Author Interview: Kathy Duval on The Three Bears’ Christmas

Kathy Duval on Kathy Duval: “When I was a kid, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I read books like Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island and dreamed of exploring far away places. I ended up being an art teacher and art therapist, exploring inner worlds instead of outer. For ten years, I satisfied my itch for the exotic yearly by being a weekend gypsy at the Texas Renaissance Festival as a musician in a balalaika orchestra. I also went to art school and exhibited my art.

“I suffered a particularly nasty mid-life crisis and thought I needed a new career. I seriously investigated horticulture, landscape architecture, medical illustration, art conservation, and at least a half dozen more I can’t remember now. I got accepted into law school, but never attended. A friend gave me a plaque that said, ‘God give me the strength to accept my blessings.’ I’d gained the reputation of One Who Is Perpetually Dissatisfied.

“Then I took a writing course. What an awesome discovery to find out how much I love writing! I miraculously transformed into One Who Is Most Content. It’s taken some years to learn the art and craft of children’s writing, and I’m thrilled to have my first picture book The Three Bears’ Christmas, illustrated by Paul Meisel (Holiday House, 2005) published, with my second on the way.

“I live in Houston, Texas with my husband. My latest adventure involves being the grandmother of a one-year-old ball of energy and the step grandmother of two lively and interesting girls. I also work part time as an art therapist in a child development center for homeless children, another very satisfying adventure.”

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

After winning an art contest in the sixth grade, I identified myself as an artist. However, looking back I see that a writer lurked inside me, too. In high school, I wrote poetry and loved rewriting my poems until the rhythm felt just right. When my husband asked me where I’d like to go on Saturday night, I’d tell him the bookstore. I’ve taken zillions of books to the Half Price Bookstore to make more room in my house for new ones. In graduate school, I secretly enjoyed researching and writing papers while other students complained. I bought picture books for myself long after my two children had moved on to sci fi and historical fiction. And for years before I started writing for publication, I wrote and illustrated my dreams in journals. A while back I stacked my dream journals, and the stack reached my elbow. I’m only 5′ 2″, but it was still impressive.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

When I was young, my mother read to me a lot. I vividly remember the power those stories had to transport me to magical spaces. As an only child, I spent a lot of time alone, creating my own stories in play and drawings. That child is still alive and well in me, and I write for her. I love thinking that my stories might take another child to that wonderful world that lives in imagination.

Tell us about The Three Bears’ Christmas, illustrated by Paul Meisel (Holiday House, 2005). What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I submitted a story about baby packrats to an editor of novelty books. She liked the rhythm of it, and said it reminded her of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. However, she didn’t like rats, even cute ones. She needed a Christmas book for a lift-the-flap holiday series, and invited me to submit one. The idea of Goldilocks and Christmas coalesced, and I wrote a lift-the-flap version of The Three Bears with Santa playing Goldilocks. That editor left her job, so my Santa never ended up under flaps, but I loved the idea and rewrote it as a picture book.

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

From the first draft of the packrat story to publication of The Three Bears’ Christmas took almost five years. Being a writer definitely requires patience! I spent a year writing and submitting serveral versions of the story before it sold. Then there was a wait before Paul Meisel could begin the illustrations. I was happy to wait, because I knew if he did the art, it would be wonderful. I learned that the timing for a holiday book coming out is crucial, too. My editor Mary Cash at Holiday House explained to me that chain bookstores, review magazines, and wholesalers and others ask to see holiday books earlier than ever. If it’s not ready in time, a book misses the boat and it’s better to let it be first in line the next year.

What did Paul Meisel’s art bring to your text?

Paul Meisel’s art creates a charming cozy world for the three bears that adds so much warmth and humor to the story. Children laugh at the bear decor, clothes, and other funny details like the squirrel and mouse dressed like Santa, the bear angel on the Christmas tree, and a fish in Papa Bear’s stocking. The outdoor scenes are magical, perfectly foreshadowing the arrival of the story’s mysterious intruder. I can’t imagine The Three Bears’ Christmas without Paul’s art.

What advice do you have for beginning picture book writers?

Read lots and lots of picture books! Several times a week, I go to a bookstore and read with a critical eye. What makes this book good? Publishers receive thousands and thousands of submissions a year. What made someone want to publish this one? You will not only find out what children today are reading, but you will also get the feel for the rhythm and conciseness of picture books. Writing picture books is very much like writing poetry.

Take writing classes, attend workshops, and join or start your own critique group. Join the Society of Children’s Book Writer and Illustrators. When others read your work, consider their criticism a gift that will help you become a better writer. While picture books look simple to write, writing one well is an art.

How about those building a career?

The Three Bears’ Christmas is my first book, so I’m learning about that myself. The Society of Children’s Book Writer and Illustrators has been an invaluable resource for networking. I met my agent at an SCBWI event. I’ve also made valuable connections with editors at SCBWI conferences.

Since The Three Bears’ release, I’ve tried to meet as many book people as possible by going to conferences, doing book signings, and offering school presentations. Before the book came out, my introverted side dreaded the promotion part of being an author. Surprisingly, though, I’m really enjoying it. I’m meeting so many interesting and nice people that I never would have met otherwise. But I believe the bottom line in building a career is to continue to grow as a writer.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I enjoy traveling and spending time with my family. Of course, I read a lot. I practice yoga. I belong to a dream group and still write and illustrate my dreams.

What can your fans look forward to next?

The Three Bears’ Halloween, illustrated by Paul Meisel, will be released by Holiday House in September 2007. Right now I have serveral other picture books being considered, and I’m working on two new projects. One is a YA fantasy novel set in a small Texas town. The other is a poetry collection involving music. I’ve completed a poetry collection about animals and their dreams, which I also hope to find a home for.