Sunday, October 23, 2011

Interview: Author George Shannon

Ever since I met George Shannon, I've enjoyed his playful spirit, admired his work, and respected him as a human being. Before long he shifted from someone up on a pedestal to a good friend who celebrates my tiny victories with me, the great guy who got me a silly hat on a past birthday. But holy cow. Today I've been rereading his books and his blog entries while thinking about his career so I could brainstorm questions for his interview, and . . . I'm blown away by his wisdom and experience. I'm humbled.

And I'm honored to share my interview with George.

Books and libraries have always been George's second home. He loved pretending in grade school, but it wasn't till the seventh grade that he knew he wanted to make books. His first submission to a publisher and the resulting rejection letter was at age sixteen. Eleven more years of school, college, writing, reading, working as a librarian, writing, and more writing brought his first book contract for LIZARD'S SONG. Since then he has written many, many stories and thirty of them have been published as picture books. He has also written books for adults that explore folktales and writing. George's favorite book is always the one he's currently writing because the process is always more fun than looking back at books already done. When he's not working on his own stories, George helps students with their own writing both here and abroad. George's books include DANCE AWAY, STORIES TO SOLVE, TOMORROW'S ALPHABET, TIPPY-TOE CHICK GO, WHITE IS FOR BLUEBERRY, THE SECRET CHICKEN CLUB, and RABBIT'S GIFT that received both the Washington State Book Award and the Worzalla/Burr Award. In 2008 George received the "Lifetime Achievement Award" from the Pacific Northwest Writers Association.

Dawn: What authors have most influenced you?

There seem to be two stages of influence on most writers' lives. Many years ago I prepared a presentation on fictional children who love to write in children's novels. One of the common elements was that these fictional young writers were all inspired by adults in their lives who loved words and loved sharing stories and poems aloud. That is certainly the case for me. However, once I began to focus on writing and children's books, I was influenced, or at least encouraged by several authors. Who?

*Arnold Lobel for his gentle humor regarding human foibles.

*M.B. Goffstein for her echoing distillation.

*Eudora Welty for her essays about writing.

*Anonymous: the hundreds of thousand of storytellers in the oral tradition throughout the world.

After that, it is not so much who inspired me, but rather what particular books made me eager to equal their quality.

What drew you to picture books?

I have no pithy answer to this. I simply love the blend of word and image. I love the distillation. I love that they are read aloud which means a sharing between adult and child.

Illustrated by Laura Dronzek. Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2005.

Picture books require an author to write a fully developed story in very few words. Also, a picture book author has to leave room for an illustrator. It sounds like a super tricky puzzle! Will you tell us about your process?

It is a very slippery puzzle. Since I write but do not illustrate, I need to write half of something that actually feels complete. But it has become a puzzle I love. Over the years it has become a type of second language. I believe one of the most important things a picture book writer can do to help both his manuscript and mental health is to let go of thinking he knows what the pictures should be. Let go. If we writers truly knew, we'd already be drawing them. How to let go? Most importantly, focus on what you do with words, sounds, rhythm and pace. A well written picture book text IS the story's soundtrack and that will inform the illustrator.

I've heard you emphasize rhythm in writing for children. Will you elaborate on why you feel it's important to pay attention to rhythm while crafting a picture book?

I believe attending to pace, sound and rhythm is vital to all writing. But it is especially important in picture books because picture books are read aloud. Picture books are sound and inflection. Children may read novels, but they HEAR picture books. It only makes sense that we, as writers, do our best to not only make our manuscripts alive with sound, but also write in a way that guides the adult reading to a child.

TIPPY-TOE CHICK, GO! by George Shannon
Illustrated by Laura Dronzek. Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2003.

Since adults often read picture books aloud to children, do you ever consider your adult audience?

I would actually say that picture books are almost always read by adults to a listening child or group of children. I don't really consider the adult reader in terms of keeping them entertained. But if I've done a good job of keeping the child engaged, it's likely the adult will be equally involved. This might well be one of the reasons I dislike namby-pamby cavity-inducing picture books. Such books may temporarily catch the child's attention, but they don't really give any substance to the child or adult reader.

Why do you encourage writers to read folktales?

Folktales are one of the common denominators of all peoples, all cultures. As humans, we need to shape and tell stories over and over again. When something is innate, it seems foolish to ignore it. Folktales began long before print and book reviewers. However, there were certainly critics--everyone in the audience. If the teller didn't keep them engaged they could and would walk away. If you truly only write for yourself then why bother with publishing? If you write to connect with others, then most certainly keep those "others" in mind.

WISE ACRES by George Shannon
Illustrated by Deborah Zemke. Handprint Books, 2004.

What do you like best about being an author?

Writing. The puzzle of writing. The challenge and occasional success of bringing a story to life.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Write. Read. Write. Read any and everything. Write. Read at least thirty picture books for every one you start to write. Write. Read your writing aloud. Revise. Honor your writing, but do NOT protect it. Do all you can to make sure your writing can stand on its own.

RABBIT'S GIFT by George Shannon
Illustrated by Laura Dronzek. Harcourt, 2007.

* * *

If you would like to check out a video of George working with kids and being interviewed about writing and kids, click

Thanks again to
George Shannon for appearing, courtesy of Provato Marketing. For other stops on the tour, please check out


Janet Johnson said...

What a great interview! So much good information for picture book writers. Definitely inspiring. :)

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Thank you, Dawn and George! I haven't read any of George's books yet, but I will definitely pay attention in the book stores from now on. His books look really fun and I love his writing philosophies.

Great interview!

Dawn Simon said...

Hi, Janet! George has tons of wisdom to share, and he is an excellent teacher and speaker. Also, he has a great blog--it's really informative! Off topic but...I am so excited about the book I won at your blog! Woo-hoo! Thank you!

Thanks, Amy! His books are fun! You'll enjoy them! Congrats again on your agent! Yay, Amy!

Margaret Nevinski said...

Dawn, I'm inspired by you and George. The creative process is a fascinating one, and peeking inside George's head made me think about my own process. Thanks to you both for sharing George's work--he's a creative powerhouse.

Dawn Simon said...

Thank you, Margaret. You inspire me--and you make me a better writer. Yes, George is amazing. One of the many things he talked about in a class I took a few years back was the importance of rhythm. It helped me really pay attention to things I'd been missing.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Thanks for introducing us to George. His picture books look wonderful!

Anonymous said...

Great to meet you George. Good luck with your writing and promotions!

Anonymous said...

Great interview, Dawn and George. I love picture books and George's views on them are inspiring.

Susan Fields said...

Love the interview! I remember well the days of reading picture books to my kids - the rhyming ones were always my favorites!

Theresa Milstein said...

George Shannon, I was twice the age you were when I received my first rejection. How cool you've had such a long career.

Thanks for interviewing him, Dawn.

Dawn Simon said...

You're welcome, Sharon! Yes, his books are wonderful! :)

Hi, Stephen!

Medeia, I love picture books, too. One of my crit partners is an author and illustrator, and we're learning so much from her!

Susan, certain picture books will always bring me back to fun reading memories with my own kids. I love that. <3

Theresa, you're welcome! It was fun!

Deb Lund said...

So nice to "listen in" as you two converse about books! Nice interview, Dawn & George! And yes, you are mostly pithy, even when you don't realize it, George! (I've learned a lot from that guy over the years, and I encourage you all to follow his blog.) Thanks for participating in the Provato Blog Tour!

Anonymous said...

Great interview! I had a blast being a part of the blog tour and I am loving getting to read all of the other interviews.

Jess said...

This was such a lovely interview to read, and I can't wait to get some of George's books!

Jemi Fraser said...

Awesome interview! I love the quote about writing being a slippery puzzle - so true!

Jackee said...

A great interview. I love the challenge of writing too. And we love all three of those books at our house, but we need to buy the third one since we have the other two. Thanks for sharing George with us, Dawn!


Dawn Simon said...

Hi, Deb! :) I agree: George has such a wonderful blog. (And it was fun participating in the tour!)

Thanks, SFMDF! It's nice to have you visit!

Thank you, Jess! :) We have a collection of George's books at our house, and they're great.

Thanks, Jemi! I like that quote, too!

You're welcome, Jackee! :)