Sandra Horning the award-winning author of books for young children including The Giant Hug and Chicks. She also works as a copyeditor. Today she’s here to talk about her latest title, The Biggest Pumpkin.
Sandra generously donated a signed copy of her book, The Biggest Pumpkin, which will go to some lucky visitor. To be entered to win, please leave a comment at the end of this blog post.
Thanks, Linda! It's a pleasure to speak with you!
The Giant Hug features a pig who sends his grandmother a hug through the mail. Chicks is about raising chickens, and The Biggest Pumpkin is about growing a giant pumpkin for the town fair. There seems to be an agricultural thread running through all your books. Did you grow up on a farm or in a rural area? Do you raise animals or grow vegetables now?
I didn't grow up on a farm, but I lived near a farming region, and my grandfather lived in the country. In fact, I grew up in a rowhome in a suburb of Reading, Pa. Even though we had a very tiny yard, my parents always kept a small vegetable garden. Back then the suburb still had a lot of undeveloped space around it. Across the street there was an open field with a stream and small wooded area bordering it. A block behind my house there was a mountain. I spent many of my early years playing in those spaces, which have since been developed. There is definitely an agricultural thread running through my published work, although I should say that I do write stories without that theme, but they tend not to be the ones that publishers accept. I'm sure it's not a coincidence, and the agricultural themes/hooks are what helped my books find a home.
I live in the woods of CT now. We have so much shade that I really can't grow vegetables. Despite the shade, I usually plant a few anyway. This year I have some lettuce and a handful of tiny green cherry tomatoes. The plants I put in were a decent size to start. That helps a great deal. I had a pumpkin plant last year, but the pumpkin never got bigger than a fist. My family joins a local CSA to get fresh vegetables each week. I love visiting the farm for pick-up. I have better luck with raising animals. I raise chickens and ducks for eggs. Right now I have 6 chickens and 3 ducks. They are pets, too, and all have names.
What sparked the idea for The Biggest Pumpkin?
The initial idea came to me during a school visit for my first picture book. The school had a greenhouse and it sparked the idea of writing a garden story. I picked a pumpkin plant because when my 2 boys were younger, we regularly drove by a nearby garden with a pumpkin plant in it. By the end of summer and into fall, the pumpkin was easily visible from the road. I'd slow the car down and we would see how big the pumpkin was that day. The rest of the inspiration for the story came from all the agricultural fairs in our region. My family and I have always loved seeing the largest vegetables at the local fairs.
Writing a picture book seems deceptively simple, yet I know what a struggle it can be. What was your biggest challenge in writing The Biggest Pumpkin? Do you have any advice for someone interested in writing a picture book?
The biggest challenge was writing an entertaining story that follows the actual growth of a pumpkin without it being too didactic. It's hard to keep the text succinct, yet still get in the factual information. In real life, growing a prize-winning pumpkin would have a few more steps. For example, once the pumpkin gets very large, it needs to be kept off the ground so that the bottom doesn't rot. I didn't include that part because I had to take the growth process and pare it back to the most basic steps. I did my best to follow the real growth process while keeping it easy to understand for young readers. It took many revisions to get just right! My advice is to keep revising. Picture books seems quite simple, but the best ones have been through many, many revisions!
How do you approach your research for a book like The Biggest Pumpkin? Did you have any interesting experiences during your writing or research for this book?
I usually start with research at the library or on the internet. There are quite a few websites devoted to growing big pumpkins. I've also attended many harvest festivals since I've lived in CT, and many of them have a pumpkin contest. Growers are always happy to discuss the process. Last year, farmers at the BIG E (the biggest agricultural fair in New England) were selling seeds from the previous year's winner. I bought a packet and my parents (who now have a very big garden in a new house) planted the seeds in their garden this spring. We'll see how big their pumpkin gets! While I was writing the story, writers in my critique group frequently cut out newspaper photos and articles about prize-winning pumpkins. One of my friends even took a photo of a huge pumpkin being transported on the highway.
You’ve written both picture books and easy readers. Do you approach these projects in a similar way? What do you see as their differences?
Yes, I approach them in a similar way in that when I have an idea, I usually start writing first. Since I choose topics I already have an interest in, I'll write the first draft with the knowledge I have. Then I stop and do research, and correct and add details in my revisions. Sometimes I write a picture book and realize it might work better as an early reader or vice versa. The main difference between picture books and early readers is that there is much less freedom of word choice with an easy reader. A certain number of words in the text need to repeat. For level one readers, contractions can't be used and most of the words should be one syllable. In addition, concepts need to be simple enough that a young reader can easily follow the story. The text of beginning readers needs to closely match the art in order for children to see the visual cues to the words they are learning to read. Picture books can sometimes skip words and let the art tell some of the story. The author and illustrator both have more room to play in a picture book.
What have you learned from editing other people’s work that is useful in your own writing?
Most of the work I edit is for academic statistical journals. Academic writing is quite different than writing for children, but it is similar in that it is written for a particular audience. Remembering your audience, whether it is beginning readers or academics, is the key to keeping your reader engaged!
You recently won a James Marshall Fellowship. Congratulations! Can you tell us about why you applied and how you plan to use your research?
I was awarded the Marshall Fellowship for 2014 and did most of my research in the spring of that year. As I had recently been working on beginning readers, I applied in order to study James Marshall's beginning readers, particularly his Fox stories, but I ended up looking at everything he wrote. James Marshall was an incredibly talented man. Studying his work helped me to review my own creative process, especially when revising. Marshall was a perfectionist and had many drafts of his stories. I learned a lot from following his process, and seeing how his initial ideas developed into the wonderful characters of Fox and his friends, George and Martha, the Stupids, and more. I've since worked on several different early readers and often ask myself, “What would James Marshall think? Is this the best it can be?” The fellowship required me to blog about my research. If you are interested, the posts are available here.
Are you working on any other new projects?
I'm working on two early readers and a picture book right now. One of the early readers is a nonfiction project about bizarre birds and the other is a fiction project with a girl detective. The detective bit has been thoroughly enjoyable!
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I've written a contemporary middle grade novel. Your questions made me realize that even though it is a departure from my picture books and early readers, it still has a nature theme running through it. I guess nature finds its way into most of my work. Answering interview questions always helps me to learn something about myself! Thank you!
Thank you so much for being my guest today! You can find out more about Sandra Horning and her books at her website