Could you tell us a bit about your backlist titles published since 2002?
Oh, my. 2002? Really? This’ll be a long list, so you may want to truncate it. Of course, I didn’t write all these in such a short amount of time. It just so happens, they all came out en mass.
From Harcourt, Inc.: One Dark Night, illustrated by Ivan Bates, 2003; Avalanche Annie, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus, 2003; Farmer Dale’s Red Pickup Truck, illustrated by Ivan Bates, 2004; and Mammoths On The Move, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus, coming out April 1st, 2006.
From Little, Brown & Co.: Porcupining: A Prickly Love Story, illustrated by Janie Bynum, 2003; Te Amo, Bebe, Little One, illustrated by Maribel Suarez, 2004; Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum, illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith, 2004; and Hokey Pokey: Another Prickly Love Story, illustrated by Janie Bynum, 2006.
From Atheneum: Sailor Moo: Cow At Sea, illustrated by Ponder Goembel, 2002; Turk And Runt, illustrated by Frank Ansley, 2002, 2005; Old Cricket, illustrated by Ponder Goembel, 2003, 2006; Seadogs: An Epic Ocean Operetta, illustrated by Mark Seigel, 2004; Uncles And Antlers, illustrated by Brian Floca, 2004; Castaway Cats, illustrated by Ponder Goembel, coming out June 1st, 2006.
Fitch & Chip Easy Readers Series, illustrated by Frank Ansley: #1 New Pig In Town, 2003, 2005; #2 When Pigs Fly, 2003, 2005; #3 Who’s Afraid Of A Granny Wolf?, 2004, 2006; #4 Invasion Of The Pig Sisters, coming out March 2006.
Congratulations on winning the Texas Bluebonnet Award for Seadogs: An Oceanic Operetta, illustrated by Mark Seigel (Richard Jackson/Atheneum, 2004)! What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?
It started in July of 2000, right after the death of my dear friend, Linda Smith. My family took a trip to our cabin in northern Michigan, where I was very withdrawn and, understandably, didn’t feel like taking part in any of the 4th of July festivities. I recall sitting in the car and hearing this voice in my ear. I knew it was a character speaking to me. He was an old seadog, and he kept begging me for one last sail. Well, you know how persistent dogs can be. I had to write his story.
I feel that Seadogs is a combination of the things I love best: Dogs, music, stage plays and musicals, friendship, adventure, and family.
What was the timeline from spark to publication?
Nearly four years. It took me a year and a half to write the book. Then, Mark had to do the art. Which is so wonderful! How lucky I am to have such an artistic genius bring my words to life.
What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?
The biggest twist came after I worked on the book for a year. I sent it to my editor, Richard Jackson. I hoped he liked it because I was so in love with the book, and I knew he might be my only editor who would connect with it. He did like it, but he asked for more. Dick felt that the book was for older readers (smart man!) and he asked if I could write more songs so this could be a 40-page book. That got me so excited! I’d wanted to write more about the pirates and this gave me the opportunity to do just that. Many of my favorites were written in the six months after I initially showed it to Dick.
What do you think Mark Seigel’s art brought to the book?
Because I had written this as an operetta, I had the songs in an order that I felt could not be veered from. When Mark got the text and began dummying up the book, he found that a rearranging of some of the songs worked best. I was skeptical until I saw the dummy. Yes! It all worked wonderfully his way.
Plus, Dick Jackson is the type of editor who allows authors to see work in progress and give input. Not that the dummy needed my input, but I was able to make a few suggestions and Dick and Mark agreed to use them. I was so blown away by the end result, that I actually stood up and applauded when I got to the end of the book.
So I give credit to Mark Seigel for making a good book a book great. And, of course, to Richard Jackson for giving us both a chance to create something unique.
In addition to picture books, you’re writing the Fitch & Chip easy reader series, illustrated by Frank Ansley (Richard Jackson/Atheneum, 2003-). What inspired this project? What advice do you have about writing easy readers? What is it like to work on a series?
I got the idea for Fitch & Chip when I began to think seriously about anthropomorphism and how I, as a writer, must be careful not to stereotype animals (examples: sly fox, big bad wolf, lazy pig).
I decided I wanted to write a buddy story, wherein one child was a wolf, and the other a pig. But in this case, Fitch the wolf is mild mannered, shy, thoughtful, and a vegetarian. Chip, the pig, is a big irrepressible ham. I loved all the possibilities of where that friendship could lead.
Before I began writing this, I went to my library and checked out a stack of easy readers. I read them for two weeks. By the time I sat down to write, those easy reader rhythms were in my head. I couldn’t not write an easy reader. One of the things I learned by all that reading was that if I wanted to introduce a difficult word, I had to be sure to repeat it. So, in the first book, you will see the word shoulder repeated many times.
I enjoy working on this series. Not only have I gotten to know these characters better, but I see them evolving and their friendship growing and changing. It’s fun!
I just finished reading your Mammoths on the Move, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus (Harcourt, 2006) and loved it! Could you tell us a little about the story behind this story? Why mammoths? How did you go about doing the research? What do you think Kurt Cyrus’s art brought to the book?
I always knew I would write a mammoth book. I have loved these creatures since eying Mr. Snuffleupugus for the first time on Sesame Street. They’ve always seemed so grand to me. So majestic.
I knew I could not anthropomorphize them. I knew that if I ever wrote about them, it would be non-fiction and it would be with reverence. But, since I generally write young rhyming books, I wasn’t sure how I would ever find a way to combine my love of mammoths with my writing style.
Then one day, as I was reading an adult non-fiction book on mammoths, I got to a part about mammoth migration. My mind immediately began to wander and wonder. I could see this herd of mammoths moving across the steppes. I could see the mothers and babies, foraging for food on the way. I got goosebumps, and I knew that this is what I would write about. These wonderful wooly mammoths on the move!
I went to the library, sure that it had been done before. There are many books out about mammoths for kids, but I didn’t find any like the one I envisioned.
Mine would be in a marching rhyming beat, like mammoths walking. Mine would be factual, yet fun. Mine would be for younger children, who might not be ready to sit for a heavy non-fiction book.
Since I am not a non-fiction writer, I checked my facts over and over and over, because it worried me that a) I might make a mistake; and b) reviewers might not take me seriously; and c) I’d let my readers down.
The art for Mammoths On The Move was a bonus. I already loved the text. Kurt makes those mammoths look so real, I want to reach out and touch them. When the art arrived on my doorstep-Wow! I was blown away. So very, very beautiful.
Also, I recently purchased my very own mammoth tooth. It is from the Pleistocene era and was found in the Netherlands. It means so much to me to have a part of history. I cannot wait to share this book (and the tooth) with school students.
You’re a successful picture book author in a tight market. What advice do you have for beginners? For those of your colleagues who’re struggling right now?
If you study your craft, read everything that is out there, write the books only you can write, good things will happen. Yes, it is hard to break into print. We all pay our dues. Some work longer than others. But I have to believe that the cream rises to the top. If I didn’t believe that, I couldn’t keep doing this.
The picture book market, like the tides, ebbs and flows. If picture books are not selling well now, just give it a few years and it’ll come around again.
There was a nearly two-year period where I did not sell a manuscript. Everything I sent in got rejected. While this was happening, I had books being released that had sold back in ’98, ’99, and 2000. I thought maybe I had lost my mojo. Maybe I had only been lucky. Maybe it had all been a fluke and I must now rest on my laurels and accept the fact that I was a has-been. Fortunately, for both me and my self-esteem, things picked back up and I sold several manuscripts last year. My mojo is intact.
Editors often say they don’t want books in rhyme, yet you’re known for your skill in this area. How do you go about writing a story in rhyme? What are the considerations? What are the challenges?
This is a whole discussion in and of itself. I have a talk on rhyme that takes about an hour, so it is a subject I can go on and on about.
But in a nutshell, not every book should rhyme. Not every writer should use rhyme. In unskilled hands, rhyme is not a pretty thing. People who write gorgeous prose have been known to mutilate meter. Friends don’t let friends write bad rhyme.
I’m afraid the reason we hear so many negative things about rhyming books from publishers is because they have seen the worst of the worse.
If you can’t, don’t.
What can your fans expect next?
I have fans!?
Newly released is Hokey Pokey: Another Prickly Love Story illustrated by Janie Bynum. This is the sequel to Porcupining, one of my most popular books. Cushion and Barb are still in the petting zoo and Cushion is still clueless and hilarious. Oh, and he also has a new song in this book.
Next up is Invasion Of The Pig Sisters, the 4th Fitch & Chip title. This will be released in hardback and soft-cover simultaneously. In this book, Chip and Fitch share the joys and pains of younger siblings.
On April 1st, Mammoths On the Move is released (see above) and then in June is Castaway Cats, illustrated by Ponder Goembel. This is the third book Ponder and I have done together. The first two won various awards and I am hoping this book, which I describe as Cats meets Survivor, will be no exception. Ponder is an amazing talent.
That’s it for 2006, but 2007 will bring a few more titles. Maybe you can ask me back then. This has been fun.
Debbi Michiko Florence also offers a new author interview with Lisa Wheeler and another with author Vivian Vande Velde. See also her review of Rules by Cynthia Lord (Scholastic, 2006), which I’ve just read myself and agree is fantastic.