Author Interview: Michelle Knudsen on Library Lion

Michelle Knudsen on Michelle Knudsen: “Who am I… I can’t think of that phrase without hearing Jean Valjean in my head. And then I get a little lost in my own private mental recital of ‘Les Miserables’ and have to shake my head and find my way back to the question. Which was?

“Oh, right. Well, in the beginning, I was born. I grew up in Staten Island, left for Ithaca to go to college at Cornell University, then moved back to Staten Island for one year and Queens for three, then back to Ithaca for five years, and then back to NYC again, this time in Brooklyn, where I’ve been for almost two years now.

“I’ve worked in libraries and publishing houses and bookstores and other kinds of stores, including one of those candy-and-nut kiosks in the middle of the mall. I’m the author of 28 or 38 books for children (depending on whether you count the coloring books) and a handful of published magazine articles and a drawer full of unpublished short stories that will probably stay in that drawer.

“I like snacks. I am easily distracted by shiny objects, often stay up way too late, and very often write too-long sentences. I like semicolons and the em dash. Jean-Luc Picard is my favorite Star Trek captain, and ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ is my favorite Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.”

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

I started writing when I was really young; long enough ago that I can’t remember what exactly was the first thing that made me love it. My mother likes to tell people (friends, neighbors, acquaintances, strangers, random passersby, etc.) about the “books” I wrote when I was four.

I still have one, written on half-pieces of pinkish construction paper: Mickey and the Broken Lamp. It’s a rousing tale of a certain famous mouse whose lamp breaks, and then he goes and gets a new one. (It’s also an early sign of why I’m not an illustrator.)

I always liked writing projects in school, and wrote in my room and in the back seat of the car on long cross-country driving trips I took with my parents. It probably helped that I was an only child and had a lot of time to myself.

At first it was just something I liked to do, and then at some point, probably after I became addicted to reading, I started to think about Being a Writer as a possible future goal. It helped a lot that I received so much encouragement from my friends and parents and teachers.

As for being “quick to answer,” my first impulse was to say no, that I wasted a lot of time before really getting on with the whole Being a Writer business…

But looking back, I guess that’s not really true. I think it just felt like a long time before I started to find forms of writing that really seemed to fit. I wrote poems and stories and long notes to friends. I wrote bad love poems to unworthy boys in high school and mediocre pieces for the high school yearbook. I wrote arts and entertainment reviews for my college paper, and made my first actual paid sale my senior year of college (an article about online fishkeeping resources in Freshwater and Marine Aquarium), but I also didn’t get into the advanced creative writing course I’d applied for and had pretty much everything I submitted rejected by a student-run literary magazine. There were a lot of ups and downs and wondering whether I was really meant to be a writer, and that was all before I’d even vaguely considered writing for children.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

My first job in publishing was as an editorial assistant in the Random House children’s division. At the time I started, I liked children’s books but didn’t really know much about them beyond the books I remembered from when I was little. I certainly never imagined I’d write them; I’d always dreamed of writing enormous science fiction and fantasy novels of the sort I loved (and still love) to read.

I thought working in children’s books would be a fun job, and it was…but it also turned out to be a really good fit for me as a young writer. I started writing board books and beginning readers while I worked there, and eventually realized that I liked writing children’s books even more than I liked editing them.

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

I’ve written a lot of different kinds of books over the past eight years or so, including board books, coloring and activity books, and beginning readers. I like different things about all of them…the shiny silly rhymingness of the board books, the challenge of telling a story or presenting information within the tight boundaries of a beginning reader, the fact that working on the Star Wars coloring books meant I got to go to the Skywalker Ranch and read the script of Episode I way before the movie came out.

Library Lion is my first traditional picture book, though, and a very different kind of book than anything else I’ve written.

Congratulations on the publication of Library Lion, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Candlewick, 2006)(excerpt). What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I wish I knew the full answer to this question! I was working nights and weekends at the Cornell University library when I wrote it, and certainly the library aspect comes from that, along with memories of other school and public libraries… But I’m really not sure about the lion.

I had come home after a late-night shift and wasn’t quite ready to crawl into bed, so I made some tea and sat down at the dining room table to unwind. My recollection is that the first line just popped into my head, and I grabbed a pen and scribbled it down on a piece of paper. And then I just kept going, until I had most of the first draft written out.

We did occasionally get animal visitors at the Cornell library–birds, squirrels, the occasional dog that got tired of waiting for its owner to come back out–but never any lions, I’m fairly certain. So the lion’s origin is a bit of a mystery to me. Several people have assumed he’s based on the lions outside the New York Public Library, but honestly I hadn’t been thinking of those guys at all at the time. I think there’s just something about the library–especially lovely old ones, like one of the libraries I was working in at Cornell, and especially being there late at night–that makes it seem as though anything could happen there.

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

I had been trying for a while to write a picture book, but everything I sent to my agent (the fabulous Jodi Reamer) was just not quite right, somehow. And I knew it, I knew it when I sent them out, but I guess I kept hoping I was wrong. They weren’t bad (well, okay, some were bad), but mostly they just weren’t really strong or well put together. They didn’t have that special something that picture books need to really work.

Jodi continued to be encouraging, and I sent myself to the bookstore to browse picture book titles and read and read and figure out what those authors were doing right that I couldn’t seem to figure out. And even though I didn’t come up with any one particular answer, I think it helped to have the voices of all those writers in my head, all those examples of books that worked. I think just immersing myself in good picture books for a while made it easier for me to find the right way to tell this story when the time came.

So the writing part went really quickly, although I forced myself not to send the first draft right to Jodi, which is what I usually did. My (then) husband, Matt, who was always my first reader, read the first draft, and told me he liked it but that it needed something more. And he was right, and I knew it. So I wrote two more drafts, adding and revising, and sent the third draft to Jodi. And she loved it, and said she knew exactly who she wanted to give it to, which was Sarah Ketchersid at Candlewick.

And then I primed myself to be patient, since we all know how long it can sometimes take for editors to have time to read and respond, but in this case it happened amazingly fast. I think it was only about two weeks! Jodi called and said Sarah had loved the story and made an offer on the book. I remember going to work that night at the library, feeling like I was flying through the parking lot and up the library steps.

I did a bit more revising under Sarah’s direction, and then soon it was time to find the illustrator. This was my first experience ever being asked my opinion about an artist–previously my publishers had always let me know who the artist would be after the decision was made. I was nervous when I received the packet of samples from Sarah. What if I didn’t like who Candlewick was suggesting? What would I say?

But of course that didn’t turn out to be an issue at all, since the artist they had in mind was Kevin Hawkes, and I loved his work. So THEN I got to be nervous about whether he would take on the project. Happily, he responded very enthusiastically. In fact, his method of accepting was sending Candlewick a huge sketch of a lion with a note that said he’d love to illustrate the book! Because of the other projects Kevin was already working on, we ended up needing to postpone Library Lion’s pub date a full year…but it was definitely worth it. I’ve become so attached to Kevin’s lovely pictures and can’t imagine the story being illustrated any other way.

What did Kevin Hawkes’s art bring to your text?

Kevin did such an amazing job–it really made me appreciate to a new degree the collaborative nature of picture books. I mean, I liked the way my story turned out once the words were finished, but when Kevin’s illustrations were added there was suddenly this whole other dimension to the story…the characters were more alive, the library was more real, and the classic feel of the style he chose was so perfect! It makes me view Miss Merriweather’s library as both a very specific, particular location but also a symbolic representation of all libraries, especially the ones I went to as a child.

What advice do you have for beginning picture book writers?

Read lots of picture books! I think that’s the most important thing. It’s amazing to me how many people want to write for children but don’t actually spend much time reading the books that are already out there.

It’s also really important to think about the illustrations, even if you’re not an illustrator yourself. The words and the pictures are going to work together, and you need to make sure there’s something for the artist to illustrate on every page or spread. It can help to page out the book in spreads as you work, although I would only recommend doing that as an aid to writing; most editors, I think, prefer to receive manuscripts without page breaks added.

The other side of thinking about the illustrations is to remember that some of the story is going to be told in the artwork, so you wouldn’t necessarily want to spell out every detail in the text, either. Make sure there’s action, something happening for the art to depict, but then also leave enough out so the artist has room to add his or her own elements to the story.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

For the past year or so I’ve been working full-time as managing editor for an educational resources company, but although I love the job, it’s become so all-encompassing that it’s not leaving me any time to write!

So as of November first I’ll be switching to part-time, which will be a big relief. When I’m not working or writing, I love to watch movies, eat Frosted Flakes, play fantasy role-playing computer games, and go out with friends, especially if there is karaoke involved.

I try to get to the gym enough to offset the Frosted Flakes consumption, and lately I’ve been trying to take more advantage of being in New York City, visiting museums and exhibits and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

I also like to perform in community theater sometimes, especially musicals; the last show I did was “Yeomen of the Guard” with the Village Light Opera Group last fall.

Oh, and I read, of course! More science fiction and fantasy than anything else. Fantasy novels are always my favorite escape.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I recently sold my first middle-grade novel (an as-yet-untitled fantasy story) to Candlewick, which I’m really excited about! Sarah will be my editor again, and I couldn’t be happier–she is very wonderful and I love working with her. I’m also working on some new picture book manuscripts, and possibly another beginning reader.