How did you decide to become a children’s writer?
When I was a little girl I started telling stories. My mom had a big reel-to-reel tape recorder, and she would make me tell them into the microphone. Sometimes I would sit on my rocking chair and tell stories. I guess I always wanted to make books. I wanted to write, illustrate and design them. This has been in my DNA. My parents were both artists and they loved books. We lived around the corner from the public library when I was a kid, so naturally I spent a lot of time there.
When did you start writing children’s books?
I actually made my first “book” by myself when I was five. It was called “Circles Have Reasons to be Happy.” I wrote it and illustrated it. When I was nine, I wrote and illustrated a book called “The Unbearable Bird.” I officially decided at age nine that I wanted to be a children’s book author and illustrator. I wrote my first published book, “The Night I Followed the Dog,” in 1989 when I was twenty-seven. I got an offer from publisher Chronicle Books for it in 1993 and then I illustrated it. It came out in 1994 and it is still in print twenty-four years later. I’ve been a published author and illustrator since 1994.
Where do you get your inspiration for your books?
I like to say, “if I knew where my ideas came from, I would go there.” Inspiration comes from everywhere- from long walks in nature, from reading things, from daydreaming, from asking questions, sometimes ideas just pop into your head. The key is to write them down in your journal before you forget.
How long does it take on average to write a book?
There is no average! Some books are fast. My baby book, “Peek-a Who?” took twenty minutes to write (and about a month to paint) and it’s sold well over a million copies. I’ve spent years writing a novel and I still haven’t sold it. Some of my picture books have taken years and years, too. I worked on “Roberto the Insect Architect” over a period of five years. I re-wrote it fourteen times.
What was your favorite children’s book while growing up and why?
I had many favorite children’s books growing up depending on my age at the time. I loved “Madeline and the Gypsies” by Ludvig Bemelmans. I wanted to run away like Madeline and join a circus. I loved “Where the Wild Things Are.” I loved “Harold and the Purple Crayon.” My artist mother let me draw on my walls. She painted my closet door and covered it with animals. My favorite chapter book was “From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” by E.L. Konigsburg. I wanted to live in a museum and solve an art mystery like the main character, Claudia.
Who’s your favorite children author and why?
That is a tough question. I don’t really have a favorite author. Every book stands on it’s own and for me it is about story, not about the writer. There are so many great writers, but not everything they write will appeal to everyone. So I tend to love the book- and feel respect for the creators, but I don’t pick favorites. I’ve never been a fan-girl. I am constantly hungry for new experiences. Right now I’m loving where graphic novels are going. I started out as a cartoonist when I was in junior high school. I love the mix of story with graphic illustration.
Has writing always been your passion?
No. Art has always been my passion. I consider writing part of my art. I was classically trained as an artist and an illustrator. I have a BFA in Illustration, Magna cum Laude from Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts. I’ve never actually taken a writing class, I’ve just always written. It’s a little odd that I now have three books (and soon to be four) that I have not illustrated. I’ve illustrated all of my other books and I’ve illustrated books for Walter Dean Myers and Bonny Becker. It’s just that back in 2012 I couldn’t illustrate my book, “Once Upon A Memory” because my husband was having major health problems. After that editors thought it was okay if they just bought my writing- and I was writing more poetic things after nearly losing my husband twice in 2012… they thought my illustration style didn’t go with the more poetic writing. Funny thing is now I have to prove myself as an illustrator again. Styles and trends come and go!
What advice would you give kids struggling with writing?
How can they improve with their writing?I totally believe that kids need to keep journals. Journaling is my brain on paper. I do everything in my journals- I write, draw, paste things… my only rule is that you can’t tear the pages out. You have to keep everything. You never know when something you thought was a mistake will turn out to be the seed of a great idea. I also believe in telling stories out loud as you write them. Listen to your words. Hear how it sounds. Are you using the same word too many times? Choose different words. Listen for rhythm. It does to have to rhyme, but there should be pacing. You need to be able to breathe at the end of a sentence or paragraph. Many kids write incredibly long run-on sentences. Make them into shorter sentences. And don’t worry too much about making things perfect when you are learning. Just use your voice. No one can write with your voice. That is your unique signature.
What are the steps you take in creating a book?
The steps I take would probably look like a very strange dance because there is no one way to create a book. Every book is its own journey. Usually it starts with a concept- the seed of an idea. I write that down in my journal. If it is something that needs research, then I go to Google and I start researching and taking notes so I have information that I can use. Then the hardest part is the voice. Who is telling the story? Is it you? Is it your character? Voice is very tricky. Sometimes I have the voice in my head right way, for example, I knew the voice of “The Night I Followed the Dog” was a 7 year old boy. Other times I don’t even know I’m writing a book. I’ve written songs since I was thirteen. (I’ve played guitar since I was eight.) I wrote “If I Had A Little Dream” as a song. I wrote it while I was stirring blackberry jam I was making. I wrote “Yellow Kayak” as a poem while sitting in the ferry line going home.
Once I know I’m on to something, then I open a Word document and start a first draft of my story. I save that, and when I revise the story I create new “save as” versions. When I like the story, then I email it to my agent and then wait for her comments. Then usually I revise again, and we decide if I’m going to illustrate the story or if we will submit it with me just as the writer.
Out of all the books you created, which book is your favorite one & why?
This is like asking your mom “which is her favorite child?” I love them all. I gave birth to them all. They each are unique and have had their own lives. Some more successful than others. In order of publication from older to newer, here are some of my favorites: “The Night I Followed the Dog,” “When PIgasso Met Mootisse,” “Roberto the Insect Architect,” “Romeow & Drooliet”- which sadly, is out of print. “Peek-a Who?” went beyond my wildest expectations. “Once Upon A Memory” was an amazing collaboration with illustrator Renata Liwska. Of course my collaboration with Melissa Castrillon on “If I Had A Little Dream” and “Yellow Kayak” has been wonderful, too.