An Interview with Author LeeAnn Blankenship


By Gloria G. Adams


LeeAnn Blankenship has always loved writing. Her picture book, Mr. Tuggle’s Troubles, was

published in 2005 and continues to be a favorite read-aloud at schools and libraries. She has written for several children’s magazines, as well as educational non-fiction for Rosen and Enslow Publishing. Read on to learn more about LeeAnn's path to publication!


GA: What started you on the path to writing?

LB:  I believe my desire to write is deeply rooted in my love of reading. I was read to quite a bit before I learned to read for myself. My love of reading has never lessened. I also always loved poetry and some of the earliest books I remember from my childhood were written in rhyme. Most of my earliest writing was poetry - when I was as young as seven or eight.

When I was about 10 or 11, my poem “Candyland” was rejected by Ladies Home Journal. I had no idea how to properly submit a poem for publication and had no one in the family to help me. Actually, now I know it was not at all like what the magazine published and it obviously had been written by a child.

I enjoyed English as a subject and especially doing term papers. Poetry seemed to find its way into my class work any time it could. And I remember winning some sort of contest in high school by answering essay questions about the UN and world peace. As a result, my social studies teacher and I went to a banquet or award ceremony at Western Kentucky University.

For most of my working years, I was a social worker with children and their families. I don’t believe I ever consciously thought, “Maybe someday I’ll be a writer.”  I just always loved reading and writing. When I went to college, I majored in elementary education because I loved children. Any time I could take elective classes, I chose something connected with English. When I picked my own topic for research in a senior seminar, I choose “How to Use Poetry in the Classroom.” And I also took a summer course in college about Children’s Literature – and loved it.

I imagine one of the first things I did as a young adult that put me on the path to thinking more seriously about writing was subscribing to Writer’s Digest magazine. I read articles about writing but never really imagined I’d actively pursue that career. And I always noticed those advertisements that said, “Do you want to write for children?”  By then, I had married and started a family. I loved reading to my own children and the transition to thinking about writing for children myself happened naturally I suppose.  


GA: What were some of the challenges you faced on the road to publication?

 LB: My first picture book was rejected five or six times and has never been published. I wrote it in 1973 while my newborn son napped each afternoon. I really knew nothing about what I was doing but tried any way. I suppose I just tried to model my book after others I had read.

So, my biggest challenge at first was my lack of knowledge about the nuts and bolts of writing and publishing. I did get a book out of the library about writing for children and that was a big step – just educating myself about the subject. Then I found a writer’s group that met at the Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, library. Fortunately, there were two other young women who were interested in writing specifically for children.  Sometimes the three of us would separate from the others and talk about stories, rebuses, and books. When I heard about a one-day workshop for children’s writers, I signed up. There I learned about the Society of Children’s Writers & Illustrators and that a local chapter was in the process of organizing and I became involved.

Not having a strong network of other writers early on was another challenge I faced.

When my youngest child was in high school, I turned 50 years old and realized if I was ever really going to try my hand at writing, I’d better not wait much longer.

Another challenge was the way my life and responsibilities distracted me for so many years. By then, my desire to write had really increased and I just couldn’t ignore it any longer. At that point, I decided to take the Institute of Children’s Literature Course in Writing for children and young people.  (They were the “Do you want to write for Children?” folks). That was where I had my first experiences with actual assignments and learning the craft, as well as dealing with editing comments from my instructor.  It was a valuable course and I began to get more serious about writing and submitting.

I began to submit magazine articles but got discouraged by rejection. I was about ready to give up when I was invited to Ohio State to hear a dinner speech by Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Tribe. Before attending the event, I read her autobiography. It focused on her endurance and fighting against the odds.  After her speech, I met her and told her I was a children’s writer interested in writing about her.  She agreed to vet the article for me and “Wilma Mankiller: Proud Cherokee” became my first published piece, appearing in Cricket magazine.

Chief Mankiller and her story played a pivotal role in my not giving up. Rejection is hard on all of us, and her tenacity inspired me to keep trying. 


GA: How did you come up with the idea for Mr. Tuggle’s Troubles?

 

LB: Mr. Tuggle’s Troubles is a humorous picture book about a childlike guy who is extremely disorganized and the problems that arise because of it.  At the time I wrote it, I was trying to get better organized at home – specifically in my home office. (I am still working on that.)

I actually dreamed the first part of the book and woke myself up laughing.  I got out of bed and wrote down what I remembered. I finished the first draft the following day.  But it was still a lot of revisions plus 7 years and 21 rejections before it was accepted for publication.


GA: What is your writing routine?


LB: I have found I am not a person who can successfully grab a little time here and a little time there. I need larger blocks of writing time. For a while I did well, planning my writing on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays but recently I’ve been struggling with distractions and the many pressures of life.  So now I’m trying to get back on track.  I write all day on Friday and hope to work up to another day or so on top of that. To be accountable, I recently began reporting in once a week with a favorite editor/friend about how I did each week. I don’t want her to be disappointed in me so it has been an effective incentive so far!


GA: What have been the pros and cons of being a writer?


LB: I’d say the biggest advantage is the joy of creation and the satisfaction of seeing my work in print.  But following close behind is the circle of wonderful writer friends I’ve made (from all over the country) and the fabulous adventures I’ve had as a result of my writing. I’ve met famous people and traveled to fascinating places. Plus, writing means I am always learning.

The cons are that it takes away from time with my family and it still has emotional ups and downs.


GA: What do you do in your free time?

LB: I’m still an avid reader and love gardening, sewing, & being with my family. I used to paint but decided to focus on my writing instead.


GA: Who are some authors in your genre that inspire you?

LB: I grew up with Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books & loved them! But I also like Katherine Patterson, Lois Lowry, Richard Peck, and Shelley Pearsall.

For non-fiction, I admire James Cross Giblin, Larry Dane Brimner, and Candace Fleming. And I can’t leave out the poets! Two of my favorites growing up were Robert Frost and Robert Louis Stevenson. More contemporary poets I enjoy are Shel Silverstein, Eileen Spinelli, and Rebecca Kai Dotlich.


GA: Do you have a favorite children’s book?

LB: Corduroy by Don Freeman.


GA: What are you working on now?

LB: I am currently writing a book for an educational publisher about 21st Century Tunnels.  As soon as that’s finished, I’ll be going back to a middle-grade historical fiction novel I’ve begun about Henry Samson, an English teenage who came to the New World with his aunt and uncle on the Mayflower.


GA: What has been one of your most rewarding experiences as an author?
Sculpture in the eye of a needle by Willard Wigan


LB: In 2009, I was able to spend an entire afternoon with the English micro-sculptor Willard Wigan, who carves the smallest artwork in the world. We were at the Chicago gallery where his sculptures were on display. After my interview for an article that later was published in Highlights for Children, he invited me to join him, his press agent, and the gallery owner for a special lunch. He is such a talented artist and absolutely one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. 


GA: What nuggets of wisdom can you impart to aspiring writers?

LB: If you’ve been bitten by the “I wanna write” bug, you might as well accept it.  Once bitten, you’ll never be the same again!  Enjoy the ride, even the bumpy parts of the road.








Parting Gifts



By Kate Carroll

We are gearing up for our annual SCBWI Writers’ Conference here in northern Ohio, and there’s hope and anticipation in the air. Aside from the dream of a book contract (!),  the weekend fills me with knowledge, inspiration, and camaraderie with my fellow authors. 

Attending a conference or a workshop revs my creative engine, but halfway through, I feel like I’m on “info overload”.  I look forward to unpacking all the knowledge and letting it sink into my brain, but not right away. I need to separate from the excitement and truly inhale all of the information in long, lingered, intentional moments.

Reviewing my notes and handouts may be the first thing I want to do once I leave a conference, but I rarely do - because, let’s face it - LIFE happens. I often have to delay that gratification to attend to other things. So, down the road a bit,  after the conference adrenaline wears off, and I’m needing a little motivation or direction, I reach for those lovely parting gifts.  I pull out my workshop notes, my handouts, my whatevers, and jump into the treasure trove of learning materials again. This time, I linger and listen ever so intently to the sage advice that will enhance my writing and lead me to publication.  



                                                                                               
             Here are some of my favorite pearls of wisdom from the “pros” at past writing events:

“Every word matters.”  
Kate DiCamillo 

“Anticipate your readers’ reactions.”  
Jodelle Sadler

“There’s a kid out there who needs your book.” 
 Danielle Smith

“Take the emotion of a frozen moment in your life and insert it into a character and/or the setting of your story.”  
Dandi Daley Mackall

“Put yourself into the mindset of a 6 year old.”   
Nikki Garcia

“Make me laugh. Make me think. Make me want to turn the page.”   
Michelle Poploff

“Be careful not to take my illustrator’s job away from me with your words.”  
Eric Rohmann

“Writing takes talent, tenacity, timing and luck.” 
 Laurie Knowlton

“If a character makes a decision, pause and ask, what would happen if he went another way?   Tina Wexler

“Start out with an article. It’s a great way to get your feet wet and gain a writing credit.”  
Mary Ryan

“Red herrings are very good in a mystery novel, but bad in a picture book.” 
Lisa Wheeler

“You must have the seed of an idea before you can grow a story.”   
Nancy Roe Pimm

If you are going to a conference or workshop soon,  I hope you are breathless with excitement and anticipation - both coming and going!

Books and Beat Sheets



By Gloria Reichert

Several months ago, I attended a Highlights Foundation Workshop where the presenters recommended that we participants read Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat. Snyder, one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters, shares his secrets of success in a funny, informative manner. This book contains much sage advice that can be applied to writing a book as well as to writing a screenplay. 

Snyder states that after coming up with a wonderful idea and determining the main character and the audience, writing is all about structure, structure, structure. In his quest for success, Snyder developed his own template, which he calls The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet. This is how it looks. The numbers in parentheses are page numbers where the beats should occur in a screenplay. A brief explanation follows each beat. 


The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet

Title:
Genre:
Date:

1.  Opening Image (1): A first impression of the tone, type, and mood; shows starting point of the   hero

2.  Theme Stated (5): The thematic premise; (Can’t be didactic in picture books)

3.  Set-up (1-10): Sets up the hero, the stakes, and the goal of the story and hooks the audience
4.  Catalyst (12): The first moment when something happens to set the main character on his/her journey; is often bad news that eventually lead to happiness

5.  Debate (12-25): last chance for the hero to back out before the journey begins

6.  Break into Two (25): Moment the hero decides to leave the old world and proceeds into a new world which is upside down

7.  B Story (30): Carries the story’s theme and smooths over the A story break; often a love story of some sort, new character introduced

8.  Fun and Games (30-55): The promise of the premise; the heart of the story

9.  Midpoint (55): The threshold between the two halves of the movie; could be either a peak or a valley

10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75): The bad guys regroup and come back stronger; internal dissent, doubt, and jealousy beset the hero’s team; there’s nowhere the hero can go for help.

11. All Is Lost (75): No hope; looks like total defeat, but it is false.

12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85): The darkness right before the dawn when the hero finds the way to solve his problem

13. Break into Three (85): The solution

14. Finale (85-110): The wrap up

15. Final Image (110): The opposite of the opening image; shows the changes that have occurred.

Instead of thinking about three acts, Snyder thinks in terms of thesis (the first ten pages and the rest of Act One), antithesis (Break into Two), and synthesis (Break into Three).
He also explains how to put a sentence or two about each beat onto an index card and arrange and rearrange them till the story is right.

Fortunately for me, when I finished reading the book, I watched Heather Preusser’s webinar on 12x12 entitled “How Strategies from Save the Cat Can Strengthen Your Manuscript.” Heather demonstrated how to apply Snyder’s Beat Sheet to her picture book, A Symphony of Cowbells, and things became clear. Heather did not use the beat sheet when she wrote this story, but she now uses the template, especially when she gets stuck. If you go to her website, www.heatherpreusser.com, and look under “For Writers,” she provides beat sheets for several other model texts.

