AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Vivian Kirkfield
Vivian Kirkfield is a well-known name in the kidlit community, especially in the world of picture books in the United States. She is a true supporter of authors and illustrators, with her own blog and the #50Precious Words contest she runs annually. I’m delighted that Vivian stopped by my blog, just before she actually jets off from the U.S. to head to Australia!
Welcome, Vivian. Can you tell us a bit about your book, and the themes/issues it explores?
FOUR OTTERS TOBOGGAN: AN ANIMAL COUNTING BOOK (Pomegranate, 2019) invites readers and listeners to visit a pristine mountain river where endangered animals come and where the character of the water changes as quickly as a child’s moods.
From dawn to dusk, dragonflies dance, mud turtles stretch out their necks, and butterflies flit, flutter, and hover, sipping nectar from wild columbines. But amidst the simplicity of the counting and the beauty of the lyrical words, there is an important message for all—these creatures need our help and their habitats need our protection.
What was the inspiration behind writing this particular story? Did it change much as you were writing it?
My late husband was an avid fly fisherman and hiker—I often accompanied him when he explored the wild areas, especially when we moved to Colorado. We climbed to the top of Piles Peak (14,400 ft) and loved visiting Rocky Mountain National Park where a crease in the grass might be the only trail to follow. When I took a break from fishing or hiking, I’d sit still on a rock. And, if I sat still enough and long enough, the wild creatures would venture out. But those pristine places will disappear unless we all speak up and help.
Originally, it was not a counting book, but I won a critique from an agent a couple of years ago and she suggested adding another layer to the story – perhaps make it a counting book, she said. And so, I did.
How do you hope readers will connect with the book, and/or what do you want them to take away from it?
I hope very young children will connect with the playful and engaging characters that fabulous illustrator Mirka Hokkanen drew. They are all woodcuts, which was a ton of work for her, but lend such richness and depth to each spread. And the counting aspect can be enjoyed by the little ones as well. For older readers and adults, I hope the lyrical quality of the words will capture their hearts.
Because we added vibrant back matter that provides fun facts about each of the animals, plus a lovely section of conservation information, I hope the book will encourage parents, teachers and children to be mindful of the tenuous balance that exists in nature. I hope it will lead them to take steps to ensure that, going forward, we protect these species and maintain their habitats so they will not become extinct and lost to our world forever.
Do you have any suggestions on ways parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers and readers can get more out of the book? For example, questions to discuss or ponder, activities to complete etc.
At the back of the book there is a large section of information about each animal and the reasons animals become threatened or extinct. The back matter also contains a hide and seek game – illustrator Mirka hid six animals on various pages of the story and we invite children to find them. In addition, she has created an activity book which includes puzzles, word finds, coloring pages, and more. This will be available for free download on our websites.
As far as questions to discuss or ponder, here are a few:
· An animal’s habitat is his home, just like you live in a home. What would happen if someone turned off the water supply or put bad chemicals in the water? Or, what if they took the roof off your house and you had no protection from the rain and the snow? Why is it important to make sure animals have the habitat they need?
· If we don’t protect habitats and certain animals become extinct, will that affect you?
· How do good conservation efforts help maintain animal habitats and protect the environment?
There are so many projects young children can get involved in:
· reduce water consumption by turning the water off while you brush your teeth.
· Recycling bottles, cans, plastic bags.
· Picking up litter in parks and playgrounds.
· Turning off lights saves energy which creates a cleaner world for the animals and for us.
· Walking or biking instead of using a car for short distances.
Biggest challenges in writing this story, or in getting it published?
The biggest challenge in writing this story was finding the right words – strong verbs and lyrical phrases that would show action and create images in the mind of the reader. Here are a few examples:
Two dragonflies dance, ballerinas above a liquid stage.
Nine yellow mud turtles stretch out their necks, sunbathers soaking up the last rays before leaving their log.
Dusk falls, stealing the day, as the mountains swallow the sun.
It was also a challenge to find many different ways to describe the character of the water: waits, ripples, cascades, calms, roils, flows, glitters, darkens, glistens, splashes.
The biggest challenge in getting it published was that it was a ‘quiet’ book. What does that mean? That I needed to have the animals make noise? No, it meant that even though the book was written in a lovely manner, in the editor’s eyes, it lacked characteristics that would make it stand out in the commercial marketplace. And remember, editors/publishers are in business to make money. Which is why agents are so valuable because they help sift through the vast number of possibilities of where your manuscript should be sent. If a great manuscript goes to an editor who is not looking for that type of story, it is most probably not going to be bought. Several editors passed on OTTERS because they had just bought another picture book that featured water.
Are there any tidbits from the publishing process of this book that you could share with regards to working with the publisher and/or illustrator?
Just like every snowflake is different, every book deal unfolds in its own unique way. Each publishing house, each editor, each illustrator, and each author…and of course, each manuscript – the mix is different every time. As of now, I have worked with five different publishing houses and five different editors and five different illustrators on five different manuscripts. (actually, for my big compilation book, I wrote nine separate manuscripts…so I guess I can speak about thirteen different manuscripts 😊)
This particular publishing experience was golden from the first moment. My agent, the incredible Essie White, loved this manuscript and she envisioned it with the art of one of her illustrator clients. Essie has a great eye and sent it to Pomegranate where the editor agreed and bought my manuscript and hired Mirka Hokannen to illustrate. And, because Mirka and I are Storm Literary Agency teammates, we collaborated from day one. Thank goodness! Because, she discovered a mistake I had made, inadvertently naming a golden-cheeked warbler as animal number one. The problem was that all of the animals were supposed to be from the same ecosystem. Mirka reached out to me immediately after she began her research (YES! The illustrator is required to do research…even on a fiction book, but especially when there are facts involved). Here’s how our FB private message conversation went:
MIRKA: The golden-cheeked warbler doesn’t live in Colorado,
ME: Of course, it does. It lives in Colorado Bend State Park!
MIRKA: Please check the map.
So, I did. And I discovered that YES…the golden-cheeked warbler definitely lives in Colorado Bend State Park. HOWEVER, Colorado Bend State Park is NOT in Colorado. It is in…
…TEXAS. Oh my gosh! She helped me find another bird that was on the endangered or threatened list which is why you will find the Willow Flycatcher, and not the golden-cheeked warbler, singing to the dawn on the first page of our book.
From that day on, Mirka shared her sketches, illustrations, and finally, woodcuts with me. Our relationship blossomed and I’m happy to say that both of us would be thrilled to do another book together.
What influences do you think shape your work?
I’ve always loved stories about the underdog who perseveres and succeeds. So, I guess a lot of my stories have characters like that. FOUR OTTERS TOBOGGAN is about ten different endangered or threatened animals who are definitely the underdogs and, because of conservation efforts over the last few decades, some of them are returning in greater numbers.
PIPPA’S PASSOVER PLATE celebrates a little mouse who bravely confronts her natural enemies to recover her special Seder plate in time for the holiday. And in SWEET DREAMS, SARAH, a former slave builds not only an innovative piece of furniture, but a life far removed from slavery, when she becomes one of the first African American women to secure a U.S. patent. I want very much to inspire children to know that they can dream and that, just like Sarah, they can build their dreams into reality.
Can you let us in on any sneak peeks into your next books or other projects?
In addition to the above mentioned three picture books debuting this year, I’m so excited about the two that will launch in 2020. Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe (Little Bee Books, Spring 2020) caught the eye of an editor in 2015 when I first wrote it. She asked for an R&R (Revise and Resubmit) which I did. And she loved it but couldn’t convince her team to acquire it. This is something that happens very often which is why an editor has to absolutely love your manuscript with a passion because she has to fight for it to get the publisher to buy it. There is SO much competition out there! But please don’t let that discourage you. Every rejection is one step closer to a yes.
