Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Author Interview: Shutta Crum on The Bravest Of The Brave

The Bravest Of The Brave by Shutta Crum, illustrated by Tim Bowers (Knopf, 2005). From the catalog copy: A young skunk heads home through the woods—alone. Or maybe not… Could there be robbers, or pirates, or ghosts, or trappers in the woods? And is our hero brave enough to keep them away? With bouncy rhymes, charming art, a subtle counting theme, and a surprise ending, this story will entertain and reassure any child who’s ever been afraid." Ages 4-up.

What was your inspiration for The Bravest Of The Brave?

What I like to do periodically is challenge myself to do something with a classic rhythm from a poem or song, or take a piece of writing in the public domain, and play with it to see if I can get inspired to come up with something new.

So one day I start playing around in my head with an old fingerplay that I had done for years in my library storytimes. (Note: I was a youth librarian for 24 years and the recipient of the Michigan Library Assoc.’s Award of Merit as Youth Librarian of the Year, for 2002.) That fingerplay goes like this: (First you make two fists and hold them up high.) "Way up high in an apple tree, two little apples smiled down at me. So I shook that tree as hard as I could, and down fell the apples hmmm . . . were they good!" (Pretend to bite into your fists.)

In my storytimes I take that and make it sillier—I like cranking up the silliness factor whenever I can. After the apple verse I do bananas and catch the kids biting into their pretend bananas (their thumbs) before they peel the bananas. Then I do “Way up high in a donut tree . . .” to great giggles. (One small boy told me, “Donuts don’t grow in trees! They grow in boxes." What a great idea!) Anyway, I started thinking more seriously about it. What else could be up in a tree? What kinds of trees? And who would be the character seeing what was up in the trees?

I thought of nocturnal animals. And then I wanted it to be a counting book because it was for the very young, but also because I wanted a framework that would provide additional progression to the plot.

What was the timeline between spark and publication? And what were the major events along the way?

This was a very early idea of mine; I had just realized that I really wanted to get back to writing again in the late 1990s. I played with it a good bit in my head before writing anything down, which must have been in 1998 or even the latter part of 1997. It came out in January of 2005 to great reviews—so there was at least seven years from spark to publication.

The manuscript was rejected a couple times. Perhaps the most important event that happened with the book prior to publication (See below for some fun things that have happened after its release.) is one that allowed me to sell it to Knopf, a division of Random House—and that was that I’d gotten an agent in the fall of 2002. It was my agent, Liza Pulitzer Voges of Kirchoff/Wohlberg, Inc. who subbed it to the right editor at Random House, Michelle Frye. Michelle was very enthusiastic.

I just recently learned, when I finally got to meet her in person, that she presented the manuscript to the acquisitions meeting as Meryl Streep. Hah! She told me she held up my manuscript and said: “You know what this is? This is Meryl Streep.”

Michelle went on to elaborate that on the surface the story is smooth and works beautifully. What you don’t see is all the hard work, the fine-tuning and experience that can bring a command performance. Perhaps the most telling fact when she was pitching it to the company was that she said she almost forgot to tell them it was a counting book! That is saying a lot, because usually the most obvious aspect of a counting book is the counting pattern. Sometimes it is super-imposed over the demands of the story, rather than incorporated naturally. She felt there was so much more going on . . . that the counting was only one small part of it, and almost forgot to mention it.

I was glad to hear that! The story does have several layers. In fact, integrating the various aspects of the story so that it read seamlessly was part of what was so challenging in writing this book; which leads me to . . .

What were the challenges in bringing The Bravest Of The Brave to life?

My first challenge was in finding the right hero/heroine. (Note: there are no gender specific pronouns in the book. And I asked that they be taken out of the flap copy as well.) I started out with—don’t laugh—a large moth! Gads! What was I thinking? Then I went to a mouse, and finally realized a skunk would be perfect. That took quite a while to arrive at. Once I had a skunk I realized that I wanted to turn the tables on the reader a bit.

Many children view skunks as, if not aggressors, at least fearless problem-makers. But this is a skunk that has its own fears to overcome. And like many young children, it is trying to remember everything he/she was taught to do when confronted with a scary situation.

Also, while doing my research, I discovered that skunks have many ways they communicate and protect themselves in addition to spraying. So it was fun to incorporate a lot of the science.

Once I had the main character and the nocturnal setting, the writing itself was not hard. What was more difficult was getting the editors to really “see” what was happening, because there is the whole element of mistaken identities and self-delusion that is also going on in the story. This was something that was not in the text. So I had to write notes in parentheses on the manuscript—which is usually considered verboten when submitting a story. For example; our hero thinks he has frightened away a robber, when it was only a raccoon. In fact, all the animals he frightens off are later seen at a party at his “house”—a party that is not mentioned until we get past the critical turning point of the story—after he almost has to do the “ultimate.” In the case of this manuscript, I had to do what we are always told not to do—tell the editor and illustrator what was happening by incorporating short notes.

Of the few editors that rejected it, almost all said it would be too hard to illustrate nighttime animals in the woods at night. But I persevered, because I felt it could be done. After all, we watch movies and television shows that take place at night with characters dressed in black—so how is that done? I really felt it could work.

Finally the manuscript found an editor with the vision to see how it could work. Then Michelle and Knopf found the illustrator, Tim Bowers, who knew how to make it work and how to draw animals with a lot of charm. Tim created a light foreground so we can see the action easily as it happens. The background is dark. And I LOVE that skunk—such personality—just tooling along through the woods.

Tim (www.timbowers.com) also extended the story. For I did not have in the rhyming verse any indication of how my character got into the situation he/she is in. There were several scenarios that could have worked. I’d envisioned that the skunk was sent to a store at the last minute and was running late to get back home to the party and got lost. But Tim introduced a butterfly that the skunk chases in the front matter. And then on the dedication page, we see the skunk going one way and the butterfly the opposite. At the end of the book, the butterfly comes to the party and then settles down on the corner of the skunk’s bed as he/she is falling asleep. I loved it! And I love the endpapers with friendly eyes in the forest, and all the haircuts on the skunk family. This book was truly blessed with a wonderful illustrator.

Finally, as writers we are often told: “Death to adverbs!” or given other sage advice about the overuse of adverbs and adjectives. But this book uses adverbs as part of the rhythm. In fact, it depends upon the use of adverbs. So although more of a delight than a challenge, in a kind of secret naughtiness I was very happy writing my story as “adverbly” as I could!

Would you like to share any fun news that has arisen since the publication of The Bravest Of The Brave earlier this year?

This book took off the minute it came out, and in less than four months had to be reprinted. Always good news to get. But one of the best bits of news I got was when my publicist called to tell me that I had been invited to read The Bravest Of The Brave at the 2005 White House Easter Egg Roll in March. At first I could hardly believe what she was saying. I had to have my husband listen in on the phone so I could be sure I wasn’t just dreaming that call.

The Roll itself had to be cancelled that day due to inclement weather for the outside activities. But my husband and I had a wonderful trip to Washington, D.C. and breakfast in the White House with the other writers and Cabinet members who had been invited to read.

Also, I discovered that Cray School in North Carolina bought a copy of The Bravest Of The Brave for the school library in honor of a soldier pen pal who had been corresponding with the students. He was serving in Iraq.

I am so proud of The Bravest Of The Brave. On its surface it is a simple story of a young one’s journey home. But at its heart it is a story about courage that anyone of any age can relate to.

Cynsational News & Links

Mark your calendars! I'll be a guest author online at realwritingteachers@yahoogroups.com (a discussion group of 650 plus writing teachers, children's authors, librarians, homeschoolers, etc. who discuss reading and writing strategies, resources, etc.) during the week of Oct. 23, 2005.

Children's Writer's Marketplace: September 2005 from Write4Kids.com. This issue contains a "a very abbreviated list of markets for children’s fiction."

The Virtually Do-It-Yourself Book Tour by Sue Corbett, author of 12 Again (Dutton, 2002) from Lee & Low Books.

Query This: agent Barry Goldblatt on what he looks for in a query. (Note: I first noticed this link on Anastasia Suen's Create/Relate Blog).

Authors, Illustrators, and Golf Clubs from They Call Me Mr. V (author Varian Johnson's blog) on my husband Greg Leitich Smith's recent signing. A Very Hot Literary Day: writer/illustrator Don Tate blogs about Greg's signing, too. And so does author Chris Barton at Bartography in Tofu, T. rex, and a six-year-old with other plans. What can we say? Austinites rule!

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