The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Caron Levis
Caron Levis enjoys writing fiction and plays for children, teens, and adults. She is the author of several picture books including Mama's Work Shoes (2019, Abrams); Stop That Yawn! (2018, Athenuem); May I Have A Word? (2017, FSG/Macmillan); the award-winning Ida, Always (2016, Atheneum) - which The New York Times Book Review called, "an example of children's books at their best.”
Caron is a professor at NYU and The New School's Creative Writing MFA program where she is the advisor for the Children/YA concentration. Caron has an LMSW from Hunter College and facilitates young people's loss and bereavement groups. After many years as an arts educator, Caron now loves using acting and writing to teach social, emotional, and literacy skills to students of all ages through her author workshops. Having trained in acting and dabbled in playwriting, Caron also enjoys turning theatre techniques into writing tools for groan-ups through her workshop Act-Like-A-Writer and helping shy writers unearth their public speaking voices through Page-to-Stage.
Her newest picture book, This Way, Charlie, releases tomorrow!
Welcome Caron, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest books and writing.
Thank you so much for inviting me. It’s really so lovely of you want to chat. Your questions give me a way to reflect on the process, that I might not otherwise.
Please see our earlier interview for additional information about Caron (here).
ME: What was your inspiration for This Way, Charlie?
CARON: Several years ago, a friend showed me a PBS special about unusual animal friendships, that had a segment on a blind horse named Charlie, who had come to sanctuary (Wild Heart Ranch) and was befriended by a goat, named Jack, who helped lead him to pasture every day for many years—and even came to the horse’s rescue during a storm! The story of this unexpected duo, the loyalty, the meeting of challenges together moved me for what it says about the depth of animal friendships.
The story also immediately reminded me of a particularly special friendship between two kids I’d once worked with: how they had both admired each other’s very different strengths and learned to navigate each-others very different developmental and physical challenges. I loved watching how they stuck together through both the easy days and the conflicts, and ultimately helped each other grow as they got closer. Jack and Charlie reminded me of many more friendships as well, including my own. I thought it would make an important story for a picture book so I tucked the idea away.
It sure made a terrific premise for a story. One I am very glad you shared. Would you say there is a common thread in your picture books?
There is, of course, the most direct thread between Ida, Always and This Way, Charlie which are meant to be loose companion books, as they both explore different aspects of how friends navigate life’s challenges via stories that are based on real life animal relationships. I’ve become really interested in this space I fell into of stories that explore the emotional bonds that both animals and humans have.
Generally, I am attracted to all different kinds of stories and ideas, but certainly I am always interested in exploring emotions. When it comes to the actual words, someone once pointed out to me that I tend to use sound the most of all the five senses, and that is absolutely true. May I Have A Word? is so very different than Ida, Always, yet they both use sound as a primary aspect. Since it was pointed out to me, I began to notice that I do seem to often take in the world via sounds—when I am on the subway, in a classroom, or in the countryside, sounds seem to come in and stick with me the most of all my senses. I guess I’ve always been an eavesdropper!
That's an interesting revelation and an excellent skill for an author. Do you find it harder to write the more emotional stories (This Way, Charlie & Ida, Always) or the humorous ones (Stop That Yawn! & May I Have A Word?)? Which do you prefer?
I really like to go wherever an idea takes me and, while the emotional stories are probably my most usual jam, I super enjoy word play and being silly. Everything I write is challenging for me in different ways—ideas come easily and often, but I am tortoise paced and super nit-picky at making them work.
So, what was the toughest aspect of writing This Way, Charlie? How long did it take from the idea to publication?
This Way, Charlie is actually an example of the best kind of long process. I fell in love with the first idea fragment in 2012 and knew I wanted to do something with it—but I didn’t try to write anything for a long time. When an idea is super special to me, I have this weird reaction of being afraid to go after it too soon. Every now and then, after a certain interaction or observation of friends, Jack and Charlie would float to the surface of my brain and wave—so I would take a mental note. I didn’t even take too many written notes (as far as I recall)—until I was trying to come up with a new story idea I could maybe tempt Charles Santoso to illustrate—because I just loved his work on Ida, Always and how thoughtful and playful he is with everything he does. After going round several not-quite right ideas—there were Jack and Charlie, patiently swishing their tails, chewing the grass, and looking at me like, “Hello there silly writer lady. It’s our time, don’t ya think?” There was zero guarantees I would sell the manuscript, or that Charles would end up illustrating it even if I did, but the dreamy Maybe of that possibility was a delicious enough goal to spark me to start trying to draft this story that had always felt so special to me. Who knows, maybe it was the relieving thought of—well, if I don’t get the words quite right, at least the art would be amazing—that got me out of fear of failure and into excitement about possibility.
I'm glad it worked out that Charles ended up the illustrator. He did such a great job. Is there something you want your readers to know about This Way, Charlie?
Oh, just that I wrote it hoping it might give you a space to celebrate and reflect upon the challenges and joys of your own friendships.
But actually, I’ll add that one of the moments that was always important to me to include (which seems potentially even more relevant right now—as I am answering this question during the pandemic where we are all staying-at-home) is the moment where Jack, overwhelmed by some very big feelings, snaps at his dearest friend Charlie and says something quite mean. I really wanted to validate the fact that, while we hope to practice the skills that would prevent these moments from happening—many of us have the experience of accidentally hurting someone we love the most, when our feelings outsize our momentary skillset to navigate them.
Text © Caron Levis, 2020. Image © Charles Santoso, 2020.
Honestly, I wish I had understood better as a child that we can recover and move on from an occasional fight with friends (which is different than chronic bullying); that we can forgive and be forgiven, and our bonds can grow stronger if we decide to learn from our mistakes. I really admire how Charles chose to illustrate this moment too, he didn’t shy away from it and therefore allows readers to see a tough feeling honored in all its complexity.
You both created a touching and poignant moment. You’ve teamed up with some amazing illustrators – Vanessa Brantley-Newton, LeUyen Pham, Charles Santoso, Andy Rash, and Jon Davis. Do you find that you ever need to submit your manuscripts with illustrator notes? Is there something you’ve learned about illustrating picture books that makes writing other books easier for you?
It’s actually more accurate to say I’ve been teamed up with these amazing artists by editors and publishers (as this is how it typically works with PB’s) I honestly cannot believe my luck to have had words paired with these folks. I love writing picture books because, while it is not (alas) collaborative in the side-by-side way folks might assume, there is a special magic to be writing something that is a kind of trampoline for another artist to bounce off of to create. My first experience with creating for another artist was writing short plays; the very first time I handed over a script in theatre school and got to silently watch a director and actor use it as a springboard for their talents…I was hooked. And theatre is actually where my original approach to writing picture books came from.
The way I approach art notes generally comes directly from my experience studying playscripts as an actor. I have a sticky memory of an acting teacher advising us to—whenever we get a script, cross out all the stage directions that aren’t inherent to the plot of the play. So, things like, “angrily” “sobs” “upswept hair” and even “punches him in the nose” are ignored by the performing artist so that they are free to use their own creativity in those moments and make choices that best serve the story. So, I figured illustrators might—and should—work the same way and ignore any unnecessary art notes in order to have the most room to add their own vision and skill. I love the challenge of leaving room for the illustrator as well as the reverse challenge of finding a way to be sure an image or action or detail that is extremely important to me is worked into the text somehow to guarantee it will appear. This less-is-more and say-it-via-text approach was further pressed upon me when I took my first formal class in writing for children with the wonderful author Jan Carr. She explained that if you really want your characters to be sheep for example, it isn’t enough to just put that in an art note, because the editor and illustrator might see it best as a family of hippos. If you want a sheep family, then you need to write your text in a way that the story can only be about sheep.
Now, all that said, I’ve at times been lengthier in my art notes—but typically I only do this when working with an editor or illustrator I’ve worked with before and who know I expect to ultimately be ignored! [HA!]
I love the image of creating a trampoline for the illustrator to bounce off! 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?
Oh dear—honestly, there have been several excruciating manuscript heartbreaks—and while rejection is a part of the business I expect, have gotten used to, and honestly in some weird way embrace as I have never trusted fast compliments—once in a while I do get shocked at just how rough this business can be for writers. But generally, I’ve developed a method to deal with disappointment which includes a limited visit to the Pit of Despair, after which I dust off and get back to it.
I keep telling myself to take up martial arts again because having an outside practice—meditation or sports or other—that trains you to roll with punches is a good idea for folks wanting to be professional children’s book writers. Mostly I’ve learned to steer my heart and brain away from the things I cannot control, and focus on what I can, which is the writing—so my most frustrating times are with myself when I’m not getting a story right yet, or not writing enough, etc. and these are things I can do something about. So, um, practicing kung-fu and focusing on what you can control, I suppose that’s some advice that applies to pre-published and published!
Finding outside interests are so important to maintaining a writer's sanity. Having gone through a number of book releases and associated readings and school visits, do you have any advice for those just learning their book is to be published? (What will you do/try differently next time? Best or worst experience to avoid?)
As I work other jobs, promotion work will come at expense of writing or school visit time—not to mention challenge my tech/outreach skills and unearth icky-imposter syndrome feelings—so I usually get stressed about the decision of events and promotion before a book comes out.
This past summer, with both Mama’s Work Shoes and This Way, Charlie coming, I thought I should spend more time trying to create buzz, etc. But then, I realized that the book of mine that has been the “stickiest” and gotten the most visibility (Ida, Always)—did so with zero, zip, zilch help from anything I personally did promotion wise. One can find either comforting or defeating information; I have decided to find it relaxing.
So, I’m not the expert, but some of my best advice:
- Do not schedule a book reading at a bookstore at the same time there is a marching band and horses outside. True story. No one told me I had to ask about that sort of thing! [Honestly now, who isn't howling with laughter?!]
- Celebrate your accomplishments, any of them, but especially that first book, in whatever way will bring you joy. I was way older than I’d planned to be when my first book Stuck With The Blooz (2012) arrived and I was so glad someone suggested I throw a private party with my dearest pals. It was lovely.
- Join one of those debut groups! I wish that was something I’d known about; they really seem an amazing way to both promote and meet folks and be in it together.
- If you are someone who can mentally/logistically put on a pretty full-time promotion hat and pursue and invest time/money in fabulous business ideas and/or is interested in cultivating a large social-media following…do it—seems to help and surely can’t hurt.
- If you are more like me: make peace with whatever it is you are able to do, and let go of what you want but can’t make happen (my list is always super long.) Find a balance between pushing yourself to do a few rotten-banana promotion things (for me that’s social media and Making Asks of Any Kind) and sticking to what makes you happy (for me that’s creating and facilitating school visits and workshops, making activity guides, and my super infrequent monthly-ISH newsletter—join it, will ya?) and leaving the rest up to the fickle universe.
- Say YES, whenever a generous person like, ahem, Maria Marshall, asks you to do an interview or an event. These are like being offered chocolate-chip cookies. Yes, and thank you ever so much, Maria, anytime. [*blushing* But I get to benefit from all this amazing advice & wisdom, too!]
My writing had a long, slow walk towards publication. While I wish everyone else a shorter walk, I also hope their path is full of as interesting unexpected job, moment, experiences, and friends as mine and the ultimate destination as lovely as my first experience with an editor and illustrator. As it says in This Way, Charlie, really the best thing to do is keep putting “one hoof in front of the other.”
I love the advice to do what YOU can do. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Working on stuff, always. Alas, nothing is in the stage right for chatting about yet. Every writer is different, but I need to use the excitement of wanting to share a story as fuel for writing through the tough parts!
No worries at all! We will wait with bated breath to see what you announce next. Thank you, Caron for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you again.
Thank you Maria.
Be sure to stop by Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on This Way, Charlie.
To find out more about Caron Levis, or get in touch with her:
Check out these events/dates for release activities:
April 21st - Kid Lit TV [Tune in anytime, after 8 am] (https://caronlevis.us5.list-manage.com/track/click?u=4d7926f0eb06b2f88d2442119&id=99b96356ca&e=b6e60965b6) for a StoryMakers interview with me and a twitter-chance to win a copy of This Way, Charlie:
- you'll learn about the book,
- get a glimpse of Charles Santoso's drafting process,
- hear about when I met the real live goats, and
- at the end Rocco and I practice ways to make a new friend!
You can watch and then try it at home!
And if you re-tweet and follow on twitter, you'll be entered to win a free copy of the book and a signed bookplate!
April 21-23 - Join Charles Santoso via his Instagram page (https://www.instagram.com/charlessantoso/) to celebrate This Way, Charlie by suggesting YOUR idea of an unlikely animal friendship! Charles will then pick 2 ideas on April 23rd and draw them, live!”
April 26th - Watch my reading of This Way, Charlie from the middle of a pond on what I call Honeysuckle Raft. Come read with me!
May 2nd (11:30 EST) - Join me for a love virtual This Way, Charlie storytime with my local independent bookstore Greenlight Bookstore (https://www.greenlightbookstore.com/event)!
Go to their event page to sign up.
Bring friends so you can have a virtual playdate together. Ages 3 to 10.
Through a virtually interactive reading, drama activity, and a simple craft you can do at home, kids will celebrate friendships and feelings while exploring the ways Jack, the goat, and Charlie, the horse, use courage and creativity to navigate big challenges— together.
Optional At-Home materials:
+ Paper for coloring (construction paper if at hand)
+ Crayons, markers, or colored pencils.
+ scissor & (optional) hole punch
+ String or ribbon.