Children’s Books and the Creative Process:
An Interview with author--and TulsaKids editor--Betty Casey.
On Thursday, November 16, at 6:30 p.m., children’s book author and TulsaKids editor Betty Casey will be discussing “Children’s Books and the Creative Process” at Southminster Presbyterian Church on Brookside. Casey’s third book, “The Prince of the Prairie,” which tells the story of a buffalo whose prairie home is being lost to progress, was released in October 2017; she will be signing books after the speech.
The following is an interview with Casey about her new book, her creative process, children’s literature and advice for aspiring writers. Feel free to share your favorite children’s books or thoughts on what makes a great children’s book in the comments below.
TK: Tell us about your newest book, “The Prince of the Prairie.” What was the inspiration for the story?
BC: I wanted to draw a buffalo, and I love the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve outside of Pawhuska, so I pitched the concept to my editor at The RoadRunner Press. I see the animals and their personalities in my head.
TK: When did you first start writing children’s books? What drew you to this genre?
BC: I’ve always loved children’s picture books, and I’ve dreamed of being a children’s writer/illustrator from elementary school. I remember drawing Clifford the Big Red Dog when I was in first grade. My teacher, Mrs. Burris, suggested to my parents that they enroll me in private art classes, which they did. (Thank you, parents). I like writing stories and I like doing art, so children’s picture books combine two things that I love to do.
I sent an idea or two out many years ago, but never really had time to create books with work and a family. (I have a husband and three kids). It takes quite a bit of time and patience to do all of the illustrations needed for a picture book. My first book was published in 2013 after my kids left home.
TK: Have writing and painting always been hobbies of yours? One more than the other?
BC: Yes. I’ve been writing and doing some kind of art all my life. I don’t think that I’ve ever NOT done one or the other. I will say that I’m probably not laser-focused on the product of something. What I mean is that I enjoy the creative process more than anything, but sometimes as a writer or an artist, you might want or need to market your work. I don’t think most writers and artists are great marketing people – or I guess I should just speak for myself – I’m not.
TK: How did you get connected with The RoadRunner Press?
BC: I connected with The RoadRunner Press almost by accident. I know the editor, and I wrote an email to her one day about seeing a human interest story in the news about an Iditarod sled dog that had gotten lost. I connected with the dog, because she seemed to have a very introverted personality like my dog, yet she was tough and smart. I told Jeanne Devlin, the editor at RoadRunner, that someone should write that story as a children’s picture book. She wrote back and said, “I love it. Send me something!” (She knew that I can draw/paint). I had not intended to do it myself, but I’m also not one to back down from a challenge, especially one that has been a dream of mine that is thrown in my lap like that. I sent her my idea for the story and did a couple of completed sample illustrations, so she could get an idea of the style that I envisioned. After some back-and-forth and some great suggestions from her, I completed the project. [TK Note: That book is titled “May Finds Her Way.”]
TK: What does your creative process look like?
BC: I usually get an idea for the story first, which informs the illustrations. I do like the idea of an actual “place” in my stories, so one is in Alaska, one is in the desert, and one is on the prairie. I read tons of things about the area, the animals there, and sort of immerse myself in the place. It may seem simple to write a children’s story, but I find it very difficult. The buffalo book took at least two years to just go from the idea to the story. That’s where I’m very grateful to have an editor to collaborate with. Jeanne also gives me pep talks – and deadlines. I need deadlines. There’s a lot of looping, sketching, rejecting. I do sketches and storyboards. When I’m drawing, new ideas will pop into my head that are unplanned. For example, I didn’t really think about having an owl in the May Finds Her Way book, but I have a long, superstitious story about why the owl is there. It has to do with my dad and my Croatian heritage and my experience with owls as I was writing the book.
TK: Does the process ever become frustrating and if so, what do you do when that happens?
BC: Yes. Sometimes things flow easily. Often they don’t. If I get too much in my left brain, my drawing gets really tight and bad. Sometimes the story doesn’t come. It’s all like a puzzle as you try to tell the story in words and pictures. I’m still not very good at it. It also takes some major focus and conviction to get through to the end of the book. I love my characters, but there are times when I don’t want to sit down and draw them one more time. But there are those deadlines….
TK: What advice would you give to adults who are interested in writing children’s books?
BC: Do it! There is plenty of advice available online on how to do it. You can also find publishers online who publish children’s books. I would look at the types of books that the publisher puts out to see if that publisher seems to do the types of books that are similar to yours. I love the books the The RoadRunner Press publishes, and I’m proud to be one of the author/illustrators that RoadRunner publishes. Even though it is a small publishing house, it does a great job with marketing and all the other things that publishers do. I do not have that expertise, and I truly appreciate it. I know there are ways to self-publish children’s books as well, but I don’t have any experience with that. RoadRunner is a traditional publishing house.
TK: What advice would you give to kids who are interested in becoming authors?
BC: The same advice I think every person would have – read, read, read.
TK: What do you look for in a children’s book? What are some you particularly enjoy reading, and why?
BC: RoadRunner hosted me at the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) convention in Phoenix last week, and it was fun to see all the different types of children’s books. There are books for every taste and interest. I know that when I was reading books to my kids, they had specific likes and dislikes. For example, none of them liked Where the Wild Things Are. My son liked Richard Scary books. My youngest loved the old, original Winnie the Pooh books and my middle daughter loved Go, Dog, Go! My mom kept some of my favorite childhood books and I still love them: Ferdinand the Bull, Where Do Butterflies Go When It Rains?, Make Way for Ducklings, The Little House, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. I also distinctly remember a story about a goose who thought she was smart because she carried around a book under her wing, but she created all kinds of problems because never read what was inside. I definitely gravitate toward books with good little plots, and I my kids did, too. I enjoy all kinds of children’s books. My least favorites are the ones that are trying too hard to be obviously instructive about something. The themes should be organic to the story.
TK: What advice would you give to parents who are interested in encouraging a love for reading in their children?
BC: Take them to the library, let them pick out lots of books, take them home, snuggle up and read together. And, let your kids see you reading. Keep reading together as they get older – I even read to my kids when they were perfectly able to read themselves. Sometimes we would trade reading chapters to each other. I used to love reading and discussing some of the books my kids were reading in high school and college. They’re adults now, and they enjoy reading – I’ve gotten some great book suggestions from them!
Betty Casey’s books, which include “The Prince of the Prairie,” “May Finds Her Way,” and “That Is a Hat,” can be found online at BarnesandNoble.com, amazon.com, indiebound.org.