the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog

Alicia Potter & MISS HAZELTINE'S HOME FOR SHY AND FEARFUL CATS

Posted by Adi Rule on Sat, May 09, 2015 @ 11:05 AM

We're not at all shy about our love for Alicia Potter's new picture book, Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful Cats, illustrated by Birgitta Sif, coming on May 12, 2015 from Knopf!

[UPDATE!] We're not the only ones who think this book is the cream of the crop. Miss Hazeltine has been named to the Summer 2015 Top Ten Kids' Indie Next List by the American Booksellers Association! Purr purr purr!

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What if you were shy?

What if you were a cat?

There would be a place where you belong: Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful Cats.

Miss Hazeltine has plenty of kitty company, and she gives her beloved scaredy-cats lessons in everything from Bird Basics to How Not to Fear the Broom.

The most timid of all is Crumb. He cowers in a corner. Miss Hazeltine doesn’t mind. But when she gets in trouble and only Crumb knows where she is, will he find his inner courage and lead a daring rescue?

Filled with adorable illustrations, Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful Cats is a tale with many tails … and a story that’s perfect for shy and fearful children, as it both helps them face scary situations and accepts them just as they are.

 

Welcome, Alicia. Crumb's (the kitten main character) story rings so true to those of us who have loved shy cats (and people). What was the spark that ignited this book?

For several years, I volunteered in the foster program at an animal shelter here in Boston. Many of the kittens I fostered were feral, and it was my job to transform them from petrified, hissing balls of fluff to socialized, adoptable balls of fluff. I had kittens who stayed under the bed for two weeks, kittens who’d run and hide whenever I moved, and one who growled the entire time he was eating. But their metamorphosis was so gratifying and poignant to me. There were many times when I thought a cat wasn’t going to come around and then, one day, it’s purring and sleeping on my head.

Some kittens, though, never got to this point. After a month, it was clear that they weren’t ever going to sit on your lap or love being picked up. They were friendly but preferred to just relax nearby. I started to call them “Next-To-You Cats,” because, given their inherent shyness, this was how they expressed their trust and affection – and it was enough. All of them went on to find homes.

And as someone who was an extremely shy child, I really identified with the idea that shyness isn’t something that you need to get over in order make a contribution or be loved. My hope is that Miss Hazeltine honors these cats and these kids.

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Who was your favorite character to write and why?

The cats. They demanded sharp, lively kitty verbs. And it was an interesting challenge to try to find the emotional overlap between cats and children. I wanted the cats, especially Crumb, to be true to feline behavior but also double as the point of identification for the reader. So their fears reflect some that I had as a child — I hated loud noises, hid from people I didn’t know well, and took a while to warm up to new situations.

 

Birgitta Sif's pictures have so much personality! What was it like to see the illustrations for the book come together?

Exciting! And surprising. During the writing process, I sometimes envisioned Miss Hazeltine as this wiry old woman, sort of the stereotypical cat lady. But I love that Birgitta goes the more unexpected route and depicts her as this young hipster in high tops. And the details in the illustrations add so much to the story. My favorite is the framed photo of the man on the chest of drawers. Who is he? On a school visit recently, I pointed him out to first-graders and asked if they thought Miss Hazeltine had a boyfriend and they all just went, “Ewww.”

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Tell us about your writing community and this book.

I talked about my incredibly helpful and supportive writing community in my last visit to the Launch Pad, but I wanted to give a shout-out to three VCFA alums who read a draft of Miss Hazeltine as part of a VCFA online picture book critique group. A big thank-you to Gretchen Géser, Barbara Santucci, and Dianne White! I was having some doubts about the manuscript at the time, and they gave me the confidence to stand by it.

 

What’s the weirdest thing that you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?

I suspect that I know more about “sea lettuce” than the average person.

 

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

The overall feeling of “These are my people.” That I didn’t have to explain to anyone how I was able to write children’s stories without having children, or answer my all-time favorite tooth-gritters: “How can someone review a picture book? What is there to review? (Really.) From day one, the program was all about the writing, and how to make it better alongside people who deeply valued this goal. That these very same people also deeply valued dancing to Madonna in Noble Hall was almost too good to be true.

 

There are a lot of Triple Threats at VCFA -- Write-Critique-Boogie! :)

Thanks so much for stopping by, Alicia. We're all purrs about Miss Hazeltine (and feel free to send more kitten pictures anytime)!

Alicia Potter also is the author of Jubilee!: One Man’s Big, Bold, and Very, Very Loud Celebration of Peace, illustrated by Matt Tavares, recipient of the Maine Library Association’s 2014 Lupine Award Picture Book Honor; Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, winner of the Cybils Best Nonfiction Picture Book 2012; and Fritz Danced the Fandango, illustrated by Ethan Long. 

Visit Alicia online at aliciapotterbooks.com.


Topics: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2015 release, picture book, Alicia Potter, Birgitta Sif

Who's Talking To VCFA Authors?

Posted by Adi Rule on Fri, Jun 06, 2014 @ 09:06 AM

It seems like you can't swing a cheese sandwich in the kidlitosphere without hitting a VCFA alum, faculty member, or student talking about a new project. Here's a sampling of what's been going on recently!

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Bethany Hegedus: Interview in Kirkus with Arun Gandhi about their new picture book, Grandfather Gandhi (Atheneum 2014).

Varian Johnson: Interview in Kirkus about his new middle grade novel, The Great Greene Heist (Arthur A. Levine Books 2014).

Alicia Potter: Interview in Boston Magazine about her new picture book, Jubilee! One Man's Big, Bold, and Very, Very Loud Celebration of Peace (Candlewick Press 2014), illustrated by Matt Tavares.

Trent Reedy: Q&A with Publishers Weekly about Divided We Fall (Arthur A. Levine Books 2014), the first book in his new YA trilogy.

Adi Rule: Mini-interview in USA Today's Happy Ever After blog about her new YA novel Strange Sweet Song (St. Martin's Press 2014).

describe the imageFor more info, visit BethanyVarianAliciaTrent, and Adi at their websites.

* * * This is just the tip of the iceberg! * * *

We'll be posting round-ups of more interviews and features from time to time. VCFA folks, remember to share your news with us! Fill out the form at the bottom of the righthand column on this blog, or let us know in person the next time we see you at the NECI café.

Photo: Gérald Tapp

Topics: Candlewick Press, 2014 release, round-up, Adi Rule, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Trent Reedy, St Martin's Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, Alicia Potter, Varian Johnson, Bethany Hegedus, Arun Gandhi, Matt Tavares

Alicia Potter and JUBILEE!

Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, Apr 08, 2014 @ 07:04 AM

We are JUBILANT about the launch of Alicia Potter and Matt Tavares's new picture book, Jubilee! One Man's Big, Bold, and Very, Very Loud Celebration of Peace. (One of the best titles ever.) It's out today from Candlewick Press.

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As a young boy growing up in Ireland, Partick Sarsfield Gilmore loved music — the louder, the better! In 1849, he brought this love of music to Boston, where he became a bandleader, and during the brutal Civil War, it was music that kept up his spirits and those of his fellow soldiers. But when the war ended and peace was restored to the country, Patrick found that not even the best bands seemed enough to celebrate such a momentous occasion.

One day, Patrick had an idea. It was a big idea. A bold idea. A very, very LOUD idea. He would create the biggest, boldest, loudest concert the world had ever known. A peace jubilee! It would last for five days and unite the whole country in celebration of the end of the war.

But with the citizens of Boston worried for their ears, even Patrick had to wonder: Just how would all this sound?

In this picture-book biography of the man who went on to be hailed as the “Father of the American Band,” author Alicia Potter and illustrator Matt Tavares applaud the power of one big, bold, and very, very LOUD idea.

Welcome, Alicia! What was the spark that ignited this book? (The prelude to this book? The fanfare that heralded this book?)

I first read about Patrick S. Gilmore and the National Peace Jubilee in my neighborhood newspaper. There was an article about which prominent Bostonian next deserved a statue in a nearby park, and Patrick was one of the people mentioned. I thought, How could I live in Boston for 20 years and not know about this man? The concert took place a few blocks from my house!

I did some preliminary research and was immediately struck by Patrick’s vision and drive. And his photo. I loved the contrast of this dapper little guy putting on this amazing, internationally acclaimed spectacle. When I read that the concert involved a giant bass drum AND the world’s largest pipe organ, I was totally in.

03332vWe love that photo, too! So who (we can probably guess!) was your favorite character to write and why?

Patrick, of course! I’ve been lucky with my two picture-book biographies in that each of my subjects wrote books about their accomplishments. In Patrick’s case, he compiled a 700-page account of the making of the Jubilee — he truly did nothing small-scale! His voice rings out from every page, and I not only got a real sense of the resistance he faced, but also his boundless energy and enthusiasm. He was not a man who shied away from an exclamation point! His love of music sustained him even when it seemed like the whole concert might fall through. I tried to echo his voice in the style of the writing.

What authors do you love for their sentences? How about plot? Character?

I have to go with William Steig — for everything! He’s the author who made me want to try writing for kids. His books are long by today’s standards, but it’s that 1,000-plus-words length that allows him to create characters with really deep emotions, plots that are funny and moving and weird, and rolling sentences with unexpected word choices. I love the phrase “phosphorescent sea” in Amos and Boris (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), and the ending in Farmer Palmer’s Wagon Ride (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974), where Ebenezer the donkey is “in bed with a poultice on his sprained hock.” As if “sprained hock” wasn’t great enough, we get to say “poultice.”

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

I was hands-down the World’s Worst Reviser coming into Vermont. If I had written a story, why, it was carved in stone. I was getting revision letters from editors and really had no idea what to do with them, never mind completely ripping a manuscript apart and starting over. The packet process changed that. For my first semester, I wrote two new picture books and revised two picture books per packet. I now really like revising.

The structure and demands of the program also helped with the fact that I tend to have a lot of ideas, write half a draft, and then either get stuck or intrigued by another idea that I think is better. Even now, to find my focus, I ask myself, “If you had a packet due in a month, what stories would you include?” It allows me to figure out which manuscripts I feel most drawn to or which are in the best shape to actually get finished.

Tell us about your writing community. Are you in a critique group? Does your son or mom read your early drafts? Is Twitter your bastion of support?

I have a very diverse — maybe surprisingly so — writing community. My critique group here in Boston is comprised of three abundantly talented YA writers who are VCFA alums: Katie Bayerl, Liz Cook, and Adi Rule. Their perspective is invaluable to me, even though we’re working in different genres. They will always push me to examine motivation and heighten emotion, and they understand implicitly what I want to convey in my stories. And they’re funny!

My fellow “Wild Thing” Bethany Hegedus has been a great writer friend ever since our second day of residency, when we squished half our class into a car to avoid walking downtown in sub-zero temps (I believe I sat on her lap). She knows picture book pace and structure inside out. And while my partner Peter isn’t a children’s book author, he is a writer and film critic with a tremendous imagination and sense of story. I often talk through a manuscript with him, because I find that it helps me to explain a plot out loud. He is very tolerant of breakfast conversations that start along the lines of: “Okay, so there’s this bunny, and his next door neighbor is having a yard sale, but he has nothing to sell …”

What do you wish you had known before you first set foot on the VCFA campus?

That the NECI cookies would ruin me for all other cookies. I have never loved a cookie the same way again.

It's true! We weep thinking of those cookies!

Thanks so much for stopping by, and congratulations on your launch. We hope it's big, bold, and very, very loud!

Alicia Potter is also the author of Fritz Danced the Fandango, illustrated by Ethan Long, and Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, winner of the Cybils Best Nonfiction Picture Book 2012. Her next picture book, Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful Cats, illustrated by Birgitta Sif, is due out next year. Visit her online at aliciapotterbooks.com.

Topics: Candlewick Press, 2014 release, picture book, Alicia Potter, Matt Tavares

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