2017 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Editors Kendra Levin of Viking & Natalie Doherty of Penguin Random House

Kendra Levin

By Patti Buff
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Note: SCBWI Germany & Austria Regional Advisor Patti Buff interviewed Kendra Levin and Natalie Doherty about the upcoming SCBWI Europolitan Conference. This is the third in a series of six articles.

Kendra Levin is an Executive Editor at Viking Children’s Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, where she has spent 11 years working on a wide range of children’s literature from picture books to young adult novels.

She has edited Theodor Seuss Geisel award winner Don’t Throw It to Mo! by David A. Adler, illustrated by Sam Ricks (Penguin Young Readers, 2015) Society of Illustrators Gold Award winner The Lost House by B.B. Cronin (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2016), and the work of authors including Janet Fox, Julie Berry, Alwyn Hamilton, and others.

Kendra also helps writers as a teacher and certified life coach, and is the author of The Hero is You: Sharpen Your Focus, Conquer Your Demons, and Become the Writer You Were Born to Be (Conari Press, 2016), a grounded self-help guide to a healthier writing process. She’ on Twitter @kendralevin.

Natalie Doherty

Natalie Doherty is Commissioning Editor for Fiction at Penguin Random House Children’s.

She began her publishing career in Rights and Contracts at Hodder, and moved into Editorial – and into children’s publishing – in 2010.

Since then she has acquired, edited and published a large number of wonderful and hard-working authors, including Robin Stevens (the Murder Most Unladylike series), R.J. Palacio (Wonder), Tom Fletcher (The Christmasaurus) and Moira Fowley-Doyle (The Accident Season).

As a lifelong fan, she is privileged to be Jacqueline Wilson’s editor.

First off, thank you both so much for taking the time out of your busy schedules for this interview. 

As you know, the theme of this year’s SCBWI Europolitan Conference is Pens, Pencils and Partnerships. Could you explain first the variety of partnerships an editor has during the life of a book and second how these partnerships contribute to making the best book possible?






Kendra: The collaborative nature of being an editor might be my favorite aspect of the job.

As an editor, you really are the author’s partner in creating the best possible finished book, and the best author-editor relationships are those that benefit from a shared level of trust and respect. A book has the potential to be so much better if both author and editor listen to one another and build on each other’s ideas.

For an author, the primary partnerships are with your editor and your agent, and sometimes your art director, but an editor needs every person in the entire book-creation chain to work in partnership.

So that level of trust and respect needs to be present in the relationship between the editor and art director, designer, copyeditor, managing editor, the production folks, the people drawing up the contracts, the marketing team, the sales force, the folks in subsidiary rights—anyone whose hands touches the book needs to work in partnership with the editor to create a finished product that matches the author’s vision, or comes as close to it as possible, and to get it out in the world and into readers’ hands.

Kendra’s bookshelf

It’s also very important for the editor and publisher—the editor’s boss—to have a relationship built on trust and respect. Just the way the editor advocates for the book, a good publisher advocates for both the book and the editor, paving the way for the book, the author’s future career, and the editor’s other books all in one fell swoop.

Editors’ relationships with their colleagues are also an important part of the process. I can’t speak for every publishing company, but Viking is an extremely collaborative imprint and I can’t think of a single book I’ve edited that didn’t get some input from one of my fellow Viking editors at some point during the process. This sharing strengthens the books, unquestionably.

Really, you could say that creating strong partnerships is at the very core of being an editor. And it’s what makes the job fun for me: that opportunity to swap complementary skills and make art together.

Natalie: I would completely echo Kendra’s point about the mutual trust and respect needed in all the partnerships in the publishing process. It’s so vital.

As an editor, you’re responsible for seeking out the books and projects that will shape the list, shape

the company’s reputation – and on a purely day-to-day level, that influence how you and your colleagues will spend their working day.

That’s one of the reasons editors are so careful and selective about new acquisitions. Every time it happens, it’s a huge decision. You’re asking your colleagues to place a huge amount of trust in your taste and vision – particularly if there’s not very much material to go on, or what you want to buy needs a huge amount of editorial work.

Natalie’s bookshelf

Similarly, I love knowing that I can trust my colleagues to use all their skill, talent, knowledge, creativity and passion to help bring a book I love to life. The best publishing teams are full of individuals who have a shared purpose and passion, and who will trust one another to use their individual expertise in the best possible way.

I’m not a designer, for instance, and I’m not very good at picturing what a cover might look like, even when I know the plot and the characters inside out. But I love sitting down with a member of our brilliant design team to discuss a story, to look at mood boards or artwork samples, and then waiting to see what magic they work with whatever brief we’ve settled on together.

Patti: I’m glad you both mention trust as one of the main factors in a successful partnership as I also find that a vital part of any partnership. Another way of interpreting the conference title is that the pen represents the author and the pencil the editorial team. In your experience, how important is it for both parties to share the same vision? What are some of the challenges to reaching a shared vision?


Kendra: When I’m considering acquiring a manuscript, I nearly always ask the agent if I can have a phone call with the author, mainly because I want to see if we do have the same vision for the project.

If we don’t, no matter how much I love the piece, I’m probably not the right editor for it. As a writer, it is your right to have an editor who completely gets what you are trying to do and who wants to help you take it there—not someone who has a great idea about a direction it could go in that may be interesting but isn’t in alignment with your vision.

This doesn’t mean you should have an editor who just tells you what you want to hear. But when your editor tells you something that’s hard to hear, it should be because deep down, a part of you knew all along that this aspect of the piece wasn’t working, but another part of you hoped you could sort of rearrange the furniture over it and nobody would notice.

It’s your editor’s job to notice those spots that need a more thorough going-over—one that you’re totally capable of once you sit down and do the work.

More of Natalie’s bookshelf

Natalie: Like Kendra, I would almost always want to speak to an author when I’m considering acquiring a new manuscript. (It’s even better to meet an author in person, although of course it’s not always possible, depending on where the author is.).

It’s really important for both parties to find out if you share that vision – it can be a painful process if you don’t.

A sign for me that I’m really excited about any new project is an itchiness to start scribbling down questions about a storyline, or thinking about ways a story could be reshaped or tweaked in some way – a vision, as Kendra says, about what its very best form could be.

It’s really important that you both want to the take story in the same direction, so it’s always so important to be honest at that moment.

Of course, when you get into the nuts and bolts of the edit, later down the line, you almost always stumble across details you might not agree on – but the big, overarching vision for the project needs to be one you share.

I also like to talk to authors about the publishing journey and what else being an author entails, aside
from the writing part. Touring, school events, festivals and social media are not for everyone, and we would never ask an author to put themselves in a situation where they don’t feel comfortable. But those things are increasingly important in children’s publishing – they’ve made a huge difference to the success of someone like Robin Stevens, who has worked incredibly hard to promote her books – so it’s an important thing to discuss at that early stage.

Robin Stevens at the Royal Ballet School

I’m also looking for a spark of chemistry from that first meeting. The author-editor partnership might last for years, even decades – one of our wonderful publishers, Annie Eaton, has worked with some authors, including Jacqueline Wilson and Malorie Blackman, for over twenty-five years. It really helps when you think, ‘I like this person and I’d love to work with them!’

Patti: I have to laugh about authors rearranging the furniture in order to hide flaws as I think that is so common and although authors may hope no one will notice and that they will get away with it, deep down I think we really do want an editor to point out those flaws so we can fix them. Both of you work with a fairly large editorial team. How closely does the team work together in pulling together a list of titles to be published? And if several editors work together on a project, how does that change the editing process?

Natalie’s desk

Natalie: We’re a large team, but we’re a very tight-knit and collaborative team, and we work very closely together on shaping our list and acquiring new titles.

Every potential new acquisition is shared and discussed with the whole fiction team, before the decision is made to take it to an Acquisitions meeting, with every editor – from Publishing Director to Editorial Assistant – having the opportunity to share their thoughts.

Our editorial discussions are rigorous and thorough – no one is ever afraid to challenge someone, or to be really honest – but it’s always respectful and supportive.

One really key part of making a large team work is knowing one another’s tastes very well, and we tend to share submissions with other editors within the team based on who we feel will be the perfect fit for a particular voice or story.

Agents often ask us how they can be sure of submitting a manuscript to the right editor.

We always try to be clear about what we’re looking for as individual editors, and we’ve recently created a guide to each editor that describes our editorial tastes and the books we’ve acquired previously, which will hopefully be helpful. But whenever we do receive a submission, we always think hard about whether we’re necessarily the right person to take it on, and if there’s someone else in the team who we know is falling over themselves to publish a new middle-grade fantasy about dragons (for example!), then we’ll always pass it on.

Kendra’s desk

Kendra: Viking is collaborative in much the same way. Penguin Random House in the U.S. is a bit more siloed than it is in the U.K., at least for now—Penguin and Random are still in separate buildings in different neighborhoods, and the children’s divisions of each part of the company have their own leadership and their own atmosphere.

Penguin Young Readers Group is big, maybe 200 people, but each imprint is independent in many ways and has its own culture, and if there’s one adjective I’d use to describe Viking’s editorial culture, it’s “collaborative” (followed closely by “karaoke-loving”).

We know one another’s tastes pretty well and are always happy to pass projects along if they seem like a better fit for someone else. And we’re always happy to brainstorm and offer advice to one another.

Natalie: Fairly often, editors will work in pairs.

A brilliant Editorial Assistant, Tom Rawlinson, now works with me on our Robin Stevens publishing, and we constantly bounce ideas off one another for titles, cover copy, editorial suggestions, troubleshooting, and new ways to reach more readers with Robin’s books.

It’s a fantastic way for new editors to hone their skills and to be exposed to conversations about publishing strategy.

And it’s double the creativity, double the passion, double the brainpower – and for the author, it’s double the in-house support.

Patti: A tag team of editors sounds both lovely and scary at the same time, but I can see how the pros would outweigh the cons. And speaking of tag teams, I’ve heard both of you are working on a project together. Could you tell us a little about it and what some of the challenges and benefits have been to working cross-continentally?

Natalie: I’m very lucky to be working on the brilliant second novel by Martin Stewart, The Sacrifice Box (Penguin, Jan. 2018).

Martin’s first novel, Riverkeep, received extraordinary reviews, and was one of my favourite books of 2016 – so when his editor Shannon Cullen went on maternity leave and I was given the chance to work with Martin in her absence, I felt like I’d won the author jackpot.

It’s an incredibly atmospheric story about a group of five kids who discover a mysterious stone box in the forest one summer, and decide to each place a personal item inside it – a teddy bear, a diary, etc – as a promise of friendship to one another.

Cut to four years later, when the group has grown apart – and suddenly their sacrifices begin coming back to haunt them. Think Stephen King meets Stranger Things, with a hint of Patrick Ness and Neil Gaiman. I absolutely love it.

This has been my first experience of working with the brilliant Viking team and it’s been a real treat.

Kendra and her colleagues Ken Wright and Leila Sales read the manuscript alongside me, and we then had a phone call to discuss our thoughts and what we wanted to suggest to Martin.

Having more than one pair of eyes on a story at an early stage can be hugely productive – you’re all invested in wanting to make the book as strong as it possibly can, and you’ll all have ideas for areas of improvement that will almost certainly be helpful to the author. You’re also much more likely to spot plot problems!

A challenge when working in this way can sometimes be that one editor feels very strongly about a certain point – a character isn’t working/is a creation of genius, a plot point doesn’t make sense, etc – and the other feels quite differently. Obviously, editing is often such a subjective process and there usually isn’t a right or wrong answer.

Another challenge around cross-continental editing can be that in one part of the world, a particular topic, detail or even phrase might not be familiar to a reader, whereas a reader in another country might have no problems with it at all. In these situations, I like to talk everything through in detail and ask lots of questions, and aim to get to a point where I think we’re both comfortable with what we’re going to put to the author.

With The Sacrifice Box, I wrote a detailed editorial letter which I then shared with Kendra’s team for their approval and input, and then sent to Martin. When the new draft comes in, we’ll again talk about our thoughts and ideas.

Our U.K. team works closely with our U.S. counterparts at Penguin Random House (PRH) on a number of authors and titles, from Roald Dahl and John Green to Nicola Yoon and Jennifer Niven.

I work with a number of U.S.-based authors who are also published by PRH U.S., including R J Palacio (Wonder, Knopf, 2012) and Lauren Wolk (Wolf Hollow, Dutton, 2016). I also work very closely with Kathy Dawson at PRH U.S. on Irish writer Moira Fowley-Doyle (The Accident Season, 2016).

Co-editing does not always happen, depending on a number of factors: whether an author has an existing and very strong relationship with one editor; whether there’s physically time in the schedule; etc. But when it’s possible, it can be hugely rewarding, productive and creative.

Kendra: I’ve now had the pleasure of co-editing a number of projects with U.K. editors, many of which were PRH collaborations, and they always leave me feeling like I’ve just taken a course to refresh my skills. I learn so much from having another set of eyes on the manuscript and getting to see another editor’s perspective, and I’m certain the books are stronger for it.

Puffin U.K. editor Shannon Cullen and I edited an entire six-book series together, and I shudder to think what it would’ve turned out like without her insights! We’ve really come to rely on one another.

Plus, it’s so much more fun to have a partner in crime. It’s like going from being an only child to having a sibling—somebody else who knows the author the way only the editor can!

Patti: That does sounds like a lot of fun and I can’t wait to read The Sacrifice Box (by Martin Stewart, Penguin, 2018) when it comes out. Was there a partnership in your work you didn’t expect to develop before you became an editor, either within house or without? And did that help you grow as an editor in any way?


Kendra: Before I became an editor, I didn’t know how closely I would wind up working with
designers and art directors, and that has been a wonderful learning experience in so many ways.

I always feel a little insecure around designers because, unlike editors, they actually went to school for training in the specific area in which they now work. Editors come from all kinds of disciplines—I’ve known editors who majored in, beyond the common English or creative writing, psychology, anthropology, all different kinds of disciplines including playwriting/screenwriting, my own major in college. Editing is an apprenticeship-learned job.

Designers learn by apprenticeship, too, but after four years of training in their field. So they come into the role with very different qualifications than editors have, and a totally different knowledge base. I’m fascinated by learning from them and seeing how they do their work.

Natalie: Agreed – the partnership between editorial and design is so important, and I also hadn’t realized how closely I’d work with designers before I became an editor.

I also love the close collaboration between an editor and a publicist – it’s especially important when you’re launching a debut. I’m always amazed by our publicity team’s passion and creativity, and I love seeing all the inventive ways they take a new book and run with it.

Patti: I’m so glad you both mentioned designers as I’m always amazed at how a great cover feels like the perfect match to a story as though one couldn’t exist without the other. Finishing up, is there a question on partnerships you wished I’d asked? If so, what?

Kendra: Well, another partnership I think is interesting is the one between the agent and editor.

The agent is, at the heart of things, loyal to the author; the editor is, at the heart of things, loyal to the
company that employs the editor. But in practice, both typically want what’s best for the author and the book. Because of this, sometimes the partnership is easy and sometimes it can become oppositional or even antagonistic.

Agent Gemma Cooper with Natalie

The agents I love to work with don’t see me as an enemy; they see us as allies trying to get the book and author the best possible care, which is truly what I want. The agents who try to make everything into a fight, I’m disinclined to work with again.

Natalie: I couldn’t agree more with this!

In the best scenarios, I see the agent as a key part of the same team – someone who I can get on the phone with at any time of day to share good news and exciting updates, but also problems or disappointing updates.

My favourite agents are the ones who I can talk to honestly about any challenges we’re facing, and who will work with me to reach a solution. It can be difficult and disheartening working with agents who are constantly critical or negative.

Having said that, I have so much respect for agents who question the decisions of a publishing house at the right moments. They sometimes make life a bit harder, but it’s always good to be challenged – especially if they force you to reassess your plans and realize there might be an even better approach to a problem than the one you had in mind.

Patti: How interesting to hear about this from an editor’s point of view! I think it’s good to remember that not all partnerships can be smooth all the time and that there will be bumps in the road. What’s important is what happens afterwards. And finally, I’d like to end with something a bit more practical. Is there one piece of advice you would give authors about how to prepare for working with an editor/editorial team?

Natalie: Be open. I love working with authors who are open to ideas, suggestions and questions.

Editing can be a sensitive process sometimes; editorial letters can look long, daunting, and negative, and I have a huge amount of respect for any writer who’s willing to share their work and receive comments and criticisms from an editor – I can imagine it must feel like baring a bit of your soul.

But being published is a partnership, and any good editor only ever has the book and the author’s best interests at heart – we’re always on the same team and we both want to make the book as brilliant as it can possibly be. So I’m always appreciative of an author who will listen to my thoughts, read my suggestions, consider them seriously, and enter into a conversation about them with me – even if they decide they disagree with me about some points, which is always absolutely fine by me.

I’d never dream of forcing through changes that an author isn’t happy with.

Kendra: I completely agree! Being open doesn’t mean doing everything your editor tells you to do—we don’t want you to agree to anything that doesn’t feel right to you.

As Viking’s longtime publisher Regina Hayes used to say, know which hills you want to die on—pick the points that you feel very strongly about and, if you and your editor disagree, you can find a way to preserve what’s essential to you. But don’t try to die on every single hill or both you and your editor will get battle-weary very quickly!

Cynsational Notes


The tenth child out of eleven in a family that took in hundreds of foster kids, Patti Buff learned early that if she wanted some peace and quiet she better put her nose in a book. A native Minnesotan, she now lives in disgustingly beautiful Germany with her husband and two teenagers.

Her YA novel Requiem was recently featured in the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices 2016 anthology. Due to that, she was lucky enough to snag Hannah Sheppard of DHH Literary as an agent. Patti’s newest book, No Direction Home is now on submission.

Patti is also the Regional Advisor of SCBWI Germany & Austria and is on Twitter @pattibuff.

2016 SCBWI Bologna Author Interview: Christopher Cheng

By Patti Buff
for SCBWI Bologna 2016
and Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Christopher Cheng is the award-winning author of more than 40 children’s books in print and digital formats. The picture book New Year Surprise! is his latest publication. 

