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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Constance Van Hoven

Constance, “Connie,” Van Hoven grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota with six brothers, one sister, and plenty of dogs, cats, horses, chickens, and pigs. Actually, the horses, chickens and pigs were in Nebraska where she spent lots of time in the summer on her grandmother’s farm. Connie and her siblings explored—acres of pasture with bison wallows, barns, outbuildings, a one-room schoolhouse, and the country cemetery.

Grammy had two rules and one piece of advice: be home in time for supper, close any gates you open, and if they got lost they should climb a hill to look for the windmill outside her house. And so, they took off each day with only imaginations to guide them.

Connie married, raised three children, and worked as a buyer for a group of toy stores. But eventually she made her way back to the magical world of writing. She earned an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. Connie’s the author of, The Twelve Days of Christmas in Minnesota, (2009), Hello! Minnesota (2011), and a board book edition of The Twelve Days of Christmas in Minnesota (2016).

I get to offer you all a sneak peek at her newest picture book, Rare and Blue: Finding Nature’s Treasures, which releases September 1st.

Welcome Connie, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest books and writing.

Thank you, Maria! Wish you could join me here on my deck for a glass of milk and a couple of my “best ever chocolate chip cookies” (recently perfected to accommodate baking conditions in my new home state of Montana).

ME: Connie, that sounds like a delightful afternoon. Can you 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?)

CONNIE: I’ve been writing ever since I won an essay contest in Junior High. At the time, my dad handed me a ten dollar bill and told me to keep the prize-winning check as a reminder of what it felt like to get paid for doing something I enjoyed. I still have that check!

After majoring in English in college, I worked as a copywriter for a group of toy stores that also had catalogs. I loved writing about toys, but even more about the children’s books we featured. Trips to Toy Fair and Book Expo gave me the opportunity to meet many inspiring children’s book writers. So, when I had the opportunity to pursue an MFA in Writing for Children, I jumped at the chance. Attending Vermont College was one of the best experiences of my life! Since then, I’ve been writing wherever I find myself. Because my husband and I travel quite a bit, I’m used to writing in a car, on a boat, on a plane, on a park bench...

While picture books (both fiction and nonfiction) are my true love, I also work on middle grade fiction. Which, in time, could become a true love, too!

What a cool dad and a wonderful memento! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I’m a big fan of cartoons and cartoonists. When I was a teenager I followed Marty Links and her Bobby Sox/ Emmy Lou comic strip. I still have some of those cartoons that I cut out of the newspaper. Later on, I loved the work of Charles Addams, George Booth, Harry Bliss. Always a fan of Peanuts as well, especially when Snoopy is working on his typewriter. But Gary Larson’s, The Far Side, is my all-time favorite. I start every day by checking his website. I’m thrilled with his recent addition of “New Stuff.” And Gary’s thoughts on that page about always having a sense of adventure and fun are inspiring for everyone.

That's fun to know. Thanks. What was your inspiration for Rare and Blue: Finding Nature’s Treasures?

A long-deceased blue lobster on the wall of a maritime museum in Maine! Made me wonder what else in this world is rare and blue? And why? After the lobster, it seemed that wherever I went I ran into things both rare and blue. Serendipity, I guess. Or maybe I was becoming more attuned to things in the natural world and the impact people/development was having on them.

I've never heard of a blue lobster, that's so interesting. How different was writing and/or researching Rare and Blue from The Twelve Days of Christmas in Minnesota and Hello! Minnesota?

My books about Minnesota were written on assignment from Sterling Publishing. It felt like putting pieces of a puzzle together. I loved every minute of it. It was also fun adding my own spin on the kids in the 12 Days book. Because I had once worked for the Minnesota Historical Society as a tour guide, and also as a teacher/naturalist at a local nature center, I already had an abundance of ideas and material to work with.

For Rare and Blue there were puzzle pieces to fit together also, but I needed to do far more research and to create a thread to carry through the book. Other versions of Rare and Blue over the years didn’t pan out. It wasn’t until I added the framework of a treasure hunt, that the manuscript caught the eye of Julie Bliven, my wonderful editor at Charlesbridge.

