Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast #76:
Gail Gauthier & Chattin’ About Chapter Books

h1 July 1st, 2008 by jules

There are two reasons we’re pleased that author Gail Gauthier has stopped by 7-Imp for a cyber-chat today: First, she’s in the midst of a blog tour for her second early chapter book about Hannah, Brandon, and one monster cat named Buttercup. A Girl, a Boy, and Three Robbers—the sequel to 2007’s A Girl, a Boy, and a Monster Cat—hits the bookshelves this month and continues the story of Brandon, reluctantly sent to neighbor Hannah’s house for after-school care. Hannah, to put it mildly, has quite the imagination, not to mention a ginormous, over-sized cat. In these new adventures of Hannah and Brandon, Hannah’s neighbors, the Sunderland triplets, try to steal the cat, Brandon and Hannah then setting out to save Buttercup. Just like the first book, A Girl, a Boy, and Three Robbers is high-energy, packed with adventure, and told with spot-on humor to the elementary students at which it’s aimed, those just becoming interested in chapter books. The books, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, are illustrated by Joe Cepeda; some of the interior art from the new book is included below in this interview.

The second reason we’re happy to host Gail today is that she is a formidable presence in the kidlitosphere corner of Blogistan and has been since 2002. We are chatting with her today as not only an author but also as a blogger — one I’ve wanted to interview for a long while now. (And, no, we haven’t forgotten our blogger interviews. It just so happens that the last three people we’ve asked to interview are terribly multi-faceted and in-demand and . . . well, busy. We’ve stalled on that interview series for a bit out of necessity. But we’re patient. And I digress.)

Where was I? Over at Gail’s blog, Original Content, Gail talks a little bit about Everything Kidlit — her writing, trends, other books, publishing, blogging, etc. And what I love in particular is that she tells it like it is and isn’t afraid to pose questions — whether she’s talking about her thoughts on award-winning books, authors blogging, celebrity authors, or why blog reviews are important.

If you need a Gail Gauthier 101, her web site lays everything out pretty clearly. Her current work (other than the aforementioned early chapter books) includes 2006’s Happy Kid! (Putnam’s)—what Kirkus Reviews called an “amiable, malice-free send-up of self-help” and Booklist described as a “rewarding novel of adolescent angst and growth”—and 2001’s The Hero of Ticonderoga (also published by Putnam’s). The latter, set in rural Vermont in 1966, tells the story of sassy Thérèse, who learns a great deal about Vermont hero Ethan Allen when writing a report on him for school. The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books wrote, “{b}ackground issues of sixth-grade squabbles, jealousies, and busted friendships are right on the mark, and it’s thoroughly refreshing to find a protagonist who is a perfectly average student with parents who love her just the way she is.” Gail’s web site also includes a page for each book she labels “not-so-current,” including books she touches on below.

We’d like to thank Gail for taking the time to chat with us about her new book, blogging, and her thoughts on those books that fall somewhere between picture books and YA titles, the ones that fall under so many names: Intermediate-aged readers, beginning readers, emerging readers, chapter books, early chapter books, and more. Without further ado, here’s Ms. Gauthier:

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Go upstairs and hunt for Buttercup!7-Imp: What were some of the challenges, if any, in writing a second story about Hannah and Brandon?

Gail: The first book was written as a series of short stories with a story arc—starting with the second story, they all related to a neighbor’s dog. I wanted to use the same structure in the second book. Coming up with a new arc was the hardest part.

7-Imp: What made you want to write for a slightly younger audience with A Girl, a Boy, and a Monster Cat -– to write early chapter books, that is?

Gail: I speak to middle grade students at elementary schools. I met some teachers of younger students who said they wished I could talk to their kids. I felt that in order to talk to younger kids I needed to have a book to talk to them about. That meant I had to write one. I originally tried for a picture book, but a couple of people suggested that the material I was working with would be more appropriate for a chapter book.

7-Imp: Have you found that it’s more difficult, by chance, to get publicity for what are considered chapter books than it is for middle-grade novels? And is that even what you call them -– “chapter books”? As you know from this post I did recently, I think there can be some confusion out there as to the differences between “emerging readers,” “chapter books,” “early chapter books,” “early reader chapter books,” etc. Do you agree that there’s some confusion as to how they’re classified?

We have to find a way to get across this river!Gail: At my blog I tend to just refer to them as “books for younger kids,” trying to avoid dealing with the very thing you’re talking about. I definitely agree there’s some confusion. I’ve always thought that categorizing children’s books is a lot like sizing clothes—there doesn’t seem to be an industry-wide standard. Company A’s early chapter book may be comparable to Company B’s emerging reader. I’ve also seen chapter books lumped in with middle grade books, as if that category covers anything that’s not a picture book or YA. Determining reading level may be an art rather than a science.

As far as getting publicity is concerned, two years ago my book Happy Kid! was published. Reviews appeared right on time, and there was a satisfactory number of them. A year later, A Girl, a Boy, and a Monster Cat was published. It was picked up by the Junior Library Guild before publication, but it received a little less than half as many print and on-line reviews as Happy Kid! did. I have been told that that has been the case with other books for that age group—there isn’t that big a response.

7-Imp: Tell us how writing a chapter book is different from writing a middle-grade novel.

Gail: This sounds really simplistic, but the biggest factor I had to deal with was the expected attention span of my readers. I tried to model the structure of The Hannah and Brandon Stories on my first book, My Life Among the Aliens, which was a book of short stories, all related and with a culminating story. (The structure of that book, by the way, was inspired by the Soup books by Robert Newton Peck, though I can’t remember whether or not he had a climactic story in his books.) So with Hannah and Brandon I wasn’t trying to write a true novel the way I was when I wrote A Year with Butch and Spike or The Hero of Ticonderoga.

The length of the stories became a problem. Aliens was published as a middle grade book, though it would probably be considered for the younger end of middle grade. Nonetheless, middle grade students could be expected to read the length of the stories. The stories I wrote for Monster Cat, I realized after the fact, were too long for newer, less experienced readers. The first story was okay, but the other four had to be broken into two chapters each to give the readers a break. So I wrote the second book with the same structure.

7-Imp: Do you have strong opinions about what you think some of the more high-quality early chapter books are? Any recommendations, in other words?

Gail: I think the far-fetched superhero stories for this age group don’t work very well. They seem very formulaic and trite. The storylines often aren’t very engaging even within the universe in which they’re supposed to take place. The humor is often forced. I haven’t seen a lot of genre stories for younger kids yet, but I did like Jack Bolt and the Highwaymen’s Hideout, a time travel story by Richard Hamilton. Otherwise, so far I’m finding that more realistic stories seem to work better. I’m fond of Ivy + Bean by Annie Barrows. {Ed Note: An interior image from Book 4 is pictured above, used with permission from illustrator Sophie Blackall.} I think the Junie B. Jones books are well-written, though I find Junie to be an adult’s idea of an exasperating small child who says childishly amusing things. Nonetheless, I can understand why the books are highly regarded.

7-Imp: Have you ever considered writing a sequel for a book other than the first Hannah/Brandon tales? Do students’ and other readers’ emails and letters about their love for your books ever tempt you to do so?

Gail: I did write a sequel (Club Earth) to my first book, My Life Among the Aliens. This was back in the late ‘90s. While there were certainly children’s series back then, they weren’t quite as all over the place as they are now. Fans of the first book didn’t seem to find the second one. It wasn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy experience.

A lot of readers asked for a sequel to A Year with Butch and Spike. That book was loved. But I was afraid a second book wouldn’t live up to the first one. I didn’t want anything to taint that book.

{Ed. Note: Here’s one fan who DID find Club Earth — eventually. Click on the image to read Sam’s post} . . .

Get him! Get the cat!7-Imp: You’ve been blogging since 2002 (correct?). Why did you start? How does blog-writing support and/or interfere with your writing?

