Today, I have the pleasure of participating in the Sidney Taylor Book Award blog tour for the 2015 winners. The Sydney Taylor Book Award honors new books for children and teens that exemplify the highest literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience. Since 1968, The Association of Jewish Libraries has memorialized Sydney Taylor, the author of the notable All-of-a-Kind Family series with this award.
This year’s Gold Medal winners are Jim Aylesworth and Barbara McClintock, author and illustrator of My Grandfather’s Coat, Loic Dauvillier, Marc Lizano and Greg Salsedo, authors and illustrators of Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust, and Donna Jo Napoli, author of Storm.
Today and tomorrow, I will be interviewing Jim Aylesworth and Barbara McClintock. Later in the week, I will write about My Grandfather’s Coat and its talented creators. If you leave a comment on any of these blogs, you will be eligible for the book giveaway. The winner will receive a copy from the publisher, Scholastic Publishing Company
Jim, like many of the authors that I have interviewed on this website, you became an award-winning children’s author after a successful teaching career. What caused you to make this transition?
I began teaching first grade in 1971, and right away, I was bitten by the book bug. I read aloud nearly every single day, and I grew to love the books as much as the children did. By 1975, I had collected my first autographed books (Leo and Diane Dillon, Arnold Lobel…), and I had begun fantasizing about becoming an author. A year or so later, I tentatively put pen to paper, and to my surprise and delight, my first book was published in 1980. (Hush Up! – illustrated by Glen Rounds) As the years passed, other books followed, and I began to receive invitations to read my books in other schools – in other towns, in other states. It was tricky to find the time for this, but I was so proud to do it that I did. Increasingly, it became a happy problem. Was I to remain a classroom teacher, or was I to become a full-time school presenter and author? By 1996, the way seemed clear, and I retired from the classroom after 25 years. And yes, I sometimes miss having a class of my own, but being the guest author is very like being the teacher. I still get to be with the children, and I still get to read aloud, and there no report cards or achievement test to stress about. It’s fun!
On your website you state, “I have seen a room full of children sit still and pay attention to a good book when it may be the first time they’ve been still at the same time all day.” Can you list 5 picture book qualities that will captivate the attention of a classroom of students?
When reading to first graders, it’s easy to tell if they like the book or not. If they like it, you can tell by their eyes. If they don’t, they become inattentive. I paid attention, and over the years, I have noted that these are some of the things that children like most about books:
- Sound – rhythm, rhyme, repetition. Onomatopoeia.
- Other children, including children animals – puppies, kittens…
- Pretending – The World of Make-believe Fantasy
- Color – bright color.
I know there are exceptions, but when I can, I include these elements into my writing.
Your first picture book was published in the 1980s. Have you seen any significant changes in your audience? If so, what modifications have you made to your writing style, choices in publishers, and/or marketing endeavors?
Knowing of my long experience working with young children, I am often asked if I see differences between children now and children in the years past. And my answer is that I don’t really see differences. While the Internet, etc. has vastly changed publishing world, the children remain as sweet as always.
On your website bio, you candidly mention that you received many rejection letters before you successfully published Hush Up! (1980). Can you list 4 tips for newbie authors that adhere to your “never give up” principle?
Inwardly, I think everyone really knows the answer here: Never give up! There is no use of me being preachy about the matter. It’s hard for me too.
Some of your books are retellings of popular tales (Examples- Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Gingerbread Man, The Tale of the Tricky Fox, and Aunt Pitty Patty’s Piggy). What challenges do you face when you write your creative versions?
Beginning in the mid-80’s, I became an adjunct college professor teaching Children’s Lit in the evenings and summers to supplement my income. Those years were quite busy – first graders during the day and adults, mostly teachers, in the evening. Some semesters, I taught at three different colleges or universities at the same time – one on Monday, one on Tuesday, one on Wednesday. Busy! One of the courses that I taught was Folklore, and it was here that I began a deeper interest in the role of the folklorist and the reteller. When my editor at Scholastic Press, Dianne Hess (…more about her later.), suggested that I try a version of The Gingerbread Man, I was more ready than I first knew. The challenge was to add elements that I knew children would like and still be true to the older beloved versions. I’ve been very pleased with the results, especially with Barbara McClintock’s beautiful illustrations! She has illustrated all of our retold folktales.
Barbara, you have likewise worked with many different children’s authors. From your perspective, what are the advantages of working with Jim?
On a professional level, Jim is a natural storyteller. His writing has an ease and warmth and charm and humor that I suspect comes from his years as a teacher. He knows what young children respond to, and has a deep knowledge of folk and fairy tales to draw from. He really understands the pacing of picture books. His text is rich in describing characters in a simple way that is also open – ‘He came with little more than nothing at all’ describes someone who is very poor, but also someone who is brave enough, optimistic enough to travel across an ocean with the hope of finding his way. There’s a lot of information to go on creating the character in a drawing, yet I have plenty of room to make my own interpretation of who that character is. Because we’ve done so many books together, his texts feel comfortable to me, while at the same time they’re always fresh, bright and lively.
On a personal level, Jim is one of the kindest, warmest, most generous people I know. It’s always a joy to work with him.
After receiving 16 rejections from publishers, your first wordless book won a New York Times Best Book Award. How did you cope with the rejections? Can you offer 3 tips to individuals who are dealing with repeated episodes of adversity?
I’m not proud of the fact that I almost flunked algebra in high school. But in hind-sight, it was one of the best experiences to prepare me for rejection. Every school day, I faced an hour of humiliation and fear that I’d be called on. I was the one hand-down person in a sea of hands raised, trying to be as small and unobserved as possible. The semester ground on slowly and I took my emotional blows. But then it ended, and I was alive! And well! Having a D on my report card meant – what? My sister was a straight A honor roll student. I was a dopy little sister, a survivor who learned to savor the walk home from school and what was pleasant and fun in my life.
Three tips I learned from high school algebra:
1. Don’t take failure personally.
2. Don’t define yourself by failure.
3. Find the best place to get doughnuts on your way home from school. And keep trying. Things will work out.
On your website you state, “I’m essentially self-taught as an artist/illustrator, and can thank the public library system for my free education.” What was the greatest challenge that you faced as a self-taught artist?
If you go the self-taught route, you have to be very focused. It helps if you’re compulsive! I think not having fellow students, and certainly instructors to guide and support you is hard. But ultimately, even if you’re in art school, you have to have self-motivation and resourcefulness and discipline and vision to succeed.
Few people have the talent to both write and illustrate a picture book. Do your initial ideas come as images or texts? In other words, do you start your planning with drawings or words?
I start book concepts and ideas by thinking in words reinforced by visual memory.
Most of my story ideas come to me in the middle of the night. I wake up and rummage around in my memories of people, or mull over a book I’ve been reading, or try to make sense of current world issues, or other typical things insomniacs think about at 3AM.
My next book, EMMA AND JULIA LOVE BALLET (fall 2015 with Scholastic Press) came from a 3 am thought fest.
One night a few years ago, I woke up and began ruminating about my sister Kathleen and how much she loved ballet classes when she was a little girl.
I remembered her passion and dreams about becoming a real live professional ballerina when she grew up. And that related to my little girl dreams about becoming an artist when I grew up. My sister didn’t become a ballerina, but that dream was so important to her.
Then I thought about a friend I knew in New York City when I was starting my career. My friend chose as an adult to commit herself to becoming a professional dancer. She took classes at the Harkness School of Ballet, and dance was her entire life.
I thought about the similarities in a day in the life of a young girl taking ballet lessons, and a day in the life of a professional dancer. Both get up, eat breakfast, go to class. Both have an intense love of dance. I thought it would be very cool to see them living their parallel lives on each page of a book. And at the end of the day, they would meet – the girl beginning her dream, and the dancer seeing her young self in the little girl.
I got up the next morning and sketched out the idea in a sketch book. I then began blocking out the text based on the drawings. When I sketch out ideas I do them in little vignettes that pace out over what would be 32 pages. The drawings are loose, the writing tightens up the story.
Then all the research started – reading interviews with dancers, watching hours of ballet on youtube, going to a ballet school, photographing and sketching dancers, interviewing dancers, young ballet students and parents. I even took a ballet class to try to understand the gestures and forms of ballet.
Text and art both go to the same purpose, which is expressing who a character is and what they’re feeling, relationships, the passage of time, defining place, and creating a compelling story.
Illustrations oftentimes make or break the success of a picture book. When you first read the text of a picture book, how do you determine the style? Are you able to collaborate with authors or do you primarily work hand-in-hand with the publisher?
Manuscripts come to me through my agent, who in turn receives manuscripts from editors who think my style is right for the text.
I almost never communicate directly with an author while I’m working on a book. The editor has a vision of what a book will look like; she or he is like a traffic cop, fielding and directing comments between author and illustrator. The editor and art director have ultimate say in things.
It’s a process that works well – it’s really great having a team of people all going after the same goal; a book that works.
Thank you Jim and Barbara. I look forward to continuing our virtual interview.
Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.
Wow…Look at this long list of impressive awards.
Book Awards for My Grandfather’s Coat
- 2014- Publisher’s Weekly Best Books for 2014 list
- 2014- School Library Journal Best Books list
- 2014- NAPPA Silver Award
- 2014- Publisher’s Weekly Starred Review
- 2014- SLJ Starred Review
- 2014- Kirkus Starred Review
- 2014- Featured review in NY Times Book Review Special Children’s Fall Issue
- 2014- Huffington Post Best Picture Books of 2014 Honorable Mention
- 2014- New York Public Library Recommends: 100 Best Children’s Book Selection 2014
Later this week, I will be reviewing My Grandfather’s Coat
Anyone who leaves a comment on this blog by Sunday, March 8th will be eligible for a book giveaway. A randomly selected winner will receive a copy of My Grandfather’s Coat.
In exchange for an interview and honest review, I was sent a copy of My Grandfather’s Coat.
Sandra Bornstein is the author of MAY THIS BE THE BEST YEAR OF YOUR LIFE. It is available on Amazon. Sandra’s memoir highlights her living and teaching adventure in Bangalore, India. She is a licensed Colorado teacher who has taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad as well as college level courses. Sandra is married and has four adult sons. The memoir was a finalist in the Travel category for the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, the 2013 International Book Awards, the 2013 National Indie Book Excellence Awards, the 2013 USA Best Book Awards, and received an Honorable Mention award in the Multicultural Non-Fiction category for the 2013 Global ebook Awards.