KidLit 411 Spotlight

Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for children.

I started writing and directing plays in college. I loved the whole process of collaborating with actors and designers⎯telling a story with visual and sound elements.

Then several years later, I was working on a documentary film in Maine. We were filming a beekeeper and he told us how his bees would travel about a mile or so from the hive in search of flowers. And I realized, for the first time, that honey contains the essence of flowers from a certain area, that you can get a sense of a place from the food you eat, kind of what the French talk about with regards to wine⎯that concept of terroir.

And then I thought about how nice it would be to write a picture book for children that showed that connection between food and where it’s grown. So I wrote my first picture book called “Many Miles from Maine.” It’s about a little girl who imagines being on her grandmother’s farm when she eats her breakfast. Writing the story came very naturally to me, because I saw it as very similar to the process of making a film, or directing a play. I thought of the picture book story in the same way, as a series of scenes. And I loved that I was writing the story for children. And I kept on writing picture books…

Congratulations on your debut picture book, The Bear Who Couldn’t Sleep. What inspired this story?

Central Park is one of my favorite places in New York City. While walking home through Central Park on a snowy day, I thought about how nice it would be to take a break in winter, like the animals who hibernate. I wondered what New York City would look like if everyone just hibernated during the winter. How quiet and peaceful that would be.

And then I thought about a bear who wants the exact opposite. He’s tired of hibernating, and taking a break in the winter. He doesn’t want to sleep. He wants excitement, to go on an adventure, so he goes to New York City, the city that never sleeps.

And then the bear discovers that it’s also nice to have moments of quiet, silence and reflection—that it’s also nice to “hibernate.” So for me, the story is about finding that balance, between doing and contemplating, and that sometimes the “not doing” is just as important as the “doing.”

I also grew up in New York City, and all of the places mentioned in the book have a special meaning for me. When I was little, my parents let me, and my sisters and brother, go to the neighborhood stores, to school, and to the park on our own, so like Bear, I also know what it feels like to be little in a big city…and I think that also inspired the story.

You’re a playwright and theater director. How did these skills influence your picture book writing?

I think my experience in theater and film has really influenced the way I write picture books. I picture the story as I’m writing it, almost as if I’m writing or directing scenes in a play. I imagine the characters speaking to each other, and what their actions might be. And then I add the words to the scene as I’m imagining it. It helps me to see when the story can be told with pictures alone, and when the action needs to be “narrated” with text.

Vanya has a background in film animation, too. And I think that is also one of the reasons why we worked so well together. We are both used to that collaborative process. It’s what I love about theater and film—those collaborative moments which can often be quite magical and inspiring—such as the bus stop scene, which was Vanya’s idea. I re-worked the text to fit the image. And she did the same with the vignettes scene; I had the idea and she created the illustrations for it. I think that collaborative process that we were both used to from our experiences in film and theater made The Bear Who Couldn’t Sleep a better book.

What projects are you working on now?

Vanya and I have another picture book project in the works about a one-eyed mule who saves the lives of early Californian pioneers. And I’m also working on several projects with an illustrator named Anca Sandu, who went to school with Vanya at the Cambridge School of the Arts. Anca is published with Random House UK, and she’s a wonderful illustrator too. She’s created sketches and storyboards for some of my stories, and I’ve written the text for some of her very original story ideas (including one about an invisible monster), and we’re presenting these projects to editors. We’re also currently working on a fun picture book project with a chef.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

For me, joining a critique group has been amazingly helpful. We just had our monthly meeting yesterday, in fact, and during the meeting I was thinking about how much I love my group. There are five of us, and we’re all writing children’s books, and it’s so nice to be able to present what I’m working on to them first and hear their feedback before I submit it to an editor. And it’s also motivated me to write many picture books, which I think is also good because you never know which one of your stories will appeal to an editor. So I’d definitely recommend joining a critique group!

I think SCBWI is a great resource, too, especially the NYC Metro SCBWI, my local chapter. They have a wonderful series on Tuesday evenings, which has given me the opportunity to meet several editors and develop my work. Finally, I think the Rutgers Council on Children’s Literature is a great organization. They have a wonderful conference that I attended that actually led to my first book being published, for it was there that I first met Beth Terrill, the editor at North South!

What is one thing most people don’t know about you?

I don’t think many people know that, in college, I hosted a radio show called Maine Arts where we invited artists—storytellers, musicians, folk singers, sculptors—from all over the state to come and talk about their work. It was a fun, quirky show. I met a lot of colorful characters, including a logger from the North Woods who sculpted tiny, delicate wooden figurines with his ax and chainsaw!

[this interview originally appeared on the KidLit 411 website]