Sunday, September 10, 2017

Q&A with Andy C. Szul, Victoria A. Szul, and Rigina Pietrowski

Andy C. Szul is the author, with his young daughter, Victoria, of the children's book Magical Lake: A Buddy & Swifty Chipmunk Champs Series Adventure, illustrated by Rigina Pietrowski. It's the second in a series.
Q: How did you and your daughter come up with the idea for your Buddy and Swifty books, and how do you work together to write them?

Andy: It was the summer of 2013 and we were visiting family in the Pocono Mountains. When our then two-year-old daughter, Victoria, and I observed a couple of absolutely adorable chipmunks scurry from under a bungalow porch toward a bird feeder dangling 10 feet above the ground, our immediate thought was – let’s share their story. At first, we weren’t sure how to best make that happen.  

The chipmunks were energetic and worked as a team to find any bits of food. The entire family was entertained for days by the chipmunks. Not only were they obvious hard workers, they were also friendly, standing on their hind legs looking back at us.

By the following summer, after a good deal of research and many hours of collaboration, we published our first children’s book about those two chipmunks, naming them Buddy and Swifty. (Buddy was the name of a neighbor where I lived growing up and Swifty, well, he was just fast – and the name Swifty seemed perfect.)

For the first book, I collaborated with Victoria on both the writing and illustrations. From start to finish, it took us nearly six months to storyboard and then draft, edit, revise the text and also sketch the scenes. Victoria provided a great deal of creative input leading up to and throughout those six months, and also helped with the book’s art.

Illustrating the first book was especially challenging. Victoria and I agreed that if we were going to do a second and third book in the Buddy and Swifty series, we’d find someone to work with on the illustrations. Fortunately, just that happened when we partnered with Rigina Pietrowski, an incredibly talented senior graphic designer, for the second Buddy and Swifty book, Magical Lake.

Victoria: I like words, pictures and when my mom and/or dad read a book to me. As I get older I’m able to better understand letters and words on a page and sometimes also read when my parents are reading with me. I enjoy writing on my notepad and on my chalkboard. Being a part of publishing children’s books is fun and I enjoy the project with my mom and dad.

Q: What do you hope your readers take away from the stories?

Andy: Like any parent, we want our kids to learn about those key traits that will help them be successful: compassion, learning to trust, embracing what makes us all different and, probably most importantly, to enjoy life.

In fact, we’re especially proud of this latest Buddy and Swifty children’s book because of how the characters evolved from storyboard to multiple drafts and to final copy. In Magical Lake, Swifty travels far from his home and encounters fun challenges. With help from several new friends, he discovers self-confidence and [spoiler alert] a world unlike anything he has experienced.

By introducing several new characters in Magical Lake, we’ve been able to build out the Buddy and Swifty storyline to make it even more interesting for kids to enjoy. And that aligns nicely with the over-arching theme of learning to trust others and appreciating life’s adventures.

Victoria: I’ve really enjoyed thinking about who would be friends with Buddy and Swifty. For me, Annie is important because she’s strong, thoughtful and kind. I also like the seahorse, named Zora, which is something I thought about and suggested to include in this latest story. Most of my friends like Annie when I talk with them after their parents read them the Magical Lake story. And Zora is just so much fun, especially when she leads [spoiler alert] Swifty and Annie on the underwater adventure.

Q: What do you think the illustrations add to the story?

Andy: The artwork is especially important in any children’s book because that’s primarily what younger kids will look at when the text is being read to them. When illustrations help tell a story, it makes the experience all the more satisfying for readers.

Picture books also increase a child’s level of understanding about what’s occurring in the story. Over the years, research has focused on how children can build “visual literacy” by “reading” illustrations. Because so much in today’s world is visual – whether it’s photo or video – children are far better prepared for the future when books and art are an active part of their early years.

Frankly, when we talk about this book, Magical Lake would not have been possible without Rigina Pietrowski. Not only was Rigina able to get the illustrations just right for each piece of the story, but collaborating with her on the book was lots of fun for both Victoria and me. 

It’s one thing to write about characters and describe each scene using words, and quite another to successfully and deliberatively conceptualize and illustrate in such a way that appeals to the largest audience possible. We’ve received many compliments about the book’s illustrations from parents and children – and that’s incredibly gratifying.

Rigina: I think the illustrations help the readers imagine the journey by Swifty and Annie, most especially the underwater scenes. The art helps visually explain the text for young readers.

Each of the illustrations in Magical Lake is geared toward children in the 3 to 8 age range. The bright and colorful drawings help keep the child interested and engaged in what the characters are doing from one page to another.

Q: What are some of your own favorite children's books?

Andy: The Dr. Seuss books are probably at top of our list, including I Can Read with My Eyes Shut!, Hop On Pop, and Snow. The classics like Charlotte’s Web and What Do People Do All Day are timeless and are favorites.

There are several other children’s books that we enjoy reading with our girls. Sam McBratney’s I Love It When You Smile is beautifully illustrated and tells such an uplifting story about why life is too short to be grumpy.

A couple others we’ve picked up along the way the past few years include Melissa Bixby’s Loose Tooth Trouble, Sue Hendra’s Supertato, the always entertaining The Princess and the Pony by the talented Kate Beaton and Joe Yang’s Ninja Seals. We consider each book a must have in any child’s library.

I’m also in awe of the work by Priscilla Burris, an amazing illustrator and someone we always enjoy following on social media using our Buddy and Swifty Twitter account. (Just check out Buddy and Swifty’s Twitter lists for additional recommendations.)

Since the beginning of this adventure, Victoria and I have been in contact with a number of authors and illustrators and everyone has been incredibly supportive, providing expert guidance and unbelievably helpful. And we’ve so much appreciated every interaction.

Victoria: I really enjoy the Angelina Ballerina books about a cute mouse who is a really good ballet dancer. I like how she dances and how she’s drawn in the book.

Others favorites are Maggi and Milo: Make New Friends [by Juli Brenning], Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa [by Erica Silverman] and Fancy Nancy [by Jane O’Connor].

Q: What are you working on now?

We took some time between the first two books and are doing the same since Magical Lake published earlier this summer. At some point we may begin moving toward a third book and find an entertaining way to feature the latest character, Annie, in a prominent way. 

We’ve heard from family, friends and fans about how much their kids have enjoyed the Annie and Zora characters, so we would really like to include them in subsequent installments of the Buddy and Swifty children’s book series.

Q: Anything else we should know?

Rigina: My children helped with each of the book’s illustrations by offering their feedback and also approving each page. What was especially fun for me working on this project was when my kids would let me know when and if the page was done and/or made sense. Their involvement was important to me and I’m grateful for their support.

Victoria: I liked helping make this children’s book for kids to enjoy with their moms and dads and grandparents.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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