On Nailing the Kid-Friendly: Author Cynthia
Leitich Smith — With Lots of Art from Barry Gott

h1 December 1st, 2010 by jules

(Hoo boy. I haven’t had my coffee yet this morning, but I think I’m awake now. How ’bout you?)

My oldest child screamed as a baby. A LOT. No, I mean really. People say that about their kids, but I mean to tell you it was for no discernible reason and at all times. To the notion of the “witching hour,” or babies crying for the same period of time every day in the early evening, she gave the middle finger and said she could do it way better and longer. Unless mama was holding her. If not, she was taking it out on the world somethin’ fierce. It’s like she created her own kind of whacked-out colic — to some kind of pathological degree, or so it seemed at that time. (Dr. William Sears has a name for this, which comes closer to anything else I’ve ever read and rather saved me at that time, and for that reason, I will hug that man’s neck if I ever meet him. But I digress — and remarkably so.)

Pictured above in that invigorating illustration is Holler Loudly. He would have put my screamin’ wee babe to the test. Not to mention his tall-tale adventure is much funnier.

This all comes from Cynthia Leitich Smith’s new picture book, Holler Loudly (Dutton, November 2010), illustrated by Barry Gott. The story centers, naturally, on Holler, who cried so loud when he was born that “every hound dog in the county rolled up his ears and tossed back his head to bay,” not to mention “the armadillos woke from their naps and the turkey vultures dropped their feathers.” At every turn, he was told to hush, but he couldn’t: Every few generations this just happens to the poor Loudly family.

(Click to enlarge spread and sketch.)

As you can see below in the illustrations Barry shares this morning (he’s also showing some early sketches from the book), Holler loves school, going to the movies, fishing, the state fair, and much more, but he’s simply too loud where ever he goes. He is finally able to hush himself, though I won’t give the whole story away, and—seeing as how this is a rip-roarin’ contemporary tall tale—he also saves the day, becoming a hero with the one thing that slowed him down to begin with.

Cynthia—the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of Eternal and Tantalize, award-winning author for younger children (Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes, and Rain Is Not My Indian Name), and faculty member at the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults—is here this morning to talk a bit about the evolution of this story. She discusses how she started with a book not-so kid-friendly but how she managed to get there after all. Having heard from teacher- and librarian-friends in the field (who are with more than the same two children every day, as I currently am), I’d say she’s succeeded. I hear it’s a sure-fire hit with the wee ones (and is with my own). Publishers Weekly, in their starred review, praises its “sass aplenty,” its “prose as raucous as its protagonist,” and not only Barry’s “funky, hyperbolic” cartoon art work, but also the interplay between text and art.

And, at its heart, this is a book about what it feels like to be misunderstood. I have a special place in my heart for misfits. Both author and illustrator tell this particular misfit’s tale with warmth, humor, and spunk.

Thanks to Cynthia for stopping by. For fans, note that she says: “At the moment, I’m busy working on books for teens—novels and graphic novels. I must say, though, that having a background in picture books and traditional prose novel writing has been a huge help to me in diving into the graphic format.”

{Note: You can click on most of the spreads and sketches below to super-size and see in more detail. These are all final spreads from the book, as well as sketches from Barry.}

Cynthia: I often refer to HOLLER LOUDLY as “a heart book.”

It took six years—with long pauses—to get it right. Two or three times, I gave up on the manuscript completely.

The original title was Hush, and the story was a realistic, contemporary one. My initial concept was that a boy nicknamed “Hush” simply wanted to be heard, but all of the grown-ups in his life kept telling him to be quiet.

In that earliest draft, Hush was saddened by the closing of the old theater and the public library, which had become too small for the growing community. He saved the day at a town meeting by suggesting that the library be relocated to the theater building. It also turned out that Hush’s real name was “Holler Loudly,” and the townsfolk decided to name that new library building after him.

It had some elements going for it. The story was character-driven. The hero had a clear want, and he solved the problem. But it was also too predictable and not kid-friendly enough. I’d probably attended too many city/county council meetings as a news reporter. Recalling that experience likely distanced me from the young reader point-of-view.

A couple of months later, Kathi Appelt took a look at the story and offered some helpful notes. Kathi is my dear friend, colleague on the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) MFA faculty, and my original children’s writing teacher.

With her guidance, the story’s finale shifted to the town square and involved Holler taking ownership of his own name and suggesting the library move. It was a definite improvement, but the stakes—though they would affect children—still felt too adult.

In 2004, I did a revision for editor Paula Wiseman. Though she ultimately passed on the book, Paula suggested heightening the voice and centering Holler’s journey on a few locations (the movie theater, the school, the fishing hole, and finally, the state fair) before he went to hear Gramps and Gramps’ cat, Gus, sing in their barbershop quartet.

In this re-imagined version, the town is still significant (almost a character unto itself), but there are no city services/historical preservation issues.

Also, it was Paula who suggested that I underscore the love that Mama and Daddy Loudly have for Holler, even when they themselves have totally lost patience with him.

Paula’s comments had a huge impact, and some of her suggested language survived to the final book. About this time, the story was called Holler: A Very Loud Boy.

The next major event was a revision request from Mark McVeigh at Dutton in early 2006. Mark had been my editor on Santa Knows, co-authored by Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman. Mark wanted an explanation as to why Holler was so loud, and he wanted a much bigger resolution.

I was stymied. But that summer I attended a “special day” on the picture book at VCFA. Editor Melanie Kroupa spoke about various manuscripts that she’d acquired of late and focused for a while on the tall-tale tradition. I can’t tell you what it was exactly that Melanie said, but I was already scribbling my revision before she finished talking.

Being loud came naturally to Holler, I realized. Every few generations a Loudly baby was just born loud, and Holler had been a lucky one!

And he wasn’t just loud! He was so LOUD that the pecans fell from the pecan trees and the prickly pear cacti sprouted more needles. So LOUD that every hound dog in the county rolled up his ears and tossed back his head to bay.

He was a tall-tale hero! A legend in his own time! He needed a bigger, bolder, BADDER adversary than just a handful of scolding adults, and thus was born the sassy tornado!

It took a few more tweaks, but my final electronic draft of the story is dated July 2007. That wasn’t the true end of my involvement of course, given the production process.

But those are the bold strokes that got Holler to where he is today. At least from an author’s point-of-view.

I’m hugely appreciative to all of the readers mentioned above, plus my critique group at that time (Anne Bustard, Sean Petrie, Tim Crow, and Greg Leitich Smith), as well as editor Maureen Sullivan, formerly of Dutton, who took over after Mark left the company (he’s now a literary agent), and editorial assistant Andrew Harwell, who stepped up to usher Holler Loudly (Dutton, 2010) out the gate.

But most of all, I’d like to cheer illustrator Barry Gott, who brought so much energy, texture, and, well, VOLUME to Holler’s story. I love the folksy humor in his art, the mini character arcs added in the illustrations, and the emotions he evokes.

Mama and Daddy’s expressions stand out most to me, maybe because I share their mixed parenting feels toward this very expressive young character.

And I simply adore Miz Poofy, who’s mentioned in the story and shown repeatedly in the illustrations. You’ll recall that a public library was at the heart of the first draft, and I brought it back in—with a twist—to the final one. I’ll never forget turning to that last page and shouting, “Miz Poofy is the librarian! Miz Poofy is the librarian!”

Of COURSE she is! But until Barry showed me, I had no idea.

* * * * * * *

Thanks to Cynthia for visiting. She tells me that the book is dedicated to her first childhood public library in Grandview, Missouri, and her current public library in Austin, Texas.

For more information on Cynthia, visit her website, named one of the top 10 Writer Sites on the Internet by Writer’s Digest and an ALA Great Website for Kids. Her Cynsations blog was listed as among the top two read by the children’s/YA publishing community in the SCBWI “To Market” column.

Barry’s website is here, and his “sketchedybook”/blog is here. Enjoy.

For more Holler Loudly treats, in more ways than one, see Jama Rattigan’s mid-November post.

* * * * * * *

HOLLER LOUDLY. Text copyright © 2010 Cynthia Leitich Smith. Illustration copyright © 2010 Barry Gott. Published by Dutton Children’s Books, New York. All illustrations re-printed with permission of Barry Gott.

17 comments to “On Nailing the Kid-Friendly: Author Cynthia
Leitich Smith — With Lots of Art from Barry Gott”

  1. I love hearing about the journey of this book, and not just because I was involved. In fact, it was great to learn “the rest of the story.”

    So glad to see this book come to life.

  2. If Holler Loudly is kid friendly then Cyn is people friendly. What a book journey. I love how you roped in everyone’s contribution to every word.

    Thanks, Jules and Barry and Cyn.

  3. *covering ears*

    Loved learning more of the backstory behind this boisterous title — quite an evolution!

    More chocolate chip cookies, please.

  4. Oh my! That definitely was quite a few illustrations, but I completely agree with you about Barry Gott’s energy. Just incredible! I can’t wait to pick up a copy and share it with my kiddos, the older of which fell into the “crazy screaming baby” category as well. Lovely post!

  5. What a great story about a great story! This would be a great workshop example. I’m going to forward the blog link to my list serve.

  6. What a riot! I can hardly wait to read ‘Holler Loudly’ to my grandsons who also holler loudly. Thanks, Cynthia and Barry, for creating a delightful book that I’m sure will become a classic in children’s literature.

  7. This is a terrific interview and a great discussion of what it takes to make a great picture book. Thanks!

  8. […] Seven Impossible Things interviews Cynthia Leitich Smith. […]

  9. Loved hearing the journey of HOLLER LOUDLY! There are so many ways to “re-see” a picture book that’s in-the-works, and it was great to hear the progression from “spark” to BOOK!!

  10. thanks for sharing your book experience. It was a real treat to go behind the scenes in both the writing process and the art. The writing and illustrations compliment each other perfectly!

  11. I can’t wait to hear stories from librarians about sharing this with groups of kids. Earplugs optional. Congrats to Cyn and Barry!

  12. Incredible interview! I’ll be using this for years as an example of demystifying a picture book writer’s work. Thank you Jules and Cyn!

  13. […] This wonderful author interview at Seven Impossible Things. […]

  14. This is such a fabulous peek at Cyn’s process during Holler’s evolution. Thank you both!

  15. […] Leitich Smith gives an in incredibly generous and instructive interview to Julie Danielson at the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog about the six year gestation of her newly published  picture book Holler Loudly,  illustrated […]

  16. […] Leitich Smith gives an incredibly generous and instructive interview to Julie Danielson at the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog about the six year gestation of her new picture book Holler Loudly,  illustrated by Barry Gott […]

  17. […] Leitich Smith gives an incredibly generous and instructive interview to Julie Danielson at the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog about the six-year gestation of her newly published picture book Holler Loudly,  illustrated […]

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