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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