Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Author Interview: Mary Quattlebaum

by Cordelia Jensen

Today, we have with us the charming Mary Quattlebaum. She is the author of many books including Pirate vs. Pirate and The Jackson Jones series (more details at her website www.maryquattlebaum.com). Her latest picture book is a new installment in the Jo MacDonald series, which centers on a naturalist girl who goes into different environments and learns about the creatures she encounters. Jo MacDonald Hiked in the Woods just hit the shelves this September.

Thanks for having me, Cordelia!  It’s a treat to talk with you and your blog readers.  Hope your writing is going well.

Thanks Mary! It's going . . . but let's talk about you!

       Tell us about how you thought of creating this delightful series.

Being a mom, you probably notice how curious kids are about the natural world--  the ants on the sidewalk, the squirrels in the trees.  Often their connection to and interest in the natural world evolves from experiences close at hand.  The three Jo MacDonald books feature a pond, garden, and forest ecosystem, which are the “nearby nature” of Jo’s world.  I grew up in the country, with all these things, and it has been a great joy to revisit that childhood landscape in writing.  Doing the books have given me a chance, too, to thank my dad, who has shared his knowledge of and love for nature with his kids and grandkids.  My dad is the model for Jo’s grandfather, Old MacDonald, in the books.  In Jo MacDonald Had a Garden, the grandpa even rides a horse, one of my dad’s favorite activities, even at the age of 80.

One of my favorite parts of these books is the four end pages that include nature facts and resource suggestions. I particularly love all the activity ideas. As one of your former students, I was reminded, in a way, of the word play exercises you assign. Tell us about the process of writing these.

They are sort of like your wordplays, Cordelia!  I loved creating these activities, as a way to help deepen a child’s experience both of the book and the wider natural world.  In designing them, I tried to think about how best to engage the various senses and how to “jump off” the books to allow for experiences outdoors, with the creative arts (drawing, writing, drama), and with science.  These activities and those on publisher Dawn’s website www.dawnpub.com connect with National Science Standards for preschool-grade 3.

Hopefully, the books and activities also help to connect with some of the aims of the “Growing Green” movement.  Parents and educators are recognizing the importance of prying kids from screens and getting them outdoors on a regular basis.  Richard Louv brought this need to national attention in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-deficit Disorder and Todd Christopher offered playful models in The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids.  The National Wildlife Federation, American Hiking Society, and National Gardening Association are but a few of the organizations with family- and school-related initiatives. 

So far, Jo has sung her way through the Garden, the Pond and the Woods. Is she going anywhere else?

Maybe a meadow—though the series may end with these three books.  The publisher has also done board books of the series and plans to do audio books.

 Sounds are a huge part of these books. I would have had an especially hard time coming up with some of the animal sounds in your book. Like, what does a chipmunk say? You seem to have figured it out. Did you listen to a lot of animal sounds while writing these books? Did you do a lot of the writing “on location?”

I did, indeed, go back to those childhood places and listen.  And YouTube was a big help in the research.  You know how YouTube is, though, so sometimes I found myself digressing to view whining deer and trampoline-jumping foxes.

The Jo MacDonald series is published by Dawn Publications, a press that specializes in connecting children with the natural world. Did you have a press like this in mind when you created these books?

I had long known of Dawn and admired their books, having purchased several for my daughter when she was little.  I didn’t have Dawn in mind initially but they were the perfect fit.  I have loved working with the editor and art director there and was delighted that they chose the very talented Laura J. Bryant as the illustrator.

You don’t only write picture books but you also write books for older children. Does the writing process feel different when writing picture books?

In some ways, the process feels very different because with the picture books, I often have to think about and carefully revise for the “illustratable moments” and to leave space for the illustrator to work her magic.  

Okay, now for our “3 for 3 Book Questions":

What were your three favorite books from childhood/teen years?

I still have my childhood copies and just had to peek at them, in gratitude, as I answered your question.
Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry (a gift from Santa in second grade).
Jane’s Blanket by Henry Miller (the first book I ever owned, all to myself—a rarity in a family of 7 kids).
The Golden Treasury of Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer (where I first came across the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop).

What three books have you read recently that surprised you?

I loved Wein’s suspenseful Code Name Verity for its fully realized characters and setting and Tan’s Tales of Outer Suburbia for his ability to find the surreal in the most ordinary of things/circumstances and vice versa and his compressed, beautiful language.  And I recently re-read (for fourth or fifth time) Grace Paley’s three collections of short stories and was amazed, all over again, by her playfulness and ability to capture the pulse of life.

What three books influence/d your writing?

Gosh, that’s a hard question because there are so many! So I’m going to re-name my 3 childhood favorites and the “surprising” ones mentioned above.

Thanks again for this lovely visit, Cordelia.  Wishing you and your readers many creative adventures this fall.  Happy Trails!

Mary Quattlebaum is the author of twenty award-winning children’s novels, picture books, and books of poetry, including Pirate vs. Pirate, Jackson Jones and the Puddle of Thorns, Sparks Fly High, The Hungry Ghost of Rue Orleans, and the Jo MacDonald nature series (picture, board, and audio books). Awards include Random House’s Marguerite de Angeli Prize for a middle-grade novel, Parenting Reading Magic Award, Bank Street Best Book, SIBA Best Picture Book, NAPPA Gold Award, and inclusion on numerous state children’s choice lists.  Mary’s stories and poems are published frequently in children’s magazines (Cricket, Spider, Ladybug, Babybug), and she works regularly for educational publisher Gale/Cengage on projects ranging from famous explorers to Ancient Greece. Mary is on the faculty at the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults and also a creative thesis and independent study advisor for the Johns Hopkins University graduate program in writing. Mary now reviews children’s books regularly for the Washington Post and Washington Parent and blogs with five writer-teachers at penciltipswritingworkshop.blogspot.com.  She lives with her family, dog, and bird in Washington, DC, and tends a backyard wildlife garden to help sustain native birds and beneficial insects. For more information, visit www.maryquattlebaum.com or contact Mary Quattlebaum directly at 202-362-5621 or MQuattle@aol.com

Thanks for reading!!! If you're local to the area, please let the bookstore know if you would like to place a special order for Jo MacDonald Hiked in the Woods. You can email orders to orders [at] bigbluemarblebooks [dot] com, call (215) 844-1870, or come see us at 551 Carpenter Lane, in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Next up: Be sure to check back on October 22nd when Cordelia interviews Amy Rose Capetta, author of the new, starred review YA sci-fi book, Entangled.


Sandra Nickel said...

I love the activity pages too. And, as with Cordelia, being a former student of Mary, they do seem wonderfully familiar.

I was also happy to hear that the series is expanding into audiobooks and perhaps the meadow. I'll keep a sharp eye out for the next installments!

LinWash said...

Excellent interview, Cordelia!!! I had to laugh at the mention of wordplay exercises. I remember those well. :-)