Monday, April 10, 2006

Author Interview: Michelle Lord on Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin

Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin by Michelle Lord, illustrated by Felicia Hoshimo (Lee & Low, 2006). From the publisher: "The story of Little Sap, a young Cambodian dancer who posed for Auguste Rodin in 1906 during the Colonial Exhibition in France." Ages 4-up. See a four-page preview of the book.

Author Michelle Lord's bio: "Michelle Lord fell in love with the culture of Cambodia when she traveled there to adopt her youngest daughter. She was inspired to write this book after discovering the story behind Auguste Rodin's Cambodian dancer sketches. Lord lives in New Braunfels, Texas, with her husband and their three children. This is her first picture book."

What inspired you to write for children?

I have always loved both art and reading. I loved picture books as a child and still love them today—a perfect blend of art and story.

With three children, I want to tell stories that reflect our multicultural family. I also like to make my kids laugh!

Could you describe your path to publication, any sprints and/or stumbles along the way?

I have collected dozens and dozens of rejection letters. I’ve had the excitement of manuscripts going to acquisitions, followed by the disappointment of rejection after coming so close. I’ve found critique groups, writing classes, reading lots of children’s books and spending time with children helpful to my writing. It’s an ongoing learning process.

Congratulations on the publication of your debut picture book, Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin! Could you tell us a little about it?

In 1906, famous French sculptor Auguste Rodin fell in love with the Cambodian dancers during their performance in Paris. The Cambodian dance troupe of King Sisowath traveled to France for the Colonial Exhibition.

My book is the story of Little Sap, a poor country girl who joined the dance troupe to give her family a better life. She misses her family and doesn’t fit in with the other dancers. As Rodin’s pencil sweeps across his paper, Little Sap’s worries lessen. She realizes how much she has grown as a dancer and how far she has come in fulfilling her special duty to her family. She finally feels part of the troupe. “Once again she felt a family’s love, and home did not feel so far away.”

What was your initial inspiration for telling this story?

My youngest daughter is Cambodian, and I’m always on the lookout for interesting items for her. I stumbled upon Rodin’s sketches/watercolors of the Cambodian dancers on eBay. I researched Rodin and found a French newspaper photo of the artist sketching the young dancers. Sap was a real girl whose graceful movements Rodin captured on grocery paper.

I then found a variety of old postcards from 1906; Rodin, King Sisowath, royal elephants and the royal dance troupe of Cambodia. As I studied the postcards, one little dancer stood out--different from the rest. She had darker skin and a beautiful sad face. She became Little Sap to me, as I looked at her picture and imagined her life.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I wrote Little Sap in the summer of 2003 and mailed it off to three publishers. I received one rejection instantly. Little Sap went to an editorial meeting at the second publisher, but they too passed on my story. Then, I received a revision letter from Jennifer at Lee and Low.

How exciting! We worked on a series of revisions, including expanding the story. The revision process was tough. Emotionally I went from high [of course they want this great story] to low [I’ll never get these revisions right]! Finally, with Jennifer’s help and guidance, I received a contract in the summer of 2004. And, this month I received copies of my first book! Felicia Hoshino's illustrations made Little Sap come alive.

What were the challenges (literary research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

For my story, I needed information about Rodin, France, Cambodia and Khmer Court Dance. How long would it take to travel to France from Cambodia by ship? How would a young dancer feel when she left home for the first time? The court dancers led sheltered lives and rarely stepped outside the palace walls. Rodin’s feelings about meeting the young dancers are documented, but I could only imagine the thoughts of
the dancers themselves.

What advice do you have for beginning children's writers?

Don’t give up!

What are the important considerations in writing historical fiction? What should writer/researchers keep in mind?

I’m a visual person, so I poured over old pictures, posters, websites and videos. It was important to me to have an expert in Khmer dance read my book for accuracy. She pointed out errors I had made in describing certain gestures. With hundreds of movements, I was sure to get some wrong!

Museums are great resources and often have websites. The drawing on the back cover of my book, and the photograph of Rodin with the dancers, both came from the Rodin Museum. The photograph ran in the newspaper in 1906, so don’t forget that newspapers are terrific sources.

Stick to official government or university affiliated websites for accurate information.

Are you available for school visits, conferences, and other speaking engagements? If so, how should planners contact you?

I’m currently gearing up for school visits. Contact me at: theelords@satx.rr.com.

What can you fans expect next?

I’m working through revisions on a picture book biography.

Cynsational Notes

Degas and the Little Dancer by Laurence Anholt (Barron's, 1996) would make a good companion to Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin.

Children's and YA Books with Asian and Asian American Themes from my website. Note that while we've seen a strong showing of late of quality literary trade books with Asian and Asian American themes, these so far are mostly still limited those featuring Chinese/Chinese American, Japanese/Japanese American, and Korean/Korean American themes. On the south Asian front, we're seeing more Indian/Indian American/Indian Canadian books. However, many nationalities/national origins are still underrepresented. In addition to Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin (Cambodian), titles to seek include Journey Home by Lawrence McKay, Jr., illustrated by Dom & Keunhee Lee (Lee & Low, 1998)(co-illustrator interview)(Vietnamese/Vietnamese American).

Finding Literacy Grants from Lee & Low Books. "In the education world budget constraints are a reality, making it difficult to obtain resources for book purchases. This is why it is important to utilize organizations that offer educational and/or literacy grants." Also includes information on writing successful grant requests. Authors and illustrators may want to add this link to their events pages.

Texas Children's & YA Authors and Illustrators from my website.

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