The pages numbers given for Snyder’s Beat Sheet were for a 110-page screenplay, but if you go to http://www.beatsheetcalculator.com, you can enter the number of pages in your manuscript and see the suggested page numbers for each beat. For a picture book, enter 32 pages. If you write MG or YA, enter the projected number of pages in your manuscript to see when each beat should occur.

Sounds like a great tool for plotting and pacing. I can’t wait to try it with my manuscripts!  

Book Birthday: Applesauce Day!

By Lisa J. Amstutz

Today I'm happy to announce the release of my newest picture book, Applesauce Day!

The story is based on my family's applesauce-making tradition, which goes back generations. It was amazing to watch it come to life with Talitha Shipman's exuberant, colorful art. I'm so pleased with the way it turned out, and hope you will enjoy it as well!



From the publisher: Maria and her family visit an apple orchard and pick apples. Then it's time to turn the apples into applesauce! Every year they use the special pot that has been in the family for generations to make applesauce. First they wash the apples. Then Grandma cuts them into quarters. Follow each step in the process as everyone helps to make delicious applesauce!






Freedom to Read



By Kate Carroll

 Having just celebrated America’s Independence Day, I pondered all the freedoms we enjoy in this country. Many of the obvious come to mind, but  in particular, I’m thankful for the volumes of books that were available to me throughout my childhood - in school libraries, public libraries, home libraries and bookstores. I have glorious memories of laying on a lounge chair, reading stacks of books in the warm breezes of CT summers.

 But I know, first hand, that not all children have the freedom of reading or owning books. Our daughter, Hope, came to us three years ago from Rwanda as a high school senior and had never read a book for fun. She attended excellent schools, by Rwandan standards, but rarely had a textbook!

In a country like Rwanda, children don’t have the luxury of reading books, visiting libraries, or owning books. The literacy rate is climbing there, but the amount of available reading material is minimal. Rwanda’s adult literacy rate is around 70%, but that is not reflective of the situation in more rural areas of the country. Education is highly valued, but there is little access. Other African countries have alarmingly low statistics. For example, the  countries of Mali and Niger have literacy rates of 33% and 19% respectively, according to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics. Most developing countries face the challenges of expanding education but not having the tools to advance the cause.
  

Initiatives addressing the lack of literacy through grants and charitable organizations is on the rise. The USAID organization suggests, “Literacy is considered a linchpin in Rwanda's ascendance as a major player in communications and technology on the African continent.”  In Rwanda, pilot programs exist to increase the use of books in primary grades. They even teach teachers how to read stories aloud to increase interest among students. Through a local publishing company, actual picture books created by local authors exist in some elementary schools, giving kids stories that pique their interest. Reading is a key to unlocking amazing opportunities in countries like Rwanda.

Many African countries endeavor to join in the technology age. The emergence of e-books appeals to these impoverished nations and provides easier access to the written word than a physical paper book. It may be that digital reading in some places in Africa will jump over conventional book reading and the paper book will barely exist in their learning culture. Without the tradition of curling up with Mommy or Daddy and reading one’s favorite stories, it’s very possible that populations and cultures will never have that chance.

I believe that the sky’s the limit for joining in the race to advance reading ability in Africa. Check out the foundations below to see how you might help. Or see how your local school districts may take on an initiative to share a book with African students.

On a personal note, Hope caught the reading bug last summer. Here’s a “shout out” to Nicola Yoon for her captivating debut YA novel, Everything, Everything.  Her work marked the beginning of a love relationship with reading for a girl from Africa.  
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Resources
Friends of Rwandan Education (FRE) is a new non-profit whose goal is to assist Rwanda in achieving their educational goals through cultural collaborations, advocacy and fundraising.The current goal is to build a new secondary school for 800 students.