Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Q&A with author Patricia Newman

Children's Literature reviewer and Booking Service author, Jeanne K. Pettenati (Galileo's Journal, 1609-1610), interviewed Patricia Newman, fellow Booking Service participant and author of two books for children: Nugget on the Flight Deck and Jingle the Brass.

Jeanne Pettenati: What were some of your favorite books as a child? Who were some of your favorite authors?
Patricia Newman: I liked books with strong female characters when I was a kid. Of course I couldn't articulate that at the time, but looking back on my "favorites" list, I can see it was true. Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink; Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh; the Nancy Drew series; the Trixie Belden series; and the Bobbsey Twins series. I also loved Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry (and all the follow-ups) and the Pippi Longstocking books by Astrid Lindgren.

JP: What is a typical day like for you? Do you write every day?
PN: I do not write every day, but when I write, I write in the morning. Writing words on a blank computer screen is the hardest part of writing for me, so I create early in the morning when I'm at my best. My goals for the day depend on the project. Sometimes my goal is to write a certain number of pages. Sometimes I work on getting the character's voice just right. Right now, I'm working on writing a proposal for a new book idea I have, so I need to complete a fair amount of research to understand how to shape this book into something children want to read. (The research phase is dangerous for me—it's easy to put off facing that blank computer screen by reading one more chapter in one more book!) Then I have to write a couple of sample chapters and a marketing proposal for my agent to send to potential editors.

As the day wears on, writing becomes more difficult for me. I leave email and promotion to the afternoon. Some days I post an entry to my blog and work on my next book-related trip (in July I will be in San Diego, CA at the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum and in October, I will be in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museums). I am also the co-Regional Advisor for the California North/Central chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI—see http://www.scbwi.org/), so event-planning and member-issues are usually handled in the afternoon.

JP: What are your hobbies?
PN: I play tennis and I love to read! I am also an active SCBWI volunteer (see above) and an active volunteer in a local high school band program. I am on a committee (called ecARTS) to build a performing arts center and art gallery on the campus of my children's former high school. (See http://www.performatec.blogspot.com/).

I also love to garden. Pulling weeds is therapeutic and a great way to solve story problems. Once I let my mind relax a bit and give the story I'm working on a rest, problems that seem insurmountable fall into place. (The shower is a great place for problem-solving, too!)

JP: When did you start writing books/stories for children?
PN: I began writing when my children were very small (they're in college now—my daughter is a senior and my son is a freshman). We visited the library every few days and checked out a pile of books. As I read to them, I recalled how important books were to me as a child and I knew writing books for children was something I wanted attempt.

JP: I love the way you handled the vocabulary in Nugget. There was a lot to learn, but it was done in a very kid friendly way. Did you plan this format at the outset? Or did the approach evolve as you were writing the book?
PN: Thank you for the nice compliment. One thing I've learned about writing for children is that even though the finished product looks easy, it's not! The approach definitely evolved. The format for Nugget on the Flight Deck is similar to that of Jingle the Brass, so for Nugget I (mostly) knew what I was doing. But for Jingle the Brass, I muddled along first with an idea for an ABC book. After several failed attempts, a kind editor wrote an extremely helpful rejection letter suggesting a "voice" for my story. I knew exactly what she meant because I'd interviewed a retired Southern Pacific railroad engineer as part of my research process and I wanted my engineer character to sound like him! The voice made all the difference and the story flowed out of me in one sitting and eventually sold.

I began work on Nugget on the Flight Deck when Jingle the Brass was in production, but had to put it away for awhile. The first editor who read Nugget rejected it because President Bush had just declared war on Iraq, and he thought the book's military theme would not go over well. I put it in my drawer for a year or so. My new agent at the time read it and decided to submit it. It sold relatively quickly.

JP: In writing Nugget, you opened a new world for children—I think readers really get a sense of life on an aircraft carrier and the myriad jobs/workers necessary to support the pilot and his/her mission. What kind of feedback from children have you gotten about the book?
PN: Children love the sound of the lingo and I often see them testing the phrases under their breath. They always laugh at the landing light called the meatball. And they marvel over how fast an aircraft catapults off the carrier. (They LOVE the Navy video I show them during school visits of a real jet catapulting off the carrier.) Part of my intent during school visits is to help children find something they love to learn about so they'll love reading. During school visits I ask students to come "onstage" with me. They learn how to shoot an aircraft down the cat stroke. They play the part of various flight deck personnel. They demonstrate how a pilot uses the number on a clock to refer to position, i.e. "Check your six" means to watch behind you. The aviator's alphabet is also a real favorite—I usually ask kids to spell their names with it.

I also talk to students about how I conducted the research for my books and are surprised when they learn that research doesn't necessarily mean sitting in a library reading a dusty book. They're thrilled when I tell them how I met the pilots I interviewed!

When I talk about Jingle the Brass in an assembly, I have different activities and volunteer opportunities dealing with trains that students get very excited about.

JP: Did you have any input on the illustrations for your books?
PN: The editors for Jingle the Brass and Nugget on the Flight Deck asked me who I would like to illustrate the books—more for style than any real suggestion, I think. I was also lucky enough to see very early sketches and both editors asked for comments. Rather than comment on the artists' styles (which I love for both books), I only commented on factual inaccuracies.

JP: How long did it take Nugget to become a book, from manuscript to publication? How about Jingle the Brass?
PN: They each took about 5 years from manuscript to finished book.

JP: What was the inspiration for Jingle the Brass? Did you have this title at the outset or did it evolve as you were writing the book?
PN: I live in Sacramento, home to the California Railroad Museum. When out-of-town guests visit, we usually make a trip to the museum. During one such trip an exhibit gave me an idea for a novel. Early in my research process I requested an interview with one of the museum docents, who happened to be a retired Southern Pacific engineer. While we walked around the now-defunct railroad yard, my guide used colorful terms like "mudhop" and "ashcat" and "bending the iron." I knew then that I was researching the wrong book, and began Jingle the Brass.

JP: What was your inspiration for the story about two brothers, one who dies from a brain tumor? My family knows several children who have suffered from brain tumors. Sadly, this cancer afflicts too many children. Was this a difficult story to write? How did you research the story?
PN: "My Brother, Josh" (published in Spider) was a difficult story to write because the inspiration came from a young friend of ours afflicted with a tumor wrapped around his brain stem. My children often played with this boy, and when we found out he was ill, I needed to figure out a way to explain his illness to my children; at the time, his prognosis was dim. I started writing. Much of the research came from my friend's experience, but I also spoke with bereavement counselors who worked with children. I am happy to report, though, that my young friend survived and is now in college.

JP: One of the things I really like to do is visit schools with an interactive presentation about Galileo based on my book. Connecting with children and seeing them get excited about Galileo's discoveries is very rewarding for me. What can students/teachers expect with your school visits? Have you had any memorable moments with your students/readers that you would like to share?
PN: My school visits are lively, interactive and use a variety of media—visual references, movies, sound recordings, hand-held visuals, etc. In each meeting with children I try to inspire them to read and write with a variety of anecdotes, examples and writing activities. For instance, I taped all of my rejection letters (there are 16 of them!) for Jingle the Brass end to end and unfurl them in a dramatic flourish during my assembly. I get a lot of "wows" and "awesomes" when I do this! I tell the students I never stopped believing in myself or my story. At one school a teacher tracked me down at lunch to tell me that after my assembly a boy in her class struggled with a writing assignment. The girl sitting next to him patted him on the shoulder and said, "Don't worry. You have 16 tries!" The best school visits allow me to connect with every student in the school on some level—whether it's asking them to volunteer for me, or shaking their hand after the show, or working with them in a writers' workshop.

JP: What projects are you working on now?
PN: I usually feel assaulted by ideas and sometimes have difficulty picking one or two to work on. Currently, I'm working on a nonfiction proposal for a book about zoo animals. I'm also working on a picture book about a unique bond with a dog. In my critique group this week, I discovered a new idea for a novel. The zoo animals book comes first, then we'll see about the rest...

JP: What are some topics you would like to write about in the future?
PN: Terrorism. Friendship. An alternate society. Who knows what form they'll each take or in which order I'll write about them!

JP: How can readers contact you? Find out more about school visits, etc.?
PN: Readers may email me at newmanbooks@live.com. They can also keep up with my appearances on my blog at http://patricianewmanbooks.blogspot.com/. My website contains information school visit programs and testimonials from students and teachers. Please visit http://www.patriciamnewman.com/.

For information visit http://www.childrenslit.com/childrenslit/mai_newman_patricia_qa.html

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