The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Ellen Leventhal
Ellen Leventhal is an author and educator based in Houston, Texas. Although she writes mostly children’s stories, she has authored short stories and poetry for both children and adults.
Ellen's the author of the picture books Lola Can’t Leap (2018) and the co- author of Don't Eat the Bluebonnets (2017).
Her newest picture book, A Flood of Kindness, releases tomorrow!
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? How did you get started? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
I wish I could tell you that I wrote all day, every day in a specific place and took breaks only for food, water, and exercise. But that would be fiction. 😊 I will say that I do try to write at least something every day, but honestly, that doesn’t always happen. I spend a lot of my day on writing related tasks such as critiquing (yay!), writing blog posts (yay!), and marketing (not so much “Yay!” here for me). Although I am usually disciplined enough to get up and get right to the computer, I don’t have an actual routine. That is one of my goals.
I feel like I’ve been writing in some capacity forever. I remember being a kid and going to a park, sitting on “my rock,” and writing in my journal. As I grew into a teenager, the poems and stories grew maudlin filled with teenage angst. I cringe when I think about them. I began adding poems, songs, and stories with a more upbeat tone, but those angsty poems were still a staple for me for years.
I began seriously writing for kids when I was teaching. Ellen Rothberg, my co-author of Don’t Eat the Bluebonnets and I taught together and always wrote fun things to make the curriculum more interesting. After spending hours cruising the aisles of bookstores and thinking “We could do that,” we finally did. And after that, I was hooked.
I don’t think I have a favorite type of book to write. I know this sounds cliched, but whatever I am working on is my favorite. I have been dipping my toes into narrative nonfiction because I do love it, but I haven’t been very successful. However, shh…I have a picture book biography coming out in 2023 that I am excited about. So, while I was working on that, biographies were my favorite!
Thanks for the 'heads up.' What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
Hmm…I’m pretty much an open book and not very interesting. Some people know that I taught Special Education for several years. I loved it. But what they may not know is that I got some advice (and a compliment! )from Eunice Shriver, the founder of The Special Olympics and John F. Kennedy’s sister. I met her at The Special Olympics in Washington, D.C a long time ago, and we spent a lot of time together that day coaching and hanging out with my kids. She was wonderful and validated my passion for what I did. I respected her so much because she could have stepped back and let others do the actual grunt work, but she was right in there. That day helped fuel my passion of education for all children.
Wow! What a special gift that day was! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
I’m not sure I had a favorite anything, but I do remember loving both Eloise and Madeline. The characters thrilled me although I wasn’t anything like either of them. I also loved a funny picture book, Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobkina. I often wonder if, as adults, our memories of picture books are more tied to the feelings of having been read to as opposed to the actual books themselves. I also loved a middle grade book called Follow My Leader by James B Garfield. It is about a boy and his service dog, Leader. And I read the Nancy Drew books voraciously. I remember being upset when I heard that “author” Carolyn Keene was not a real person and the books were ghost written by many people. I wanted to meet Carolyn Keene! Sorry! That was more than you asked for.
That sounds like an interesting book. Maybe I can find it at a used bookstore one day. What was your inspiration for A Flood of Kindness?
My inspiration was multi-faceted. I had lived through three floods in less than three years, so on the surface, that’s the inspiration. But what really inspired me is the kindness I saw around me. I did what Mr. Rogers suggested and “looked for the helpers.” They were right there. It was difficult at first for me to accept help, just as it was difficult for my character, Charlotte to accept a gift. After all, I was usually the helper, and this was a new situation for me. I had to learn to graciously accept all the kindness shown me. Whenever I was able to help others, if even in a small way, I could feel myself heal just a bit. I was teaching part time during these trying times in my community, and I had many discussions with children who also were affected. Each one felt a bit better when they were able to help a sibling or other child, even though they too were displaced and hurting. I knew that I wanted the healing power of kindness to be front and center if I ever wrote a book about the disaster.
I think you definitely succeeded. And I'm sorry about your series of floods. Is there something you want your readers to know about A Flood of Kindness?
More than what I want readers to know about the book is what I hope people get out of it. I think of it as a book about empowerment, resilience, and the healing power of kindness. I want children to know that they are not powerless to help others.
That is a wonderful message. Even if it's handling out water bottles or sharing a book, every little kindness is important. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer.)
When I was a child, my father always wrote poems and stories for my brother and me, so he was my earliest inspiration. I carried on the tradition with my kids and am trying to do the same thing with my grandkids. Speaking of grandkids, they are definitely a source of inspiration for me as a writer now. Along with them, my students, nature, and of course, the kidlit community that keeps me going all inspire me.
That's a lot of inspiration. Was A Flood of Kindness easier, or harder, to write than Lola Can’t Leap and/or Don't Eat the Bluebonnets?
What a great question! A Flood of Kindness was difficult in some ways because it was so personal, and I had to make sure that I told the story through my character’s eyes, not mine. On the other hand, because it was so personal, I think the first few drafts flowed easier than the other ones. I actually had fewer revisions than both “Lola” and “Bluebonnets” before I was comfortable enough to submit it. (Of course, there were more revisions after that!)
Interesting how your personal connection affected it. Did anything surprise or delight you when you first saw Blythe Russo’s illustrations for the first time? Which is your favorite spread?
Text © Ellen Leventhal, 2021. Image © Blythe Russo, 2021.
I was completely delighted with how Blythe captured the mood and was able to show the progression from fear and anger to hope. I also was amazed with how she was able to show the emotion no matter how subtle. I love all the spreads, but I think I especially like when they are looking out of the bus and Charlotte notices how everyone is helping. It is turning point in my story, and I think Blythe depicted it well.
I love Blythe's color scheme and the wide range of emotion in this spread. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I am deep into revision with a few different picture book projects, and I’m jotting notes down on a possible new one that hasn’t yet gelled. I’m also writing a chapter book that seems to want to be a lower middle grade. I will have to write it and see where my characters lead me.
We'll have to keep our eyes open. What have you been doing to stay creative? Anything in particular that “primes the well”?
I enjoy writing poetry just for myself. I need to make more time to do it. Writing without worrying about sharing, word count, marketability, etc., keeps my creative juices going. I also enjoy taking walks to “prime the well.” I don’t live surrounded by nature, but I have been obsessed with dandelions that grow out of cracks in the ground. I know there is a story there! And, although this isn’t my creativity, if I find a good book, I fall into it, and that definitely “primes the well.”
Reading and exploring your imagination are great ways to stay creative. Heading into your third book release, and associated readings and, hopefully, school visits, do you have any advice for those just learning their book is to be published? (What will you do/try differently this time?)
Of course, this last year has been a challenging time to have a book released, so I would do things differently this year no matter what. BUT I have learned a lot, and I do have a bit of advice.
· Number one, if your book is about to come out, CONGRATS! Celebrate!
· I highly recommend joining a marketing group. If you are on Facebook, you can find some. Or start your own! I didn’t know about them before, and I wish I did. There is power in numbers, and it makes marketing so much easier. Will it translate into sales? I don’t know for sure. But I do know that you will make more kidlit friends who understand your journey, and you will feel bolstered. The people in these groups are definitely a source of support, which at least to me, is so important. I feel less alone this time.
· Look for untraditional ways to get your book seen. Investigate speaking (or virtual speaking) opportunities. Reach out to libraries, day cares, and other places where your audience may gather.
· If you are interested in school visits, think about all the different ways you can tie your book into the curriculum. Make friends with school librarians if you can.
· Don’t be afraid to ask your publisher what they will do and what they want you to do. This time around, I have a list of things that the publisher has asked me to complete which complements what they are doing.
All good advice. So, last question. What is your favorite animal? Or one that you are enamored with. Why?
That’s an easy one. I love dogs! Big ones, little ones, cuddly, or standoffish. They are loyal, fun, and always happy to see you. Their eyes, their noses, their fluff! I even love the slurpy kisses. I have a few stories about dogs that haven’t gone anywhere, but they make me happy.
Thank you so much for coming by to talk with me Ellen. It was a pleasure spending time with you.
Thank you so much, Maria, for having me here today. And thank you for all you do for the kidlit world!
Be sure to come back Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on A Flood of Kindness.
To find out more about Ellen Leventhal, or get in touch with her: