I’m thrilled to help my friend and critique partner, Mark Holtzen, celebrate the release of his gorgeous new picture book, A Ticket to the Pennant. Featuring beautiful retro-style illustrations from John Skewes, the story recounts Huey’s adventures as he searches his diverse Seattle neighborhood for his missing ticket to see the Seattle Rainiers play in the big game in 1955.
Tell us a little bit about what led you to write a book about baseball.
There’s an old, dilapidated sign in my neighborhood that reads “Former site of Sicks Stadium.” I drive, walk or bike past it literally every day. Sicks Stadium was a central landmark here in Seattle for decades. The idea of attending a baseball game a few blocks away has intrigued me since we moved in years ago. The idea of writing a children’s book with some local historical flavor was just as intriguing. I got to include businesses that have been here since the 30’s and reference people of ethnic groups who have compelling local history. This book is a love letter to my neighborhood. I have to add it was amazing to watch John Skewes layer his visual story over the top of mine.
In addition to writing, you are also an elementary school teacher. Can you talk about using books like yours in the classroom? What more can we do to get children interested in local history?
Kids aren’t hard to engage if you’re honest and present intriguing content in a compelling way. Show them the real side of humanity. Don’t patronize. Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower comes to mind. As a teacher, I can think of a ton of connections to this book and who wouldn’t want to read about a con man? Aren’t kids the best little con-people when they want something? They can handle the truth and it makes for great, meaningful discussion. I love seeing all the amazing nonfiction coming out now. Picture books are so visually interesting and publishers seem to be getting bolder with subject matter. Make a good, honest book and the talented teachers and librarians will find them and find creative ways to connect them in lessons.
I’ve been asked to come do a couple school talks regarding weaving nonfiction within student-created fictional tales, so it’s nice to have a stack of diverse topics (and characters) to share. I spoke with a high school science class who were assigned to write children’s stories to teach a biology topic. What better way to show you know your topic than to summarize it in a concise, interesting story? So tough. Like Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Can you tell us your “getting the call” story with Sasquatch?
As usual in this publishing business it was timing, luck and persistence. I had spent about seven years working on a contemporary middle grade novel while teaching eight-year olds full time and raising two babies. Needless to say my writing time was not consistent. I queried that first book, The Pig War, but didn’t find an agent, so I decided to self-publish due to the regional flavor. Local librarians had expressed over and over how much they needed/wanted more local NW history written for children. My school librarian loved the book and urged me to make it available.
I took a risk, hired a professional editor and self-published. It was terrifying. But I did get it into a fair number of local bookstores and libraries. It taught me a lot. I started to take my writing more seriously. In the end, one of the booksellers I’d developed a relationship with took a job as an editor at Sasquatch. At some point she asked if I had some ideas for what else I’d like to write. I did. She loved the thought of doing a baseball book and here we are. Timing and luck, sure, but if I hadn’t taken those risks along the way I wouldn’t be here. It’s about putting yourself out there as a professional.
What does your writing day look like? Any unusual habits you’d like to share?
Ever since National Novel Writing Month about four years ago I started waking up at the crack of dawn. I write for an hour before making lunches, bike commuting, then teaching. About every fourth day I’d pass out after dinner, but my writing and stories improved with that commitment. I found it vital to visit my project daily. I’m now on a teaching “hiatus” to dedicate more energy to my family and my writing, but I still write early. I like that hour in the bank.
What is your favorite writing quote?
One of my favorites is taped in front of my nose at my writing desk. “Begin Anywhere,” by composer John Cage. It rips away millions of excuses immediately.
What was your first favorite book?
I think I might have connected strongly to The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary. As a kid I loved the idea of driving around on a motorcycle by myself, powering it with mouth sounds. I remember yearning for that freedom.
That was one of my favorites too, Mark!
Interview Speed Round
Coffee or tea?
Coffee: dark, strong and delicious – just like my favorite books.
Pie or cake?
Pie – Gravenstein apple via Grammie’s recipe or Marionberry grown in Oregon. Both are lip-smacking good.
Cat or dog?
Dog, though my wife is all about cats so we’ll see who wins. I’m betting on me since I dealt with her ancient, barfing cat the first years of our marriage. Also, I have the kids on my side so really she doesn’t stand a chance.
Sounders or Seahawks?
Mariners [Should have seen that coming!!–ed.]
What’s on your bookshelf?
Books of all genres and for all ages. My wife and I each have a “top shelf” of books near our fireplace. Those shelves are reserved for books that have readjusted my soul. Lately I’ve loved Pax, by Pennypacker, and Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan for middle grade. A YA I recently loved was Six Feet Over It, by Jennifer Longo. Another MG I found gorgeous was The Thing About Jellyfish. My kids and I really enjoyed Tricky Vic for a nonfiction picture book, and for adults, All My Puny Sorrows by Canadian author Miriam Toews still haunts me. Beautiful, heartbreaking book.