His other titles include the picture books One Child, Sounds Spooky and Water, the historical fiction titles New Gold Mountain and the Melting Pot as well as the nonfiction titles 30 Amazing Australian Animals and Australia’s Greatest Inventions and Innovations

His narrative nonfiction picture book Python, was shortlisted in the 2013 Children’s Book Council of the Year awards, and was listed as of “Outstanding Merit” in the 2014 edition of Best Books of the Year for Children and Young Adults, selected by the Bank Street College of Education Children’s Book Committee. 

In addition to his books, Christopher writes articles for online ezines and blogs, and he wrote the libretto for a children’s musical.


He is co-chair of the International Advisory Board for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), an International Advisory Board Member for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) and a recipient of the Lady Cutler Award for Children’s Literature. 

He is also the director of the digital publishing company Sparklight. He presents in schools, conferences and festivals around the world and he established the international peer voted SCBWI Crystal Kite Awards.
He dwells with his wife in an inner-city Sydney terrace and is often heard to say that he has the best job in the world!

Welcome to the blog, Chris! With much more focus on diversity in children’s books than has been in the past, how important of a role do you think book fairs like Bologna play in introducing young readers to children from other countries and cultures?

They are critical – we move in a global sphere but we don’t all dress the same or say the same things or behave the same way thus it is important for today’s children, no matter where they are in the world, to be exposed to the authentic literature from other countries and cultures who tell ‘their’ stories with an authentic voice.

Any tips for new Bologna visitors?
 

• It’s big so enjoy the experience.
• Plan out what you want to see, make notes ahead of time and follow your nose.
• Make notes of what you see, how the books are displayed, how the different publishers publish their content, look at the types of books that the publishers and other organizations have on display – can you find a continual link between their titles?
Don’t bug/hassle the publishers / agents / marketing folk etc. unless you have been invited.
Don’t rush home (this is especially for those of the authorial persuasion) and write the book that you have decided is the ‘happening thing’ at Bologna. It will have already been done and dusted by the time you get down to it.
• There is a lot of ‘paper’ at Bologna – you can’t carry it all … but much of it will be digital!
Visit our SCBWI booth – we are your home away from home!
• And don’t forget to sample, no feast, on some of the amazing food that is available in Bologna.

Bellissimo!

You’ve had books published in markets all around the world. What do you think makes a book successful in all different types of markets?

Having a global theme, like peace/war/growing up, death, childhood, animals etc.

That said I know you can’t create a book that will fit all markets throughout the world. You have to create your own story!

I’ve read you do weeks and months of research for your historical fiction and that by the time you’re ready to write, the story has already been formulated in your head. Which I can imagine lends itself to easy drafting. 

But once the editing starts, have you had to ‘change facts’ for the story’s sake and if so, how hard has that been?

Easy drafting for sure … not so easy for editing though! There has always been too much in the story. I don’t think I have had to change the essential facts at all to ‘fit the story’ as my historical fiction has always been based on the facts themselves.

The facts themselves are often what make the riveting story!

You write for a wide range of ages and over a wide range of subjects and genres. What advice can you give authors who’d like to branch out and diversify their writing.

Know your audience. Know the genre. Know what you are writing. If it is factual – know the facts and that goes for authors and illustrators.

Write your story, and if it doesn’t work, then try it in a genre you are comfortable with.

And finally, what are you working on now? Any surprises you can share with us?

My newest title, birthed Feb. 5 is New Years Surprise! It was written to tie in with an exhibition of paper art and objects, that is being held at our National Library in Canberra (our national capital) on the Celestial Empire.

At this exhibition, visitors experience 300 years of Chinese culture and tradition from two of the world’s great libraries – the National Library in China and our National Library.

From life at court to life in the villages and fields, glimpse the world of China’s last imperial dynasty and its wealth of cultural tradition.

The exhibition (and thus, by association, my book) is being launched by the Prime Minister of Australia. Woo hoo–will have the glad rags on for that! There will be lots of twittering and facebooking going on!

That’s wonderful, congratulations! Not every author can say their book was launched into the public by the Prime Minister. 

Thank you so much for joining us, Chris. Have a great time in Bologna!
 

Cynsational Notes

Patti Buff

The tenth out of eleven children in a family that took in hundreds of foster kids, Patti Buff
found solitude in reading at a young age and hasn’t stopped. She later
turned to writing because none of her other siblings had and she needed
to stand out in the crowd somehow.

Originally from Minnesota, Patti now lives in Germany with her husband
and two teenagers where she’s also the regional advisor of SCBWI Germany & Austria.

