Lori Alexander writes for young children and their exhausted parents. Her debut picture book, BACKHOE JOE, rolled out in 2014 from Harper Children’s, with a sequel to follow. Lori resides in Tucson, Arizona, with her scientist husband and two book-loving kids. She runs when it’s cool (rarely) and swims when it’s hot (often). She grew up in San Diego, where she earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in psychology from UCSD and SDSU, respectively.
For what age audience do you write?
I write fiction picture books for readers 4-8 years old.
Tell us about your latest book.
BACKHOE JOE is about a boy named Nolan who is out collecting rocks when he happens upon a “stray” backhoe. When the backhoe follows Nolan home, he wants to keep it. But Backhoe Joe isn’t trained. He revs at the mailman. He digs in the garbage. Just when Nolan thinks he has his new pet under control, he sees a “Lost Backhoe” flyer. Joe belongs to someone else! Luckily, Nolan earns a generous reward, and maybe, a new pet of his very own.
Henry: “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it was, and always will be yours. If it never returns, it was never yours to begin with.”
What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?
I wrote it to feed the imaginations of young truck lovers. In my mind, it’s a friendship story. But when I share it at school visits, we talk a bit about responsibility and what to do when you find something that doesn’t belong to you.
Henry: Sell it on eBay?
What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?
Coming up with a unique, marketable concept that will hook the reader. And then developing a story around that wacky idea that doesn’t feel too contrived. It’s tricky business! Word count can be a challenge, also. I’m finally feeling comfortable with the 500-word target (although I keep hearing 400 words is the new goal). Many recently published PBs are far shorter.
Henry: It’s a common misconception (at least among people who’ve never written a picture book), that writing a 500-word story is easy because of the length. Quite the opposite, since we still have to jam in a plot and character development (aided, of course, by the illustrations).
“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?
In general, school visits and book signings have been a blast. I love chatting with young readers about books, sharing my inspiration behind BAKCHOE JOE, and doing all kinds of construction-themed games and crafts with the kids.
More specifically, picture book author Corey Rosen Schwartz sent me a short video of a family member reading BACKHOE JOE with their young boy. He’s in that early, “pre-reading” stage where he can finish the last word of each sentence from memory. Watching the exchange between the boy and his proud mom, hearing him say the words I wrote, was priceless.
Henry: TV commercial?
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Don’t give up! It’s such a long process of learning the craft, understanding the market, finding trusted critique partners, and of course, writing, revising, and repeating. And there’s so much rejection along the way. But if you really love writing for kids, stick with it. BACKHOE JOE was rejected in its first round of submissions. In the second round, it went on to sell in auction! You never know which editor will click with your story.
Henry: Yup. KidLit authors must be thick-skinned and indefatigable.
Do you have any favorite quotes?
I like this one from John Updike: “Dreams come true. Without that possibility, nature would not incite us to have them.”
Henry: C.S. Lewis poetically expounds on that theme. “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country.”
Or, the more mundane, “Bro’s before hoes.”
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
How about the power to control time? That way, I could speed up the sluggish parts of the publishing process, and then slow down and bask in all the fun stuff, like cover reveals and launch parties.
Henry: Right, because editors aren’t working hard enough! 🙂
If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?
I adore funny, contemporary picture books, so if I had any authors over for dinner, they would be folks like Mo Willems, Bob Shea, Mac Barnett, Adam Rubin, Amy Krause Rosenthal…oh man, it’s difficult to stop. This dinner would be catered.
What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?
The jackalope! What’s not to love about a jackrabbit with antelope horns? Not sure how many of these creatures have made their way into literature. There should definitely be more picture books staring the jackalope. But mostly, I love the solid advice given by the Great American Jackalope in the Pixar short Boundin’
Now sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down,
When you find that you’re down well just look around:
You still got a body, good legs and fine feet,
Get your head in the right place and hey, you’re complete!
Preach it, jackalope.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
My kids are getting older (3rd & 4th grades), but they still want me to volunteer in their classrooms and their school library. It’s a kick to be included in a small slice of their day. And as a children’s book author, it’s helpful to hang out with kids. What’s funny to a Kindergartner? How is that different for a 2nd grader? Academically, it gives me a good feel for what each grade level is tackling, reading and writing-wise, which is helpful when I’m developing my presentations for school visits. Teachers and librarians are thankful for the assistance, and the staff at my kids’ school has been so supportive with the release of BACKHOE JOE, spreading the word about launch events, putting me in contact with other schools, etc.
If we’re taking about those few minutes spare minutes not tied-up with kid stuff like soccer or swimming or art lessons or homework, I enjoy exercising and trying all kinds of new vegetarian recipes. Still looking for the one that tastes like eating meat.
Henry: “If the Lord wanted us to be vegetarians, He wouldn’t have made animals out of MEAT!”
Where can readers find your work?
Your local library, indie bookstore, or Barnes & Noble, as well as online at IndieBound, Amazon, and BN.com
Lori is a member of SCBWI and can be found at http://www.lorialexanderbooks.com or on Twitter @LoriJAlexander
This interview is also posted on the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.