Q & A for Cygnet

Cygnet is the newsletter for the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It’s also a baby swan. Chris Larsen, the editor of Cygnet asked me to answer five questions for the winter issue… here they are.

1. What is your favorite children’s picture book?

The Story of Babar and its many sequels. I was obsessed with elephants for most of my boyhood, so I was naturally drawn to Babar. I still think the books are brilliant, very detailed and nuanced but also completely charming.

2. How about a favorite chapter book or young adult novel?

Charlotte’s Web is my favorite book for any age level. Nothing else even comes close. It’s wonderfully written and amazingly funny and completely original. It’s completely readable for 8 and 9 year olds, but has complexities and subtleties that make it work on a different level when you’re older. It’s just brilliant.

Also, now matter how many times I read it, I can’t get through the final paragraph without crying. I can’t even *talk* about it without getting choked up! “It is not often someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” I couldn’t ask for a better epitaph.

3. Do you think a writer of children’s fiction requires any unique writing skills when compared to adult fiction?

I feel like middle grade novels (which are the kind I write) are all about characters and story. You need to have either a great character or a great story, and preferably both. Those ingredients can also make for good grown-up books, but adult writers can sneak by without them, relying on a clever premise or an experimental style. So creating characters and telling stories aren’t unique skills to writers of middle grade fiction, but they are especially important.

4. What’s the best part of writing?

For me, the best part is reading something I wrote a long time ago and don’t really remember that well, so I can enjoy it as a reader. That happened with Mudville–I picked up the first draft a year after I finished, thinking it was a total mess and couldn’t be salvaged. Enough time had passed that I was able to just read it with fresh eyes, and I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. I honestly couldn’t put it down. There’s a transcendent joy to enjoying your own book. That’s what it’s all about — writing the books you yourself want to read.

5. Any suggestions for unpublished writer?

Most of the standard advice is correct: write every day, join a crit group, study the markets, be professional, etc. But I also want to give what I hope is new advice (at least for some people), so here it is: keep a journal. Write about what you’re working on and chart your progress. Document your successes and failures. Think about how you’ll make your manuscript better. Identify your goals. Express your anxieties. Celebrate your accomplishments. Write it all down!

Research shows that people learn more when they engage in reflective writing on a regular basis, which means keeping a journal will help you become a better writer faster. This isn’t just a soon-to-be published writer talking, it’s a guy with an
M.A. in Education. 🙂

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