Have you always wanted to be an writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I first understood that books were created by people. I’ve always had a strong compulsion to take part in the creative process rather than just consume the finished products. So when I was quite young I started making picture books. I struggled with how to write a story as involving and exciting as the ones I loved. Later on, I filled notebooks with poems, stories, and unfinished novels.
Why do you write for young people?
Many writers point to their early reading experiences as formative. I think my relationship with books as a child was so powerful that I haven’t been able to leave children’s literature behind. Though I read and love a lot of literature written for adults, I have an even deeper love for children’s books. When I decided that I wanted to be a writer (way back when I was a child) I knew that I wanted to write the kind of books I loved — and those were children’s books. It is a fantasy of mine that one of my books might end up being part of the formative experience of another writer. Picture books also give me the opportunity to work on projects that combine writing and visual art, which I have also always loved. Though I’m not an illustrator myself, I like creating texts that will work in tandem with images. And it’s very exciting for me to see how an illustrator will bring those ideas to life!
My ideas tend to come from snippets of language that I find interesting, fun, or beautiful. Sometimes they come from images or fleeting thoughts. I find it important to write down these seeds of ideas, so my notebooks have lists of rather cryptic words and phrases. I’ll then refer back to the lists when I’m looking for an idea to develop. I’ll spend time thinking, sometimes days or weeks, about how these bits of ideas could be turned into stories. Sometimes I start with a deep question I want to ask or an underlying theme for the story, and sometimes I’ll discover it after I’ve been working for a while.
Where specifically did the idea for “Duck Sock Hop” come from?
I can’t remember how the words came into my head, but the idea for Duck Sock Hop grew out of the words “sock hopping/sock shopping.” written in my notebook. The words are written in my husband Michael’s handwriting, which means we must have been bouncing ideas off of each other. We have a silly streak, and sometimes ideas for picture books will come out of conversations in which we each try to make the other laugh harder with successively ridiculous bits of nonsense. At the time I wrote the first draft of Duck Sock Hop, I had a merry band of duck characters in my head. They featured in a couple of stories, the first of which was Ducks Go Vroom, which ended up being my first published book. The word “duck” went so well with the word “sock” that I decided my ducks would hold a sock hop. The visual of ducks wearing socks was very appealing to me! The ducks in Duck Sock Hop ended up being different ducks from the Ducks Go Vroom ducks, but they do have a jolly manic energy in common.
Do you work on more than one story at once?
I’m always reading at least two books at a time, and I’m always working on at least two stories. I tend to have a couple of picture books in first draft stage and a couple more in the later stages of revision. I’m petrified of novel writing, but I do also creep along on an idea I have for a longer work.
I feel like I have more than one writing voice. I have a voice that is very boisterous and humorous, and that’s the voice that comes out in Duck Sock Hop and Ducks Go Vroom, and I have more of a storyteller’s voice, like the one in Estie the Mensch, which tells more complex stories that are concerned with a character’s inner journey. I think what all my work has in common is a concern with language. I have a background in writing poetry, and finding just the right word, just the right sound, is very important to me, even in prose writing.
Do you have a say in the illustrations?
I have some say in the illustrations. I’ve been asked what I think of an illustrator when the publisher is considering someone. I’ve also, for each of my books, been sent drafts of the illustrations. I then give my editor comments, which she relays back to the art director and illustrator. I haven’t actually spoken with any of the illustrators of my books until after the book was finished, but it’s always wonderful to finally have contact with someone with whom you’ve created a work of art. I’ve had more contact with Jane Porter, the illustrator of Duck Sock Hop, than with any of the other illustrators of my books. It’s been wonderful getting to know her a bit via email and Twitter and collaborating on promoting the book. And even though Jane lives in London, we will be meeting this summer when she comes to Massachusetts. We’ll even get to do an event together on August 22nd at Westwinds Bookshop in Duxbury.
Why do you think this book will appeal to children?
When I was very little, my mother would recite nursery rhymes to me, stopping before the end of each line so I could chime in with the rest. I have always loved language, words said aloud, rhymes, alliteration, assonance, rhythm. I loved them in picture books and poetry and I try to create picture books texts that live up to that love. I think the appeal of language that’s fun to say is almost universal, so I think the rhythm and rhyme of Duck Sock Hop will appeal to children and even to babies, who will love the bouncy sounds even if they don’t understand all the words. I also think that the humor and energy of the book (ducks dancing in socks!) will appeal to children. Jane Porter’s ducks are funny and lovable without being cloyingly cute.
I don’t really have a typical day. I have a chronic illness, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder which causes a variety of issues, including sometimes severe joint and muscle pain and headaches. I have a lot of medical appointments, so my days are broken up by those. I also have days on which I can work more or less than others. A really good day, though, is one on which I can write or revise, get in some work on book promotion, and take a walk. I live in a beautiful New England town, and I find inspiration in the woods, streams, lakes, and wildlife. Especially the ducks! I’d say that writing and the blessing of being able to publish books for children keeps me going.
How has your writing evolved since you first started?
Duck Sock Hop harks back to some of my earliest work. As a child I was inspired by poets like Jack Prelutsky, Edward Lear, and Lewis Carroll, to write humorous rhyming poems. I definitely see a through thread from those early poems to my current work. But my work has also evolved. When I started writing picture book manuscripts, they weren’t as well developed in terms of character and plot as my texts (I hope) are now. Learning plotting and conflict development has been a real challenge for me, as I am a language, image, and theme based thinker.
Do you have a book that resonated with you as a child?
I had so many books that resonated with me as a child. Reading and creative writing were my absolute favorite activities. I think a good measure of the influence of a book is how much it has stayed with you and how much you continue to think about it as the years go by. A sampling of those books for me are: The Frances books by Russell Hoban, many of Maurice Sendak’s picture books, especially Chicken Soup with Rice, Where the Wild Things Are, and In the Night Kitchen, On Market Street by Arnold and Anita Lobel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, Half Magic and other books by Edward Eager, the Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and most books by Madeleine L’Engle, especially A Wrinkle in Time.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working the back matter for a Step Into Reading book about Anne Frank, which focuses on her growing love of nature while in hiding. That book will be published by Random House in 2013. I’m working on the final revision of two picture book manuscripts and am very eager to get to work revising the first draft of another! And finally, I have a new idea percolating, but it hasn’t quite formed yet. It’s at the stage where my mind strays to it while I’m in the shower or falling asleep. Eventually it will coalesce into something solid enough so that I can start writing. I’m also getting ready to do a series of sock hop events for Duck Sock Hop. We’ll have crazy socks, rock and roll, and sock decorating! Check out my website, http://www.janekohuth.com for details. And feel free to contact me if you’re interested in a visit to your school, store, or organization. I can come via Skype if you’re far away!