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Kate: Hi April, Thanks so much for taking time to talk with me this afternoon. This month Epic Eighteen is thanking the people in our lives who have influenced us and/or given us the gift of mentorship. Before we go any further, could you please tell everyone who you are and what you do?
April: Thanks for having me, Kate! I’m delighted to chat with you and celebrate your success and involvement with Epic Eighteen. I’m honored to have been part of your writing journey.
So, I’m a children’s book author, editor/agent at Studio Goodwin Sturges in Providence, and I co-teach an undergraduate picture book course at Rhode Island School of Design. I’ve worked in children’s publishing for almost 20 years (yikes!). I write in a variety of genres, from board books with moving parts to picture books (my true love), to early readers and nonfiction chapter books. It’s really a range, but it keeps things fresh. I’m sure you can relate, because your writing is wonderfully varied, too.
Kate: Thanks so much for the compliment. I had the good fortune to stumble across your critique group in an SCBWI newsletter. Could you please talk about how you started the group, and the goals you had for the group?
April: I didn’t actually start the group, I just joined it. Though I think by the time you joined, we had lost a lot of the earlier members. I was probably filling a vacuum by coordinating! My goal in joining and in keeping the group together was to facilitate a place, both physical and virtual, for children’s writers to have a supportive community. I feel that a writer presenting work for critique should receive an honest, but sensitive, review; I don’t believe there’s a lot to be gained by tearing someone down. Whether intentionally or not, I think all of us in the group tend to use the “sandwich” technique of (for example) something you like about the piece, something that could use work, and something about why the piece is worth working on or using as a stepping stone to another project. I was also hoping that group members would share industry news, favorite new books, and life experience that would help us all grow as writers and as human beings.
Kate: Since not everyone is lucky enough to find someone as generous as you coordinating a critique group, what tips do you have for writers that are at the beginning of their journey?
April: Read, read, read! Read widely, but especially read in the genre you want to write. There is so much we can learn, at all stages of our writing journeys, from reading others’ work. Read the classics—they’re classics for a reason—but also stay current. Carve out time to spend an hour at your local library or bookstore, checking out what’s currently being published. It also helps to stay current by keeping up with industry news. One way to do this is to subscribe to Publishers Weekly’s free email newsletter, PW Children’s Bookshelf. There are oodles of wonderful blogs and podcasts, too!
The other thing is to channel your enthusiasm, practice, and grit into your writing. So:
And Kate, I have to say, you are a prime example of doing these things and finding success because of them. You have more grit and perseverance than possibly anyone I know, and I commend you for it. It is bringing you great things!
Kate: Thanks, again. I remember one time I thought about quitting and you told me, “Whatever you do, don’t quit.” I’m so glad I listened. In addition to having supported all the people in our writing group, you also support artists as an agent at Studio Goodwin Sturges. Could you explain what you do at Studio Goodwin Sturges?
April: Sure! Studio Goodwin Sturges is an artists’ agency in Providence. We represent about 35 illustrators from around the world, and it’s just a fabulous place. Our founder and owner, creative powerhouse + idea machine Judy Sue Goodwin Sturges, has created an environment of collaboration, growth, and mutual respect. She doesn’t love to be called an agent; really we think of ourselves as nurturers—of careers, of books, of ideas. We work in an unusual way, which is collectively. Rather than having our own clients, all three of us in the office work on almost all the artists’ projects. We divide the list of artists so that one of us has primary responsibility for that person’s projects and nothing falls through the cracks, but we consult with each other before sending an artist feedback, or we do a conference call with the artist. This kind of setup is probably not for everyone, but it’s a really good fit for me. I like collaboration and the snowball effect of the way one idea can lead to another.
Kate: That setup sounds as if it creates a terrific work environment. What tips do you have for illustrators who are at the beginning of their journey?
April: Drink in life and art. “Steal Like an Artist,” as Austin Kleon’s terrific book of the same name tells us. This is a book Donalyn Miller recommended at the NESCBWI conference two years ago, and it acknowledges the essential truth that none of us is reinventing the wheel, nor do we need to. Of course you don’t want to copy or emulate one person’s work; you want to drink widely from the faucet of life and art. Take a little piece from here, a little inspiration from there, a certain technique from somewhere else. Internalize it, make it your own. Nosh on it and spin it out in your unique work, your unique perspective, your unique voice.
I would also advise artists to create a portfolio that showcases the breadth and depth of their talent, and which only includes work that they’re proudest of and that shows the style or styles they’d like to be working in. Artists, if you’re creating portfolio samples from scratch and not as part of a broader project, show us characters interacting with each other or with the viewer. Show us a scene with narration and intrigue—one that makes an editor or art director wonder if there’s a story to go with it. And hopefully there is! Either written by you or someone else.
Kate: Besides writing and agenting, you also teach. Of course this is only possible because you’re a heroine. Could you please talk about the course you teach at RISD?
April: Along with Judy Sue, who is a longtime, full-time Professor of Illustration at RISD, I co-teach an amazing, six-credit course called Picture and Word. Judy Sue created this course many years ago, and it’s worth three credits of illustration and three credits of liberal arts. Judy Sue has taught the class with a variety of different authors and editors in the field, and I’m honored to teach it with her now. The first part of the semester is picture book boot camp, where each week consists of an assignment to write a different type of manuscript plus sketches and/or a finished piece of art to go with it. The second half of the semester is devoted to each student choosing a favorite story from the prior assignments, or crafting a new story, and refining, illustrating, and developing it into a 32-page trade book dummy under our guidance. It’s a lot of work in a short period of time. At the end of the semester, the students present their books to a panel of author/illustrators and professionals from publishing houses, book stores, libraries, and beyond. Often, books get picked up from the class, which is really exciting.
Kate: Yes, it would be a dream come true to finish a class and instead of walking away with a grade, to leave it with a book contract in hand. I know as a teacher myself, I often feel as though I learn more from my students than I teach them. Please tell us about something you’ve learned from teaching at RISD?
April: Oh, so many things! As you know, you have to really understand something in an inside-and-out sort of way in order to be able to teach it. So teaching, for me, has really solidified my own knowledge of how picture books are constructed. You go from something you have internalized to something you must be able to verbalize.
The other thing I love about student work is how fresh it is. These young people are not jaded, and they’re telling stories they’re passionate about rather than trying to please an editor or write what they think a publisher wants. That freshness is a gift. Really the whole class is a gift. We meet from 9:30-5:30 on Wednesdays and spend the whole day in picture book land. No interruptions, no cell phones, no computers. How awesome is that?!
Kate: Sign me up now! In order to improve my craft, I study the work of authors I admire. I bet people are curious about your work. Could you please pick one of your books, sum it up, and highlight something that you learned from creating that book?
April: I learned so much from researching and writing Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing, which is based on a true story of circus showman P.T. Barnum taking a herd of elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge in 1884 to prove the bridge was safe. (Of course, he was also causing a ruckus, as he was wont to do, to remind people that his circus was in town.) It was just such a magnificent event—a collision of big elephants, big bridge, big Barnum personality. I was fascinated by it. But when I started to research the event, I couldn’t find even one photo. I began to wonder if the episode had really happened, or if was pure rumor. Long story short, after what felt like a treasure hunt of research, I did find primary-source documentation, and also figured out why there were no photos. What I learned was to be careful about my own bias and hopes for what I would find, vs. what I actually found. I learned to dig broadly and deeply, and I learned that even when you do that, there are some questions you may not be able to answer because of gaps in the historical record.
Kate: Thanks so much for talking with me today. I am grateful for your mentorship, and honored to call you a friend.
April: Ditto, my dear! Thank you for having me. Keep up the terrific work, and congrats to all the Epic Eighteen.
Thanks so much for viewing/reading April’s interview. If you’d like to learn more about April, visit her website http://www.apriljonesprince.com/
Interview by Kate Narita
100 BUGS! A COUNTING BOOK by Kate Narita illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman
Currently available for preorder
For me, the gift of writing came from my parents. My dad showed me how to finish a manuscript, laugh at rejections, and write like only I write. My mom taught me to find the emotional core of my story and believe I can actually do this publishing thing.
But…they didn't actually know they were teaching me these things. See, it was in the guise of teaching me other things.
Growing up, the woods behind our house were filled with rocks. This was, in my dad's opinion, the perfect tool for teaching work ethic. I believe my siblings and I moved no less than 7,000 rocks over the years. I think we were building a rock wall. Verdict's still out. But rock wall or not, I've finished manuscripts because of him—one "rock" at a time.
Rock master that he was, my dad has always been fun, the quintessential maker of jokes. He taught me that life is funny even when I think it's serious. There's a lot of rejection in this business. Not taking myself too seriously has been essential to survival.
And something he does like a boss…he's always been the one that marches to the beat of his own drum. (Literally and sometimes during the 70's without a shirt on.)
This told me it's okay to write how I write! I have a style—a rhythm!—that's all my own.
And my mom? Besides being fun and climbing rock walls in Alaska and doing crazy things we think of in Colorado like, "Hey, let's take turns climbing out of this hollow stump!"…
…besides all that—my mom taught me compassion. She still teaches me by her example. She's so good at seeing a need, then doing something about it. I have a long way to go before I'm my mom, but her compassionate approach to life has helped me better understand the heart of my characters. She's helped me add emotional resonance to my stories.
She's also fiercely believed in me from day one. A lifetime of someone knowing I can do it all— and me knowing that she knows (if that makes sense)—makes impossible things not so impossible.
And who doesn't want to make their parents proud? It's part of who we are as humans. This past fall I taught a class at a conference in Kansas City. Bonus: I got to go back home with my baby and see my parents. After the conference, my mom dropped us off at the airport. When she hugged me goodbye and said, "I'm so proud of you for fulfilling your dream!"—well, I suppose it was at that moment I felt I had finally made it.
