Elizabeth: Can you tell us about If You Were a Dog?
When I think about this book – it makes me smile. The book asks a series of questions for kids to consider about what sort of animal they would be if they were, say, a dog, a cat, a bird, a fish, a frog – even a dinosaur. The book opens with the dog question:
If you were a dog, would you be a speedy-quick,
Best-friend-ever sort of dog?
Would you howl at the moon?
Some dogs do.
Elizabeth: How long did it take from story idea until the book was published?
Jamie: Sometimes the initial idea for a book just flows from me in a matter of hours. That’s what happened with If You Were a Dog. I’d been talking with a little boy who was pretending to be a dog and I asked him, “What sort of dog are you? Are you going to bark in storytime today?” And that’s really all it took – I practically ran home that day and wrote the first few lines of the book about what type of dog a child might be. I’ve had dogs my whole life – so all the questions are based on the dogs I’ve known.
Of course, a book needs more than just one fun thought … and it took me a little while to focus on only animals – and even longer to get all the descriptive words right. Plus, I believe I spent months putting hyphens in and taking hyphens out again … in total, I think it took over a year to get the text into a form I was ready to submit to publishers.
When I finally did start submitting, I sent it to five open houses that I loved – into slush piles. I didn’t hear anything for months and then one morning I saw that I had an email message from Janine O’Malley at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. She wondered if the book was still available and if I would email her a copy so she could share it with her colleagues. That was in December of 2009. I think Janine made me an offer in January and the book was scheduled to release in 2012.
AND THEN … the most amazing thing happened. Caldecott-winning illustrator Chris Raschka signed onto the project. I was stunned when I found out. I knew and respected Chris’ work – it was an unbelievable thought that he would be bringing my text to life. Of course, he’s busy. The publication date ended up moving back to 2014 to accommodate his schedule. So, the first book I sold has ended up being the third to be released. In my mind, Chris’ work was well worth the extra two year wait!
Elizabeth: Chris Raschka! How exciting! Well worth the wait. I’ve noticed that your books are each by a different illustrator. Do you, as an author, have any input on who gets to illustrate your story?
Jamie: As the author, I have had no say in who the illustrators for my books would be – beyond giving a general “yes” or “no” to the choices made by my editors. So far, I have only said, “AWESOME!” to all three of the illustrators: David Walker, Ned Young, and Chris Raschka.
With each project, at some point, I do see rough sketches or early drafts of the art and I am able to give feedback. There were a few instances in each manuscript when I did give feedback that affected the final book. In all cases, I was so happy with the overall style/tone/feel of the book – I really think each illustrator brought exactly what the text needed to the project. When I look at the art in my books – I simply can’t imagine any other style/look. I’ve heard of authors being disappointed in the art in their books – or feeling a loss of control, but I have never felt that way. I go into every book – even in the early writing stage—saying, “I’m leaving space right there for an illustrator to play and have fun creating.” I have never wanted to have too much control – and I try to stay away from exacting illustration directions/notes.
In my mind, every person connected with the book process knows what he/she is doing and each person adds a richness to the book that wouldn’t exist if I were the one making all the choices. I love how books represent many creative spirits coming together for the best product – because they are created for the best people on the planet – kids.
Elizabeth: Can you tell us a little about your writing process?
Jamie: My writing process is dictated by the project I’m working on. If I need to research a topic – I will spend a few weeks reading or watching everything I can that is connected to the topic and taking notes or just letting it sink into my brain. Finally, I’ll spend two or three straight days writing the first draft (if it’s a picture book) and then I’ll spend days, weeks, months, or years revising the manuscript. Usually, it’s just a matter of a month or two of writing and revising. I often write for about two hours, take a break such as a walk with my dogs, and then come back to write/revise for a few more hours. Breaks are essential – and knowing that I need to find perfect words and not settle for just okay keeps me motivated. Picture books are like a puzzle where you keep taking out and replacing pieces until they all fit together perfectly.
Elizabeth: To write for children, do you think an author needs to have regular interaction with children?
Jamie: No, I do not think that writers have to have regular interaction with kids to write for kids – I think writers have to have once been a kid and be interested in topics of interest to kids. Of course, for me, it certainly helps that I do work with kids. My work is very much affected by my daily interactions with kids, and I would certainly miss that inspiration if I suddenly went to live in a cabin in a forest without any people around me (and believe me, I have considered this – hee hee).
For me, being a storyteller/associate librarian gives me a unique perspective on the types of books that I write. I write books that I would want to use in storytime with preschoolers. My books all have opportunities for the kids to become a part of the reading – be it with howling or clapping or making the “URRRRNNNT-URRRRNNNT!” of big rig’s horn. When I write, I visualize the way the book will work with the kids I will read it to one day.
But, I know many successful authors who do not interact with kids on a daily or even weekly basis. This does not mean they ignore what today’s kids are like or what interests them or what kids need from books – it just means, like any writer – they know their subject and their audience. Some writers write for the child they once were. That’s fantastic!
Of course, if you’re writing for children/teens, it helps to understand their developmental needs. For instance, most two year olds have not yet lost a tooth, been to the principal’s office, or learned to ride a two-wheeler. I wouldn’t pick those topics in writing for a preschooler – on the flip side, most fifth graders are no longer interested in how to tie their shoes, or put on pants, or button a shirt. They don’t worry so much about nap time either. A teen might be very interested in getting his/her driver’s license, but not that interested in stories about spelling bees or first slumber parties. Knowing what your audience is currently experiencing, or will soon experience, helps you write a story that they will enjoy.
My advice to those writing for kids who are not able to be around kids – read books currently published for the age group you want to write for and think about the big emotional issues you experienced at that age. The specifics may have changed since you were a kid (What do you mean you didn’t have a cell phone? How did you text people?), but the emotions haven’t changed. It still hurts to be left out. It’s still scary to be alone in your bed in the dark. And it’s still awesome to find out that a special someone LIKE likes you.
Elizabeth: Can you tell us a little more about yourself?
Jamie: I’ve been writing for kids for about fourteen years now. My early books were certainly inspired by a combination of raising children (my husband and I have two amazing daughters) and working as an associate librarian doing early literacy storytimes. I graduated from Hamline University’s MFAC program in 2009 – that experience remains a highlight of my writing life. Through Hamline and SCBWI, I have been fortunate to meet and be inspired by an array of incredible writers and illustrators.
For me, being a writer isn’t a career as much as it is simply who I am. Words and stories float around me and inspire me. Stories and words make me happy. I love being a part of a world that creates stories for children. Writing for kids and inspiring them become readers is my vocation, I can’t image doing anything else. People ask me all the time what the best part of being a writer is – and I always answer – the best thing about being a writer is the opportunity to meet interesting, passionate, fabulous people: readers, writers, illustrators, editors, agents, book-lovers of all sorts. I honestly believe book people are the best sort of people – and people who dedicate their lives to giving kids the world through books – well, I’m blessed to be a part of that.
Elizabeth: We’ve now reached the time in our interview for the let’s-get-to-know-the-author-better, nearly-pointless, sort-of-silly, rapid-fire questions:
Q: Pizza or salad?
Q: Ocean or mountain?
A: Midwest forest. As northern as possible.
Q: Tree house or doll house?
A: Doll house in a tree house.
Q: Violin or piano?
A: Lalalalala – I’m a singer.
Q: Comic story or learn-something story?
A: Both – I hope to take something away from every story I read – but if there is no comic-relief in a book – I’m not likely to keep reading it for long. That is NOT to say that I wouldn’t read a dark topic or a serious topic – but even in those scary places – there is still joy in this world. So, I do appreciate a little bit of levity with every topic.
Q: Laura Ingalls Wilder or Hermione Granger?
A: Hmmm… both of these characters have spunk and do not take no for an answer. They also both make some big mistakes due to overconfidence… They are smart, brave, women of their time. One, of course is based on a real person – but the two characters are iconic. Too hard to answer –both Laura and Hermione would be preferred over a Bella Swan any day of the week.
For more information about Jamie Swenson visit her website: www.jamieswenson.com
Her books are available at: http://www.indiebound.org/ and other bookstores.