Gail: I’m always dwelling on how long I’ve been blogging, but I’ve had a website for a long time, too, probably since ’96 or ’97. We started with the website so long ago that while we were in the process of creating it, my publisher made the decision to allow its authors to use the covers of their books on their sites. Websites were so new that that decision had to be made. So I’d had the website for a few years by the time I started the blog. My blog is part of my website. I created the blog to bring traffic to the website. Websites are very important, but they’re quite static. We only update mine every couple of months or so. Visitors come to a website to get whatever information they’re looking for, and then there’s not much reason for them to come back. I had heard about author blogs while I was still a member of the Readerville community. I thought a blog would provide new material at the website on a much more frequent basis so that people would come back. They would come back, they would remember my name, they would read about my new books. They would read about me, me, me, me!

I consider my blog part of my marketing, so I don’t feel the time I give to it interferes with my writing. Marketing needs to be done.

7-Imp: Tell us about your writing process, starting wherever you like: getting the idea, starting to write, under deadline, etc. Do you outline plot before you write or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up? (You’ve mentioned your “poor work habits” more than once at your blog. O! Say it isn’t so!)

Gail: Oh, it is so very, very true. I got a lot worse after I started publishing. Before that point, I was ignorant and thought every word I spewed out was magic. After that point, I think I became discouraged about the number of drafts I ended up doing for each project. I lock up over the threat of writing crap and rather than work through it, I head off to a news site to see if anything weird is going on in the world that I really need to be informed about.

In the past, I would have an idea, maybe for years, and finally start working with it. I would work for a while, not like what I was doing, and start again. You’re absolutely not supposed to do that. All your best writer advisors say, write right through to the end and then revise. I wish I could. I tend to think in terms of metaphor and analogy. I think of writing a book as like building a house. (As if I’ve built a house.) I need a really good first chapter for my foundation. Many times when I’m starting over again, it’s because I can’t go forward until I have that foundation. I might do a little outlining so that I have a plan for the next few pages. I use freewriting to help when I’m stuck. I think freewriting is wonderful for that.

Last year I was working on a new project that I talked about a lot at my blog. I haven’t sold the book yet and need to do another draft before I try again. But I think I learned a lot of new things about writing process while working on it. I started freewriting on the word processor instead of in a writing journal, which is so much better. I was always losing the journal and then staring off into space while I was stuck. I did freewriting around the basic elements—characters, setting, plot—to help generate material before I even started writing. I tried to meet word goals each day. I used a spread sheet to help me keep track of where I was. No matter what happens with that book, I think the experience of writing it has given me a much more coherent process.

Though, of course, will a coherent writing process result in a publishable book? Only time will tell.

7-Imp: Tell us about your school visits. Do they inform your work as a writer in specific ways?

Little 'ol ButtercupGail: When I go into a school. I want to talk about something the kids can go back into their classrooms and use. For years I’ve been talking about using experience in writing. (My own writing draws very, very heavily on my own life and those of my sons.) This spring I created a new program around A Girl, a Boy, and a Monster Cat that describes how writers experiment with character, plot, and setting in the early stages of writing. (My new slides have animation! I’m so excited!)

Several years ago, I started eating lunch in the cafeteria with the kids while I’m in schools. I try to dip into kid culture. Some info I picked up at lunch made its way into the first Hannah and Brandon book, so, yes, there is a very specific way that the school visits inform my work.

7-Imp: How often do you write for Literary Mama and have you ever considered longer nonfiction/essay pieces (for either adults or children) for publication?

Gail: I believe I submitted some fiction and maybe another essay to Literary Mama before they published “Mom Memory.” I don’t think I’ve had a chance to finish any nonfiction since then. I’m interested in trying to write a book of essays (not a memoir) about my experiences as an adult martial arts student. I have a number of pieces started. The essays in Literary Mama and VerbSap were both objectives toward that goal. Back in 2002, I had an essay published in English Journal. I have an idea for another piece that might be appropriate for a professional journal.

7-Imp: As book lovers, it interests us: What books or authors influenced you as an early reader?

