Brenda Drake, the youngest of three children, grew up an Air Force brat and the continual new kid at school until her family settled in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Brenda’s fondest memories growing up are of her eccentric, Irish grandmother’s animated tales, which gave her a strong love for storytelling. So it was only fitting that she would choose to write young adult and middle grade novels with a bend toward the fantastical. When Brenda’s not writing or doing the social media thing, she’s haunting libraries, bookstores, and coffee shops or reading someplace quiet and not at all exotic (much to her disappointment).
Brenda is the host of the ever-popular Pitch Wars, Pitch Madness, and the Twitter pitch of all pitches, #pitmad. Brenda will be discussing what it’s like to host these mind-boggling contests, and how in the world she still makes time to write! Her debut novel, THIEF OF LIES: A Library Jumpers Novel, experienced a very successful release this month.
During our Twitter chat, Brenda talked briefly of her own perilous journey to publication before we got into the topic for the evening, online writing contests like Pitch Wars and #pitmad. Brenda discussed the ins and outs of running Pitch Wars, and how it all got started. She explained the mentoring process for those who make it into the contest, and talked about why it is so beneficial for a writer to consider being a part of Pitch Wars in the first place.
As an added bonus, Brenda’s right-hand helper, Heather Cashman, joined in the conversation. The chat was an outstanding success and extremely informative. If you’ve ever considered entering a contest like this, you really should look into Pitch Wars. The next installment starts soon!
*If you missed the chat, you can view the Storify version of the entire conversation here.
**Next month, we have our first topic #okscbwichat, Support Through Social Media! This will follow a special SCBWI MEMBERS ONLY event planned on Saturday, August 20th, right before our regular #okscbwichat. We will be hosting a Social Media Hangout in both Tulsa and Oklahoma City where we will be sharing ideas on how we can better support our fellow members by using social media – from pre-ordering books to posting reviews to using Goodreads effectively.
The Twitter chat on August 23rd will complement this event. We will share ideas we learned at the Hangout during the chat. For more information, check our calendar of events on the SCBWI OK website.
See you for the next Twitter chat on Tuesday, August 23rd!
To see a full list of our upcoming Twitter chats on #okscbwichat for 2016 CLICK HERE.
I have the pleasure of knowing Gwendolyn Hooks as part of our close-knit tribe of SCBWI Oklahoma members. She works tirelessly to perfect her craft until her work shines, and she has such a beautiful soul. All of which comes through in her writing. I just love her.
The road to publication for her latest book, TINY STITCHES: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas, was a long one. Some of us who have witnessed the progress of this journey are so thrilled to see this beautiful story finally come to light.
One lucky reader will win a signed copy! So stay tuned!
She was born in Savannah, Georgia. Her father was in the Air Force, so Gwen and her family moved a lot when she was a child. Her first stop in every new city was the local library where she got her new library card. Gwen now lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, with her husband and their three children.
Gwendolyn blogs on The Brown Bookshelf to push awareness of the myriad of African American voices writing and illustrating for young readers. The American Library Association selected The Brown Bookshelf as a Great Website for Kids.
Before the interview, let’s learn more about Gwen’s latest book:
Vivien Thomas’s greatest dream was to attend college to study medicine. But after the stock market crashed in 1929, Vivien lost all his savings. Then he heard about a job opening at the Vanderbilt University medical school under the supervision of Dr. Alfred Blalock. Vivien knew that the all-white school would never admit him as a student, but he hoped working there meant he was getting closer to his dream.
As Dr. Blalock’s research assistant, Vivien learned surgical techniques. In 1943, Vivien was asked to help Dr. Helen Taussig find a cure for children with a specific heart defect. After months of experimenting, Vivien developed a procedure that was used for the first successful open-heart surgery on a child. Afterward, Dr. Blalock and Dr. Taussig announced their innovative new surgical technique, the Blalock-Taussig shunt. Vivien’s name did not appear in the report.
Overcoming racism and resistance from his colleagues, Vivien ushered in a new era of medicine—children’s heart surgery. This book is the compelling story of this incredible pioneer in medicine.
This book has already garnered rave reviews:
Booklist STAR review
“It is the work Thomas achieved, however, in spite of these enormous challenges, that will pique reader interest as they learn about his design of tiny operating tools and his role guiding surgeons through neonatal operations. Bootman’s lifelike watercolor illustrations beautifully and vividly evoke the carpentry shop, research labs, and the auditorium where, years later, Thomas was finally honored for his work and appointed to the faculty at Johns Hopkins.”
“. . . a rousing tribute to a man unjustly forgotten.”
I can’t wait to read this book! And the illustrations are just gorgeous.
Valerie Lawson: What inspired you to tell the story of Vivien Thomas?
Gwendolyn Hooks: Thank goodness I have generous and talented writer friends and Anna Myers fits into that category. She called one night and in an explosive voice she said, “I just watched a movie about the man who saved my grandson’s life!”
Whaaat? Was all I could sputter.
The movie, Something the Lord Made, was the story of Vivien Thomas. Anna ended the conversation with, “You need to write a children’s book about him.” I watched the movie, too—several times. I kept thinking, why didn’t I know about him. There are probably plenty of kids who don’t know his story. After a lot of encouragement from Anna, I took on the project and I am so glad she called me that night!