The next year, I went to a conference and sat next to an editor at dinner and pitched it and she asked to see it. My agent sent it and the same thing happened. She asked for an R&R…I revised and she loved it but couldn’t get her team to say yes. And this past year, Essie sent it to Little Bee Books and the editor there loved it and…you know it…asked for an R&R, but this time, within a week or so, I had an offer. And last month I saw a PDF of the first sketches by illustrator Alleanna Harris…and they are amazing!
The other book that is coming out in the fall of 2020 is a unique compilation book consisting of nine full-length fully-illustrated picture book stories about visionaries: From Here to There: Inventions that Changed the Way the World Moves (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), illustrated by the award-winning Gilbert Ford.
I am so excited about this book – I loved researching and writing each and every story…did you know the first bike was built because Mt. Tambora in Indonesia erupted and because of the great amount of ash that was released into the atmosphere, the climates changed and, in the summer of 1816, many countries had crop failures because it snowed during the growing season? Without oats, the horses died and a young man in Germany decided he needed a faster to get around other than walking. So, he built a bike! It had no pedals and no gears and not much of a brake, but you can’t stop a great idea, and over the years, other inventors improved upon his design. All nine stories are filled with action and the aha moment when the inventor came up with his or her trailblazing idea.
Do you have a favourite children's book (or top three) that you can never get enough of? What about a favourite book character?
As a young child, I loved fairy tales and folk tales, especially Baba Yaga. And when I was old enough for chapter books, I read all of Louisa May Alcott’s books like Little Women and Little Men, plus the entire Carolyn Keene Nancy Drew series and every Walter Farley Black Stallion book. To this day, I still enjoy picking up those books on occasion and reading them!
Favourite book character? Nancy Drew, I think. She was everything I thought I wasn’t – brave and adventuresome…but now I am on my own adventure and I often feel pretty brave!
What's something you wished you had known earlier in your career?
I wished I had known that taking classes in how to write a picture book would help me hone my craft. In the beginning, I thought that because I got A’s in English, I was a great writer. Yes. But no. Writing picture books is different from writing a college term paper. The classes I took in 2014 really gave me a step up on the ladder…and by the end of 2014, I was getting positive feedback from agents and by 2015, several were asking to see more of my work. And that’s when I signed with Essie.
Best investment you've made during your career?
I started writing picture books in 2012 – and right from the gate, I joined Julie Hedlund’s 12x12 Picture Book Writing Challenge which she had just started. It gave me the kid-lit community I needed – I found my first critique group there. And it provided a solid foundation, encouraging me to always be writing and revising and submitting.
When I was looking for an agent, I purchased the Gold membership which enabled me to submit to agents every month. For the last few years, since I have an agent already, I’ve chosen the Silver level which entitles me to attend the fabulous monthly webinars, participate in the private Facebook page and the resource-rich Forum. I consider all the 1000+ members part of my family and look to them for support and encouragement.
Where do you do your work, and do you have any particular rituals in your creative process?
At this point in my life, I have the house all to myself. But I usually work at the small round dining table in front of a big picture window which looks out on the backyard…3 acres of woods. I live in a small New England town and can walk to the old stone library which is about a mile away. I have several local critique groups, one that meets in the library, one that meets in my home, and one that meets at a home of one of the other writers – a 1750 farmhouse surrounded by huge vegetable and flower gardens – what an amazing place to be creative.
I get ideas from many sources…so I guess that is part of my creative process. I watch TV shows like American Pickers and Mysteries at the Museum and always find material that would make a great story. When I decide on a topic, I start researching by checking information on the internet and getting books out of the library. Once in a while, I’m lucky enough to connect with a relative or person who can give me first-hand details. That’s always fun!
Then I write the story. For me, writing the pitch/theme/what is the story really about sentence is of the utmost importance because it helps me focus on what direction I need to go. I create my opening line and that is my way (and the reader’s way) into the book.
When I’ve finished my first draft I read it aloud (SO IMPORTANT to read your stories aloud. And also have other people read your story – you will hear where they trip up and know what you need to fix). Then I revise. Read it again. Revise. When I think it is ready, I give it to a few of my critique buddies and then I pay attention to their feedback. And revise some more. This process continues for weeks, months…more or less…depending on the manuscript.
At some point, I read it aloud and if I feel engaged, if I feel connected to the main character, if I get a feeling of satisfaction when I get to the end, I know it is time to send it to my agent, who may, or may not, agree that it is ready. And if she has feedback and thinks something needs to be changed, it’s back to the drawing board.
What got you into creating books?
I’d always loved picture books and as a kindergarten teacher and as a parent, I had scribbled little stories to entertain the kids. But it wasn’t until I published my reading and activity guide for parents and teachers, Show Me How! Build Your Child’s Self-Esteem Through Reading, Crafting and Cooking (MoneyPenny Press, 2010), that I started blogging to spread the word about that book.
A fellow blogger suggested I check out author Susanna Leonard Hill because she had a blog series called Perfect Picture Book Friday where she reviewed her favorite picture books and provided activities. That was exactly what I was doing, so I went to her blog and discovered, amongst her followers, a whole world of people who were dreaming of becoming picture book authors. And I said to myself, that’s what I want to do with the rest of my life.
Any tips for other creatives?
You all probably hear this in every inspirational post you read. But it is totally the truth.
1. READ…lots of books in the genre you want to write.
2. WRITE…lots of stories…just keep on writing.
3. EMBRACE REVISION: Stephen King says that writing is rewriting. Try your story in different ways, from different perspectives, in different settings, with different POV’s. Listen to your critique buddies…if everyone says there is a problem with one thing or another, there probably is.
4. JOIN CRITIQUE GROUPS: Your writing buddies are your rock of support and encouragement…this is a business filled with rejection and disappointment…we need to lean on each other and lift each other up.
5. SUBMIT, SUBMIT, SUBMIT: I think many writers are afraid to put their work out there. If you have an agent, she/he probably handles this part of the process. But if you don’t, please get your work out there. Polish it, research the editors and/or agents, and send it.
Enter contests and writing challenges, you never know what will happen. I host the #50PreciousWords Contest every March 2-6 (SAVE THE DATE!) on my blog. The first year, the winner signed with her dream agent as a direct result of the contest opportunity and she now has FIVE books coming out over the next two years and the first one (actually 2 because the editor asked her to write a series) launches next month!
6. NEVER EVER GIVE UP: Rejection is not failure. The only failure is the failure to keep on going. Building a dream is a process that takes time, hard work and lots of patience…and a couple of pieces of chocolate won’t hurt. Make mine dark with nuts and salted caramel, please!
What about a favourite word or quote?
I guess as a writer, it’s not strange that I love words and have lots of favourite quotes.
My word for this year is: PROCEED as I launch three debut picture books and move forward on my writing journey, both figuratively and literally as I create more manuscript and travel around the world, seeing places I’ve only read about and hugging kid-lit friends I’ve never met.
My favourite quotes – all are actually my own quotes….although I have a ton of favourites that other people have said:
Magic happens when you make every word count. This is the tagline for the #50PreciousWords Contest I host every March 2-6. With low word count now a part of many agent and editor wish lists, picture book writers need to make every word pay its dues and get rid of any that are unnecessary.
Every day is a good day if we are reading a picture book. No explanation needed, right? 😊
Dreams are the foundation upon which we build our realities. I had a dream in 2012 of becoming a picture book author and I built that dream into a reality with passion, productivity, patience, and persistence…and you can, too!
If you’d like to find out more about Vivian’s #50PreciousWords contest, head to Vivian’s website. #50PreciousWords is an international writing contest that celebrates the birthday of Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss). The challenge: Create a story for children in 50 words or less. The date: March 2-6. The place: Check out Vivian's blog on March 2 - www.viviankirkfield.com. The tagline: Magic happens when you make every word count. The contest is a stellar opportunity to hone your craft, get your work out there, and connect with a supportive kidlit community.