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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Margery Cuyler

This week, I have a very special, extra treat - two special interviews of author Margery Cuyler and illustrator Will Terry and a book review for their new release BONAPARTE FALLS APART.

I would like to introduce a prolific and generous author (having written over 50 books) and former editor/publisher in the children's divisions of several publishers. Margery Cuyler grew up in a suspected haunted house with her siblings and four cousins. This might explain the number of skeleton books she's written.

Margery, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest books and writing.

Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)

It takes me a while to “enter” the book I want to write, so I spend time experimenting with different beginnings by writing them out in longhand wherever I happen to be (in a car, at the kitchen table, on a train, at a conference). Usually, these beginnings are pretty lame, but I think of the process as “warming up.” Then I put my scribblings away for a few weeks and let my unconscious work on the problem. Suddenly, bingo, the beginning finally solidifies, and I write the first draft on my desktop, which sits in my office on the second floor of my house. I started working on children’s stories in my writing classes in college, but before that, I took Creative Writing in secondary school. I was lucky that I had a great writing teacher back then. Although I first was published as a NF children’s writer, I gradually began to realize that picture books are my milieu. I am a visual thinker, so the voice comes naturally to me.

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

I was induced on New Year’s Eve so my dad could get a tax deduction.

How did your experience as an editor influence your writing?

I don’t think my editing career was altogether good for my writing efforts, as I tended to be too self-critical, which sometimes inhibited my ability to complete a story. On the other hand, learning the steps in a book’s evolution while working in various publishing houses taught me story boarding, pacing, and the ways artwork can extend and adds texture to words.

Would you say there is a common thread in your 40 published picture books? Is there one?

I tend to write about friendship (The Trouble with Soap, Freckles and Willie, Freckles and Jane, Big Friends, The Biggest Best Snowman, Best Friends, I Repeat, Don’t Cheat, Bonaparte Falls Apart) and I like to explore what’s “good” in the world (Kindness Is Cooler, Mrs. Ruler, Please Say Please!). I also like to write stories in which a character solves a problem (Skeleton Hiccups, the Jessica stories, Hooray for Reading Day!). And you’ve probably noticed it’s a lot of fun to write about skeletons.

Ghosts and skeletons appear in many of your books. What draws you to these characters?

I think kids like them! Also, I grew up in a haunted house (built in 1685) in Princeton, NJ, and Halloween was a huge occasion every year.

I fell in love with Bonaparte. You brought such life to this little skeleton. What was the inspiration for Bonaparte Falls Apart?

My manuscripts often start with a title. Since I like to write about skeletons, the name Bonaparte came to mind when I thought of a skeleton whose bones fall apart.

How does your experience with Bonaparte Falls Apart differ from Sir William and the Pumpkin Monster and Freckles and Willie? Do the number of rejections and revisions ever get/seem less?

Oy. Rejections. I get lots of them. I have a bulging folder of manuscripts that haven’t resonated with editors. But I’m prolific, so every now and then one of my stories connects with an editor. Much has changed in the publishing world since the mid ‘70s, when picture-book texts were wordier than they are today. Bonaparte Falls Apart has less narrative than Sir William and the Pumpkin Monster and Freckles and Willie. In addition, Will Terry’s art has a different, more digital look from the art in my earlier books. In general, I’d say that the designer plays a much larger role in the appearance and success of a book than in the early days of my publishing career.

I also think picture books are more sophisticated than they used to be. For example, I included puns in the text for Bonaparte Falls Apart, the meaning of which might be missed by a five-year old but will hopefully entertain the adults/siblings/caregivers who read the book out loud to a child.

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

There weren’t that many “children’s books” published when I was a kid, but my parents read fairytales, the Beatrix Potter titles, and the classics, such as Otto of the Silver Hand and Wind in the Willows, to me.

I loved Robert Lawson’s drawings in Ferdinand the Bull and Antoine de Saint Exupery’s artwork in The Little Prince. I poured over the color plates of N.C. Wyeth’s work in The Boy’s King Arthur and Kidnapped. Oh, and Ernest H. Shepherd’s black-and-white drawings in The Reluctant Dragon--they were wonderful. My grandfather, a few of my cousins, and my sister are artists, so there was always a lot of art around the house. Good art, too.

With such a diverse spectrum of work, what/who is your greatest source of inspiration?

My dad was a superb storyteller, and as he was dying, he reminded me that “storytelling is an act of love.” That line has stuck with me, as I think of each story I write as an act of love. I’m inspired, too, by going to museums, reading books for all ages, and interacting with children, other children’s authors, and illustrators.

Do you have a favorite book? (We promise NOT to tell the others) Perhaps one that was the most gratifying to write? One that means the most you or your family? Or one that tickled your funny bone the most?

Looking back, I’d say that Skeleton Hiccups and The Biggest Best Snowman are two of my favorites.

My family likes the chapter book I wrote, The Battlefield Ghost, because it’s about the Hessian soldier ghost who supposedly haunted my childhood home.

What was the toughest aspect of writing Bonaparte Falls Apart? Did you get any pushback because his friends actually solve the problem, instead of Bonaparte?

The most challenging thing for me when writing Bonaparte Falls Apart was coming up with all the puns in the book, as they had to relate to the characters.

For example, Bonaparte says things like “Bone-anza!” Or, I described him as a “rib-tickling wonder” in science class. As for the fact his friends solve the problem of his falling-apart bones before school starts, I feel that’s okay. Since Bonaparte is a friendship story, I thought it was okay to have his friends help him, just as friends do in real life.

Maybe I like Bonaparte so much because it is different in plot structure. Bonaparte Falls Apart is so beautifully succinct. Did you submit it with illustrator notes? Did you have much input into the images? When did you know Will Terry would be the illustrator?

Will Terry illustrated another book of mine, Skeleton for Dinner, and the team at Crown/Random House thought Will and I were a good combination. A few other illustrators had turned down the book, but I think that was a blessing, because in a way the text was made for Will. The art director and designer at Crown/Random House encouraged Will to experiment with a new look, which I think he pulled off. (No bones about it!)

I didn’t submit any illustration notes, but Emily Easton, my editor, was nice enough to share sketches and art work with me as the book traveled through its various iterations, so I did get to offer comments.

Was it serendipity or planning for Purim Chicken (January), Bonaparte Falls Apart (August) and The Little Red Firetruck (October) to all release this year? You’ve had a few years where you released two or three picture books; do you find that they compete against each other for attention?

I am a little worried that maybe I’ve become too prolific since retiring from full-time work three years ago. I have sold six manuscripts since then so am now trying to slow down a bit.

As for Purim Chicken, Bonaparte Falls Apart, Best Friends (a Step Into Reading title published Sept. 5) and The Little Fire Truck, they are very different from one another. Purim Chicken has sold mainly to a Jewish audience, Bonaparte Falls Apart will sell to fans of Skeleton Hiccups and Skeleton for Dinner, The Little Fire Truck--a continuation of the series that began with The Little Dump Truck and The Little School Bus--will sell to preschoolers, and Best Friends is part of Random House’s well-established Step Into Reading program. Still, I guess I’ll find out in the next year if I’ve overdone it.

Is there something you want your readers to know about Bonaparte Falls Apart?

I wrote most of it while on a ship.

What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you? Any advice for unpublished authors?

When I worked full time while also raising two children, I had very little time to write. Most of my books from 1978-2013 were written in the middle of the night. That was difficult, but I LOVED my day job as an editor/publisher, so I wasn’t really unhappy or frustrated. I figured that later there’d be a period in my life when I’d have more time to write, and that’s now.

My advice for unpublished writers is to join SCBWI and take advantage of the workshops offered by their local chapters. Also, I recommend attending their national conventions. The investment is so worth it, as you connect with editors and learn what they’re looking for and how books are being marketed. For example, it’s increasingly evident that authors need to market their work on social media, so I suggest that even if you’re unpublished, you should join Facebook, open a Twitter account, etc. I used to think that all you needed to do was write what you wanted, regardless of marketing concerns, but now -- with library funding drying up and the fact Borders closed and there are fewer independent bookstores -- it’s more important than ever to pay attention to what holes are in the marketplace that you could fill as an author. Currently there is a plethora of mostly fabulous picture-book biographies that have been published (I suspect) because of the influence of Common Core. There are also a variety of titles coming out about “coding” that must have been acquired by publishers a few years ago. Someone was anticipating the future at the time those books were acquired. Of course, I do believe you should write from your heart; I’m just suggesting it might be easier to get published if you don’t keep trying to re-invent the wheel. This is also a great time for writers from different ethnic backgrounds to express themselves, as their voices have been largely ignored since the cornucopia of multicultural literature published in the ‘60s.

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

I’m working on a sequel to Bonaparte Falls Apart and am beginning to think about a story starring a bus named COLUMBUS. (See, the title came first!) Meanwhile, I have two more books scheduled for 2018 and 2019 and continue to write.

I’m also thinking of working on a MG Civil War ghost story but need to visit Sharpsburg to really get a handle on it. I have written a partial manuscript, but it needs A LOT of work.

Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or anything you’re glad you didn’t know about in advance?

I wish I had been more diligent about saving all the editorial correspondence and drafts of my earlier books, since now I recognize that the de Grummond collection at the University of Southern Mississippi and The Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota collects these files for researchers. I’m not necessarily suggesting that someone will want to do research on my work, but I do think it’s important to preserve the past.

Now with email, it’s even more unlikely that the creative process that goes into a book will be documented, unless there’s a way for institutions to preserve information through The Cloud. All those years when I was burning my candle at both ends, I wasn’t very good about file keeping. My desk was a disaster, covered with baby bottles, juice boxes, plush toys, tax receipts, the whole enchilada; well, my desk still is a mess, but at least I’m starting to keep better records.

What is your favorite animal? Why?

I adore dogs. They truly are man and woman’s best friend. Second to that, I like bears and want to write a bear story soon.

Thank you, Margery for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.

Be sure to check out tomorrow's interview of Will Terry and my review of Bonaparte Falls Apart on Thursday.

To find out more about Margery Cuyler, or get in touch with her:

[and to pronunciation her name properly visit – ]

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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