Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Five Questions for Pat Zietlow Miller

From Jenny: Today on the blog I’m chatting with New York Times bestselling author Pat Zietlow Miller about My Brother the Duck, her adorable new book about welcoming (or not) a sibling. Pat’s latest is perfect for kids ages 3-7 and guaranteed to cause smiles and laughter in grown up kids of all ages.

Here at Boswell, we all have our favorite picture books, and we all know that outgrowing picture books would be like outgrowing birthday cake. It just doesn’t happen. Picture books help adults remember what it’s like to be a kid and help kids work through problems like not being particularly excited about a baby brother.

“A baby was bad enough,” says Stella Wells, fledgling scientist, at the start of My Brother the Duck. “A duck was unacceptable. Research was obviously required.” How cool is the juxtaposition of a super-smart girl who loves science against the sweet childhood misconception that a person could be related to “waddling, quacking, broad-billed baby duck?" One of my favorite things about picture books is that no concept is too far out there!

Jenny Chou: Welcome, Pat, and thanks for joining me on The Boswellians Blog! I always like to start by finding out more about the main character’s biggest problems. It doesn’t matter if you're writing picture books, middle grade, or literary fiction for adults. Every main character stumbles over some sort of obstacle on her way to the end of the book. Beyond having a brother who might be a duck (which might actually be kind of fun), what are Stella's challenges as she determines if she’s truly related to water fowl or not?

Pat Zietlow Miller: Like all good scientists, Stella is on a quest to discover the truth. She has information﹣ things she’s seen and heard. And, she understands the scientific process﹣form a hypothesis and test it. But, Stella is only a kid, with a kid’s limited view of the world and how it works. So there are clues she misses and information she misinterprets. And, those things get in her way as she does her research. But, she keeps working and trying and is so earnest. She wants to get it right, and that counts for a lot.

JC: What inspired you to tell a story about an inquisitive girl who loves science? If you could be a scientist, what kind would you be?

PZM: I’ve always been fascinated by how kids can hear adults joking and take them very seriously. When one of my daughters was little, she was at a summer art camp. The instructor told her: “If you keep asking questions, I’m going to have to charge you extra!” She came home very concerned that this was true. I had to reassure that the teacher was joking, and she could ask all the questions she wanted, and we wouldn’t be getting an extra bill. So, when Stella hears her dad joking that they must be expecting a baby duck, she takes his statement at face value.

I thought it would be cool if she liked science and was smart enough to know that she should conduct research. Early on, I considered having Stella be a detective with a case to solve, but that seemed a little too close to Nate the Great. As for what kind of scientist I’d be if I could, I think I’d be a geologist. I enjoyed the one geology class I took in college, and I have a rock-loving daughter. (I also have a picture book that’s all about rock love coming out in 2021 from Sourcebooks.)

JC: I can see teachers being excited about your book on rocks! I love the bright colors the illustrator, Daniel Wiseman, used in My Brother the Duck. Seems like just the kind of cheer kids need in their lives right now. And grown-ups, too! Can you tell blog readers how authors and illustrators get matched up in the world of publishing?

PZM: Sure! It’s probably the most frequent question I get. I write the story and focus on making it the best it can be. Then, if I’m lucky, there’s a publisher that wants to buy my story and turn it into a book. Once that happens, the editor and the art director at the publisher look for an illustrator to create the art. They’re looking for a person whose art will be the best match for the text. And because they do this for a living, they have access to talented artists around the world. Quite often, they choose the illustrator and let me know who it is. Sometimes, they send me options and let me weigh in.

Some people are astounded when they hear this. “YOU DON’T GET TO CHOOSE?” they ask. Well, no. And I’m okay with that. I’m a writer, not an artist. I don’t have access to tons of talented people around the world. So I’m happy to pass that off to the folks who know more about it than I do. Once the illustrator is chosen, he or she creates the art. Again, I stay out of it. When I was writing the story, the illustrator wasn’t hanging over my shoulder telling me what to write, so I extend them the same courtesy as they draw or paint. And the final results are always great. I’ve never been disappointed. Good illustrators add more to the story than what’s in my words. They make it deeper, richer and more meaningful.

JC: What’s it like working with an editor to bring a picture book to life? Can you tell us about the revision process? Do you do any more revising after you see the illustrations?

PZM: I love working with editors to make my story the best it can be. Even when an editor loves a story enough to buy it, there always are revisions. Editors are a fresh set of eyes and a wealth of publishing knowledge. I’m always amazed by how a story I thought was finished can become so much better after working with an editor. Once the illustrations are done, there’s often some final tweaking of the text. If the art is showing something clearly, I can often take words out of my story. Doing this helps the final book be as strong as possible.

JC: Let’s imagine you get to be an Indie bookseller for a day! Are there any new picture book releases you’d suggest we all check out?

PZM: Oh, yes! I’ve been buying and reading a lot of books as I shelter in place, and these are some I’ve especially enjoyed recently:

Where'd My Jo Go? by Jill Esbaum and Scott Brundage. This story, written in perfect rhyme, is about a dog temporarily separated from his truck-driving owner. It has humor and so, so much heart. And, it’s inspired by a true story.

Cat Ladies by Susi Schaefer (Abrams Books for Young Readers). This turns the stereotype of one lady owning several cats right on its head. This cat, Princess, owns several ladies, thank you very much. It’s clever and fun.

A Portrait in Poems: The Storied Life of Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas by Evie Robillard and Rachel Katstaller (Kids Can Press). The lovely and engaging writing in this book brings possibly unfamiliar artists - Matisse, Cezanne, Gauguin, Marie Laurencin, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Picasso - to today’s kids in an accessible manner.

The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story by Tina Cho and Jess X. Snow (Kokila). This doesn’t come out until August, but I can’t wait to get it. It’s a story based on the haenyeo, Korean women who dive off the coast of Jeju Island to harvest mollusks and seaweed from the ocean floor.

Thanks so much for joining me on the Boswellians Blog, Pat! Follow Pat on Instagram @patzmill and Twitter @PatZMiller. Be sure to take a look at My Brother the Duck and all of Pat Zielow Miller’s books, including the New York Times bestselling Be Kind, on the Boswell Books website.

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