straightforward or didactic approach.

I was also eager to riff on THE TREEHORN TRILOGY because I felt it was under-appreciated and falling into obscurity. Now, thanks to me and Ron Howard, it’ll be rediscovered! 😉

Let’s talk about the illustrations by Júlia Sardà. They are dark and mysterious, with a retro European surrealist vibe. (Maybe I think that because the mother looks like Salvador Dali?) The gorgeous cinnabar of the cobra jumps out and bites you.

The art takes full advantage of perspective—I love the illustration of Duckworth in the serpent’s stomach, surrounded by floating items the cobra has swallowed.

Is the art what you had imagined?

Júlia Sardà’s illustrations are spectacular, and way beyond anything I could have imagined or hoped for. Her style, sense of composition, and attention to detail are extraordinary, and perfectly complement the story. The illustrations are so striking that I actually became concerned that they’d overshadow the text, and convinced my editor—the wonderful Emma Ledbetter—to switch to a more dramatic font, and make use of drop-down letters to highlight the first word on some pages.

I was initially surprised by some elements of the artwork that diverged from what I’d expected. The snake is WAY bigger than I’d anticipated, and I think that was a brilliant choice. The mother’s face, body, and attire are quite masculine-looking, which bothered me at first, but I think this allows the parents to be presented as a single unit, which fits the story. (Not to mention that the mother, as I wrote her, is utterly devoid of maternal concern!) I expected Mr. and Mrs. Snodgrass, the neighbors, to look British, but they are decidedly Russian in appearance. Finally, Duckworth looks more peculiar than I’d envisioned him, but I’ve grown to like that. Initially, he looked far too old, but Emma and I convinced Júlia to make him younger.

So there were some changes and edits to the art. What about to your original manuscript? Did anything turn out differently than the version you submitted?

Initially, the boy’s name was Bowlby. I wanted an odd name, to parallel Treehorn, and I think I unconsciously selected Bowlby because of the famous British psychologist, John Bowlby, who did pioneering work on maternal deprivation. But Emma wasn’t wild about the name, so I made a list of unusual monikers, and the two I liked the best were Duckworth and Digby. My son, Ollie, preferred Duckworth, which Emma liked as well, so I used Digby for the name of Duckworth’s cousin.

Ha, Bowlby is a funny name, but I do like Duckworth far better!

In giving a workshop on humor recently, I talked about “superiority humor” and how feeling superior to someone else is a cause of laughs.

In DUCKWORTH, the child feels superior to the parents, and I think your reader will also feel superior to the Mr. & Mrs. Was that a deliberate decision to make the adults in the book so hapless?

Superiority theory states that we laugh at the misfortunes and shortcomings of others because it makes us feel better about ourselves. And indeed, a portion of the story’s humor stems from seeing the pompous stupidity and ineptitude of Duckworth’s parents. The vast majority of parents who read the book to their kids will be able to pat themselves on the back, thinking I may have my faults, but I’m a far better parent than these hapless twits.

But I think that Incongruity theory, the notion that humor derives from the enjoyment of a perceived or imagined incongruity, is a better fit here. The discrepancy between Duckworth’s desperate plight and his parents’ haughty indifference and self-preoccupation, is amusing.

Surrealist or absurdist humor is also at play, in that the story presents a ridiculous situation that is impossible to take seriously, and the obliviousness of Duckworth’s parents is exaggerated to the point of absurdity.

Well, I think you use all those forms of humor brilliantly.

I’ll close our interview with how I typically begin…

You know I host Storystorm to inspire writers. So what inspired DUCKWORTH?

Well, I was suffering from writer’s block at the time, so I resorted to my patented Whack-a-Plot™ titanium mallet, which I invented for your 2010 PiBoIdMo (forerunner to Storystorm). Within seconds of regaining consciousness, the story came to me in a flash.

Seriously, folks, the story was inspired by a visual image, which is unusual for me since I have aphantasia, a condition where one does not possess a functioning mind’s eye and cannot voluntarily visualize imagery. (I’m not making this up.)

One summer evening, while taking a stroll, an image passed through my mind of a snake that had swallowed a child. As I imagined the bulge working its way down the length of the serpent, it struck me as a compelling (if somewhat macabre) basis for a picture book. I recalled a similar image from The Little Prince, but when I returned home, I discovered that the prince’s drawing was of a boa digesting an elephant. (Although, as the prince notes, grown-ups all thought it was a picture of a hat.)

I worried that my concept might be too scary for young children, unless I made it a funny story, so I decided to model the tale on THE SHRINKING OF TREEHORN.

Michael, I think you’ve created a new classic! Thank you for chatting with me about DUCKWORTH!

Blog readers, Simon & Schuster is giving away 2 copies of DUCKWORTH THE DIFFICULT CHILD.

Just leave one comment below to be entered in the giveaway.

Two random winners will be selected in mid-August.

Good luck!


Abandoned by a cackle of laughing hyenas, Michael Sussman endured the drudgery and hardships of a Moldavian orphanage until fleeing with a traveling circus at the age of twelve. A promising career as a trapeze artist was cut short by a concussion that rendered him lame and mute. Sussman wandered the world, getting by on such odd jobs as pet-food tester, cheese sculptor, human scarecrow, and professional mourner while teaching himself the art of fiction. He now lives in Tahiti with Gauguin, an African Grey parrot. Visit him at MichaelSussmanBooks.com.

A few weeks ago, I saw a joyous tweet from Minh Lê praising SMALL WORLD, Ishta Mercurio’s debut picture book, illustrated by Jen Corace.

And then I remembered—I’m supposed to be interviewing Ishta about this very book! WHAT A SMALL WORLD!

But no, this SMALL WORLD is not like that Small World. No earworm here.

This book is about our changing perspective as we grow, learn and achieve…and our place in the world through the stages of life. It’s a beautiful book that landed at just the right time.

Ishta, since I run Storystorm, let’s talk about the idea for this book first. How did it originate?

I love this question, because it shows how ideas really can come from anywhere.

I was on a plane (in the window seat, which is my FAVORITE SEAT—it’s one of the perks of being short!), flying home from Oregon, looking down at a large body of water. I noticed that there was a cluster of white flecks on the surface of the water that kept disappearing, then reappearing further along, then disappearing and reappearing again, and it occurred to me that they were probably caused by a pod of whales or dolphins or something. And that got me thinking about how tiny those flecks were from my vantage point inside the plane, but how big a whale would be if I were sitting next to one… And I also started thinking about how much diversity the world holds: in plant and animal species, in cultures, in land forms… And I wanted to explore how a child might sit with and come to terms with that, with this knowledge of the world’s complexity and of our small-but-also-big role within it.

I see your other published book is about insects. Do your ideas often come from nature?

t’s funny, but most of the time, they don’t. Or if they do, I get about halfway through the brainstorming session before I realize that my idea is actually just an extension of SMALL WORLD, or of another manuscript that I’ve already written. Most of the time, my ideas come from something I’ve overheard in a cafe or on the train, or from a news article, or something my kids will say, or my dog. (I have a couple of ideas I’m playing with that have come from my dog…)

OK, I’ll bite! Tell us about your dog and dog stories!

We got him from a rescue organization. His name is Rocket, and his mother was a feral dog in an area that’s a bit overrun with feral dogs, and she gave birth to his litter next to someone’s shed and abandoned them. So we have no idea what kind of dog he is! He looks a little bit Lab/Rottweiler/German Shepherd/Boxer. He’s stereotypically “dog-shaped”. And he’s big! He weighs 80 lbs., which is almost as much as me.

Without giving too much away, my dog stories were both inspired by this one silly thing that he does. But one is serious, and deep, and essentially social commentary, and the other is light and funny and very silly. I don’t know if they’ll both be published, but I’m having fun writing them.

Rocket is a cool name! And so in Nanda, the MC in SMALL WORLD. Can you give us the story behind the unique choice?

Finding a name for this character was a challenge! I went through several different names, looking for the one that was just right. At first, this character was a boy. I’m a mom of two boys, so I think it just felt natural for me to think of this character—who shares a lot of interests with me, but whose story isn’t really based on my own childhood at all—as a boy. But then about halfway through the revision process, I thought, “You know what? I have a lot of common interests with this character. And where are the books about girls who get to do things like this?” And so I decided that this character needed to have a girl’s name.

And then it came down to what girl’s name to choose! It needed to have two syllables, with the stress on the first syllable, to match the rhythm of the rest of the text. I wanted something soft sounding, that ended in an “a” sound or some other open vowel sound (as opposed to a closed vowel sound, like a long “e” sound), because this is a soft flowing lyrical kind of book. And, of course, a name can tell us a lot about a person’s background and family, and Nanda’s family is important in the first half of this book.

One of the things that people might be surprised to learn is that I come from a mixed background: my dad is Italian on his father’s side and Irish and German on his mother’s side, and my mom is Polish on her father’s side and Filipino on her mother’s side. Her dad was an American GI stationed in the Philippines during WWII, and he fell in love with a Filipino woman (my Lola) and they raised my mom and her brothers and sister there. My mom and each of her siblings came over to the US one at a time, as they each finished high school in the Philippines and enrolled in college in the States. And what’s interesting to me is that even though I take after my Filipino side in stature and bone structure and build, which is, like, 90% of my body, because I have my Italian grandfather’s face, most people are surprised to learn that I’m part Filipino. And I think that this is partly because we see what we’re conditioned to see: in other words, if the majority of books and movies and TV shows we see feature Caucasian characters, as most of them do, we become conditioned to look for the signs that point to that heritage. And we miss or gloss over the rest. I want us to be able to see each other more completely, and more clearly. And I want us to accept one another more readily. And giving books to children that broaden and deepen their understanding of people from a variety of backgrounds, and that illustrate the things that are different as well as the things we share, is part of that work.

So I wanted this child to come from an immigrant background. And the rest of the story of how I chose Nanda’s name is in the back matter of the book, so people will have to go and read that for themselves.

I was surprised at Jen Corace’s illustrations because they are a wildly different style from LITTLE PEA (with Amy Krouse Rosenthal), one of my favorite books. I suppose I should know that illustrators are wildly talented! Jen’s style in LITTLE PEA is spare and simple, lots of white space, childlike. While SMALL WORLD also has a childlike feel, the art is complex, layered and bursting with color. It emits a palpable energy!

Jen Corace did such an amazing, amazing job with the illustrations in this book. I love the way she picked up on the geometry references in the text and took them to a whole other level. But my favorite thing, and the most delightfully surprising thing, was the spread of Nanda building a cityscape with blocks in her bedroom! I love the way the city skyline she sees through her window echoes the skyline she’s building, and the star chart on her wall, and I especially especially love the pictures of female astronauts on her wall. When I recognized Sally Ride and Mae Jemison and Kalpana Chawla’s portraits, I gasped. Seeing these real women on the walls of this fictional character–tying Nanda to real kids, in the real world—was such a special moment.

What is the hope that you want to pass onto those who read SMALL WORLD? What do you want your readers to feel as they finish the book?

I want them to be left with the feeling that even though each of us is one small person, we can still do great things. And I also want them to have a deeper appreciation for the Earth, which is the one place in all the Universe that we call home. It’s ours, and we *all* belong here.

Thank you, Ishta, for the interview and this gorgeous new book!

A book that blog readers can win!

Leave one comment below and a random person will be selected to receive a copy of SMALL WORLD, which is available in bookstores now!

A winner will be chosen in August.

Good luck!


Ishta Mercurio was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, until she was 16. Then she attended college in the Berkshires, spent a rustic summer on a Maine island, grew up and got married in England, found her home in Scotland, and made a new home in Canada.

She has been an environmental activist, a barista, a behavior therapist, an actor, and an author. I still am most of those things, but I only do a couple of them for money. Mostly, I am a storyteller.​

Pull up a chair at ishtamercurio.com.

At the risk of dating myself, I’ll mention an old commercial tag line from the 1970’s—“when E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

Well, when Holiday House contacts you and asks if you’d like to chat with two-time Caldecott and Geisel Honor book winner Laura Vaccaro Seeger, you also stop everything and LISTEN!

Laura’s latest book is a charmer, snuggle-worthy for the littlest ones. It’s titled, simply, WHY?

I met Laura last year at the Irma S. Black Award ceremony where she served as keynote speaker. She showed us her newest book at the time, BLUE, about a boy and his best friend. (Notice how the die cut on each page forms a new part of the image with each turn.)

 

Laura, you must know you are the only PB creator to make my husband tear up, as you read BLUE. And he’s never even had a dog! He was incredibly moved. How do you inject so much heart into your stories?

With every book, I try to distill the story down to its essence and I always draw upon strong feelings and beliefs while writing and illustrating.

With BULLY, for example, I’ve always felt a deep sense of empathy for anyone who was bullied or feeling left out, so it was important to me that above all else, empathy is the most important aspect of that book.

BLUE is probably the most difficult book I’ve ever created. It really comes from a deeply personal place. As a young child, I’d experienced the sudden loss of a family member—my brother—and that very complicated trauma was never really worked through. Consequently, I’ve always had an overwhelming fear and dread of loss. BLUE is a kind of therapeutic, cathartic personal exercise, but more importantly, it’s an attempt to offer comfort, as well as a starting point for deeper discussion with young children, (or anyone, really).

Your husband’s reaction truly means a lot to me!

So with your new book WHY?, what did you distill its essence down to?

WHY is a about curiosity, patience, and understanding. The little rabbit is having a bit of an existential crisis, and at one point in the book, the apparently all-knowing bear is faced with a similar crisis as he realizes that he can’t explain everything after all. Ultimately, their loving and enduring friendship is more important than anything, even when there are unanswerable questions. (I’ve always been fascinated with unanswered questions…)

Why do you think WHY? is a child’s most pressing (and frequent) question?

Well, given that children are witnessing everything pretty much for the first time, I think it makes sense that they would seek to have a deeper understanding of what they’re seeing and hearing.

I think adults often take for granted their surroundings, even if those deeper meanings were never fully explored or questioned.

Why are the characters in the book a bear and a bunny—instead of a bear and cub (or rabbit and bunny)? Why is the relationship shown as one of friendship instead of parent-child?

Ah, I thought long and hard about that.

With this book, as with many, I had an immediate vision that I wanted to stay true to. I knew that I wanted one of the characters to be very large, and one super small, which in many ways ended up dictating the decision about whether or not they’re related to one another. I also wanted them to be friends rather than relatives because friendship is a voluntary relationship, which I felt made the story more interesting in many ways.

Also, from the beginning. I’d envisioned a bear and a rabbit, but I did explore a substitute for the bear because I was worried that there might be confusion between the bear in WHY, and the bear in my DOG AND BEAR series. In the end, I felt the bear was undeniably perfect, and I was confident that the character would be distinctive in its own right.

He is distinctive! And so lumpy in a furry-cuddly way. Plus, it’s more visually interesting to showcase contrasting characters!

Speaking of your art, it’s gorgeous, full of depth and texture. Can you tell us a little about your illustration process for WHY?

Sure! With each book, I try to envision an art style that will match the text I’ve written. Hence the multiple, various art styles over the years.

With WHY, I envisioned a softer style, unlike any of my other books. It’s been years since I’ve worked with watercolors, and I had such a great time painting the art for this book!

So, I began each painting with a pencil drawing, and then I painted over the drawings with watercolor paint. I repeated this process lightly, many times, which gave the art depth and a layered feel, without any thick paint or brushstrokes. This way, the softness was retained and the pencil lines showed through.

Once all of that was done, I still felt it needed something – a bit of grittiness and a little more depth. I wanted it to feel more organic.

So, I finally broke out a fabulous gigantic Japanese brush I’d bought a few years ago in Singapore and I soaked it full of water so that it was completely saturated. Then, I brought it into my backyard where I dipped the sopping wet brush into India ink and flung it at watercolor papers. When I was finished, I had a huge stack of paper, each sheet full of splotches, spots, drips, etc. I created so many sheets because I didn’t want to repeat any of the elements.

Then, I scanned my original watercolor paintings and all of the “splotch” art sheets. For each painting, I overlaid several different “splotch” art sheets, I isolated the splotches, and I either lightened or darkened those areas on the original paintings.

Your process is fascinating! I love the thick and chunky Japanese brush!

What’s so lovely about the illustrations is that they feel soft and safe for a young child who is asking WHY, who is questioning the world around them. What do you hope that young reader will take away from your story?

I think with WHY, I’d love to encourage curiosity and the freedom and “permission” to question absolutely everything, which ultimately I believe, would encourage independent thought and informed decision-making. I also hope WHY is an example of patience and understanding, for sure. And lastly, I hope that young readers understand that not all questions have immediate answers, and that’s okay.

What a wonderful take-off point for a meaningful discussion between adult and child. 

Thank you, Laura, for giving us a glimpse into your creative process!

WHY? is available from Holiday House on August 13…or you can win a copy here.

Leave a comment below and someone will be randomly selected to receive a copy in a couple weeks.

One comment per person, please.

Good luck!


Laura Vaccaro Seeger is a New York Times best-selling author and illustrator and a 2-time winner of the Caldecott Honor Award, winner of the New York Times Best Illustrated Book Award, the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Best Picture Book, and a 2-time winner of the Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Award. She is also the recipient of both the Massachusetts Reading Association and the New York Empire State awards for “Body of Work and Contribution to Children’s Literature.”

She earned her BFA degree at the School of Fine Art and Design at the State University of New York at Purchase. She then moved to Manhattan and began a career as an animator, artist, designer, and editor in network television. She created show openings and special segments for NBC and ABC for many years and won an Emmy Award for an opening animation for an NBC Special.

Laura and her husband, Chris, have two wonderful sons, Drew and Dylan. They live in Rockville Centre, New York. She loves painting, writing, surfing, boating, tennis, running, playing the piano, and spending time with her family and friends. 

Visit her at www.studiolvs.com.

 

by Tammi Sauer

In the spring of 2013, two unlikely friends swam onto the picture book scene—Nugget and Fang. From the start, Nugget & Fang, written by me and illustrated by Michael Slack, did really well. I was proud of our standalone. It never even occurred to me to write a sequel.

Then in 2017, my new editor at Clarion, Lynne Polvino, asked if I’d be interested in revisiting a certain underwater world.

Now, all these years later, my favorite fishy friends are back in the SEA-quel, NUGGET & FANG GO TO SCHOOL.

When Fang the shark is invited by his friends to attend Mini Minnows Elementary, he thinks it’s a great idea! But then his first day of school arrives . . . and suddenly, he’s not so sure. He’s not very good at reading or math. He doesn’t exactly fit in with his classmates. And the teacher looks crabby! Can Fang’s best friend, Nugget, and the other minnows help him discover that school really is FANG-TASTIC?

When a publishing house asks you to write a sequel, please know this situation comes with advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages:

  • You already know your characters.
  • You already know the tone.
  • You already know the style.
  • You already know the voice.
  • You already know the general setting.
  • You already know the basic pacing.

Disadvantages:

  • The book needs to be written.
  • The book needs to be at least as good as the original, preferably better.
  • The book needs to appeal to fans of the original as well as to people who have never read it.
  • The book needs to meet a deadline.
  • The book needs to get approval from the publishing house, and, if the book does not get this approval, you can’t submit it elsewhere. Plus, you, um, still have to write a sequel that gets approval.
  • The book needs to be similar to the original. Oh. But it needs to be different, too.

But how do you actually write a sequel????? In my experience, such a task involves gallons and gallons of tropical tea, endless quantities of chips and salsa from Torchy’s Tacos, and a critique group that reminds you that you can do this.

These are the three things that were most helpful to me as I wrote Nugget & Fang Go to School:

  1. I read the original. Then I read it again. And again. And again. After that, I read it again. This not only helped me to dive back into Nugget and Fang’s world, but it helped me to rediscover the rhythm of their story.
  2. I typed out the text of the original and paginated it. This gave me a clear and concise visual of my pacing and page turns. I kept the paginated text of book 1 right next to me as I worked to create the text for book 2.
  3. I played with words. (Book 1 incorporated lots of wordplay so book 2 had to have that as well.)

First, I compiled a list of the wordplay that I had used in book 1:

  • Holy mackerel!
  • Swim for your lives!
  • Sounds fishy to me.
  • Oh, my algae!
  • I feel seasick!
  • Have you lost your gills?
  • Catch of the day
  • Fang’s heart sank.
  • You’re fintastic.
  • Fanned his gills.
  • Wrung his fins.

This served as a cheat sheet. I knew what wordplay absolutely could not go into book 2. I then wrote a long list of different potential wordplay to use in the sequel. These are the items that made their way into book 2:

  • Other fish in the sea
  • Oh, my starfish!
  • Swim for cover!
  • Cool as a sea cucumber
  • School of fish
  • Crabby
  • Sea of faces
  • Fang-tastic
  • Best friend in the whole underwater world
  • Made a splash
  • A fish out of water
  • There was nothing fishy about that.

Having lots of new wordplay to choose from allowed me to give book 2 a similar feel to book 1, but it helped me to make the new book fresh as well.

Overall, writing a sequel is quite a challenge, but, if my editor asks me to write another book about Nugget and Fang, well, wild seahorses couldn’t pull me away!

Luckily, wild seahorses aren’t pulling away our giveaway—a copy of the chummy SEA-quel to one lucky blog reader. Leave a comment below to enter. A winner will be randomly selected in a couple weeks!

Good luck!


Tammi Sauer is a full-time author who presents at schools and conferences across the nation. She has 28 published picture books with major publishing houses including HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Penguin Random House, Scholastic Press, Simon & Schuster, and Sterling. Her book Your Alien, an NPR Best Book of the Year, was recently made into a musical that is currently touring planet earth. (Well, the United States anyway.) Visit her at tammisauer.com and follow her on Twitter at @SauerTammi.

by Kevan Atteberry

GHOST CAT all began because, well, I have a ghost cat in my house. I never really see it—just darts and blurs out of my peripheral vision. There may be any number of logical explanations for this phenomena but I’m going with the ghost cat explanation.

We had a cat, a black cat, that showed up at our house years and years ago. It just appeared on our porch for several days in a row and eventually my wife, Teri, stated feeding it. I warned her if she fed it it would stick around. And she did, and it did. It came to us as an outdoor cat but eventually became an indoor/outdoor cat. If it had other places to be he was free to go there. He didn’t, preferring to live with us. And he did for about a dozen years. One day I hadn’t seen him around and went looking for him. I found him lying dead in the side yard.

When the cat died, my wife was five or six years into a diagnosis of young-onset Alzheimer’s disease. I had to tell her several times over the next few days that the cat had died. Each time it was like she was hearing it for the first time. Eventually she forgot that we even had had a cat.

Jumping ahead, a year or so after the cat died I ended up having to place Teri in an Adult Family Home. I had been her primary caregiver for seven years of decline but it got to the point I couldn’t do it anymore and still make a living, let alone have a life. I can’t remember if it happened before I placed Teri, but this is when I started noticing the “ghost cat appearances.” Maybe because I was home alone all of the sudden with no responsibilities.

It was always interesting and I don’t think I really believed I had a ghost cat, but I kept almost seeing it. So, naturally, as a writer, I thought I’d write a story about it. I had no idea what the story was, but I knew it would be different than anything I had written before. When I shared the first few drafts with my critique group, I was encouraged by their acceptance and suggestions. A year later, several more drafts, and they told me, “Kevan, this is your story,” which of course it was. I’d written it. “No,” they said, this is YOUR story. You have a ghost in YOUR house.” And what they meant is that ever since I had placed Teri in a home, I really was living with a ghost in my house. It became imperative at that realization that I get the story absolutely right. And I understood where exactly it needed to go. This was a story about loss, moving on, and the permission to love again while never giving up the love that came before.

Publisher’s Weekly said it well…”The heart, it seems, has room for everyone we have ever loved.”

It may also be notable that this is the first time I’ve jumped back into traditional medias to create the art for GHOST CAT. Every book before has been primarily digital. And the illustration style, obviously, is completely different than anything in previous books.

Initial thumbnail for spread 10-11.

First sketch for page 11.

Problem: page 10 and 11 were too similar. And besides that, the boy is not supposed to see the cat, yet he seems to be looking right at it.

Decided to keep page 10 as it was but change the angle on page 11 to more of a profile, putting the cat out of the sightline of the boy. This first rough sketch.

Created final pencil work (I would clean up in Photoshop.)

Created final illustration in Photoshop using pencil lines and the painted sources below.

These are the uncorrected colors and textures I used in coloring most of Ghost Cat.

Kevan, thank you so much for sharing the very personal story behind GHOST CAT–which was released June 11th!

You can win a copy here by leaving a comment below. 

A winner will be selected at the end of the month.

Good luck!

Last week I texted Stacy McAnulty because I heard the most amazing news!

Stacy, I just learned your new book MOON! will be on Elon Musk’s next SpaceX rocket. How did you arrange to be the first picture book in space?!

Ha! Wouldn’t that be something. I love seeing my books in stores and in libraries. Knowing it’s in space would be amazing. Yet not as amazing as seeing MOON in the hands of young readers. Astronauts and aliens are welcome to read my books, but I do write for kids.

OK, so your book isn’t going to the moon, but other objects from earth have…and have stayed there to form their own colony! How on earth did a pair of nail clippers get left on the moon?

I wish I knew! NASA has a list of what’s been left behind, but they don’t include the why. And since there’s no weather (no wind, rain, snow, etc.) on Moon, the objects could technically be right where the astronauts left them. However, with hardly any atmosphere, Moon is pummeled constantly by space rocks (asteroids, meteoroids). There’s a chance things have been destroyed by impact—including the nail clippers. If the next astronauts brought back those nail clippers, I wonder what they’d go for on eBay. They probably belong in the Smithsonian.

Now that’s an auction to break the Internet!

In your book, Moon and Earth are besties. But what if we had two natural satellites instead of the one moon—would all three be best friends, or would there be a lot of push and pull between them?

Earth is certainly capable of having multiple best friends. She’s so kind—she lets us live here after all.  But I can imagine Moon being slightly jealous of another natural satellite. Moon’s life revolves around Earth. Literally. She’d be a little bummed to share that spotlight. Luckily, Moon doesn’t have to share. Unlike Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune, and Uranus, which all have multiple moons. Moon is a one and only!

We know Moon has many different phases. What do you think is Earth’s favorite look for her BFF?

Full Moon for sure!  We get to see her whole, beautiful face. But we don’t want to phase-shame. Moon looks gorgeous all the time. Earth and I agree on this.

Do you have a favorite moon fact that didn’t get into the book?

I learned about synchronous rotation:  Moon rotates on her axis and revolves around Earth at the same rate, approximately 27.3 days. That means we see the same face of Moon. I do talk about this in the book, but I never get to use the term “synchronous rotation.” It’s such a nerdy-sounding phrase. I love it. “I suffer from synchronous rotation.”  Also, here’s a fun-fact that didn’t make the cut. Moon is moving farther away from Earth at a rate of one inch per year. Bye-bye, Moon!

No, no, don’t go away Moon! I mean, Moon probably likes to get away, but with her best friend. Do you think Earth and Moon like to go out and do cool things together? Like sing karaoke?

Oh, yes! They’d very much be into karaoke! Who isn’t? Their song would have to be a duet. Maybe “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher. That works!

That’s a fun one! They definitely don’t want to try “Blue Moon” or “Bad Moon Rising”!

OK, kidding aside, you made this entire non-fiction series so fun for kids—by letting Sun, Earth and Moon narrate their own stories. How did you discover that unique angle?

Like all great discoveries, it was by accident. Sort of. I like to tell the story of Earth’s birth when I visit schools. Before I wrote Earth, I wrote a story about a pet rock. It was fiction like everything else I’d written to that point. In the manuscript, this pet rock lived with numerous children for thousands of years—going from caveman times to today. I shared this pet-rock story, and my critique grouped hated it. But what I realized through their candor, was that I wasn’t writing a story about a rock but about Earth. She’s been here a long time and us humans are pretty new. So I penned a story about our planet, and from the first draft, I knew it had to be narrated by the star of the show, Earth! (Of course, Earth is not technically a star.) When I tell this to kids, I always ask, “Was that pet-rock story—that unpublished story that only lives on my hard drive—a failure or a step in the process?” They always give the right answer.

Those kids are so smart! Thanks for chatting with me about your newest book, Stacy.

MOON! EARTH’S BEST FRIEND launched into bookstores nationwide this week! Be sure to check it out! (And you don’t even need a telescope!)

Astronaut Lazarbeam approves!

Hooray, it’s a new baby!

Wait, it’s TWO new babies! Because two brothers star in YOUR FIRST DAY OF CIRCUS SCHOOL!

One brother is brand new; the other already knows the ropes. One will show the other how it’s done. And then, vice-versa.

It’s blasting into a bookstore near you TODAY!

Kirkus Reviews said:  “In this feel-good story, an older brother helps his younger sibling navigate the first day of circus school. Whether getting ready for school themselves or relating to the comfort of having a loved one as a guide, young readers will enjoy this upbeat twist on the genre.” And Imaginary Elevators wrote, “Kids will love this book.”

To celebrate the release of my 7th picture book, I’m giving away 30-minute Skypes galore, either for your classroom or for you, if you’re a writer.

To enter, simply tell me your favorite act in the circus. I’ll randomly select 7 classroom winners and 7 writing winners. Just let me know which one you are when you comment below!

Good luck!

 

When I opened the envelope containing PAPER MICE, I let out a small GASP! because it was so sweet and lovely. LOOK:

The mice! The color palette! The wood grain! The blue flowered cape! The setting sun!

Marvelous, I thought. So I emailed Megan.

Megan, the book’s opening line is so simple, yet so enticing. “With a snip and a clip, and a clip and a snip, the paper mice were made.” Was this also the first line you wrote? Or did it take a lot of revision to pare it down to just the most essential words?

