Okay, so this post is a little late in coming. I’ve been carefully thinking about related revision notes as well as enjoying just a little bit of basking and celebrating (okay, a lot of basking and celebrating!). Now that my feet are back on the ground, please allow me to share the official announcement… I’ve sold my first book!
I can’t yet reveal all of the details (there’s a top-secret Awesome Illustrator involved!), but I can say that in my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined anything better. My picture-book biography about Emmanuel Osofu Yeboah (see previous post) will be edited by the lovely Anne Schwartz at Schwartz & Wade (Random House). Here’s a bit of a blurb about the book, courtesy of my amazing agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette:
“When Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah was born, his right leg was short and twisted—completely useless. It was 1977, and people with disabilities in Ghana, West Africa, were considered cursed, and left their homes only to beg for food or money. Emmanuel challenged the norm from his youngest days. Then, in 2001, he decided to prove that people with physical challenges could do amazing things, so he bicycled across Ghana—almost 400 miles—with one leg. His ten-day ride helped make him a virtual celebrity, but also a national hero. As a direct result of Emmanuel’s efforts, Ghana eventually enacted progressive disability laws.”
Her full announcement is on the Erin Murphy Literary Agency website, here.
Part of what makes this the ultimate dream come true for is that this is the story I could never let go of. It’s the first book I ever tried to write and has been through at least 30 MAJOR rewrites, changing genres and target age groups several times along the way, and varying in length from 200 words to 1500 words and everywhere in between. I’ve put it away, studied and learned, pondered and thought, written other things, and been pulled back to this one again countless times, over and over, for almost 7 years. This project has been my own personal 400-mile bike ride, one that I don’t know if I could have completed without the inspiration I’ve derived from the story itself. To have it be the first book of mine to sell AND to have it land in such a perfect, wonderful home at S&W is truly unbelievable. But please don’t pinch me, because this is one dream I don’t want to end.
On Friday, Andrew Karre from Lerner/Carolrhoda gifted a group of our region’s nonfiction writers with over five hours of his undivided attention. And, wow, was it an afternoon to remember! He brainstormed with the group and helped us hone our ideas into something marketable. He gave feedback on our short proposals and/or first pages. And he gave insight into Lerner, the broader industry, and what makes for great nonfiction for kids. Here are a few of the gems from my notes:
Ask yourself, would it still be a good book if it was fiction? It shouldn’t matter where it ends up getting shelved—a good story is a good story.
“Be writers, not compilers of thinly-veiled lists.”
Straight biographies aren’t really needed anymore dead due to Internet and online databases. They need to be MORE than just a biography to be published as books today.
It’s harder for nonfiction authors to “brand” themselves, because there is so much less interaction with readers.
As school librarians disappear, it gets harder for kids to get to great nonfiction and vice versa. Kids will still manage to find a copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, for example, but they might not discover The Many Faces of George Washington.
Reviews are especially important for nonfiction.
One important facet of a nonfiction author’s job is to decide what to exclude.
Nonfiction proposal should first and foremost communicate your passion for the story, not follow a specific form.
Above all, you must CONNECT to kids!
I feel so lucky to have spent this time with Andrew and some of our region’s nonfiction authors. I have a slew of exciting ideas and a boatload of new inspiration and enthusiasm and for the work that we do. And I can’t wait to see the drafts that come out of it (my own as well as everyone else’s!). Happy [nonfiction] writing!
LT: Hi, Darcy! I’m so excited to have you visit. Can you tell me how you first become interested in writing about Wisdom?
DP: I have been interested in writing more nature/science related books, so a couple times a month, I read the Fish and Wildlife Service blog at http://www.fws.gov/news/blog/, just trolling for topics. After the earthquake and tsunami last year, I saw information on the oldest wild bird in the world, who survived the tsunami and had to learn more. LT: Although you’re traditionally published many times over, this book is published by your own independent publishing company. Congratulations on what must have been a huge effort to pull everything together! Can you talk about your decision to go that route with this book?
DP: I created the Mims House publisher to address timely stories like that of Wisdom. Traditional publishers work on a very long lead time, often taking two or three or four years to bring a picture book to the marketplace. With print-on-demand technology, I can do it much quicker. For marketing, I can shout very loud online, ‘Read all about it.’ Traditional publishers will always hold the lion’s share of the marketplace, but there’s also room for niche publishers, supported by new technologies. LT: Can you tell us about Kitty Harvill’s illustration process? How did she capture Wisdom in her art?
DP: The Fish and Wildlife service makes photos available as public domain material at http://digitalmedia.fws.gov/, so it was very easy to find images for Kitty to use as photo references as she did her watercolors. LT: I think every book teaches us something new, about the world, about ourselves, or about the craft of writing. What have you learned as a result of writing this book? What surprised you the most during the process?
DP: I was totally surprised that birds could still be laying eggs at the age of 61. But Wisdom just laid a new egg in December, 2011. LT: Are there any tips you would like to share with aspiring children’s book writers, especially those writing nonfiction for kids?
DP: Talk to the source. When I realized I wanted to write about Wisdom, I went directly to the biologist who lives and works on Midway Atoll, Pete Leary. He was invaluable in giving me information and vetting the manuscript. The other tip is to dig deeper. This story is exciting partly because of Wisdom’s longevity. I did a timeline of her life and times to understand what she has lived through. If I had only told the story of the tsunami, it wouldn’t have been as powerful as the story of over 60 years of survival. LT: I’ve always said that I will know I’ve made it when I receive one letter from one child saying that something I wrote made a positive difference in his or her life. How do you define success? Do you feel like you’ve achieved it? If not, what’s left on your to-do list?
DP: I have loved every part of Wisdom’s story and chronicling it for children. I take it one project at a time, and if I can say that I did the best job possible, then I am happy. On my to-do list? Finding more equally stirring tales about nature. LT: What are you working on now?
DP: My new book, DESERT BATHS (Sylvan Dell) comes out in August 2012. It’s a story about how desert animals take a bath–lots of fun! LT: What would you most like people to know about you?
DP: I love to write. LT: And it shows! It’s always inspiring and helpful to get a “peak behind the curtain” of the writers I admire. Thanks again, Darcy!
And, if you’d like to read an interview with the illustrator of WISDOM, Kitty Harvill, please click on over to this post at Archimedes Notebook.
A few weeks ago I posted this review of Cynthia Levinson’s amazing middle-grade nonfiction book, WE’VE GOT A JOB. Now, I’m thrilled to welcome Cynthia herself here to talk about it! LT: Hi Cynthia! One of the first things I noticed about WE’VE GOT A JOB was how thoroughly researched it is. What was the hardest part of the research and/or writing for you?
CL: The hardest part, one which historians and researchers on many matters face, was figuring out what to do about contradictory information. One person remembered that the events of the Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama started on one day; another was sure it was a different day. One person knew that Dr. King spoke to him at the church; others said King was elsewhere. A third person was definite that she was arrested for picketing on a particular day when other sources indicated that no arrests occurred that day. LT: How did you deal with that?
CL: I don’t at all blame my respondents! The events I was asking them about took place nearly 50 years ago at a time when they were both young and frightened. Determining the facts required so much effort that I wrote an entire Author’s Note about it. LT: How complete was the book when you sent it out?
CL: Because this was my first book, I went overboard what I submitted to my agent! At the same time, because this was a work of nonfiction, which, unlike fiction, doesn’t need to be complete, I submitted a proposal, rather than a full manuscript. But, what a proposal!
CL: It consisted of five complete draft chapters, a narrative outline with almost half a page of text for each unwritten chapter, a four-page bibliography, many pages of footnotes, sources and costs of photographs, and, probably, a partridge in a pear tree. I’ve since learned that this much prep is not necessary. But, I wasn’t sorry that I had done so much work in advance of submission. The outline was solid enough that it structured the final book, even after many textual edits. And, the proposal sold the book—eventually. LT: What else have you learned as a result of writing this book?
CL: As a seasoned writer for quality nonfiction children’s magazines, I was used to doing mammoth amounts of research that never make it into the final product, organizing reams of material, writing succinctly, etc. What turned out to be new with this book is the human element.
CL: Not that I hadn’t written about people before. I had—William Kamkwamba, for instance, who brought electricity to his village in Malawi; Martina Zurschmiede, the youngest member of the Swiss Lace Making Association; Nathan Wolfe, who is searching for and trying to prevent the next pandemic. But, with short pieces of 500–800 words, you’re looking at the facts of what people are doing. With a book, I discovered that I also needed to delve into people’s motivations, into the passions or fears that propel them to do what they do.
