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Interview with NY Times bestselling KidLit author David Elliott

David Elliott is a New York Times bestselling writer of books for young readers. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife of 33 years and a rescued Dandie Dinmont terrier mix.

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For what age audience do you write?

I write for the very young, the middle grades, and with the release of BULL in March, teen readers. I’m currently working on one of each kind of book. I like to have a few things going at once. It’s the ADD.

Henry: Given the slow speed of the publishing industry, working on multiple projects simultaneously isn’t just ADD, it’s a good idea! Speaking of which, I recently wrote a picture book featuring an OCD owl and an ADD hummingbird.

Tell us about your latest book.

BULL (HMH, March 2017) is an expansion of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. I know that sounds kind of highfalutin – expansion. But I use it because the book doesn’t at all change the outline of the myth; rather, it fills in areas about which the myth remains silent – the Minotaur’s childhood and adolescence, for example. At least that was my intention. The story is told in the various voices of the main players, each character speaking in a distinct poetic form. It practically killed me, but I loved writing it.

Henry: BULL is terrific. Sort of a YA mashup of Homer and Eminem.

What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?

O dear. I think I’d better leave that to the readers. But it would be terrific if one or two saw that each of us has the potential to become either Asterion — the Minotaur’s’ actual name, by the way, meaning Ruler of the Stars — or the Minotaur. Or maybe even more important, the ability to encourage one or the other in the folks around us. We are now seeing at the national level what happens when the monstrous is excited — the uptick in hate crimes, the increased cruelty in our schools, all of that. Our leaders on both sides of the aisle seem lost in the labyrinth.

Aside from that, I hope readers will enjoy the humor in the book and the language used to tell the story, their language (for speakers of English.) It’s resilience. Its playfulness. It’s beauty.

Henry: We should mail balls of string to Congress so they can navigate the labyrinth!

What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?

Oh, writing comes easily to me. But writing well comes very, very hard.

Henry: That pesky adverb well again! When I first began writing for children, I was surprised at how many revisions are necessary. Not like writing when in school, where the first draft was the final draft!

What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?

I think sometimes people feel that publishing a book changes your life. And I guess it can if you’re someone like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, at least in terms of material security. (Uh . . .that has not been my experience.) But here’s the thing: Even after that book is on the shelves, you are still who you are. There’s no escaping that.

For me, and especially since every book is different, being a writer is a process, not a result. I now try to think of myself as a scribe rather than the more elevated “writer”.

Henry: I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how collegial the KidLit author/illustrator community is. Not at all like the hyper-competitive Hollywood scene.

What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?

Well, the most memorable is very difficult to describe, and if I did, people would think I was crazy, so let me just say that a few years ago, I was invited to Germany to visit schools there. My wife and I became very good friends with the person assigned to interpret for me. She is still an important of our lives. How lucky is that?

Henry: So, you think describing a memorable experience will push people over the edge on assessing the sanity of a man who fractured a Minotaur myth with rap?

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Accept all criticism as one hundred percent accurate.
For twenty-four hours.

Henry: Interesting approach. Another good piece of advice I’ve read, is never read reviews of your own work. The positive reviews don’t tell you anything you don’t already know, and the negative ones are so rarely constructive, that you’ll just end up depressed.

Do you have any favorite quotes?

Here are three:
“If you haven’t surprised yourself, you haven’t written.” Eudora Welty.
“Habit is more important than inspiration.” Octavia Butler.
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” E.L. Doctorow

Henry: So, Doctorow was a pantser, not a plotter? Isaac Asimov said “Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.” Then there’s Ray Bradbury: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”

Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you work?

My entire life has been, and continues to be, One Strange Ritual. I think everybody’s is.

Henry: Capitalizing the phrase makes it sound like a great book title. Well played, sir.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

I know from the one I already possess – the ability to eat non-stop –that superpowers are very difficult to control. I think it might be wiser to bestow them on those better equipped to manage them.

Henry: Isn’t it only a superpower if you can eat all you want and NOT gain weight?

If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?

Not many people know this, but Charles Dickens and the Polish poet Wyslawa Symborska are conjoined twins, so if invite Charlie, he’ll have to drag Wyslawa along. (The original meaning of Plus 1, by the way.) That’s also true of Teju Cole and Richard Wilbur. Then there are those famous triplets, George Eliot, Shakespeare and Moliere. Journalist Masha Gessen and the Australian novelist David Malouf are my alternates.

Henry: Boy, give you and inch, and you take a mile! Wikipedia helpfully offers:
Maria Wisława Anna Szymborska was a Polish poet, essayist, translator and recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality”.

Teju Cole is a Nigerian-American writer, photographer, and art historian. Cole is the author of three books: a novella, Every Day is for the Thief (Nigeria: Cassava Republic, 2007; New York: Random House, 2014; London: Faber, 2014), a novel, Open City (New York: Random House, 2012; London: Faber, 2012), and a collection of more than 40 essays, Known and Strange Things, published in 2016. He is currently working on Radio Lagos, a non-fictional narrative of contemporary Lagos. Salman Rushdie has described Cole as “among the most gifted writers of his generation”.