I just checked my first draft and that is the first line I wrote. Actually, the beginning of the story is still very much intact from the first draft, but after about one quarter the way in, it’s completely different now.

At first I set up the story with that voice, but then jumped into a much different, more dialogue-heavy style. After sharing my first draft with my critique group, everyone gave me similar feedback that they liked the first part best and was there any way for me to carry that kind of feeling through the whole story. So that was my challenge—to take that kind of old fashioned, lyrical voice that had come to me at the beginning and then try to continue that throughout while also telling an active and meaningful story.

Does that lyrical voice come naturally to you? Or did you dig deep to uncover it?

I think being able to get into the voice and mood of a piece in general is kind of one of my writing superpowers. That’s one of the things I’ve always enjoyed and that I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on from even before I was published. But it took me a lot of digging to discover that I could write picture books (I was focusing on novels for about eight years before I really tried writing picture books). And it has taken me a lot of time and many, many (many!) practice projects to understand plot, story structure, and character development.

What is one of the most important lessons you’ve learned about picture book plot, story structure or character development?

How interconnected the three are, and that the plot must develop authentically from the characters wants, needs, and actions.

This is now your fourth picture book. Is there anything new you learned about the process of making a picture book during this project?

I feel like I’m always learning with every project! With Paper Mice, I learned to dig deeper (even when I think I’ve already done so) to really find the theme of the story.

“They were only paper mice, but even they knew night is a mouse’s day…” The mood of this story is perfect for bedtime. What do you think Della and Ralph read before their bedtime?

I think they both like fairy tales and adventure stories, though nothing too scary right before bedtime!

Since the adventures of the Paper Mice are secret, do you have any behind-the-scenes secrets about making the book?

Well, when I was just starting out with publishing, I made a list of “dream illustrators”—artists and illustrators who I dreamed of working with someday. And Phoebe Wahl, though I didn’t even know if she was interested in illustrating kids books at that time, was at the top of my list! I never told anyone about this list. Imagine my surprise when my editor told me that she’d found the perfect illustrator for PAPER MICE—Phoebe Wahl! It was such a serendipitous moment and has always made the project feel extra-special to me.

Speaking of extra-special, I heard you had a rather exciting auction for another project recently. 

I’d love to! I recently sold a middle-grade graphic novel (in a very exciting seven-house auction) to Scholastic! The book is called ALLERGIC and is about animal-obsessed girl who is about to finally get a dog of her own—only to discover she’s allergic to animals. It’s inspired by my own experiences growing up allergic to all animals with fur or feathers (but is fiction). Michelle Mee Nutter is my amazing illustrator co-creator on this project—her art is incredible, and I’m beyond thrilled that we could team up. ALLERGIC is scheduled to come out in 2021, and then we will be making a second graphic novel together for Scholastic as well.

Wow, that is amazing! Circling back to PAPER MICE, what aspect of this book do you hope readers will most connect with?

I hope most of all that readers find it a cozy and comforting read, one that makes their life a little less overwhelming and a little bit sweeter and more fun.

PAPER MICE is a delightful, cozy nighttime adventure. It was released this week and is now available anywhere books are sold. Thank you for chatting about it, Megan!

Would you like a copy of PAPER MICE?

Leave a comment below and a random winner will be selected in a couple weeks!

Good luck!


Megan Wagner Lloyd is the author of Finding Wild, Fort-Building Time, Building Books and Paper Mice. Upcoming titles include the picture book The ABCs of Catching Zs as well as the graphic novel Allergic. She lives with her family in the Washington, D.C. area. Visit her at meganwagnerlloyd.com.

As I present winners for the last several giveaways, I want to also make the post useful for everyone, even if you didn’t win a prize. So I asked followers on Twitter what they wanted me to write about…

Ahh, Katie, if only I knew the answer to that! We would all be guaranteed a run-away hit!

But seriously folks, what I do is try to stay on top of what’s being released and what’s coming out so I don’t duplicate something that’s already out there. Has that tactic worked? Scanning announcements in Publisher’s Marketplace and Publisher’s Weekly? Visiting bookstores twice a month? Asking my local librarians what new titles they’ve acquired?

Well, yes and NO. Definitely NO.

I wrote a blobfish manuscript right before a barrage of blobfish books got bought. Nice timing, Tara. I had thought to myself, “I haven’t seen any picture books about blobfish,” which is really code for “everyone is writing a blobfish book RIGHT THIS SECOND!”

Now that doesn’t mean the world won’t want YOUR blobfish book. It’s just that the world didn’t want MINE (at the time).

Unique hooks are like strikes of lightning. Hold an umbrella during a storm and you might get hit. What that means is—be open to all the inspiration going on around you. Something you see or overhear might lead to a hilarious title that inspires a whole new story. Ducks circling my table at an al fresco breakfast led to a knee-slapping title.

Put aside time every day to just sit and daydream. Let your mind wander. Go out in public and eavesdrop.

I happen to like wackiness in picture books. A new book with a fantastic hook IMHO is LLAMA DESTROYS THE WORLD. The llama in the story is so hungry he eats EVERYTHING and creates a black hole. Now that’s ludicrous. And I gotta read it.

What books hook you? Study them. Figure out why. What about the title and premise makes you want to pick them up immediately? And then try to do that in your OWN, UNIQUE WAY.

After all, you’re a unique writer. You’ll find your unique hook.

With my book 7 ATE 9, I began by thinking of a popular schoolyard joke that every elementary student would know. I wanted a punchline to be the title. AND BOOM! “Why was 6 afraid of 7?” smacked me upside the head.

BECAUSE 7 ATE 9!

And then I was off to the races. Seriously. I immediately thought about 6 visiting a “Private I” and things went from there.

For the sequel, coming out in October, I wanted Private I to continue with his punny sleuthing, so after numbers, I naturally turned to letters. AND BOOM! The title THE UPPER CASE came to me for its play on a detective CASE and a letter CASE. Fun times, fun times. (Then it took me over a year to think of the 3rd book’s hook!)

Another fantastic thing I learned about finding subjects for picture books is asking a toy store: what’s new and hot in toys at the moment? Typically trends in toys lead to trends in books. So make friends with your local librarian and your local toy seller!

And now…onto our recent winners! Congratulations to all. I will be emailing you shortly.

BADGER’S PERFECT GARDEN by Marsha Diane Arnold
Julie K. Rubini

AWAY WITH WORDS: THE DARING STORY OF ISABELLA BIRD by Lori Mortensen
Celeste Bocchicchio-Chaudhri

Poetry Skype with author Shannon Anderson
Emmie R. Werner

THAT’S FOR BABIES! by Jackie Azúa Kramer
Anita Banks

A KITE FOR MOON by Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple
Lisa Howie

COWHIDE-AND-SEEK by Sheri Dillard
June Sengpiehl

untitled by Timothy Young
CeceLibrarian
Rinda Beach

by Timothy Young
 
My latest picture book, untitled, comes out on May 28th. You are probably asking yourself “Why would he not give his book a title?” I did give my book a title, I called it untitled. When I originally started thinking about this book it had a different title. I was calling it “Another Stupid Book by Timothy Young.” I liked that title a lot but when I told a school librarian the title she was confused and thought it was a sequel. I started to like that one less so I started thinking that it needed a new title.

The book is about two characters, Carlos and Ignatz, who are waiting for me to tell their story. They are getting frustrated and begin making suggestions about what they could be doing and complain about being stuck in my book. Some of my placeholder titles while I was working on it were That Weird Book or The Ridiculous Book but I wasn’t really happy with those as I was with the original.

Some of my early character designs.

The way I work, while beginning the initial stages of writing a story I’m also designing the main characters. I knew I wanted one of them to be a coatimundi, a Central American relative of the raccoon. I had seen a family of them climbing in the mangrove trees on a trip to Mexico and I fell in love with them. The other guy went through some changes (which gets incorporated into the story). He began as a rabbit, but that was too common. He’s been a beaver, a porcupine and a capybara.

While working on the illustrations for a book I often have new ideas for the story. I will re-write as needed to make the book come together. Sometimes the illustrations compliment the words and sometimes they depict something totally different from what the characters are saying. At this point I thought about going to another extreme with the title. For a little while it was called The Incredibly Amazing Adventures of Carlos and Ignatz. I thought the contrast to what I was doing with the story was funny but I was still not completely satisfied.

The alternative titles; these appear on the back cover of untitled.

I started to think of it as untitled. I was thinking about how, if an artist does not give a piece a title it is labeled untitled which then becomes the title. What would happen if I specifically chose that as the title? I started to like it. It would be absurd to call a picture book untitled. I like the absurd. I checked, nobody else has been stupid enough to call a picture book untitled. I then thought of a couple of revisions in which the lack of a title becomes a part of the story. It worked.

Now I had to ask my publisher what they thought. They knew I had not settled on a final title and were being very patient. I approached them with some trepidation, I feared they would never agree to try to market a picture book called untitled. Happily, I was wrong and they loved it, they got it and they were on board with the idea.

So now we have to see what everybody else thinks. I’ve had copies of the book in my hands since April and I’ve read it to a number of schools that I’ve visited. I’m very pleased with their reaction. I keep having to go back to this spread after I’m finished reading because the students want a longer look at the book covers. I had a lot of fun drawing Carlos and Ignatz in the styles of the books I’m parodying.

Click to view larger.

Thanks, Tim, for sharing the backstory of untitled! 

Leave a comment below to win a copy of untitled. Two winners will be randomly selected at the end of the month! (Shall we call this contest entitled?)

If you would like a second chance to win, you can visit Tim’s new blog where you can see the book trailer for untitled and leave a comment there. 

Good luck!

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As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:


illus by Melissa Crowton
Tundra/PRH Canada
June 4, 2019


illus by Ross MacDonald
Disney*Hyperion
October 15, 2019

THREE WAYS TO TRAP A LEPRECHAUN
illus by Vivienne To
HarperCollins
Spring 2020

THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
August 2020

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