Sunday, September 23, 2018

Out on the field: An interview with author Baptiste Paul


By now all regions of Germany and Austria have started school. Our regional groups that took summer break are in full swing again, and our blog is back in action. We'll be posting about all things writing related. We'll continue to showcase our regional members but will also visit with other writers and illustrators from other SCBWI chapters who we can learn from. 

Today, I have the pleasure of introducing you to Baptiste Paul. His picture book debut, The Field, released in March of this year (as well as the German edition, Das Spiel). His second book, a non-fiction picture book co-written with his wife Miranda, Adventures to School: Journeys from Around the World, published in May. A third book, I am Farmer: Growing an Environmental Movement in Cameroon will be out next year. And that's just the beginning for this wonderful writer.

Welcome, Baptiste. Thanks for taking time to share a bit about yourself and your book. My first question is: What inspired you to write this story?
The inspiration for THE FIELD came from my life experiences as a child. The idea to write it as a children’s book, however, came on a day that I was playing outside in the rain with my kids. Moments I spent playing in the rain (and mud) brought back happy memories. Imaginative play and sports were my escape from reality—the poverty and hardships I endured every day. It’s tough to talk about the struggles, though, because people start feeling sorry for you. To be honest, most of my childhood memories were quite fun.

Wow, that is the perfect example of “Write what you know.” We are often told to dig into our memories and experiences to find story ideas. THE FIELD is the perfect example of how to do so.  
Though the story follows a girl and her brother, to me the main character is the girl. She shows up on every page. Yet, her name is never mentioned. Was that intentional?
I can’t take credit for that, however, when I played as a child both girls and boys were out in the rain and the mud splashing.  The main character can be any kid, really. Everyone deserves equal representation, and especially in books and media. Girls play outside in the rain and mud just like boys. By making the main character a girl it sets the tone that we are all equal and that girls can do anything. Boys need to know and respect that just as much as girls.
Excellent point. When I compare the literature of my childhood to those being published today one thing that has improved is diversity in books. More youngsters are seeing themselves represented. That's great.
Now, let’s talk word count. Your text is really tight. With only 151 words you wrote a meaningful tale with simple yet poetic prose, and there’s this perfect play between the text and pictures. How hard was it to pare it down to such a minimal text while still retaining the story and its meaning? Were you able to make more cuts after the illustrations were complete?
The story was written over four years. I made quite a few edits over that period. I even shelved the story for a few months.  I liked the story but I couldn’t feel it or was not in love with it at that moment. I could not see the world clearly on the pages. After a few months, I realized the missing piece was the use of Creole words. Introducing the Creole words allowed me to eliminate a lot of the English words.
The illustrator Jackie Alcantara captured the world I envisioned perfectly. There were no cuts made after the illustrations were complete. I just cried after I saw my world through her eyes.
Yes!!! I absolutely love Jackie Alcantara’s illustrations. They are so colorful and lively. Not only do they show the movement of the game well but they somehow capture the mood and emotion of the tale as well. A perfect combination of pictures and text working together. 

Just look at cover. It drew me in right away.

Let’s take a closer look at your words. As a mother raising a bilingual daughter, I noticed something else wonderful while reading The Field. Within the short text you also managed to scatter Creole words though the story. You include a glossary and pronunciation guide in the back matter. Children can learn words like futbol (soccer), bol (ball) and goal (goal). My favorite part is when the girl offers her hand to an opposing player after he falls down in the mud. She asks, “Ou byen? (You okay?) That captures the spirit of a sportsmanship while introducing new language. Had you interspersed Creole through the story from the first draft or did that slowly evolve into the text.
The first draft was written entirely in English. The story went through many revisions. Although the story made sense in English something was missing — and that something was the use of my language — Creole. Creole (Patois) is a beautiful language, and it’s mostly spoken rather than written. When I read and when I write I process everything in Creole first. When we played, we yelled out in Creole, or a mix of both. Being authentic to the story meant I had to use Creole words.

Most picture books cover more than the story. There is usually an underlying theme. I think The Field has more than one. It’s not just about a friendly pick-up game of soccer. There is so much more. What do you hope readers can take away from this story?

My hope for this book is to ignite an enthusiasm for reading or writing, and a curiosity for connecting with kids from other cultures. I want every child to take my story and make it their own. Make time for play. Start conversations! Create memories!

I think they definitely will, Baptiste. 

And one lucky SCBWI member can also do so. We are giving away a copy of THE FIELD. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post by October 20th*.  Tell us something related to this interview and let us know if you'd prefer the book in German or English. *Contest is international. Personal data won't be shared and all data will be deleted once the winner has claimed the prize.)
 Also, check out this book trailer of The Field from NorthSouth Books.

Baptiste Paul is a Caribbean-born author of two books for children. His debut picture book, The Field, received starred reviews from Kirkus, The Horn Book, and Booklist. According to Kirkus, his co-authored book Adventures To School, will “will pique readers’ curiosity.” His forthcoming picture book biography, I Am Farmer, chronicles the work of Cameroonian environmentalist Tantoh Nforba (2019, Lerner/Millbrook). Born and raised on the island of Saint Lucia, Baptiste is a native Creole/Patois speaker who enjoys reading his books and sharing about his experiences with anyone who will listen.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Post Mentorship Program Interview with Linda Hofke

By Patti Buff

The inaugural Europolitan Mentorship Program ended this spring and now it's time to check in with our three mentees, Tara O'Dowd, Linda Hofke, and Kerry Dwyer to see how they fared.

Our interview today is with Linda Hopke who was mentored by Jill Esbaum.

Your mentorship with Jill  is over. For 6 months the two of you worked on your projects. What stands out the most about this time?

It was a wonderful, stressful experience. Right before the mentorship started I experienced my first computer crash ever. I lost everything. Luckily, my critique group had some old drafts of mine. In the meantime, I had to use my daughter’s laptop which also crashed two months in. Then there was the Christmas holiday, a 4-month visit from my mother-in-law, the sudden death of a friend, and eight days lost to the flu. Life certainly wasn’t making things easy for me.


But I had this mentorship and, no matter what, I had to keep writing. And I did.

What stands out most about this time that no matter what life threw my way, Jill cheered me on the whole time. This may sound like a silly thing to say since Jill was my mentor but…I couldn’t have done it without her. (Thanks, Jill, for being my cheerleader and never giving up on me.)

Wow, Linda. The fact that you had all these obstacles and yet still were able to focus on your mentorship is mindboggling! I feel like most of us would have run to the nearest corner. But then again, most of us never have the chance to work with an expert so closely. So, what was it like to work so intimately with a publishing professional on your picture books? Was it challenging to rework a piece and send it to the same person for even more feedback?

Reworking a piece is always challenging. I think what’s important is that you and the publishing professional are “on the same page”. That worked out well with Jill and me.

Also, I am not one that gets easily upset over feedback. I am very open to critiques and don’t take comments personally. Plus, I felt that Jill’s advice was spot on, and she explained everything clearly. That made the task of revision a bit easier.

Two things I think Jill excels at are characterization and adding heart to a story. She showed me a few ways to improve my stories in those areas, and that has made a big difference. Now I can use those elements and techniques often.

Can you tell us in details what you worked on with your mentor? How many picture books did the two of you work on?

We worked on four picture books. First, we worked on the story I submitted to the mentorship program. Jill offered suggestion as to how I could make the story better. One important aspect was that the stakes for my main character needed to be higher. That meant making a few plot changes. I revised and Jill gave more comments. Then we put it aside and looked at a second story. For this one, the plot points were already strong, but I needed to work on characterization and get the word count down. Jill gave me links to a few articles regarding writing in the close third person. I hate to admit this but I hadn’t heard of it before. I read up on it and wrote two or three more revisions. Wow! What a difference writing in close third made. Now the reader will know my character well and root for him as he goes about tackling his problem. AND I was able to cut almost 200 words in the process. That’s a lot for a picture book.

