Author Interview: Lola M. Schaefer on An Island Grows

Lola M. Schaefer is the author of Arrowhawk, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska (Henry Holt, 2004); Toolbox Twins, illustrated by Melissa Iwai (Henry Holt, 2006), Mittens, illustrated by Susan Kathleen Hartung (HarperCollins, 2006)(My First I Can Read Book), and An Island Grows, illustrated by Cathie Felstead (Greenwillow, 2006). She lives with her husband, Ted, on four acres in rural Indiana.

What about the writing life first called to you? Were you quick to answer or did time pass by?

As a child and young adult I never in my wildest dreams thought that I could or would write. I believed that writers were a special lot (which, of course, they are) all living together (which, of course, they don’t) in a private setting with unique powers and abilities (I’m still waiting for those!).

I didn’t consider writing until I became a seventh grade teacher. Watching the impact good books had on my students made me want to learn how to put words on paper that might have that same kind of appeal and import. It took quite a few years of experimentation and attending conference after conference, as well as professional reading, before a career began to emerge.

I knew right from the beginning that I wanted to write for young readers. I respect the honesty, intelligence, and unabashed passion of youth. In my opinion, they are the most discriminating audience which, in turn, becomes quite a motivating force for excellence.

For those new to your work, could you briefly summarize your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

I write what is important to me at the time. Since I’ve always been enamored with the natural world, many of my books, whether school/library or trade picture books, are about one of the processes that nurture the animals, plants, rocks, or weather of this planet.

In many of my picture books, I try to offer readers the joy and wonder of one aspect of nature. In Pick, Pull, Snap! Where Once A Flower Bloomed, illustrated by Lindsay Barrett George (Greenwillow, 2002), I try to intrigue readers with the amazing processes of pollination, fertilization, growth, and harvest of fruit without getting technical. Instead, I focus on the quiet day-to-day happenings that bring this marvelous fruit to our hands.

Recently, I’ve been exploring fiction. For me, this is more challenging. With topics from the natural world, the storyline is provided, and it’s my job to find the correct format, language, and presentation. With fiction, I need to create it all and make it work, from character through resolution. I Can Read (HarperCollins) has introduced a new series in the My First I Can Read books that I’ve written entitled Mittens (2006). Mittens is a kitten who, of course, has some of the same concerns as the young people who will be reading it. And, I just completed a revision of my first novel for an editor. It’s a work of historical fiction. Now, that was hard work–satisfying, but difficult!

In addition to all of the books that I write for children, Scholastic publishes my professional books for teachers. These offer strategies that can help students take responsibility for writer’s craft and the quality of their writing.

Congratulations on the publication of An Island Grows, illustrated by Cathie Felstead (Greenwillow, 2006)? What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

The inspiration behind An Island Grows is actually quite quirky. I heard about a college student’s comment on how “islands float.” I decided that maybe a simple book was needed for the younger reader to explain how one kind of island forms and how it is rooted to the earth. I was pretty sure that volcanic islands would offer more allure to younger readers than the
other types of islands, so I began my research.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

When I shared the F & G’s (folded and gathered) of An Island Grows last spring with a few elementary classes, I asked them to guess how long it took me to write this book. Estimations ranged from three days to three months.

Actually, it took me more than 2 1/2 years to complete this text. Why?

It was like putting a puzzle together. First I double-checked each stage of the progression with different scientists. This sounds silly, considering how straight-forward my topic was. But I never skip this part of the process. Quite often I learn how inaccurate common knowledge can be; plus, experts share fascinating details that add interest and an important layer to my understanding. Research can take a few weeks to a few months depending on your experts’ schedules.

Next, I wanted to find a form for the story. I decided upon a “terse verse” explanation of how a volcanic island forms, hoping this unique cadence would illustrate the sporadic activity that creates this phenomenon from its earliest beginnings until it is a thriving habitat.

Finally, and this was the most challenging phase, I had to find rhyming couplets that would extend meaning instead of crippling the work. Frustration ran high while writing this text. I could only work on it for a few days at a time before I would hit a roadblock. I would then slide it back into the file cabinet and bring it out a few weeks later. The story nagged at me, but I was never sure that I could pull it off. Eventually, it fell into place. Thankfully, my editor at Greenwillow Books thought it was a great story, and she found the best illustrator for the project.

What did Cathie Felstead‘s art bring to your text?

I think Cathie’s art for this book is exceptional. I love that she kept it clean and simple, same as the writing. I think she literally brought life to the words. It may sound silly, but I love the endpages. As a reader of picture books, as well as a writer, I’m always intrigued with that initial flavor that the endpages offer the audience. For me, her pattern is one of peacefulness, obviously a starting and ending point of the story.

Her use of red for the title excites me–the same color as the life source of the island–the magma and lava. I enjoy how the illustrations grow in detail and color as the island becomes rich with life, first plant and animal, then settlers. I also appreciate how the art takes up more of the page as the island becomes a prosperous habitat. Can you tell that I’m thrilled that [Greenwillow editor] Virginia Duncan selected Cathie? I think it was perfect match for this book.

What advice do you have for beginning picture book writers?

Oh, I doubt that I can offer anything new that hasn’t been said or written again and again to beginning writers, but here goes. Read, read, and read. Read for enjoyment, read as a writer, read as a book reviewer. Then experiment. I have to use that word. Most of us think that our first manuscript will flow from our fingertips word perfect. It doesn’t, and now I realize it wouldn’t be a good thing if it did.

Learn to love revision. Enjoy dinking with scenes, images, phrases, and words. Rethink when you revise because typically the first draft isn’t anywhere near the core of what you want to write. But you don’t know that until you get those first words down. With every revision comes a clearer understanding of what it is you’re trying to say. And, for me, there’s an ah-ha, a major moment when I see the “real” story, or the “real” concept that I want to convey. From that point on, polishing the manuscript is not only rewarding, it’s absolute fun!

How about those building a career?

As I see it, building a career depends on two things–patience with your own writing so you can strive for excellence and an intelligent, generous editor. I’m blessed with the latter, and I’m working on the former.

From my perspective, nothing beats studying your craft, the industry, and networking with other authors. It takes time. And honestly, everyone should enjoy those months/years of study. It’s a quiet time–a time without the responsibility of webpages and presentations. All of your time can be devoted to thinking about story, craft, or format.

As far as editors, I work with some of the very best. My picture books always improve from the suggestions of my editors. They bring their experience and wisdom to the project, and I take the text to a new level. It’s great.

And in either case, how about those interested in creative non-fiction?

Creative non-fiction or narrative non-fiction is a powerful genre. I view it as facts with emotional impact. If a person wants to write about lions or rainbows or comets, find the slant that will appeal to the reader. Will it be funny? Poignant? Fill a reader with wonder? Is it a true story that offers a wide range of emotions?

Then, check and recheck your information. Don’t rely on books. Consult experts in the field. They are always delighted to share their knowledge, and as I wrote earlier, quite often their comments offer insights that add another rich layer to the writing.

When you have both–the emotion and the facts, blend them, never letting the facts override the emotional appeal. Remember your audience, and make the information palatable and engaging on every level.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

When I’m not writing, I read–a lot. I also enjoy fossil hunting, biking, walking, and gardening. Of course, visiting our two grown sons is top of the list.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’ve always got quite a few different projects in the pipeline. Coming in 2007 with Greenwillow Books is an unusual, but fun (and funny), narrative non-fiction picture book. I can’t spoil the surprise and tell you what it’s about. All I can say is watch the HarperCollins site a year from now to get the scoop on this original book.

The second book about Mittens will appear in spring, 2007.

And in the fall, a zany picture book about the son of Frank N. Stein will debut.

In the meantime, I’m completing a narrative-nonfiction novelty book, another character driven early reader, and I’m starting a new novel. Whew! Never a dull moment.