"Today the greatest challenge in publishing is distribution and discoverability. As a result, sites like [PictureBooksReview] are more important than ever to discerning readers, new authors and independent publishers."
-Steve Floyd, chief executive officer of August House books

"The interview is so amazing! I appreciate you picking up on all these aspects of what I've been doing. It's always great to talk with someone who understands what goes into these things."

- Jose Lucio, self-published author of Heave Ho!
Showing posts with label Conversations. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Conversations. Show all posts

9.16.2015

A Conversation with Emma Walton Hamilton

Emma Walton Hamilton
Emma Walton is the author of several books for children, including the popular "Very Fairy Princess" and "Dumpy the Dump Truck" series. and non-fiction works such as "Raising Bookworms."

I would imagine she grows weary of having this pointed out, but she also happens to be the daughter of Julie Andrews, a fact only pertinent because the two of them have collaborated on several books.

I met her through the promotional efforts of the people behind Picture Books Summit 2015, where she will be speaking on the topic of "Is Your Manuscript Truly Submission Ready?"

The conference will be held on October 3rd, 2015 and should be a big deal. More information can be gleaned at their site!

Emma was good enough to answer some questions about the industry and her career.

How has the picture book industry changed? Was a submission-ready manuscript in 2005 the same as a submission-ready manuscript in 2015?

I have seen the industry change quite a bit over the last 16 years since my first picture book was published. The word count has shrunk tremendously - where 1000 words was more or less the norm back then, now the ideal word count is somewhere between 250-500 words.

There’s also much greater pressure on sales numbers. When my mother and I first started writing together, a good general sales number to aim for was 15,000 units in order for a picture book to “earn out.” Now, that number is closer to 50,000.

On the plus side, I’d say that we’ve seen the pendulum swing back toward picture books in terms of their popularity in the market place, and as a result they are being taken more seriously in the industry. They are being appreciated for the works of art that they often are.

When a picture book marries the perfect text with magnificent art, it’s a rare pleasure for readers of all ages.

From a writer's point of view, it seems almost counter-intuitive to storytelling to have to take into account as-yet non-existent illustrations. Shouldn’t a story work regardless of whether it is illustrated or not?

Remember that they are called “picture books” for a reason. The pictures are as important, if not more so, as the text. The idea is for the young reader/listener to glean as much from the art as from the narrative - the art should complement and further the story, not be a mere mirror or reflection. With this in mind, the goal should be to write as much as you need to initially to get the story down, but then to whittle it down to its most economical form.

If you are fortunate, you may be asked for your input when the time comes to pair you with an illustrator. For instance, we were able to convey to Christine Davenier, the wonderful illustrator of our Very Fairy Princess series, that we hoped Gerry might have red hair and have her socks around her ankles and holes in her tights, in contrast to her wings and tiara. Fortunately she was open to this and ran with it. But there are other illustrators who prefer to have autonomy,  and the rewards are often surprising and delightful.

In my experience, picture book texts are best when they focus on character and action, rather than description - in other words, nouns and verbs rather than adjectives and adverbs. The wonderful author/illustrator Dan Yaccarino, who taught for the Southampton Children’s Lit Conference that I am fortunate to helm, says, “The illustrations are the adjectives!”

The way I work - and the way I advise my students and editing clients to work - is to write the story first, using as many words as it takes to get it out there. Once I have a first draft, which is always much too long, then I make a “dummy”... in other words, a mock-up of how I think the text will lay out across the 32 pages, assessing where the “page turning” points are and imagining what the illustration(s) will be that accompany each page. This is the single most valuable revision tool I know of for picture books, and I invariably end up slashing and re-writing and learning so much about how to improve the text from this exercise. Then I convert it back to narrative prose format for further revision and submission. 

Dumpy the Dump Truck

Do you encourage the traditional publishing route, or is self-publishing a viable alternative?

Self-publishing is a viable alternative for some, but I don’t recommend it - yet - for picture book authors.

The vast majority of successful self-publishing ventures are in the realm of adult non-fiction - Self-Help books, and the like. There are also a few success stories with respect to Young Adult (YA) novels, but there are still very few successfully self-published picture books.

There are several reasons for this. The first is that there are still a lot of “gatekeepers” in the world of children’s publishing - reviewers, booksellers, schools, librarians - who have a good deal of power with respect to how and where a book gets sold or reviewed, and they maintain high standards with respect to the quality of the picture books they will advocate for. They still believe strongly in the value of the editorial process and the “vetting” that a traditionally published picture book goes through.

As you know, there are certainly some very high quality self-published books out there, but there are many more that are not - and there isn’t yet a system to help booksellers or librarians - or bloggers! - distinguish between the two when they are presented with so many to choose from each year. So they often resort to a blanket rule that they won’t review or sell self-published books. 

The other issue is the challenge of marketing and promotion. Writing and publishing a book doesn’t mean anyone will know it’s out there. There are tens of thousands of books published each year - so unless you have the skills and resources to invest in some significant promotional efforts, there’s a slim chance of it being found amidst all the other noise. Just because a book is available on Amazon, for instance, doesn’t mean anyone will find it or know to look for it, no matter how wonderful it is.

The exception can be books that speak to a very specific niche market. This is one of the reasons that adult non-fiction/self-help does better with respect to self-publishing - they tend to have a specific audience to reach out and promote to, or who are actively looking for books on a specific topic. The same is true of YA - that readership is hungrier and more likely to go looking for something fresh or different.

Remember, too, that YA and adult readers buy their own books, but picture books are bought by "middle-men" - parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians - not by their intended audience. Those buyers tend to be too busy to do extensive searching. They tend to buy what they a) have heard good things about, or b) are drawn to on the bookshelf, not by doing internet or Amazon searches… unless, again, it’s a particular topic or “niche” they’re looking for. 

All this may change, down the line, which is why I say “yet.” Publishing is undergoing sea-changes, as everyone knows, so it’s possible that trends may move toward better supporting self-published picture books. But I don’t think we’re there yet.


The Very Fairy Princess

How did you first become interested in writing picture books?

I was an avid reader as a kid, and very aware of how much I learned about the world from reading. I also spent long hours writing stories as a child, and all the way through my teens, so I think it’s been an interest from day one.

Even in my early adult years, when I was working as an actress and then a theater director and producer, I wrote a lot of stories - often in verse. My work in theater then led me to dramaturgy - helping playwrights with their plays - and later to teaching playwriting to middle and high school students. That taught me a lot about story structure, since the principles of good storytelling are the same whether you write fiction, plays or screenplays.

My mother wrote two middle grade novels in the ’70’s, and was later asked if she might consider writing a picture book series. She felt she didn’t know much about picture books, and I was a young parent at the time with a lot of interest and insight into the picture book format, so she invited me to partner with her. I jumped at the chance. Eventually I left the theater to pursue writing, editing and teaching full-time.

Emma Walton Hamilton and Julie Andrews

How is it to write with your mother?

Our process is very organic. We brainstorm ideas together, and then rough out an outline before we start writing. We need to know what the central dramatic question of each book will be, what the theme and plot will be, etc. Then, when we start writing it’s literally a process of finishing each other’s sentences. We talk it through out loud, and I type as we talk.

We tend to overwrite to begin with, so once we have a first draft, we go back through it together and revise, revise, revise. We make dummies of our manuscripts so we can visualize what the illustration progression will be, what the balance of text per page is, etc. and we tighten and trim and polish, then convert it back to narrative format.

It takes a long time to get it to the point where we feel ready to share it with our editor, but thankfully it’s usually a mutually respectful and creative process.

How heated do the arguments about the fate of Dumpy the Dump Truck become?

I’m happy to say that we seldom get into arguments or debates. We think very similarly, and generally live by the motto that “the best idea wins.”

In your book Raising Bookworms, you talk about getting kids to read. So you've now approached the topic from two different sides - from the point of view of the child reading for pleasure, and now from the point of view of the author writing for the child reading for pleasure. How do you see these two as being connected?

I see reading/literacy and writing for children as being intricately intertwined.

Children’s literature is one of the few writing genres where you have to take your audience deeply into account as you write, and keep them in mind at all times -- and this is true across all formats. With picture books, you have to keep two audiences in mind: the very young child who is most likely studying the illustrations and listening to the story as it is read aloud, and the adult who is reading the story aloud to the child/children. You have to keep in mind the vocabulary and emotional development of your youngest reader, in order to engage them and allow them to take the emotional journey alongside the hero or heroine, without ever talking down or preaching to them. You also have to – hopefully - write in such a way that the story is “reader proof.” In other words, the adult reader, no matter how comfortable they may or may not be with reading aloud, can convey the spirit and story you intend to deliver. 

With chapter books and novels, you no longer have the middle man, for the most part, but you still need to be cognizant of your audience’s level of development, and how that impacts their ability to absorb ideas, language, imagery, themes, etc. My good friend Patricia McCormick, who writes YA novels that are often quite dark, says something I love: “I am always aware that I am writing for other people’s children.”

Writing for children and young adults carries with it a unique responsibility, one which doesn’t necessarily exist in adult literature.

For more about Emma, visit her website!

Part of our Conversations with Storytellers series.

5.28.2015

A Conversation with Matthue Roth

Matthue Roth
Matthue Roth is a Philadelphia expat, currently exiled in Brooklyn. He is the award-winning author of several books for young adults, including Losers and Yom Kippur a go-go. In addition, he has recently turned his attention to picture books, first with the sublime  My First Kafka, which I reviewed last year, and now with the newly released The Gobblings. In both books, he has paired with illustrator Rohan Daniel Eason.

What thematic elements connect The Gobblings with My First Kafka?

Aside from the fact that kids love them, and that they both scare the adults that I show them to?

Really? They scared the adults that you showed them to?

Well, not all the adults. Okay, not even most of them. That's me just being a drama queen.

But I will say, more adults have read the books and been like, "Isn't this a little scary for kids?" (which is to say, three or four), than kids who've said, "This is scary" (zero).

I think in both books, we took stories which are dreamy and funny, but have a sort of underlying darkness to them - a fairy-tale darkness - the kind that almost all kids understand and almost no adults do. In both books, there are monsters that are unexpectedly imaginative and kids who are surprisingly resourceful and save the day.

I think it's a huge problem with a lot of picture books. The kids in them don't really do anything; they just sit back and things happen to them. Kafka understood, and I think Maurice Sendak, Arnold Lobel and Kate DiCamillo and most of my favorite picture-book writers intrinsically get this: The best stories are about discovering weird and scary and amazing things about the world and learning about them.

I want The Gobblings to do that. I hope it does.


My First Kafka

Are there picture books which scared you as a child, do you recall?

Looking back on the books I read as a kid, I'm surprised what didn't scare me. Maurice Sendak is sort of the king of that: Max's playmates about to eat him in Where the Wild Things Are, the Hitler-like bakers in In the Night Kitchen who try to literally bake him inside an oven. As a kid, I thought it was totally scary and fun and awesome. As an adult, I'm completely freaked.

From where did the idea for The Gobblings come?

The book started in two places. I really wanted to see Rohan draw monsters and Art Deco spaceships. That was the fanboy half of it.

The other half, the emotional start of the book, began with me thinking about Herbie, a boy who's alone on a space station and doesn't have any friends. It's the most amazing place in the universe to be, but if you're truly lonely, that doesn't really matter. And then he finally makes some friends, but unfortunately those friends are alien monsters who are really really dangerous.

The promotional material states that The Gobblings is 'based on a Baal Shem Tov story.'

It's also a loose retelling of an old Hasidic folktale called The Alef Bet. A boy is wandering through a strange town where he doesn't know anybody. It's Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, but nobody's prayers in the entire town are working. The boy only knows the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the Alef-Bet. So he says the letters, and the honesty and simplicity of his prayer go through the Gates of Heaven (okay, in our story, it's the landing bay on the space station) and save everybody.

I couldn't detect any sort of Hassidic imagery or Jewish allusions anywhere in the book... unless I overlooked something. Was that on purpose?

Yes! Well, not on purpose so much as that the essence of the story, to me, wasn't that it was about Yom Kippur or Jews or even prayer specifically. The nugget that appealed to me was the sense of hopelessness, and being alone, and the idea of Herbie being in
great danger, though he already has the power to save himself.

And also, the idea of Jews in space has already been done as perfectly as it could be. I would hate to step on Mr. Brooks' toes.

Jews in Space

Your website states that you are offering a minibook to anyone who orders directly from you, called Alien. Is that a story related to The Gobblings at all? I think it's a real interesting tactic. Are those books that you both write and illustrate yourself?

Yep, I put them together myself. I like to create extra bonus stuff for people who order from me, since I can't afford to sell my books as cheaply as Amazon. There's always way more that goes into a book than comes out, and for the most part that's a good process, but I'm one of those people who loves DVD bonus features.

For Kafka, I made a book that was a story for adults - not, you know, sketchy or anything, but a short fiction piece so that adults who were buying the book for a kid would feel like they were getting something, too. And in both cases, the stories were sort of a dark mirror of the children's book. Kafka came with a story called The Last Golem in Prague, which was about racism in Eastern Europe and had a kind of sweet ending, the opposite of Metamorphosis; and Gobblings comes with a piece called "Alien," which is about a sort of lustful poetic alien who invades Earth.

The Gobblings

I think the idea of packaging a picture book for adults is a great one... and gets to one of my main contentions with the picture book field, and is an idea I've tried to address a few times with some of my reviews online, is why the picture book genre is still mainly geared toward children. Even stories that are ostensibly for children but are rich enough to be enjoyed by adults... are still, at the end of the day, children's books.

The comic book field has grown and matured and we are seeing graphic stories written for literate adults, as well as animated films, and picture book art has certainly grown to include respected artists working in different mediums. I hope for the day when the picture book medium can be employed to tell truly complex, multi-level stories. By including these 'dark mirrors,' I think you are helping to advance this cause.

Thank you! I think the form's still in its nascence, or maybe its second nascence? There was no question that illuminated manuscripts were meant for adults, and even few generations ago serious novels, whatever they are, included picture plates. I think it's just been since the advent of cheaper, more widespread and easy-to-print books that books have really had to stick to the no-illustrations, 250-page standards.

My friend Fred Chao had a picture book, Alison and Her Rainy Day Robot, that was basically a comic book, 48 pages, and laid out in panels, and every picture book publisher flipped out and refused to publish as it was. Then he launched a Kickstarter that made several times its goal, and publishers started emailing to ask if they could acquire it.

The moral of the story, I guess, is that great things can happen when we wander outside the lines. Not to be too mercenary about it, but I hope that The Gobblings sells enough to let us do some more wandering.

You are now a father. What stories will you tell your child, oh Matthue?

Oh, I'm totally selfish. I like the stories they tell me instead. A month or two ago they were singing a song that went, "We are in a pot of chicken soup." I totally plagiarized it.

Part of the Conversations with Storytellers series.

6.29.2014

A Conversation with Cheryl Johnson

Cheryl Johnson
Cheryl Johnson is a life-long Mainer and the author/illustrator of several picture books, most of which feature Mish, a talking mushroom, including Mish the Mushroom Man, Mish's Winter Celebration, and The Three Mishkateers and Dot.

She does everything herself, including her own marketing, which has taken her down a rather strange path of late... 


LOANS, CANCER AND PICTURE BOOKS

If I am understanding you correctly, you are currently dressed up as a giant mushroom, walking about Portland, ME, trying to sell copies of your picture books?

I did it for four hours today and got a lot of attention - and a lot of strange looks! But I did make a couple of sales. It's pretty hard on the neck – the mushroom cap is heavy - but I intend on doing this until October of this year, or whenever my outrageous student loans are paid off-whichever comes first.

Having a student loan debt which has risen to $90,000 dollars is making me very desperate.

At 38 I started art college...oh my goodness...big mistake, that! I graduated with $38,000 of debt and the interest has driven it up to $90,000 - by this time next year, it will certainly be $100,000. The interest rate is 9 ¾% and there is just no way I can make over $750 dollars in payments every month until I'm 90! I owe so much money now, it's destroyed my security and my credit.

Was art college necessarily a complete mistake?

I loved it. I went to MECA from 1993-2000 and was on the dean's list for most of it. But I made no meaningful, long-lasting contacts that furthered my art career. They didn't even offer illustration at all back then, so I had to take oil painting as a major.

I thought I'd be able to teach art after I got my BFA and found out that nope, I needed $30,000 more to get my masters or teaching certificate. Crum!

I had to find jobs immediately to pay my mortgage and support myself and the two children who were still at home. Then I was diagnosed with cancer! Go figure!

Wow. It's like you're the Breaking Bad of the picture book world.

Cancer, the cause primarily of all my financial woes, is something I live with every day. I had breast cancer, diagnosed less than 6 months after I graduated, so I took two back-to-back deferments to figure out what I was going to do. I had two sons still at home -12 and 14 - and I was a single parent. I watched my mom die in less than two years of fighting cancer, you know: chemo, radiation and surgery... over and over and she still died a miserable death.

The oncologists gave me a 50% chance of survival if I did their chemo and radiation. The odds were not good enough so I opted instead to find less destructive ways to cure myself. I found a book here in Bridgton by a woman named Hulda Regher Clark called The Cure For All Cancers. 14 years later I'm still here.

Sidley's Story
From Sidley's Story
The Three Mishkateers and Dot
From The Three Mishkateers and Dot

The Three Mishkateers and Dot
From The Three Mishkateers and Dot

TALKING MUSHROOMS AND SELF-PUBLISHING

So you only published your first book last year? What have you been doing artistically for all those years previous?

As a teenager, it's all I did, hours and hours every day. But raising four children and working minimum-wage grunt jobs in order to survive, I didn't have the time or the energy to pursue my real passion.

At the moment I work for Stave Puzzles, located in Norwich, Vermont. They are wonderful people and I have loved working for them, but I cannot make a decent living working for them, as a freelance and someone who does not do my own cutting, I have to wait for a person to cut my designs, test them and get back to me.

The process is slow as molasses and doesn't pay me for many hours of work. Last year I made about $3,000,including the royalties. My best year was about $8,000, still not enough to begin to pay my bills. It's very technical drawing, I have to stick to a strict criteria.

I'd rather draw children's books.There are 6 so far-since last October. I am working on 2 more.

Why a mushroom? Where did the idea for Mish come from?

I really have no idea. When people ask me that, I've started responding "Why not?" I mean....Sponge Bob Squarepants? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Mish is just...well...Mish. I have a glass mushroom bank on my bureau that I've had since I was about 8 years old… maybe that's where I got the initial idea.

Mish


Did you immediately go the self-publishing route?

I always wanted to publish books but I never had a clue what to do. I had written Mish years ago and I sent it out to about twelve different publishing houses. Not even a personal rejection, just form-letters saying thanks, not interested.

I then contacted a vanity-press publishing house who said they liked my story and were willing to pay for part of the initial printing and also market it, but they wanted one of their house artists to draw the cover and they wouldn't do the first printing in color. The premise of that story is color!

I'm a bit territorial about my art.

Self publishing seems to be the answer at present. There is no start-up money involved, Createspace even issues the ISBN freehand all I have to do is create!!! Awesome!

I am praying that someday a national company will pick me up. I wonder how many books I'll have to sell before someone notices? I've sold about 600 so far, since October.


Cheryl Johnson
A young fan approaches...
Cheryl Johnson

Cheryl Johnson

ON THE STREET

Between being on the street and working various jobs, how do you find the time and energy to create?

When I'm pressing to finish a book, I draw day and night. It's not unusual to devote 15 hours a day to drawing. I get up and stretch often, walk three miles every day, that's when new stories come to me. I don't really know where I find the energy sometimes, except that I just feel compelled to keep at it.

My children - once a major distraction - and working minimum wage exhausting jobs both kept me from doing much creating before. Now I have more me time. I'm 59. If I don't do "my thing" now, when am I? At 80?

My neck and back start hurting towards the end of a couple 15 hour days but I work through it. I am in a creative headspace 24/7 so no, it's not hard to get back to it. When I'm not doing my thing, I have withdrawal.

What has been your approach, being out on the street?

When I was dressed as Mish last Wednesday in Monument Square, I just stood by my cart and smiled a lot, waved if people looked my way. Many people were curious enough to come right up to me and ask, "What is going on?!" So I got to tell my story over and over.

People took lots of pictures of me and asked if their kids could stand beside me.

Has it given you a different view of Portland?

I sit on my little mushroom stool these past few days, observing the people walking by, sitting on benches... Yesterday, a girl with a hula hoop did her act in front of the monument, it was very cool.

To me, it's like being in a free-form impressionist moving picture, the colors and forms changing continually and over lapping into each other.

I love Portland, as a city. Lots of good energy there.

What advice would you have for a young artist contemplating art school?

Have rich parents.

For myself, I'm hoping I get to hang around the planet a few more years so I can give back to the universe a little more.


For more information about Cheryl, please visit her website, Mish and Friends.

She also has a GoFundMe page!

Cheryl Johnson

Part of our Conversations with Storytellers series.

5.04.2014

A Conversation with Horus Gilgamesh

Horus Gilgamesh
“Empty stomachs have no ears.”

That's a true bit of profundity which surely ought to be emblazoned upon bumper stickers everywhere. It was uttered to the future author of the Awkward Moments Children's Bible by a humanitarian relief worker in an impoverished African country.

At the time, he'd been following a perceived calling toward full-time ministry focusing on youth evangelism and Biblical literacy in third-world countries. "A fearless young boy approached, pleading, Chakula? Maji?- the Swahili words for 'food' and 'water,'" he writes. "Unfortunately, [I] had no food or water to offer the poor child – only Bibles."

"Horus Gilgamesh" is now his chosen psuedonym. He was raised Catholic before having his so-called "born again" experience in college. But following this encounter with the boy and with the relief worker, he began to consider things in a new light.

"[I] realized that [I] was not meeting the very real needs of the people [I] was hoping to help… The pain and suffering [I] saw first-hand led [me] to be more and more troubled by God’s apparent disregard for the children of His creation. This led [me] to years of re-studying the Bible for [my]self, away from the “rose-colored” teachings of any church or seminary."

I must admit, when I first read this biography of himself – with so much sarcasm and irony everywhere I look in the world - I was surprised from what a sincere place he seemed to be coming.

I first discovered the Awkward Moment's Children's Bible when pages of it began to appear on my facebook wall last year. They immediately struck a chord, as I'm sure they did for many others. So sick and tired of Noah's ark being portrayed as nothing more than a fun, pleasant animal cruise, it was satisfying to finally see the waters filled with corpses, as they surely must have been.

Awkward Moments Children's Bible


He hasn't done too many interviews, so I was happy that he agreed to speak with me. One of the only other interviews he gave was for ChristianPost.com, a site which advertises itself as "a member of the Evangelical Press Association, a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, and a global partner of the World Evangelical Alliance."

I was sure this book would be just the sort of thing they would take extreme umbrage at, but I found the tone of the interview to be very fair and generous to Horus' perspective. The comments by ChristianPost readers following the interview were likewise encouraging. Could it be that we are witnessing a burgeoning new weltanschauung in regard to how Bible stories are viewed, that even mainstream evangelicals are growing weary of how their Holy Book is being watered down, and that we are all now in a place to look plainly at what it actually states?


The Jesus Storybook Bible

First of all, is there any one particular children's picture book edition of the bible that you find especially egregious in terms of making God seem like the nicest fellow you'd ever want to know?

This might seem funny to the many parents I gave the book to over the years, but I now think that Zondervan's Jesus Storybook Bible is particularly bad.

Don't get me wrong, I like the illustrations and I like that they cover much more of the Bible than any other children's book I've seen. However, the book seems to go to great lengths to alter the scriptures enough to paint the Old Testament God as loving and compassionate and justified in all of His murder and mayhem. Then it goes on to paint a pretty unrealistic picture of Jesus by harmonizing the conflicting accounts of the four Gospels to make up a whole new Bible where Jesus is just... perfect. In short, I think the book is full of heresy for the sake of indoctrination and a great example of why so many modern Christians grow up to be completely ignorant to what the Bible really says.

I was surprised - pleasantly - to read the Christian Post article and see that it had a positive tone to it. It seemed to me that they really 'got it.'

Have you been surprised as well by the reaction that you've gotten from different sources?

The book has been very well received on both sides of the pulpit. In short, I think this is because of our approach - using the Bible itself to comment on the historical and cultural effects of Christianity. Christians love us because we aren't afraid to ask the same questions that have been on their minds all along, while atheists love us because we are able to bridge a gap to start conversations between believers and non-believers.


Don't get me wrong - we do get a fair bit of hate mail and one-star reviews from Christians who simply don't think we have the right to question anything about the inerrant Good Book. So far none of them have actually read our book and seem to follow the trend in the U.S. where 56% of Christians can't even name the four Gospels of the New Testament.


Awkward Moment's Children's Bible

Do you think Bible stories have value, whitewashed or not?

For myself, I often feel torn in figuring out how to approach the Bible stories which I review on this site. There are certain authors and illustrators whom I admire more than others, like Leonard Everett Fisher, who do not hold back on the brutality which is a part of it all. But at the same time I have to wonder, even if an author is true to the source material, are these even worthwhile stories to tell in the first place?

This is a question that I struggle with as well. For most Christians, many Bible stories are very much worth telling because they hold the keys to their faith - creation, free will, salvation, redemption, eternal life, and so on... Yet, the church now leaves out so much that is no longer convenient to their causes.

People tend to forget that the slavery and the stoning of children for disobedience was prescribed by the Bible and carried out regularly just a couple of centuries ago. People now ignore that the Bible clearly instructs that women aren't allowed to speak in church, let alone be leaders of a church. So, is it worthwhile to tell these stories? And we wonder why Biblical literacy is so appalling among Christians in the U.S.

Study after study has shown that people don't read their Bibles anymore. They get the bullet points from watered down children's stories when they are young and grow up with completely watered down understandings of just a few "feel good" scriptures.

That's where we come in, I guess.

Awkward Moments Children's Bible

Do you have a favorite Bible story?

Lately I've just been mesmerized by the story of Jesus with the leper found in Mark 1:40-44. What is fascinating to me is that the original text of this passage is found in the footnotes of most modern Bibles. Most modern Bibles say that Jesus was filled with "compassion" for the leper and healed him. However, the original Greek 'orgistheis' clearly states that Jesus was "angry" (in fact, some translations say "filled with extreme anger") with the leper. Was Jesus filled with compassion or extreme anger? Why was this verse changed through the ages? Does this help make sense of other confusing things Jesus said or did? In short, it matters.

In Six Days

How do you see religious/atheist relations? Is there a place for religion alongside reason and rationality?

I think that there will always part of me that wishes that it were possible. I mean, we all have our own hangups and magic feathers, be it religion, or phobias, or addictions, or daydreams. Some help us, some hurt us - often without our own consciousness, really.

But then you take a step back and look at a quote from a very smart scientist like Kurt Wise, who holds a PhD from Harvard. In his contribution to the book, In Six Days: Why 50 Scientists Choose to Believe in Creation, Wise writes:

"I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand."

When someone admits that no matter what verifiable scientific evidence and verifiable physical proof show, he'll always believe the Bible first, well, that's not having religion co-exist with reason, but extinguish it. At that point, it's obviously a problem, one that impedes the progress of society.

Last question about the book itself. What is your relationship with the illustrator? How collaborative is the process?

The illustrator (working under the pen name Agnes Tickheathen) is a good friend of mine and we developed the original vibrantly whimsical style together, borrowing from various other styles we love. The workflow starts on my desk where I research the scriptures and historical context and writing the commentary first. Then I do my best to sketch out a rough pencil mockup for Agnes along with an itemized description of the scene that I want to see painted. She then creates her own (much better) pencil drawing first - I make any necessary tweaks and she starts painting.

The only challenge is that certain Bible stories have been too gruesome or sad for Agnes to feel comfortable painting.

Agnes Tickheathen

Part of our Conversations with Storytellers series.


3.04.2014

A Conversation with Steve Floyd

I've always noticed August House books whenever I'm searching through bookstores or libraries for children's books on mythology or folk tales. The distinctive label always stands out. So it was pretty cool when I got an e-mail last year from Steve Floyd, the president of August House, asking if they could start sending me free stuff. I thought it would be interesting to pick his brain:

How did you get involved in publishing?

Unlike most other publishers, I came from decades of work in developing media using new communications technology. I'd co-founded and sold three multi-media technology companies, but knew little about the print business or the challenges of distributing books.

After 9/11, I felt the need to do something more meaningful with my life, to somehow make a lasting contribution.

I'd grown up as a voracious reader myself, and found myself frustrated with the state of children's content – in print, television, online, etc.- which was available for my young sons. Most stories seemed devoid of a substantive plot line, and lacked any meaningful content. Sometimes they were fun, but the majority were nothing more than junk food for a young child's developing mind.


I'm not sure I share your disdain for the overall state of children's literature, though I only became a father in 2005, so perhaps I wasn't as attune to it before then.

It wasn't disdain. It's more like I was frustrated with the sheer numbers of books and other media vs. the quality of children's literature, especially since we were "bookaholics" and our children's bookshelves were full of many of the same titles that my wife and I had loved as kids.

At the same time, the number of independent book stores was decreasing rapidly and the large chains were stocked with "safe" products with high turnover and staffed by too few people who neither cared about books nor had the time to guide thoughtful customers.

It was during that period of discovery that I ran across Howard Gardener's groundbreaking work in Multiple Intelligences and stories. I was captivated by his theories and the important role that stories play in developing young minds.

One day, I had lunch with a successful actor friend, Rob Cleveland, with whom I had worked with before producing corporate sales video for Coca-Cola. He told me how he had extended his professional repertoire by performing Bible stories at Churches and Synagogues. First, he did it as a stand up routine, and then as the congregation was having fun, he would explore some of the deeper meanings behind the stories with them.

As Rob was telling me how much fun he was having reinvigorating these classic stories, it hit me that folktales could have a huge impact on children if they were authentic and offered in multiple formats: animated, online, in books, on television, performed live and recorded for audio.


Trickster Takes: Forty Folk Stories from Around the World

That must be the same Rob Cleveland who wrote How Tiger Got His Stripes.

At the same time, I was also looking at how to launch a business with another friend, Graham Anthony, that could not only be meaningful but also have an impact by leveraging the power of Flash technology to position a product or a company.

After all, these timeless stories had originally been passed along orally, so they should be relatively easy to package for other media. And if they weren't great stories, they wouldn't have survived for the centuries. Plus, they were originally used by tribes or villages to pass on important life lessons and character values, so they clearly had a purpose.

My quest of meaning went into overdrive! We could do the something similar for children's stories as I had for Fortune 500 corporate clients. Just as I had put together sales materials and marketing information in multiple formats using a range of media, we could likewise package these folk stories with lesson plans and learning activities.

So Rob, Graham and I started looking for folktales that we could adapt and package in multiple formats. We spent about a year researching, prototyping stories and testing them with children and educators in different formats and with different support materials. We wanted to provide stories that could be experienced actively by young children in any format.

A strategic aspect of our business plan was to create a series with PBSKids. They patiently explained how Public Broadcasting worked, that we needed to line up corporate sponsors and then produce the program with a local PBS affiliate. So we contacted YAHOO, Chick-fil-A, Coca-Cola and Wachovia. Each company gave us almost an identical response: we love the concept but why would we risk an established brand on a start-up?

So, back to the drawing board. But we were still convinced that we were on to something worthwhile.

We contracted with an investment bank to help us plan our next steps. As we researched stories from the oral tradition, we kept running across books published by August House; the collection was filled with a wide range of award-winning picture books, resource books and CD's recorded by leading storytellers.

In a meeting with bankers, someone raised the point that, "Its always easier to buy something and build on it, rather than start from scratch." We immediately gravitated back to August House.

August House not only focused on publishing authentic folktales from the world's great oral traditions, it had also built a very credible and trusted brand with librarians and educators. We recognized that they could serve as a corner stone for our model of publishing great stories in multiple formats.


East African Folktales

Was August House for sale at the time you made the offer?

Not at the time. Our Investment banker called the original owners out of the blue.

Six weeks later, we signed the purchase agreement and suddenly found ourselves in the publishing business, an industry that contrasted dramatically with the rough and tumble chaotic world of technology start-ups and that didn't operate at the whirlwind speed of internet businesses.

Because the company had its roots in storytelling and the oral tradition, 90% of the authors since the founding of the company were also professional storytellers. The fact that these stories were great performance pieces that had been honed by professionals meant that when we went to market, we could be confident that we had a set of stories that had already been beta tested with the toughest group – young children. 

Then if children were actively engaged with the stories, the stories could also be useful as reading supplements, they could be used in social studies to learn about other cultures or shared to explore character values, etc. We loved the flexible nature of these great, timeless stories that can still be used in so many ways and for so many different purposes.

Since that dramatic moment, almost 9 years ago, we've evolved and learned a lot through our mistakes but fortunately, the industry is now embracing our original business model of distributing titles in multiple formats: in print, as digital books, ebooks, animated stories, audio books, in video with leveled reading and lesson plans aligned to education standards, etc.

If money were no object, what do you fantasize about the ultimate August House multimedia product being?

The ultimate product would be cross media or integrated platform beginning with an animated PBS series featuring Maynard Moose hosted by Willy Claflin that was supported by a highly interactive web site with all kinds of entertaining ways to explore and experience the story.

In addition, a supplemental online educational component would include interactive learning activities (for children in 2nd thru 4th grade) based on their skill levels and correlated to the Common Core Standards.

In addition to that, a writing and storytelling contest for kids to make their own Maynard Moose fan fiction and invent their own versions of his exploits in the Piney Woods. The event would include online as well as regional story festivals featuring Willy and Maynard celebrating the creative work of young writers in 3rd-5th grade – the Maynard Moose Story Project Hosted by Willy Claflin. Complemented by a series of 50 Maynard Moose adventure books available in print and as ebooks.