If you’re interested here is a link to one of those articles:

At this point in the mentorship, I’d learned lots of different techniques to improve my writing and make my stories more marketable. I got brave. Instead of sending Jill an old story, I decided to write one I’d been thinking about for a while. I took out the story notes I had scribbled in a notebook and turn them into a first draft. Then I went back over it, keeping in mind all Jill had taught me. I made a few changes and ran it past my critique group. After a few more adjustments, I sent it to Jill. BINGO! She loved it. In fact, she said it was my strongest story yet. She made a few suggestions and after just one revision, she said it was spot on and submission ready. I was shocked. And happy. But the cool thing is that Jill was also very excited. We were doing the happy-dance together.

Then, even though the end of the mentorships was rapidly approaching, Jill offered to take a look at one more story. She gave feedback to help me with my revisions. Then the mentorship program ended. How quickly time flies. The months working with Jill were incredible, and I am so glad I had this opportunity to learn from her.

That's amazing. And now after this experience, how ready do you feel to put yourself and your work out into the world? Do you feel this mentorship prepared you for working with an art director/editor at a publishing house? And what’s next for you, creatively? 

In answer to the first part…yes. I do feel more confident in my writing. I’ve recently sent out a few stories, articles, and poems to magazines. No responses yet. I hadn’t sent out my picture books until last week. Why the hesitation? My top dream agent moved to a new publishing house (thankfully, to one I like) and is temporarily closed to submissions. I wanted to submit to her first before sending my work elsewhere. Unfortunately, that agency is still closed to new subs. But as luck would have it, two other opportunities arose. Both of these agents were also on my “agent wishlist”. (Let me add that my list only has 9 agents on it. I spent weeks narrowing it down to those I felt would be the best fit for my work. And along comes these opportunities with two of them that are also closed to unsolicited submissions. What are the odds of that happening?) Of course, I couldn’t let those chances go by. So now my favorite little baby, uh, I mean story, is out in the hands of two publishing professionals who I admire and respect. It’s so exciting…and a bit nerve-wracking. We’ll just have to wait and see.

In answer to your second question: With the close contact, I guess a mentorship is very similar to working with an editor. One needs to be open to suggestions and be able to rework the story in a way that pleases both the publishing professional and yourself. Yes, I feel that working with Jill has helped prepare me for this.

What’s next for me creatively? Well, for the past two years—yes, TWO YEARS--there was a bigger project I’d been meaning to tackle but never had the time (or courage) to start. It’s a MG nonfiction book. It’s been research intensive but fun. I am now writing the book proposal and sample pages. I’ve checked around and haven’t seen a book like it, so that has driven me to get it done soon. I am really excited about this topic (and am probably driving my family crazy with all the cool facts I’ve learned.) As you can tell from this photo of some of my research material the book is science related.

I also have another idea for another nonfiction book. That one is more history related and research is going well. And there’s a new fiction story in the works. I tend to have about three projects in the works at one time, all at different stages. Polish one, do early drafts of another, start research or plotting for a third. Always something to keep me busy.

This all sounds so exciting! Best of luck on the querying and working on the new project. We'll all be cheering you on. And thank you for sharing your mentorship experience with us. It sounds like it was an extremely productive time.

Europolitan Mentorship Program:

The Europolitan Mentorship program pairs qualified, inspirational mentors with aspiring authors and illustrators, who write in English, to help bring them closer to publication, or to publication at a higher level. Each mentor will select one mentee from all applicants.

This six-month online one-on-one program provides mentees the opportunity to work personally with and learn from a successful professional with teaching experience and a proven track record in children’s literature. Look for the announcement for the 2019 Mentorship Program in Spring 2019!