Richard Purdy Wilbur is an American poet and literary translator. He was appointed the second Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1987, and twice received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, in 1957 and again in 1989.

What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?

As you know, I’ve spent quite a lot of time with The Minotaur recently. I think I might choose someone a little cheerier next time around, The Mad Hatter, maybe. Or someone really solid like the armored bear, Iorek Byrnison, in Philip Pullman’s wonderful book, The Golden Compass. I do wish the Oracle of Delphi had a better sense of humor.

Henry: Please note the minotaur on the cover of MONSTER GOOSE NURSERY RHYMES in the header image above. But, I’m with you on the panserbjørne!
panserbjorne

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

These days, I feel like I’m always working. I’ve got three separate and very different (from each other) projects going right now, and the administrative part of the writing life – interviews like this one, for example, are taking more of my time. (Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. Who doesn’t relish the opportunity to talk about himself?) To complicate matters, for the first time ever I’ve become actively political. Nobody is more surprised about that than I am.

Staring out the living room window into the fields behind our old house is a wonderful thing.

Henry: Can we say your passion for democracy has trumped your desire to focus on writing?

What would you like it to (accurately) say on your tombstone?

He wasn’t afraid.

Henry: You gave me a Monty Python opening, and I’m taking it.

Bravely bold Sir Robin
Rode forth from Camelot
He was not afraid to die
Oh, brave Sir Robin
He was not at all afraid
To be killed in nasty ways
Brave, brave, brave, brave Sir Robin

He was not in the least bit scared
To be mashed into a pulp
Or to have his eyes gouged out
And his elbows broken
To have his kneecaps split
And his body burned away
And his limbs all hacked and mangled
Brave Sir Robin

His head smashed in
And his heart cut out
And his liver removed
And his bowels unplugged
And his nostrils raped
And his bottom burnt off
And his penis split and his…

“That’s… that’s enough music for now, lads.”

Where can readers find your work?

Wherever weird books are sold, but especially at your local independent bookstore.

Henry: Thanks for spending time with us, David. For something completely, different, check out David’s THIS ORQ (HE CAVE BOY)
orq


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One Word Was Too Big, and One Word Was Too Small

Writing GOOD rhyme is hard. We still have to create an engaging story with endearing characters… in under 500 words! Rhyme also constrains syllable counts and meter. And as with all picture books, word choice must be suitable for young readers. This can lead some authors to end their rhyming picture book (RPB) lines with single-syllable words.

If you view rhyming big words as a chore,
Your new book could end up a big bore.
Instead, if you use big words that add spice,
Most readers will find your book is quite nice.

Now, my meter is off, but I had two goals for that rhyme. The first was to reiterate my thesis. The other was to illustrate my thesis with a counterexample. The lines do rhyme, but the word choice is a bit boring. Multi-syllable words are definitely more challenging to rhyme. But their use adds spice and demonstrates a higher mastery of the craft. Below is a contrasting excerpt from an early draft of my (as yet unpublished) RPB, Never Feed a Yeti Spaghetti, in which monsters misbehave at a party.

vampireThe big night’s arrived, and the vampires knock first;
Unquenchable drinkers, who’re known for their thirst.
These two guests are gracious, and always say ‘please’.
Undying politeness is their expertise.

The multi-syllable “their expertise” adds sophistication and fun. I made sure that the meter matched that of the previous line’s “always say please”. I also worked in puns with “undying” (vampires are undead) and “thirst” (for blood). But perhaps expertise, undying, and unquenchable are a bit of a lexile stretch. And, thirst for blood is probably too dark for a PB. Further, using expertise to describe politeness feels forced. The requirements of rhyme don’t excuse us from the responsibility of remaining aware of whether words serve the story and are suitable for young readers. We must still be willing to murder our darlings, if necessary. Those lines did not make the final cut.

Here is a stanza I kept, which (I hope) demonstrates the desired characteristics of more complex words that add spice to the rhyme.

yetiIt’s dangerous serving a yeti spaghetti.
They toss it around like it’s crimson confetti.
There’s pasta afoot and red sauce on the wall;
A dining fiasco they failed to forestall.

 

Now, get out there and keep rhyming!


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Networking in Los Angeles with Fellow Authors

With my long-time friend and Pura Belpre Award-winning author/illustrator Joe Cepeda and new friend author/illustrator Jordan Novak
01CepedaNovak

With the hilarious and talented picture book author of CRANKENSTEIN and SNOOZEFEST, Samantha Berger
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Samantha Berger drinking coffee with both hands! ‪#‎caffeine‬
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With Angie Karcher, non-fiction picture book author, and founder of RhyPiBoMo.
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Normally, seeing Molly Schaar Idle would be the highlight of my day. But then, her son John said he loved MONSTER GOOSE NURSERY RHYMES. *smiling*
05IdleJohn

With Caldecott Honor winning author/illustrator Molly Schaar Idle AND the author/illustrator of LOUISE LOVES ART, Kelly J. Light. I’m in the middle of a talent sandwich. Notice the Louise doll I’m holding.
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With the YA author of TWINKIE PIE, Kat Yeh and YA author Lee Wind. Notice how nicely color-coordinated they are!
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With rising star picture book author Marcie Colleen. I am jealous of both her talent and her hair! 🙂
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With debut picture book FARAWAY FRIENDS author/illustrator Russ Cox
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With the fully-bearded and award-winning BOY+BOT author/illustrator Dan Yaccarino

10Yaccarino


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Ten Less Well-Known Picture Books I Loved in 2014

As we approach 2015, I’d like to give a shout out to the authors and illustrators of (dare I say it?) less well-known picture books that I read and loved in 2014. Note that some of these books are not out yet. In no particular order, here they are:

monsterbook

Monster Book by Alice Hoogstad

uni

Uni the Unicorn by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, art by Brigette Barrager

somebugs

Some Bugs by Angela DiTerlizzi, art by Brendan Wenzel (pub. Mar. 2014)

mustache

Mustache Baby Meets His Match by Bridget Heos, art by Joy Ang

sleepytime

Sleepytime Me by Edith Hope Fine, art by Christopher Denise

drawdragon

How to Draw a Dragon by Dogulas Florian (pub. Apr. 2015)

beastly

Beastly Babies by Ellen Jackson, art by Brendan Wenzel (pub. Jul. 2015)

sleepyheads

Sleepyheads by Sandra Howatt, art by Joyce Wan

dreidel

I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel by Caryn Yacowitz, art by David Slonim

memoirself

Memoirs of an Elf by Devin Scillian, art by Tim Bowers

Click to Tweet: Less Well-Known Picture Books I Loved in 2014 at http://wp.me/p31Xf4-Ns via @Nimpentoad


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Tips for rhyming picture books

rhyme copy

Lately, we’ve been seeing quite a few rhyming picture books in our critique group. Writing rhyme for picture books is VERY hard. It’s much more than simply ensuring each couplet ends with rhyming syllables. I jokingly tell people to go to http://www.DontDoRhyme.com (not a real website, yet). But for the intrepid few who continue onward, I offer the following tips:

A. Use the metric system. The three most important elements of a rhyming picture book are meter, meter, and meter. There is NO excuse for the meter to be off. Don’t submit a manuscript until the meter is PERFECT. Compose sentence pairs with the same number of syllables AND with accents on corresponding syllables, as follows.

Write the manuscript, capitalizing ONLY the accented syllables, e.g.,

MAry HAD a LITtle LAMB, with FLEECE as WHITE as SNOW.
EVEry WHERE that MAry WENT, the LAMB was SURE to GO.

Inspect each couplet. Is the syllable count the same? Do the accents fall on corresponding syllables? If not, keep working. Note that the longer the sentence, the more challenging this becomes.

Read your story aloud. Does it roll off your tongue, or trip you up. Then comes the acid test. Have someone unfamiliar with the story do the same. If they can read it without stumbling over any words, you’ve done it.

B. Weak rhyme pairs need not apply. Make sure each couplet’s rhyme pair does, in fact, rhyme. That sounds obvious, but some authors choose word pairs that aren’t perfect rhymes. I’m very picky in this regard. I don’t think “time” rhymes with “fine”, or “choose” rhymes with “loose”.

C. No word-fracking. Do not inject patently gratuitous words in a sentence just to tweak the syllable count or meter. Every word must belong. I once saw this done so well that I was several couplets into a story before I realized it was written in rhyme!

D. Are we there yet? Nope. Writing a rhyming picture book does NOT relieve the author of the normal requirements of a good picture book, including:

Voice. Characters must speak with authentic voices. Your five year-old protagonist cannot say “befuddle” just because it rhymes with “a puddle”.

Character development. Your readers still expect you to create engaging characters with whom they can identify and/or with whom they want to spend time.

Plot. Yup, you still gotta’ offer a story arc. Having a theme is necessary, but not sufficient. Your protagonist must surmount an obstacle or traverse an interesting path.

Love or friendship. The story must feature some form of amity.

Show, dont tell. ‘Nuff said.

Didactic is deadly. Use a light touch with your theme. They’ll get it.

Lexile level and word count. It’s still a picture book, so the word count and Lexile level guidelines remain unchanged.

Re-readability. The story must have a satisfying payoff at the end, or otherwise delight young readers so they’ll want to read it again.

I told you rhyme for picture books was hard! And some tales are better told in prose. Does rhyme make it a BETTER story, or distract from an otherwise engaging tale? Good luck! Henry Herz is the author of Monster Goose Nursery Rhymes, coming in early 2015 from Pelican Publishing.