Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Interview with J. R. Krause, author/illustrator of POCO LOCO

I’m happy to have J. R. Krause, author/illustrator of POCO LOCO (available on April 30, 2013 from Two Lions / Amazon Children’s Publishing). John also happens to be an old friend and high school classmate.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Meet Poco Loco. He’s a very unusual ratón. He likes to invent wacky things. When Poco Loco’s Waffle Iron–Weather Forecaster predicts mal tiempo, Poco Loco runs to tell his barnyard friends. But it’s still sunny out, and the other animals don’t believe him. Then a roar of wind whips through the picnic, and Poco Loco and his friends fly up, up, and away. But never fear! Poco Loco will use his wits (and one crazy invention) to save the day!

John and I were in the same teen church group a lifetime ago. Somewhere in the depths of my basement, I’ve got a group photo of our confirmation class. We graduated together from Chelmsford High School—and no, I’m not going to tell you the year. I remember joking around with John in the church classroom and hanging out in the high school library during free time. I remember him as an amazing artist, and a funny kid. You knew you were going to laugh if John was around.

You may not realize it, but you’ve probably already seen John’s artwork. He has been a designer and design supervisor for the Simpsons  (yes, that Simpsons) for many years. So it doesn’t surprise me that he has teamed up with his talented wife Maria Chua to create an adorable picture book that kids (and parents) are going to love to read again and again. I’m so proud to introduce you to my friend J. R. Krause.

K: Welcome to my blog, John! This is your first picture book. Can you tell us a bit about your journey to publication?

J.R.: Once upon a time, Maria and I created a story titled POCO’S PRESENT. The response from publishers was, “We love the illustrations, but not the story”. In 2007, I joined SCBWI and attended their National Conference. I displayed my portfolio and Brenda Bowen from Harper Collins contacted me. She loved the illustrations from POCO’S PRESENT and requested a story. Maria and I began writing new Poco stories for Brenda. Mary Kole, an agent with Andrea Brown Literary Agency (ABLA) came on board and polished our submission. Brenda eventually passed on Poco and Marilyn Brigham, then with Marshall Cavendish, made an offer. Marshall Cavendish was acquired by Amazon and Two Lions / Amazon Children’s Publishing and is releasing POCO LOCO.

K: SCBWI is a great organization, I love that they were involved in your journey! How did you and Maria come up with the idea—which came first the text or the illustrations? How do you work together?

J.R.: Ten years ago Maria wrote a story about a cat named Sam who worked in a tea house. I sketched drawings of Sam and added a mouse for kicks. We named the mouse Poco. He was so cute that we wrote a new story about him and that became POCO’S PRESENT. As I mentioned, Brenda Bowen took interest in the illustrations, but not the story. We wrote four new manuscripts. One had the phrase “¡Ay, Poco Loco! He’s one crazy mouse!”. We liked the read-aloud quality and only then started thinking about a bilingual book.

Poco means small in Spanish. In hindsight, a bilingual book seems like Poco’s destiny, even though it took many years to get there. I should add that Maria and our two daughters speak Spanish and we have many Spanish picture books. All of this helped inspire POCO LOCO. 

K: I love the idea of a bilingual book and I think it's wonderful that your whole family is involved. Have you teamed up on any other projects? Do you have any other books coming out?

Two Lions ACP made an offer for a Poco sequel. On my own I have two new picture book proposals. That being said, Maria sees everything at every stage and gives me vital feedback, even with my own stories.

K: Congratulations on the sequel! That's great news! I love that you guys are true partners--very cool!

My blog audience is mostly other children’s writers and they often like to hear about the different paths to getting a literary agent—I know you recently signed with Jennifer Mattson of Andrea Brown Literary. Can you tell us how you and Jennifer connected?

J.R.: For several years I submitted proposals on my own. I found the process so frustratingly slow I began looking for an agent. When Mary Kole of ABLA offered representation, I gladly accepted. She played a big role in making POCO LOCO a book. Mary left ABLA for another agency and we parted ways. We are still friends and keep in touch. Andrea Brown had several agents review my materials. Jennifer had a strong connection to my work and contacted me. She has been great!

K: Having an industry pro at your back is awesome. I wish you and your agent the best of luck together! Before I close out this interview, I’ve got to ask about The Simpsons. How does your work on The Simpsons impact your artwork? Working on the same subject for such a long time, how do you keep things fresh?

J.R.: Despite his stupidity, Homer J. Simpson has taught me much. Staging, storytelling and acting are vital parts of animation and these elements also apply to making picture books. That being said, I approach The Simpsons and my own illustration style differently. I don’t want them to look similar.

As for keeping things fresh after so many seasons, that’s something our crew strives for, otherwise the show will suffer. We’re always trying to create new situations and gags. I did leave The Simpsons for several years. I worked on other television shows and at several design firms. I was happy to have the opportunity to return as it’s a fun place to work. We’re like a family. Plus Homer still cracks me up.

K: Guilty pleasure question: 80’s music or music from today? Favorite band?

J.R.: I’m a nostalgic fellow, thus 80’s music gets a leg up. Today I love what The Shins and Janelle Monáe are doing, just as much as I loved Def Leppard back in the 80’s. Favorite band? This evening it’s Bob Marley & The Wailers. This morning it was… (cough)… Hanson.

K: I love your eclectic musical taste. :) I LOVE Def Leppard. Thanks so much, John, for joining me today! Best of luck to you and Maria with POCO LOCO and all of his (and your) adventures. 

As the credits roll, let's hear a little Def Leppard. This song is best enjoyed as loud as possible on a Sony Walkman. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Common Core and Nonfiction: How Does It All Fit Together

I had the pleasure of being on a panel for on April 25, 2013 as part of the Massachusetts Library Association annual conference at the Hyatt in Cambridge Massachusetts. For anyone interested, these are my written comments for THE COMMON CORE AND NONFICTION: HOW DOES IT ALL FIT TOGETHER. The blurb:

The Common Core and Nonfiction:  How Does It All Fit Together?
The Common Core is here, but what does it mean for library collections?  Join the MLA Youth Services Section for an overview of the curriculum changes as well as some highlights of the future of nonfiction publishing.  Presented by the MLA Youth Services Section.

Speakers:  Kristine Carlson Asselin, Author; Deborah Kops, Author; Rebecca J. Morris, MLIS, PhD, Assistant Professor, School Library Teacher Program, Simmons College; Lou Pingatore, Pingi Bookstore.

 The Common Core and Non-Fiction: How Does It All Fit Together?
I first have to give a shout out to the staff of the Reuben Hoar Library in Littleton! They are awesome—I use the library and the interlibrary loan program for almost all of my research.
I have published exclusively with educational publishers (Capstone Press and Abdo Publishing) on a work-for-hire basis. So basically, I work on assignment. I get a call or an email from a publisher or an editor and they ask if I’m interested in taking on a given project. My first project was assigned in the fall of 2008 (WHO REALLY DISCOVERED AMERICA), with the first book being published in January 2010 (THE EARTH SIGNS).
As a freelance writer, my strength is my ability to research, not any particular field of study.
According to Karen Springen in an article from the July 18, 2012 issue of Publisher’s Weekly titled What Common Core Means for Publishers, “Core authors want students to think more critically about what they’re reading, rather than just summarizing text; to compare multiple sources in different formats; and to give more sourced evidence, and less personal opinion, in their writing.”
What that tells me is that educators are going to be looking for more material on a lot of topics. And that librarians are going to feel the trickle down effect as kids come looking for nonfiction. I’m not an expert on the Common Core, but I’m excited about the opportunities that seem to be available for us as writers with the new standards. It seems like there will be an increased demand for nonfiction material, across a variety of topics, in different reading levels, and with different source material. So that’s good for writers; more demand means more work for us.
When I get an assignment from a publisher, they usually give me a sense of the length, style, timeframe, and the salary—and then I decide if I can do it or not. Some projects are easier than others, as you can imagine; it often depends on the topic, but sometimes I have to make decisions based on the deadline or the pay.
For the most part, I attack the project like an intense term project—it all starts with good research, much like what we are training our kids to do through the new Common Core standards.
Research is always easier said than done. One question I’m often asked is about the standards for writing non-fiction. I can only speak to Abdo and Capstone, but the standards for those two publishers are very high. Every things is footnoted. My two most recent biographies for Abdo were on Martin Luther King, Jr. (due out in August 2013) and Jennifer Lopez (published in January 2013), for the essential lives  and contemporary lives series respectively. They are both written for a 6th grade and up level, 14,000 words, and both have almost 300 footnotes. However, those source notes are VERY different. JLO sources were live interviews from the web that I transcribed, podcasts, pop culture sources (like magazines and websites). MLK sources were more academic, newspapers, and books. Those notes don’t appear in the final text, but the publisher fact checks the entire document after I submit. Capstone Press books are shorter—closer to 4,000 words, but  the word to footnote ratio is about the same (about 90 footnotes or one footnote per every 45 words).
Both publishers demand that the text be accurate, but it also needs to be interesting. High Interest. As an author, this is a no-brainer. For me, most of the time, the voice/narrative comes second, but it’s no less important to make the work come alive for the reader. Ultimately, as a writer, that’s the passion—that a child read my book and the subject matter comes alive.
So…when I read that the common core requires “well-researched informational text, well-crafted narrative text, and readings that engage critical analysis and reward rereading,” (from a PW article on 4/10/2013 called WHAT IS COMMON CORE),  I’m left wondering what are we going to be doing that’s that much different from what we’re already doing: Writing cool things about interesting topics that make kids think and want to read it again.
 For this panel, I looked at my body of work in a statistical sense. Since my first assignment in 2008, I’ve written fourteen nonfiction books for the school library market with educational publishers. Three are biographies, five are history (US, and/or ancient history), three are science, two are “how to research”, and one is pop culture (astrology). I think that these stats say more about my editors needs than any specific trend, but it is interesting that the variety of subjects has been so wide.
Capstone Press has a comprehensive mission statement around the Common Core, which they sent me when I asked about what they were doing. It includes the creation of instructional pieces that support classroom teachers, as well as the creation of new publications aligned with the new standards. Of creating new material to specific tenants of the common core, 4 out of 6 action items relate to nonfiction. (from Capstone text about Common Core).
I think we’re going to see a big influx of nonfiction being written; both in the trade publishers and educational publishers. It’s not all going to be great, but some of it will be amazing. My advice to librarians is to make decisions about nonfiction purchases the same way you make decisions about fiction; recommendations, reviews, and reputation. Trust that the publishers are still working out what common core means just like we are; but the good ones are going to try to align their products with what kids and teachers and librarians need to be successful.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

