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Ice cream that conjures up sweet and sour memories. A magical amulet that can turn back time. A middle-school student known for pulling off dazzling heists. The best children’s books are chock-full of the unexpected, the unknown, and the unforgettable. Still, readers are often left with one question when they turn the last page: How did the author come up with that?! To find out, we asked a few of our favorite children’s book authors and illustrators to take us behind the pages of their work, by interviewing one another. Six very game kids’ book creators provided both thoughtful questions and heartfelt answers. To share their interviews with your class, download a student-friendly version complete with discussion questions and writing prompt for each interview:
In Varian Johnson’s To Catch a Cheat, a group of retired, middle-school con men reunite for a pulse-racing, friendship—making caper. Across the globe in India, two best friends kick off their own quest in Mahtab Narsimhan’s Mission Mumbai. The two high-octane authors came together to discuss their writing processes.
Varian Johnson: Describe an incident from your school days that got you into trouble.
Mahtab Narsimhan: I’ve always been an avid reader. While my friends loved physical exercise, I stretched my imagination. I was fortunate to have attended a private school in Mumbai with access to excellent literature. I’d lose myself in Narnia or the Shire, go up the Magic Faraway Tree or sample Willy Wonka’s amazing concoctions.
The catch was, I could borrow only three books at a time. And three books barely lasted three days for me. I perfected a system whereby I had two library cards (by claiming I’d lost one) and would switch them around so I could borrow six books at a time.
I did get caught by the librarian, but given that I’d lied for a worthwhile reason, she allowed me to borrow extra books as long as I promised to return them on time and be gentle with them. That’s me confessing my criminal past.
Varian: Only a writer would get in trouble with a librarian! I’m an identical twin, so my brother and I would always pool together to double the number of books we could check out. And as far as getting into trouble, once, in elementary school, my brother and I tried to switch places to trick our teacher and friends. We wore the same clothes and even practiced responding to the “wrong” name. But I’m a horrible liar—I laughed as soon as one of my friends called me by my brother’s name, and we abandoned the idea.
Varian: Do you outline your novels before starting them, or do you figure it out as you go along?
Mahtab: Both, depending on the novel I’m writing. For a stand-alone, I start with a character or a setting and race through the first draft while I’m passionate about the idea. With a series, I tend to write a broad outline for each book and the series arc. I know my final destination, but I leave the route open to interesting detours.
Varian: I was much more of a figure-it-out-along-the-way type of writer when I first began my career. I started by creating an interesting character in an unusual situation, and wrote from there. My first drafts were very messy and often went through huge overhauls. Lately, I’ve found it is much more useful to plot out my novels before beginning them. I started this practice with my Jackson Greene series, and I have continued being a plotter for my stand-alone books.
Mahtab: Plotting helps reveal plot holes and saves time! Someday, I hope to plot all my books, but when an idea inspires me, I’m impatient to start.
Varian: Is there a recurring theme in your books? If so, what is it and why is it important to you?
Mahtab: Honesty. I believe my readers can handle it, and deserve it. Readers first encounter problems and issues in life through stories. They learn to distinguish between right and wrong through characters they care about. While middle-grade fiction cannot be bleak and hopeless, there must be an element of truth. This is why my stories do not have neat endings but hopeful beginnings.
Varian: Honesty is so important in writing, isn’t it? And not just factual honesty—our characters have to be emotionally honest as well. We have to show characters who react to life situations in real ways.
I used to say there wasn’t a recurring theme in my novels, but I’ve changed my mind. All of my novels are “love stories,” though not necessarily “romantic” love. I’m much more interested in love between friends, brothers and sisters, children and parents—it’s this love and friendship that define who the characters are and who they will grow up to be. I hope readers are thinking about their own relationships as they read about my characters.
Varian: What is the best part of being an author? What’s the hardest part?
Mahtab: The best part is the process of creating something out of nothing. Then I get to share my imaginary world with my readers who (hopefully!) love the story as much as I do. It’s powerful and satisfying. The hardest part is revision. And that’s why it’s important to love what you write. Don’t follow a trend but your heart.
Varian: The hardest part of being an author is creating the first draft. I always struggle with getting words down on the page. My characters often want to do anything else other than show up in their scenes. They’re like temperamental actors and I’m the director trying to force them onstage.
But the first draft leads to the best part of the process—revision. Once the book is written, I become less of a director and more of a surgeon—cutting and shaping the story to make it the best it can be. I love how characters change, how they transform from simple characters to three-dimensional beings. I also love how the plot sharpens and I can expand on my theme using literary devices like metaphor and simile. It’s during revision where the magic truly happens.
Both Natalie Lloyd (The Key to Extraordinary, A Snicker of Magic) and Dan Gemeinhart (Some Kind of Courage, The Honest Truth) are beloved for taking middle-grade readers on extraordinary, enchanting adventures. The pair sat down to discuss the unexpected journeys that children’s books, and their readers, have taken them on.
Dan Gemeinhart: I can tell from the amazing way you write that you are someone who believes in the magic of stories. What were your favorite books as a young reader?
Natalie Lloyd: I’ve been lucky enough to experience some incredible story magic. I grew up in east Tennessee, which has a vivid, beautiful heritage of storytelling. And, of course, books have always been treasures to me. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was probably the first novel I read that made me want to crawl inside the pages. I still check wardrobes and closets and pretty much anything with a door for a passage to Narnia. (You can’t convince me that this is weird.) Narnia taught me the power of imagination, and how it can help you through tough days. Even though the stories were fictional, the courage I found in the pages was very real to me.
I was also smitten with Roald Dahl books. That was probably my first experience with magical realism, and it still influences the way I write. The Key to Extraordinary is sprinkled with magical realism—flowers do strange and unusual things in Blackbird Hollow, and there’s a secret, starry ingredient in the hot cocoa that all the locals drink. But I hope what Emma, my main character, discovers about herself, and her ability to love, is the most magical part of the story.
Natalie: One element that surprised me is how new Some Kind of Courage feels, even though the setting is historical. There’s a vintage, Western feel, but Joseph’s emotions are so authentic it feels new. What inspired the character Joseph Johnson? Why did you set the story in this particular time and place?
Dan: I’m so glad that you connected with Joseph. I am totally in love with that kid. For me, character always comes first. With The Honest Truth, the character of Mark came to me before the story did, and the same happened with Joseph in this book. What makes stories stick with you is not their setting but your connection with the living, breathing character at their center. It doesn’t matter if they’re a wizard or a cowboy or a princess or a space pirate—if you feel like they’re alive and you care about them, you’ll fall into the story. Joseph isn’t based on any experiences I had, but his central questions, “Who am I and how do I fit in the world?,” are the crucial questions of every adolescent, and ones I certainly struggled with (and still do!). As far as the setting, I love history and devoured Westerns as a kid.
Dan: I love how you said books inspired and transported you as a kid. What do you think makes books special for kids in that way, more so than, say, movies or video games?
Natalie: For me, being able to imagine a character and a world any way that I want them to be is part of what makes a book especially fun. There’s a personal connection that comes from filling up the edges of a story with props from your own imagination. A teacher sent me the coolest picture of a diorama one of her students had done for A Snicker of Magic. She’d plotted out the entire town, and it made me so happy to think that the landscape of a fictional place might look a little bit different in the mind of every reader. That said, I definitely believe movies and video games also stretch imaginations in awesome ways. Something I’ve noticed when I meet kids at school visits—and when I hang out with my own nephew—is that gamers are especially excited about world building.
Natalie: Some Kind of Courage is the kind of story I picture being read in classrooms. Can you remember a book that you read in elementary or middle school that shaped you as a reader and a writer?
Dan: I loved read-alouds as a kid, and I am so grateful to teachers who manage to make time for them in this age of crazy curriculum pressure and high-stakes testing. Whole-class read-alouds are a great way to build a shared love for reading, and they really help to build a rich, empathetic class culture. The thought of my books being used as read-alouds gives me the happiest of goose bumps!
I vividly remember two read-alouds as a child: Where the Red Fern Grows and Hatchet. They are both such great stories, with crunchy plots and chewy, emotional centers. I remember being on the edge of my seat for Hatchet, and sitting at my desk with tears streaming down my face during Where the Red Fern Grows. I learned a lot from both books. As a reader, they showed me how reading can be not just an activity but an experience. As a writer, they instilled in me the importance of a chapter, that each chapter needs to have its own tension, importance, and justification for existing. If a teacher only reads a chapter each day to the class, that chapter better move the characters and the story forward and leave the reader wanting more. Teachers don’t have any time to waste!
Dan: As a writer, connecting with students and teachers is so fun, and there are so many cool ways to do it these days. What are some ways that you’ve been able to connect with teachers and students?
Natalie: Like you, I’m always grateful when teachers or teacher-librarians make something that I’ve written part of their classroom. They’ve created so many cool activities to go along with A Snicker of Magic. As far as personal interaction, I love to Skype with classes that have read my books. I’ve also been able to connect with teachers and librarians on Facebook and Twitter. I think social media definitely has a negative side. But the positive, for me, has been connecting with so many educators who are excited about books. I know we both love the Nerdy Book Club….
Dan: Yes! The Nerdy Book Club is an amazing community of readers. Between that and Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and Skype visits, I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be an author connecting with readers.
Natalie: What’s some memorable feedback you have gotten?
Dan: One of the most fun and fulfilling parts of being an author is hearing from readers—both teachers and kids. The letters and e-mails and tweets I’ve received have been both heartwarming and humbling.
As a storyteller, all that you really want is for people to connect with your story on a personal level, to fall in love with your characters and world. By far, my favorite feedback for The Honest Truth has been hearing about kids who are “reluctant readers” who say that my book was the first one they really loved and couldn’t put down. As an educator who works every day trying to connect kids with books, nothing could mean more to me than that.
Engaging, eye-catching, images partner with punchy, on-pitch text in both the Amulet series, by Kazu Kibuishi, and in The Oodlethunks series, illustrated by Mike Wu, a picture-book artist and Pixar animator. The duo discussed how each finds inspiration as writers and illustrators.
Mike Wu: What book that you read in middle school inspired your writing and illustrating?Ã¢ÂÂ¨
Kazu Kibuishi: If we’re really focusing on middle school, I’ll be honest and say that it was a combination of comics by artists like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane, combined with books like Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton, that really interested me. I would discover the world of classic literature in high school, when I fell in love with the works of John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway.
Kazu: Speaking of influences and inspirations, Bill Peet was a tremendous storytelling talent at Disney, working on films like 101 Dalmatians and The Jungle Book. The children’s books he made after his years at Disney had a massive influence on me as a kid, so I’m a huge fan of Disney story artists working in publishing! Who are your favorite artists and writers who were once—or are currently—Disney employees?
Mike: Bill Peet is fantastic! Yes, he’s a legendary story artist whose career spans from Snow White all the way though to Sword in the Stone. I had the great fortune of working at Disney Feature Animation during the late ’90s and worked with many amazing artists. It was my first job out of school and I was in awe of the talent at the studio, including Glen Keane, who supervised the animation on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Pocahontas, to name a few. One of my favorite designers is Chen-Yi Chang. He designed all of the characters in Mulan, which remains one of my favorites from that time. Really, there are just too many to name, and this could easily be a short essay on the history of Disney art and animation.
Mike: You were obviously influenced by many artists. What drew you to work in the graphic novel genre?
Kazu: NausicaÃÂ¤ of the Valley of Wind, by Hayao Miyazaki. When I read that, I knew what I wanted to do. Then I read Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud, and I began to realize why.
Mike: How do you balance the role of art and words in your graphic novels?
Kazu: They always inform each other, and when one is missing, I can always work on the other, so I rarely have writer’s (or artist’s) block. I make a huge mess when I create sequences for each book, drawing sketches, writing dialogue, sketching thumbnail pages on reams of printer paper. Then I sort it all into the books.
Kazu: I hear you also make children’s apparel. How did that come about?
Mike: It’s my wife’s business, and I’m her partner in the design and marketing side. It’s similar to the desire to do something outside of the studio system. After working on film for so long, it was exciting to try something new that still involved a good sense of design and creative expression. The fulfilling thing with apparel is you can touch and feel your product and design. That’s really exciting!
Kazu: How would you compare working in publishing to working on the production of an animated film?
Mike: They are such different businesses. Our schedules are much longer to develop and produce movies. It typically takes four or five years to develop an idea to finish a film. The process involves hundreds of artists contributing to make the best possible film. In contrast, publishing is often a single artist’s or writer’s vision, and often you’re left to your own singular talent to execute the book. I love doing both, and I love the collaboration in animation. However, after years of working on big films, it is nice to do a small project that is your own personal story.
Kazu: You have so much going on! What is a typical work day for you?
Mike: I usually arrive in the morning and get some tea or a quick bite and head to dailies. Dailies are held in a screening room where a group of the artists/animators show their work for the film to the director. He or she gives us feedback and others can chime in as well. Everyone is looking to improve the work, and it’s the strength of the collective that elevates the animation to new heights. I’ll jot down the notes and address them in my office and continue to improve the scene. I may show it again at the end of the day, but I will usually be on a shot for one to two weeks before it’s completed. This will go on for nine months to a year to complete animation for one film. However, the studio encourages you to take breaks and feed your mind to stay fresh and inspired. It’s the culture that keeps everyone smiling and doing their best work.
Mike: What are you most passionate about?
Kazu: Being useful!
Photos: (top to bottom) Kenneth B. Gall, Dean Macdonell,
Elaine Lloyd, Gordon Luk, Deborah Coleman