The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Vivian Kirkfield
Nothing is impossible if you can imagine it!
Although her "official" bio follows, I think we can all agree that Vivian Kirkfield is an extra-ordinary friend, mentor, and enthusiastic kidlit community participant.
Writer for children – reader forever...that’s Vivian Kirkfield in five words.
She’s got a bucket list that contains many more than five words – but she’s already checked off skydiving, parasailing and banana-boat riding (plus visiting Australia and New Zealand). When she is not looking for ways to fall from the sky or sink under the water, she can be found writing picture books that she hopes will encourage young kids to become lovers of books and reading. Vivian lives in the quaint New Hampshire town of Amherst where the old stone library is her favorite hangout and her young grandson is her favorite board game partner.
Vivian is the author of Pippa’s Passover Plate (Holiday House, Feb 2019). Her second picture book, Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book (Pomegranate Kids), releases March 15th (or, if believe Amazon April 1st).
ME: 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?)
VIVIAN: Hello Maria! Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in your blog series, The Picture Book Buzz. It’s an honor to be here.
Most of the time, I work…if you can call it work since I love it so much it feels like play…in my dining room. The small round table is always chock full of papers, notebooks, picture books I’m using as mentor texts, pens, a calendar, and of course, my computer. Oh, and a cup of tea and some snack, like a granola bar or a bowl of oatmeal. Sometimes I move to another room, but this one is so perfect – with a big picture window that overlooks a couple of acres of woods and a small propane gas fireplace, for chilly days.
Years and years ago, I scribbled little stories for my kindergarten classes and for my own children, but it wasn’t until 2012 that I decided I wanted to become a published picture book author. And then I got serious really quickly.
When I first started in 2012, I loved to write in rhyme, but by the end of 2014, after taking an online nonfiction picture book class, I began to concentrate on nonfiction picture book biographies. However, I still do love to write in rhyme – maybe I need to combine the two and write a rhyming nonfiction picture book bio. 😊
I love your work area and writing a rhyming NF would be ambitious (and just the thing if you ever get bored)! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I thought I was a chubby child. Probably I wasn’t…but unfortunately, girls of 9 or 10 look at the media and think…I need to look like those models. I remember I went shopping with my mother for an outfit for sixth grade graduation. NOTHING looked good on me. Now, to your mind, if you were a bit overweight, what would you choose to wear…it had to be a blue skirt and white blouse/shirt - no choice about that. By the time I had picked what I wanted, I was in tears. And honestly, it wasn’t what I wanted because nothing could make me look the way I wanted to look. But thinking back, I can’t believe what I chose: a light blue PLEATED skirt AND a RUFFLED white blouse. YIKES! Maybe I chose that on purpose because it was obviously not going to look good. Because if I chose something that might have looked good and it didn’t, I would know it was me that made it look bad. Kind of like if we don’t submit our manuscripts because we think they’ll be rejected…so don’t put ourselves out there and make ourselves vulnerable to criticism.
Then, the summer before I started high school, I decided I was going to lose weight. I stopped eating candy, cookies, and all junk food. And by the opening day of school, I weighed 97 pounds. Please don’t get worried or wonder where the heck my mother was because, after all, I was only 5’1’’ tall…so 97 pounds wasn’t crazy. But my poor mother was sure I was starving myself. And even though my folks didn’t have much money, she found 50 cents to give me every day to buy a malted milkshake. I’m not sure what I did with the 50 cents…but I’m pretty sure I didn’t buy the milkshake.
So here's a little challenge for you readers - can you guess which child is Vivian?
Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
As a young child, I loved fairy tales and folk tales. All the Brothers Grimm stories…Baba Yaga with the house on the chicken legs that turned around…I could sit and read for hours. And then, when I got into Nancy Drew, Ginny Gordon, Trixie Belden, and all the Walter Farley Black Stallion books. I remember walking home from the library with a stack…I must have looked like a pile of books with legs because I couldn’t see over the top of the books. I’d sit down in the backyard and read, one book after another. I also loved Louise May Alcott’s Little Women, Little Men, and that whole series. And I still love them!
Sometimes those early books really stick with us. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?
If I could share one thing with my younger self, I think it would be that trying something new would be an adventure, not something to be dreaded and feared. As you can see with my writing journey and around the world adventure, I am definitely making up for lost time.
If I could share one thing with kids today, it would be that no matter what they think they look like on the outside, if they dig deep into their inner self, they will find a strong and beautiful person and that it is important to find joy in something every day…kind of like the character in Pollyanna who found something to be glad about no matter what…and that they need to find a dream and follow it and build it into a reality. Okay, so that is three things I am sharing with kids. You know, the element of three is part of life and pretty much part of every speech that was ever made (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) - and one of my favorite techniques in the picture book toolbox.
So - be brave, love yourself, and follow a dream. Some of the hardest advice to ever follow! How different (or similar) was the process of creating Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book from Pippa’s Passover Plate? From your other books? Which was harder to write? Why?
Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal counting Book started out with an idea generated during the 2013 PiBoIdMo (now called "Storystorm") Challenge hosted by Tara Lazar. I had an idea for a story about animals that come to a lake. The lake became a mountain river. I decided to use all endangered or threatened species. And later on, I added the counting aspect. But the first rough draft began just as the finished book begins: Water waits. And I remember using Thesaurus.com to find lots of words that described the motion of water. And it was always lyrical. Just like Pippa’s Passover Plate was always rhyming.
I think my process for writing is pretty much the same for most of my manuscripts. I get the idea, from wherever. And I think about how I want to begin. Then I research, even for a fiction story. The Otters story, of course, has a large #STEM element, so I needed to learn about all of those endangered animals before I could write the story. And then my process, after I write the rough draft, is to revise. Read aloud. Revise. Give it to my critique partners. Revise based on their feedback. The Otters story made several rounds with different critique groups – it wouldn’t be the story it is today if not for the help I received.
Interesting how some elements never changed in either book. What was your inspiration for Four Otters Toboggan? How long did it take for it to become a manuscript?
My inspiration came from the fishing and hiking expeditions I took with my husband over many years. We’d go to pristine wilderness areas and I’d marvel at the beauty of nature and worry about the danger that the animals faced as their habitats were destroyed by industrial, commercial, and residential developments. The original story was probably a rough draft in a few days…but it took months and months of embracing critique group feedback and revising to make it into the manuscript it became.
Like a child, each book has its own pacing and path to development; most require time and space. What is the hardest thing for you about writing children’s books?
The hardest thing about writing children’s books? I think it is making sure that I am writing a story that is relevant to young children (whatever age the story is geared to, whether Preschool/K/Grades 1-6). Sometimes I fall into that trap of picking a topic that I love…or a subject that fascinates me…but it might not be relevant or appropriate for young kids.
And also, that the stakes are high enough. Although with nonfiction, you usually don’t run into that problem, because you hopefully pick the person because they did something of value. I try to keep in mind a presentation that I believe Candace Fleming gave a couple of years ago…she said, you have to ask…so what. When you read your story and get to the end…so what. Is it an important story for kids? What will they get out of it? Does the main character have a hero’s journey internally and externally? When a kid reads the story and gets to the end, will he say, so what, who cares? The reader needs to connect to your characters and your story because he or she can relate to it and because it matters.
That's a great test to run all your manuscripts through. What's something you want your readers to know about Four Otters Toboggan?
I want my readers to know that places like this still exist, but if we don’t practice conservation and we fail to protect animal habitats, these places and these animals will disappear and the world will be less. Also, that there is an important balance in nature and if we disrupt that with over-expansion of civilization – ever-expanding development into woodlands and other wild areas – humans will pay the price eventually. You know the saying about a butterfly flapping its wing. That one butterfly is not going to cause a tornado, but for me, the meaning is that each individual has an effect on the world. And keeping our footprint as small as possible – not letting the water run when we brush our teeth, for instance – can have a positive cumulative effect on the world of the future. Each child can make a difference.
That is going to be my call to action for kids with this book: One Less Drop – One Step More: You Can Make A Difference.
I love your call to action; as I share these believes and fear for the future. How has your life changed with five books published or under contract? Does it still feel like a dream?
Oh, my goodness, yes. I keep saying I think I need to ask someone to pinch me so I will make sure I am not dreaming. But the fact of it is that this WAS my dream. And I did a bunch of things to turn it into a reality. So that now, I am living my dream. It’s true, I worked very hard. Put in a lot of hours, writing, revising, taking classes, attending webinars, critiquing with other writers, embracing feedback, revising…oh, did I say that already? That’s okay…because revising is a constant requirement. As Stephen King said, “Writing is rewriting.” And I’ve learned, in these last few years, that nothing is impossible if you can imagine it!
What a great guide to adopt for your life. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer.)
Now, as a writer, what amazes me the most is that others say I inspire them, but it is really the other way around. This writing community inspires me! When I see people hold down full-time jobs, or have families to care for, or experience serious health issues, or ALL OF THOSE…and they keep on going, keep on writing, keep on keeping on…that blows me away and keeps me motivated!
I have to agree with the others - YOU are a major inspiration to many people. What was your first impression of Mirka Hokkanen’s block printed images for Four Otters Toboggan? [Be sure to come by tomorrow for my interview of Mirka.]
I was so fortunate to have a relationship with Mirka Hokkanen before she started illustrating Four Otters Toboggan because she is one of my Storm Literary Agency teammates. My agent, Essie White, believed that Mirka’s style would be perfect for my lyrical text. She sent me a few illustrations in Mirka’s portfolio – they were AMAZING! So detailed! So charming! And the editor agreed! Mirka kindly sent me early sketches, and then more detailed illustrations. And finally, the woodcuts. WOW! She brought my words and the characters to life. I couldn’t be happier!
They are truly amazing. Why did you start the #50PreciousWords Writing Challenge (March 2-7, 2019) and the #50PreciousWordsforKids challenge (May 2019)? What is your long-term goal for these challenges?
I started #50PreciousWords on a whim based on the old challenge editor Bennet Cerf posed to author Theodore Geisel…I wondered if I could write a picture book story in 50 words or less. And I decided it would be fun to open the challenge to the kidlit community because I’m a great believer in participating in writing challenges and contests.
My first kidlit role model was Susanna Leonard Hill and she offered a bunch of wonderful writing opportunities to which I submitted some of my very first story attempts. Entering challenges and contests hones your writing muscle, gives you practice in getting your work out there, and best of all, connects you to the kidlit community that will encourage and support you. And that is my long-term goal: to support and encourage writers to follow their dream. (And you're surprised that others think of you as their inspiration. 😉)
The kid’s challenge came about because one of the participants in the adult contest told me about her daughter and the wonderful bonding experience when her daughter wanted to join mom in writing a 50-word story. And I thought, why not have a challenge for kids? So that May, I posted the challenge to coincide with National Children Book Week. The first year, we had stories from 13 states and 5 different countries and #50PreciousWordsforKids International Writing Challenge was born. I think it is so important to nurture the storytelling ability that many kids have, and I want to encourage creativity and empower kids with the knowledge that they have a voice and it is worth being heard.
As one of the judges, I can attest that these contests have been wildly successful. You’ve announced three other picture books - Sweet Dreams, Sarah (Creston Books, May 2019), Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship Of Ella Fitzgerald And Marilyn Monroe (Little Bee Books, Spring 2020), and From Here To There: Inventions That Changed The Way The World Moves (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Fall 2020). Besides book launches and speaking engagements, what other projects are you working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
This past December, I offered to mentor one of the winners of Susanna Leonard Hill’s Holiday Contest. The 1st place winner chose me as his prize, and I was honored to get to read six of his fabulous manuscripts. Now we are working together on one of them and he’ll fine tune it to submission-readiness. Plus, I’ll help him craft a pitch and cover letter.
I’m also working on a new story for an editor who asked for a particular topic. I wrote the story I thought she wanted, but it wasn’t. She gave me more feedback and now I am off in another direction to see if I can nail down what she is looking for. And that’s the thing. You can write the best story…but it has to find its way to the desk of the editor who is looking for that particular story written that particular manner. This is a business that requires hard work, determination, great writing…and, a little bit of luck.
Maybe more than just "a little bit" of luck. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or are glad that you did not know?
I wish I had known more about the publishing process: how an illustrator is chosen, how long to wait for early sketches, what ‘rights’ I might have as the author, and, that the editor is not God.
The word transparency may be overused these days…but I think, when it comes to the world of publishing, we need more of it. Editors are amazing…and they work REALLY hard. Often, they are overwhelmed with the number of manuscripts they must read every week. And each one of them certainly wants to make beautiful books. I doubt there is an editor out there who wants to make a horrible book, right? But we have to remember, editors are only human. They are people, just like the rest of us. They have good days and bad days. They have health problems and family issues. And sometimes, they make mistakes, just like the rest of us. I’m sorry I wasn’t more proactive with my first book deal, but I thought…I’m just the author. And a debut author at that. It’s not my place to say anything about something that is in the purview of the editor.
But now, after having had five different publishing experiences with five different manuscripts with five different editors with five different publishing houses with five different illustrators in the space of only a few years, I know that when you feel something isn’t right, you need to step up and speak out. And that’s not easy for many writers who tend to be introverts…and especially newish authors who feel honored just to have a book contract. I think it is possible to be politely proactive in the publishing process…in fact…that is the title of one of the workshops I am presenting at the NESCBWI 2019 conference this May. I hope editors will understand that I have the utmost respect for them and that I am grateful for the opportunity to share my words with the world, but I feel a responsibility and obligation to my kid-lit family as well to try to raise the veil of unknowing and empower other writers if I possibly can.
This will be an interesting presentation! What is your favorite animal? Why? (Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with?)
I am definitely a lover of animals. We always had dogs, cats, rabbits and gerbils when our kids were growing up. My dad had amazing tropical fish. And my first teaching mentor had a snake in her kindergarten classroom that was forever escaping and terrorizing the principal who would find it wrapped around the base of his radiator in the morning (he probably had the warmest room in the school).
But I was always a lover of horses, read every horse adventure book I could find, and dreamed of having a pony of my own. I drew pretty bad sketches of horses (you’ll notice I am NOT an illustrator) and one of my first poems – I think I was eight years old – was about a horse. I haven’t written a picture book about a horse yet, but, as Scarlett O’Hara said in Gone With The Wind (one of my all-time favorite novels), tomorrow is another day. But hold on! Wait a minute! Let me grab a fresh notebook and a sharpened pencil…I feel an idea coming on!
Thank you, Vivian for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.
Be sure to come by tomorrow for my interview of Mirka. And Friday for the #PPBF post on Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book.
To find out more about Vivian Kirkfield, or get in touch with her: