Monday, December 5, 2016

Q&A with Brian Russo

Brian Russo is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Yoga Bunny. He has a teaching certificate in yoga, and he's based in Utah.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the Yoga Bunny book?

A: What I came up with was the illustrations. I took a yoga teacher certification class in 2010. As part of graduating, we had to memorize a sequence, and I drew the bunny as a visual representation of the poses.

Other people in the class responded to it. I put up a website, It pretty much looks now like how it was. It got pretty popular online. People would forward me something where someone had reposted the images, and it was the kind of traffic I would get on my site with a K after it [representing thousands].

I started selling posters and T-shirts. I wasn’t supporting myself doing it, but it was bringing in a little extra cash.

Lisa Sharkey from HarperCollins had the idea of a book about a bunny doing yoga, independent from me. When she Googled it, my images came up.

First [the idea was] maybe someone else would write it…[but] I had another children’s book I was trying to get out, and they thought they’d give me a shot. I’m a big fan of Adventure Time, more adventure-based, but that was not the tone they wanted. They were interested in something small and simple.

I looked at A.A. Milne’s illustrations, and took in that feeling. I did a couple of illustrations with the bunny in the woods, and animals coming up to him. [I thought,] Maybe that’s all that needs to happen! Is this really all that needs to happen? I guess it was!...

Q: How do yoga, writing, and illustrating fit together for you?

A: One thing I discovered over the course of the yoga thing is that I feel way more comfortable illustrating than teaching yoga! It’s something about my mind—I can’t just write notes, I have to draw stuff.

I got into doing yoga, and that inspired me to draw the bunny in different poses—I was imagining animation of the bunny like a remixed pop song.

I worked as an art model—by doing poses, you find dramatic poses. They would say, Do these poses so your body understands what it’s like to hold these poses. I think when you’re drawing, there has to be a connection between what the character is doing and what you’re doing. You need to understand what that feels like.

Q: Are you still teaching yoga?

A: I took the class because it was something I was interested in, and for a little bit I would teach yoga for friends.

Maybe this is good advice for people considering yoga teaching—it takes a while to get to a point where this is your profession and people are paying you for it. It was expected that you would teach without getting compensated. It’s a long haul.

For me, I discovered that illustration is what I’m more passionate about.

[With yoga,] there’s something I need from it to keep off anxiety. It’s a physical thing that I need. That’s more what it is than the actual teaching. The thing I got from the class is those bunnies, and that gave me the opportunity to do my first children’s book!

I moved from New York to Utah, and I still do yoga, but I do it at home with videos. It can take a while to find a place you feel comfortable doing it. Different yoga studios have different vibes. I need something a little more low-key, and some places get pretty intense.

Q: What do you see as the perfect age group for this book, or doesn’t it really have an age group?

A: In writing the story, my thinking was, this is for very young children because the story is so simple. He’s doing yoga and wants people to do it with him.

Last Friday I read it to 5th graders. I was thinking this is good practice but they are a little too old. I asked them, and they said no, they said they were into it!

There’s a book out, Battle Bunny…it’s a parody if this kind of story. It’s about a bunny having a birthday, and the premise is that the grandmother gives the book to the child and he puts in [his own words]. Yoga Bunny’s plot is similar to what they’re making fun of. Maybe Yoga Bunny is limited to younger audiences, I don’t know.

I’m proud of the way the illustrations came out. I worked very hard on it, and I had a team of people coaching me. Having that pushed me beyond what I had achieved before. I’m hoping the illustrations can [amplify] the simple story and make it accessible.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve written a follow-up to Yoga Bunny. I hope it will happen—I will have to see if the publisher wants to do another one.

I have a website,—that’s the other book I’m working on. It tells the story of a mouse looking for the perfect piece of cheese he had and lost. I’m pitching the idea for a graphic novel.

[A friend and I] have a comedy pilot we’re trying to get into the hands of someone who can help us. It’s more broad comedy—a Star Trek parody.