VL: What a gift! And maybe a pretty big challenge. Good thing she knew you were up for it.
Tell us about the creative process of bringing this story to life. How was it different from your previous books.
GH: The creative process was extremely demanding for me. The beautiful phrases in my head did not magically appear on my computer screen. I have a stack of drafts about two feet high. I read other biographies and marveled at how the writing seemed so effortless. I worried what an illustrator would say after reading my manuscript. “Seriously. You expect me to illustrate this?” I doubted every step I took. But I did not give up. I kept reading picture book biographies and read everything I could find about how to write them.
When I write early readers, I always feel I can do it. I can visualize the whole book in my mind. With Tiny Stitches, it was a long time before I could see it. Before I could feel it. But I kept trying. I wanted to succeed. I couldn’t let Anna down. Or myself.
I don’t know what Colin Bootman thought when he first read my manuscript, but I’m so glad he accepted the project. I was excited when my editor told me he would be the illustrator. He’s very talented and his books are gorgeous. Colin won a Coretta Scott King Honor award, so he’s got talent! I think he really brought my words to life.
VL: You didn’t give up. Exactly. And we’re so glad you kept trying. What a beautiful book!
What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?
GH: It took six years from idea to publication. During that time, I learned that I have a patience-gene and a determination-gene. I would finish it and find an agent and an editor who believed in it as much as I did. I had the encouragement of my family, friends, and critique partners.
And I had Vivien Thomas. A few years ago, I traveled to Baltimore and had a chance to see Vivien’s portrait that hangs directly across from Dr. Blalock’s in Johns Hopkins Hospital. I felt his energy. I felt his passion. He urged me to tell his story. And I did.
VL: Ooooh! How inspiring! (That gave me chills.)
You’ve also written a series of Early Readers, the Pet Club series, did you ever have a clubhouse or a secret place of your own when you were a kid?
GH: In 3rd grade, my friends and I attempted to build a fort during recess. The school was next to a wooded area and every day, we added branches and anything else we could find. I don’t think we ever finished it. But one day, I took off my jacket so I could work better. Well, I forgot to put it back on and didn’t remember it until I got on the bus. I was a nervous wreck riding home. I knew my mother’s first words would be, “Where is your jacket?”
Somehow, I got to my bedroom and out the house the next morning before she had time to think about it. I jumped off the bus, ran to our fort, and found my jacket. I never forgot my jacket again. I never built or half-built a fort again either.
VL: Kids always sweat their parents’ reactions, don’t they? My leg could be broken from jumping out of a tree, but I’d be more worried about, “Did I rip my new pants? Mom’s gonna kill me!” I wish I could’ve seen that fort. Sounded pretty cool.
What was the most embarrassing thing you experienced?
GH: I still remember it like it was yesterday. I had to present a math lesson in one of my college education classes. I practiced it until it was perfect. But when I stood in front of the class with all those eyes staring at me, I blanked out. It was as if my brain had disappeared. Evaporated. Vanished. Finally, the instructor suggested I present at our next class. I slunk back to my seat. I have never forgotten that.
VL: Wow. That is truly awful. I think I’ve had nightmares of that happening.
What was the most memorable adventure you had with your family?
GH: My two sisters who are also my best friends and I had a fantastic time on our trip to Belgium. One sister is adamant about luggage. We were restricted to one carry-on bag and she sent instructions on how to pack. No waiting for luggage. No crying over lost bags. Plus you must be able to handle your bag without help. Apparently, my other sister forgot that part. When we arrived in Brussels, we took a train to the car rental agency. The forgetful sister couldn’t get her luggage situated and we had to stay on the train until the next stop. So we decided to walk to the rental agency instead of waiting for another train.
It wasn’t as close as we thought and we were not happy with sister #2. As the luggage obsessed sister was signing the rental papers, she realized she had not specified automatic transmission when she reserved the car and there weren’t any available. There was a little eye-rolling from the luggage challenged sister because the luggage obsessed sister is the only one who could drive a stick shift. I’m the middle sister and peace maker so I volunteered to serve as navigator. Which turned out okay except for a few instances of driving in circles multiple times in circle intersections. It was hard to stop gawking and look at street signs.
We toured buildings that were centuries old. We ate chocolate and more chocolate. Then we took side trips to Bruges and Antwerp. Bruges was a fairy tale city with live chickens for sale in the market square. At a restaurant, I ordered a ham dish that appeared in front of me as a huge ham hock in a soup bowl. It was delicious! In Antwerp we visited the diamond center. I was blinded with all the glitter. Then it was time to drive back to Brussels and fly home. I loved that trip!
VL: That certainly was memorable! How fantastic!
What’s been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?
GH: I can’t just pick one.
I met Christina Gonzalez at the Nevada Reading Week conference in Reno. She gave me a copy of her The Red Umbrella, so of course I had to read it. It’s a great book set in Cuba. I love reading about other cultures and countries.
Recently, I read Thunder Boy by Sherman Alexie and illustrated by Yuyi Morales. It’s a beautiful picture book with a fun, but powerful message about the importance of a name.
The other day, I complained to a friend that I wanted to do a better job with setting. She suggested I read The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County written by Janice N. Harrington and illustrated by Shelley Jackson. Janice does a fabulous job of showing setting through her language. I will probably read it 10 more times before I return it to the library.
I read two adult nonfiction books over the last year that I really enjoyed for different reasons.
The Superhuman Mind: Free the Genius in Your Brain by Berit Brogaard and Kristian Marlow. Who doesn’t want to free their genius!
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. Not only was it an epic story, the book was epic at 622 pages! But I love history and I learned so much about the migration of African Americans from the deep south to the north and west. I also liked Wilkerson’s narrative nonfiction style.
To-Be-Read: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. She feels that exceptional achievement is a result of passion and persistence and not genius or talent. That means I can achieve something exceptional because I’m passionate about books and writing and I can be persistent when I set my mind on it.
VL: Ha! You’re so like me! I can never pick just one book EVER! And my nightstand has about ten books covering it right now. Thanks for some excellent reading suggestions.
What would your dream assignment be? What would you most like to write about?
GH: I’d love to have an all-expense paid assignment with a six-figure advance that required traveling to another country for research. One of my favorite television shows is Mysteries at the Museum. One Saturday, while eating breakfast, I watched an episode about Sir William Henry Perkins. He was an English chemist who accidently discovered a purple dye in 1856. Up until that time only royalty and the rich could afford purple clothes. Soon all the ladies were strutting around town in purple frocks. And since I love purple, it only makes sense for me to visit England and work on that project.
VL: Now that’s an excellent dream assignment! And of course you’ll need a co-writer to help you…carry your luggage. I’m volunteering now.
Tell us what’s coming up next for you. What are you currently working on?
GH: I wrote two early readers for Lee & Low’s Confetti Kids series. Block Party and Music Time are scheduled for 2017. Pearson Educational UK is publishing a chapter book next year. And I’m writing another early reader that I can’t talk about yet-top secret. I will say, it’s something I’ve always been interested in, but I see a challenge ahead making it young-kid-friendly.
VL: How exciting! And I love top secret projects. We know you’ll be up for the challenge🙂
Thank you so much for sharing your time with us, Gwen. Always a pleasure.
**As an added bonus for those in the local area, Gwen will be hosting a book release party on June 9th, in Oklahoma City. The event will be from 6-9pm at the Chi Gallery.
Please come! It will be a fun event!
Gwen is giving away a SIGNED COPY of her new book TINY STITCHES to one lucky reader of this blog!
Timothy Lange has been a graphic designer, illustrator and fine art painter for over 30 years. He graduated from the Colorado Institute of Art in 1982 and studied at the Art Students League of Denver (off and on) from 1989 to 2003.
He is an active member of the Oklahoma Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). He was was transplanted to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma in 2003. Aside from the bugs and humidity, he says its not a bad place to call home.
During our Twitter chat, Tim discussed how Chris Van Allsburg influenced his work, he talked about the inspiration for his first authored book SCARECROW’S JOURNEY, the toughest challenge he faced while working on this book, and he even shared some pictures of his art with us. It was a lively chat, despite the threat of inclement weather.
*If you missed the chat, you can view the Storify version of the entire conversation here.
**Next month, we have a special SCBWI MEMBERS ONLY event planned on Saturday, June 11th, in place of our regular #okscbwichat. A FACEBOOK CHAT with YA author Courtney Summers & her agent Amy Tipton.
To participate in the event, click this link: bit.ly/1Tx9RGK and select Join.
If you are an SCBWI member, someone will add you to the group. Make sure to do this before the event so you can post your questions!
We return to our regular #okscbwichat schedule in July when our special guest will be YA author Brenda Drake. See you for the next Twitter chat on Tuesday July 26th!
To see a full list of our upcoming Twitter chats on #okscbwichat for 2016 CLICK HERE.
I have come to know Tammi Sauer over the years through many OK SCBWI events, and I have been delighted to watch her publishing career grow. We’ve been plotting and planning for her to stop by for an interview for awhile now, but busy lives and crazy schedules – mostly hers – have prevented this. I mean, what’s gal to do when the mayor names a day after you? This year she has three books being published, with the latest one, ROAR!, releasing in no time at all on October 6th!
Busy, busy busy!
Somehow, we finally managed to align the planets so this bright and shiny Oklahoma star could come by for a visit to the blog.
We’ll get to see the fantastical, star-studded trailer for ROAR! a little later in this post.
And one lucky reader will win a signed copy! So stay tuned!
Tammi Sauer grew up on a farm in the vast metropolis of Victoria, Kansas, where she liked to play tag with the pigs in her cheerleading uniform when not embezzeling money from her siblings.
She worked as a teacher and library media specialist before turning to a life of crime beginning her career as a full-time picture book author, and going on tour with some funky dancing chickens. (I may be mixing up some of my facts a bit, but I like this version.)
She really is a picture book author and has actually sold 24 books to major publishing houses. In addition to winning awards, her books have gone on to do great things. MOSTLY MONSTERLY was selected for the 2012 Cheerios Spoonfuls of Stories program. ME WANT PET! was recently released in French which makes her feel extra fancy. And NUGGET AND FANG, along with Tammi herself, appears on the Spring 2015 Scholastic Book Fair DVD which is seen by millions kids across the nation.
Before we dive into the interview, let’s learn a little bit about Tammi’s latest book:
With scissors and tape a boy transforms himself into…a dragon! “ROAR!” he says. He is BIG. He is SCARY. Well, not really. When two dragons come over for a play date, what on earth will these three find to do together? The boy doesn’t have big teeth and he can’t breathe fire. He is just a boy. And the dragons can’t eat ice cream or do cartwheels. They are just dragons. Luckily, the dragons care more about what they all can do together, like make silly faces and do the funky monkey dance. What they really care about is being friends.
That looks so awesome, I just want to dust off the old dragon costume (doesn’t everyone have one?) and stomp around the office.
Valerie Lawson: ROAR is your first picture book written completely in dialogue, why did you make this creative choice?
Tammi Sauer: I have always enjoyed using the classic picture book structure: character has a problem/want, character faces obstacles of escalating difficulty, character encounters a black moment in which all seems lost, character manages to solve the problem by the story’s end.
A few years ago, though, I challenged myself to try a variety of different approaches for telling a story, and writing a book entirely in dialogue was one of them. I wanted to stretch as a writer.
It was fun. And hard.
VL: Even though you were successful with those classic structure books, I love that you took the chance on trying something new. It’s really paid off!
The only character in the book with a name, Stanley the cat, was the creation of the illustrator, Liz Starin. What other surprises did you find when you saw the drawings for the first time?
TS: I discovered that the story was set in the boy’s world. When I was writing the manuscript, I envisioned it set in the dragons’ world. Also, I pictured Standard Issue Dragons. Liz’s dragons were a fresh, wonderful, and welcome surprise.
VL: You do a lot of school visits each year, what’s your favorite part about interacting with the kids? Any standout memories/stories from the last year or two?
TS: As a former teacher and library media specialist, I love visiting schools and getting kids fired up about reading and writing. These visits have resulted in marriage proposals, invitations to play dates, and lots of great fan mail.
There are beautiful, quiet moments as well. Following a recent presentation for a large group of fourth and fifth graders, a girl waited for the room to clear. Then she came up to me, gave a shy smile, and said, “I’m a writer, too.”
VL: Oh, that last one just gives you tingles! Inspiring another generation of writers.
And when can we expect to see another dance video like the Librarian?
TS: Ha! I think I am a one-hit wonder in that department. I do, however, make a cameo in the ROAR! trailer.
VL: Nice segue! We will get to view that wonderful trailer right here after this interview.
In many posts talking about revising a manuscript, you’ve mentioned being happy after taking an entire day to change or cut a single word. What can you tell us about your revision process?
TS: Oh, I am a revision nerd!
Getting a manuscript juuuuust riiiiiiight is my favorite part of the process. It feels like a game to me. I strive to use only the best words. I remind myself to tell as much as possible in as little as possible.
Reading my manuscript aloud is another must—it helps to ensure that the rhythm is there. I also step away from my manuscript and grab lunch or run an errand. Getting away from it for an hour or so helps me to return refreshed. OH. The revision process ALWAYS involves ice tea. I am currently hooked on OnCue’s unsweetened tangerine green tea. It sounds gross. But is it good. I promise.
VL: Great ideas! I always find taking a break works wonders, too.
This is your thirteenth published picture book, what’s the best piece of advice you can pass on to fellow authors?
TS: My best advice came from a quote I once read in a Cynsations blog post (blog by author Cynthia Leitich Smith).
“My main considerations for any picture book are humor, emotion, just the right details, read-aloud-ability, pacing, page turns, and of course, plot. Something has to happen to your characters that young readers will care about and relate to. Oh, and you have to accomplish all that in as few words as possible, while creating plenty of illustration possibilities. No easy task.”—Lynn E. Hazen.
VL: No easy task, indeed. Fantastic quote.
What can you tell us about what you are currently working on/soon to have released?
TS: I’m usually pretty hush-hush about my current projects. They feel like eggs in the incubator to me. Not all of them will hatch, but I always hope for good.
I can, however, tell you what’s in store for 2016. I have four upcoming titles:
Mary Had a Little Glam, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Sterling), is my first rhymer. It was an incredible challenge. I recently saw Vanessa’s sketches, and I am in love with sweet and sassy Mary.
I Love Cake! Starring Rabbit, Porcupine, and Moose, illustrated by Angela Rozelaar (HarperCollins), is about some of life’s finer things—good friends and cake. It also involves some spectacular sweaters.
Ginny Louise and the School Field Day, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger (Disney*Hyperion), is a sequel to Ginny Louise and the School Showdown. In book two, the irrepressibly cheerful Ginny Louise takes on the Truman Elementary Troublemakers in a whole new way.
Your Alien Returns, illustrated by Goro Fujita (Sterling), is a companion to Your Alien. This time around, the boy goes on a play date that is out of this world.
VL: Whew! Another busy year for you! Two sequels, how wonderful! And cake! I can’t wait to see them all.
Thank you so much for sharing your time with us, Tammi. Always a pleasure.
And now for your viewing pleasure…
The trailer for ROAR! includes cameo appearances from some of today’s fiercest authors and illustrators. You’ve been warned. Please view responsibly.
Tammi is giving away a SIGNED COPY of her new book ROAR! to one lucky reader of this blog!
To enter, all you have to do is name every author and illustrator who appears in the ROAR! trailer, along with their complete body of work listed in chronological order from bestselling to – JUST KIDDING!
The very first person I met through SCBWI was Barbara Lowell. She epitomizes the spirit of our SCBWI Oklahoma group – open and generous and willing to help anyone who asks. I am so grateful that she was the first to make a permanent impression on me. We met at one of the fall conferences, my first ever to attend. How lucky was I that she also soon became one of my very first critique partners, as well? I’m happy to say that she is still my critique partner to this day. We’ve both learned so much from when we started out as newbie writers, making typical mistakes and writing awful stories. Our whole group has grown and we have all come a long way from those stumbling beginnings. Barbara has fantastic suggestions that help me take my stories in much better directions, and even though she swears she could never write something so long herself, I’m not so sure she couldn’t if that’s where her passion led her. Fortunately for us, she loves writing dynamic and intriguing picture book biographies. I adore Barbara’s writing and have felt it a privilege to be a part of so many of her great stories. I’m so happy that the first of these has finally found its way to publication.
GEORGE FERRIS WHAT A WHEEL
Grosset & Dunlap. June 26, 2014.
George Ferris, ever confident, didn’t know that the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair would make him famous, but when engineers were challenged to build something unique and original, he knew he was the person to create it. George had to convince the fair officials, find the money and design and build an amusement wheel that could hold 2,160 people at the same time, something no one had ever done before.
Barbara was kind enough to stop by my blog to answer a few questions about her writing process and how she came to be the writer she is today. And she’s also donated not one, but two of her books for a fantastic giveaway! (I told you she was generous.) More details on that later. First, the questions!
Valerie Lawson: What was the inspiration for this story? What made you want to tell it?
Barbara Lowell: My husband was reading Devil in the White City by Erik Larson about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. What amazed him most was that George Ferris had built an amusement wheel with train-sized cars that could hold 2,160 people at the same time.
As soon as he finished the book, I read it. Those two details and George’s confidence that despite overwhelming odds, he could and would build his wheel inspired me to write his story as a nonfiction picture book.
I also loved how Mrs. Ferris absolutely believed in George. She rode in one of the six cars mounted on the wheel for a second trial trip. The glass for the windows hadn’t been installed. When the car she was riding in reached the top of the wheel, 264 feet, she stood on her chair and cheered.
VL: I loved those details about the story. What devotion his wife had to test such a contraption. Mrs. Ferris must have been quite a character herself.
I was surprised by the sheer size of this first Ferris Wheel – so big that each car could hold a 40-piece marching band. Would you ever ride in a Ferris Wheel that big?
BL: I might try the new High Roller in Las Vegas. It is twice the height of George Ferris’s wheel, but holds 1,120 passengers verses George Ferris’s 2,160.
VL: A book of this type requires an extensive amount of research. What is your writing process? How do you start a project like this?
BL: I love history, especially American history and researching is fun. There are many interesting stories to find that are not well-known. I try to research the person or story I am writing about as thoroughly as I can. Since I learned about George Ferris’s wheel in Devil in the White City, I first looked at Erik Larson’s sources. His sources that I couldn’t find in the Tulsa library system, I either found at the University of Tulsa or bought online.
One that I consulted over and over is Norman Anderson’s impeccably researched book Ferris Wheels. I researched the sources used for every book I read and dug deeper and deeper. I was able to find at the NOAA website that the lowest recorded temperature in Chicago in January 1893 was -16. I look for as many primary sources as I can – books written by and interviews conducted with the subject of my book, original documents and artifacts. I found an interview with George Ferris from 1893 – that was a great find. When I was unable to locate the answer to a question I had about George Ferris, I contacted the Chicago Historical Society.
VL: That is very diligent researching. It must have been amazing to read George Ferris’s own words and then incorporate that into your story.
Who were your childhood heroes and role models? What drew you to them?
BL: From the time I was in third grade, I loved reading biographies, especially about people I could learn from. My favorite autobiography was Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life. I read many books about Eleanor Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt. All three subjects faced enormous challenges with great courage. I still read lots of biographies and nonfiction history.
VL: I have such a strong memory of learning about Helen Keller, too. I thought she was amazing.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer? When did you start pursuing that seriously?
BL: I knew when I was a child that I wanted to be a writer, but I never tried seriously to become one until my daughter started high school. I thought, now I have the time to work on this and it maybe now or never.
I tried on my own, but I was going nowhere until the wonderful Oklahoma writer, Anna Myers started the SCBWI Oklahoma Schmoozes (writers and illustrators meetings.) I attended the meetings and conferences, took online classes and joined a critique group. I began to learn how to write for children and continue every day to learn and improve. This is a tough business and the support of my fellow writers has given me the strength to pursue my writing goals.
VL: You are so right! The need for support cannot be emphasized enough. I may have given up long ago if not for my SCBWI family.
Tell me about the most memorable adventures you had with your friends outside of school.
BL: I loved the summer. I lived in a neighborhood with lots of children. We spent our summers dreaming up adventures and then acted them out. A friend’s father helped build sets for a local theater group and one day he brought home a full-size Conestoga wagon. We had a great time traveling out west in our imaginations. One summer we set up our own outdoor laundry and went around the neighborhood asking for things to wash. We played all kinds of outdoor games. There was so much to do that every day seemed to last forever. I loved being a kid and that’s why I like writing for them.
VL: Wow! A real Conestoga wagon? You kids must have had a field day with that. I think I would have wanted to camp out in it. Maybe sleep under the stars like a cowboy. I loved being a kid, too. I think you may have something there.
What are you currently working on?
BL: I finished researching a picture book biography, and I am working on the first draft. I have also recently worked on the first picture book I ever wrote and have rewritten it, not just revised it, for about the sixth time. I think I have finally made it work – but I have thought that before. I also have a new idea for a picture book biography and will start my research by reading the subject’s autobiography. I hope I can find a great story arc there.
VL: I can’t wait to take a peek at it.🙂
What are some of your favorite books for kids?
BL: I think I can agree with almost every fan of YA – The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I also love his book An Abundance of Katherines. I recently read Kathi Appelt’s latest middle grade novel The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp and her book The Underneath is one of my favorites. Karen Cushman, Laurie Halse Anderson and Anna Myers write some of my favorite historical fiction novels.
My favorite book period is To Kill a Mockingbird. I have a huge collection of picture book biographies and historical fiction picture books. My two favorites are Deborah Hopkinson’s Apples to Oregon and Patrick McDonnell’s Me…Jane (Jane Goodall.) I think his is the best picture book biography written. I also like all of Barbara Kerley’s biographies and one of my new favorites is On a Beam of Light (Albert Einstein) by Jennifer Berne.
VL: There were some favorites of mine there and some new ones I need to read. Great suggestions.
What has been the best part of being a writer?
BL: Becoming friends with children’s writers. I absolutely love spending time with them and being part of this close community.
Thank you for inviting me to your blog!
Thank you so much for being here, Barbara. And I hope to have you back very soon!
Barbara has generously donated two hardback editions of her new book GEORGE FERRIS WHAT A WHEEL. So there will be TWO WINNERS! This contest is open to everyone. The contest will run through July 18th and you can enter once a day. Good Luck! The winners can now been seen when you click on the giveaway site. Congratulations!
Many of the people I follow are participating in the A to Z challenge this month, so I expect they are plenty busy with this insanity right about now. (I say this with the utmost respect of one who could never in a million years be organized enough to post daily for an entire month, let alone have a theme involved tying all said fictional posts together – I am not that person.) I think they are all rock stars or mentally imbalanced, like people who purposely run marathons. Seriously, how do you do it?
Goals for this month:
1. Work on suggested revisions for Museum Crashers. I am deep into this goal at the moment and really enjoying it. The suggestions made during my conference critique have me on the right track. YAY!! I also meet with my critique group this week and they will add to the helpfulness, as they always do.
I may have neglected to mention this before, but two other members of my critique group, Barbara Lowell (who has her first book coming out this June!) and Sharon Martin (writer of the most kick-ass novel in verse I’ve read since Ellen Hopkins), both were chosen as top picks by the speakers. Man, do I have a fantastic critique group or what!
2. Work on suggested revisions for Institutionalized. This will be next after I’m done with Museum Crashers.
3. Read 6 books. I’ve just finished one book of poetry that I’m going to write a review on later this week and I’m in the middle of another, a sequel I’ve been really looking forward to reading – THE DREAM THIEVES by Maggie Stiefvater. I’m going a little slow on this one right now. It’s not clipping along with the same fantastic pace as the first one. Part of it may be that it’s been so long since I read the first book that I have trouble remembering everything that happened in the last book and I get a little lost.
4. If complete both 1 and 2, work on first draft of Pretty Vacant. Not ready for this, yet.
5. Yes, you still have to exercise. 4 times a week. Goal accomplished and my body hates it. Every day I wake up wondering why there is pain already. “Oh yeah. The exercise.” We’re not even up to pre-deathly ill month of February levels of exercise yet and my body is already whining. Too bad, chica, cause we’re not stopping. Slap on the icy hot and walk (limp) on.
Besides this, I’ve also been busy preparing for a talk I’m doing next month for our local SCBWI schmooze entitled “Intro to Twitter”. As part of this prep, I’ve been creating some lists on my Twitter account to share. Wow, was that time-consuming! I’m glad I’ve finally finished! One is called “Writers of fabulous blogs” and includes all the people I follow who also write really good blogs. Feel free hop on over and subscribe to it.
And how are you all doing with your goals?
I hope to get around to reading at least a sampling of the thousands of A to Z challenge posts out there; they are daunting in their numbers. I am interested in reading through all of Rebekah’s world-building series for sure. Talk about detail. Get on with your bad self! Are there any A to Z challenges you’ve found fascinating?
I met Hannah Harrison a few years ago at one of our local SCBWI OK conferences. I was immediately struck by her open, friendly demeanor and her amazing artistic talent. Also by the fact that she had a head of hair even curlier than mine. Hannah won the Illustrator’s Best Portfolio award that year and the next. Still, she remained grounded and humble and just as sweet as ever. As some of you may remember, Hannah gave the keynote speech at this fall’s Agent Day Conference where she told us all about her journey to publication, culminating in a two-book deal with Dial Books.
Hannah’s first book coming out is EXTRAORDINARY JANE, releasing this February. We’re all so very proud and excited for her.
For anyone with a beloved pet, this delightful and heartwarming story set at the circus shows that quiet qualities like friendship, kindness, and loyalty are important and worthy.
Jane is an ordinary dog in an extraordinary circus. She isn’t strong, graceful, or brave like her family. When she tries to be those things, Jane just doesn’t feel like herself, but she also doesn’t feel special. Is she really meant for this kind of life? Her Ringmaster thinks so, but not for the reasons Jane believes. (Plot summary from author’s website.)
Hannah was gracious enough to stop by for an interview, going into even more detail about her work and her life.
Valerie Lawson: I loved reading in your bio how your kindergarten teacher recognized your obvious artistic talent and put you in “Special Art” with the fifth graders. How huge an impact did that teacher make on you and in helping to develop your craft?
Hannah Harrison: So huge! Marlene Witham just made me feel so, well…special! She made me feel like everything I created was really something to behold—whether it be paint, or clay, or dry macaroni. It was so kind of her to have such confidence in me—to single me out the way that she did. Here I was, just a frizzy-haired pip-squeak in hand-me-down clothes, and she noticed me, and believed in me, and made me feel like my talent was unique. So, yes, her impact on my life was huge.
VL: She was bound to single you out when you drew yourself in profile when asked to draw a self-portrait. What Kindergartner does that? Incredible!
Your miniature paintings just fascinate me – some as small as one inch by one inch! How did you get into this “small” world of miniature painting?
HH: Well, I realized that it would probably be a good idea for an aspiring children’s book illustrator to know how to paint children. So I started doing little paintings from old photographs of me as a kid. Since they were just studies, I painted them small (I figured it’d be faster). I thought they turned out kind of snazzy, so I hung a few of them up in the artist co-op that I was a part of as an example for commissions. One of the other artists in the co-op, Irene Goddu, was a miniaturist, and when she saw my tiny portraits, she invited me to join The Cider Painters of America. Before this, I didn’t realize that miniature painting was something people did! There’s a niche for that? Turns out, there’s a pretty big niche with miniature painting societies all over the world. There’s even a World Federation of Miniaturists! Who knew?! So now I’m a Signature Member of The Cider Painters of America and The Hilliard Society, and I feel pretty fancy.
VL: They are really incredible – so much detail for such small works.
HH: Aw, thanks! What is it Bob Ross used to say? Three hairs and some air? It’s kind of like that.
VL: The number of paintings you have of animals far outweigh those of humans and yet the animal pictures tend to have human characteristics, wear clothing, etc. Are you more comfortable with animals or are they just more fun to draw?
HH: I love painting animals and people. But for illustration, I think I am more comfortable with animals—it’s easier for me to paint them from my imagination. People are hard to get just right (painting flesh tones is tricky business, and it’s hard to keep continuity of character), but with animals, as long as they’re good and fuzzy, and have soulful eyes, they’ll at least be endearing (I hope). A badly painted person? Not so cute. Sometimes creepy. Plus I love animals for picture books because 1) they can get into whatever kinds of shenanigans you want them to without too much regard for personal safety or rules or parents, 2) any kid, regardless of race, can relate to and identify with animals. I will also confess that as a kid, I often enjoyed dressing my pet cats up in doll clothes (I was an only child, leave me alone). The cats were not amused. I, however, thought it was stinkin’ hilarious. I still think animals in clothes are funny.
VL: Ah, those are excellent points. It’s really important for kids to be able to identify and connect with the characters. (I also can’t imagine someone wrestling a tempermental cat into a costume. That would take special talent, or little concern for danger.)
HH: Ha! It helps to use the element of surprise!
VL: Your paintings are so detailed and yet you are also such a prolific painter, your website has pages and pages of exquisite paintings posted in the gallery, how long does it take you to complete each piece?
HH: Thanks, Valerie! It’s hard to say how long it takes to complete a piece—they all vary so much. But I will say that the plethora of paintings on my website are a result of 10+ years of portfolio building in an attempt to break into the business combined with artwork created for various exhibitions. Show deadlines have a way of bringing the prolific-ness out of you! And being a “starving artist” doesn’t hurt, either.
VL: Ah ha ha! Yes, I agree. Hunger can be quite a motivator.
As a young kid, what was the worst trouble you ever got into? And what was your punishment?
HH: On the whole, I think I was a pretty good kid. My mouth, on the other hand, liked to get me into trouble. And when it did, into the corner I’d go! We spent a lot of quality time together, me, my mouth, and The Corner.
But I do remember this one thing….
It was winter in New Hampshire, and me and the little boy that lived across the street (let’s call him Ishmael), were in my back yard playing and shoveling snow. We were probably about seven or eight. Anyway, I had this kid-size shovel—probably about three feet long—and the blade was made out of blue metal. Anyway, I got it in my head that Ishmael would be impressed if I got a big shovel full of snow and hurled it over my shoulder—you know, show off my big Popeye muscles. So I got a big shovel full of snow, hurled it over my shoulder, and… THUNK, nailed poor Ish (who was standing right behind me) square in the eyebrow with the metal blade. Oops. Well, if Ishmael was impressed by my super-human strength, he didn’t take the time to say so. He was too busy crying and running back to his house across the street. I knew I was in for it. I had been showing off, and I might have even killed Ishmael. Forget the The Corner—that was kid stuff. Surely the dreaded spoon was more befitting. But I didn’t get the corner or the spoon. No. My punishment was much, much worse. My mother marched me through the snow over to Ishmael’s house and made me…APOLOGIZE! Apologize? The horror! By this point, I was crying pretty good myself. But I did manage to stutter out a snot-filled apology. And, despite his scar and my wounded pride, Ishmael and I were able to stay friends.
VL: Is it wrong that I find that story hilarious? I can relate to poor Ishmael, though. My brother once thought it would be a great idea to throw a shovel up in the air. I caught it with my forehead.
HH: Oh nooo! I’m glad you lived to tell the tale.
VL: What did you want to be when you were in grade school? What influenced this choice?
HH: Oh, man. I have always wanted to be a children’s book writer and illustrator! I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to draw. As a kid, I would spend hours on the living room floor sketching out the stories from my Little Thinker Tapes (do you remember those?). And then, when I was in second and third grade, I won the Young Author Book Awards, and got to represent my elementary school at a statewide conference. I was able to hear real-life authors speak about making books, and I was hooked. I knew that was what I wanted to do when I grew up. I couldn’t think of anything better!
VL: When did you know you wanted to be a writer/or to pursue the career you chose? When did you start pursuing that seriously?
HH: Like I said, I’ve always known I wanted to do this, and so I’ve been taking baby steps towards the dream for pretty much my whole life. I always took art classes in school. And whenever there wasn’t an art class that fit my schedule, my teachers let me make art classes that fit my schedule. I took private art lessons, too. I majored in art, and minored in creative writing at Colby College. I created an independent study in children’s book writing, and did an internship with Kevin Hawkes. As a Senior Scholar, I explored the connection between writing and painting. After graduation, I worked for a sign company and in an art gallery, I painted theatre sets, and worked in an elementary school—all jobs that, to me, related back to the ultimate dream of doing books. But I guess you could say that I really got serious in 2002, when I joined SCBWI. That’s when I realized just how much work I still had cut out for me if I ever wanted to get published. Who knew there was so much to learn about the craft and the industry!? Who knew it was going to be so competitive?! Who knew it was going to be so…hard? I pursued children’s books seriously(ish) for 10 years before I got my first offer on a book.
VL: It’s amazing that people think writing books for children is easy, isn’t it?
Were you ever afraid of the dark, of anything under your bed or in your closet?
HH: Yes, yes, and YES! That’s why I always remained under the covers up to my nose, and never, ever, let an appendage drift too close to the edge of the bed. Ever. And if I had absolutely no choice but use the bathroom in the middle of the night, I leapt like a gazelle from said bed in order to completely clear the grabbing zone. And then I scampered. I scampered like my little life depended on it. Because it did.
VL: Ha ha! I would do the same thing. One of the drawbacks to having a very active imagination is that you can visualize monsters right into being.
Did you ever have a clubhouse or secret place of your own? What did you do there?
HH: Yes! My dad built me the most amazing treehouse in our back yard. It had stairs, a wrap-around porch, a skylight, a dutch door, windows with shutters, gingerbread trim, and carpeting…it sounds a lot nicer than the house I live in now, actually. Did I mention my dad’s the best? My friends and I had a lot of macaroni and cheese lunches up there. And I do remember my cousin and I camping out up there one night…until our imaginations got the best of us (see above), and my dad pretended to be a bear. It was also my favorite place to practice my flute. I’m guessing it was my parent’s favorite place for me to practice my flute, too (not so sure about the neighbors).
What was the scariest thing that you ever experienced as a kid?
HH: I was once attacked by a bear in my tree house.
VL: Yikes! I hope the bear was your dad.
What was the worst job you ever had while going to school?
HH: The summer I spent in a factory packaging up heat-sinks was pretty awesome.
VL: Did your friends ever come by while you were working and embarrass you?
HH: Nope. Strangely enough, no one wanted to spend their summer afternoons hanging out in the dark, windowless, unconditioned, heat-sink factory. But fortunately, the three older ladies I worked with took care of the embarrassment factor by giving me the nickname “Sasquatch”. Apparently, the work boots at the end of my skinny little legs were quite becoming.
VL: Oh, what an unfortunate nickname!
HH: Tell me about it.
VL: What are you currently working on?
HH: I’m currently working on raising our four year old daughter. I am also working on the illustrations for my second book with Dial, Bernice gets Carried Away.
VL: How exciting! I can’t wait to see it.
What would be your dream assignment/what would you most like to write about?
HH: Hmmm. I’m not really sure! Maybe something with a koala bear in it? Oooh! Or a duck-billed platypus? They’re kind of adorable. See, it’s dilemmas like these that remind me just how much I LOVE MY JOB!
VL: We’re so very glad that you do! I sense there will be plenty more books from you coming our way. Thank you for being here, Hannah. I look forward to seeing your work in print very soon!
HH: It’s been my pleasure! Thanks so much for having me, Valerie!