THE REMEMBER BALLOONS, illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte
Coming Fall 2018 from Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
At this time of giving thanks and sharing gifts, I wanted to take a moment for a special shout-out from the bottom of my heart.
It’s been a year of learning with two books on their way to real. And it would never have happened without the amazing resources and staff at my local library. Public libraries are a gift that keeps on giving!
And who is responsible for the beginnings of our library system? The great Ben Franklin, one of the subjects of my debut picture book! So, it was only fitting that a few of his wise words be carved into a fundraising patio brick to commemorate my gratitude, lessons learned, and extreme appreciation.
I believe Ben was right…energy and persistence do conquer all things. He just left us to discover that “energy and persistence” require optimism, patience, resilience, willingness to learn, and being open to understanding that “conquer” may mean something other than our original intention. Such a clever fellow.
As I sit amongst piles of books working on my next project, I hope that someday the information sifted and blended into my vision will grow into a book, be honored to sit on a library shelf, and bring someone else all the delight and wonder that I felt as I worked on it. Full circle! Just like a great story.
Many thanks also to friends, family, and writing colleagues for all the moral support, inspiration, and honest feedback that sends me back to rework, revise, re-envision.
I wish you all much energy and perseverance!
AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET: BEN FRANKLIN AND NOAH WEBSTER’S SPELLING REVOLUTION, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley
Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster, Sept. 25, 2018
My family didn’t go to art museums when I was a kid, so my first exposure to art was through picture books. I am forever grateful to my parents taking me to our public library every weekend to check out big bags of books.
I was an early reader, but I also spent a lot of time studying the images in books I loved. Picture books were my first visual education. I felt like I could live inside certain books because of the illustration.
My first exposure to fine art was through a program in which our local art museum created a lending library of copies of some their best-known pieces, and loaned them out in rotation to local elementary schools. I remember asking permission to go to the bathroom and then sneaking down the hallway to study the art without a crowd of kids around me. I got caught once, which only upped the thrill factor. At the end of the year we got to go to the actual art museum in third grade and see this Rembrandt I had "lived with" for a month in real life.
Even as an eight year old, I realized the rest of the kids thought this was a boring field trip. I, however, just wanted to fall into the glazing on that painting. (True confession: I still tear up when I see this painting in reproduction. It’s not the best Rembrandt, but it’s mine.)
Also in third grade, illustrator Ariane Dewey visited our school and showed us the uncut proof sheets for ANOTHER MOUSE TO FEED. I was thunderstruck to discover that actual, living people created books. That drawing pictures for books was an actual job you could get as a grown-up. Best. Job. Ever. (I still think that.) After that visit, I hunted down all of Dewey’s books at my local library and studied them. Her loose line and simple yet expressive faces have stayed with me (for free!)
During this season, I want to offer my gratitude to all of the librarians and museum docents who introduce kids to literature, and art. You open the door to knowledge for all kids, not just the ones whose parents can afford to buy books and art. It's a pretty important job, and one that often doesn't get enough credit (or pay!)
And now, my gift to you. For your entertainment, I have hunted down some of the books I often checked out of my local public library as a kid, and re-read them:
BUSY, BUSY TOWN by Richard Scarry
I have probably read this book a couple thousand times from my own preschool readings to reading to my preschoolers. So it is deep within my subconscious that the best writers and artists make work for children.
Adult reaction: The book is uncomfortable for the adult reader, with all the leaking pipes and car accidents. Why do we still not have apple cars in 2017? However, I can appreciate this propaganda on a whole new level.
THE LONELY DOLL by Dare Wright
I was drawn to this book before I could read because of the photo staging and pink gingham of the cover. But I was hooked on the darkness and strangeness of the story. My local public library had two copies of this book. I would return one and check out the other.
Adult reaction: This book is even stranger and darker than I remember. And the sequels... I wonder if Cindy Sherman will ever do kid lit?
IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN by Maurice Sendak
I used to wish that I too would fall into a jug of milk in the middle of the night and be turned into a cake. Who doesn’t want to be in a cake? Or better yet, be part of an edible airplane? So funny in daylight, and such a terrifying dream world at night.
Adult reaction: Terrifying. But so cute! But... terrifying. I think I may have nightmares tonight.
Also, OUTSIDE OVER THERE
There are actual baby-stealing goblins in this book. I hoped goblins would steal my baby brother, but it never happened. But oh, the drawing in this book. I remember tracing it with my finger, wishing that someday I’d be able to draw like that.
Adult reaction: I still can’t put this book down. It’s so beautiful and it gives me chills. Maybe someday I'll be able to draw like that.
There are so many other books that have inspired me in my journey to become an author-illustrator. I’m lucky enough that now, as an adult, I can buy books that I love to read and re-read. But I still visit the library, because I love the experience of browsing the shelves and finding what might be a new friend. And also, I don’t have the unlimited budget that my reading habit could use. It is so wonderful that I can walk into my local library and borrow as many books as I can read in a month for free. That is something worthy of gratitude every day!