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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Leanne Shirtliffe

I’m a big kid myself:

I love to laugh and to learn new things.

My goal is to never completely grow up.

~Leanne Shirtliffe

Leanne Shirtliffe grew up on a large grain farm 20 miles west of Winnipeg, Manitoba; the youngest of three kids. After college, she left Canada and worked in Asia for eight years. “It turned out to be a build-your-own-family adventure.” She met her husband in Bahrain and had twins in Thailand. She now lives in Calgary, Alberta…near the beautiful Rocky Mountains. She’s been a teacher for more than 20 years, and “it’s a job I absolutely love.”

She’s the author of I Love Sharks, Too (2017), Saving Thunder the Great: The True Story of a Gerbil's Rescue from the Fort McMurray Wildfire (2016), No More Beige Food (2016), and The Change Your Name Store (2014). In addition, she’s written humorous adult novels, Mommyfesto (2014) and Don’t Lick the Minivan (2015).

Her newest picture book Sloth to the Rescue releases tomorrow.

Welcome Leanne,

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

LEANNE: Unlike many writers, I didn’t grow up writing stories every waking hour, but I did write lots of letters to cousins and pen-pals. Now, I love writing realistic stories with a dash of humour and a dose of humanity.

So, there's hope for other "late comers" to the writing arena. *grins* What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I like to write wearing a hoodie. When I’m serious about getting a lot done, I “hoodie up.” This means I literally put my hood up, blocking out some of my peripheral vision so I can focus on my story.

Also, I grew up on a wheat farm but just found out I’m allergic to wheat. Not surprisingly, my license plate reads “Ironic.”

What a perfect license plate! And I'll have to try your idea of going "hoodie up." Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

I grew up on the Little Golden books, but my favourite picture book was called Henry’s Wagon. My mom says that I walked around the house repeating the line, “Bessy, I’m a little messy.” Years later, when I was babysitting, I came across Robert Munsch’s The Paperbag Princess and realized how picture books could challenge common perceptions. I also think I saw myself—a farm girl who loved playing outside—in messy, independent protagonists.

I love where you found your mirror in books. You’ve mostly written fiction picture books, what was the best, and worst, thing you discovered about writing the nonfiction picture book, Saving Thunder the Great: The True Story of a Gerbil's Rescue from the Fort McMurray Wildfire?

In writing Saving Thunder the Great, I felt the importance of getting it right. This was not so much my story, but someone else’s and—beyond that—the story of a community that rallied and came together under tragic circumstances. The hardest thing was to decide what to leave out—and where to end the story. I read somewhere that writing nonfiction is like sculpting - you have all the facts; you just have to chip away until you’re left with a work of art. I also learned the value of great critique partners, who’d tell me when I chipped away too much.

Oh, that's a great description of nonfiction. What was your inspiration for Sloth to the Rescue?

My inspiration was two-fold. First, one of my children, much younger then, had a field trip to the zoo. Second, I walked down the elementary school hallway at the school I teach at, and I watched as kids took off snowsuits in their classroom after a cold outdoor recess. I wrote in my notebook: The Zoo Goes to School? And it sat in my notebook for a while until the story wanted to be written. The final product—Sloth to the Rescue—is substantially different from that germ of an idea.

Collecting ideas is so important; they can be so fleeting and easy to forget. It's fun to find out the "germ" of the idea bloomed into a different story. How is Sloth to the Rescue similar or different from your other fiction picture books I Love Sharks, Too (2017), No More Beige Food (2016), and The Change Your Name Store (2014)? Which of these was the easiest to write? The hardest? Why?

Sloth to the Rescue is the first to feature an animal as the protagonist. It’s hard to say which of my books was the hardest or easiest to write. Normally, the one I’m working on is the hardest!

That made me chuckle. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?

Everything will end up working out. Promise.

Oh, the stress that could have been avoided if we'd known that "way back when" in our lives. What's something you want your readers to know about Sloth to the Rescue?

I wrote the first draft while on a creative writing retreat with fifteen amazing teen writers.

That's a new one. I imagine that must have been a fun retreat. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer and/or illustrator.)

The funny women in my life have always been huge inspirations: my mom, my aunts, my cousins, my daughter, Judy Blume, and Emma Bombeck. And Lady Macbeth. (Just kidding on that last one.)

I was just about to get worried about you. Would you say you have a common theme or thread in your books?

Most of my books challenge us to accept others, regardless of their background, and to act in the face of our fears or wants.

Acceptance and action - universally great themes and goals. Was there anything in the illustrations that surprised you? What is your favorite spread in Sloth to the Rescue?

My favourite spread is the one where Sloth, Peccary, Boa, and Capuchin are doing yoga. Animals doing yoga! What’s not to love?!

It is a really cute spread! Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I’m actually working on a humorous middle grade manuscript.

We'll have to keep our eyes open for that one. Is there anything about getting your agent, writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or are glad that you did not know?

Enjoy the process. Be thankful you get an opportunity to write for the most important audience there is.

I'm putting that above my computer. What is your favorite animal? Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with? Why?

Besides a sloth (because SLOTH!), I currently enamored with duck-billed platypus, giraffe, and camels.

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

Be sure to stop by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF post on Sloth to the Rescue.

To find out more about Leanne Shirtliffe, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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