Lee Wardlaw swears that her first spoken word was ‘kitty’. Since then, she’s shared her life with 30 cats (not all at the same time!) and published 30 award-winning books for young readers. Two of Lee’s newest books include Won Ton – A Cat Tale Told in Haiku (Holt; illustrated by Eugene Yelchin), recipient of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Children’s Poetry Award and the Myra Cohn Livingston Award for Poetry; and its recently released companion title Won Ton and Chopstick – A Cat and Dog Tale Told in Haiku. Lee lives in Santa Barbara, CA, with her husband and two dog-disdaining cats.
For what age audience do you write?
Is there a word like ‘omnivorous’ that means I write everything? I’ve published board books, picture books, easy-readers, first chapter books, middle grade and young adult novels, non-fiction, short stories and poetry. Whew! (And people wonder why I love naps so much…)
Henry: Let’s call you a polygraph. Oh, wait…
Tell us about your latest book.
Won Ton cat has a happy life with his boy until the family adopts a (gasp!) puppy. Think sibling rivalry with whiskers. Won Ton and Chopstick – A Cat and Dog Told in Haiku, is the sequel to my first book about Won Ton, although it works purrfectly well as a stand-alone title, too. And, despite the fact that most bookstores are shelving it in the ‘children’s poetry’ section, I think cat-lovers, poets, and picture book lovers of all ages will find something to meow about in this story.
Henry: Great character names!
What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?
Wow, wouldn’t it be nice if we could control what our readers think and feel and say about our books? (Just imagine the starred reviews!) Since we can’t, I can only hope that my audience will enjoy my book enough to want to read it over and over. Rosemary Wells (author/illustrator of the Max and Ruby books) once said that a good picture book should be able to stand up to 500+ readings aloud. That’s a number I’m hoping for!
What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?
Starting. Finishing. Oh, and those pesky middles that tend to sag. Revisions! Endless revisions! And…
What I’m trying to say is: Writing is a challenge. That’s a good thing. If writing were easy, I’d be bored. And a bored writer writes boring books. Where’s the fun or the point in that – for my readers or me?
Henry: So, the writing part of writing is the most challenging…
What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?
My favorite ’writing’ book is Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Every page is filled with simple yet wise, powerful lessons. Seriously! But this one is key: “Making the work you want to make means finding nourishment within the work itself.” I’ve been writing for the children’s market now for thirty years, and I still have to remind myself at times that ITPS: It’s the Process, Stupid! You need to be able to enjoy every step of the journey – not just the destination. Especially since it can be years between when you finish writing a book and when you finally see it published. (I once waited seven years between signing the contract and holding the actual book in my hand.)
Henry: So you’re saying, don’t write children’s book for the fame and riches?
Do you have any favorite quotes?
Many! Here are three:
“…becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.”
– David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art and Fear
“Sure, it’s simple, writing for kids – just as simple as bringing them up.”
– Ursula K. Le Guin
“All I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”
– E.B. White
Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you write?
What is your definition of strange? All my rituals are normal – aren’t they?
Henry: Well played. No one is strange in their own mind.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I already have a superpower. It’s called Napping.
Henry: Lee Wardlaw – The Narcoleptic Avenger! World’s worst superhero.
“I’ll save you,” replied the Narcoleptic Avenger.” *naps*
If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?
What’s for dessert? If it’s not flourless chocolate cake, forget it. Oh, and must these authors come to dine on the same night? I prefer separate evenings so I get more one-on-one time with each.
Okay, moving along…
First on the list: Thomas Jefferson because the Declaration of Independence is a brilliantly written document – philosophically, politically, stylistically. It was composed for the eye, the mind and the ear. Read it aloud and you’ll see what I mean. The rhythm, cadence, timing, word choice, etc. is almost poetic.
I’d also like to dine with Phillip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials trilogy. I have so many questions about ‘dust’ and dark matter and how he actually managed to slog through Dante’s Inferno. (I’ve tried. Whew.)
Finally: George R.R. Martin (Song of Ice and Fire series) and/or Patrick Rothfuss (Kingkiller Chronicles). I’ve read and hugely enjoyed both these authors’ books, but my main reason for inviting them would be to score points with my 20-year-old son. Martin and Rothfuss are two of his favorite authors, so if they showed up on our doorstep, I would get the Lifetime Mom-of-the-Universe Award!
Henry: Everyone knows of Martin, but I don’t hear many people mention how well he describes food. I just read a couple of Rothfuss novels and, Damn, that guy can write! Here are some samples.
“There are three things all wise men fear: the sea in storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man.”
“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”
“Call a jack a jack. Call a spade a spade. But always call a whore a lady. Their lives are hard enough, and it never hurts to be polite.”
“You have to be a bit of a liar to tell a story the right way.”
What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?
Mermaids. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a mermaid for three reasons: 1.) So I could swim under water without having to come up for air every 30 seconds; 2.) All mermaids had long, thick, flowing hair – which I definitely did not; 3.) I looked good in green.
Henry: Your logic is unassailable, as is your color sense.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I enjoy beach combing for sea glass, swimming, reading (or course!), playing with our cats, getting together with friends and family, and napping (it’s my superpower, remember?).
Henry: And looking for mermaids?
Where can readers find your work?
Their favorite library or bookstore! (And if they don’t have any Lee Wardlaw books, I’m sure they’d be happy to order them.)
Henry: Thanks for spending time with us, Lee. This interview is also posted on the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.