Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Co-Author Interview: Kathryn Heling and Deborah Hembrook

Kathryn Heling has been a school psychologist for over 20 years and is a former special education teacher. She loves working with children and figuring out how each child learns best. She is a wife, mother, grandmother, and author and lives in the beautiful State of Wisconsin. She also loves to travel by train.

Deborah Hembrook is a kindergarten teacher and author and her students inspire her everyday with their curiosity. Many of the stories she co-authors with Kate originate from her classroom. She and her husband also live in Wisconsin and love exploring the country on their motorcycle.

Kate Heling & Debbie Hembrook
They are the co-authors of more than ten children's books and after I reviewed their latest book Clothesline Clues to Jobs People Do, illustrated by Andy Robert Davies (Charlesbridge, July 2012), (see the review HERE) I was eager to speak to them about their writing and collaboration process.

Welcome Kate and Debbie!

Tell us a little about yourselves and how you came to be children’s authors? What were you like as children? How did your childhoods influence the books you write today?

Kate:  I grew up in a family of voracious readers and people who wrote just for the sheer joy of it.  As a kid, I tried to write a novel (in 2nd grade) and I contributed poems and articles to my school newspaper.  I loved writing my grandparents and cousins in California and to my pen pal in England.  In high school, I had a fabulous teacher for my Honors English class and she greatly encouraged my writing, giving me the confidence to submit a story that won 3rd place in an NCTE contest.  My undergraduate studies were in elementary and special education and I took a course in children’s literature.  The class requirement  was to read and review 100 books -- I read and reviewed 300 and the seeds were sown.....although I knew I wanted to be a teacher, I started to dream about someday writing books for young children.

Debbie:  Growing up, I kept journals that I numbered and decorated.  One of my journals was a collection of quotes that I liked.  I also collected bookmarks and made some of my own with the quotes that I treasured.  I enjoyed reading postcards, both to learn about places people had been but also to appreciate people’s handwriting and their way of communicating a lot of information in a small space.  I loved to write letters to my cousins; and my friends and I made birthday cards for one another.  My favorite books growing up were the Nancy Drew mysteries and between my twin sister and I, we had them all.  I loved the smell, feel, and sound of cracking open a brand new Nancy Drew mystery.  While I was preparing to become a teacher, I also loved my class in children’s literature -- that, and the joy of reading aloud to my young students made me appreciate the power of books!  I love sharing books that were favorites of mine as a child with the children in my classroom.

When did the two of you start writing books together? Can you tell us how that happened? 

Kate & Debbie: We have both spent much of our careers working for the school district in Waukesha, a city just west of Milwaukee.  We got to know each other and became friends while working on district-wide committees.  In January, 1997, we were having a conversation about New Year’s resolutions and discovered that we both shared a dream of writing books for children.  We’d both written stories on our own but hadn’t done anything too seriously with them.  We decided to get together to learn more about the industry and just kept working together.  We shared the stories we’d written; we worked together on revising them; and we started attending writer’s conferences together.  

Our first published story appeared in a collection of stories -- Say Goodnight to Illiteracy, 1998 -- published annually by Half Price Books.  Our first book, an early reader titled MOUSE MAKES WORDS, was published by Random House in 2001, and we are enormously gratified that the book is still in print today. 

Can you share your writing process with us? 

Kate & Debbie: In general, our writing process proceeds like this:  Debbie is a creative genius and seems to have no end of great ideas, many taken from her classroom experiences and/or her perception of a gap in stories dealing with a certain topic.  Our stories TEN GROUCHY GROUNDHOGS and TENLUCKY LEPRECHAUNS are examples of this.  Debbie had long been frustrated by the lack of stories for young children surrounding Groundhog’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day.  

Typically, Debbie will write a rough draft of the story she has in mind.  If the story lends itself to a rhyming text, as many of our stories do, Kate taps into the rhyming genes she seems to have inherited from her father and does a preliminary rewrite.  After that, it is pure collaboration all the way to a finished product!  