Gail: I cannot say enough about how important Little Men was to me. I wanted to be Jo in Little Men. In college I did a paper on Louisa May Alcott, which led me to my superficial interest in the Transcendentalists. In eighth grade I read Mark Twain’s autobiography. I don’t remember much about it, but I do recall telling my mother after I finished the book that if Twain were still alive, I would write him a letter. I read a lot of Shirley Jackson in high school, both her mommy books and her dark ones. In high school and college (maybe more so in college) I read a lot of Agatha Christie. The Miss Marple series made a particular impression. The whole theory behind those books is that all the different personality types and situations you encounter in the world will be encountered on another level within a small village.

Christie impressed upon me the significance of the everyday, and Alcott suggested there is something spiritual about it. Jackson opened my mind to the darkness in those same everyday situations. I liked the way Twain used humor as social commentary about…wait for it… everyday life.

7-Imp: If you could have three (living) authors—who you’ve yet to meet—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Gail: Rick Riordan—I heard him speak last fall, and he seems quite charming, plus I’m interested in his adult writing and I like Percy Jackson; K. M. Grant—I loved her book, How the Hangman Lost His Heart, plus her family has an ancestral home complete with a chapel—what do you suppose that does to your understanding of the past?; and David Sedaris—Everyone wants to meet David Sedaris.

7-Imp: Are you working on any new books or any other writing projects you can tell us about?

Gail: I want to fix up last year’s book, revise some short stories, and work on some black belt essays. Plus I’ve been thinking about this bizarre project that would involve many, many very short stories for kids.

7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Gail: If you’ve read a selection of my work, you probably know as much about me as you want to.

7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Gail: My wish is always that they ask me things I can answer without sounding boring or ignorant.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Gail: “Evidently.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Gail: “Boob” or any of its variations.

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Gail: Passion. If you’re excited about something, if something truly interests you and you pursue it, then I’ll find it interesting, too.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Gail: Arrogance and elitism.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Gail: “Bite me.”

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Gail: The sound of my husband and sons coming in the door and up the stairs.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Gail: Other peoples’ noise after 10 o’clock at night.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Gail: Cultural historian.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Gail: Undertaker.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Gail: “Of course, we’re going to let your loved ones in, too. It wouldn’t be Heaven if they weren’t here.”

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The Remainder of Gail’s Blog Tour:

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For more online information about Gail:

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Smaller b/w images and cat image from A GIRL, A BOY, AND THREE ROBBERS by Gail Gauthier, illustration © 2008 by Joe Cepeda, posted by permission of author. All rights reserved.

Ivy and Bean image from IVY AND BEAN: TAKE CARE OF THE BABYSITTER — BOOK 4 by Annie Barrows, illustration © 2008 by Sophie Blackall, posted by permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

10 comments to “Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast #76:
Gail Gauthier & Chattin’ About Chapter Books”

  1. Since I usually read YA stuff, I hadn’t come across too much of Gail’s work — until HAPPY KID. Which cracked me the heck up. Now I want to find the Ticonderoga book as well. Thanks for an informative interview!

  2. Lovely interview, ladies! As usual, you’ve done an amazing profile. But I must ask, did you leave any question for the rest of us?! Thank goodness I’m not following you…. Oh heck, I am! (But not directly!)

  3. Thanks, you guys. Tricia, I’m sure your interview will be splendid. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  4. Loved reading about Gail’s process. Going to read her blog now. Thanks for the lovely interview!

  5. As I mentioned at my own blog today, this inteview was the first time I’ve felt comfortable talking about writing process. In the past, if someone asked about it, I’d sort of go, “Ah…” and hope to change the subject.

    So thank you for asking, Jules. I don’t need to be afraid of process any longer.

  6. Love the dojang photo. And picture from Three Robbers of the three kids just cackling away was one of my favorites.

    And speaking as the person who does have to immediately follow this comprehensive interview, thanks guys, thanks a lot. (grumbling). But seriously, it’s great to see Gail getting the full 7-Imp treatment as an author and a blogger.

  7. Great interview, jules and eisha! Gail, it was great to get to know you better. I love the tae kwon do picture, too! (Am I remembering right that it’s tae kwon do that you train in?)

  8. Yes, Sheila. There was a taekwondo school next door to the yoga studio where I was taking a class, and that’s how I stumbled into tkd.

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