Sophie’s Squash Go to School! (An Interview with Pat Zietlow Miller)

SSGTS-1Fans of Pat Zietlow Miller’s picture book, Sophie’s Squash, will be thrilled to hear that the sequel, Sophie’s Squash Go to School, releases on June 28th. Today, Pat, my friend and former neighbor, joins us to talk about her work.

Pat, welcome to The Winged Pen! Sophie’s Squash is a humorous but poignant story of friendship and devotion. Tell us about Sophie’s Squash Go to School.

A: In Sophie’s Squash Go to School, Sophie heads to kindergarten with her two squash friends – Bonnie and Baxter. Sophie’s not sure kindergarten is for her, and she’s not sure she needs any friends besides her squash. Meanwhile, her classmates don’t immediately succumb Bonnie and Baxter’s many charms. It takes everyone time to learn that some friendships are worth the wait.

Sophie’s Squash was discovered in the slush pile. Since you already had an editor, I imagine the process for writing Sophie’s Squash Go to School must have been much different. Can you tell us about who came up with the idea and how the story came to life?

A: After Sophie’s Squash came out and did fairly well, my editor Anne Schwartz suggested a sequel. I sent her several ideas and we agreed on one that became this book. But, writing the sequel was more difficult than writing the original because I had to do it on a deadline and I felt a certain amount of pressure to make it a worthy follow up to the first book. So I tried to go back to the voice and humor and heart that the first book had, and I hope I was able to reconnect with everything that made Sophie memorable.

Is there any talk of a third book?

A: Not yet. It might be possible, but right now I don’t have any other adventures for Sophie in my head.

I have five other books coming out in the next few years, so I’ve been busy editing and revising those, plus trying to write new things.

You and I used to bemoan our collective rejections together. Now that you’ve published five picture books (with more on the horizon), do the rejections hurt any less?

A: Yes and no. I don’t freak out about rejections or get too bummed out, probably because I have a certain base level of confidence that I didn’t have before. And because freaking out or bumming out just wastes time that I could be spending writing or revising.

But when you’re submitting something you really love and other people don’t see it, that’s never fun. And it’s a little harder when editors you know and have worked with on other successful projects turn you down. It seems more personal, even though it isn’t. I think some future authors think that once they sell that first book, everything will be smooth sailing. And while the seas are certainly calmer, that’s simply not true. You still have worries, they’re just about different things. (What if no one buys my book? What if it gets poor reviews? What if I never sell another?)

What has surprised you the most about being a published author?

A: Seeing enthusiastic reactions to my work from people I don’t know who aren’t related to me. That’s been really fun and unexpected and moving. I’ve received some great emails from parents sharing things their kids have done or said about my book. And I’ve heard from several grown adults who have connected with my books, further cementing my belief that picture books are for everyone.

What advice do have for aspiring picture book writers?

A: Check out every book ever written by your five favorite picture writers and then sit down and read or re-read each one. As you read, focus on how the story is structured. When is the character’s problem introduced? Where are the page turns? What is shown in the illustrations versus being told in the text? How does the ending of the book tie back to its beginning? How many words is the entire story? How are those words used on each page? When I was starting out, I studied hundreds of books at this level of detail. And I still do it today.

Before we go, I’d love to do a lightening round so readers can get to know you on a more personal level. Are you game?

A: Bring it!

Coffee or Tea? Neither. Water. And not the fizzy kind either. Bleh.

Sweet or salty? Sweet. (Can I say that more than once? Sweet.)

Dog or cat? Cats all the way. I have two – Sunny and Ollie.

E-book or physical book? Physical book. I have not cozied up to the e-reader.

Since I happen to know you are a shoe aficionado, I can’t resist throwing one last question at you:

Birkenstocks or heels? My daughters have Birkenstocks, but I do not. And, I am too uncoordinated to walk in heels, although I just bought my daughter a red, patent-leather pair that are marvelous. I like funky, clunky, colorful shoes with a special appreciation for John Fluevog. I don’t own these, but I would like to.

 Pat, thanks for joining us today!

