Author Interview: Esther Hershenhorn on Fancy That

Chicagoan Esther Hershenhorn spends her days doing what she loves and loving what she does: writing picture books and middle grade fiction, teaching writing for children classes, and coaching writers of all ages to help them tell their stories.

Her titles include Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner Chicken Soup by Heart, illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger (Simon & Schuster, 2002), Crown Book Award Nominee The Confe$ion$ and $ecret$ of Howard J. Fingerhut (Holiday House, 2002) and a Christmas-driven picture book Fancy That, illustrated by Megan Lloyd (Holiday House, 2003). Read a 2002 Cynsations interview with Esther.

Christmas is coming, so let’s talk about your picture book Fancy That, illustrated by Megan Lloyd (Holiday House, 2003). What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

While attending a folk art show in a nearby Chicago suburb, I met 26-year-old Steven Shelton of Columbia, Missouri whose booth sign “Limner and Fancy Painter” piqued my curiosity. Steven explained that before the camera was invented in the late 1840s, artists traveled about America painting people’s portraits, as well as signs and walls and harpsichord covers. He talked of artists and circumstances and a long-ago time; before I knew it, he’d captured my heart. Right then and there I declared Steven’s artist’s life the stuff of my next picture book. I saw a story told in gorgeous-gorgeous paintings.

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

To come at my story, I first camped out in my local library’s stacks, immersing myself in both the lives of limners and 1840’s America. Christmas, it turns out, was newly celebrated in America. Even better news, though, for my story’s eventual plotline and resolution: the Germans who settled the central Pennsylvania region in which I planned to set my story continued their former homeland’s tradition of decorating doors and windows with ribboned wreathes. I next traveled east to visit numerous folk art exhibits showcasing limners’ works.

Some two years later after meeting my modern-day limner, there I was, telling the tale of the suddenly-orphaned young Pippin Biddle, off to earn his keep the way his father once did, traveling the countryside painting people’s portraits. Pip promises his sisters who are poor-house bound: by Christmas the Biddles will have their own home.

Fortunately, my editor Mary Cash and Holiday House’s art director Claire Counahan shared my vision for the book. They too saw Pip’s story told in gorgeous-gorgeous paintings. Their selection of illustrator Megan Lloyd, who happened to live one town over from where my story was set (!), was nothing short of brilliant. The only catch? The earliest Megan could complete the paintings would be spring, 2003. Fancy That thus joined Holiday House’s fall 2003 list.

In February 2003, I had the rare opportunity to see Megan’s gorgeous-gorgeous art at Holiday House’s New York City offices. Megan had driven her paintings to New York, each packed in a crate she’d custom-built herself. I already knew she’d painted the book’s images as my character Pip would have done in 1841, mixing her paints daily from the fresh eggs she gathered on her Carlisle farm. Still, seeing the art proved my non-waterproof mascara an unwise choice. I heard myself whisper as I dabbed at my wet eyes, “Megan loved this story, too.”

Starred reviews underscored the five-year-wait’s worth. Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “…Hershenhorn’s and Lloyd’s collaboration is an unqualified success.” Named a Junior Library Guild Selection, Fancy That also received Special Merit as a Bank Street College Best Book of the Year.

What were the challenges in bringing Fancy That to life?

My editor helped me overcome my first challenge: how to engage today’s young reader in a long-ago story about a thirteen-year-old artist. It was Mary who suggested perhaps Pip and his sisters might be orphaned, perhaps Pip’s dog Biscuit might play a greater role, perhaps the arrival of Christmas, not Thanksgiving, as I originally envisioned, serve as the story’s ticking clock. Together, the beloved and loving sisters, one eager small dog and a longing for a home in time for Christmas worked to keep the reader turning the pages, worried, caring, cheering Pip on.

My next challenge was to tell the story in such a way that my tone and language would be in keeping with the times without distancing or off-putting my readers and listeners. Journal entries, diaries, newspaper accounts and most important, stories and children’s books written in the 1840s offered me the words that would approximate the desired long-ago feeling. I also utilized both the repetition of a folktale structure and a rhythmic telling to entice the reader while easing readability.

What did Megan Lloyd’s art bring to your text?

Simply put, Megan Lloyd’s illustrations authenticated the story, conveying the story’s times while bringing my characters truthfully to life. In her artist’s note, Megan not only shares that she chose egg tempera as her medium, along with pen and ink, to capture the flatter style of nineteenth-century itinerant limners; she goes on to explain how she prepared her paints daily. Her illustrations are true works of art. Indeed, the Carlisle Historical Society exhibited Fancy That’s illustrations soon after the book’s publication.

Thanks to Megan, too, readers old and young, can enjoy Fancy That. Adults ooh and ahh as they turn the pages, enthralled and rightly taken with Megan’s art. Young readers, though, giggle and laugh at Pip’s successive, painfully honest attempts at painting his less-than-perfect subjects. Megan knew to underscore Pip’s ingenuousness, visibly bringing heart and humor to the story. I’ve watched little ones follow along, image after image, their eyes on Pip’s dog Biscuit posed wreathed and ribboned.

Everything about my picture book Fancy That suggests another time, another place: not only the story and its language and Megan’s images, but the typeface, the calligraphy, the front and end papers, the paper stock itself with its mottled finish.

What advice do you have for beginning picture book writers?

Most beginning picture book writers don’t realize: the picture book is a singular art form in which the words plus the art magically total more than the sum of its parts.

Another little known truth, instantly learned with a writer’s first draft? Writing a picture book is not as easy as one thinks.

Beginning picture writers need to have a sense of how a picture book works. I instruct my writing students and clients:

Find that one book that approximates yours and/or that one writer whose tellings you adore. Focus solely on the texts. Read the writer’s words and often, aloud, silently, to yourself, into a tape recorder. Feel and hear the rhythm of the words, the build-up of action, the flow of the pacing.

Next, type out that one special text you love. Leave spaces for the page turns. Feel the rhythm in your fingers, the build-up, the pacing. Note how few words it took to tell the story.

Next, re-paste the words onto pages, leaving room for the images.

Finally, cover up the words so only the images tell the story. Note what the illustrator added so the story lives and breathes. Note the details the illustrator included, so the reader will want to return again and again.

Read like a writer: was there a refrain? Were there sound words? Was the reader included? And write like a reader: what story questions appear, waiting to be answered; how did the writer hook the reader?

Writers need to read, period, if only to learn what’s being published, if only to learn what has been published. A good library and a good bookstore can feed and nourish writers ’til the cows come home. Each and every book is a teacher-in-waiting.

How about those building a career?

My first nugget of wisdom? Be compelled to do the thing!–“the impossible, important task at hand,” as Kate Di Camillo‘s Threadmaster tells Despereaux. The writer, too, is on a quest. “It is an extraordinary word, quest, isn’t it?” Kate’s narrator asks. “So small and yet so full of wonder, so full of hope.”

Being compelled will keep any writer on his plotline, no matter the detours, no matter the length, no matter the weather, no matter the duration.

My second nugget? The very people who eventually insure your book reaches the hands and hearts of readers are the very same people who can teach you your craft– booksellers, teachers, librarians, academics, reviewers, literacy groups, even young readers. Meet these people early and often while you’re honing your craft and they’ll be waiting at your doorstep once your first book is published. And speaking of people, you’re always six people away from the person you need to know.

Start locally, with your town’s library, bookstore, newspaper, school district and, as important, its children’s book writing community. Then watch your connections, and thus your opportunities, multiply.

Finally, my Susan Lucci-like journey has taught me: publication is not the only prize. I’ve come to see that writing is a gift. An unsold story might lead to the manuscript you do sell or the uncovering of a bent for poetry or the knowledge that magazine stories are where a talent lies. Revised but rejected manuscripts lead to stronger, more saleable tellings and editors who move elsewhere and proof of one’s mettle when all doors seem closed. What’s true for the reader is true for the writer: the right story at the right time can help the writer, too, uncover, discover, recover his story. Be open to the surprises writing delivers. Save room in your photo album for unimagined Kodak moments.

You’re one of the best writing coaches in the business! Could you talk about this aspect of your writing life? How do you approach a manuscript and its writer?

Fancy That tells a tale of hidden talents. True, Pip was unable to earn his keep painting people’s portraits. But his practice sketches of his wreathed and ribboned dog helped him become a prominent painter of animals. And those very same sketches, sent on to his sisters? They inspired the three to become successful wreath makers, financially able to buy a home in time for Christmas.

Ironically, my own story has much in common with Pip’s, in fact, with most heroes-dash-heroines who return home different for the journey, the possessor of something even better than first sought.

I truly love sharing Pip’s and my other characters’ tales with readers. Their stories offer hope and heart; they’re filled with spunk and spirit. But so, I learned, is my tale, my story, specifically, my writer’s story of becoming an author. My long years on task, the insights and know-how, the knowledge and expertise I gleaned, plus my teaching experience and my daily outings in the ever-changing children’s book world seamlessly combine when I’m coaching other writers, helping them tell their good stories well. It also helps that I’m a friendly Sagittarius, earnest, hopeful, possessing a positive mental attitude.

I do everything a good children’s book does: inform, educate, encourage, inspire. And because I believe each of us has a story and the right to tell it, like a children’s book, too, I offer hope.

Regardless of where the writer is in the writing and publishing process, regardless of whether we’re working by mail or in person or on the phone, the writer’s story is there to be discovered, uncovered, recovered, there to be crafted to reach its readers.

So often, I read a writer’s first draft and clearly and happily see the story waiting to be scooped up, waiting to be told effectively to readers. I see the story parts that work and those that don’t and share ways to make sure the story works as a whole. I often recommend the works of authors who write similar tales, or write in similar styles, and editors and publishers who publish a particular kind of work.

I act as the writer’s innocent first reader, thinking only of my reader needs. Where do I leave the story? What do I find incredulous? Do I know who claims the story? Do the actions ring true? Does the story build? Does the story offer tension? Did the writer ground me? Did he make me care? What distinguishes this story from others in this format? Is the story a good match for its intended audience?

I see possibilities, in an undeveloped character-plot connection, in a missed opportunity, in the addition of concrete details, in the placement of obstacles. I question. I suggest, I wonder, I ponder, all to refract the writer’s eyes so he can see anew his story and how to tell it.

Never in a million years would I have been privy to know the stories I now know had I not become a writing coach. I’ve worked with lawyers and bakers and Native Americans, with barbers, beauticians, carpenters and jewelers, with pediatricians, psychiatrists, therapists, social workers, with teachers, librarians, journalists, photographers, with parents, grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, with dog lovers, cat lovers, veterinarians, with survivors, abuse victims, returning war veterans, with a Franciscan monk, a pastor, a minister.

I smile when I think how the elements of my life came together to bring me, a reader who longed to be a writer, to this particular point in time. My two business cards read “Writer of Children’s Books” and “Writing Coach.”

As Pip would say, fancy that, indeed.