The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Linda Ashman
Linda Ashman is the author of more than forty five picture books and is the creator of The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books.
Her books have been included on the “best of the year” lists of The New York Times, Parenting and Child magazines, the New York Public Library, Bank Street College of Education, and the International Reading Association, and have been translated into many languages. She leads writing workshops and gives presentations about writing and children’s books at conferences and schools.
Linda grew up in New Jersey, worked in New York, and spent many years in Los Angeles and Denver. She now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with her husband, Jack Hicks, and their dog Stella.
Linda’s children's books include I Like This, You Like That, illustrated by Eve Coy (2022), Phoebe Dupree Is Coming to Tea!, illustrated by Alea Marley (2021), Ways to Welcome, illustrated by Joey Chou (2020), When The Storm Comes, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo (2020), My Daddy and Me, illustrated by Jane Massey (2020), Take Your Pet To School Day, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman (2019), William Wakes Up, illustrated by Chuck Groenink (2019), Outside My Window, illustrated by Jamey Christoph (2018), William’s Winter Nap, illustrated by Chuck Groenink (2017), and Rain!, illustrated by Christian Robinson (2013).
Her newest picture book, Fire Chief Fran, released on October 11, 2022.
Welcome Linda, thank you so much for coming by to talk about your writing and your newest picture book.
Thanks for inviting 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?)
I’ve been writing for more than 25 years, after working as a real estate market analyst in New York and Los Angeles and getting a master’s degree in Urban Planning—kind of a winding career path. Fire Chief Fran is my 42nd picture book, with more due out next year. It’s written in rhyme, definitely my favorite kind of book to write. I like the challenge of finding just the right word that fits the meter and rhyme pattern but also sounds natural and moves the story forward.
I write from an upstairs office in my home that looks out on a moss lawn and lots of trees and wildlife—squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, deer and a wide variety of birds. (The view inspired When the Storm Comes when all those creatures disappeared during a dramatic July thunderstorm a few years ago.) Although I admire writers who write every day, I’m not one of them. I tend to be more project-oriented. If I’m working on a manuscript, I like to focus solely on that for a big chunk of the day. If I’m prepping for a presentation, reviewing illustrations, or have a bunch of other stuff to do, I generally don’t write.
Sounds like a wonderful spot to work! What do you like to do outside?
I try to get out for walks most days. My husband and I do a short walk each morning with our elderly dog Stella. And later I’ll do a longer walk with a friend or on my own to get exercise, clear my head and sometimes mull over a manuscript I’m working on. I also love to garden, even though it’s often an exercise in frustration: the deer seem to eat everything as soon as I plant it!
I often wonder how something so pretty can be so destructive. Can you share the name of an author, illustrator, and/or perhaps a book that made an impact on you as a child?
So many! I loved Dr. Seuss, Louisa May Alcott, and Beverly Cleary’s books—her stories and characters were so ordinary and relatable yet so funny. It was really fun re-reading them with our son when he was young. I also loved poetry, fairy tales, and the beautiful illustrations of Arthur Rackham, Jessie Wilcox Smith, Kay Nielsen, Kate Greenaway and others of that era. And I loved my parents’ editions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights with the foreboding woodblock prints by Fritz Eichenberg.
I don't think I've ever seen that cover before. What was the inspiration for Fire Chief Fran?
I wanted to write an action-packed read-aloud, and a fire station seemed like the right setting for that. From the beginning, the protagonist was a female fire chief (although her name changed a few times). Women make up less than ten percent of all firefighters—and a much smaller share are in leadership positions—so I wanted to show kids, especially girls, that this is a job women can do too.
I love that! What was the toughest aspect of writing this book? How long did it take to create your wonderful refrain?
Although the story is fictional, Nancy Carpenter and I (and our Astra editor Rebecca Davis) wanted to give a reasonably accurate sense of life as a small-town fire chief. That meant doing a lot of research and getting feedback from firefighters, including some female fire chiefs around the country. They were incredibly generous with their time and expertise, reviewing the text and art and offering helpful comments.
Your question about the refrain prompted me to look back at my early drafts. I definitely tried out many versions of the refrain, some of which made me cringe. But that’s par for the course—my rough drafts are very rough!
Even though it's a fictional story, I am glad you worked to be sure it was representative and accurate. What's something you want your readers to know about Fire Chief Fran?
Fran was initially turned down by a number of editors, some of whom said things like “we’ve already got a firefighter (or truck) story.” Somewhere during the submission process I happened to hear an interview with a female firefighter who talked about all the challenges she’d faced in a workplace dominated by men. Her experience encouraged me to continue with our submissions, but with a tweaked pitch letter from my agent, Jennifer Mattson, that highlighted the scarcity of female firefighters, especially in leadership positions. We wound up getting two offers on the manuscript, and the book has received starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly and Booklist. So I guess the message is: Persist!
You just never know. I guess snagging the right hook makes all the difference. How long did it take from the idea for Fire Chief Fran to publication? Is this comparable to your other books?
I finished writing the story in 2018, sold it in 2019, and the book was published in late 2022. While four years seems like a long time, it’s fairly typical for most picture books—the publishing world tends to move very slowly! In retrospect, the timeline seems relatively efficient given the upheaval of the pandemic as well as a change in editors midway through the process.
When you first saw Nancy Carpenter’s illustrations did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?
I’m such a Nancy Carpenter fan. She’s incredibly talented and versatile, and each of her books looks different yet uniquely Nancy’s. This is the second time we’ve been paired up. For our first book, M is a for Mischief—a collection of humorous poems about naughty kids—Nancy’s art was super creative and funny.
For Fran, her art is more realistic but still full of energy, warmth and humor. And, as a dog lover, I appreciate the wonderful dogs she included in both books.
Text © Linda Ashman, 2022. Image © Nancy Carpenter, 2022.
As for my favorite spread, I love the scene that shows Fran climbing the ladder to rescue Charlie, the café owner. It’s a great angle: readers feel like they’re in Charlie’s shoes, looking down the long ladder as Fran reaches up to help.
That is a pretty dramatic scene! Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Yes! I have two books coming out in early 2023 that I’m really excited about. Wonder Dogs, illustrated by Karen Obuhanych (Simon & Schuster, 2/23), is a celebration of my favorite animal. The narrator, a small rescue mutt, admires the many impressive skills of other dogs (e.g., agility, search and rescue, herding, guiding, etc.) then offers up a list of his own talents (scaring squirrels, greeting guests, cleaning up spills—and, mostly, providing love).
Champion Chompers, Super Stinkers and Other Poems by Extraordinary Animals, illustrated by Aparna Varma (Kids Can Press, 6/23) is a collection of humorous poems written in the voice of animals who are tops in various categories—e.g., speed, size, endurance, construction skills, etc. It’s designed as a guessing game with the poems offering clues to the animals’ identity, which is revealed on the next page. I love animals so really enjoyed working on both of these books.
What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
What a great question! We lived in California and Colorado for many years before moving to Chapel Hill and got to visit some incredible parks with dramatic scenery. My husband is a big mountain guy so that really appealed to him. I’m afraid of heights so those winding mountain roads made me queasy. Instead, wherever we go, I search for a garden to visit. Something about the endless variety of plants, the brilliant colors, the sometimes-strange beauty of flowers and seed pods thrills me. Over the years, we’ve visited some amazing gardens overseas and in the US, like the Butchart Gardens in Victoria, BC, the Alhambra gardens in Spain, and the Huntington Gardens in California. On recent trips we’ve visited gardens in Asheville, NC, Santa Fe, NM, Palos Verdes, CA and Naples, FL. I’m happy to visit gardens anywhere, but definitely have Longwood Gardens and the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens on my to-see list. Thanks for the opportunity to daydream about beautiful places!
I've just added two wonderful gardens to my "places to visit" list. Thank you, Linda for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.
Thanks, Maria. Great to meet you!
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Fire Chief Fran.
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