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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Lisa Mantchev

I love book launches! Not only do I get to meet fellow authors, but they are usually held in one of the happiest places on earth - bookstores. Last week, I had the privilege to hear Lisa Mantchev read her newest picture book - Someday, Narwhal.

Her debut picture book - Strictly No Elephants - took the market by storm in 2015. The beautiful illustrations (which harken back to older Golden Books), the message of acceptance, friendship, and diversity, and an adorable elephant and his human best friend make this book an instant treasure. Her two most recent picture books, Sister Day! (a sibling story full of love and imagination) and Someday, Narwhal (see Friday's #PPBF post) are just as delightful. It is my pleasure to introduce you to Lisa Mantchev.

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

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

LISA: Right about third grade, I started carrying around a pink unicorn Trapper Keeper with all my stories inside it. I wrote stories for class, on the computer (which was a NEW THING in THOSE DAYS,), and for school productions. By fifth grade, I was adapting books into scripts for performances, and by the time I was in high school, I was writing full-length plays. Anything I write is sure to have whimsy, magic, great costuming, and lots of food

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

The peanut butter in candy--Reece’s, for example--gives me heartburn. Not that that stops me! Also, I collect a LOT of things, like letterpress, typewriters, original art, and now taxidermy (long story!) but my first obsession was old hardcover books.

Okay, taxidermy got my interest. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

I really started in the classic British literature section (Noel Streatfeild’s Shoe series, Alice in Wonderland, A Little Princess, The Secret Garden.) Out of all of them, Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes probably made the biggest impression. It kicked off my love of Shakespeare, and there are distinct echoes of it in Eyes Like Stars (i.e. the character of Ariel from The Tempest, which was a part that Pauline played.)

The hours I spent with Alice, Sarah, & Mary are also fond memories for me. Your newest picture book Someday, Narwhal is a sequel to your smash hit Strictly No Elephants. Where did the idea for this story come from? Had you planned to write it originally?

I had considered doing companion books, but nothing concrete until I had a conversation with Zac Brewer at DragonCon about a little narwhal who lives in a fish bowl and wants to see the world. I distinctly remember him telling me “that story needs to be told.” So, I wrote it on the flight home in my Moleskin while drinking orange juice that just happened to have one of those little bottles of vodka poured into it. *ahem*

So, Someday, Narwhal was born on a plane, how fitting! Who or what inspired your second picture book, Sister Day! ?

I’m the older sibling--my sister Lori is two years and two months younger--and we played a lot of imagination games when we were growing up. I was definitely the bossy one. Always had to be the one holding the garden hose (literally.) I once tied her to a tree when we were playing Wonder Woman.

When we got older, there were the usual instances of threatening to murder each other and then banding together to fix things we’d broken. Once I got my license, I became the chauffeur. I once pulled over my car and told her she could walk the rest of the way to school, and her calm retort was “mom and dad pay for your gas and insurance.” I still think about that and laugh.

She lives in Seattle, which is three hours and a ferry ride away from Port Angeles, but I still feel like we don’t see each other enough!

So perhaps just a bit autobiographical. :-) Which was the hardest of the three to write? The easiest? And why?

My agent, Laura Rennert, and my editor, Sylvie Frank taught me how to take an idea and turn it into a picture book with Strictly No Elephants. I think Sister Day! took the most rewrites. By the time I hit Someday, Narwhal, I felt like I had the hang of it. That feeling fluctuates a lot, though.

I can imagine. This is a tough profession with lots of areas for doubt. You were already a published author of YA novels when you published your first picture book Strictly No Elephants. How different is the process and what was the most rewarding part of the publishing process for picture books?

Words are words are words, but a picture book is so streamlined that every single word counts times a hundred. Novels are obviously harder because of the time commitment for drafting and editing, so it hurts a lot less when a picture book goes out and doesn’t find the right home. In all cases, the most rewarding part is meeting with readers (of all ages) and hearing how they connected to the story.

