Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Q&A with children's author Mary Quattlebaum

Mary Quattlebaum is the author of many books for children, including Jo MacDonald Hiked in the Woods, The Hungry Ghost of Rue Orleans, and Pirate vs. Pirate. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Your newest book, Jo MacDonald Hiked in the Woods, is part of a series based on "Old MacDonald." How did you come up with the idea to adapt and update the Old MacDonald story?

A: Thanks for asking, Deborah, and for inviting me to your blog. My dad is actually the model for the grandfather (Old MacDonald) in the three Jo MacDonald books. He taught his seven kids and numerous grandkids a lot about the natural world and stewardship of the land.

I'm not sure exactly when/where the idea came for the first book in the series, Jo MacDonald Saw a Pond, but I do remember thinking that adapting that familiar children's song would be a playful, kid-friendly way to introduce youngsters to the plants and wild critters at a pond.  

Often, kids these days know a lot about wild animals in exotic locales (sharks, lions) they see on TV but little about the animals and plants in their backyards and neighborhoods.  

The mission of the publisher, Dawn Publications, is to better connect kids with the natural world through books, and my brilliant editor, Glenn Hovemann, suggested that I do the back matter and online activities that help expand the learning experience of the text in playful ways.  

He also suggested that I write two additional books focused on other ecosystems (gardens, forests), and that's how Jo MacDonald Had a Garden and Jo MacDonald Hiked in the Woods came into being. In writing the three books, I tried for a different drama and surprise for each, to give the old song additional fresh twists.

I was very fortunate that the amazingly talented Laura J. Bryant was the illustrator. She did a wonderful job of bringing those ecosystems to vivid, child-friendly life, and she also suggested that I turn this last book into more of a bedtime book at the end.  

All three settings (pond, garden, forest) were beloved places from my country childhood so I loved revisiting them and asking my dad questions.

Q: The Hungry Ghost of Rue Orleans takes place in a New Orleans house turned restaurant. Why did you decide on a book set in New Orleans, and have readers enjoyed the food theme in the book?

A: The manuscript had been kicking around for a few years, with ghost protagonist Fred in a much more generic restaurant. My editor--this time the brilliant Jennifer Arena of Random House--suggested I set the tale in New Orleans.  

What a great idea, I remember thinking. I could then revise for a stronger sense of type of restaurant, food, atmosphere, jazzy language--everything that might better reflect New Orleans (a city I love).  

Incidentally, a bookstore in New Orleans that hosted a signing for The Hungry Ghost of Rue Orleans is inhabited by a ghost known for the whiff of apple pie that accompanies her.  

And you asked about young readers' response to the food theme ... on school visits, especially, kids seem very curious about the ghost puffs, which are modeled on New Orleans' famous beignets. (There's a link on my website to a simple recipe for making them.)

Q: You've written for various age groups. Do you have a preference?

A: I really enjoy writing picture books but love the energy of poetry and novels as well. With the picture-book form, I welcome the chance to be part of a four-person team, with author, illustrator, editor, and art director all bringing different insights to the table and all desirous of creating the best picture book possible.  

I learn so much through this process that I can then take back to the writing of other projects.

Q: What is your working relationship with the artists who illustrate your books?

A: Usually the editor acts as conduit, sharing ideas/insights/sketches from illustrator with author and vice versa. I have very little direct contact with my illustrators during the book-making process, and my hope is always to provide them with a manuscript engaging enough to let them work their magic.  

Being a crayon-challenged person, at the stick-figure level, I'm always in awe of what illustrators can do. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm doing research for a book on rivers and thinking about a middle-grade novel.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm from a large family (the oldest of seven kids) and grew up with lots of animals. Places and incidents from childhood often spark ideas for books.  

My husband (an arrr-some guy!) really likes pirates and inspired my picture book Pirate vs. Pirate.

And I love being around creative people so I feel lucky to also teach creative writing at a college and visit schools to talk with kids about their writing and interests.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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