We analyze the text for consistent meter and rhythm, we look for opportunities to add alliteration or assonance or other ‘devices’ that will help young children hear the similarities and differences in our language, we consider whether it makes sense to add repetitive phrases that would encourage young children to ‘read’ along, and we carefully consider our vocabulary selection in an effort to help children grow in this area but not to become overwhelmed by too many new words.  We read our drafts aloud, over and over again, listening for where the text flows and where it doesn’t.  When we are quite happy with our story, we fire it off to our critique group and very carefully consider the thoughtful and helpful suggestions they offer -- often leading to a little more revision.  Once we’re confident that we’ve done all we can do with a story, we research various publishers and/or editors we know and we send our story out into the world, hopefully to become a published book!

Can you give us a glimpse into a typical writing day?

Kate & Debbie: We are in regular contact via e-mail or phone, but we are also very disciplined about having an in-person writing session every week.  We work at Kate’s house, in a large office of our own, and we often prevail upon Kate’s husband to do a ‘cold read’ so we can get a sense of how the story will sound when read by others.  

What do you like most about the collaboration process? And what if any are the challenges?

Kate & Debbie: For us, the collaborative process has been incredible!  We have so much FUN, writing  together, attending conferences together, and planning author visits.  When feedback from a submission is discouraging, we can share that disappointment and, conversely, celebrating the successes is all the sweeter when shared with a co-author.  We are totally in sync regarding the kinds of stories we want to write and the purpose we want them to serve.  As educators, it’s very difficult for us to write anything that doesn’t include educational aspects of one sort or another.  We want young readers (or listeners) to hear the patterns in our language, to build their vocabulary, to build on academic skills, and mostly to develop a LOVE of books!
We have not encountered any challenges associated with our collaborative process.  We don’t always agree 100% with each others’ ideas or suggested revisions, but we always respectfully consider all of the possibilities.  We will type out a paragraph or verse in multiple draft formats and then read the manuscript with each of the possibilities.  Usually, it soon becomes obvious which version is going to fit best in our finished piece.  One thing we’ve learned from having had several books published is that the editor will suggest multiple revisions, that the more ideas we consider the better, and that we all are striving for the finished product to be the best it can possibly be.

Do you have writing projects where you don’t work as a team?

Kate & Debbie: Not so far....  Even if one of us independently takes an idea fairly far along to a finished product, we tend to ultimately resort to the collaborative process that we know works for us. 

Where did the inspiration for Clothesline Clues to Jobs People Do come from?

Kate & Debbie: As with many of our books, Debbie had the original idea for CLOTHESLINE CLUES TO JOBS PEOPLE DO.  Actually, it was one of the earlier stories that we wrote and over the years we worked on it, tucked it away, brought it out and revised it, and submitted it now and then in various forms.  

Altogether, we probably wrote verses depicting about 20 jobs people do.  We wanted to get young children thinking about jobs in general, specific jobs that people (male and female!) could do, and to introduce or build on vocabulary associated with those jobs.  We liked the idea of a riddle format, with both the text and the items on the clothesline providing clues -- helping children to build powers of observation and reasoning. 

We were thrilled when Charlesbridge offered a contract to publish it. We love the trade-to-educational crossover dimension of Charlesbridge publications because it's consistent with our personal mission for our work.  And then.....the frosting on the cake ---- having a wonderful editor at Charlesbridge and a gifted illustrator, both of whom helped raise our story to a new level.  There are multiple aspects to what appears on the surface to be a very simple concept.  But, especially upon repeated readings, children will notice the stories within the story depicted by the creative illustrations.

What can readers look forward to next?

Kate & Debbie: We are working on revisions for another book through Scholastic/Cartwheel -- a FUN story that is a little different from the others we have done with Cartwheel.  We have lots of ideas (and finished manuscripts) for more rhyming/counting books.  We’re also working on some stories for very young children, those in the 1-3 year age range.  We sincerely hope to continue making books that appeal to young children for a long time to come.

For access to all their books and the extended activities for parents and educators, visit their website HERE.

Thanks, Kate and Debbie!

No comments:

Post a Comment