All of these components would use the same assets or objects - they would be tagged and integrated across media formats - in different ways for different stories with different purposes (entertainment, education, reading skills, games, etc.). 

So, an integrated platform with great entertainment and educational value – for kids of all ages 8 to 80. We would offer multiple opportunities for kids to experience and explore these stories in any way they wanted to develop their own relationships with Maynard.

That pretty well sums up why we got into this business and where we would ideally like to go with Maynard Moose and - in fact - all of our folktale properties. We would love to develop these timeless stories across the board in multiple formats. You can see the archetype for this model at  http://www.storycove.com and selecting "Sample Story." 

The challenge is securing financing with sponsorships which we have attempted over the years with a variety of corporate entities. Everyone loves it, but no one has bitten. 


The Emerald Lizard

Do you still feel frustrated by the overall state of children's content, or do you think it's evolved over the years as well?

Now I'm able to appreciate how difficult children's publishing is as a business. Creating a good book is one thing, but getting people to care about it and want to buy it and then share it is another issue that offers it's own set challenges, especially in today's increasing volatile market place.

Since there really wasn't much of a children's publishing industry until the 1950's and 60's, I actually think that we are seeing more good writing and illustrating in the last 15-20 years than ever before. 

Today the greatest challenge in publishing is distribution and discoverability. As a result, sites like yours are more important than ever to discerning readers, new authors and independent publishers.

The metadata about a book, including author bios, BISAC headings, page count, etc. is also more important than ever, as are online aggregate review sites like Netgalley and Goodreads. They all play an increasingly important role for people who want to discover meaningful, engaging content, regardless of the genre.

But there are also more distractions than before and the sheer volume of books in any genre is overwhelming, not to mention the ease of access and availability of other media like apps, iTunes, video-on-demand, games, etc. Whether we're talking about discovering an Indie rock band or a launching a new author, discoverability is more challenging for educators, parents and content publishers than ever before. 

Another challenge for both readers and publishers is that customer reviews on Amazon are just as credible - if not more so - than "professionals" who review books, such as librarians or reading teachers who bring a depth of perspective and years of experience to their reviews. For example, if you had 5 reviews from highly respected professional journals, it might not be nearly as impactful as 25 reviews (positive or negative) posted by consumers. Consumer posts are very helpful but they can also be misleading and sometimes it is hard to judge the experience or perspective of the person who posts the review.

Since publishers are also playing the role of curator, it is a challenge to present a product in the best light to the target demographic.  As publishers we are also biased about the quality of a product that we have invested in financially and with many hours of work when it is finally released in the market. 

Children's publishing is a combination of intuition, quantitative analysis of data and subjective opinion since the decision makers and influencers are ultimately only part of the sale process. Ultimately, whether I like a book, an expert reviewer likes a book or a librarian loves it, a professional book buyer thinks it will sell, etc., it doesn't really matter since we really aren't the audience that counts.

Depending on the target market, if a 7 year-old doesn't like the illustrations, or a 5 year-old thinks the story is boring, then our analysis and opinions are meaningless and we failed at some level. As a very insightful mother told me years ago when we were test marketing some folktales for Story Cove, "I'll buy the first one, but if my son doesn't like it, then that's it." So the challenge is we have to be discovered by librarians, teachers and parents serving as gate keepers and then the book will have an opportunity to bring pleasure and enjoyment to a child.

So it is a complicated and challenging business, to say the least.

Part of the Conversations with Storytellers series.

1.14.2014

A Conversation with Betty Clark

Betty Clark
Excepting a love of stories and mythology, I don't think Betty Clark and I could be more different. I met her after she posted some numerologically-soaked end-of-the-world predictions on a facebook page I have been known to frequent and offer my own skeptical rebuttals. She liked my picture book site, though, and let me know.

I thought I'd have a go at picking her brain.

Hold on. It's a wild ride.

Do children's stories foretell the end of the world?

In the global archetypes branded upon civilizations as "mapping" - aka genetic memory - childhood stories are based on oral folklore in every culture. Understanding that creates a life, death, resurrection theme in all global teachings, passed down from parent to child.

Alice down the rabbit hole is a burial scene, her journey through Wonderland is her survival. Also, Dorothy from Oz, confirming there is no place like home.

The Native American perspective surrounds the child with death, rebirth and the seven fires of the world's ending, to bring about cleansing, to allow a new world.

The answer to your question, simply, is, "Yes."


Goodnight Moon

Do all stories have hidden meanings? What of a story as seemingly innocent as, say, Goodnight, Moon by Margaret Wise Brown?

The "goodnight" to all things and to nobody is a New Age way to suggest a god, in place of actually saying 'god.' It has a covert premise, suggesting that a "goodnight" is a death, an ending versus a normal sleep.

The truth of the author's hidden message is the image of the red balloon in the story. This object is the primal fears floating over the sleeper. The remainder of all the 'missed' forgotten items that did not get said "goodnight" to.


If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

Wow. What about, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff?

If an adult told me they considered this plot an expression of their archetypal selection of characters they identify with, I would use the iconic image of the mouse holding the crayon to write his name. I would ask the adult why the mouse selected a green crayon.

Okay, why did the mouse select the green crayon?

In primary colors, green is neutral. It is a mid-range balance. The selection of the green crayon by the teacher mouse to train the student is suggesting that the author of the story is rooted in moderate opinions, neither liberal nor conservative. Green you are growing, ripe (red) you are rotten (ole say'n). Green grass, trees, frame the scenes of nature so other colors have an opportunity to stand out and become noticed.

What was your childhood like?

I had a near death drowning at age nine. Previous to that angelic experience, I had a guardian angel I named Dawn.

Dawn was an actual entity?

Dawn was my guardian angel. The term 'entity' is applied to ghosts (which are unsaved souls stolen by demons).

By first grade, my family was sick of my talk of Dawn, so I was told by my mother that Dawn could not come to the dinner table anymore, and that it was time to say goodbye to her.


The Three Little Pigs

And when did you first become interested in the hidden meanings of stories?

Archetypes (codes/patterns/parallels) within global religion really became a serious hobby in 2005, but since 1999, a dream instruction boosted my desire to assemble the puzzle.

I started evaluating patterns, parallels and secular images globally. These years of my research have involved codes, encryptions, pictograms and engravings.

What I believe is that the foundational characters in childhood stories blend into concept principles of secular standards about life, ancestry and moral choices. I believe that archetypal characters exist in the human global brain memory. It is called ancestral memory mapping.

For example, it is my belief that Victorian nursery rhymes are nothing more than ancient global expressions, that became pictorial morality stories revamped and/or re-packaged.

By cross-referencing Hebrew totem clan material - the Benjamin Wolf clan, as an example - the parallel in the Native American Cherokee - whose Wolf Clan name is Aniwahya or Aniwaya - is interesting, because the migration of the Amerindians from Israel seeded the Benjaminites into North America via Cherokee bloodlines.

The continuance of the wolf theme to express anti-Semitic morality codes is best known in The Three Little Pigs. Pork is not part of a kosher diet, however the Wolf eats Pig One and Pig Two, and the story concludes with the redemption of Pig Three.

Pig Three then eats the Wolf. This exchange of ingestive actions sets a moral code to the reader. That code is branding the carnal mind to become adequate to withstand the temptation, or challenge. If you are not adequate, and your home is straw or wood, you will be defeated.

So, in this case the Wolf (trickster) is the archetypal figure who trespasses a kosher diet and Pig Three (aka, Greek/Gentile) outsmarts him. The brick house cannot be penetrated, so the Wolf uses the chimney. The roof is a code for above earthy thinking (heavenly) and the chimney distributes the Wolf into the Pig's cauldron (Hades).

And why three pigs and not two pigs? Because '3' in Hebrew is a survival code. The story shows us that making two bad choices can cause the Next Event to destroy us. Breaking rules will cost you your life.

Digging into stories like this seems almost sinister.

It's just like a renaissance artist commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church to spend years impregnating walls with images approved in their dogmatic creeds, so that the artist distorted (adjusted) their thoughts or beliefs in encrypted musings integrated into wall murals.

The underbelly of folklore and storytelling was to iron brand our learning curve, to jump-start an agenda about historical/political/religious unrest/debate. Even Lewis Carroll was injecting symbolic disgruntals in his Alice writings.


Inland Empire

Have you ever seen the David Lynch film, "Inland Empire?"

I have not. But the reason you are pointing me to this film is not my mention of the rabbits from Alice in Wonderland (which I have written about many times as an illuminati plot device), but because you are a voyeur with S&M fantasies.

Come again?

The director of this film picked Laura Dern for the star role, due to her father, Bruce Dern, who played in the former Tattoo voyeur film years ago. This urge to witness others in pain, distress, is caused by a demonic entity that has captured secular thinking.

I just asked because it reminds me of some of these things you're talking about. It's a complicated film filled with strange symbolism, as all Lynch films are. My own theory about its plot involves the rabbits representing what you refer to as archetypical characters, and how their disjointed narrative eventually spirals into larger disjointed narratives the further one gets from the source.

Your conjecture is true. Some people go mad as they engage archetypes, due to certain demonic control using these images to create a delusional reality.

The film is about a movie script which is cursed, and which is apparently based on an old folk tale. One of the actors of the film-within-a-film, played by Laura Dern, goes insane during its production and enters this strange labyrinth. At the center of it are these rabbits whose dialogue seems non-sensical.

My thinking was, what if in some meta-reality, the big bad wolf and the three pigs, for example, actually exist, but they're insane, and now, in our reality, any attempt to recreate the story of the three little pigs likewise results in madness for all involved?

Yes, this is powerful and true. Many have explored this and ended up as cases of murder/suicide.

I was interviewed by the Psy-Detective Show, a branch of CourtTV. I get precognitive information about cold case files and I submit info that sometimes re-opens cases and solves mysteries. I also worked on a precognitive case from TV show, Unsolved Mysteries. I have experienced the mind of both the killer and the victim.

In the serial killer's mind, they destroy what they hate in themselves by murdering the thing they hate. These people use archetypal characters to separate normal day-to-day routine from wishful thinking. Boredom, disappointment, failures, etc. causes people to create images toward which they can aspire.

Like your website. If you're not cautious, you could be staging your own suicide, by seeking approval from people (including me) that injure your ego.

Or, I might accidentally not demonstrate respectful appreciation for your site, then under the stress, you might kill off the storybook characters to cause your foundation to be unstable.

What's true is that an individual soul sets up an image in their mind, that can become a focus, an obsession. That image in its purest form may be harmless, however when an image becomes a personal archetypal branding with desires to dress like that image, or talk like that image or - as many artists that write about characters will tell you, if they are not liars - that certain images become fetishes, if the artist is unstable.


Inland Empire

Do you think the website is a positive thing, or a dangerous thing?

It promotes stories. It is harmless. But it is true, when secular thinkers get attachments to a character's image, and that image is killed off, the weak-minded may become depressed. It's like Tony Soprano living on, even though the actor in real life died. That is a reversed example.

Also, to walk a mile in someone else's shoes, to feel their struggles can become an 'empathy' burden. Hero complexes to retrieve the lost dog. I am guilty of this.

In life, I am learning to focus on assignment souls, from God. I am not appointed to save the world. I am learning to help others also examine these story book characters and cross reference the adult parallels. It's a learning curve. Most adults avoid getting in touch with their child 'selves'.

Your site helps people get in touch with this, their wounded child selves.

Part of the Conversations with Storytellers series.
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