The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Barbara Lowell
Barbara Lowell's newest picture book is a biography of beloved cartoonist Charles Schultz.
For Barbara, “writing books for children is a dream come true.” She’s been a reader since she was little. Barbara lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma with my husband and two terrific cats. She writes nonfiction and historical fiction picture books, nonfiction early readers, and nonfiction educational market books for reluctant readers.
Welcome Barbara, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest book, Sparky & Spike: Charles Schulz and the Wildest, Smartest Dog Ever, which released April 23rd, and writing.
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 or illustrate?)
Barbara: I mostly write in my office at home, but recently wrote on a cruise ship. That was especially fun and productive since I didn’t have all the distractions I have at home. Sometimes my office gets to be a big mess, and then I write in my living room. I have been writing seriously since 2005, when the wonderful author, Anna Myers, suggested that I turn an article into a picture book. I love to write nonfiction picture books primarily biographies or history related.
I've heard of writing a book on a train or a plane but writing a book on a cruise ship sure sounds like lots of fun! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I can tap dance and twirl a baton.
That's a fun tidbit! Can you explain the difference between trade and work-for-hire books (Engineering AT&T Stadium (2017))? Is Sparky & Spike your second trade picture book? (George Ferris What A Wheel (2014) being your first one.) Do you prefer one type to the other?
Sparky & Spike is my second trade picture book. I have two more coming out, one in Spring 2020 and the other forthcoming in 2020 or 2021.
I like writing for the trade market best. I come up with the idea and the manuscript is completely my vision (until it’s sold.) I have written seven work-for-hire books. I was paid a flat fee, no royalties, and was given a set of guidelines to follow. Work-for-hire books in the educational market are usually sold as a series. Although they have different authors, they need to look similar. That’s why they are written to a strict set of guidelines.
Thank you for describing the difference. You’ve also written two leveled Young Reader books – Alexander Hamilton: American Hero (2017) and Daring Amelia (2016). How did these come about? How different are these books from Sparky & Spike? (Process, timing, vocabulary, amount of research, writing style, etc.)
After I wrote George Ferris What A Wheel, I pitched ideas to the editorial assistant at Grosset & Dunlap/Penguin Young Readers. When I suggested an early reader about Amelia Earhart, I was given the go ahead. Then Penguin asked me to write Alexander Hamilton: American Hero.
Writing leveled readers is different from writing picture books in two respects: the vocabulary needs to be at the requested grade level and the manuscript has to be leveled using a leveling tool. I used the ATOS leveler. Vocabulary that is above the grade level is also used to challenge the reader. Of course, with biographies, more advanced vocabulary will naturally be used. I really enjoyed writing both books because it was a challenge to get the vocabulary correct.
Sounds a lot more technical. Was any book harder than the others for you to write?
Engineering AT&T Stadium was the most difficult. Almost all of the research available was written by engineering, architectural, and construction professionals. They were writing for other professionals, not me. I had to use an engineering dictionary to understand what they were talking about. I had to learn a lot about construction, too. But I like to learn about things that are unfamiliar.
Congrats on digesting and simplifying all that material. What was the hardest part in the researching for Sparky & Spike?
Researching Sparky & Spike was lots of fun. There was so much research available either written by Charles Schulz or interviews with him. I love learning and writing about people’s lives, especially their childhood and how that influenced their adult life. Charles Schulz wrote a great deal about his childhood. There wasn’t a hard part researching him.
I imagine the hard part could have been too much information. How did you break into writing for/within the educational market?
When I decided that I would try to write for the educational market, I took the workshop, Writing for the Educational Market, offered by the Highlights Foundation. I learned everything I needed to know and was hired almost immediately by a book packager. Going to Highlights in Pennsylvania is a real treat!
Wow! I love Highlights workshops. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
Beverly Cleary. My favorite book of hers is Fifteen, one that is probably not well-known.
(I've included the cover in case you, too, were unfamiliar with this book.)
What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer or illustrator.)
My greatest source of inspiration is author, mentor, and friend, Anna Myers. She was the Regional Advisor for SCBWI Oklahoma for thirteen years. She is reason I persevered through the many rejections that all writers receive while learning the craft. Whenever I would buy one of her latest books before I was published, she would write inside: “I’m waiting for your book.” She believed in me! I am dedicating my next book: My Mastodon to her. She is a treasure and everyone in SCBWI Oklahoma loves her.
It's cool to have that type of a mentor relationship. What is the hardest thing about trade publishing for you? The most amazing?
The hardest part is how slow the trade publishing business moves. The most amazing is when I hear that a manuscript has sold, and when I first see the illustrations. That’s when the book comes alive. It’s also amazing that of all the illustrators that have illustrated my published books and those forthcoming, only one is from the United State (Dan Andreasen.) The others are from: Wales, England, New Zealand, Italy, and Columbia.
How interesting. Is there something you want your readers to know about Sparky & Spike?
Sparky/Charles Schulz’s dream was to become a cartoonist. It wasn’t easy. He had to work very hard to make his dream come true and he never gave up trying. If you want to be an illustrator, then practice drawing the characters of the illustrators you like and you will develop your own style. Charles Schulz did just that.
Great advice. Did you imagine the illustrations having such a cartoony feeling when you wrote the text? Or when you heard that Dan Andreasen would illustrate it?
I didn’t imagine the illustrations as they are. They’re much better. I love how Dan Andreasen’s vision was to make the book look like the “funnies.” My dad, like Sparky’s dad, read the big Sunday comics to me every Sunday afternoon. Dan’s illustrations remind me of my childhood. Dan has so many styles. I didn’t know what to expect until I saw the first sketches. He illustrated the American Girl books about Samantha and Felicity that my daughter and I read when she was young. The style of Sparky & Spike is completely from different from those books. Dan is an amazing illustrator.
I totally agree with you on that. He did an amazing job with this book. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I had an idea for a picture book about ten years ago, but I had no idea how to make it work. I think I figured it out. It’s about the son of a famous father in history who was a complete mischief maker.
Tantalizing teaser there. 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?
It takes a long time to learn the craft of writing. All those manuscripts that will never be published were worth writing. They were learning tools. That’s the answer to both questions.
If you are in a critique group or have critique partners, what have you learned from them?
I have been working with two members of my critique group for fourteen years and the other members for about two years. They tell me things about my manuscript that I don’t see and then I think: why didn’t I see that? They also tell me exactly what they think and don’t sugarcoat their opinions. It’s so important to let go of what won’t work in a manuscript. They help me do that. My other “critique partner” is my husband. He really tells me what’s wrong.
That's special, it doesn't always happen. What is your favorite animal? Why?
I love dogs! I only have cats now but had two wonderful dogs at different times. Dogs are just special animals who give love unconditionally.
Thank you, Barbara for stopping by. It was wonderful to chat with you.
Maria, thank you for inviting me!
Be sure to stop back by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book Post on Sparky & Spike: Charles Schultz and the Wildest, Smartest Dog Ever.
To find out more about Barbara Lowell, or get in touch with her: