Saturday, April 8, 2017

Q&A with Rebecca Van Slyke

Rebecca Van Slyke is the author of the new children's picture book Lexie the Word Wrangler. She also has written the picture books Where Do Pants Go?, Mom School, and Dad School. She teaches second grade, and she lives in Lynden, Washington.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Lexie the Word Wrangler?

A: I love playing with words, and I’ve always wanted to be a cowgirl. Putting the two together just seemed natural! I was on a road trip over the mountains when the phrase “word wrangler” popped into my head. (I seem to get ideas while driving.)

I started to think about how a wrangler would raise and take care of words instead of cattle and horses. Her name, Lexi, came easily: it’s Greek for word!

Q: What do you think it says about words and the way some words are related—often in funny ways!—to others?

A: We speak a weird language. Why don’t cough, though, bough and through all rhyme? Why do laugh, giraffe, and calf rhyme? Why aren’t valuable and invaluable opposites? I feel sorry for everyone who learns English.

As a second grade teacher, I watch my students wrestle with words like these as they learn to read. All I can tell them is, “Keep practicing! I know it’s weird, but you’ll get it.”

Q: How did you first get interested in writing picture books?

A: I clearly remember being four years old and finding out that real people wrote the books that I loved. I also remembered wanting to make that magic, too.

When I was in college, a literacy professor gave us the choice to either take the final test or to write and illustrate a picture book. That was a no-brainer to me!

He liked the book so well he encouraged me to submit it to his publisher. Turns out they only published academic books (who knew?!), but it reminded me of my desire to write books for children.

Q: What do you think Jessie Hartland’s illustrations added to the book?

A: Aren’t her illustrations charming? That’s one of the things I love most about this process. I have pictures in my mind as I write, and then the publishers choose an illustrator who brings their own ideas to the story, and that just adds another layer to the book.

I love the poodles she paints. She even dedicated the book to her standard poodle, Django!

And here’s how dedicated she is: as a New Yorker, she had never spent much time in the country. So she stayed for a week at a ranch to bring more authenticity to her illustrations. (Except I’m not sure they delivered hay to their cows on a scooter!)

Here’s a fun thing that even Jessie doesn’t know: many people have commented on how much Lexie reminds them of my daughter, Morgan, when she was younger. She has freckles, and she used to wear her waist-long hair in two braids like Lexie.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: LOTS! I always have a few manuscripts I’m tinkering with. I have stories about alligators, pirates, dogs, and a not-so-contented sheep. I have two poetry projects I’m revising, and a middle-grade novel, too.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My husband and I just got a miniature dachshund puppy. She’s very busy trying to be a big dog like our other dachshund, so I’m guessing there will be a story idea or two from her. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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