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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Vicki Conrad

I hope everyone embraces the joy of reading.

~ Vicki Conrad

Vicki Conrad is a teacher with a passion for literacy development and getting students to love reading just as much as she did as a child. Growing up, she was always found with a book in her hand and has stayed that way ever since. When she is not writing or teaching, she is traveling the world, growing a garden, or searching for stories. She has called Seattle her home for many years.

Vicki’s debut picture book, Just Like Beverly: A Biography of Beverly Cleary, releases tomorrow.

Happy Book Birthday!

Welcome Vicki, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your debut picture book and writing.

You are welcome, I am so happy to have the chance to talk about books.

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?)

VICKI: I have been a teacher for years, with a masters in reading instruction. I write at night and on the weekends. I am a bit of an early morning writer. I always find I have the best clarity and ideas right after I wake up. I have dreamed of writing since I was in the Fourth Grade. That dream was burning inside for years and years. I dabbled in SCBWI, but I was too intimidated to get too involved, or start writing instead of dreaming. I finally got past my fears of failure and started writing seriously in 2010.

I am constantly curious about the world, and always thinking about how to explain hard concepts into simple words for children. For this reason, I write non-fiction, it is hard, and I always hit walls when I want to quit. But if I persist, I find a way to tell the story in a way that is fun and resonates with children. My writing group will tell you I don’t always love writing non-fiction, but I keep at it. I love it when it finally comes together. So, I guess I do love writing non-fiction.

I also enjoy writing early readers, they are a little break for my brain when researching becomes too much. I have taught reading for many years, and I love the challenge of taking the smallest words and making a narrative arc.

You might not love it, but you're good at it. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I was born in Kentucky. We moved to Colorado when I was a year old. No one believes me when I tell them I was born there. Yet, I have a birth certificate from the state of Kentucky!

You got out early enough not to have the telltale accent. I fell in love with the cover of Just Like Beverly: A Biography of Beverly Cleary. What inspired you to write her biography?

Thank you. David Hohn, my illustrator, did a wonderful job on the illustrations. Also, my editor, Christy Cox, and the art director, Anna Goldstein, worked hard on the cover, it was their vision and direction that made the cover such a lovely portrait of Beverly Cleary’s story.

I was inspired to write her biography because I was searching for non-fiction stories. Someone had told me in passing that Beverly Cleary hated reading when she was a child. It was hard for her, and that was why she wrote for children. I read her autobiography as a sixth grader. It was a little mature for me at that age, but I loved it. I picked it up again and began writing the story of her life.

It's fun how a passing thought or comment can become the basis of a story. What was the hardest part of researching and writing Just Like Beverly? The easiest? Did you get to meet with her in person?

The hardest part was finding the right angle or heart of her story. There were so many interesting and funny things she did, it took me a long time to find what the big idea was. I went through many, many rambling drafts.

© Chronicle/Christina Koci Hernandez.

The easiest thing about the research was she wrote an autobiography, so I knew how she felt in situations. You cannot make things up in a non-fiction book, so having her own words re-telling her past was a vital tool.

I did not meet her, she is now 103, living quietly in California. I would be honored to meet her someday.

I hope you do get the chance. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

I devoured every Ramona book, (not just saying that). Ramona made me laugh and I really did feel the way she felt so many times. I was a voracious reader, so I read a vast amount of reading material when I was young. I remember being devastated reading the Diary of Anne Frank. I expected her to live through the war, when I realized at the end she was taken and died in the concentration camps, I truly understood injustice.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the whole Narnia series were dear to me. I also read a lot of Baby-Sitters club books and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Those were all my favorites.

What a great eclectic group of favorites. Did you have any input into the illustrations? Either at the beginning or in a later review stage?

Yes, I was so thankful for the collaboration between my editor and the illustrator. I got to share some things I had always pictured as I wrote. Through the process I had input, my illustrator did a wonderful job. There are many “Easter Eggs” (hidden clues that allude to things in Beverly’s childhood) that I did not think to include. I had some thoughts about certain pages, but I really loved the artwork. When I saw the title, how it reflected the look of the old Ramona covers, I was over the moon.

It really is amazing what an illustrator can draw from the text. And I can imagine how excited you were with the cover. Is there something you want your readers to know about Just Like Beverly?

I hope they are inspired by her persistence, and how she pursued her dreams. I hope young readers see how the things she did as a child mattered; they were building the foundation for her success as an adult.

What a great validation and encouragement for kids. How long did it take from first draft to publication?

Four years; it was rejected by another publisher. I worked on it by myself for two years, with no agents or editors interested in it. Finally, I decided that it would probably never be published. However, the editor whose house had rejected it, moved to Sasquatch Books and contacted me. It still went through many, many rounds of editing before they agreed to acquire the project.

That's writing for you - hard work and a dash of luck. What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you? Any advice for unpublished and/or un-agented authors?

Everyone who dreams a big dream has lots of discouragement. Honestly, the battle is never over, I feel at the bottom of a mountain again with new projects. Someone wise told me the point is not to be published, but the friendships and journey along the way. This was sage advice. My writing group is a very wonderful support network. My advice is to persist, read, read, and read some more. Write, write, and write some more. Find writing friends and hold on to those people.

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

I am working on some non-fiction titles. Nothing I can share right now, but the hard work is never done. I have many mountains to climb again, but I am going to enjoy every bit of seeing Just Like Beverly out in the world.

I hope you have a spectacular launch and lots of fun book events! Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or something you’re glad you didn’t know about in advance?

I wish I would have taken Jolie Stekly’s class earlier. I wish I would have taken something that was a comprehensive course all about children’s literature first. That is my advice - study craft books, like Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul.

Take the time to learn the craft; it's an investment in yourself and your writing. What is your favorite animal? Why?

I love Sea Turtles, because I love the ocean. I love whales because they are fascinating. I really love all animals except rats, and hope we take care of our earth so animals will not reach extinction.

Ha! I definitely agree with you. Thank you, Vicki for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.

Be sure to come back for the Perfect Picture Book Friday post on Just Like Beverly: A Biography of Beverly Cleary

To find out more about Vicki Conrad, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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