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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Curtis Manley

I was immediately enthralled by the cover of The Crane Girl, published February 1, 2017. Knowing the basic tale, because my son works in Japan and has shared a number of the folktales with me, I was excited to read Curtis Manley's retelling. Especially after Kirkus gave it a starred review, saying that "more from this team would be a welcome addition to folk-tale collections."

A fellow Pacific Northwest writer, Curtis has graciously agreed to join me for an interview and talk a bit about his newest book. Curtis's debut picture book, The Summer Nick Taught His Cats to Read, was published in 2016 and named Best Book of the Year by School Library Journal and the Chicago Public Library. His newest picture book, Shawn Loves Sharks, is due April 25, 2017

Welcome Curtis,

Hi, Maria! Thanks so much for inviting me to your blog!

ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing?)

CURTIS: My degrees are in geology, and that allowed me to spend summers pretty much by myself, mapping lava flows and paying close attention to anything that interested me. Now I spend days pretty much by myself (though now there's a cat nearby), mapping out stories and filling them with whatever interests me. The scenery in my cluttered office can't compare to that of the high desert -- but there is something to be said for indoor plumbing.

I began writing stories for children in 2000, when my daughter was young and we were reading lots of picture books. I got more serious about it in 2007, joined a critique group, began writing and selling nonfiction to children's magazines, and eventually had enough picture book manuscripts (that I thought were good) to begin looking for an agent. I waited patiently for 23 months for the agent I most wanted to represent me, but soon after she said "yes" she began selling my manuscripts.

Which author or book(s) was your biggest inspiration as a child?

We had books in the house when I was a child, but for whatever reason we weren't taken to the library. I enjoyed Roald Dahl's early children's books. I also remember especially enjoying The Poky Little Puppy and The Color Kittens; I liked the rhythms, rhymes, illustrations, and plot of those and other books. They're probably one of the reasons I grew up writing poetry -- and picture books.

By April, when Shawn Loves Sharks is published, you'll have three pretty diverse picture books. Do you have a favorite? Was one type or style easier to write? (Or is this like choosing your favorite child?)

These first three books are so different from each other, but I like them all! Though Shawn Loves Sharks will be the third to be released, it was the first I sold. It went through several versions with my critique group, but has changed very little since my publisher first saw it.

The Summer Nick Taught His Cats to Read, which was published in July of 2016, was the second I sold. I did three rounds of revisions with the publisher before they acquired it, then two more rounds right after that, and an additional two rounds about six months later. Those revisions were the hardest writing work I've done -- word choice, rhythm, plot, action. It is so much harder to write something short than something long!

The Crane Girl, being an adaptation of a Japanese folktale, is very different from the other two, for all sorts of reasons. I was constrained to follow the plot of the original folktale, but made the story my own with the haiku, cultural details, and emotional elements. I think the publisher and I went through two rounds of revisions, but those were straightforward and not difficult.

I like each finished book for different reasons, but a thread that winds through them all is that I was able to embed nonfiction details that interest me into the stories. Facts about sharks and seals. Books, reading, and how learning to read is easy for some of us and hard for others. Crane biology and Japanese poetry. I'm probably more of a nonfiction than fiction writer, but I still do enjoy working out (or discovering) the plot of a story...

ME: Thank you for sharing the unique path of each of your books. Interesting that the order of sale isn't the order of publication.

What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

In grad school, I had a Japanese housemate for awhile, and she shared with me the recipe for the tofu with ginger (that Yasuhiro makes for Hiroko in The Crane Girl). My roommate's version also included green onions and soy sauce; I still make it now and then -- a nice combination of contrasting colors, flavors, and textures.

What inspired you to write The Crane Girl? Why an adaptation of Japanese folktales? Have you been to Japan?

I have not been to Japan, but would love to go -- especially to Hokkaido, the northern island where the red-crowned cranes live. I've enjoyed folktales from all parts of the world, but many of those from Japan interested me even more. Over the years I had read several different versions of The Crane Wife folktale, and then The Decemberists released their musical version in 2006 (at which point I had been writing for children for about 6 years). Those songs got me thinking about the folktale again. I realized that although children found the story interesting with main characters who are adults, a version with main characters who are children might also be wonderful. After that, it was a simple matter to rework the tale and create the haiku (ha! not simple at all!).

ME: I love the way you reworked the tale for the main character to be the son and for them to have a happy ending, while staying true to the underlying folktale.

What was the hardest portion to write?

The poetry (haiku and senryu) was probably the hardest part. Each poem had to reveal a character's interior thoughts, be faithful to the tradition of English-language haiku, and at the same time be clear and engaging to a young reader (that is, closely tied to the story and not too 'zen-like'). In some cases it was a difficult balancing act.

ME: I enjoyed the insight the haiku offered. Combined with Wang's illustrations they are what make this such a touchingly beautiful book.

What one thing do you hope your readers take away from The Crane Girl?

Mostly, I hope they enjoy the story! Beyond that, I hope they learn a little about Japanese folktales, haiku and related poetry, and the red-crowned crane. Anything else positive they take away is a bonus and likely will be a bit different for every reader.

What do you know about writing or publishing now, that you wish you had known when you started writing? Did it vary greatly for each of your three picture books?

I started out simply believing that my story ideas would be of interest to kids -- and publishers. I had to educate myself about everything else as I went along.

One of the most important things I learned was how subjective publishers' choices can be! Shawn Loves Sharks was turned down by a handful of publishers for different (and conflicting) reasons before being acquired by a publisher who liked everything about it... Anyone who is submitting manuscripts to publishers should understand that each rejection is simply an indication that one specific editor did not feel that one specific manuscript was right for them. I still get plenty of rejections, too.

What is your favorite animal? Why?

I know just enough about so many animals that I have many favorites for all sorts of different reasons. Cranes, of course. And cats! Crows and ravens and magpies. Pangolins (whose numbers are dropping because they are likely the most trafficked animal in the world). Anteaters. Badgers. Wolverines. Pademelons. To name a few. But that's too few! I didn't mean to leave out Pikas. Or bumblebees. Or ballooning spiders.

ME: I actually had to look up Pademelons - small to mid-sized Australian relatives of the Wallaby and Kangaroos. We truly do learn something new everyday. Thank you Curtis for sparking my interest in yet another animal. :-)

Thank you, Maria! I enjoyed your questions!

Thanks again Curtis for stopping by to share with us your enlightening and encouraging answers. I can't wait to read Shawn Loves Sharks. Good luck in your future endeavors and I hope there is another foreign folktale in the works.

To find out more about Curtis Manley, or get in touch with him:

Come back Friday for my review of The Crane Girl - #PPBF.

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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