 Thank you for hosting me!

Me

Pat Zietlow Miller knew she wanted to be a writer ever since her seventh-grade English teacher read her paper about square-dancing skirts out loud in class and said: “This is the first time anything a student has written has given me chills.” (Thanks, Mrs. Mueller! You rock!)

Pat started out as a newspaper reporter and wrote about everything from dartball and deer-hunting to diets and decoupage. Then, she joined an insurance company and edited its newsletter and magazine.

Now, she writes insurance information by day and children’s books by night.Pat has one wonderful husband, two delightful daughters and two pampered cats. She doesn’t watch much TV, but she does love “Glee” and “Chopped.” Pat lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

 Posted by: Jessica Vitalis

img_5993-e1262576912668Jessica Vitalis is represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch. An active member of the literary community, she volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and contributes to two blogs: Writing With The Mentors and The Winged Pen. When she’s not pursuing her literary interests, Jessica can be found chasing her two precocious daughters around Atlanta, Georgia (or eating copious amounts of chocolate). She’d love to connect on Twitter at @jessicavitalis

Interview with Author Dori Kleber

Dori Kleber web

Today I am thrilled to interview my friend and critique partner, Dori Kleber, who recently celebrated the release of her debut picture book with Candlewick Press. More-igami depicts a young boy’s quest to become an origami master.

Dori, welcome to The Winged Pen! There are a million paths to publication, but yours was particularly unusual. Would you share how you connected with Candlewick?

Thanks, Jessica! It’s nice to be here! When I wrote the manuscript for More-igami, I wanted an objective opinion on it. But I wasn’t part of a critique group at that time. So the next time I was at my favorite bookstore, Little Shop of Stories, I asked the store manager if she would take a look at it. I figured since she worked in a children’s bookstore, she would know if my manuscript was marketable.

She adored it, and in our very first meeting, she said that my story would be perfect for Candlewick Press. She advised me through several rounds of edits, and when we agreed the manuscript was as good as we could make it, she urged me again to send it to Candlewick. But Candlewick is a closed house, and I didn’t have an agent. She simply wouldn’t give up, though. She approached her Candlewick sales rep about getting my manuscript into the hands of an editor, and it was sent through the sales department into editorial. A few months later, I had an offer!

And yes, it was very unusual. The sales rep said she had passed along a few manuscripts this way over the years, but none had ever been bought.

As writers, we’re always told to write what we know. Is it safe to assume that you are an origami expert?

Not at all. I’m not sure if my problem is dexterity or patience. Maybe both. But my son is really good at it, and both of my kids liked to fold things up origami-style. Not just paper, but things like tortillas and napkins. So that’s what initially inspired me to write the story.

People are often surprised to hear that picture book authors don’t do their own illustrations and often don’t have any input into the art once their book is acquired by the publisher. Was that true in your case?

I’ve heard some authors say that once they handed over their manuscript to the publisher, they had no idea what was happening with the illustration until their copies of the finished book arrived in the mail. So I was prepared for that. But Candlewick consistently included me in the process. They asked for my opinion before they made an offer to an illustrator, and they let me see every round of sketches and give feedback. I kept my comments limited, though. I respect G. Brian Karas’s artistry and the Candlewick art department’s judgment, and I trusted them.

What was it like seeing the story that had previously existed only in your head brought to life on the page by G. Brian Karas?

Mind blowing. He is such a genius. I can’t figure out how he conveys so much human expression with simple lines and shapes! Some of the illustrations were pretty close to what I had imagined, but others were really different. When I wrote the text, I imagined Mr. Lopez being an older gentleman, a grandfatherly figure. Brian Karas made him young and hip. At first, that was a shock, but I think Brian improved the story by illustrating it that way, instead of as I had imagined it.

Dori, thanks for taking the time to talk us through your publishing journey. I’d love to wrap up with a few fun questions so that our readers can get you know you a little better. 

Favorite writing snack?

This is a trick question for me. I do most of my writing in short blocks, an hour to an hour and a half. So I don’t snack while I’m writing. I focus one hundred percent on the writing for that short time. Then maybe a snack after.

