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Thursday, June 21, 2012


     Facebook is an amazing tool when you make so many connections with other writers and illustrators who share the same passion.  I can't remember who contacted the other first as Lee Wardlaw's newest book is appearing simultaneously on my "other" blog, Book Wisdom By Diane.   Years ago, I first learned about Lee as a one of the " Fairy God-Sisters" that help a newer writer who wants to attend the summer SCBWI conference.  This week, it is my honor to support and share award winning author, Lee Wardlaw on 

Lee, welcome and please tell us what pulled you down the rabbit hole of writing picture books ?

     The short answer?  Naiveté!  I assumed that because picture books were short, they’d be easy to write. (Insert hysterical laughter here.)  Little did I know that good writing means making it look easy…
The long answer:  In the late 1970’s, when I’d first earned my B.A. in Education and my teaching credential, jobs at the elementary level were rare.  So I ended up working for two years as the director/head teacher of a pre-school .  The school didn’t have much money, so to supplement our meager library I wrote stories to share with the children. They were awful!  (The stories, not the children!) Everything you could possibly do wrong in creating a picture book, I unknowingly did with gusto.
One of the first picture book manuscripts I wrote was called The Smallest Square.  It told the tale of five squares that live one inside of the other.  The baby square yearns to be free of his claustrophobic existence, so he changes himself into different shapes in order to escape:  first a circle to roll himself out (which doesn’t work)…next a rectangle to muscle his way out (ditto)…and, finally, a triangle, breaking free at last with his new pointy head. Then he turns into a circle again and rolls off to see the world.
Riveting, right?  J  The story was derivative of Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece – but without his wisdom, wit, talent, voice and clever illustrations. I got so many form rejection letters on that manuscript (and many others like it), that I gave up on picture books and started writing stuff for older readers.  I published eight other books (YA novels, non-fiction and first chapter books) before I got up the nerve to try my hand again at picture books.

When you are writing a pb manuscript, what area of the story do you get the most satisfaction in developing and exploring? 

     Mem Fox, the award-winning, Australian children’s book author, once said that writing a picture book is like writing War and Peace – in haiku.  
True!  A good picture book contains all the same elements as a novel for adults, such as:
     -an opening that grabs and pulls in the reader;
     -three-dimensional characters whom you care about and root for;
-a vital conflict that has serious consequences if not resolved by the main characters;  
-a logical plot line;
-suspenseful pace;
-a fresh, unique voice;
-sparkling dialogue;
-rhythmic, expressive, evocative  language;
-and a satisfying conclusion.  
The main difference between these two forms of literature is that a picture book story must be told in a way that is appropriate for the physical, psychological and emotional development of the child. Tricky!
I enjoy that challenge. So although it’s always a treat to create characters I’d like to meet in real life, to express their authentic voices, to give them the opportunity to solve their own conflicts, etc., etc., what I find most satisfying about writing picture books is the distillation process:  taking a big story and honing it to its essence.

Lee is there any part of writing a picture book that you find frustrating or difficult to develop?

     Thinking visually.  A picture book needs to have a minimum of 13 different illustratable scenes.  I tend to be better at creating dialogue than action, and dialogue is difficult for an artist to illustrate.  So I spend a lot of time revising my manuscripts to create more action.

If you could choose one pb author, author/illustrator, or illustrator to spend a day with, who would that be and what would you want to receive from your time with them?  
     I love funny, quirky picture books with heart, such as Officer Buckle and Gloria, (Peggy Rathmann); Martha Speaks (Susan Meddaugh); Benjamin and Tulip (Rosemary Wells); Bootsie Barker Bites (Barbara Bottner); Zelda and Ivy (Laura McGee Kvasnosky).  The master of this genre was the author/illustrator James Marshall (who also wrote as Edward Marshall).  His simple line drawings – in books such as George and Martha, The Stupids, Fox Outfoxed, etc. – could bring me to my knees with spasms of silliness and giggles.  As for what I would want from him?  Just to sit quietly in a corner and watch him work…

Lee, I have one last question.  Do you have a favorite picture book you never tire of?

     OH, my. There are so many of them!  So I'll pick the one that springs to mind first:  Officer Buckle and Gloria written/illustrated by Peggy Rathmann.
The story is hilarious, the pictures (and the story THEY tell) are even more so.  Too, there are many tidbits in each picture, that you discover new things
each time you read it.  A picture book has to be able to stand up to a minimum of 500 readings aloud, and this is one I never, ever tire of!

     Lee, thank you for taking time to participate in two blogs timed near a book launch and a vacation.  I look forward to seeing your published list continue to grow & grow.

Won Ton by Lee Wardlaw

      Lee Wardlaw’s first spoken word was ‘kitty’. Since then, she’s shared her home with more than two-dozen cats (not all at the same time!) and written more than two-dozen, award-winning books for young readers, including Won Ton – A Cat Tale Told in Haiku (Holt; illustrated by Eugene Yelchin), winner of the 2012 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and many other honors.

     Lee has a B.A. in education, and taught school for five years before deciding to write full-time. She recently received her AMI Primary Diploma from the Montessori Institute of San Diego, and will earn her M.Ed. from Loyola University, Maryland, in 2013. She still enjoys teaching, and presents a variety of lively programs each year for students, educators, librarians, parents and writers at schools, workshops, and conferences.
Red, White, and Boom! by Lee Wardlaw
Lee’s books have been honored by the American Library Association, the International Reading Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, the International School Librarians Association, and more. She is an active member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, the Authors Guild, the California Reading Association and, yes, even the Cat Writers’ Association!
     Lee lives in Santa Barbara, CA with her husband, teenaged son, and three former shelter cats. Her newest book Red, White and Boom! (Holt; illustrated by Huy Voun Lee), celebrates the many cultures and traditions that make America’s birthday BOOM!

For more info about Lee and her books, visit:


Tina Cho said...

Wonderful interview. Congrats, Lee, on your new books!

Mirka Breen said...

You mentioned you enjoyed doing the interview, Diane, and I can attest that I very much enjoyed reading it. Brava to Lee (and a bow to her lynx-point gorgeous cat) for such succinct and illuminating input about picture book writing. Her book looks wonderful- going to check it out.

Evelyn said...

A delightful interview, Lee and Diane! Glad to hear your perspectives on picture book writing, Lee. As a former Montessori teacher and as a primary teacher who created lots of resources for my classrooms, I felt connected to what you were saying. Congratulations on all your successes! Your new book sounds great.