NESCBWI First Timer Tips

I'm repeating this same post at YA Stands today.

As the conference Co-director for the New England SCBWI conference (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), I’m not thinking about much for the next two weeks besides the conference. My brain is full of workshop titles, master schedules, room setups, meal counts, faculty roommate preferences, and so much more. So putting together a post about anything else this morning was pretty impossible. (Shout out to the Director of the conference Joyce Shor Johnson. I’ve had a blast working with her (@the writejoyce) to put it all together. 

The conference is the first weekend in May in Springfield, Massachusetts. The theme is Word by Word: The Art of Craft.

I’m excited to report the conference is sold out—it’s an intimate (!!) gathering of 650+ of the most wonderful writers and illustrators. We’ve got stellar faculty like Nova Ren Suma, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, and Greg Fishbone (and many, many more!). We’ve got keynoters Sharon Creech and Grace Lin. We’ve got editors (like Melissa Miller and Julie Ham) and agents (like Brooks Sherman and Jennifer Laughran and Linda Epstein) and fun, oh my! (For the full list of faculty, here’s the link: http://www.regonline.com/builder/site/tab3.aspx?EventID=1108084

I’ve been tweeting #FirstTimerTips—and will continue to do so up until the conference, but most of these apply to seasoned conference attendees of all types of conferences, so I thought I’d repeat them here. Stay tuned to my twitter feed (@KristineAsselin) as we get closer to the first weekend in May.
Feel free to add your own conference tips to the comments section. If you leave me your twitter handle, I’ll add it to my own tips and credit you!

#nescbwi has something for all skill levels, published & unpublished. You belong here, so take advantage of all the things. #FirstTimerTips

#nescbwi If you're an introvert, try saying hello to one person in your first session. Just hello. Then, do it again. #FirstTimerTips

#nescbwi 2013 has gone mobile! Schedule, maps, twitter, faculty bios & more for iPhone/Android, free! http://guidebook.com/g/nescbwi13  #FirstTimerTips

#nescbwi Take advantage of special events like the Genre Meetups and the Literary Treasure Hunt. #FirstTimerTips

#nescbwi Make eye contact in the elevator and say hello. It's all about networking! But don't pitch your book unless asked. #FirstTimerTips

#nescbwi Dress is business casual. Remember this is a professional organization and you're making a 1st impression! #FirstTimerTips

#nescbwi  Bring business cards. You can print yourself or make inexpensive ones, but have something with your contact info. #FirstTimerTips

If your interested in knowing more about NESCBWI, go to our website (www.nescbwi.org). We’re sold out this year, but as the conference Director for next year, I invite you to register early in 2014 for Create Bravely: Make Your Mark.