Thursday, March 15, 2012

The 2012 Golden Kite Award Interviews: Kate Messner (Picture Book Text for "Over And Under The Snow")

Kate Messner is the winner of the 2012 Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Text for Over and Under The Snow.

Here's a peek at Kate's first few lines - an opening to a story that captivated her agent, her editor, the Golden Kite Award Picture Book Text Judges, and Readers everywhere:

Over the snow I glide.  Into woods, frosted fresh and white.
Over the snow, a flash of fur--a red squirrel disappears down a crack.
"Where did he go?"
"Under the snow," Dad says.  "Under the snow is a whole secret kingdom, where the smallest forest animals stay safe and warm.  You're skiing over them now."

Lee:  Hi Kate, thanks so much for finding the time to chat!  You were recently out in California as a speaker at this year's TED Conference in Long Beach - before I ask about Over and Under the Snow, I have to know - what was your TED talk on?

Kate: It was about imagination and world building - the video isn't posted online yet, but you can read a summary on the TED blog here.

Lee: A preview of your Golden Kite Award acceptance speech, perhaps?

Kate: Well, maybe not. My TED talk grew out of my latest book - a fast-paced futuristic weather novel called Eye Of The Storm.  Over and Under the Snow is a book that grew out of a different part of me - the part that needs to spend quiet time in the woods and wonder.

Lee: I like how you put that - how books grow out of different parts of ourselves. And in terms of "growing," your brief bio on the back flap of Over And Under The Snow says that you wrote the first draft "on a bumpy school bus, returning from a snowshoe field trip in the Adirondacks." What number draft ended up getting published?

Kate: I was just looking to see if I could find the answer to that buried on my hard drive.... I couldn't say for sure, but it wasn't the first or second or third or even eighth draft. It's funny - I did write the book on the back of an attendance sheet, back when I was teaching, and I'd been on a snowshoeing and animal tracking field trip with my 7th grade students in the Adirondacks. We'd spotted these tiny tracks that disappeared at the edge of a hole in the snow, and our guide whispered, "Look! There's been a visitor from the subnivean zone!" I fell in mad love with that word -- subnivean, which means under the snow -- and couldn't stop thinking about what was happening under my feet the whole rest of the trip. So that first draft came quickly - but I worked over many drafts of this book with my editor at Chronicle, Melissa Manlove, who pushed me to go beyond that initial sense of wonder and woods-magic to really look at connections between the world of the child and the world of the animals living beneath her skis.

Lee: The language you use in the book is so lyrical – do you think of picture book writing as similar to writing poetry or lyrics?

Kate: Very much so, and I am a poet at heart. When I was eleven, my family moved to the country, and there was this foot bridge out back that led over a creek to the woods. I used to sit out there with my notebook, writing poems about the rush of the water and the colors of the goldenrod. I loved choosing words and still do. And I think that's something that picture books and poetry have in common. Every word matters so much, and together they create a kind of music.

Lee: It makes me think of dance, how when it's really well done, it seems effortless!

Kate: Exactly! But in fact, I find picture books to be incredibly challenging to write. When I'm working on a novel and I feel stuck, I can always change gears and switch to a different chapter or scene. Picture books are so short - so concentrated - that their flaws are always staring you in the face as you write.

Lee: There is a very extensive author’s note (four pages!) with lots of additional information about “the secret kingdom under the snow” and the animals who live there. It’s like the non-fiction companion piece to the story. Was that always part of your vision for the book?

Kate: The author's note wasn't part of the original story, but it made perfect sense to me when my agent Jennifer Laughran and editor Melissa Manlove suggested that we include it. And I'm so glad that we did - so many teachers have told me that Over And Under The Snow has launched their classes into wonderful discussions and discoveries of what animals do in winter, and the nonfiction piece at the end has a lot to do with that.

Lee: You’ve published teen novels, a chapter book, and this is your second picture book. Do you have a master strategy of what you’re working on and what order you send out manuscripts in terms of aiming to build a following or a “brand” in one age-bracket or genre, or is it more about following your inspiration?

Kate: Oh...this is a hard question because I'm not a big fan of the word "brand." It makes me feel like Coke or Pepsi or something, and tying my whole identity to a product -- even when that product is books, which I love -- doesn't work for me. Here's the thing... When I signed with my literary agent, we had a long talk about the writing career that I hoped to have, and I shared with her that in my personal world, a literary role model looked more like Jane Yolen than Stephenie Meyer. That's not to take anything away from Meyer or other authors who have made their names with one kind of hugely successful book. In fact, J.K. Rowling wrote my favorite books of all time. But that's not who I am as a writer or as a person, and I knew that my writing career would need to honor all the different pieces of me if it was going to be a happy one. I'm interested in SO many different things, and I feel connected -- still -- to books that I read when I was four, and books that I read when I was nine, and books that I read when I was twelve. At my core, I'm a writer who needs to create different kinds of books for kids of different ages, and I'm so, so grateful that I've been able to do that. So no... other than writing the books that I have under contract to meet my deadlines, I don't write in order or to build a brand. I write for me and for kids. That said, my agent does offer me lots of guidance to make sure I don't get too scattered!

Lee: That's a great exercise for all of us writers, to consider who are our literary role models... It's also a pretty awesome segue to my next question, since SCBWI is where we get to meet so many of our literary role models! How long have you been a member of SCBWI? Can you share how that's helped you on your career journey?

Kate: Absolutely - I attended my first SCBWI Conference (New England) in 2007, several months before my first book came out from a tiny regional press. I was overwhelmed and clueless and completely star struck by the writers I saw when I got there. I'd been thinking about starting a blog, so I had been reading other writer blogs, and in the hallway, I recognized Loree Griffin Burns, who wrote Tracking Trash. I really wanted to say hello, so I took a deep breath and introduced myself and explained that I'd read her blog (a fact which floored her...I think most of us secretly believe we're only writing to our moms). Since then, Loree has become a critique partner as well as someone I count as a wonderful, true friend. And I think that's the greatest gift I've gotten from SCBWI. I've learned things at the workshops, for sure, and I've met some editors and agents. But for me, SCBWI has been less about making contacts than about making friends. I remember coming home from my first conference and sharing with my husband how incredible it had been. "These are my people," I told him. And they truly are. I have so many cherished friendships that started with hallway conversations at SCBWI conferences.

Lee: Yes, that sense of "tribe" is so important and powerful. You were instrumental in coordinating a lot of Skype Author visits - not just for yourself but for many other authors - for World Read Aloud Day 2012 just last week. Can you tell us how that went?

Kate: Oh, it was so much fun! From early morning to late in the day, you could watch the excitement from both authors and educators on Twitter. Things like "Just Skyped with some terrific third graders in Wisconsin!" or "Our students loved Skyping with @erindealey - such great ideas about writing!" As a former English teacher, I know how valuable and meaningful those real-world connections are for students, especially in this age of standardized testing. And for authors, it's so much fun, too - talking with kids is just the best.

Lee: That level of community involvement and organizing takes an enormous amount of time and energy. Beyond helping a great cause, are there benefits to being involved that other writers (and illustrators) for children and teens should consider?

Kate: Well, sure. Doing good work in the worlds that support your books (schools, libraries, independent bookstores) is the best kind of PR. I've seen so many authors & illustrators beating themselves up over what to do to promote this book or that book when really, so much of a title's success is out of our hands once the writing and illustrating is done. I think the best advice is to be connected -- have real conversations with people online -- and try to use your powers for good, however you can.

Lee: I love that: "try to use your powers for good, however you can." Like a superhero manifesto for all of us! My last question goes back to your Golden Kite win. What advice would you share with other writers who are working on picture books?

Kate: It's simple. If you want to write picture books, write them. Whether you are feeling inspired or not. Some of them will be awful, and this is okay. Don't send them out. Let them live their lives out quietly on your hard drive, and learn from them. Some of them will be good. Revise these. Work on them. Share them and get feedback. But if you don't make it a point to write picture books, you...won't write picture books. I learned this from my editor Melissa as we were talking down the hall of one of those big conferences...IRA or NCTE... a few years ago. I'd been lamenting the fact that for me, picture books either seemed to fall from the sky as gifts -- or not. And if they didn't, I couldn't really just sit down to write them. "Do you think most picture book authors feel that way?" I thought she'd say yes and validate my fatalistic little idea. But she didn't. She told me that most successful picture book authors she knew made it a point to try writing lots and lots of picture books -- bad ones, even -- and made it a point to come up with new ideas even when ideas didn't fall out of the sky. And then, as they did this, they got better and better at it. I nodded - and on the plane home from that conference, I sat for two hours and brainstormed picture book ideas. A dozen of them were rotten and awful and dumb. One of them wasn't, and Melissa bought it this fall. It was a great lesson for me and one that I'm happy to pass along.

Lee: Great story, and wonderful advice. Thanks, Kate. And Congratulations again on winning the Golden Kite Award for picture book text for Over And Under The Snow!

Kate: Thanks so much!!

You can find out more about Kate and her books at her website here.


Joanna said...

Thank you both. I a fan of Kate's work, and as an avid snowshoer, who loves seeing animal tracks in the snow, Over and Under the Snow is a sheer delight to me!

Beth Stilborn said...

This is such an excellent interview. It's a delight to read of another writer who believes in expressing herself in more than one genre, and in being true to herself wherever the story leads her.

I also appreciated the advice to write picture books, good ones, bad ones and in between ones, and just keep writing.

Thank you both.

patientdreamer said...

Wow! Great interview. Lots of meaty thoughts to go away with, thankyou Katie and Lee and thankyou also to Joanna for posting the link.