Tag Archives: picture book author interview
But today, today is the cover reveal!
Super sweet, right?
What I like best about this picture book is the original and inventive format that uses “or” for two different options at every plot turn. Let me show you what I mean (see that “or” in the corner?):
The whole story uses this format of one thing could happen OR another thing could. That’s what moves the story along. It’s a great technique for suspense and humor with a bit of a guessing element. And I could see it being used to teach storytelling to kid writers to.
At its heart, this is a kind of adventure story for Squirrel that ultimately brings Squirrel back to the character who set off the whole adventure: Squirrel’s friend Moose.
I asked Cathy Ballou Mealey, the author, about “or” situations in her own writing journey and about her debut picture book.
This Picture Book Life: Did you have a significant this “OR” that moment in your own writing journey, a fork in the road that determined your path?
Cathy Ballou Mealey: Absolutely! Joining a critique group in the metro Boston area was the fork in the road that made all the difference in my writing journey. Green as a leaf in springtime, I had already enrolled in SCBWI and written at least a dozen “not ready for prime time” picture book manuscripts. I was eager for feedback on my work, but I learned the most from actively observing the working rhythms of this cohesive, supportive and experienced group.
So if you could:
Read, research, write and revise alone,
Collaborate with talented, thoughtful and engaged writers and illustrators who love books.
I highly recommend that you choose the *OR*!
TPBL: How did you come up with the idea for this story, and specifically the super inventive format?
Cathy: While our family was enjoying a woodsy hike, an unusual Crash! led us to speculate whether a tree had fallen or an animal was coming our way. We froze, listening for clues. Heart pounding, I tried to recall whether to hide, run, or confront whatever wild creature might appear. “It must have been a tree,” we reassured the kids after a long silence. As we hiked on I wondered, What if the falling tree had scared a bear, or frightened a deer? Thus the initial seeds of this story were planted in my brain.
TPBL: What was the process of developing the method of having “or” in the corner of each page as the text and illustrations were plotted out in picture book format?
Cathy: To emphasize the *OR* and ensure that it would lead directly to a funny or surprising page turn, I inserted plenty of white space into my manuscript around the word itself. In my early drafts, I brainstormed to generate as many potential *OR* consequences as possible. That led to a door-sized diagram of sticky notes, plotting events that could lead from one thing to the next with increasing intensity! Ryan Thomann was the talented art director at Sterling who developed the curled page corner effect, which I think adds so much to the *OR* page turn!
“Every day must end in night.Every bird must fold its wings.Every feather falls at last, and settles.”
This Picture Book Life: Tell us about your history as a dancer, specifically with ballet. What was the first time you saw a dance performance?
TPBL: What influence did Anna Pavlova have on you? What drew you to her and her story?
LS: She was definitely an influence, though I’m not entirely certain how it began. I remember my best friend and I had these paper dolls, and we’d fight over them! The Swan was always my favorite, but if memory serves, Susan preferred Les Sylphides. Then, at some point I got my hands on an old book of photos, that included a portion of Anna’s diaries, and I became obsessed. I loved the rags-to-riches quality of her story. She was this impoverished washerwoman’s kid, who became a kind of princess. I was also a little obsessed with the idea of boarding school, and I loved history, so for me, Anna’s saga was utterly dreamy.
Now, as an adult, I’m drawn to the idea that Pavlova really was a missionary for dance. That she wanted to spread the word, share it with the world! It had changed her life, and she wanted to spread that passion. But I don’t think I grasped that as a kid. When I was ten, it was just the transformation of Anna herself that I loved. And the idea of having a grand passion. I wanted to be devoted to something myself!
TPBL: How was your manuscript paired with Julie Morstad (*swoon*)?
LS: That was sheer genius on the part of the folks at Chronicle. My editor Melissa was the person who introduced me to her work, and I fell in love at first sight. I was over the moon when Julie agreed to do the project, and when the first sketches came in, I burst into tears. She really did capture the pictures in my head. I’m not sure how that happened. It’s a kind of magic.
TPBL: Tell us about the spread in which Anna is told she cannot attend ballet school. The thing is, you don’t tell us explicitly that’s what she was told. How did you go about writing those lines and how did you decide on the strategy you used to communicate that information so subtly?
LS: That’s a really good question! My first genre is poetry– and this book began that way, as a sort of poem. I didn’t begin with a story so much as a tone, an emotional thread. I wanted to share my sense of Anna as a girl. Loneliness, coldness, and then the dazzle of that first ballet, and the hard work of her training. For that kind of emotional/image narrative, a poem just made sense.
TPBL: I appreciate how you deal with death in SWAN. Tell us about spending time with Anna’s death in the closing spreads. What relationship does death have to Anna’s life and dance and/or to your own philosophy of writing picture books or this one in particular?
LS: Actually, the publication of this book probably hinged on the fact that I couldn’t imagine the story without the death/end. Long before I had a contract, I wrote the manuscript, but I knew I couldn’t deal with the idea of her death being left off, and I also knew most editors wouldn’t want to include it. I kept imagining people saying, “Why don’t we just end it HERE, when she’s blossomed into a swan! Isn’t that NICE?”
So I reached out to an editor I’d been following online, who seemed to feel like I did about such matters. I asked her whether a picture book biography could include a deathbed scene. And that was the beginning of my poem becoming a book.
LS: I feel very very strongly that most kids can handle big ideas and sad moments. Some kids– and I was this way myself– crave sadness. Often, kids ARE sad, and when you ARE sad, it can be terrible to be constantly surrounded by balloons and smiles. Sometimes, the most comforting thing is to know that sadness enters everyone’s life, and that you aren’t alone. Books are such a good way to encounter the sadness of others. They help us build empathy, and also keep us company.
But also, this isn’t just about sadness. It’s important for kids to hear stories of good deaths. Anna’s life was a good life, and her death was a good death, in a way. She changed the world, lived on her own terms, and died surrounded by the art she loved. She was mourned deeply, and this book is a part of that. Mourning isn’t just sadness. It’s missing, a celebration of a life well-lived.
If we teach kids only about death as atrocity, we make it a terrifying thing. Which is awful, because of course we’re all going to die. Anna lived well, and was mourned deeply by millions of people. Her gift continues now, far beyond her life. I can’t think of a happier ending for anyone, really.
Big thanks to Laurel Snyder for writing the book and sharing her answers! I leave you with this footage of Anna Pavlova dancing “The Dying Swan.” I’m so glad this exists.
This picture book is about a girl and her imagination. She’s a reader, of course. But a maker, too. She’s a child being a child, during those magical times in a secure childhood when there is little expected of you but to use your imagination.
It’s wondrous in story and concept and artwork. I already know it will be one of my favorites from 2015 and a book to cherish always.
I was lucky enough to ask Sara O’Leary, one of my favorite authors and people, questions about writing the book. And she answered them!
(You know I’m a fan because I posted about When I Was Small my very first month of this blog!)
(click image(s) to enlarge)
See those first lines? Those are some of my favorite first lines of a picture book EVER.
This Picture Book Life: Can you tell me about those first lines? Was that the original start of the book?
Sara O’Leary: I wasn’t really conscious of this until you asked this question, but no, those first lines weren’t in the opening of the first draft. And as I go through line-by-line I see that nothing of that first draft survived verbatim into the words now on the page!
When I started working with Tara on revising the manuscript she got me to go through and make myself a dummy copy with illustrations. And to be honest, I’d never done this before even though it was something I’d counselled students to do. And when I went through that process it helped me to start thinking of the story visually and I arrived at the idea that I wanted the story to open out from Sadie rather than opening with her. And then I thought of the way kids play with boxes. My own son when he was small would play Jack-in-the-Box for what seemed like hours at a stretch.
And so that’s how we got to the box on the first page. But once we agreed on that idea of Sadie being concealed to begin with, it ended up influencing the choices we made when it came to the cover. And that’s how Sadie ended up wearing her little fox mask–which I now love.
Notice that fox stuffed animal? He pops up again and again. I really like that fox.
TPBL: Was the fox your idea or did Julie Morstad add in the fox on her own?
Sara O’Leary: There was a fox in the first draft of the story–a line about how when she grew up Sadie might get married and how she might marry a fox or a tin soldier but that she was in no hurry. And then the idea of her little fox family came in later. And then once Julie had added that into Sadie’s imaginative world I found that we didn’t need the line of text anymore. That happened a few times.
My favourite joke in the whole book is when the text says that Sadie is quiet in the mornings because old people need a lot of sleep and then we see Sadie merrily hammering away. My second favourite is when she “tidies her room” and we see everything madly stuffed underneath her bed. That sort of friction between the text and image pleases me inordinately.
It’s very strange because this is my fourth book with the fabulous Julie Morstad but it’s the first that really and truly feels like a collaboration rather than a co-creation. It’s partly a product of working with Tara Walker who is an absolute genius of a picture book editor–an Ursula Nordstrom for our times. It’s also partly a product of knowing Julie and her work so well that I was kind of writing the book for her this time and imagining it as a way of showcasing just what she can do.
“For me it started with the idea of her as a small girl
with a big imagination.”
A shout out to Julie Morstad here. This illustration stops me in my tracks. Luminous.
TPBL: What elements did Julie include that delighted or surprised you? What is your favorite illustration?
Sara O’Leary: There’s not a single illustration in this book I don’t love. My very favourites though are the picture book spreads–the entry of this new character into narratives that were part of my own childhood. It’s almost like stepping through the looking glass yourself. And for sheer beauty I love the fairy tale spread more than any other spread not just in this book but maybe in any book in existence. I love how brave and fierce and yet serene Sadie looks. When I was a kid my favourite poem was Isabel, Isabel by Ogden Nash and I see that in this image too. That little girl who bravely ate the bear up.
TPBL: Tell us a little bit about you as a child.
Sara O’Leary: I was very spoiled as a child in the sense that for my first five years I was an only child and my mother always had paints and clay and books and blocks and things for me to busy myself with–so that being a child who likes to “make and do and be” is very familiar to me. I was also, judging by the snapshots, a boy for about fifty per cent of my existence and so I like to think that like Sadie I could as easily imagine myself into being Mowgli as the Little Mermaid. And I kind of think it must be the same for Julie. The Alice in Wonderland spread came back to me and I was both pleased and amazed to realise that rather than placing Sadie in the role of Alice she had chosen to portray her as the Mad Hatter. It’s perfect!
Sadie is such a composite at this point that I find it hard to claim that she is really like me. She is but she is also like my kids, and like Julie and her kids, and also, I think, like our editor (and third collaborator) Tara Walker. I hope that she’s very easy to project yourself into–a bit like Sendak’s Max. A friend read the book and said: “Oh, you wrote this book just for me!” and really that’s about the best compliment you could hope for. Sadie’s pretty much childhood and imagination embodied for me.
Thanks to Sara for being so generous and talking with me about this magical book!
And to the wonderful people at Tundra Books for images!
This is Sadie‘s own activity kit includes a printable fox mask like the one Sadie wears on the cover!
Check out this super sweet paper plate fox mask too from mom.me.
You can go a step further with this felt DIY version from Fercute.
And I adore this paper maché mask from Ambeau!
Here’s another printable from Little Gatherer with a unique design.
Finally, this one’s for sale at KissMeGo.
With Sara O’Leary’s generosity, I’m giving away two This Is Sadie book jacket/posters over on twitter! (It features Sara (and my!) favorite spread from the book.) Come find me there and enter to win one!