What's something you want your readers to know about Someday, Narwhal? Anything you’ve wanted to say about Strictly No Elephants or Sister Day! ?

The beautiful thing about the picture books is that I don’t have to say much… people add what’s important to them to the stories. With Elephants, the bullied child stands in for kids having a hard time at school, racial minorities and LGBTQ people suffering from discrimination, and the refugees overseas seeking asylum here. In Narwhal, the main character might be someone who has mobility issues or suffers from agoraphobia. The books become what the reader needs them to be.

I love this sentiment and remember advocating this exact position in college. Congrats on successfully doing this in PBs. How did Strictly No Elephants, The Musical get started? Would you ever make another picture book into a musical?

I teach children’s theatre at Olympic Theatre Arts in Sequim. We’re starting our third year of the program, and we’ve expanded from one-week intensives to include ten-week class sessions as well as a full-length production at the end of the summer. I got to work writing a script with my colleague Glenn Dallas, and then the artistic director put me in touch with Linda Dowdell, who is a local composer. The puppet builds for the animals were spearheaded by Susan Montana. It took nine months, and we could have used double that to get it all done, to be honest! We had over twenty kids, ages six to eighteen, and we sold out the performances the entire last weekend.

Linda, Glenn, and I will continue to refine the script and the score over the next few months; we have big hopes for it. And I would definitely love to do another musical adaptation.

I hope to see it performed someday. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer.)

Right now, it all comes from daily input. My kids, my social media feeds, the authors I love most (Terry Pratchett.) Surfing the web and reading and theatre class have all provided sparks that turned into books.

Do you ever feel pressure to stick to one genre? (Your older novels are very different from your picture books.)

Not at all. I’ve written science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, steampunk, near-futuristic not-dystopia, apocalyptic romance, and in all age ranges. At the beginning, I decided to put my name on everything, because there was no financial benefit to using pen names and keeping everything separate. About the only thing I have yet to write is “contemporary” in the sense that it’s fiction, but realistic. I prefer to add a certain amount of escapism to my words.

Maybe those Wonder Woman reenactments as a child have something to do with that feeling. With three picture books published in the past two years, and three more on the way, does it still feel like a dream?

Yes, in the way that it’s so vivid and yet so ordinary that you wake up in the morning thinking, “AND?” Because it’s always the next project, the next deadline, the next idea, the next road trip.

Your books are so succinct. Did you submit them with illustrator notes? Did you have much input into the images?

All my manuscripts went out with illustrator notes. I was told in the beginning to omit dialogue and descriptions that would be conveyed through the artwork, and that stuck with me. If there’s something I need in there to tell the story alongside the words, I describe it. In detail. Then if anything is really off the mark, I pass those concerns along to my editor. Sister Day! needed the addition of the imaginary friends in a few spreads, for example.

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

The opening line to A Perfectly Perfect Wish is “Waiting for the school bus, I find something in the grass.”

Great first line, I'm hooked. I look forward to finding out what or who is in the grass. Is there anything about writing or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or maybe something you are glad you hadn’t known at the time?

I am very glad that I didn’t know (at the time) that the picture book market is apparently a tough one to crack. I think there are probably people who’d gladly hit me with a stick if they understood how unaware of that fact I was at the time we first went out on submission with Strictly. Having worked in that area now for four years, I am more than aware of it, and I have the stack of “no thanks” to prove it.

What is your favorite animal? Why?

Well, we own three dogs, four cats, a bunny, a rat, and a tank of fish, but as you can see from Strictly and Someday, I am a fan of the weird ones. I think if I could own anything super-different, it would be a bat. Or an owl. Or a fox. I am also fascinated by large cats, because of giant toe beans.

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

Be sure to check out Someday. Narwhal's #PPBF post this Friday.

To find out more about Lisa Mantchev, or get in touch with her:

Instagram: Patreon (where I make typewritten microfiction available on a monthly basis, as well as art giveaways and vintage downloadables):

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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