CL: Ferreting out these factors entailed asking probing, intimate questions. “How did your mother beat you?” “Why did you lie to your parents?” Invariably, I learned, when my respondents lowered their voices, when they whispered to me, even though we were the only ones talking, they were reaching deep inside themselves. LT: What surprised you the most during the process?
CL: Because I had never written a nonfiction book for children before—or, any book—the entire process surprised me. The time that I was most taken aback occurred when one of my interviewees, James, questioned me! He wanted to know why I was interested in writing this book, what I would do with the information he shared, would I pay him. These are perfectly reasonable and understandable questions. But, I thought I was the question-asker! LT: I’ve always said that I will know I’ve made it when I receive one letter from one child saying that something I wrote made a positive difference in his or her life. How do you define success?
CL: I love this definition, Laurie. I hope this happens to me—because, like you, I hope it happens to a child who reads our work. My definition of success is very particular to this book.
CL: When people who have even passing knowledge of the civil rights movement hear “Birmingham,” they generally and immediately think of the church bombing in which four girls were murdered. I hope that We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March will change their perception. I would like for readers to associate “Birmingham” not just with the tragedy of victimized children but also with children who took a stand, changing America with their determination and fortitude. LT: And I’m sure they will! It’s impossible to read WE’VE GOT A JOB and not be touched both by what those children went through and what they accomplished. Thank you for writing such an important, powerful book, Cynthia, and thanks so much for sharing this behind-the-scenes view of it with me!
Today’s Nonfiction Monday Round-up is being hosted at The Children’s War.
A few weeks ago, I posted this review of Kelly Milner Halls’ most recent book, IN SEARCH OF SASQUATCH. Kelly was kind enough to follow up that review with an incredible interview about the book and her writing career. Please help me welcome author Kelly Milner Halls! LT: Hi Kelly, and thank for coming! I guess I have to start with the obvious, though I’m fairly confident I know the answer from reading the book: Do you believe in Sasquatch?
KMH: I do not believe, 100%, that Sasquatch is real. I tend to be skeptical by nature—the journalist in me. But I believe there are some very convincing bits of evidence that suggest SOMETHING is out there—an animal we haven’t yet defined and don’t really understand. Too many reliable people have witnessed too many amazing things to ignore them. LT: What was/were the hardest things about researching and/or writing this book? How did you deal with that?
KMH: I wanted to be sure my witnesses and experts were serious people, not people who wanted fame or glory. There is nothing wrong with fame or glory, but I wanted people who were fact-centered, so that required some hard work. I think I found good interview subjects to meet that standard. Hope so. LT: During your research, did anything surprise you, catch you off guard, or make you change your planned course for the book?
KMH: The fact that Scott Nelson believes Sasquatch may have its own language absolutely blew my socks off. His reasoning is so clear and logical, it almost make my head explode. If that’s true, that’s a reason to protect the “maybe” primate. LT: Did you do all the photo research for the book too? Can you tell us about that process?
KMH: I took a number of the photos, but a wonderful Sasquatch investigator named Paul Graves from Yakima, WA, was extremely generous about sharing his field photographs for the book. He is also a musician who writes Sasquatch songs, and he’s featured in the book. But he was very generous, and I’m grateful. LT: How do you manage all of your research for a book like this? What’s your organizational system? Does it evolve over the course of a project?
KMH: I keep elaborate, well-backed up computer files about each subject, each topic, each chapter, so I can find my notes with ease. And there are so many notes. I read a dozen books, did more than two dozen interviews and collected dozens of images for this book. It was hard but amazing work. It’s what I love to do. LT: How have your research and writing processes evolved over the course of your career?
KMH: As my children have grown into adulthood, I have been able to travel more to get my information first-hand, rather than on the telephone. Having both field and phone time really adds richness to the books I write and the presentations I give. LT: How much time did you spend researching this particular book overall, and how long did it take to write the book? Is that typical?
KMH: Most of my books take between three and five years to research, then another year to write. I don’t like to rehash material that already exists. I like to present new information whenever possible and that takes time and effort. LT: How do you know when a book is “done” and ready to send to your agent or editor?
KMH: The book isn’t even close to done when I send it to my editors or agent. It’s a proposal. It maps out how I see the book once it’s complete and gives us all a place to start. But the book evolves considerably as we work together as a time. I’m selling a concept that will change and improve as we all work on it, and that’s the magic of the editorial process. LT: Are there any other tips you would like to share with aspiring children’s book writers, especially those writing nonfiction for kids?
KMH: Watch for the topics that YOU find most engaging and consider offering them up to young readers. Your excitement, your sense of wonder will show through every word you write and the kids will feel the human connection. If you are not excited about your topic, that lack of enthusiasm will be just as clear to the young readers. So write about things the excite you. You’ll give the kids a reason to be excited, too. LT: I think every book teaches us something new, about the world, about ourselves, or about the craft of writing. What have you learned as a result of writing this book? What surprised you the most during the process?
KMH: I have learned that we forget our humanity when it comes to animals at times. But we can also renew it. The more you know about even an unknown creature, the harder it is to simply disregard or disrespect it. It’s like my pet chickens. I can eat grilled chicken without a blink of an eye. I love chicken dinner. But I could never even consider eating my pet chickens. You work harder not to hurt the things you understand well. Knowledge, exploration, is the key to more love, less hate. That is confirmed every time I write a book and share it with kids. LT: I’ve always said that I will know I’ve made it when I receive one letter from one child saying that something I wrote made a positive difference in his or her life. How do you define success? Do you feel like you’ve achieved it? If not, what’s left on your to-do list?
KMH: I used to yearn for the day when I’d win a major nonfiction book award. Years went by, and it didn’t happen. Then I started meeting kids—many of them boys, but girls too—who loved my books, kids who said I was their favorite author. I started hearing stories about kids who clung to my books like life jackets—kids who drew comfort from MY books, award-winning or not. After that starts to happen regularly, you realize awards are lovely, but the real measure of success are those readers and their ability to feel a little less alone because of something you’ve given them. That’s how I measure success. If I have made your child’s life a little kinder, a little safer, I am the luckiest writer on earth. LT: What do you like to do when you’re not researching and/or writing?
KMH: I am always writing, so that’s a hard question. I do a LOT of school visits, which I love. I paint, I meet with friends, I work for my friend Chris Crutcher, I walk my dog and take care of my lizard. I sleep now and then, when time permits. : ) Life is crazy busy, but good. LT: What are you working on now?
KMH: I’m finishing a book on animal rescues for National Geographic called TIGER IN TROUBLE. I’m putting together another YA anthology for Chronicle Books—just got that news yesterday. I am researching the history of video games for a new book project. And I’m going to write a book on ghosts for Millbrook. I have two other proposals under consideration at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, too, but they aren’t firm yet, so I better not talk about them. LT: What would you most like people to know about you?
KMH: That I don’t have a mean bone in my body, that I live to make life a little easier and kinder for the people I meet. I’d like them to know that I am exactly who I say I am, with no need for deceit or animus. Life is too short for cruelty and anger. Like the Beatles said, all we REALLY need is love. I hope my humanity shows, even in my quirky works of nonfiction for kids. Kids need love, most of all. LT: Well, Kelly, I have LOVED interviewing you! Thank you so much for so generously sharing your expertise and heart with us, in your books as well as on this blog.
Stay tuned for an upcoming review of Kelly’s new book, ALIEN INVESTIGATION, coming from Lerner Publishing on April 1, 2012 (no fooling!).
We’ve Got a Job
by Cynthia Levinson
Peachtree Publishers, February 1, 2012
Ages: 10 and up
Oscar Wilde supposedly said, “Any fool can make history, but it takes genius to write it.” While I don’t necessarily agree with the first part, the second part absolutely rings true. After all, how do you make a story compelling when everyone already knows how it ends? Cynthia Levinson has proven her genius here, because she accomplishes that and so much more in WE’VE GOT A JOB.
By anchoring the events surrounding the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March in the personal narratives of four of its direct participants, Levinson puts readers on the ground in Birmingham. We may know the final outcome, but we have no idea how we’re ever going to get there, and this day-by-day account of the incremental progress—and setbacks—will keep readers turning the pages to find out what happened next. This is a nonfiction book with as much drama and pacing as THE HUNGER GAMES. I literally couldn’t put it down, except for when I became too teary-eyed to continue reading, which happened often.
There is so much to love about this book, but I think my favorite thing about it is how Levinson humanizes everyone involved. It’s not as much a movement or an event as it is individuals, each with his or her own motivations, working with or against each other. I loved reading that even the revered leaders (for both sides of the issue) were hardly ever in agreement. Everyone involved was taking a chance, a risk, a guess as to what was going to work—or not. They were all fighting for what they believed in, each in his or her own unique way. Nothing was simple. Nothing was clear.
