|Pat Zeitlow Miller, winner of the 2014 Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Text!|
I contacted Pat to find out more...
* * *
Lee: Can you tell us about finding out you'd won the 2014 Golden Kite Award for picture book text for "Sophie's Squash"?
Pat: I was at home. The phone rang, and my caller ID said “Lin Oliver.” I had never met Lin, but I knew who she was, of course. But I couldn’t imagine why she’d be calling me. I thought maybe it would be an automated message from the SCBWI talking about dues or some administrative change.
When I answered, and found out it really was Lin on the other end, I was a bit stumped. I knew about the Golden Kites, but I didn’t know what the timing was for them or how they were selected.
Once Lin told me “Sophie’s Squash” had won, I was thrilled and shocked and giddy all at the same time. And, frankly, a little astounded. There were so many wonderful picture books published in 2013.
Lee: The book's flap copy says that "Sophie's Squash" is based on a true story - your daughter, Sonia, once loved a squash?
Pat: Yes! When Sonia was 3 – she’s now 12 – she fell in love with a butternut squash we bought at the grocery store. She gave it a face, wrapped it in a blanket and carried it everywhere. She did the same with other items – like rocks and those small bags of flour.
Lee: So what was the process of taking a real-life inspiration and make it a picture book?
Pat: Sonia’s love for her squash gave me the initial idea for the book. But by itself it wasn’t enough. If I had written the book exactly the way things happened in real life, it would have been an amusing anecdote, at best.
And that’s kind of what my first draft was. It took me a while to build out a full story and figure out the problem (the rotting squash, a long winter apart) and the resolution (baby squash).
Another Sonia memory helped me pull things together. When one of our cats died, we had it cremated. Then, we planted a tree, sprinkled the ashes and shared memories. (Of course, we also read Judith Viorst’s “The Tenth Good Thing About Barney.”) Once we were done, Sonia asked with utter sincerity, “Now, will a new kitty grow?” That memory gave me the nudge I needed to move the story in the right direction.
I also feel compelled to admit that I was not as patient as the parents in my book. I smuggled Sonia’s squash out of her room before it started to rot and bought her a replacement. She didn’t seem to mind, but one of the benefits of writing fiction is you can make things turn out the way you wish they had in real life.
Lee: You have some really funny lines in the book, including one moment when Sophie is putting her squash (that she's named Bernice) to bed, that reads:
"Every night, Sophie gave Bernice a bottle, a hug, and a kiss."
"Well, we did hope she'd love vegetables," Sophie's mother told her father.
"Shhhhhhh," Sophie said. "Bernice is sleeping."
How do you approach writing "funny?"
Pat: My first reaction to this question is to say, “Darned if I know.”
But that’s probably not helpful.
The humor in this book is very close to my own, with some splashes of Sonia. She’s had a very dry sense of humor ever since she was little, and I’ve always enjoyed the juxtaposition of the maturity of her humor with her cute, small-child face.
I didn’t set out to make the book funny, but there were just too many places to work in humor to pass them by. When those opportunities are there, it is terribly wrong to ignore them.
Lee: There's also a warmth and loving tone to the book - it's a story about a girl who loves a squash like it's a friend of hers, and even when some other kids aren't so kind, Sophie's parents (and the narration) are supportive and non judgmental throughout. Can you talk about hitting that tone 'just right?'
Pat: This is something I worked very hard on. And I’d say it’s the common denominator in all the picture books I have coming out in the next few years.
With the challenges of growing up, it’s important for children to see warmth, safety and family love in books. I don’t want to beat readers over the head with those things or – heaven forbid – work in a moral, but I want those feelings to be the underlying core of every story I write. Not every child has warmth, safety and family love, but they should know those things are possible and that they deserve them.
I also like having parents in my books. A lot of children’s literature disposes of parents neatly early on. They’re dead or traveling or self-involved or dysfunctional. And, there are good reasons for telling stories that way. As a major Harry Potter fan girl, I understand those reasons.
But I like having parents in my stories who might not be perfect, but who support their children’s efforts and love them, while still giving them room to figure things out themselves. They’re kind of a safety net while their children are teetering on the story’s high wire.
Lee: I love that - parents as "a safety net while their children are teetering on the story's high wire." Nicely said!
Writers just starting out often look at picture books and their small word count and think, "Oh, that must be easy to do, it's so short." Those of us who have been at this a while understand just how challenging the short form can be! "Sophie's Squash" is your debut picture book - how many drafts did you write before arriving at the words that were published?
Pat: Oh, goodness. At least 10 full drafts with a variety of different approaches and endings.
I wrote this story early in my efforts to become a published author, so I learned A LOT along the way. And as I learned, I revised. And revised. And revised. To keep myself amused through all the revision, I gave my versions creative file names like “Reheated Squash” or “Squash Leftovers.”
The good news is that when I finally sold the story, I didn’t have to do too many revisions for my editor.
Lee: When did you first join SCBWI, and can you share how that's helped you on your journey as an author?
Pat: I joined SCBWI about six years ago, and it’s been vital to my success. I attend state meetings in Wisconsin, where I live, and also in Iowa, which is relatively close to where I live.
At SCBWI, I’ve made friends, found critique groups, learned from visiting authors and editors, and found my agent – the inimitable Ammi-Joan Paquette – after she spoke at an Iowa event.
When I started, I knew nothing. SCBWI helped me figure out how to do what I wanted so desperately to do. And once I did it, the people there have been nothing but supportive of me and my book.
Lee: In addition to attending #LA14SCBWI - The 2014 SCBWI Summer Conference - to accept your Golden Kite Award, you'll also be on faculty, giving the Friday breakout session "When Less Is More - Cutting the Fluff Out Of Picture Books." Can you tell us more about that workshop?
Pat: For picture books to work, they need to be lean, using no more words than are truly needed to tell the story. What I see in a lot of beginning manuscripts – or manuscripts from folks who usually write for older audiences – is way more words than the story requires.
And often, the writer could cut 200 or more words from his or her manuscript without sacrificing plot in the slightest. Some people are aghast when they hear this, but it’s true.
I’ll be sharing techniques writers can apply to their picture books in progress to get rid of words that don’t add value to their story.
Lee: Sounds invaluable!
What advice do you have for other writers working on picture book manuscripts?
Pat: Everyone says this, but it’s so true. READ. When I started seriously pursuing a career in children’s literature, I made a list of my favorite picture book authors – Cari Best, Dori Chaconas, Kelly DiPucchio, Jill Esbaum, Mem Fox, Kevin Henkes, Mary Lyn Ray, Liz Garton Scanlon and Judith Viorst to start – and I checked out every book they’d ever written from the library.
I spent weekends really reading them and figuring out what made their books work for me. How did they handle page turns and tension? What did their words show and what did they leave to the illustrator? How did their endings tie everything up? It was basically my own master class in picture book writing, and it was one of the most enjoyable classes I’ve ever taken.
* * *
If you'd like to hear, learn from, and cheer Pat on as she accepts her Golden Kite Award, join us at the 2014 SCBWI Summer Conference, August 1-4 in Los Angeles. Registration and information here.
Would you like to win a free copy of "Sophie's Squash?"
Leave a comment here on this post in the next seven days, and we'll randomly choose one winner!
(Make sure to include your contact email in the comment - if we can't reach you to let you know you've won, we'll have to choose another winner.)
Illustrate and Write On,