Monday, May 11, 2015

Suzy Becker talks about new series, KATE THE GREAT

Suzy Becker is one of those rare authors who writes for children and for adults. Her debut adult title, All I Need to Know I Learned from My Cat was an international best seller. She went on to publish many other illustrated memoirs such as One Good Egg, about her decision to become a mother, and I Had Brain Surgery, What’s Your Excuse.

She’s also an award-winning advertising copywriter and an entrepreneur who established the greeting card company, The Widget Factory, and founded the HIV/AIDS bike-a-thon, Ride FAR.

But today she’s here to talk about her work as a children’s author, and the first book in her new Kate the Great series, Kate the Great, Except When She’s Not. Welcome Suzy!

Often compared to the Big Nate and Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, your books are a happy combination of text and pictures, with much of the humor embedded in the illustrations. What is your process? Do you write first, and then add the illustrations, or vice-versa?  

It’s really a cartoonist’s process, the combination of text and art you see on the page is how I picture it in my head. The most efficient process—given the amount of editing that goes on, is to make notes for sketches in the early drafts—it saves me from doing a lot of drawings that end up on the cutting room floor.

Kate Geller is a marvelous character, funny, a sharp observer, yet someone whose basic impulse is to be kind. How did she introduce herself to you?

Thank you! I’ve been writing and illustrating books for, er, 25 years now— ideas and characters rarely strike me like lightning bolts. I sit down at my desk every morning and invite them in, troll around my head for them, review notes about ideas and snippets of dialog I’ve overheard. Kate was just another voice in my head—I have a ten year old daughter with lots of ten year old friends, and truthfully, a good part of me is still that age.

I loved the BOB, the big old bowl of conversation starters, on the Geller family kitchen table. How did you come up with that?

A couple years ago, Frank Bruni (the New York Times columnist) wrote about a friend of his who’d withdrawn himself and his family from the church and was concerned about his kids’ spiritual education. His solution was this idea of a bowl of spiritual and philosophical questions. I loved it. My daughter? Not so much. In Kate’s family, they’re equal parts conversation starters and stoppers, 110% well-intentioned and a helpful narrative device at least 50% of the time.

Nora, Kate’s nemesis, is anything but a typical antagonist. Where did she come from? How does she play off Kate’s character? Will she be appearing in future Kate the Great books?

How widely read is your blog? Let’s just say Nora is a hybrid of a couple of puzzling characters from my childhood. Kate is charged (by her mom) with befriending Nora because Nora’s dad has to work overseas for several months. Nora is atypical, as you suggest-- she doesn’t have any friends but (and?) she seems to like it that way—which is initially incomprehensible to Kate. Nora’s eccentricities cause Kate to examine and sometimes expand her worldview. On a plot level, it introduces relatable tween issues—triangulation, standing up for your beliefs, your friends, etc. Nora’s definitely in the next couple of books.

Kate often quotes Eleanor Roosevelt, “We must do the thing we think we cannot,” sometimes angrily, sometimes with pride. Has this quote been particularly important to you in your life?

I feel like I first read Eleanor Roosevelt on a neighbor’s whiskey glass when I was a kid: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I liked the idea of it, although I’m still not sure I agree. Then, I came upon, “Do one thing that scares you every day,” in my early teens. And THAT scared me. (That’s when I first started imagining Rooseveltzilla, tearing up the streets of New York in her black Oxfords.) Kate’s quote is the one I try to live by.

How is plotting a series different than plotting an individual title? Have you envisioned a dramatic arc for the whole Kate the Great series?

I should have, shouldn’t I?! I just heard the creators of The Good Wife on Fresh Air yesterday, and they’ve known all along how the series will end. KTG: Except When She’s Not was my first novel—plotting one novel had a pretty sizable learning curve. As for the series, I tend to think more in terms of character and relationship (family, friendship) arcs, hoping that there will be a fourth, fifth, and fifteenth book some day.

You’ve had such a varied career. What led you to writing for children? How is writing an illustrated memoir for adults the same/different from writing a book for kids?

I’ve wanted to write and illustrate children’s picture books for as long as I can remember. When I was eight, I wrote in my first journal, that “I want to write children’s books and live on a farm.” The thing was, I never met any authors growing up, so by the time I was in 8th grade, I figured it was something I would have to do in my retirement. (Wish I’d kept up the retirement planning.) I ended up studying international relations and economics, and then in my senior year of college, a friend decided to publish a story I’d written and illustrated (for fun) as the center spread of a literary magazine on campus. I got to see people reading and laughing at my work—so I did a career-planning 180ยบ. After a short stint in advertising copy writing (my first real job), I had my own greeting card company and a couple years into that, I published the cat book with Workman, which paved the way for my other titles.

I have ten books out, in six genres, I think—excellent for happy, interesting life-building, not so much for the brand-building. First, I’ll get an idea for a book, then the idea usually dictates the audience. When I work on any book, I imagine I am writing (and drawing) for one person. The creative process is the same, that person (someone I don’t know well, but has a friendly face) changes—either the middle-aged parent of a former student, or a ten year old friend of a friend of my daughters, for example.

Would you care to tell us more about some of your other titles?

I’ll tell you about one, then you should really go outside and play. The KIDS MAKE IT BETTER book is an anthology of kids’ solutions to world problems, with room for its owner to write and draw in her own answers. The book also includes profiles of kids under the age of ten who’ve made a difference, a resource guide and an action plan, so you can do something real about one or more of the problems. There are elementary schools who have adopted it school-wide and I hear from kids on a regular basis who have been inspired to do unpredictably wonderful things. One of my favorites was a junior girl scout troop’s smoking cessation campaign—the girls each asked a smoker they knew to show them how to light up. The results were powerful.

I love the premise for KIDS MAKE IT BETTER. I’ll definitely be checking that out.  What project/s are you working on now? 

I’m finishing up the final art for KATE THE GREAT: WINNER TAKES ALL, and starting KATE THE GREAT: BREAK A LEG. I’m also starting to do some work on a follow up to my first whiteboard animation HOW YOUTH LEARN .

Wow! That’s an impressive slate of projects. Thanks so much for being my blog guest today! You can find out more about Suzy Becker on her website  and you can follow her on facebook and twitter