Check This Out: Infinity and Me

Like poetry? Today on the blog is the clever and prolific Kate Hosford. I was first introduced to Kate at VCFA through her wonderful poetry.

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Kate is represented by Tracey Adams and is here to talk about her latest picture book, Infinity and Me, a New York Times best illustrated book for 2012, published by Carolrhoda Books.

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Kate also wrote Big Bouffant and Big Birthday. Thanks to a generous donor, TWO of you will win a copy of Infinity and Me. That’s right. Two! But first, let’s talk to Kate!

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El Space: Please share four quick facts about yourself.
Kate: I grew up in Vermont, I love to eat octopus, I often cry when I hear children sing, and I’m fascinated by Iceland.

El Space: What inspired you to write Infinity and Me? Please tell us how you and the illustrator, Gabi Swiatkowska, came to create this book. How unusual is it for an author/illustrator team to approach a publisher as a team?
Kate: When my two sons were little, I noticed that they enjoyed talking about infinity. Usually the conversation would center on whether it was possible to write down the biggest number or find the edge of the universe. When my search for picture books on this topic proved unsuccessful, I decided to try writing one myself. I tried many different formats, including rhyme, which really didn’t work.

I finally decided to structure the story around a girl who goes on a quest to find the meaning of infinity. This format appealed to me, because it would allow children to see that there are many different ways to imagine this concept—dare I say an infinite number of ways?

Before I decided to write for children, I had worked as an illustrator. Gabi Swiatkowska and I had been in an illustrator’s group together, and had become friends. When I wrote the story, I already had Gabi in mind as the illustrator, because I knew that her ethereal style would be perfectly suited to this topic. As soon as I had a working draft, I sent it to Gabi, asking her if she would be willing to illustrate it. A few weeks later, a beautiful little dummy arrived in the mail, and I knew that we had something exciting to shop around.

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Gabi’s sketch

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Gabi’s final art

However, it took years to sell. While editors were interested in the book, many publishers felt that the topic was too abstract for young children. Knowing this, I spent a some time assembling quotations from young children about infinity, which are now on my website, but most publishers remained unconvinced.

I will always be grateful to Lerner for having faith that children could handle this subject matter. The book has been received well both by children and adults, which has been really gratifying.

I think it’s quite unusual to approach a publisher as an author/illustrator team, and in general not advisable, since editors view choosing an illustrator as an important part of their job. I think it worked in this case, because Gabi was already an established illustrator, and without the sketches, this manuscript probably would have seemed too esoteric even to editors who were open to this topic.

El Space: At VCFA, you were known for your poetry. What are the challenges to working in rhyme for a young audience?
Kate: One challenge is finding rhymes that sound so natural that the reader can simply concentrate on the content of the poem. Forced rhymes, created by inverted sentence structure or simply by choosing the wrong word, end up jumping out at all readers. In these instances, the artifice of the poem is exposed, and the reader sees the poet straining to make the rhyme work.

In the case of young readers, the choice of rhymes is further limited by vocabulary that is appropriate for the age level. I’m all for introducing new vocabulary words to children through poetry, but there can’t be so many new words that they struggle to understand the poem.

30119El Space: Which authors inspire you?
Kate: I will not mention mentors from Vermont College of Fine Arts, because there are so many of them. In terms of other writers: Shel Silverstein for his whimsical nature and the surprising twists that he puts in his poems, Marilyn Singer’s for her technical prowess, and her amazing invention of the reverso poem, and Dr. Seuss, who is still so fresh and modern today.

For middle grade, I am inspired by Lois Lowry’s versatility, especially when I consider that she is the author of both The Giver and The Willoughbys. I’m also inspired by Louise Fitzhugh and Judy Blume for being brave enough to write their groundbreaking books.

1629601I’m interested in the work of E. Lockhart/Emily Jenkins for her ability to write for every age level, and for giving the world one of my all-time favorite YA novels, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks. I also love the work of Carolyn Mackler and Rachel Cohn.

At the moment, I’m very interested in humorous novels, especially the Diary of Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney, and the Georgia Nicolson series by Louise Rennison. I think humor is so difficult to get right, and I have great admiration for those who can do it.

El Space: How do you think picture books have changed in the last ten years?
Kate: In the last decade, picture books have started to skew younger. However, there have still been plenty of successful picture books that are aimed at an older audience. This is probably most true for non-fiction, which seems to be a bourgeoning market, but it is also true for fiction.

There are picture books in traditional storybook format that have done very well, like Library Lion, written by Michelle Knudsen and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. There are also cerebral picture books like those of David Weisner and Shaun Tan, which are aimed at an older audience. Whether or not one considers The Invention of Hugo Cabret or Wonderstruck to be picture books, the success of these books by Brian Selznick proves that older children can be entranced by sophisticated stories that incorporate a good deal of visual narrative.

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El Space: What writing advice helped you turn an important corner in your writing?
Kate: I have learned to pay attention to the voices in my head. For instance, if a story comes to me in rhyme, then I should probably try it first in rhyme. This may sound obvious, but with my first picture book, Big Bouffant, I had only one couplet going through my head in the beginning: “All I really want is a big bouffant, a big bouffant, is all I really want.” But instead of writing the story in rhyme, I spent the next five years trying to write it in prose. It was only when I returned to rhyme that the story worked. Of course, my initial “voices” may not always be the ones that work, but it probably makes sense to explore them first.

El Space: What are you working on now?
Kate: I recently sold a poetry collection called Poems from a Circus Chef, and a picture book called The Perfect Cup of Tea. Both books will be coming out from Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing, in 2015. I’m really excited about Poems from a Circus Chef, because it is my first poetry collection. Presently, I am experimenting with different poetic forms so that I will have lots of different options for each poem when I start working with my editor. I’m also very excited about The Perfect Cup of Tea, because I will get to collaborate again with Gabi Swiatkowska. Other than that, I am trying to write a novel about a homeschooled Icelandic rock star.

Great talking with you, Kate!

Looking for Kate? Check out her website, Facebook, and Twitter. Gabi’s website is here. Infinity and Me is available here:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Powell’s Books
Indiebound

Two of you will win Infinity and Me. Wondering how? Just comment below!

Kate’s covers from her website. Other covers from Goodreads.

A Writer’s Process (9)

And now from the ridiculous (see last post) to the sublime. Today on the blog is the chic and sensational Sandra Nickel, another good friend from VCFA. Get out your magnifying glass and your deerstalker, ’cause we’re talking about mysteries and ghosts. Mwahahahahahaha!!!!

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Sandra at Shakespeare and Company in Paris

El Space: Please share a few facts about yourself.
Sandra: I like to think that my writing is the reason my husband fell in love with me. Friends wanted to set us up, but he was living in Moscow, and I was living in New York, so I sent him an email every other day for three months until he was so intrigued, he hopped on a plane to New York so we could meet and have dinner. We did have that dinner, and I have lived a surprisingly European life ever since—two-and-a-half years in Moscow, four years in Paris, and now Switzerland. All because of those notes I wrote. The power of writing. See what it can do?

El Space: Wow! You must have sent some amazing email! Where is your writing taking you now?
Sandra: I’m working on my first middle grade novel, Saving St. Martha’s, a mystery set in a Swiss boarding school. A sort of Nancy Drew meets the first Harry Potter. I just received my critique group’s last comments, so I’m revising.

El Space: Please tell us about it.
Sandra: The heart of the story revolves around two twelve-year-old girls. Lorna is all logic, and Jeannette all mystical ideas, but when their parents ship them off to St. Martha’s to get rid of them, they become best friends; the school, their sanctuary; and Martha, the ghost of the former headmistress, their protector.

But the school is in trouble. Its old abbey is falling apart and the school is in terrible debt. A prized painting—the last gift from the school’s patroness—was never found. And worse, the girls discover that the hard-hearted Corbett Rast and his bank are going to take the abbey and shut down the school unless St. Martha’s comes up with $1,000,000 in 10 days. The girls and Martha vow to find the long-lost painting. But Corbett Rast wants it too . . . and will stop at nothing to get his hands on it.

Martha, the ghost, is quite snarky, so the story is fun—part mystery/part boarding school story, and a lot about friendship. The great news is that Saving St. Martha‘s has had a nice reception so far. It was named as a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize and Hunger Mountain selected the first two chapters to be published in its upcoming “Mentors & Tormentors” issue.

El Space: That’s awesome! What inspired you to write Saving St. Martha’s?
Sandra: A couple of things, really. First came the setting. My daughter used to go to school in this truly amazing place—a Swiss chalet that had been built for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris and then taken apart and rebuilt piece by piece on a hill above Lake Geneva. The chalet is all dark wood and tall, sloping roofs, and inside there is this gorgeous staircase worn smooth and glossy from all the girls that have run up and down it. The moment I saw that chalet, I wished I had gone to school there and knew it would be the perfect setting for a middle grade story.

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Sandra and her daughter at the chalet that inspired Saving St. Martha’s

At this same time, my daughter and her best friend were so taken with mysteries and hidden treasures, they formed their own two-member club, a sort of private detective agency that solved the small and large mysteries around them. I put the school together with their private detective firm, a hidden treasure, a mystery, and came up with Saving St. Martha’s.

El Space: What drew you to write for the middle grade audience?
Sandra: Well . . . I wasn’t drawn to write middle grade. Not really. That whole story of what inspired me to write Saving St. Martha’s was a someday, down-the-road sort of inspiration. A long, long way down the road. I could imagine writing for young adults—and I did—and I could imagine trying my hand at picture books—and I did. But middle grade? There was something eminently frightening about it. My own middle grade years hadn’t been wildly happy, and I had clouded over my memories to the point of remembering very little. How was I to write for an audience living out the years I felt least connected to?

But then, I was accepted into the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and someone—I don’t remember exactly who—tossed down the gauntlet of: “Why don’t you try writing a middle grade?” So, I did, mostly because I like to pretend I’m not scared of anything, other than heights and mice. I went through hypnosis to reconnect to my middle grade years. I hung out with middle grade kids. I read any and every middle grade book recommended to me. I wrote. And what fun it all has been!

El Space: Sounds like you were well prepared. What was the most challenging aspect of writing a mystery?
Sandra: In a way, mysteries are easier to write than other stories, because the broad arc of the story is already there. You set up the mystery, and then the mystery must be solved. Easy, right? The problem is that the small arcs that make up that broader arc can be tricky. New mystery writers—and this was certainly true for me—often believe they must hide the hints and clues and truth from the reader. But the opposite is true.

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Mystery writers must reveal every detail for the reader, but then use sleight of hand, distraction, or an unreliable character to make the truth difficult to discern. This is the tricky part, where mystery writers strive to hit the sweet spot of revealing enough, yet not too much. For this, having a critique group or beta readers is essential, since they are coming to the story for the first time. You want them intrigued, but not confused; you want them to have just enough information to keep reading, but not so much that they put down the book because they’ve already figured it all out.

El Space: What authors inspired you when you were growing up? Which inspire you now?
Sandra: There were so very many who inspired me. I was a big reader! But since we have been talking about middle grade, let me say: E. L. Konigsburg, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Roald Dahl, Louise Fitzhugh, Norton Juster, Madeleine L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis. As for now, this blog isn’t long enough to name them all. But I guess I can say: Ditto for all the above, and add a few of my “new” discoveries: Kate DiCamillo, Katherine Paterson, Louis Sachar, David Almond, and Grace Lin.

Some Middle Grade Books That Have Inspired Me

Books that inspire Sandra

El Space: Do you stick to one project or work on more than one? What tools are helpful?
Sandra: I’m an immersion writer. I absolutely love submersing myself completely in one story-world at a time. That’s not always practical, however. Right now, in addition to Saving St. Martha’s, I’m working on a young adult Gothic ghost story and a storyteller’s poem about a female Paul Revere. When I need to quickly switch from one story to another, the best tool I have found is to freewrite my way into a character’s world. I start by having the character dress herself, noting every detail from the scratch of her wool skirt, to the cut of her socks’ elastic into her calves, then move onto other details like the woody-lead smell of her pencil and the squeal of a violin in the room next door. Five minutes of these kinds of specifics are enough. The wormhole is created, and just like that, I’m pulled from one story-world into the other and am ready to write.

Sorry, that about wraps it up! Thanks, Sandra, for being such a great guest!

If you have questions for Sandra about her book or her process, please comment below.

Magnifying glass from trenchesofdiscovery.blogspot.com.