I wholeheartedly think this book should be in every library, in every classroom, and in every home in America for its history as well as for its message for the future. Buy it, read it, recommend it, share it.
The book also includes a table of contents, author’s note, timeline, map, acknowledgements, extensive source notes, bibliography (recommended resources), photo credits, and a detailed index. Levinson also has additional info, lesson plans, discussion questions, curriculum guides, and more on her website.
To check out the rest of today’s roundup of nonfiction books for kids, head on over to this week’s Nonfiction Monday host, Wendie’s Wanderings! (Disclaimer: I received an advance reader copy (ARC) of this book from Peachtree Publishers in exchange for my honest review, and it was so good I pre-ordered my own published hardcover. I received no monetary compensation. All opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone.)
This is one of my favorite books of all the nominations in the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book category this year, and I just can’t get over how absolutely perfect it is. The poetic text is a simple but elegant rhyme with spot on rhythm and meter:
birds with puffy chests.
birds with fluffy crests.”
The illustrations are bright, clean, and not only depict the various birds, but also place them in their appropriate habitats.
The 21 birds featured run the gamut from the common robin to the more exotic blue-footed booby, from the great blue heron to the blue bird-of-paradise. This book covers an enormous diversity of life, then ends just right with what they all have in common:
“All of them have feathers,
and all are hatched from eggs.”
This is a wonderful introduction to birds for the youngest readers. It could also be used to talk about diversity, habitats, and classification.
At the end of the book, Stockdale includes a perfectly brief and spot-on paragraph with information about each bird profiled in the book. The book also includes a bibliography.
Only the Mountains Do Not Move: A Maasai Story of Culture and Conservation by Jan Reynolds
Lee & Low Books, September 01, 2011
I’ve always been fascinated by the Maasai, so I was pleased to see this book about their culture written for children, and this book didn’t disappoint. Straightforward text is combined with Maasai proverbs and beautiful photography to give us a detailed glimpse at modern-day Maasai life. This is a balanced representation: Reynolds isn’t afraid to show the less pleasant (biting bugs!) or shocking (drinking cow blood!) aspects of Maasai life, but she also reveals the peace and togetherness it brings. Especially relevant to her young readers is how she focuses on what the Maasai boys and girls do at different ages.
One pleasant surprise was how Reynolds shares with readers not only the historical Maasai culture, but also how the Maasai way of life is changing due to outside pressures and how they are adapting to this new world, giving the story context in the broader world.
I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention that there were a few minor drawbacks for me. First, it bothered me not to have pronunciation guides for the Maa words embedded in the text (but there is one at the end). Second, although the Maasai proverbs were lovely, I wanted more of them and to have them appear more regularly throughout the text. As it is, with 10–14 pages between proverbs, they sort of surprised me each time and felt more like interruptions than the embellishments they should have been. Finally, I would have liked to get a little closer to the main family throughout the whole book. Sometimes the text seems to move way out to the Maasai in general for a long time, then it zooms in briefly to the main characters, then goes right back out again. I would’ve liked more connections to have been made between the general way of life and the specific family.
On the plus side, the back matter includes an author’s note, a glossary and pronunciation guide, a web site for more information, and source notes and acknowledgements. There’s also a very interesting interview and book talk with the author available here, which should make it ever more appealing for teachers hoping to use it in the classroom.
This is a wonderful book for introducing a unique and fascinating African culture to upper elementary students.
Some people think nonfiction is dry and boring. How can facts be fun, right? WRONG! Humor in nonfiction not only gets and keeps readers engaged, it can also help them retain the information longer. My fellow writers of nonfiction for kids (on the NFforKids Yahoo group and on Twitter) and I have put together a list of our favorite FUNNY nonfiction titles for kids. Here’s what we came up with, in no particular order:
This is just a sampling of our favorites. Do you have any to add? Please let us know in the comments!
I found it interesting that often the humor is primarily in the illustrations, with the text playing it fairly straight. In fact, in many cases it’s only the juxtaposition of the two that tickles your funny bone. In others, the humor is mild (a smile rather than a belly laugh) or is just hinted at rather than being an explicit joke. Sometimes, the topic itself is pretty funny, but the text is fairly serious. Given how much kids love to read humor, I wonder if that’s all just coincidence, or if humor just isn’t as tolerated in nonfiction texts, or maybe nonfiction writers just don’t have a sense of humor (I’m sure not buying that last one!). Thoughts?
