Kim Norman’s latest picture book is the oh-so-groovy This Old Van (Sterling, August 4). Kim is one of the members in my critique group, the PBJeebies, and, let me tell you, there is so much to love about this book. It’s a real deal story based on a catchy and familiar tune. It involves a variety of vehicles. It’s genius.
Kim was kind enough to agree to an interview.
Kim, tell us about This Old Van.
Thanks, Tammi! It’s a rollicking ride in a click-clack-rattle-rack van piloted by a pair of happy hippy grandparents. On their way to a grandchild’s special event, they pass friendly vehicles like three tractors, four semi-trailers, ten dirt bikes, etc., so–like “This Old Man,” the song from which I took inspiration–it’s a counting book with a groovy twist.
I love behind-the-scenes skinny! Where did you get the idea for this book?
This is another book, like If It’s Snowy and You Know It, Clap Your Paws!, that’s based on a song that was a favorite in our house when my boys were little. I have video of my younger son, not quite two, encased in a body cast, singing “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” but his real most favoritest-favorite was “This Old Man,” which my husband or I sang to him every night in a rocking chair. I confess, I wasn’t as vigilant as my husband, who dutifully sang all ten verses. I’d skip a few numbers and hope to get away with it. As you mentioned, I’ve had some success with re-casting songs into children’s books, so this particular, beloved tune was ripe for a re-telling.
You are a master at using a familiar tune and retooling it into a fun and fresh story. Not only have you used this approach for This Old Van and If It’s Snowy and You Know It, Clap Your Paws!, but you’ve used it for Ten on the Sled as well. What’s your secret?
My dad was a huge punster, so some of my retellings start with a bit of a pun, simply turning a word in a song title, which gets the ideas popping. I remember I was sitting at my computer years ago, twisting titles that way, when the title Ten on the Sled popped into my head. I immediately thought, “Oooo. That’s good!” I dropped whatever I was doing and started writing the manuscript. Casting the story was fun because I got to research the sort of animals one would find in the arctic who might be riding on this crowded sled.
This Old Van is a similar title-twisting pun. Even though my parents weren’t hippies, it reminded me of the clunky VW bus that transported my family during the real hippy era, particularly around Guantanamo (Gitmo) naval base in Cuba. It’s a fond memory for me, but apparently my dad didn’t love it as much as we kids did. He used to threaten he was going to drive it into the bay before we returned home. He sold it on base before we returned stateside, so – who knows – Cuba is so famous for its pristine antique cars, maybe that old van is still tootling along the streets of Havana.
Did you face any particular challenges while writing this book?
Well, since you are responsible for some of my challenges, you ought to know the answer to that question, Tammi Sauer. LOL! One thing you caught, which needed fixing, was the fact that there were no real stakes if the hippy grandparents didn’t get to their destination by a certain time. So when I rhymed “late” with “eight,” (“now they’re running late!”) you called me on it, asking “What are they running late FOR?” I hadn’t established any particular “ticking clock” tension; they were simply on their way to visit a grandchild. After you pointed out the problem (lack of tension), I think we all brainstormed and came up with an opening scene where it’s clear they are leaving for the grandchild’s special event (not revealed until the end of the story) so they mustn’t be late. I can’t take credit for thinking of the brilliantly perfect event to which they’re traveling. That’s all thanks to illustrator Carolyn Conahan and her art director.
I also made a lot of extra work for myself when I decided that, instead of an unchanging refrain, I wanted to repeat the number again in each refrain. With this new revision, each refrain ended with, “This old van says ‘goodbye one!’” (or two or seven, whatever the number for that spread.) The trouble with making that change was, now, instead of rhyming a number only once per stanza, I had to rhyme it TWICE: once in the verse and once in the refrain that follows each stanza. Do you KNOW how few words rhyme with seven?!
I believe going that extra mile, even when it feels like extra work, is what makes a manuscript really stand out, so when I write in rhyme, I allow myself the more obvious and simple rhymes on the first draft, but after that, I try to dig deeper, choosing more unexpected words for the rhymes… AND (perhaps even more importantly) I don’t concentrate only on the end rhymes. I watched a wonderful rhyme workshop hosted by Kidlit411 during which Renee LaTulippe offered this advice: “Don’t just save the good stuff for the rhyme.” Yes yes yes! All rhyme writers should tattoo that onto both wrists! Because a rhyming children’s book isn’t just about the rhymes. It’s about surprising wordplay and pacing and humor and plot and all the other elements that go into any great children’s book.
Please give us a glimpse of your workspace.
This is my combined art room & office. I don’t illustrate my own books (so far!) but I like to unwind with the occasional art project. I usually stand at the drafting table and write – better for me than all those years I sat on my growing bottom at a newspaper office. Now and then, I grab thrift store stuffed animals that look like the characters in my books. The little gorilla is the newest, for my book, Still a Gorilla, coming out from Orchard next year.
The frames encircle some beloved Little Golden Books that I read to my sons when they were little.
Sometimes my dogs tumble around my feet while I’m trying to write so – I’m not kidding! – I went out and bought a little plastic wading pool that I stand in while I work. (No water, of course.) The dogs tumble AROUND the pool, but not in it, which saves me a few bruises. Lower left, you see their silver water. Shhh! Don’t tell the writers’ conference that awarded me the bowl. But honestly, I can’t think of a better use for a silver bowl. Why let it just sit, unused, gathering dust?
Kim, I know you’ve had a ton of success with school visits. Tell us about your new site called coolschoolvisits.com.
It’s my first WordPress site, so I’m still learning how to do things on the blog, but I’m having a great time, sharing the things I’ve learned over ten years of doing school visits. I wish there had been a resource like that when I was getting started. A lot of my author friends say the same. We all just stumbled around, making it up as we went along. Many subscribers to the blog are also experienced presenters, so they have generously shared their advice and experiences, too. It’s becoming a lovely community.
What are your top three pieces of advice when it comes to school visits.
- Keep all of your correspondence! As soon as I reply to an email, even if it’s just in reply to an inquiry (not a solidly booked visit yet) I still save my reply and the original email, so I’ll remember what we discussed. I’m not the world’s most organized person, but developing the habit of keeping every email (or taking careful notes, if the communication is via phone) has saved me a lot of time and worry.
- Another great time-saver was when I wrote up a thorough document that explains about my school visits: how much I charge, how to hold a book sale, etc. It was such a relief, after it was written, to just attach that to my reply when someone inquired about a school visit. Before I had that document, I spent a lot of time writing long emails, explaining over and over again, all of the details about my visits.
- When you’re doing the presentation, concentrate on the KIDS. Sure, you can throw in rare moments of humor to entertain the teachers, but keep 98% of your focus on the students.
Scoop time! What’s next for you?
Oops! Well, I already gave away Still a Gorilla, which is coming out in 2016, published by Orchard (Scholastic) and illustrated by Chad Geran. I’ve just seen Chad’s finished art and it’s so eye-popping and colorful! The book features a little gorilla named Willy who tries out being like other animals in the zoo, but keeps discovering that he’s “still a gorilla!”
Also in the works is a “three-quel” to Ten on the Sled, called She’ll be Coming Up the Mountain When She Comes, published by Sterling and again illustrated by Liza Woodruff. Another upcoming Sterling title is The Bot that Scott Built, illustrated by Agnese Baruzzi, about a robot that causes havoc at a school science fair.
I’m equally excited to have recently announced my first sale to Candlewick Press. It’s a rhyming picture book called Give Me Back My Bones. Really looking forward to working with the editor on that manuscript!
Many thanks for joining us at Picture Book Builders.
Kim was kind enough to offer a signed copy of This Old Van for one of our readers. Race to the end of this post and leave a comment to be in the running. The winner will be revealed in September.
Kim Norman is the author of more than a dozen children’s books published by Sterling, Scholastic and two Penguin imprints. Ten on the Sled, (Sterling, illustrated by Liza Woodruff) spent weeks on Barnes and Noble’s Top Ten bestseller list and has been released in Korean and German editions as well as appearing in Scholastic Book Fairs in schools around North America.
Among her books is I Know a Wee Piggy (2012, Dial Books for Young Readers, illustrated by Henry Cole), which was reviewed in the New York Times, and is listed on the Texas “2×2 Reading List,” as well being offered on the lineup of books carried by Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Her most recent title is This Old Van, published by Sterling Children’s Books, and illustrated by Carolyn Conahan. A sequel to Ten on the Sled, entitled If It’s Snowy and You Know It, Clap Your Paws, has been nominated for Tennessee’s Volunteer State Book Award (Primary Division.) Kim is represented by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency in San Diego.