Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Q&A with children's author Madelyn Rosenberg

Madelyn Rosenberg is the author of Canary in the Coal Mine, The Schmutzy Family, and Happy Birthday, Tree! A former newspaper reporter, she worked for The Roanoke Times. She is based in Northern Virginia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your most recent book, Canary in the Coal Mine?

A: I was at a concert in Charleston, W.Va. (many) years ago when I saw a cage on display in the lobby. It was about the size of a CD case cubed, and it was one that coal miners had used to bring canaries underground with them.

I imagined how it would feel to be schlepped around in something that small and figured that whatever was in there would want to bust the heck out as soon as possible. The rest of the story came to me in a flash. It took a long time before I could get it right, though.

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

A: This is going to sound like a copout, but my preference is to shift among the different age groups. I love picture books because they are puzzles and I want to solve them. With middle-grades, I liked the challenge of sustaining a voice over many pages. And I just finished a young adult novel with my friend Mary Crockett, which was a blast, and freeing in a lot of ways.

That said, when I speak to kids, I prefer ages 9 to 11. And fifth grade is my favorite, maybe because I was in fifth grade when I figured out that I wanted to write.

Q: How are the illustrators selected for your books?

A: It's all about the publisher, and I'm afraid to say how lucky I've been out loud for fear that I'll totally jinx myself. People unfamiliar with the picture books think the author has something to do with it. And maybe an author with a little bit of pull actually does. But for the most part, the editors and designers play matchmakers between the authors and illustrators.

With Canary in the Coal Mine, I know my editor, Mary Cash, was looking specifically for an illustrator who could do cute but not precious and who was very good with light. She found that in Chris Sheban and I couldn't agree with her choice more.

I haven't met any of the illustrators for my books (OUR books, once they've entered the mix) and I've only talked to one of them by phone. But so far, each has been perfect for the manuscript in question. And each has brought things to the manuscript
that I couldn't have managed in only words.

Q: You've also worked as a journalist. What similarities
and differences do you see between journalism and writing
children's books? 

A: In both fields you spend a lot of time trying to choose the perfect words and details to tell a story, it's just in journalism the people are real and in fiction, they're made up. But there are characters in both places.

Another similarity is that both fields have copyeditors. Yay, copyeditors! They saved me in the journalism world and they've done the same thing in book world.

And in both fields, what you write is important to somebody, even if for one person it's a hardback book and for another it's a yellowed newspaper clipping.

One big difference: the immediacy. When I was in newspapers, I would write, do the edits, let it go, and see my story in the paper the next day. Now I'll stew over edits and revisions for months or even years before my stories appear in print. Fortunately I'm still doing a little magazine work, so there's some (almost) immediate gratification.

Another difference: in books, mistakes are harder to fix, so I worry
about making them even more.

I like to pay tribute to journalism where I can, so you'll see references to newspapers in most of my books, especially Canary in the Coal Mine. And when I talk to classes about historical fiction, I tell them a great way to get a good snapshot of another time is to go to the library and find the newspaper for that period.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I'm working on two middle grade novels, one by myself and one with a writing partner.

I'm also working on the nerve to do actual publicity for the books I have coming out in 2014, which cover three different age groups: Dream Boy (Sourcebooks, with Mary Crockett) is YA, How to Behave at a Tea Party (Katherine Tegen Books and illustrated by the amazing Heather Ross) is a picture book, and Nanny X (Holiday House) is a middle-grade.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: You should know that I always ask that same question whenever I'm interviewing someone for a newspaper or magazine, which means it should be easier to answer than I'm finding it.

You should know that I adore talking animal books, even though the usual reaction to them in publishing these days seems to be: YIKES.

You should know that I have a hard time avoiding the distractions that are social media, so I'm writing my next book by hand.

And you should know that I really appreciate your taking the time to talk to me! Thank you so much, Deborah, and Happy New Year!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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