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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview With Caron Levis

I am honored today to talk with Caron Levis, author of Ida, Always. A recipient of the Christopher Award and declared by The NY Times as "an example of children’s books at their best.” Caron's newest picture book - May I Have A Word? - comes out TOMORROW!

Here's a brief introduction - Caron Levis enjoys working with kids, using drama and writing to develop social, emotional, and literacy skills. She was inspired to write Ida, Always by the brave students, teachers, and parents she met during visits with her first book, Stuck with the Blooz. She lives in New York City, where she grew up near the real Gus and Ida. Some sounds that remind Caron of people she loves and misses are: the squeak of a sticky candy jar opening, the whir of a rotary phone dial, and the crash-swoosh of the ocean.

Welcome Caron! Thanks for stopping by to talk about yourself and your new book.

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

Caron: I have a shyness. This is something I doubt anyone who knows or meets me would guess, or maybe even believe. I love reading my books out loud, interacting dramatically with young readers. I have stood in front of large groups of people of all ages when teaching. I can introduce myself and others at parties. I teach a workshop for writers on giving public author readings and I act like a goofball when I teach my Act-Like-a-Writer workshop. But I had a shyness in me as a kid and it still hangs out inside me and grabs the wheel at— sometimes weird or frustrating— moments.

Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

I am stubbornly resistant to the “favorite” game, so instead, I will play, the “right now I remember,” game instead.

One of the first books I have a memory of is The Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, though this memory is also due to having a cassette recording of my mother reading the book to me when I was about two. I am jumping in to ‘read’, “stilllll hungry!” or “pickle…one cherry pie.” I think about that a lot as I write picture books. I like to leave room for kids to jump in either to own the words or make up their own ideas in certain parts, because I think it was the first sensation I had not just of being a reader, but also a writer. I believe that a very young, just becoming verbal, child jumping in to repeat the words of a well-known story is a form of early writing.

My other memory was of lying on my stomach on a carpet reading, and re-reading, the Ramona books. Those are some of the books that first gave me the idea that I wanted to be a children’s author….so I blame much of my life on Beverly Cleary.

A few years ago, I found my very worn copy of Hurry Home, Candy, by Meindert DeJong. I had loved this book so much and recall making a diorama of it for a book report once. When I had MFA students, in my literary seminar at The New School University Writing for Children/YA program, read it, we wondered, why though it won a Newbery Honor (it’s relatively unknown now) and if it would even be published today. It’s an emotionally harrowing book about a lost dog; fairly unrelenting in its sadness and loneliness except for very earned moments of hope found most often in the kindness of strangers, in a very different era. Some of the students enjoyed it, others really didn’t. I still love it.

One of the things I love about books, for kids and adults, is that they can be incredible, safe, kindnesses from strangers at times when a person might be feeling sad or lost in the rain. But, before you get too worried about me, note that I also adored Amelia Bedelia books, which still make me crack up, out loud. Silliness, laughter, and play is another exquisite gift books give.

What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer.)

Aimless walks, staring, inanimate objects that beg you to give them personalities and relationships, students, kids, childhood memories, overheard conversations, graffiti, things that bug me, things that make me wonder, newspaper articles, people around me, teachers, quiet, sound-spelling, emotions…

When May I Have a Word? publishes on May 23rd, you'll have written three very different picture books. Do you have a favorite? Was one easier or particularly harder to write? (Or is this like choosing your favorite child?)

Each book is special to me for a different reason, and each one had its own writing process, and road to publication.

May I Have A Word? is special for several reasons. Writing this book allowed me to: put years of angst from korrecting my name, “Caron with a C, not K” to use; play with my words and wear my silly hat; write with a lot of dialogue; work with an editor I had always wanted to have a book with; and see the personalities I have always known letters to have come alive so beautifully bright and bold thanks to Andy Rash. I mean, I always knew that letters talked to each other, but thanks to Andy I know they are giving each other the side-eye, the once over, and silent blinks of encouragement.

The process of writing May I Have a Word? was different than my other stories. First of all, it is the fastest I have ever gotten a story from idea to manuscript and had the least amount of revisions after I turned it in. I was super motivated I guess. At an event while talking to editor, Joy Peskin, she wondered if anyone could think up a story for the idea of letters C & K arguing. I wasn’t totally sure she was serious or who else she’d mentioned this too, but I’m Caron with a C, so KLEARLY this was a story for me!

I rushed home and started playing that night. When I finished and revised that one so quickly, for me, and it was accepted by Joy without major change requests, I foolishly for a moment thought, wow! Maybe this is it! I’ve figured out how to write picture books! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Yeah, tell that to the piles of stories at home waiting for me to finally figure em out. Ah, well.

But this one was fun, it was like a puzzle, because once I had the premise (refrigerator magnets trying to tell a story together but C & K get into a konflict) the story arc had to evolve not just from the characters, but the word and letters of each sentence. I mean, it’s always like that, but this time plot was totally dependent on a word. I didn’t know where it was going to go or how the conflict would resolve until K just got super upset and did something. Listening to cranky letters is how I KNew what to do next.

ME: What a fun premise. I know many who wish for this type of writing experience, but who join you in the collection of manuscripts in varying stages of drafting and revision.

What's something you want your readers to know about May I Have a Word?

Spelling can be kcompletely kconfusing, to kids and even professional writers. I mean what’s with the silent W in riters, write? I mean, rite? I mean, right?

If I didn’t make and see spelling mistakes so much, I doubt I would have had the idea for this story. Misspellings and sound-spellings can create poetry, art, jokes and I love them! One of my greatest joys and sources of inspiration are reading sentences by kids using sound spelling. Rules are incredibly important and helpful, yet wonderful things can happen while you’re figuring them out. We practice, we learn, we make mistakes, and luckily, we have teachers, copywriters, and dictionaries to help us figure spelling out. The letters don’t mind if sometimes you get then mixed up, they’re as confused as we are. Letters and words want to play and be used by you to tell people how you’re feeling, what you observe, imagine, and to make jokes with you—so, sound out and share your story.

ME: Great advice. I imagine your school visits are lots of fun, especially for kids learning all the unique and variable spelling rules for English. Finding out that adults also struggled with, what can feel arbitrary rules, can be validating and liberating.

Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

The yearning to share a story with others can really help me keep writing on the tougher days, so I try not to let myself share works-in-progress. I can, however, tell you that I recently got a peek at what LeUyen Pham is so artfully doing to turn a story I wrote, into our book, Stop That Yawn! and um, let’s just say when I saw what she’s been up to, I could not stop my smile!

ME: How tantalizing. I look forward to hearing more about this book in the near future.

Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started?

Let me start with things I am glad I did NOT know:

How hard writing something that ought to be shared is (for me.)

How long it would take me to get published

How much rejection is a part of the daily life of an author.

That there is a world of other worries, insecurities, humiliations behind the magic door of Getting a First Book Published.

What I wish I had known, I guess would be that persistence truly is part of the definition of talent—at least for many of us. Also, that a writer isn’t someone who writes better right off the bat, a writer is someone who has a need to write, write, revise, revise…etc. For me I think the one gift I would truly have wished for my younger self, would be the realization that being a writer does not mean you have to scribble in a hidden room and become a Talent, Genius, Brilliant Writer all on your “ownsome” before you are allowed to seek the company of other writers, write in a coffee shop, or state “being an author” as a goal.

The ‘writing can’t be taught’ saying is dangerous, selfish, haughty, and in some cases, elitist. Writing can’t be instantly transmitted from one person to another via magic or a formula, but writing is a practice. No, not everybody who enjoys storytelling will find that writing as their medium, or become an author, but being a writer is a way of life, a point of view, very often a need…which can be pursued, crafted, improved, opened to new ideas, both on your own and very much by teachers, mentors, and other writers. I spent—and very possibly wasted—a lot of time thinking I was supposed to sit like a piece of coal in the dark until I…poof! became a diamond. I’m not a diamond, never will be, and had I not finally showed up as my dusty self, amidst writing friends, teachers, editors, and illustrators, I wouldn’t have gotten these few stories shined up and onto shelves.

ME: Caron, I am glad you included things you are glad you “did not know.” Perhaps "ignorance is bliss." I definitely agree that writing in a vacuum is tough, if not impossible. And on behalf of all writers perched on the edge, I appreciate your advice to seek out others for comradery and commiseration, as mentors, or as instructors.

What is your favorite animal? Why?

Currently: pandas, red pandas, turtles. Why, seems like a good question for a morning writing prompt—thanks!

ME: Any tine! It’s always fun to find out what animals appeal to others and if I triggered a story nugget, all the better!

Thank you Caron for sharing with us a bit of yourself and a wonderful introduction to your new picture book - May I Have A Word? I enjoyed spending time with you and interviewing you.

Book Launch: June 10th, 12 - 2 pm at Books of Wonder, Manhatten: Launch-a-Love of Letters Party w/ Drama, Activities, SnaCKs. FB invite & more info here. (check out her website for other events)

To find out more about Caron Levis, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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