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Author Showcase

Fall 2010 Featured Guest, Susanna Leonard Hill

RT: Hi Susanna, welcome to the Reading Tub! I have to tell you that my new favorite book is Can't Sleep Without Sheep! What a clever, fun bedtime story. Is there a real Ava who inspired it?

Susanna: Well, yes, but his name is Jon. The idea for this story originally came to me because my son had trouble falling asleep. His mind was always so busy! He would get into bed and have what he called his "thinking time." Long after I had tucked him in, he would be wide awake and full of questions:

"Mom, what is the temperature of the sun?"
"Mom, how much does a dinosaur's brain weigh?"
"Mom, why do bats hang upside down when they sleep?"

Of course even when it is not the middle of the night I am not a reliable source for the answers to such questions, so I would say, "That is a very interesting question. We'll look it up in the morning. But right now it's time to go to sleep."

This would lead to the suggestion that he try counting sheep... The other part of the inspiration came from a mattress commercial I heard on the radio. "Tired of counting sheep?" they inquired. And I thought, Hmmm - what if it was the sheep who got tired of being counted? The two parts of the idea came together to make Can't Sleep Without Sheep, but I really can't tell you why I decided the main character should be a girl!

RT: The House that Mack Built, Airplane Flight, and Freight Train Trip are board books with rhyming stories. Getting that rhyme "just right" is (I understand) very difficult. Do you think it was easier, trickier, or just about the same in creating rhymes for these not-your-norm toddler subjects?

Susanna: Rhyme is always tricky, especially for this age. You can't force anything, you can't use words that are too obscure just to fit the rhyme, you can't slow the pace of the story by adding extra lines to make the rhyme work, and the rhyme has to be exact (no cheating as a lot of song writers can get away with, rhyming "nine" and "time," for example). I don't think it was necessarily any easier or harder to write rhyme for these subjects, with the possible exception of trying to work with words like "excavator"! The thing I find frustrating is at the editing phase when an editor may decide you need an article, or a word must be changed, and it throws off the rhythm. Sometimes the published result is less smooth than the original, which grates on my sense of meter!

RT: This is probably going to sound corny, but I have always wanted to ask an author about working on pop-up and lift-the-flap books. What was it like to see The House that Mack Built "pop" off the page that first time? Do you envision the pop-ups as you go or is it something an illustrator does once you've written a story?

Susanna: Seeing The House That Mack Built pop off the page for the first time was one of the most amazing moments of my life, not just because there it was, in real life, popping off the page, but because it was my very first published book!

I do think very visually when I write, whether it is a pop-up, a lift-the-flap, or a picture book, because the visuals are so important in all three. What I see in my mind while I am writing isn't always what the illustrator ends up envisioning and producing, but when you write for this age-group the illustrator must do half the job, so you have to give him/her plenty to work with.

I try to write so the options are there. I usually have a number of ideas ´┐½ many more than can actually be used - for what pop-ups there could be, what could be under the flaps, etc. In the end, however, it is the editor's and the illustrator's decision what will be used. I don't usually have any say at all. I can make suggestions, but that is it.

RT: In the children's story realm, you have written short stories (like "Rainy Day Parade" which will be in an upcoming issue of Highlights), board books, picture books, and easy readers. Do all of your books come from your own ideas or do others suggest (or sponsor) those books?

Susanna: So far everything I've written has been my own idea with the exception of Taxi, which was a work-for-hire for Little Simon's Matchbox License Plate Board Book line. The editor I worked with for Mack asked me if I'd like to do Taxi, and there was a very specific content and format to follow. The writing was mine, but it had to be about a taxi cab, and it had to focus on the features of the cab, not the driver or the passengers or anything else. Luckily, I grew up in New York City, so taxi cabs are very familiar!

RT: Who are the authors that have inspired (or mentored) you? What are the areas of your writing where you still seek guidance?

Susanna: I can't say I've had any real writing mentors, but there are many who inspired me. Laura Ingalls Wilder, L.M. Montgomery, E.B. White, Dr. Seuss, Ludwig Bemelmans, Russell Hoban -- really the list could go on for a LONG time!

As far as areas of my writing where I still seek guidance, that would be pretty much everywhere! Writing takes practice. Like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get. But there is ALWAYS room for improvement! If you are interested in specifics, though, I would say that I really want to write a good novel, and I haven't figured out how to work successfully with a longer story arc in terms of pacing, so that would be a definite area.

RT: Before becoming a full-time mom and writer, you taught dyslexic students for many years. Do your memories of those experiences impact how you envision your audience when you write?

Susanna: To some degree, but only in that I am even more aware of how important it is for stories to grab readers. A child who is struggling to read is not going to put the time in on something that doesn't catch and keep his/her interest from the first sentence. But this should be true of all writing for all children any way, so it just serves as a reinforcement.

RT: Do you have suggestions on ways we as parents (or adults in general) can help struggling readers?

Susanna: Every reader who struggles has different issues, so I would hesitate to be too specific, but I think the most important thing is to make reading as fun and stress-free as possible. Anyone who has ever been told they have to practice the piano for half an hour or else there is no TV knows that nothing makes piano practice a chore faster.

The same goes exponentially for reading -- you can give up learning piano, but to get on in the world, you really must learn to read. Kids who are struggling feel that pressure all the time, every day. The anxiety of not being able to keep up at something so important, something most everyone else they know can do with ease, can be overwhelming.

Try not to make reading a chore. The most important thing is that they read whatever they can and/or will; any practice in reading is better than none. If it has to be comic books or graphic novels, books that, as a parent or teacher, you might think are too easy, subject matter (like vampires and werewolves) that might not be your first choice, sports magazines etc. Reading is reading, and the more practice every child gets, the better.

It is equally important to read to children, especially the ones that struggle. They can comprehend far better than they can decode, and everyone loves a good story. By reading to them, they still get the experience, the chance to exercise their imagination, the exposure to new vocabulary and ideas, all so important for language and comprehension development. If they struggle with comprehension as well, you are there to help untangle that with them.

RT: It really is counterintuitive to us to think of "anything" as reading, so thank you for the reminder. Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Susanna: Only that reading is magical, and every child deserves the chance to enjoy it. In this day of computers, video games, social media etc, where everything is so instantaneous and so aggressively catchy, it is harder and harder to get kids hooked on books.

Don't let them miss out on the wonders of reading. For the many kids who aren´┐½t fortunate enough to have books in their homes, and the ones who need extra help learning to read, do what you can to help. Support your local library. Donate used books. Every little bit helps.

RT: Thanks for stopping by, Susanna! If you'd like to read more of our interview with Susanna, then be sure to visit Family Bookshelf.

Website: http://susannahill.com/


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