I’m still pinching myself about signing with Ammi-Joan Paquette at Erin Murphy Literary Agency. I’ve always known Joan and Erin are amazing, but I wasn’t expecting the close-knit, ultra-supportive group of EMLA clients who totally sweeten the pot. I set about trying to read all of their books and was thrilled to discover fellow nonfiction (and fiction!) author Audrey Vernick. I knew I wanted to get to know her better as well as pick her brain a little, so I’m excited to be the 3rd stop on her summer 2011 blog tour!
Laurie: Welcome, Audrey! Thanks for stopping by. Your first book, IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN, was a light-hearted, hilariously funny book for the preschool set. Your second, SHE LOVED BASEBALL: THE EFFA MANLEY STORY, was a serious, passionate picture book biography. Now, here we are celebrating your return to young fiction with the release of TEACH YOUR BUFFALO TO PLAY DRUMS. (Congratulations!)
Laurie: One of the things that jumps out at me about all of your books is what a strong and unique voice they have, yet they’re totally different! As authors, we’re told, and often struggle, to find our own one true voice… but you’ve found two! How did you develop them? How do you switch back and forth between your BUFFALO voice and your nonfiction voice?
Audrey: I struggled with this question, because before I was published, I found it maddening the way people, especially editors, talked about voice. “It’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it.” THAT IS NOT HELPFUL! I want to give an informative answer, but the truth is that voice is the one part of the writing process that’s just there for me. I’m not at all conscious of developing voice or switching between voices. I write and it’s there.
Audrey: But as I think more about it, my brain keeps me pulling me back to the truly dreadful picture books I used to write, which had no voice at all. Before writing for kids, I wrote literary short fiction for adults (which makes writing for kids seem like a lucrative business decision). My voice was always in the short stories, but it did take me some time to get it into my children’s writing. A lot of time, actually. Something clicked into place with the buffalo books, and the best explanation I can give is that I learned to get out of my own way. I used to waste a lot of my narrative space explaining the world I created and why characters acted as they did. Now I state it and move on. And that, somehow, cleared out the room my voice had been waiting for.
Audrey: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about voice in nonfiction. I really admire some voice-heavy nonfiction books, and I’m playing around with that, at least in my head, for the nonfiction project I’ve been working on for years. The examples that come to mind are both baseball books–Kadir Nelson’s WE ARE THE SHIP, about as perfect as a book could be (though maybe more for adult readers of children’s books than for children), and the wonderful YOU NEVER HEARD OF SANDY KOUFAX? by Jonah Winter (illustrated by Andre Carrilho). Those books deliver on three fronts, where I was only expecting two–information about a subject in which I was interested, gorgeous art, and the bonus: a really interesting voice to tell the story. Laurie: You also have a novel coming out this fall. How did you find that voice, and how is it like or unlike the two we’ve already seen?
Audrey: The voice in WATER BALLOON is truest to… me. To who I am. Not necessarily who I was at thirteen, the age of the book’s narrator/protagonist, but who I am now, distilled back to a younger age.
Audrey: I started this book seven years ago and the voice was the exact same in the first sentence of the first draft as it was when I completed the final revision. But man alive, did I need to work on plot. If my characters had their way, they would lounge and emote for 300 pages. Laurie: Another multi-talented author of both fiction and nonfiction (and fellow EMLA client) Chris Barton wrote in a guest post on Rasco from RIF, “I slide back and forth between fiction and nonfiction without really thinking much about it, my experiences with one building on the other. I suspect the youngest readers approach the two genres pretty much the same way—when you’ve explored only a smidge of the world, all books are about exploring more of it. It’s as we get older, as both readers and writers, that our tastes divide.” Laurie: I guess, for some of us, our tastes never did divide. (Perhaps because we never grew up?) Do you have a preference? Which creative process do you enjoy more: fiction or nonfiction?
Audrey: I think writing funny comes more naturally and is more fun. Writing nonfiction is harder. But sometimes there’s a greater satisfaction in successfully completing a difficult task. And I feel something that’s found at the crossroads of pride and delight at sharing someone else’s story with a wide audience.
Audrey: I wouldn’t say I’m drawn to nonfiction as a whole, though. Some individual stories just call me. And while it’s obvious that some of them are baseball–in the case of my first book, BARK & TIM, it was a painting. I have likened seeing Tim Brown’s painting to the human-interest story I once read about a woman who saw a news story about an orphan in another country and had this immediate, strong knowledge: That’s my son. It was that strong when I saw “Feeding Bark.” That’s MY painting. My art. My story. For the playful, fiction books, I’m simply drawn in by the strong pull/desire to write something funny. Laurie: Chris also wrote, “based on my own experiences slipping back and forth between genres, I believe they might even find inspiration for their next fiction project.” Laurie: Do you also find that one informs the other? Do you need to do both to stay balanced? Where do you pull such different ideas from? Do you think they come from the same place somehow?
Audrey: Both kinds of stories—fiction and nonfiction—call to me. I don’t go seeking story ideas. I find myself wondering about something or someone (nonfiction) and wanting to explore to find out more. Usually in the case of fiction picture books, I say something, though sometimes I just think it, and it echoes until I start looking at it for story potential. The closest I’ve come to one informing the other was when reading a particular kind of nonfiction picture book—the spate of inter-species friendship books—led to writing a fiction spoof of the genre, the upcoming BOGART & VINNIE. Laurie: Do you tend to work on fiction projects and nonfiction projects at the same time? Or do you keep them completely separate?
Audrey: I work on them simultaneously. I don’t have any trouble switching gears, for the most part. Laurie: How is your process different for something like TEACH YOUR BUFFALO TO PLAY DRUMS and SHE LOVED BASEBALL?
Audrey: I just need an idea to start writing fiction picture books. A title, a premise, a character–those have all been my starting points for different fiction picture books. For nonfiction, I need a lot of information. I need interviews, background information, etc. And I need time for the story to boil down enough that I can envision an opening scene, where an opening scene almost always naturally emerges for me when writing fiction picture books.
Audrey: When I get stuck writing nonfiction, it’s usually a good hint that I need to do more research. When I’m stuck writing fiction, it’s kind of my own problem to fix. After waiting a few days to see if an answer comes to me, I’ll sometimes try to sit down and write five possible ways out. This usually works. One thing I’ve done when stuck writing both fiction and nonfiction, with success, is talk it through with smart people.
Audrey: The editing process is similar in that both are almost always about stripping away to find the essential story. With nonfiction, it’s wrenching, because you’re cutting away parts of a life. I still mourn for a scene in SHE LOVED BASEBALL. I find it more satisfying with fiction, because for me, my humor usually comes through best when it’s in a stark, brief form. But that’s not how I write it–that happens in revision.
Laurie: What are you working on now?
Audrey: I am revising a recently acquired picture book entitled BOGART & VINNIE, A COMPLETELY MADE-UP STORY OF TRUE FRIENDSHIP. I find myself in the new-to-me situation of turning a character from a potbellied pig into a rhinoceros.
Audrey: I’m also planning to start a new upper middle-grade novel this summer, which scares me more than any other kind of writing. Novels are so consuming and, for me, really hard! I know a lot about my main character and her situation, about where she starts and where she’ll end up, but getting her to move and do things has proven to be a challenge.
Audrey: Mixed in there are a couple of other picture book projects–mostly fiction, with one nonfiction–that I return to every now and then. And one new one that’s just starting to scratch its way to the surface. Laurie: What do you most want people to know about you as an author and as a person?
Audrey: That is a big question.
Audrey: I’m a big reader. The moments I love best as a reader are the ones that make me laugh, or the ones I HAVE to read aloud or paste into an email for someone else whom I know will get it exactly as I do, or stumbling upon phrasing that pleases me to my core. Most recently, it was this sentence in Ann Patchett’s STATE OF WONDER, when a character receives bad news: “There was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding, as if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles.” It’s not an especially important moment in the book, but those words evoked something in me. I reread them several times, with great satisfaction and pleasure.
Audrey: As a writer, I don’t think there’s any way to consciously strive for such moments in our own writing. But I think that’s why I write–in the hope that I might provide that kind of moment for a reader.
Audrey: As a person, boy that’s hard. When my sisters and I describe people, we always find ourselves falling upon the same rubric of funny, smart, and nice. They claim they haven’t, but I believe they have, more than once, subtly suggested that I might want to work a bit on the nice part. I am a strange combination of misanthrope and someone exceedingly fond of and loyal to the core of people I adore. Laurie: Thanks so much, Audrey! I can’t wait to see TEACH YOUR BUFFALO TO PLAY DRUMS and all of your other upcoming projects.
Read on about Audrey, the buffalo, and more on the rest of her summer 2011 blog tour: