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Little Iffy Learns To Fly Blog Tour: Aaron Zenz Interview

I’m pleased to be kicking off the Little Iffy Learns to Fly blog tour with an interview with the author/illustrator of Little Iffy, Aaron Zenz himself! Enjoy!

Hi Aaron! Thanks for stopping by my blog!

Thanks for having me over!  I appreciate all you do for the Kid Lit world, Dylan.

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Tell us a little bit about your new book, Little Iffy Learns to Fly.

Little Iffy is a bitty griffin.  Griffins are half lion and half eagle, and most of them are big and strong, tough and brave.  But Iffy Griffin is a bit more scaredy cat than lion.  And he’s a bit more chicken than eagle.  In Little Iffy Learns to Fly, Iffy’s friends want to see him use those spiffy wings he’s got.  But flying means “up,” and “up” is a little scary.  Iffy much prefers “down.”

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Tell us a little bit about your writing and illustrating process.  

I keep stories in my head for a very, very long time before I write them down.  Sometimes for years.  Kept in my brain, story ideas change and grow, evolve and flourish.  Once I commit something to paper though, I have a very hard time ever thinking of it any other way.  For me, that thing has then become cemented.  So I live with ideas in my head for as long as I can.  This happened with Little Iffy.  I can remember honing in on his personality during long walks.  Landing the perfect name while in the shower.  Developing gags on the way back from the beach.

Once I do decide to get things down on paper, it’s fast and furious.  All in one big brain dump.  Everything comes out in chicken scratch, a mishmash of words and doodles that I’m sure makes sense only to me.

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Then I play with character design, work up model sheets, and plug the story into an actual dummy.  Everything is still in loose sketches at this stage.

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Once editors and art directors got on board, then we began nailing down the actual style of art.  For this book, that took quite a while – first being pushed one direction, then an about face and pulled in a completely different direction.  People were even weighing in on the shape of the blades of grass!  It was kinda nutty 🙂  Eventually we found the look, and final art could be produced fairly quickly from there.

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Have you always been into writing and illustrating?

I came into the world, colored pencils in hand!

As soon as I was able, I was drawing and making stories.  My parents have lots of little books I made from as far back as 3 years old.  We’d come home from a walk and I’d start drawing pictures, dictating to my mom what to write: “We saw a stick. We saw a feather. The puppy followed us.”

My elementary school had an annual “Fine Arts Festival.”  I would enter stories every year and was encouraged by ribbons I won.  It’s funny looking back at the titles of my stories: “The Great Crayon Escape” or “Pencil Pete and the Penawatomis” – I was using art supplies to tell stories about art supplies!  No way I wasn’t growing up to be an artist.

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What’s the most exciting part of your job?

Crafting stories and creating art is very fulfilling.  But “exciting” is not a word you would apply to very much of that process.  School Visits on the other hand – those are a blast!  Full of energy and enthusiasm — speaker and students volleying inspiration back and forth at each other.  I LOVE visiting schools.  I love sharing that what I do is an actual job – that a life of creativity is within their reach as well.  I love getting kids pumped up about reading and writing and creating.  Just this past Thursday, I visited K-3rd graders – and I was mindful of how blessed I am, listening to a gymnasium full of kids, howling in laughter.  The day before, I visited a college class – I was only supposed to share for about an hour – but the Q & A time took off and before we knew it, almost 3 hours had passed, romping around the wondrous world of kid lit.

What inspires your creativity?

I love collaborating.  I’m inspired by connecting with people.  Some examples:

My oldest son is 19 years old now – but from the time he was 3, we’ve snuggled down together reading through classics like Treasure Island or the Chronicles of Narnia.  The number of kids has grown to six, and we continue to read through chapter books at bedtime to this day.  For seven years my kids and I collaborated on a book review blog called Bookie Woogie (www.bookiewoogie.blogspot.com), diving deep into our favorite books, studying the craft of our favorite creators and making art together.

In 2011 our family began painting and hiding rocks together in our hometown.  The activity connected with people around the world – a German children’s magazine wrote about us, Ripley’s Believe it or Not featured us in one of their books…  You can trace the steps directly from that first activity as our project snowballed into the current “City Name + Rocks” global Facebook Group rock-painting-craze currently in full swing, boasting over 1,200,000 members.

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This summer I collaborated with kids all over Michigan, making monster artwork together.  I invited kids to send me monster designs, and 3,000 drawings showed up to my house.  I picked out my favorites and made around 100 full-blown professional-style illustrations based on their designs.  Then for 18 days, I camped out at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids and invited kids in attendance to submit their own monster designs as well.  Another 7,000 designs came in, and I illustrated 50 more monsters while sitting right there on the sidewalk as I chatted with kids and families about monsters, art, and creativity.

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What is one thing that readers don’t know about you, that only you could tell us?

One of my childhood heroes is Winsor McCay.  When I was young, I wanted to become an animator, and Winsor McCay was all over animation history.  Then in college, I wanted to become an illustrator, and Winsor McCay is all over illustration history.  19 years ago I moved to Spring Lake, Michigan for a job.  After living here for about 5 years, I randomly found out this is Winsor McCay’s hometown!  He seems to be following me wherever I go.  His childhood home was across the street from the very library where I’ve illustrated entire books on my laptop.  I helped found “McCay Day” here in town, and now I share the story of his life and art with kids every year in a special presentation at that library.

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If you weren’t writing and illustrating books, what do you think you’d be doing?

I don’t know… but I’m sure whatever it is, Winsor McCay would have done it first.

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What can readers expect from you in the future?

If Little Iffy Learns to Fly does well, hopefully many more Iffy Griffin books!  I’ve got the next two stories already written, and there’s a whole mythical world to explore.

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Anything else you’d like to share with readers of this blog?

If people would like to keep following along, today is the first blog stop on the Little Iffy Tour!  You can read more about Iffy, his friends, and what readers think in the coming days here:

Mon Dec 4  :  Mile High Reading  :  https://readingwithmrteut.wordpress.com

Tue Dec 5  :  Seven Impossible Things  :  http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings

Wed Dec 6  :  100 Scope Notes  :  http://100scopenotes.com

Thu Dec 7  :  Everead  :  http://www.evereadbooks.com

Fri Dec 8  :  Librarian’s Quest  :  http://librariansquest.blogspot.com

Sat Dec 9  :  Amanda’s Pile of Books  :  http://amandaspileofbooks.blogspot.com

Sun Dec 10 :  Kids Talk Kid Lit  :  https://strohreads.blogspot.com

Tue Dec 19  :  Nerdy Book Club  :  https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com

Mon Jan 1  :  Picturebooking Podcast  :  http://www.allthewonders.com/podcasts/picturebooking

Thanks so much Dylan!

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Cover Reveal: Hello, Door by Alastair Heim and Interview!

Hi Alastair! Thanks for stopping by my blog to reveal the cover for your 2018 picture book, Hello Door.

Thank you, Dylan, for being gracious enough to host the big reveal!   I sincerely appreciate it.

Tell us a little bit about your new book, Hello, Door!  

HELLO, DOOR is the story of Mr. Fox (or “Foxy” as Alisa Coburn, the illustrator, lovingly coined him) as he breaks into a beautiful house that isn’t his.  As he sneaks around throughout the lavish home, he enthusiastically greets everything he sees (and steals) with a polite, “Hello!”  But, just as “Foxy” thinks he’s going to get away scot-free, well…he gets his well-deserved comeuppance. 

Tell us a little bit about your writing process.

I usually think of a book title first, even before I have a story figured out for it – with a few exceptions here and there.  HELLO, DOOR was actually a title that I had written down back in 2012, though I didn’t have an idea for the story until 2016.  I try to set aside a little time, each day, to think up new book titles.  99% of them will never go anywhere, because they’re terrible titles, but I have to get them out of my head so that better ones can find their way in.

Once I have a story worth telling, I tend to write my first drafts very quickly.  It’s the editing and re-editing that takes a bit more time.  Sometimes that takes a day or two, but it oftentimes can take weeks.  When I’m finally feeling good about a particular manuscript, I send it off to my agent. She also makes editing suggestions when something’s not quite working or if I have gotten a bit too wordy here and there – which happens a lot.

I am part of a local critique group, too, which I highly recommend for writers looking to sharpen their craft and tighten their storytelling.  The folks in my group are always good about being completely honest about my work, which I greatly value.  By the time my agent submits a manuscript to a publisher, it’s usually been seen by a number of my most trusted advisors – my kids included.

Have you always been into writing?

Yes.  My passion for writing really began with a story I wrote in sixth grade called BAR WARS.  It was a parody of STAR WARS, featuring a cast of candy bar characters with deliciously delightful names such as Jelly Rolo, Charleston Chewie and Granola the Nut.  A few years later, in high school, I wrote a poem for my freshman English class that was called DETENTION.  Unbeknownst to me, my English teacher submitted the poem to a statewide poetry contest and I ended up winning second place.  The poem went on to place fifth runner up nationally and I received a check for a whopping $19 (I affectionately refer to it as my “first paying gig”). 

To be honest, though, the thought of writing books professionally had never really crossed my mind after I reached adulthood.  It wasn’t until my first child was born that the inspiration and motivation to pursue picture books really took hold.  I truly owe all of this to my kids, which is something I tell them all the time.

What’s the most exciting part of your job?

Reading my books to kids at schools, by far, has been the greatest part of this whole experience.  Kids are smart, perceptive and funny and it’s always awesome to watch them react when I’m reading aloud to them.  Kids are also my best critics and aren’t afraid to tell you the good, the bad and the ugly about your stories – especially my own children. 

Another aspect of the job that I absolutely ADORE is when I get to see illustrations for the first time.  I can’t draw to save my life (I wish I could), so to see my stories through someone else’s eyes has been amazing.  I’ve been lucky enough to have been paired with three incredibly talented illustrators – Alisa Coburn, Sara Not and Kim Smith.  They have brought these books to life in ways far better than anything I could have imagined.  It’s really an honor when someone puts as much thought, charm and love into the illustrations as I try to do with the writing.  And these three incredibly talented artists totally knocked it out of the park – in my humble opinion.

What inspires your creativity?

While I’ve always had a weird, creative, writer-ish brain, there are two things that consistently inspire me – COMEDY and MY KIDS.  I am a huge fan of humor and try to weave it into every story I write.  I really want my books to be entertaining, read-aloud experiences for both parent and child. It’s important for me as a dad to find books that I enjoy reading and my kiddos love hearing over and over again.  That has heavily influenced what I write and how I try to shape my writing.

My kids provide a constant stream of inspiration.  My first two books were directly a result of me interacting with my kids and, frankly, being in the right place at the right time.  In fact, “There’s no tooting at tea!” was something one of my daughters actually said to someone else.  Had I not been in the room when she said it, there wouldn’t be a book at all – which gives me anxiety about all of the wonderfully inspiring and book-title-worthy things my kids say when I’m not around them.

What is one thing that readers don’t know about you, that only you could tell us?

I grew up in a tiny farming town in rural Wisconsin – population 1,200.  After college, I moved to a very big city in Missouri – population 2,000,000.

If you weren’t writing books, what do you think you’d be doing?

Although getting to write picture books is an absolute dream job, my OTHER dream job would have to be a record producer. Listening to music has been a huge part of my life and it would be incredible to work with bands in a recording studio on a regular basis. I love the art of creating and helping musicians write music and craft their songs would be such a challenging-yet-rewarding experience.  So, if Radiohead ever decides to part ways with their producer…I’m totally available. 

What can readers expect from you in the future?

Thank you for asking!  My third book is called THE GREAT PUPPY INVASION and comes out on October 3rd.  It’s the story of what happens when hundreds of puppies suddenly show up in Strictville – a no-nonsense, no-fun town that has never seen puppies before.  After HELLO, DOOR releases on January 2nd, I have a fifth book coming out in the Fall of 2018 that is a prequel to NO TOOTING AT TEA called NO PEEKING AT PRESENTS.  It features the same older sister, albeit a bit younger, who has a lot of rules for her little sisters on Christmas Eve.  I also have a sixth book coming out sometime after that, but the title and release date have not yet been announced.

Anything else you’d like to share with readers of this blog?

From the time I started writing picture books in 2008 to the time my first book LOVE YOU, TOO came out in December of 2016, it had been nearly nine years.  Throughout that almost-decade of my life, I got discouraged, doubted myself, and even gave up completely a few times along the way.  So, to have the front cover of HELLO, DOOR revealed by you, Mr. Teut, is, very much, a dream come true for me. 

The reason I bring this up is that I want people to know just how much I appreciate it when they read one of my stories.  I do not take the privilege of getting to write picture books for granted for a single second.  Getting to do this was never a certainty for me.  My wife can tell you just how much I struggled and questioned whether having a children’s book published would forever be a pipe dream.  In fact, I still have to pinch myself that this is actually real, and it’s a wonderful gift to know that my books are actually being bought, checked out of libraries and, most importantly, read by parents and their children.

And now…. the big reveal!

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Super Manny Stands Up! Interview with Kelly DiPucchio

Hi Kelly! Thanks for stopping by my blog! Tell us a little bit about your new book, Super Manny Stands Up!  

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Thanks for inviting me back to your blog, Dylan! You’ve been following Manny’s journey for a long time so it’s great to finally be able to talk about the book now that Super Manny’s in the real world.

Manny was born from this sketch by Stephanie Graegin.

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Stephanie and I share the same agent, Steven Malk. Steven’s super powers are his keen instincts and his impeccable eye for art.  When he saw Stephanie’s racoon sketch he felt the little guy had a story to tell. He emailed the picture to me and asked if I was interested in creating a manuscript with Stephanie’s sketch in mind. Of course, I thought the vampire was adorable but I wasn’t sure how I felt about writing a Halloween or monster book. What appealed to me most about the character was his cape and mask and I wondered if there was a superhero inside that little vampire. I ran my idea past Steve who ran the idea past Stephanie and she, in turn, created this updated sketch.

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I immediately fell in love with Manny’s yellow and red striped tee and his little kid belly. Seeing the new character sketch made me ever more excited about writing a book with a superhero theme. I knew from the beginning that I wanted it to be a story about an everyday hero and kindness. I was beyond thrilled when, after reading the manuscript, my editor at Simon & Schuster, Emma Ledbetter, responded with one of the most touching letters I have ever received in my twenty years in this business.  I’d share part of it with you but I’d just start crying all over again.

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Tell us a little bit about your writing process.  

My writing process for each book can vary. With Super Manny Stands Up! I used a lot of creative visualization techniques to essentially manifest the original manuscript. That’s pretty much a fancy way of saying I totally psyched myself into producing a crappy first draft. I visualized and imagined the superhero book on my bookshelf alongside my other published titles. I focused on Stephanie’s character illustration and I pictured what the cover of the book might look like. I also imagined myself reading Manny’s story to kids in libraries and in schools. While doing these visualizations I’d try to imagine as many details as I could –  not just what I was seeing but what I was feeling as well.

This practice might seem like a bunch of New Age nonsense to some people but for me it solidifies a clear goal and a destination. From this point on I proceed as if it were impossible to fail because I’ve already seen (and felt) the finish line. These kinds of mental exercises help me to relax and I’m free to just listen to the story being told in my head. This is when I make the magical shift from writer to scribe.

What can readers expect from you in the future? More Manny?

Most definitely more Manny! Manny will return next year with his super sidekick, Gertie, in a sequel called Super Manny Cleans Up! The second book has an environmental theme that Stephanie, myself and the S&S team are all very proud of. I can’t wait for you to see it!

Anything else you’d like to share with readers of this blog?

Kindness matters! I’m confident all of your readers know that, and more importantly, live it but humanity as a whole has room for improvement. While the problems of the world are big and numerous, we still have the power to revise and we can start with simple acts of kindness. Everyone can be a hero to someone whether that someone is a person or an animal or a plant. Manny’s mantras are “I AM FEARLESS! I AM STRONG! I AM BRAVE! I AM POWERFUL! And I AM INVINCIBLE!” Can you imagine what the world would look like if we all had a heart like Manny’s and we believed that for ourselves? Now that would be a magical shift!

Bub by Elizabeth Rose Stanton Cover Reveal

Today I’m thrilled and honored to share with you the first look at Elizabeth Rose Stanton’s Spring 2018 title, Bub! Bub is available for pre-order now. Make room in your heart for Bub, as I’m sure he’ll find himself a home there after you read this new book!

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BUB

by Elizabeth Rose Stanton

Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books

  • ISBN 9781481487573 |
  • January 2018
  • Grades P – 3

For Bub, it’s not easy being the middle child in his little monster family—especially such a noisy and busy one: Maw and Paw can be very loud, his big sister Bernice is good at everything, and everyone has to pay attention to The Baby. No one has time for Bub. But the day comes when Bub decides to take charge, and suddenly things change in a very magical little monster way! Bub keeps his family guessing—until he sees that it might not be so bad being in the middle, after all.

LIFE: Interview with Cynthia Rylant

I am honored today to welcome Cynthia Rylant to my blog! I have admired Cynthia’s books for years, so when Simon and Schuster invited me to do an interview, I jumped at the opportunity.  Cynthia is here to talk about her book, Life, which comes out this coming Tuesday. The illustrator is Brendan Wenzel, and I interviewed him last year.

Hi Cynthia, thanks for stopping by my blog! You have been a great inspiration to me as a writer.

Hello Dylan! Thank you for inviting me into your blog.

Tell us a little bit about your new book, Life. 

Life is another out-of-the-blue piece of writing from me. I just sat down one day and spontaneously put the words on paper. This is how most of my picture books have been written, without any pre-thinking or pre-planning, starting back when I wrote my first picture book at age 23 (When I Was Young in the Mountains). I have not been a “scheduled” writer, I don’t set aside a certain time or day to work. Every writer will find his or her own way to making books, and for me, just living an ordinary life and not thinking much about writing has been what has worked best. I do feel inspired by, and also envy, writers who work very diligently day after day and who produce big beautiful—and long!—books. But I learned early on that I am not made to be that sort of writer, so I don’t push too hard to fill pages with words day after day. I guess I am more poet than novelist. Too many words and I can’t find the center. And Life: well, I think it came up from a place inside me of a need to accept the inevitable big changes in life, changes that every thing, every creature, in this world must accept. We are all part of the natural world, and nature tells us that Life is about change. It is also about love. I think children will understand this.

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What inspires your creativity and your ideas for books, and have you always been into writing?

I can say that I have always had a child’s wonder and sense of play in my heart. But I did not know anything at all about children’s books until I was 23. I was raised in rural West Virginia, and I read mostly comic books as a kid then stepped up to paperback romances as a teenager. I had no large ambitions, and assumed I would just marry my high school boyfriend and live in Shady Spring the rest of my life. But, you know, I think we are not really in control of our lives. I look back, and as many people have said about their own lives, I see where one small and seemingly minor choice or event—walking down one street instead of another or seeing a certain billboard or losing a job—can turn us in the direction of our destiny. And so it was with me. Through a series of seemingly unrelated events, I wound up working as a clerk in a public library, and when I walked into the Children’s Room—the first time I’d ever been in the children’s department of a library– there was my future. Within a few months, I was secretly writing picture books (this was in Huntington, WV) and mailing them to publishing companies in New York. I kept this secret because I was embarrassed, I felt people would think I was completely unrealistic in my hopes to be published. But I wasa writer. I fell in love with the children’s books I saw in that library—Ox-Cart Man and The Animal Family are two that I found especially beautiful and led me to my own voice—and I could not help but write. Which is still happening, from time to time.

What can readers expect from you in the future?

Sometimes I think I have done my life’s work and the stories I had inside me have been told now. I don’t want to become predictable or outdated. I have been writing stories for 40 years. But the writing has never been the central part of my world. I raised a son, I had many dogs and cats, I repaired old houses and planted flowers, I watched a lot of good shows and read some good books, I sent letters to people who mattered to me, I enjoyed cookies and tea, I tried to trust God’s plan for whatever would happen next, and I said sad goodbyes when endings came. This is all where stories come from, you know, just living. I don’t have any advice for writers except maybe the same advice I give to children, which is just play a lot. For me, play was dogs and sticks. I owe a lot to dogs and sticks. But I do think, deep down, I was never in control of anything nor will be in the future. Small seeds are always being planted, even if we don’t know it. So I’ll see what happens.

What, ultimately, do you want readers to walk away with after finishing your books?

I don’t write to change the world, or to bring joy and peace, or to send a certain message. My books are just stories I think up. And without the illustrators who made all the stories better, more beautiful, often funnier, or, as happened with Brendan Wenzel’s work for Lifedeeper, there would just be some simple words on plain pieces of paper sitting in a drawer in my house somewhere, not amounting to a whole lot of anything. It is the combined contributions of many—intuitive editors, gifted artists, brave book designers—that my writing depends on. And which eventually makes something lovely that I end up talking about to a book person like you!

Thank you again, Dylan, for inviting me, I wish you all the very best, and have a good summer.