Writing Across Formats: Michelle Knudsen

Michelle Knudsen is the author of 40 books for children. Her best-known title is Library Lion, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Candlewick, 2006), which was a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into several languages. Her latest book is a middle-grade fantasy novel called The Dragon of Trelian (Candlewick, 2009, paperback Jan. 2011)(sample chapter).

Formerly a full-time children’s book editor, Michelle continues to edit manuscripts on a freelance basis and has also worked as a bookseller, substitute teacher, library supervisor, and managing editor, among other things.

She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her diabetic cat, Cleo.

What first inspired you to write across forms in children’s-YA literature?

I think part of it was because my introduction to children’s literature was all about working in different forms. I started out in the editorial department of Random House Children’s Books, and my division worked on “format” books–board books, beginning readers, structures with strict page limits and guidelines. I edited many types of these books and began to try my hand at writing different types, too.

For several years, I continued to write in those forms I had come to know best, mostly board books and beginning readers.

When I began trying to write picture books, it took me a long time to write one that actually worked. And it took me a very long time to feel ready to try writing a novel. I’d actually always wanted to write novels, even before I knew I wanted to write for children. But it was so different from all the writing I’d done so far, and I went into it very cautiously, taking a lot of time to figure things out as I went along.

I don’t know if it was so much about being inspired to write across forms as to work up the courage to try things outside my comfort zone.

What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?

I would like to say that working in shorter formats with strict word and page limits taught me to write succinctly, but I’m afraid that didn’t happen. On the contrary, once I started writing things without strict limits, I found myself writing really long manuscripts and having to work at cutting them down later on.

I do think the shorter formats taught me to think really carefully about word choice, because when you’re only allowed a few lines on a page, you really need to make every word count. They also taught me to think visually, because if you know you need to have an illustration on every page, you need to make sure there is something different for the artist to work with from page to page or spread to spread.

What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?

I’m not sure what to say about this. I started out writing all different kinds of books, and never really felt the pressure to write any particular thing until after Library Lion, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Candlewick, 2006) was published and began receiving some attention. Then people were asking me when my next picture book would be coming out, and I suddenly felt a lot of pressure to write another picture book.

I think that pressure definitely worked against me. It took me a long time to write another picture book manuscript that I felt good about. My second picture book, which will be called Argus, illustrated by Andréa Wesson (Candlewick) is scheduled for spring 2011–four and a half years after the publication of Library Lion.

I think in a perfect world, authors wouldn’t need to worry about expectations and could write whatever kinds of books they wanted, but I also understand about developing an audience and feeling a responsibility to write books that fans of your previous books will enjoy.

An author certainly can’t write only to expectations, though. At least, I don’t think they should. Writing things you don’t really want to write is not going to end up pleasing anyone.

Cynsational Notes

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly said of Argus, “Knudsen (Library Lion) never overplays her hand, but lets the story’s laughs unfold naturally from the characters and circumstances. Her grasp of the life of the elementary school classroom is spot-on; this should become another favorite.”

A Conversation with Michelle Knudsen, author of The Dragon of Trelian, from Candlewick Press (PDF). Peek: “World-building can be a complicated business. I’m the kind of writer who likes to jump into a story early and figure things out as I go along, but when you’re making up a whole world, you’ve got to be careful to keep track of everything!”

Of The Dragon of Trelian, Booklist cheers, “Calen and Meg’s easygoing, entirely believable friendship is the core of this adventurous first novel. Meg is gutsy and impulsive while Calen is thoughtful and steadfast, and they make an appealing duo.”

Michelle’s latest release is “The Bridge to Highlandsville,” which appears in I Fooled You: Ten Stories of Tricks, Jokes, and Switcheroos by Johanna Hurwitz, illustrated by Tim Nihoff (Candlewick, 2010). From the promotional copy: “How many different ways can ten leading middle-grade authors tell a story including the line “I fooled you”? Prepare to be surprised!”

The Writing Across Formats interviews were originally conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference.