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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Emma Bland Smith

The best thing about writing books

is getting to visit lots of cool places for research,

like Alcatraz.

~ Emma Bland Smith

Emma Bland Smith is the award-winning author of Journey: Based on the True Story of OR7, the Most Famous Wolf in the West, as well four other picture books, two chapter-book series, as well as an older book on San Francisco.

Emma is a librarian and author who lives in San Francisco with her husband, two kids, dog, and cat. She was born in Scotland, grew up in San Francisco, and lived in New York, Santa Barbara, and Paris. Now she’s back home, living a block away from my childhood house.

Her newest book, Odin: Hero Dog of the Fires, releases June 30th.

Welcome Emma, thank you for joining me to talk about your newest book and giving a sneak peek.

Thanks, Maria! So excited to be here.

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?)

I’ve always written, but it took me a long time to land on children’s books. In college I wrote for the daily paper, and I was TERRIBLE! I was too shy to interview people. After college I did a master’s in French lit and tried out academic writing. (That was challenging but not creative enough for me.) Later I lived in New York and worked at women’s magazines. (That was life changing. I learned to fact-check and to write succinct, engaging copy. I became enamored with m-dashes—and still am.) Back in California, I worked for at a popular lifestyle magazine, writing and testing recipes. (That was VERY fun but still not especially creative.) And then when my kids were born, I fell in love with children’s books and decided that was what I desperately wanted to write.

The last few years, I’ve wandered down the narrative nonfiction rabbit hole and am smitten. I’m still terrified of interviewing people, but I’m getting better!

Sounds like you unknowingly laid a great foundation for being a nonfiction children's writer. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

My first real job was at the concession stands at the San Francisco Zoo, the summer after freshman year of college. The seagulls used to swoop down and steal hot dogs. I loved that job, even though we had to wear a matching khaki shorts and buttoned shirt set, like a safari guide.

Better khakis than a hotdog costume! Would you say there is a common thread in your picture books? Which was the hardest one to write?

A lot of my books seem to be about animals! Wolves, dogs, alligators, ducks. Why is that? I think it’s that animals are so popular with kids, and you can talk about bigger issues from within an accessible framework. For example, a main theme of Claude: The True Story of a White Alligator is that individuals (like this albino alligator) often suffer rejection because of their differences.

The Pig War: How a Porcine Tragedy Taught England and America to Share might have been the hardest to write. It involved a lot of research and travel. The events took place a long time ago, and the primary sources are limited, so I had to figure out clever ways and work-arounds to make the characters and story come alive. Writing this narrative challenged me and made me grow as a writer!

I think that's why there are so many beloved animal stories. How did you first learn about Odin and what inspired you to write his story?

I learned about it in a very old-fashioned way: the nightly news! During the destructive 2017 California wildfires, I was glued to the TV. I kept seeing heartwarming clips of this dog who had survived the fire and saved his family’s herd of goats. I read more online, and knew pretty quickly that this could make a wonderful book, a story of hope and bravery. It felt good to find something positive in this setting of tragedy and loss.

I agree. Rays of hope are always helpful, especially now. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?

It’s a cliché, but I always tell kids that if they want to write when they grow up, the best thing they can do now is read! Read, read, read. Just re-read your favorite books if you like! It will lay the foundation for writing later.

Best advice! And it applies to adult writers/illustrators, too. Was there an “ah ha” moment when you first saw the illustrations? Do you have a favorite illustration in Odin: Hero Dog of the Fires?

I absolutely adore the opening endpapers, where Carrie Salazar painted a portrait of all eight goats plus both dogs, and labeled them! Each goat is unique and it’s fun to try to tell them apart.

Text © Emma Bland Smith, 2020. Image © Carrie Salazar, 2020.

The back endpapers are also very poignant. Carrie painted a bleak and burnt-out landscape, but with a small light green sprout pushing up out of the wreckage, symbolizing the regrowth to come.

Text © Emma Bland Smith, 2020. Image © Carrie Salazar, 2020.

And I think everything in between is awesome, too! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

Growing up, I was a very nerdy reader. My favorite series were James Herriott’s All Creatures Great and Small, and all of Gerald Durrell’s memoirs—especially My Family and Other Animals, set on the Greek island of Corfu. For a long time I wanted to be a vet, and even attended UC Davis for that reason. In the end, I realized I did not have the mind of a scientist, and went the humanities route instead. (I ended up with master’s degrees in French literature and library science—very different from veterinary medicine!) But those wonderful nature- and animal-centered books were my literary foundation.

And they obviously stuck with you! I adored Gerald Durrell's two books as well. What's something you want your readers to know about Odin: Hero Dog of the Fires?

Great Pyrenees are very special dogs! I had never heard of them before this, but now I read about them everywhere, and when we go on walks in the country here in Northern California, we often see them in pastures guarding livestock. Interesting fact: Odin’s owner, Roland, told me that when they brought home Odin and his sister, Tessa, as puppies, they reluctantly only let them sleep in the house for one night. They couldn’t let the dogs bond too closely with their human owners—they needed the dogs to bond with the animals they would protect. Now, Roland occasionally tries to get Odin to come inside the house to hang out and watch a movie—but Odin won’t budge! He loves his people, but his primary loyalty is to his four-legged flock. They are stubborn and faithful dogs!

How interesting! What/who is your greatest source of inspiration?

The beautiful natural world around us!

What is the hardest thing for you about writing children’s books?

For nonfiction, it’s the research, and searching for just the facts that you need to construct a compelling narrative. You can’t make anything up, you can’t overly embellish! It’s both the hardest and the most rewarding thing about writing nonfiction.

But what a great feeling when you nail it! Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I’m working on a picture book biography of Robert McCloskey. The manuscript has been acquired by Calkins Creek and is set for publication in 2022. The wonderful Becca Stadtlander will illustrate. I’ve loved all of McCloskey’s books—both as a child and as a parent reading to my kids: Blueberries for Sal, One Morning in Maine, Time of Wonder. This book focuses on the making of Make Way for Ducklings. A highlight has been corresponding with McCloskey’s daughter, Jane, who was featured in One Morning in Maine. (She’s the little sister of Sal of Blueberries for Sal!) That has truly been a thrill.

Oh my gosh! I can't wait for this biography! What is your favorite animal? Or one that you are currently enamored with?

As a child I loved rabbits and hedgehogs. Today I’m head-over-heels for our golden retriever, Piper! A funny story is that when we went to meet Odin and his goats, we brought Piper with us. She was so badly behaved! She went crazy barking and chasing the goats all over the hill! Odin finally had to give her a nip. She yelped and came skulking back to us, and we tied her up. She’s wonderful, but she definitely doesn’t have Odin’s guardian dog genes!

Poor Piper! Thank you Emma for sharing about yourself and giving a sneak peek into Odin.

Thank YOU, Maria, for shining a light on children’s books!

Be sure to stop back Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Odin: Hero Dog of the Fires.

To find out more about Emma Bland Smith, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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