Picture books really do feel like puzzles. Though sometimes it seems someone hid a piece or two. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

One of my favorite childhood books, that I still have, is a compilation of eighteen folk and fairy tales retold by various authors. Castles and Dragons is the title of the book, my favorite story in it is The Swans of Ballycastle by Walter Hackett. It’s a retelling of the ancient Irish legend of the Children of Lir. Three siblings turn into swans to escape an evil stepmother. Then they swim away to live on Rathlin Island off the coast of Northern Ireland for many, many years until it is safe for them to return home.

Quite a few years ago I was travelling through Northern Ireland with friends. After a morning of exploring castle ruins, we drove into the seaside town of Ballycastle. I hadn’t known the town was on our route. Suddenly, my childhood book came to life! Here was this magical place, complete with a wide beach, Rathlin Island in the distance, and swans—just like in the story. Of course, we pulled over to the nearest pub so I could raise a glass to a place that had captured my fancy so long ago and savor the moment.

Thanks for the introduction to a tale I am unfamiliar with. I think it's cool that you got this chance to visit this beach. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration?

The natural world is a huge inspiration to me. I’m lucky to live in Montana where there are so many amazing places to walk and hike. But, history is also inspiring to me, especially family history. I come from a family of storytellers and letter writers, so I have lots of material to work with.

Sounds like we have lots of stories to look forward to. What was the toughest aspect of writing Rare and Blue?

Because the book was written over a period of years, and nature is continuously in flux, new rare and blue items were always cropping up. Leaving things out was particularly tough. The book could easily be twice as big. Which is why I’ve spent the many weeks ahead of publication, while the book was delayed, writing about those other things on a weekly Facebook Post. (Such as the blue-footed booby -

I loved looking through your Facebook feed to see so many blue animals and treasures. Is there something you want your readers to know about Rare and Blue?

Rare and blue is everywhere. Wherever you live there are rare and blue things in nature to marvel at. Especially when you take into account the definition of rare: not only does rare mean “few in quantity,” but it can also mean “exceptionally beautiful.”

It's fun that you found so many different shades of blue in nature. Did you have an ah ha moment when you saw the illustrations? Which is your favorite spread?

I am thrilled with all of the illustrations Alan Marks created. But the page with the blue lobster really made me smile. So many years later after seeing the preserved lobster on the wall, to see a gorgeous live blue lobster in its natural setting was really exciting.

Text © Constance Van Hoven, 2020. Image © Alan Marks, 2020.

My favorite spread is the one with the blue whale. What a magnificent creature. This weekend my grandkids are going to help me paint a blue whale on a 100-foot roll of paper in the back yard (a good socially-distanced exercise) to get an idea of how huge an animal it really is.

What a beautifully powerful image. What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you? Do you have any advice for unpublished and/or un-agented authors?

Well, the glacial slowness of the process is sure frustrating. We all are accustomed to having things we desire pretty quickly. It’s so hard to be patient! For me, writing is a slow process to start with. Then add on the editing, illustrating, and publishing parts, and whew, time really flies. My best advice is to find joy in your work every day.

Great advice! Is there anything you’d wish to share with your younger self or children?

Try not to let rejection get you down. When I first started submitting my work years ago, editors and agents responded by mail. I kept every rejection letter I received back then. Recently, I took a picture of the large stack for posterity, and then I let my grandkids help me burn the letters—before we toasted some marshmallows. I told them to learn from what people say but continue to believe in yourself. I love this quote by Bette Midler: “Cherish forever what makes you unique, ‘cuz you’re really a yawn if it goes.”

Love the bonfire idea! Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

While we have been coming to Montana for many years, we recently became residents. We are enjoying exploring what’s in our new back yard. I’m working on several nonfiction pieces about animals that are right here in Montana. And there will be humor…

I will definitely be keeping my eyes out for your next book. What is your favorite animal? Why?

That’s a tough question! How to choose? Maybe I’ll have a new one after my current research is done, but for now, I have to say it’s the common loon. Iconic, mythical, wild, gorgeous, and so much a part of my summers while I lived in Minnesota. Sadly, we will not make it back to Minnesota for a visit this year, so I will miss hearing loons call. There’s nothing like that haunting wail waking you in the wee hours, then snuggling deeper under the covers…

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

Thank you, Maria! I always look forward to reading your interviews. Have another cookie before you go!

Aw man, anyone else craving Chocolate-Chip cookies, now?

Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Rare & Blue: Finding Nature's Treasures.

To find out more about Constance Van Hoven, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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