She is currently putting the finishing touches on her YA novel, Requiem, featured in the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices 2016 anthology.

The Bologna 2016 Interview series is coordinated by Angela Cerrito, SCBWI’s Assistant International Advisor and a Cynsational Reporter in Europe and beyond.

2016 SCBWI Bologna Author-Illustrator Interview: Susan Eaddy

Photo by Peter Nash

By Patti Buff
for SCBWI Bologna 2016
and Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Susan Eaddy works in her attic studio writing picture books and playing with clay. She was an art director for fifteen years, during which time she won international 3D illustration awards and a Grammy nomination. 

She lives in Nashville, Tenn.; and is the regional advisor for the Midsouth chapter of SCBWI and a co-organizer of the SCBWI Bologna Book Fair

Her illustrated books include Papa Fish’s Lullaby by Patricia Hubbell (Cooper Square, 2007) and My Love for You is the Sun by Julie Hedlund (Little Bahalia, 2014). Her latest picture book, Poppy’s Best Paper, was released by Charlesbridge in July 2015.

She loves to travel and has used the opportunity to do school visits anywhere in the world from Taiwan to Alabama to Hong Kong and Brazil.

Hi Susan! Thanks for participating in the 2016 SCBWI Bologna Book Fair interview series.


With much more focus on diversity in children’s books than has been in the past, how important of a role do you think book fairs like Bologna play in introducing young readers to children from other countries and cultures?

I think that book fairs like Bologna offer hope and understanding for our future. It creates the opportunity to come together from all over the world and find common ground in stories.

Children can only benefit from books translated into their native language to both learn about new cultures or to find that other cultures are very much like their own. With this experience, they see that kids from all over have similar feelings and experiences.

Any tips for new visitors to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair?

First of all, the SCBWI booth is your hub, and home away from home. You’ll be surrounded by friends you’ve never met before. To maximize your opportunities:

  • Apply for a personal or regional showcase with Chris Cheng.
  • Schedule portfolio reviews.
  • Bring promo materials.
  • Read the program.
  • Attend the talks.
  • Network!

Getting Around: Being the worrier that I am…I like to figure out where I am going via Google Maps the day before I need to be somewhere.

Since wi-fi is not always available on the streets, I take a screen shot of the map I need when I am connected, and can then access it through my phone or iPad photos whether I am connected or not.

Get city and bus maps at Tourist Info in the Neptune Fountain Piazza. Buy bus tickets there or at the Tabachi (the little kiosk).

Budget Tips: Have breakfast bars with you at all times. There are food stands at the Fair, but they are pricey and packed, and often a breakfast bar will get you though the day. Then you can splurge a bit on the dinner meal.

Some lodging comes with a modest breakfast, but if you have the option of declining breakfast for a price break, do so. You can generally get a cappuccino for much less and chomp on your breakfast bar.

If you have an apartment, buy groceries and make lunches, even some dinners.

But do eat out when you can. This is Italy! Home of spectacular food. Share a room, a taxi, a bottle of wine.

Do keep all receipts, again, remember this is a business trip.

Those are some great tips. You really are a pro. You’ve done a lot of traveling over the years, China, Italy, and Brazil. As an illustrator, how does seeing different cultures influence you?

I love getting a peek at different cultures when I travel, and specifically I love visiting the schools. One of the things that strikes me most, is how universal kids reactions and questions are.

I have had the same questions from kids in Hong Kong as I’ve had in Brazil. (“How long does it take you? Why clay? How much money do you make?”)

Kids’ artwork and enthusiasm are so similar in every culture I have seen. And since so much of my presentations are visual, language does not impose a huge barrier.

In 2015, you officially stepped onto the writing side of picture books with the release of Poppy’s Best Paper. First off, congratulations! And secondly, what particular challenge surprised you when you took off your illustrator’s hat and switched it for an author’s hat?

Thank you! I have lots of memories and ideas from my childhood.

I began writing because most art directors told me that my clay artwork was a tough fit for other people’s manuscripts and that I should come up with my own stories.

As I began to write, the stories that unfolded were more complex than suited my illustration style, and the irony is that my own manuscript of Poppy’s Best Paper was not a good fit for the clay!

I tried to illustrate Poppy in clay many times, until finally my agent intervened with the suggestion of using another illustrator.

Brilliant! Rosalinde Bonnet‘s illustrations made all the difference in the world.

Sometimes a fresh perspective is exactly what the project needs. So glad that worked out. 

I’m just fascinated by your illustration method of first drawing an outline then filling it in with clay. Do you see the image with color before you begin or is that something that changes as the page progresses?

I start with a color palette that interests me, then I explore it further in the computer or with colored pencil, working on top of copies of my original sketch. Often colors are changed a bit in the clay stage, but I try to have the colors worked out before I mix them in clay.

I can imagine mistakes can be costly. After your artwork has been published in a book, how do you preserve it and are you allowed to sell it?

 
I save my artwork in pizza boxes and other flat boxes and have my studio knee wall space filled with them. The sad thing is that if I am using plasticine, it is not a permanent medium and they can never displayed in any way but on a tabletop under glass.

I do have some framed and saved that way, but I don’t sell them. I also use some polymer clay which is more permanent, but I don’t sell those either. Since the end product is ultimately a photograph of my clay, I do sell large prints of the work.

Pizza boxes. I love it! What question have you never been asked on an interview or school visit, but wish to be?

Hmmmm…. How old do you feel, or rather, what is your mental age?

I think ten years old is the age I identify with most. I still think like a ten year old. I’m forever trying to figure the world out and gain experiences by feeling my way through while keeping that sense of wonder. I rarely feel like an expert, but in a way that feeds the creativity.

That’s actually why I enjoy clay so much, because I don’t know how to do it! Every illustration becomes a discovery process. With lots of skills, ten year olds are still trying to do things in their own way with exuberance and angst, and most are not yet jaded.

Ten is my favorite age, too. And finally, what are you working on now? Any surprises you can share with us?

I am thrilled to say that my editor and I are working on a new Poppy book! In this second book, Poppy faces sibling rivalry with not one but two adorable additions to the family.

We’ll see if Poppy can learn to share the limelight!

Congratulations! Can’t wait to find out. Thank you so much for stopping by, Susan. I wish you a lovely time at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

Cynsational Notes

Patti Buff

The tenth out of eleven children in a family that took in hundreds of foster kids, Patti Buff found solitude in reading at a young age and hasn’t stopped. She later turned to writing because none of her other siblings had and she needed to stand out in the crowd somehow.

Originally from Minnesota, Patti now lives in Germany with her husband and two teenagers where she’s also the regional advisor of SCBWI Germany & Austria. She is currently putting the finishing touches on her YA novel Requiem, featured in the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices 2016 anthology.

The Bologna 2016 Interview series is coordinated by Angela Cerrito, SCBWI’s Assistant International Advisor and a Cynsational Reporter in Europe and beyond.

2016 SCBWI Bologna Author Interview: Kathleen Ahrens

By Patti Buff
for SCBWI Bologna 2016
and Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations


Kathleen Ahrens was born in the suburbs of New York City and aspired to be an astronaut and to live in a skyscraper. Poor eyesight led her to forgo the first dream, but her move to Hong Kong allowed her to finally fulfill the second.


As a child, she read constantly — often in very dim lighting — leading to her poor eyesight, and she could often be found with a book in one hand and a dictionary in another, now clear precursors of her love of both literature and language.


Her favorite subject in high school was Latin, but her aptitude in math led her to enter the University of Massachusetts Amherst as a computer science major, later switching to a degree in Oriental Languages after she grew bored writing computer programs that mimicked war scenarios.


Currently a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, where she is the director of the International Writers’ Workshop, she is also a fellow in the Hong Kong Academy of Humanities, and the international regional advisor chairperson for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators

Hi Kathleen! Thanks for stopping by the blog to discuss the upcoming Bologna Book Fair

With much more focus on diversity in children’s books than has been in the past, how important of a role do you think book fairs like Bologna play in introducing young readers to children from other countries and cultures?

The fact that buyers can walk from one hall to another and see and acquire books from all over the world is very important — without Bologna it would be much harder to know of and gain rights for books from outside one’s own geo-political boundaries.

In addition, while most everything is available on the internet nowadays, it’s still people who connect their friends to books they find at the fair and introduce people who buy and sell rights to each other. These connections happen quite naturally in Bologna, which make it that much more likely that the books from one country may make it to the shelves of another country.

One thing that I’ve noticed as I’ve traveled is that so many publishers in countries outside of the U.S. bring in (and translate) books from all over the world. I’ve yet to see that kind of cross-cultural diversity in U.S. bookstores, even in independent ones, mainly because the U.S. publishers are simply not buying (and translating) that many books from other countries.

Part of that has to do with the fact that US has its own rich publishing environment, but part of it seems to stem from the assumption that U.S. children will not read translated books. This assumption needs to be tested by regularly putting the very best of literature translated from other languages into the hands of readers in the U.S.

Any tips for new Bologna visitors?

I highly recommend the museums in Bologna, including the Archaeological Museum of Bologna and Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna (Mambo). My favorite is the Museo Civico Medievale because it contains artifacts that show medieval life in Bologna, including funerary monuments and tombs for professors, some of which have engravings that show teachers lecturing to students. Perhaps because I am a university professor myself, I find these representations fascinating, especially as the scene is still a familiar one in universities today.

One tip if you visit the museums: there are audio recordings are very well done and worth the cost of renting if available.

Great tips. I’ll be sure to check them out. Your picture books (Ears Hear and Numbers Do, both co-authored by Chu-Ren Huang, illustrated by Marjorie Van Heerden) are bilingual in English and Chinese and feature an Asian setting. How hard was it to cross both cultures in one project?

The challenges for these two picture books was in the language. I like to say I “co-argued” these books with my co-author, who also happens to be my husband.

We were adamant about having the text read naturally in both languages and yet still be clear translations of the other language. So sometimes my husband would come up with a line that sounded great in Chinese, but awkward in English, and vice versa.

Another challenge was that the editor wanted the text and illustrations explained, as she was afraid that the minimal text and illustrations with fantastical elements might be confusing.

This is not something that is usually done in picture books published in the United States, as the reader is free to interpret the text and illustrations as he or she wishes.

We compromised by providing commentary and questions in the back of the books to assist the adult reader in interpreting the text and illustrations. I think it worked out well in the end because it helps parents see that it’s okay to stop and discuss a text during a reading, and that there is no single correct interpretation. For parents who are unfamiliar with reading to young children, or who feel that a book should have a particular overt message, it’s important to let them know that multiple interpretations are fine.

‘Multiple interpretations’, which in themselves are another form of diversity. Very cool. Your other writing projects, including the one that won the Sue Alexander Most Promising New Work Award are more western based. What are some of the challenges of writing for children in your adopted country and writing for your homeland audience? And how do you keep up to date with teens from the other side of the world?

The biggest challenge is the same for any audience — namely, getting what is in my head down on paper. I can sit at the computer and see the scene perfectly in my head. I can hear the dialogue and smell the freshly-shampooed hair of a character. But all that needs to be translated to the page and that’s part of the challenge and excitement of writing.

In terms of keeping up with teens in the U.S, I know enough to know that I could never keep up. But I also know that, as Doreathea Brande said, “If a situation has caught your attention…[if] it has meaning for you, and if you can find what that meaning is, you have the basis for a story.”

That’s what I’m doing when I write — I’m finding that meaning. And when someone reads what I’ve written, they’re creating their own meaning based on what is going on in their lives at that particular point in time. So to my mind, it’s not so much keeping up-to-date as being curious and open to meanings in everyday situations and figuring out how they might intersect with universal themes and current issues that are of interest to readers.

You are extensively published in the academic world, which requires a fair amount of research. Do you apply the same research techniques to your fiction? If not, how do they differ?

Hong Kong at night

In my linguistic research, I set up a hypothesis and then test my hypothesis by gathering linguistic data through experiments or through analysis of linguistic patterns in that corpus.

When I write creatively, I utilize the internet, the public and university library, newspapers, published diaries, etc. in order to get background information for my story — the details that make a scene come alive for reader.

In the former, I’m testing hypotheses; in the latter, I’m gathering information. However, they share a similarity in that I also need to gather information before I test a hypothesis — I need to see what other conclusions researchers have before I start my own research. So I’m pretty good at locating and sifting through information — I used to do this on 3 x 5 inch note cards. Now I use Scrivener and Mendeley to stay organized.

And finally, what are you working on now? Any surprises you can share with us?

I’m working on a YA novel about two sixteen-year old half-sisters meeting up at a summer camp for the first time in ten years — one has been waiting for this summer for ages, while the other has been doing everything possible to avoid it.

What’s at stake is not only the relationship between the two of them, but also the main character’s relationship to her mother, who left her at an early age and later died while serving in Iraq.

That sounds amazing – and powerful. Hope to be able to read it soon. Thank you so much for stopping by, Kathleen. I wish you a lovely time in Bologna.

Cynsational Notes

Patti Buff

The tenth out of eleven children in a family that took in hundreds of foster kids, Patti Buff found solitude in reading at a young age and hasn’t stopped. She later turned to writing because none of her other siblings had and she needed to stand out in the crowd somehow.

Originally from Minnesota, Patti now lives in Germany with her husband and two teenagers where she’s also the regional advisor of SCBWI Germany & Austria. She is currently putting the finishing touches on her YA novel Requiem, featured in the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices 2016 anthology.

The Bologna 2016 Interview series is coordinated by Angela Cerrito, SCBWI’s Assistant International Advisor and a Cynsational Reporter in Europe and beyond.