If you couldn’t be an author, what would your ideal career be?

I believe what Anne Lamott says about some people being destined to write because writing is how they process the world. I think I’m one of those people, so I feel any “ideal career” would have to involve writing. I liked being a newspaper reporter when I first got out of college. I think I could do that again.

If you had a super-power, what would it be?

I think some version of super speed, at least as it relates to household chores. I’d like to be able to get laundry, cooking, and dishes done faster so I’d have more time for what I care about.

What is your patronus animal?

First, let me say that I had to Google patronus to answer this. I really love dogs. And I feel like I connect with dogs. So if I was going to have an animal guardian, I guess it would be a dog. Is that too pedestrian?

One last question: If readers would like to learn more about you and/or follow your publishing journey, what is the best way for them to stay in touch?

The best way is through my website, www.dorikleber.com. I’m also on Twitter @DoriKleber, but as an introvert, I don’t tweet too frequently.

Thanks for your time, Dori!

Moreigami

A creative young boy with a passion for practicing origami finds a surprising source of encouragement on his diverse city block.
Joey loves things that fold: maps, beds, accordions, you name it. When a visiting mother of a classmate turns a plain piece of paper into a beautiful origami crane, his eyes pop. Maybe he can learn origami, too. It’s going to take practice on his homework, the newspaper, the thirty-eight dollars in his mother’s purse . . . Enough No more folding But how can Joey become an origami master if he’s not allowed to practice? Is there anywhere that he can hone the skill that makes him happy and maybe even make a new friend while he’s at it?

MORE-IGAMI. Text copyright © 2016 by Dori Kleber. Illustrations copyright © 2015 by G. Brian Karas. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Posted by: Jessica Vitalis

img_5993-e1262576912668

A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. She also volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and eats copious amounts of chocolate. Her debut novel, NOTHING LIKE LENNON, is currently out on submission. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at www.jessicavitalis.com.

 

 

Happy Book Birthday – A Ticket to the Pennant

A Ticket to the Pennant by Mark Holtzen 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.

For a list of upcoming events in the Northwest and how you can get a signed copy, visit MarkHoltzen.com and check out reviews of A Ticket to the Pennant on NW Book Lovers and Kirkus Reviews

My Favorite Hero of Literature

Whenever I read those Proust questionnaire-type interviews, I always get lost in reverie, answering the questions myself. The New York Times Book Review has one each week, and one of the questions is, “Who is your favorite hero of literature?” I have spent a fair amount of time mulling that one. Cool, clear-eyed Holden Caulfield? Kind-hearted, optimistic Anne Shirley? Atticus Finch? Jo March? Then the answer came to me, so true that it settles the question for me forever.

My favorite hero of literature is Horton the Elephant.

horton

He’s so good! So true to what is right. So selfless. So brave. He defends the small and weak, and stands by his commitments. And what challenges he must face! Snowstorms, seasickness, hunters, jeering kangaroos, and those horrible Wickersham brothers.

He never wavers in his loyalty. He never sinks to answering taunts with his own, or using his considerable girth in his favor. He relies on reason and appeals to his tormenters’ slim sense of decency.

And he succeeds! Not because it is logical that he succeeds, but because he deserves to. Because even Dr. Suess cannot bear for him not to. “And it should be—it should be—it should be like that.” I’ve read Horton Hatches the Egg approximately thirty-five thousand times, and my voice cracks on that line every single time. Because I agree! It should be like that! I want a world where Horton, large and clumsy and kind and faithful, succeeds. Where honor is rewarded. Where speaking up for the little guy works. As I see around me sour kangaroos and bullying baboons, from the playground all the way to the presidential race, I long for the strength and tenacity of Horton. He inspires me to trust what I know even when others mock it, to stand up for others, and to do the hard work to honor my commitments and my values.

Kate photo Spring 2014Katharine Manning is a middle grade writer whose chosen superpower would be the ability to write rhyming picture books. You can see her middle grade book recommendations at Kid Book List. You can also find her at www.katharinemanning.com and on Twitter