Author Update: Toni Buzzeo

Toni Buzzeo has quickly established herself as a popular picture book author. We previously talked to her after the publication of her debut title, The Sea Chest, illustrated by Mary GrandPre (Dial, 2002)(author interview), which went on to win a 2002 Lupine Honor Award and the 2004-2005 Children’s Crown Gallery Award. We spoke again after the publication of Dawdle Duckling, illustrated by Margaret Spengler (Dial, 2003)(author interview), which was named to the New Jersey State Library Pick of the Decade List.

We last talked after the publication of Dawdle Duckling. Since then you returned to Dawdle for another story: Ready Or Not, Dawdle Duckling, also illustrated by Margaret Spengler (Dial, 2005). Picture book sequels are rare. What was it about Dawdle that you know he had more stories to share? Or, more broadly, what qualities/depth must a picture book character possess to make them good candidates for multiple books?

It was actually my brilliant illustrator, Margaret Spengler, who suggested a sequel. As Margaret relates in her interview in my new book, Toni Buzzeo and YOU (Libraries Unlimited, 2005), “I thought the [original] story was cute and charming and I could see creating something really fun. I wanted to do a sequel because I have grown attached to Dawdle and the family. I enjoy working on Dawdle’s adventures and hope there are many more.”

Of course, a request does not a story make! It took me a few years to come up with the perfect idea for a sequel. Dawdle would necessarily have to remain a dawdler and dreamer. The challenge was to design a plot in which this core trait would initially hinder but ultimately serve him. A fourth grader in rural Maine came up with hide-and-seek idea and Margaret’s added characters in Dawdle Duckling—the turtle, the frog, and the fish—served up the key plot idea. After all, Dawdle is not simply taking his sweet time, he’s also busy making friends, friends who will be his salvation in the hide-and-seek game.

You diversified your focus to a cousin of the ducks in Little Loon and Papa (Dial, 2004). What inspired you to write this book? What was the timeline between spark and publication? What were the major challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) along the way?

My husband, Ken Cyll, and I own a cabin in the western mountains of Maine on Rangeley Lake. The lake is populated with loons. Sleeping there is an adventure in loon lullabies as they call to each other across the lake. Canoe trips are a treat as loons pop up, swim around, and ZIP! disappear from sight.

When, in July 2002, my editor Lauri Hornik mentioned that booksellers were often in search of Father’s Day books and asked me whether I’d consider writing one, I said I’d love to write another historical fiction like The Sea Chest (Dial, 2002), but that wasn’t what she had in mind. As I began to explore other ideas, I wondered about animal fathers who take care of their babies, and Ken suggested that I consider looking for a bird, since many mate for life.

Birds, I thought! What about loons with their haunting calls on Rangeley Lake? As I began to research loons (I am, after all, a librarian!), I learned that loon fathers take equal care of their babies. Perfect!

My research yielded such wonderful facts about what little loons have to learn—most especially to dive—that I was able to incorporate intriguing factual information in my young picture book. For instance, loon chicks are such little puffballs that they can’t just SQUEEZE TUCK ZIP and disappear from sight as their elders do. Instead, they have to wiggle their feet and waggle their wings before they’re able to disappear beneath the water! I love to teach kids about new things (I am, after all, a teacher too!) as they read and enjoy fiction.

I knew that Little Loon would be afraid to dive, much as my son Topher (23) and I were both afraid of water when we were young. So I didn’t have to struggle to find Little Loon’s defining character trait. The final challenge, though, was plot. Plot is always the most difficult aspect of a story for me. Luckily, Topher is a brilliant partner when I need to discuss plot. While waiting for an oil change at the local quick lube, we came up with the idea of Little Loon wandering off and encountering a trio of northwoods animals along the shore.

Back to my research I went, to find three animals who would be large and imposing without presenting a danger to the loon chick. That research brought me the idea of a beaver who would have felled a tree, making it necessary for Little Loon, desperate to find his Papa, to dive in order to reach him.

My process, generally, is to research extensively, gathering the facts I’ll use on large stacks of color-coded notecards, and then decide on the outline of plot. From there, I let the whole idea simmer. If you were to ask me if I were thinking, plotting, planning, I’d say no, and yet I know that I am, for when it’s time to sit down to the page, I often have a relatively easy time of the writing. The incubation period is often about three months. So, when in October 2002 I attended my annual fall writing retreat, the story spilled out of me onto the page. The first draft was a convolution of the final draft, but with my writing partners there, most notably Jane Kurtz (author interview) and Canadian children’s author Joanne Stanbridge, I left retreat with a submittable manuscript!

Looking over these titles and your debut picture book, The Sea Chest, illustrated by Mary GrandPre (Dial, 2002), it occurs to me that you are a water writer! Is this a product of your surroundings, your childhood, or a passion for all things splash?

Students always point this out to me. Honestly, I didn’t set out for it to be so, and, in my family, it’s Ken who is the Pisces and the water-demon, rarely so happy as when he is in a kayak, on a Coast Guard Auxiliary vessel, or simply riding the Casco Bay ferry in Portland harbor. I did, however, grow up in southern Michigan—the Great Lakes state—and now reside in Maine not far from the magnificent Atlantic Ocean. I think there’s just water in my veins!

I am pleased to report that my next picture book, Our Librarian Won’t Tell Us ANYTHING! (Upstart, Fall 2006) has not a drop of water in it. Nor does its sequel, Fire Up with Reading (Upstart, forthcoming).

Since our last chat, I believe you’ve also retired after a distinguished career as a librarian to become a full-time writer. What has that transition been like? What gifts has your librarian’s expertise offered to your writing life?

Were I not so very busy speaking–traveling across the country to schools and conferences–I would probably be bereft. I do still feel very connected to my librarian identity as I speak at state and national library conferences and write books for librarians, as well. But I miss the kids terribly. Luckily for me, my local school, Jewett-Hanson School in Buxton, Maine, has taken me in as a volunteer library media specialist. When I am not traveling, I work closely with library media specialist Laurie Dunlap and her teachers and students. And I continue to see the world from a librarian perspective as well as my author perspective which, I hope, makes me smart about a lot of things in children’s literature.

Toni Buzzeo and YOU (Libraries Unlimited, 2005) sounds like a must-buy for your fans. What does this title offer as related to you and your work?

Toni Buzzeo and YOU is a guide to me and my books. It offers lots of biographical material not found anywhere else as well as invitations for kids to think and write about their own lives in similar ways.

It also gives readers—teachers and librarians—insight into the inspiration, structure, and themes of each of my children’s books. In addition, it is just chock full of really rich standards-based curriculum activities to accompany each of my books. The activities extend into many areas of the curriculum, including language arts, science, social studies, and information literacy. As an educator, I have a strong background in writing curriculum, and it sure was fun to bring it all to bear in writing curriculum for my own children’s books!

You have done a great job of building a career as a picture book writer in a tough publishing market. What advice do you have for beginning writers?

My best advice for beginning authors of all genres is to build relationships with editors over time. I think this is essential to finally finding the editor who is eager to work with you. This means that you should commit to sending new/additional work to editors who offer you feedback in their rejection letters. If an editor takes time to give you personal feedback, consider it a gift and him/her a fan.

Any advice for picture book writers specifically?

Read current picture books. The field is changing by the minute. What was published only five years ago might now be quite outdated and not a match for the current market if it were submitted today. So spend time in an excellent library every month or your local bookstore’s children’s department. Read picture books aloud (they are, after all, written to be read aloud!) and take time with the illustrations. Think about the language (word choice and sentence fluency), the structure, and the subject matter. Make choices about all three things very deliberately and with great care.

How about authors who’re just now gaining a footing? What would you like to tell them?

I would tell them to be realistic about the need for authors to also be marketers. This doesn’t mean that there is a one-size-fits-all perfect approach to doing that marketing. Rather, it’s a matter of talking to other authors to learn where there successes have come, reading books, websites, and listservs devoted to the topic, and assessing your own areas of comfort and challenge. But regardless, it is important to understand that we are publishing in an era when publishers have smaller marketing and publicity budgets and more of the burden rests on the author to promote and keep the books alive and long in print. Develop a plan for doing that for your books.

As a reader, what have been your favorite children’s/YA titles of the past year and why?

My very favorite young adult title of the year was Mary Pearson’s A Room on Lorelei Street (Henry Holt, 2005)(author interview). This story, told in a compelling first person voice, is one of the most subtle stories of parental dysfunction and neglect I have ever read. It is an amazing read, and I was thrilled to hear that it had won the Golden Kite Award.

Gentle’s Holler by Kerry Madden (Viking, 2005)(author interview) was my favorite middle grade novel of the year. What an extraordinary ability Madden has to create a time, place, and family of characters one longs to know for a lifetime. Set in the hollers of Tennessee, this quiet story resonates with the wisdom and love of a young protagonist who knows the truths of life at a very young age. I am delighted to know that Madden is busy writing sequels to this emotionally evocative story.

Living so near to Portland, Maine, an immigrant intake city with 52 languages in the school system where I taught for eleven years, I am always on the lookout for rich picture books that capture the immigrant experience. My favorite of the year was Jane Kurtz’s In the Small, Small Night, illustrated by Rachel Isadora (Amistad, 2005). In this warm and sensitive sibling story, Kurtz captures the loneliness and longing of an immigrant child in a new country and the necessity of remembering home and the stories that ground us in our much-loved places.

Your website now offers its own online store so that readers can buy customized and autographed books directly from you. What led you to this launch this feature? Would you suggest that other authors do the same?

I have had so many e-mail requests over the past four years from people across the country wanting autographed copies of my books that I simply decided to formalize the process, giving people a quick and easy way (using Paypal) to order the books they want. It’s proven to be a great idea, so yes, I would recommend that other authors do the same.

What can your fans look forward to next?

My next two picture books will be published by Upstart Books and feature a librarian character–Mrs. Skorupski. I suppose it was inevitable that a librarian would creep into my work! Our Librarian Won’t Tell Us ANYTHING! illustrated by Sachiko Yoshikawa (Fall 2006) features Mrs. Skorupski doing what librarians do best—creating independent library users. Fire Up with Reading (forthcoming) centers on a year-long reading incentive program that culminates in a dragon dance featuring the top readers of the school parading in a dragon costume on Read Across America Day. Each book, told in first person by a different narrator, has a fresh feel at the same time that Mrs. Skorupski occupies a consistent central role in the plot. There’s also a delicious, grumpy foil in the books named Carmen Rosa Peña. Plans are underway for a third volume in the series but it’s too soon to divulge the plot.

Fall 2008 will see the publication of my long-awaited picture book, A Lighthouse Christmas (Dial), illustrated by the fabulously talented Nancy Carpenter. I can’t wait to see how she renders the story of Frances and Peter, awaiting Christmas and the long-delayed supply boat on a small lighthouse island in 1929!

Is there anything you would like to add?

I’m very excited about a brand new professional book, published in March and entitled Read! Perform! Learn! 10 Reader’s Theater Programs for Literacy Enhancement (Upstart 2006). It features ten fabulous picture books as Reader’s Theater, including Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000), as well as ten author interviews and exciting curriculum activities to accompany each book.

Cynsational Notes

Authors Among Us – Children’s Writers Who Are or Who Have Been Librarians: Toni Buzzeo from Ravenstone Press. See also Author Answers with Toni Buzzeo from Debbi Michiko Florence; Picture Books Waiting to Be Written with Toni Buzzeo from the Institute of Children’s Literature; The Reading Tub: Featured Author–Toni Buzzeo; Write Baby Animals and Get It Write by Toni Buzzeo from Smartwriters; and Who Wrote That? Featuring Toni Buzzeo from Patricia Newman.

Kerry Madden’s Gentle’s Holler (Viking, 2005), read by Kate Forbes, is now available from Recorded Books.

Other Cynsational authors who’ve recommended A Room On Lorelei Street by Mary E. Pearson (Henry Holt, 2005) include Gail Giles, Marlene Perez, and me!