What Lights your Creative Spark?
Dear Dreamwalkers, the posts weren’t reaching our subscribers. You may have noticed a Test Post we sent as my brave website manager worked through these wonky issues. Now I’m happy resend this month’s post in faith that it will reach you all. Huzzah!
Welcome to Creative Conversations. Lean in close and eavesdrop on our latest chat about the creative process. Add your comments, too. We’d love to hear from you. One of my favorite children’s authors, Rosanne Parry is here to Dreamwalk with us. Let’s walk and talk together.
Janet: Hey, Rosanne. It’s great to have you back with us.
Rosanne: Hi Janet, so happy to be here!
Janet: Congratulations on your newest picture book, BIG TRUCK DAY.
9/2022 Harper Collins Publisher
Can you let us in on your creative process as this story formed?
Rosanne: I’ve written picture books for years, but they are tricky to get just right. And to be chosen as the text for a debut illustrator is double the honor. Niki Stage added so much to the text with her cheerful and vibrant art. I foresee a busy future for her!
My creative process is not speedy. I read lots of picture books for my job at Annie Blooms Bookstore. Over the years, I’ve seen so many excellent picture books. I’ve also seen the type of books customers love. I was chatting with some fellow booksellers about our Things That Go section and reminiscing about how much my son loved Big Truck Day at the library when he was little. Laura DeLaney of Rediscovered Books in Boise said, “So are you writing a picture book about that?” And that got the ball rolling. Just remembering the unbridled joy of a truck-loving kid who could finally climb on all the trucks and construction vehicles he had adored from afar, that was the spark. But like most of my other picture book ideas, I got a mediocre first draft and then set it aside for other deadlines.
Janet: Ah, that lovely first spark that we feel in the beginning when we sense a living story in us! Thanks for sharing that and how it connected to your son when he was an excited kid on Big Truck Day. I felt that excitement when I read it and saw it in Niki Stage’s vibrant illustrations. Let’s talk about what happened after you set aside that first draft? What happened when you picked it up again? (Rosanne doing experiential research for the book.)
Rosanne: Well, by now, it was mid-2020, and I was missing my regular critique group gatherings. My daughter Colette was living in Boston and very much missing her musical community, as gathering to sing was off the menu. So we decided to have a songwriting and picture book zoom every week. She’s a published poet and writes songs too. I’ve always thought that picture books are more like poetry or a song than they are like a novel. She brought her compositions, and I brought picture book texts, and we talked about them. It was divine! She went on to complete a few songs and write an entirely new lullaby, and she helped me unpack what wasn’t working about Big Truck Day.
Janet: I love this creative cross-pollination. How did she help unpack the picture book?
Rosanne: It was initially all about getting to the event and not really about what happened when they got there. Here’s where a picture book is not like life. Just going to the Big Truck Day is plenty for a kid! But on the page it was flat and needed something more. And this happened when the book bannings of the moment were just gathering steam. So access to books–particularly for underprivileged communities–was in the forefront of my mind. Enter the bookmobile!
Janet: Yes! As I reread Big Truck Day, I saw how central books are. They’re pictured on nearly every page. I also saw the children’s excitement as they set out on their bikes to meet the big trucks. One of my favorite sections as an adult reader was “The Story Behind the Bookmobile” at the end of the book. I learned a lot of history from the test and photos.
Rosanne: Well, I have my family to thank for the lovely back matter too. When Virginia Duncan, my editor, and Sylvie Le Floc’h, the art director, laid out the book, they had an extra page and asked if I had an idea for it. I had zero ideas. But I also had a niece who is a bilingual storytime librarian. So I shared the text with Lindsay and asked if there was something she thought would make the book work well as a read aloud. Her immediate thought was that a 3-4-5 year old would say, “What’s a bookmobile?” So I dug into that and found lots of lovely historical photographs of bookmobiles. My one sadness is that we could not find an image credit for the picture of the Elephant Library in Laos, where books are sometimes delivered to rural schools by elephant! Virginia herself provided the picture of the book bicycle in her hometown instead.
Janet: Brilliant! A book bicycle. I’d have loved to have seen the elephant book delivery too.
Rosanne: Apparently, the program was developed to overcome some resistance to learning a written language in communities where their language is only oral. Elephants are held in such high regard in Laotian culture that their presence lent credibility to the whole reading enterprise.
Janet: Love that story. And the Donkey Library Bookmobile photo below.
As we talk about how Big Truck Day came together, I notice your openness to suggestions, first in your interaction with your daughter, then later asking your niece what she thought about the extra page–which turned out to be a gift. You held onto the work but lightly, remaining open to something new.
Rosanne: I think a consistent error when I was a beginning writer was to take every critique as gospel and lose the thread of my own intention in revision. I was fortunate with my first editor to have a person keenly attuned to my intentions for my novels. He’d phrase things with the innate reminder that my goal, my spark, was what we were trying to kindle in the work. I try to strike a balance, attending to my starting point for a book, that part which I know will connect with a certain reader/listener. But then, not holding so tightly to that spark that I smother the actual story.
Janet: This helps me with the novel I’m revising now. I hope it helps other Dreamwalkers too. I have to be open to something new as I take in critique and revise, yet not lose sight of the book’s path. Do you take time to center again and find that spark before making changes?
Rosanne: Well, isn’t that the heart of revision? How do you keep to the beating heart of the thing. I’m revising a novel at the moment, too. I completely chucked out two chapters of some of my best writing in the whole book. Because I’d strayed from my purpose.
I remember at the Irish National Library seeing a working draft of the poem Among School Children by one of my favorite poets, WB Yeats. He’d crossed out 2 or 3 stanzas that were really good. I had to read the whole poem again several times in the edited form to see how those extra –but highly accomplished–stanzas weren’t serving his poem. So who am I to complain about cutting good writing when the very best writers apparently do it all the time? The tricky part is knowing where you’ve gone astray–where a good editor or insightful young reader can be worth gold!
And to be honest, sometimes I need to take a second look at my initial spark and ask myself if it’s strong enough to carry a book. If it needs to bend in a new direction. Pride is not my best servant in evaluating my own work. I keep a few watchwords above my desk as I’m working, and Humility is the first of them.
Janet: Humility is a great watchword for the creative process.
Thanks so much for sharing the Story Spark with us, Roseanne. May you continue to tend your creative life with the care and honesty you’ve shared with us today. It’s good to know we’re not alone in our struggles. And it’s a joy to celebrate a new story. I enjoyed our Dreamwalk.
Rosanne: Always a pleasure to Dreamwalk with you and dive into the details of the creative process. Thank you!
And thank you, Dreamwalkers, for walking with us.
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