By Lisa Amstutz
This month, we welcome Christy Mihaly to the Six Pens blog to talk about her new book, Free for You and Me!
First of all, thank you for participating in the Song of Six Pens blog!
Thank you for inviting me to Six Pens! It's a pleasure to chat with you here.
1. What inspired you to write Free for You and Me?
A few years ago I started hearing people making statements that reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of the U.S. Constitution. Folks who should have known better called for flag-burners to lose their American citizenship. Sheesh. I wanted kids to appreciate the basic principles of our governmental system, which some adults seemed to have forgotten (or never learned).
I told my wonderful agent, Erzsi Deak, that this was on my mind. She joked that I should create a board book about the Constitution. We laughed, but then I thought, maybe if I started with one provision? How about the First Amendment! Not an obvious picture book topic, right? But the idea wouldn't leave me alone. I started experimenting with little verses, and they eventually evolved into this book.
2. What did the publishing process for this book look like?
I started this book with poems, because poetry uses a few well-chosen words to explore the basic essence of a complex concept. The First Amendment names five freedoms—so I thought I'd create a poem about each. (They are: freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press, and the rights to assembly and to petition the government for redress of grievances.) I wrote, revised, got critiques, rethought … and developed five poems I liked. But they didn't constitute a book. To explain the history and background of the First Amendment and to create a story line about how kids could use these rights, I added historical vignettes and contemporary characters. I thought we could show dialog with speech bubbles.
In 2018 my manuscript found its way to just the right editor for this project, Wendy McClure at Albert Whitman. We signed in January 2019, and then things moved quickly. We were aiming for the spring of 2020 because of the election. Wendy suggested adding a couple of additional poems. Not every editor feels comfortable editing verse, but Wendy had some great questions and suggested revisions. We also tweaked and shortened the speech bubbles. We collaborated on the back matter. And we went through a few rounds of possible titles before landing on "Free for You and Me."
Our collaboration continued as illustrator Manu Montoya and the book designer developed the art. Wendy and I wanted the book to reflect America's diversity, so Manu illustrated the historical scenes with contemporary children dressed up as historical figures, a la "Hamilton," which I love.
3. How did you learn to write in rhyme? Do you have any tips for our readers?
Since elementary school, I've enjoyed writing rhyming verse. I used to write silly doggerel for friends' birthdays and the like. But when I got serious about picture books, I knew I had to up my game. I took Renee LaTulippe's online course, Lyrical Language Lab, and learned a ton there. Then I started studying mentor texts and books about poetry. I attended a conference dedicated to rhyming picture books and met other rhymers, and crucially, I found critique partners who could evaluate rhyme and meter.
Even though we've all heard that editors eschew rhyme, most will consider excellent, well-done rhyming texts that have good meter and tell a solid story. The problem is the abundance of submissions in which the story suffers because the rhymes are forced.
So, my tip is: If you've written a rhyming text, rewrite it in prose. Make the prose beautiful and lyrical and poetic, but focus on telling your story. Then compare versions. Which is better? Which brings out the characters, the conflict, the resolution in a more compelling way? If it's the prose, can you bring those elements back into your rhyming text? Perhaps your story really needs to be in rhyme. If that's the case, polish your poetry. But if it doesn't, don't.
4. What book has influenced you the most as a writer?
Strunk and White's Elements of Style. When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher told me I was a writer and gave me a gift of a copy of that book. I've kept it ever since, and have read and re-read it. If you follow the mantra "Omit needless words," you're on your way to stronger writing.
5. You’ve written numerous nonfiction books. What draws you to this genre?
I enjoy engaging kids' interest in complex and potentially boring or off-putting topics. I ask myself, what is weird or funny or heart-warming about this subject? How can I make kids care? What's my way in? It's like a puzzle. Plus, I love research: gathering information, deepening my understanding of issues I'm curious about, and turning it all into a compelling story.
6. What is one piece of advice that you would give to writers/illustrators?
I'm not the first to say it, but I'm often surprised to meet writers who haven't done this: Join a critique group. Find a group of fellow creators that you trust to give honest, helpful, and kind feedback. Invest the time it takes to provide honest, helpful, kind feedback on their work.
If you determine that a particular group isn't a good fit, leave it (politely), and find another group or gather some folks with whom you work well. And this is important too: Once you've got your group going, stick with it, even through times when you feel uninspired. My experience is that the longer a group keeps working together, the better the feedback becomes. Through years of working together, people come to trust each other more deeply. As they get to know one another more deeply, they come to understand how best to offer helpful critiques.
7. Do you have other upcoming books you would like to mention?
Thanks for asking! My first fiction picture book, Patience, Patches, featuring a dog and a baby, is due out in 2022. I'm also anticipating a science nonfiction picture book next year. Unfortunately a middle grade nonfiction, scheduled for the fall, has been coronavirus-delayed. But I guess that's happened to lots of book creators recently, so we'll just be … patient!
SHORT AND SWEET
Pantser or Plotter? Plotter, definitely. Sometimes I try to bust loose a little bit … but I do love me a good outline.
Guilty Food Pleasure? So, is this weird? I take a flour tortilla, heat it, spread it with butter and honey, roll it up, and eat it. Yum.
Favorite Hobby? I learned to play the cello a few years back. I'm no expert, but I've played in community ensembles (with other mediocre, music-appreciating adults). I don't practice enough, but I get major joy from sitting with others and making music happen. And … it's possible that the cello has given me an idea or two for books.
Oh, and with the home-stay orders, I've taken up the ukulele, which is really fun!
Dog or Cat person? I am a life-long DOG person (see Patience, Patches, above). However, we added our first cat to the family three years ago. I'm still a dog person, but … the cat is growing on me.
Who would you like to have dinner with (living or dead)? Pablo Casals, the great humanitarian and cellist.
Do you do your best work in the morning, afternoon, or evening? I write at any time of day and on a good day I'll write all day long, but at night after dinner is when my writing flows the best.
Christy's spring 2020 picture book, Free for You and Me: What our First Amendment Means is illustrated by Manu Montoya and celebrates the First Amendment with poems and stories. Prior books include Hey, Hey, Hay!, rhyming picture book about bringing in the hay, and Diet for a Changing Climate, a YA co-authored with Sue Heavenrich, about how our food affects the environment. Christy's books have appeared on the Green Earth Book Award shortlist, Bank Street Children's Best Books, and Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selections. She is currently wondering whether to dye her hair purple or green.