Interview: Children’s Author Dianna Hutts Aston

Newcomer Dianna Hutts Aston has burst on the publishing scene, debuting strong in a tough market for picture books. Her first was LOONEY LITTLE, illustrated by Kelly Murphy (Candlewick, 2003). This interview with conducted by email in 2003.

What were your earliest influences?

From the time I was little, my mom read to me. I have a photograph of the two of us, me at the age of two, and her at 23, with a big puffy 1966-style hairdo. I’m snuggled against her and you can see that she’s very pregnant with the watermelon that would become my brother. She’s reading me a book and I’m oblivious to anything but the page.

Although I didn’t know it then, that was one of the perfect moments of my life. The simple act of a parent reading to her child is one of love and intimacy; the rest of the world fades away, and there is only that. And when she tucked me in, I cuddled up to Little Golden books instead of stuffed animals.

My dad was also a huge reader. I remember sitting on his lap when I was just learning to read and trying to decipher the newspaper with him. Later, when I was in junior high and my parents were divorced, my obsession with books annoyed him a bit. With books, I could leave the mess of divorce behind and lose myself in another world. When he’d pick us up for weekend visits and want to take us horseback riding or ice-skating, I’d only want to read. “Get your nose out of that book, Dianna Lyn,” he’d say, and though it seems absurd now, we battled often over the time I spent reading instead of doing all that “fun” stuff he’d planned.

My favorite books as a child were anything with dinosaurs; the LITTLE HOUSE books, because of the feeling of home and family they gave me; CHARLOTTE’S WEB; and almost everything by BEVERLY CLEARY; and of course, Judy Blume’s books.

I loved the Nancy Drew mysteries too, though since I’ve read them as an adult, I wonder why. The old Nancy Drew was a perfect girl. Who could live up to that? I certainly didn’t. Maybe it was because she lived with her father, and having my father back must have been my dearest wish. Oooh, this is getting a little too psychological.

What are your favorite books as a reader today?  What qualities in them appeal to you?

My favorite books are picture books and adult fiction. Before my kids were born, my favorite books of all time were TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD; THE YEARLING; JANE EYRE; HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY; THE PRINCE OF TIDES; COLD SASSY TREE; and Truman Capote’s short stories and novellas. Those are still among my favorites, books I’ve read more than once and will read again. I love the characters’ curiosity, courage, tenderness, and strength.

The setting of a book is important to me. I like to “live” in that world while I’m reading. The places in those books ‘ the sleepy Southern town, the Welsh countryside, the English moors, and the Florida swamps ‘ they’ve become memories, places stored in my mind that I can visit whenever I want to.

I hadn’t read picture books since first or second grade, so it was a joy to rediscover picture books after my children were born. As an adult, I had a whole new appreciation for them, for the clear, evocative text and for the art, which brought the words to life. Reading picture books is a feast for the senses ‘ seeing and listening, of course; but also the warmth that’s shared between the reader and the listener. Ah, and the smell. I love the scent of old pages, love the slickness of new ones.

What inspired you to begin writing for children? Did you face any challenges to finding success? What encouragement helped you along the way?

The picture books I read to my children inspired me to try writing for children. I’d had no idea that picture books could be so poetic, poignant, moving, and hilarious. The books I read that made me wake up one day and say, “Hey, I’m going to write one of these things,” are: WHEN I WAS YOUNG IN THE MOUNTAINS by Cynthia Rylant: AMOS AND BORIS by William Steig; GEORGE AND MARTHA by James Marshall; BOOTSIE BARKER BITES by Barbara Bottner; and JULIUS, THE BABY OF THE WORLD by Kevin Henkes.

Over the years ‘ I started writing for children in 1996, when my daughter was a newborn ‘ I’ve read thousands of picture books, discovered many new ones to love, but those remain my very favorites.

My background is in journalism. I had the high-fallutin’ idiotic notion that because of my writing background, I’d easily be able to break into children’s writing. The first picture book manuscript I sent out was 1800 words, my cover letter two single-spaced pages extolling my virtues. Can you hear me laughing?

I had so much to learn, and most of my schooling came from SCBWI and a life-changing children’s writer’s workshop with Kathi Appelt and Debbie Leland. And I can’t stress enough how important and inspiring reading new and classic picture books has been.

Reading is inseparable from writing. Whenever I feel blocked or uninspired, I go to the library and check out 20-40 picture books. Then I sit and read. This ALWAYS helps me get in touch with my creative energy.

When You Were Born (book jacket)I still marvel that I kept writing, despite at least 200 no-thank-yous over four years it took before I sold the first manuscript, WHEN YOU WERE BORN. Elizabeth Bicknell, my editor at Candlewick emailed to say she thought it was special and could I tweak it a bit.

Of course I could tweak it. She let me know over email that Candlewick wanted to make an offer on it. I immediately emailed everyone I know, called my parents, my brother, my Buda friends, my SCBWI friends. It was a lovely, lovely moment.

What kept me going was simply the passion I have for picture books. Without that, I’d have dropped out early. Through the years, I’ve heard countless writers and artists say perseverance is the key to publishing success.

What, if anything, do you wish you’d done differently during your apprenticeship (the time you spent before publication, growing as a writer)? Why?

I wish I’d joined SCBWI earlier, joined a critique group earlier, and taken workshops earlier. I spent far too much time during the first two years revising cover letters rather than manuscripts. But I learned huge amounts because of all that trial and error, and I’m able to pass on what I’ve learned to others, so I doubt I’d change my history.

What did you do that was most helpful?

The single most helpful thing ‘ I’ll say it again ‘ is reading the books that you love. Even my quest for great adult fiction fuels my picture book writing. The other vital part of my education has been SCBWI and the friends I’ve made through it. The organization is our university.

How long did you write and submit prior to your first sale?

Four long, hard years. I’d walk up the driveway to my mailbox full of hope and anticipation, and walk back down, with droopy shoulders and another form-letter rejection. After the initial disappointment, I’d get miffed. I focused the oh-yeah-well-I’ll-show-you attitude toward writing better, and reading even more.

I get just as many rejections now that I’m published as I did before I was. It’s very subjective ‘ what one editor loves, another will loathe. One editor said a story of mine was “coy and didactic” while another called the same story “charming and lyrical.” This happens again and again. Take suggestions that feel right to improve your manuscript; and then take the manuscript elsewhere.

How did you find out about your first sale? How did you react?

Liz Bicknell, my editor at Candlewick, emailed to say that other editors felt as she did about WHEN YOU WERE BORN, that it was special and ought to be published. I emailed her back for clarification with something like, “Does this mean you want to buy it?” And she replied with a Yes and an offer.

I called my husband, my mom, my dad, several close friends… and then I emailed everyone I knew. I’ve since realized that the greatest blessing of that moment was not the actual sale but rather the fact that I had people I love and who love me with whom I could share the joy.

Where do you turn for instruction and inspiration?

I find inspiration in nature, weather, sunlight, gloom; on the playground and in the classroom ‘ I love listening to kids talk to one another; in the works of other artists and writers; and from my bosom writing friends, without whom I’d wither and die.

If you could change something about the world of children’s publishing, what would it be?

There is so much hurry in our world today. Editors have more than they can handle. Many say the actual editing of a work is done after hours, on the train home or at home on the weekends. I’d love to give us all more time with each other, to listen and talk, to make not only our stories better but also our relationships. It’s a bit odd to bring a book into the world but barely know the midwife/doctor ‘ to use an analogy. I was warmed to read DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM and see the affection she had for the writers and illustrators she worked with.

What gives you the greatest joy in your writing life?

I love the solitude of writing. There’s a kind of music in silence, one that I crave and revel in. My mind is always talking to me or to God or friends not present, and if others are around, I can’t “talk” or “listen” to those voices in my head. I need silence as I need water. I have a little nook in the house where I write. My husband and I turned the formal dining room into a home office when we built our house.

I’ve surrounded the wall space with pictures of my cheerleaders: my mom, dad, dogs, grandmother; and I have a small ledge that holds tokens of goodwill and support from friends and editors. I have a striped, beaded lamp on my desk that makes my space cozy.

While many writers prefer longhand, I prefer the keyboard, so there’s a computer on my desk. I’m never lonely, because my dog and cat are always here, along with my email. I “talk” to writer friends hourly.

One of the hardest parts of being a writer is creating the time to write. You have to be protective of your time, or you’ll find yourself doing everything but writing. Having lunch with friends is wonderful; volunteering at my kids’ schools is worthwhile; grocery shopping is necessary to survival ‘ but I have to treat my writing time as I would any job. The boss wouldn’t let me go grocery shopping or volunteering on company time, so I have to be my own boss.

What advice to you have for aspiring picture book writers? How about those who are already published?

Read, read, and read. Join SCBWI. Join a critique group. Courage takes practice. Most of us aren’t born with it. If you’re afraid to submit your work, go ahead and be afraid… but submit it anyway. Take the pearls of constructive criticism you get from peers and editors to revise your story, and revise it. Then revise it again. Then call on your Inner Swashbuckling Brave Babe and submit it again… to selected publishers who are publishing what you write.

What are your writing goals for the future?

I don’t set goals. I get up every day (just about) and write. The stories are finished when they’re finished. If I do give myself a deadline, it’s usually by season, as in, “I’ll have this done by spring.” Okay… my goal is to continue to write picture books with the joy and energy I’ve known, and to encourage other writers and artists to follow their bliss. Many, many people are surprisingly resistant to this idea.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing your first book to life?

The idea of LOONY LITTLE literally fell from the sky. I didn’t think it up. I heard Peter Jennings say, “The polar icecap is melting!” but I [also] heard, “The sky is falling!” and there was the whole book. I spent the next few blazing hot months in Arctic research ‘ books, websites, videos.

Bless this Mouse (book jacket)With BLESS THIS MOUSE, due Fall 04 from Handprint, I immersed myself in research about nocturnal creatures. It’s the one book I’ve written in rhyme, and I got lots of feedback from friends on early versions, which were so bad, I’m embarrassed to go back and read them now. Rhyme doesn’t come naturally to me, but I felt the text and tone I was striving for needed a rhythm that I couldn’t find in free verse. I have two friends, who are great with rhyme, help me with the text.

WHEN YOU WERE BORN, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Candlewick, Aug 04) was a joy to write. Each stanza is a memory I have about the birth of my children ‘ memories that “haunted” me in a beautiful way. I’d begun work on the text in ’98, I think. Then I took Kathi Appelt’s and Debbie Leland’s Intensive Children’s Writer’s Workshop at Rice University one summer. When I came home after that, I was on fire to write and the text for WYWB just flowed out. I remember emailing Kathi one night about 1 a.m. and telling her thanks-a-million for the inspiration and know-how. That story sold several months later, my first sale.

How did the manuscript change in the course of rewriting and editing?

I’ve been awed by the deft touch editors can have in turning a good manuscript into an exquisite book. There weren’t too many revisions to WYWB or BTM. With LL, we didn’t want to make an editorial statement about global warming, because there is disagreement in the scientific community about the cause of global warming. My editor on LL is Kara LaReau, and she took tremendous care with each and every word. The story ends with, “Like who?” Who will care that the icecap is melting? I think that’s a perfect ending, and Kara gets the credit for it. I don’t remember how I’d ended the book initially, but now I can’t think of ending it any other way.

What have your illustrators brought to your stories?

Loony Little (book jacket)The most wonderful thing about writing picture books is the collaborative process with an illustrator. I deliver my black text on white paper, and months (or years) later, the art appears in my mailbox. Opening that envelope, thoughtfully provided by my editor, is like lifting the lid on a treasure box. When I saw Kelly Murphy’s illustrations for LOONY LITTLE, I was amazed and impressed by the accuracy of her detailed illustrations ‘ the way an Arctic fox’s coat appears blotchedy in early summer…. And her use of color swept me away.

When I saw E.B. Lewis’ illustrations for WHEN YOU WERE BORN, I could tell immediately he had poured his heart and soul into the paintings, as I had into the text, and I was flooded with a feeling of awe and gratitude ‘ it was my Miss America moment: How did this happen to me? The paintings he did for WYWB belong in The Louvre. His paintings belong in The World’s Greatest Museum. To see my text beside his paintings is an honor.