The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Candace Fleming
I have always been a storyteller.
Even before I could write my name, I could tell a good tale.
~ Candace Fleming
Candace Fleming awarded herself the Newbery Medal in fifth grade after scraping the gold sticker off the class copy of The Witch of Blackbird Pond and pasting it onto her first novel—a ten-page, ten-chapter mystery called Who Done It? She’s been collecting awards (her own, not Elizabeth George Speare’s) ever since.
Today, Candace is the versatile and acclaimed author of more than forty books for children (fiction, historical, and science picture books), and young adults (biographies, anthologies, & novels), including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize honored The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of the Russian Empire; Boston Globe/Horn Book Award-winning biography, The Lincolns; the bestselling picture book, Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!; the Sibert-Award-winning Giant Squid; and the beloved Boxes for Katje. She even contributed the chapter on Katharine of Aragon to Fatal Throne.
I know you are all excited to get to know Candace a little better. And I would ordinarily jump right into the interview. But FIRST, I get to announce a super, special treat for you all.
Are you ready? Wait for it . . .
a surprise guest appearance by -
Not quite - while this cutie was a surprise in my yard, it's not today's surprise.
The surprise guest is:
Caldecott Medalist, Eric Rohmann.
Imagine my joy, and our good luck, when he agreed to jump in on a few questions!
Just in case you don't know, Eric is the author/illustrator of 14 books (including a number of Candace's), plus the covers of Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials Series. He is also Candace's partner and co-creator of their newest nonfiction picture book, Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera, which releases tomorrow.
Welcome Candace and Eric,
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?)
CANDACE: I do most of my writing in my little office in the little house I share with Eric Rohmann. Most days I write while my dog, Oxford, lays at my feet and my cat, Oliver, is curled beside him. I write all my first drafts (pictures books, novels, big pieces of nonfiction) on wide-lined, loose–leaf paper with blue Bic pens. I like the freedom of writing this way because the words don’t feel precious. I’ve been writing this way since I was a kid. I guess it’s too late to change now, huh? I don’t have a favorite type of book. Each has its own challenges and joys. Truthfully, though, when I’m immersed in a YA biography, I often long to write a preschool picture book. And when I’m writing a picture book, I find myself dreaming of my next chapter book. Yup, I like variety.
It is wonderful to be able to write such a variety of genres and stretch different mental muscles. And I love your dog's name! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I was the arm-wrestling champion of my fourth-grade class.
Oh my gosh, I love that tidbit! Thanks for sharing it. With so many books ranging from YA to PB, how hard is it for you to switch between these genres? Do you have a favorite genre and/or, heaven forbid, a favorite among your books?
It’s not difficult because by the time I get an inkling of an idea for the next book, I can really use a change of scenery, so to speak. While deep in The Family Romanov, I longed for a sweet, simple story that didn’t involve a revolution and the fall of an empire. So I wrote Bulldozer’s Big Day. Honeybee was written while I wrestled with the complexities of Charles Lindbergh, the subject of my latest YA nonfiction. In my case, variety truly is the spice of my writing life.
I can see where that switch can offer a respite and perhaps some much needed levity, What was your inspiration for Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera?
The troubling plight of honeybees was foremost in my mind as I went into the creation of Honeybee. I really wanted to help kids recognize the importance of these creatures in our lives. But how? How could I write a book that would engage and enlighten, as well as spur young readers to action?
Action requires empathy. I realized kids needed to care, truly care about a honeybee. Simply compiling a list of fascinating facts, or presenting the grim statistics of their dwindling numbers, would not be enough. I knew I needed to emotionally connect kids with honeybees – or better yet, with the life of a single honeybee. And so, I wrote about one worker bee: Apis Mellifera, or “Apis,” for short. I wrote about her brief, but incredible life, following her through days of cleaning and queen bee nursing and hive guarding until finally, on the twenty fifth day of her life – “with the sun just rising and the dew still drying” – she leaps from her nest and… flies!
I believe that if kids care about one honeybee, they will care about all honeybees. The possibility of a world without them will truly matter to them. And this caring will be transformed into action.
You've definitely succeeded in making the reader care about Apis and her sisters. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
I had so many, but if I had to land on one it would be Marguerite Henry. In fourth grade, the same year I arm-wrestled my way to elementary school fame, I fell in love with Misty of Chincoteague. So, I wrote Marguerite Henry a letter. Honestly, I’ve absolutely no memory of what I said in that letter. But it must have been good, because weeks later I arrived home from school to find a package from… wait for it! … Marguerite Henry. It was a signed copy of Misty with both her signature and Misty’s hoof-a-graph. I still have it, a most prized possession.
WOW! The power of communicating with an author. We all love to hear from kids. And that hoof-a-graph was such a special touch. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about Honeybee?
I’m going to pass this one off to Eric since formatting is sort of his thing. Eric?
ERIC: In the summer months in our backyard, I grow wildflowers that attract honeybees. When I was a boy every summer in every garden there were honeybees. I learned that I took this most fascinating, most essential little creature for granted. Their short lives are complex and when I began my research, I came to realize that even the most common things in nature hold deep fascination if you climb into their world and try to see things from their point of view. That’s what I tried to do with Honeybee – let readers see Apis Mellifera from her point of view thus up-close paintings of her in the hive, and on blossoms. I wanted readers to feel as if they’re entering into her world.
I loved the chance to climb into Apis' world. Your images are phenomenal. What was the most surprising thing for you about Honeybee? Perhaps something in the illustrations, reader reception, or something you learned about yourself.
ERIC: Who knew they were so hairy?!! *Laughs* I wore out a few fine-tipped brushes making the paintings. Honeybees live in a dark hive, but it is a world of senses. They communicate with the world by touch, smell, and taste. I had to visually engage the reader in Apis’ story but wanted to avoid the pitfall of anthropomorphizing the bee. I asked myself, what kind of pictures do you make that are true to biology, but also lend personality to the bee? It was a bit of a visual tightrope.
Which you balanced beautifully; Apis feels so realistic. Was it easier, or harder, to research and write Honeybee or Giant Squid (2016)?
Both had their challenges. Giant Squid was difficult because there’s so little solid information about them. Incredibly, scientist know next-to-nothing about how these creatures hunt, or breed. They don’t even agree on the color of giant squid. Isn’t the crazy? And so, the challenge with that book was finding a way to write a book about something we know almost nothing about. How do you write a nonfiction, science book about something that’s a mystery?
Honeybees, on the other hand, have been well-studied… and written about extensively. The challenge here was finding a new viewpoint, a new way into the telling.
I, for one, am totally in awe of your construction of both books and expect they will be mentor texts for many writers. For both Honeybee and Giant Squid, you worked with your partner, Eric Rohmann, how much interaction did you two have? Was it a collaboration or hands off? Did you get to choose Eric or was it the publisher’s choice?
When Eric and I work together, it’s always our choice. These are projects we plan together, and we completely respect each other’s talents. Once we chose a subject, like Honeybee, it’s my job to do the research and write the text. Eric doesn’t put in his two cents until the manuscript is done. Then he’ll read it and make suggestions. Usually, these have to do with trimming – places he sees where art can replace text. Then he’ll dummy the story putting words and pictures together. We’ll take a look at the whole with our most critical eyes. He might suggest cutting a word, sentence or phrase. I might suggest changing the order of an illustration. Together, we’ll think about places for the gatefold – that dramatic moment in the story. Then Eric begins the long process of creating the illustrations. But I’ll let him tell you about that.
ERIC: This book [Giant Squid] was made kind of backwards. I had been working on a wordless dummy about the science and mythology of giant squid. I threw everything in there – science, popular culture, history. At one point, I asked Candy for some help. She promptly cut two thirds of the dummy and began writing. The result was that lovely, story poem we have today.
What an awesome example of how a picture book is truly a partnership. Who'd have thought an illustrated draft would be chopped, just like a written draft. Thank you so much Eric for sharing this tidbit about Giant Squid! Was it different working with Eric on Honeybee and Giant Squid versus Bulldozer Help’s Out (2017), Bulldozer’s Big Day (2015), and Oh No!(2012)?
No. Fiction or nonfiction, the process is pretty much the same when we collaborate. Eric, what do you think?
ERIC: The only difference, of course, is the genre. With nonfiction, we have to stick to the truth. Candy can’t make anything up. And neither can I. There is no fiddling with the way something like a honeybee or giant squid looks. My representations, like Candy’s text, have to be accurate.
I can imagine it's fun for both of you to get to play with the imaginative aspect of fiction books. What has been your biggest surprise, for any of your book(s), when you first got to see the illustrations? Good or bad.
Honestly, I’ve never been disappointed in any of the illustrations for my books. All the people I’ve worked with are amazing professionals who bring their own voices to my work, and I’m deeply grateful to them. It’s strange, but even though the illustrations never look anything like what I saw in my head as I was writing the story, they always seem exactly right. I’ll get finished art and say, “That’s it! That’s exactly right!” I’m always joyfully surprised.
What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer.)
That’s a tough question! My greatest source of inspiration? I have so many and they change depending on my project. Hmmm… I’m going to say William Steig because he never talked down to his reader. His language is rich, his stories are both heart-warming, thought-provoking, and giggle-inducing. Reading Steig is pure delight. And honestly, that’s how I want young readers to feel about my books – delighted.
ERIC: This is a vast list. As writers and artists, one essential way we learn is by reading and looking (and in my case, copying) works of great art. Over the years, this endeavor has put us on the shoulders of hundreds of great, creative people. With each project, I find new influences, new ways of looking at the way I’m going to tell a story.
These are both such great answers. Mentor texts and artists are so invaluable. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Eric and I are just at the beginning… the very beginning… of a new science nonfiction project about polar bears. It will be a companion to Giant Squid and Honeybee. We’re also working on a rollicking preschool book called Mine, and a third installment of the Bulldozer books called Bulldozer’s Big Dig.
That is so exciting. I can't wait to see these books. Do you have any advice on surviving rejections, managing bouts of success, or anything else for authors or illustrators?
Have lots of ideas. Write lots of stories. Write about the things you care about. Try new ways of telling. Try new genres. Experiment. Keep submitting. Keep smiling.
I like the inclusion of that last one. No matter what, never give up your fun and humor. What is your favorite animal? Or one you are currently enamored with. Why?
Dogs, because I can’t live without them.
Thank you, Candace and Eric for participating in this interview. I enjoyed the chance to get to know you both a little better.
Be sure to stop back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera.
For more information about Candace Fleming, or to contact her:
For more information about Eric Rohmann,
or to contact him:
Website: https://www.ericrohmann.com/index.html (be sure to check out his video interview)