I have a couple of other ideas that my agent thought were not quite right for children’s books. Maybe for animation—I’m starting to storyboard them out for animation. Everything takes a long time! I’m hoping the right things will lead to something!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Megan Shull

Megan Shull is the author of Bounce, a new novel for kids. Her other books for young readers include The Swap and Amazing Grace. She lives in Ithaca, New York.

Q: You’ve said that the idea for Bounce came from various inspirations, including the movie Groundhog Day and a documentary project called Where Children Sleep. How did you unite these ideas into one novel?

A: Yes! Here’s the story: I came across a stunning collection of photos by James Mollison, a documentary photographer. The exhibit, now a book, called Where Children Sleep features portraits of children around the world, and their bedrooms.

The project was conceived as a way to highlight childhood poverty and the side-by-side single snapshot comparison—that juxtaposition of poverty and privilege, is incredibly striking. So much of who we are and how we turn out to be is grounded in our story of origin and the family that we land in….

And yes, the 1993 film Groundhog Day was certainly kindling for Frannie’s journey. One of the things I love about the film is that the story is so tight that there’s not really a need to understand the “rules” behind the magic (waking up over and over and over again reliving the same day) that drives the story forward.

You end up so invested in the transformational journey that you sort of forget about the moving through space and time part. 

Q: What does the idea of "bouncing" from one experience to another signify for you, and how did you decide on the book's title?

A: The title was really inspired from the image of Frannie literally dropping down and bouncing into the beds and lives. But soon, I had one of those “Oh, whoa!” moments when I realized I had written a whole story about resiliency and learning how to bounce back.

I love that the title works on a couple different levels, and I think learning how to bounce back when times are tough is truly half the battle of . . . everything.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: Luckily I know the author ;) So, yes. I knew how the story was going to tie up going into the whole deal. 

Q: What do you think the book says about relationships between parents and children, or among siblings?

A: One of the things I love about the story is that the teenagers in the book, (Frannie’s siblings) are seen in a very different light from the start of the book to the end.

I don’t think that they necessarily had a huge internal transformation . . . more, it’s a little window into the fact that most humans have the innate ability to be good and to be not so good, or kind.

To be human is to be both and as you get older and grow, you hopefully are able to harness more kindness than unkindness. We are works in progress.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Ahhh . . .more books! Stay tuned!

Q: Anything else we should know?

Yes! My goal always as I write is for my readers to want to keep the book close, or tuck it under their pillow because the protagonist’s journey somehow helps them (the reader) feel seen, safe, soothed, and—as with my new novel, Bounce—more resilient, and more capable of bouncing back after falling…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 5

Dec. 5, 1830: Christina Rossetti born.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Q&A with Alyson Richman

Alyson Richman, photo by Robert Presutti
Alyson Richman is the author of the new novel The Velvet Hours. Her other novels include The Garden of Letters and The Lost Wife. She is a painter as well as a writer, and she's based on Long Island.

Q: The Velvet Hours was inspired by a true story. Can you describe how much of the novel is historically based, and how you balanced the historical and the fictional as you wrote it?

A: The novel came about after I read a newspaper article about an apartment in Paris that been mysteriously shuttered for over 70 years and had once belonged to an elusive courtesan by the name of Marthe de Florian. 

When the apartment was opened, it resembled a time capsule. Thick veils of dust covered sumptuous antiques and gilded mirrors. Most striking of all was a magnificent portrait by the 19th century Italian painter Giovanni Boldini of Madame de Florian that hung over the marble fireplace. Adding to the allure, love letters, written by the artist, were found in Marthe’s vanity.

No one knows why Marthe de Florian’s granddaughter, Solange Beaugiron closed the apartment during World War II, but as a historical novelist I knew I had plenty of rich material to create a novel.

Factually, we know the apartment was located in the ninth arrondisement of Paris on La Square Bruyere, but other than that, the information is rather scarce.  

What we do know is that “Marthe de Florian” was born under a different name, Mathilde Beaugiron. Her birth certificate states her to be the daughter of a laundress and a French census cites her as being a seamstress during her early 20s.

She had two children, both named Henri, though the first Henri, died shortly after childbirth. The other Henri we know later became a pharmacist and had one daughter, Solange Beugiron, who many believe became the writer Solange Beldo. 

In 1938 Solange Beaugiron claimed that one of her plays had been plagiarized. This is why I create Solange as a budding writer who is fascinated by the story of her grandmother.

Q: How did you research the novel, which takes place in France over several decades? 

A: As this book tells the story of a Belle Epoque I steeped myself in books and literature that brought that time period to life. I did extensive research on the life of courtesans during that time, working with both historians and experts in the field of fashion and art history.

As there is a rare Haggadah in the book so I worked with scholars with background in conservation of rare books. I was lucky enough to have three Boldini paintings pulled from storage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City so I could study his unique brushwork and accurately bring his artistic style to life. 

For the World War II portion of the novel, again I worked with experts in the field to make sure the novel was historically accurate. I also used a lot of photo archives and diaries from that time period so that the contrast between the sumptuous world of the Belle Epoque and the dark tumultuous days of early World War II.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: There is a sentence in The Velvet Hours when Solange ruminates on the time she spends with her grandmother in the apartment, when Marthe reveals much of her past to her granddaughter after they had been estranged for most of Solange’s life: “Those hours were like velvet to me. Stories spun of silken thread, her own light and darkness, unabashedly drawn.”

Both Marthe and Solange reveal their personal stories in the novel, not only the most beautiful parts of their pasts, but also ones that are less flattering. In essence, every life has its own shadow and light.  

The texture of velvet is particularly intriguing to me. It can be soft in one direction, yet bristly in another. It can appear dark at times, or iridescent in others. That contrast defines much of The Velvet Hours. Beauty within the shadow. Darkness still threaded with light.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently working on a novel called The Family Cloud. It’s a very different novel that takes place in modern day and explores the bond between parent and child and teacher and student. Stay tuned.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Aaron Reynolds

Aaron Reynolds is the author of Caveboy Dave, a new graphic novel for kids. His many other books for young readers include President Squid, Nerdy Birdy, and Creepy Carrots. He lives in Chicago.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Caveboy Dave and his world?

A: It started with an idea about a kid inventor. The phrase "my grandpa invented dad invented the wheel" just kept ringing in my head and I realized that it had to be a caveman story.

That suited me fine, because I rarely write "realistic" fiction, but I wanted to touch on realistic issues that middle-grade kids face...finding your identity, feeling misunderstood by the grown-ups in your life, discovering your passion.

I also wanted there to be high stakes...not only emotionally, but life and death possibilities as well, but it had to be funny above all else. That's when Dave started to take shape.

Though his name was originally Mongo. He got a name makeover during the editorial process!

Q: What was the process of collaboration on the book between you and illustrator Phil McAndrew?

A: As is often the case, Phil and I never worked together in any way on this book. The truth is, I've never met Phil McAndrew in my life!

People are shocked to find that a graphic novel can be created that way, but it's true! I write the complete story as a manuscript, which looks a lot like a screenplay in format.

Aaron Reynolds visiting a school
From there, my publisher and I edit the story several times to get the story the best it can be. Once the story is done, my publisher decides upon the best and most dynamic artist to tackle the book.

Phil McAndrew was a great pick for this...his art is amazing and fabulous and just a touch irreverent. Phil uses my manuscript and imagines the story characters and layouts from there!

By working completely separately like this, I think you often get something more unique and special than if we were collaborating directly.

You get all of my best unique ideas, and all of Phil's best unique ideas that come together to make something neither of us could have done on our own. The results are fabulous!

Q: Does your writing process change depending on the type of book you're writing and the age group?

A: Not really. I write six months out of the year, so that I can save the other six months to be available to do school visits around the country. During my six months of writing, I sit down to write every day.

While my process isn't that different, I do approach a picture book and a longer book like Caveboy Dave slightly differently.

In a picture book, you only have maybe 500 words to work with, so every single word counts. The sentences, the plot, the whole story has to be so tight and trim...there's no room for any fat.

With a longer book like a graphic novel, you have a lot more wiggle room, but plotting requires a lot more thought because the story needs to sustain excitement, energy and have an emotional arc that spans over a longer story.

Each requires its own way of thinking, but at the end of the day, it's still just me sitting in front of the page trying my best to hammer out the story.

Q: What are some of the most common perceptions--and possible misperceptions--people might have about cavemen?

A: That they're all dumb! Okay, lots of them are boneheads. But it takes some real chutzpah to come up with things like fire and the wheel!

But Dave takes it to a whole new level. He doesn't just want to invent...he wants to innovate! He doesn't just want to create things that make life functional, he wants to create things that make life amazing!

But some cavepeople are boneheads. Not everybody gets it. Therein lies his challenge.

Q: What are you working on now? Another Caveboy Dave book?

A: The second Caveboy Dave book is finished (my part, anyway) and Phil is furiously drawing away. It will be out Fall 2017. We're in discussions for a third Caveboy Dave book, so stay tuned for that.

In the meantime, I have several new picture books in the works, including sequels to both Nerdy Birdy and Creepy Carrots. So lots more books on the horizon!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love visiting schools! So much so that I dedicate half my year to visiting them!

I had no idea when I started writing kids books that authors even visited schools, but it's become one of my favorite parts of my job! My presentations are highly interactive and highly silly (a lot like my books). Folks who would like to talk more about having me visit their schools around the country can reach me at

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

Dec. 4

Dec. 4, 1835: Samuel Butler born.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Q&A with Leslie Martini

Leslie Martini is the author of the new children's picture book Matilda: The Algonquin Cat. It is based on a cat who lives in the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. Martini is a journalist, a marketing copywriter, a literacy tutor, and a college essay consultant.
Q: How did you learn about Matilda, the Algonquin cat, and why did you decide to write a book about her?

A: When we were kids, my mother used to take my sisters and me to New York City. Going to the Algonquin to see Matilda was always the highlight.

I remember thinking I was entering Oz— the white gloved doormen, the gilded chandeliers, and this gorgeous cat sitting on a red velvet luggage cat. It was pure opulence and it seemed like royalty to me. 

She made such an impression on me, and on my own children. When I began thinking about the fact that Matilda is the only living member of the Algonquin Round Table, and that the Algonquin is a historical landmark— it made me want to tell the story.

Q: Did you need to do a lot of research for the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I had visited several times over the years, and I learned more with each visit. It was interesting to learn that there was another cat named Billy who lived in the hotel for nearly 15 years before the first official Algonquin Cat. Poor Billy never earned the title!

I also was surprised to learn that the owner of the Algonquin, Frank Case, was a writer and had published his own book, titled, Do Not Disturb.

Q: What did you see as the right mix of fact and fiction as you were writing the book?

A: Having Matilda as the narrator allowed me to take many more liberties; however, I tried to stay true to the history and only stretch the truth as far as a child’s imagination would go. The back matter is purely historical information.

Q: At what point did you see the illustrations, and what do you think they contribute to the book?

A: I had a very unique set of circumstances with this project because I worked with an indie publisher. I worked very closely with Massi [Massimo Mongiardo], the illustrator, which was an amazing process.

Massi made the decisions, along with the publisher, but having the ability to watch him bring Matilda to life on the page was a phenomenal experience.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A few unrelated non-fiction projects, and exploring what Matilda might want to do next!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Algonquin Hotel is fabulous at Christmas time. The hotel currently has on display 20-plus illustrations throughout the lobby. Matilda loves the holidays so it’s a great time to stop in and say hello. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb