Author Spotlight: David LaRochelle
Happy Thursday and welcome back to Picture Book Spotlight!
Thank you, everyone for participating in our critique giveaway with Melissa Richeson of Apokedak Literary Agency. It was so special to get to interview my own agent, and I am grateful for her generosity both in her responses and in her giving back to the kid lit fam in the query trenches. We had a phenomenal turnout and so many positive responses--so thank you! If you happened to miss the interview, check it out here. Give Melissa a follow on Twitter, and consider referring to our interview in your next submission to her.
We have many similar giveaways in the next weeks to come. Books from debut and best-selling authors and illustrators, and critiques from agents building their client lists in the picture book category. It brings me nothing short of pure joy to be able to provide opportunities like this, since I know just how valuable and meaningful they are.
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Today, I'm excited to feature the work of another career kid lit author and his newest book. When Isle of You arrived at our house, my wife, Katherine and I really loved it. I think you will too!
Please welcome, David LaRochelle!
What’s something you absolutely must have in the refrigerator or pantry?
A can of ice cold Pepsi. I don’t drink coffee or tea, but knowing I have a can of Pepsi waiting for me (and perhaps a cookie or two) is great motivation for me to sit down and work in the morning. I have a ferocious sweet tooth.
Name three things you can’t do your job without.
A Bic mechanical pencil, an unlined artist’s sketchbook, and my critique groups. My first drafts are always done longhand. I think differently, and for me, better, when I have a pencil in my hand rather than when I am at a keyboard. Using a sketchbook allows me to doodle and write notes in all directions. I also like being able to flip back and forth between previous pages as I work. I’m in two critique groups, and besides the encouragement they provide, they also keep me accountable as a writer. When I see my friends bringing in new work every meeting, I don’t want to be left behind and that helps to keep me writing.
When I’m visiting schools and see students excited about my books, it inspires me to get back home and write so I can have new books to share. The place where I am most comfortable writing is in the chair next to the fireplace in my living room. It is quiet and free from distractions (I can’t write in a coffeehouse or park; there are too many different things grabbing at my attention).
Tell us a little about your background and your path to publication. Why picture books?
I’ve always loved writing and drawing. I made picture books in high school and college. After an exchange program where I spent a semester studying illustration at the Kansas City Art Institute, I knew what I wanted to do: work as an illustrator for Hallmark Cards. When they turned me down, telling me I couldn’t draw well enough, I moved to Plan B. I earned my elementary teaching license and began teaching fourth grade while I continued to write and draw. A colleague of mine saw one of my stories and encouraged me to send it to an editor. When I balked, she took it upon herself to call up an editor on the telephone and read the entire story to her. Of course that’s the absolute worst way to get a story published, but miraculously the editor told her I should send in my manuscript. That became my first picture book, A Christmas Guest, published in 1988.
You have been creating books for kids for over twenty-five years. For someone just starting out like myself, this is so encouraging! When you think about the length of your career and the number of books under your belt, what does that mean to you?
My career is a testament to being slow and steady. Sometimes I’m discouraged because I haven’t been as prolific as other authors, but after so many years, it’s a happy surprise to discover I’ve built up a small library of my own books. If I could go back in time and tell myself as a beginner that someday I’d have over thirty books published, I would be amazed! I’m fortunate to have spent so many years doing a job that I love.
Drawing on the wisdom you have gained over the years, is there anything you would do differently if you could start out again?
I was 28 years old when my first book was published and I foolishly thought I had learned everything I needed to know. That definitely set my career back. It wasn’t until I started taking writing classes, joined a critique group, and became more involved in the writing community that my career really began to move forward. One of the lessons I learned from the members of my critique group is the importance of making my writing a priority every day. Many days my scribblings amount to nothing, but if I keep at it, eventually something good will happen on the page. But it won’t happen if I let the other demands of the day take precedence. I wish I would have developed this mindset earlier.
I love to create, whether it is making a book, carving a pumpkin, or inventing a new game for my friends to play. One of the best feelings in the world is when I come up with an idea that is especially clever or original. It’s pure joy. Making picture books is a wonderful venue for exercising this creativity. It is also extremely rewarding hearing from readers who have connected with one of my books, whether it has made them laugh, or think, or been the first book that they could read on their own. What an honor it is to impact other people like this with my work.
Your newest book is called Isle of You and is illustrated by Jaime Kim. I really loved this story! Beautiful message. Stunning artwork. Tell us more about the initial idea for this book. What’s the story behind this story?
I wrote the story at a time when I was feeling very sad. I began to imagine the things that would cheer me up. Then I began to wonder what sort of things would cheer up a child. Those ideas became the starting point for Isle of You, which was one of the quickest books I ever wrote (less than a month, whereas I usually fuss with my stories for many, many months). It was also one of my fastest sales (I was offered a contract in less than two weeks, where in some cases I’ve had to wait years for an editor to make a decision!).
When I read this book there seems to be an overwhelming nod to the power of our imaginations to comfort and lift us out of moments of despair or frustration. Talk to us about the message at the heart of this book.
Imagination is a wonderful thing. Many times when I’ve been worried or upset, books have transported me to a world when I can forget my worries, even if just for a little while. I hope that is what this book will help young people do.
The art in Isle of You is just phenomenal and works perfectly for the fantasy world you’ve described. What is it like to see your words come to life in such vivid expression? And does that ever get old with each new book that comes out?
The final artwork for my books is never the same as what I’ve imagined in my head. Maybe that’s because I’m an artist myself, and have illustrated several books, both my own and by other writers. But I’ve always been fortunate that the artists they’ve chosen to illustrate my stories have done amazing work, adding details and creating scenes that I would have never envisioned myself. That is exactly what Jaime Kim has done with this book. Now that I’ve seen her gorgeous artwork, I can’t imagine the story any other way.
One of our incredible local independent children’s bookstores, the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, hosted a launch party for the book when it was released in January. They provided a beautiful cake, and I provided glow-in-the-dark wishing stars, activity sheets, and homemade chocolate chip cookies (my favorite comfort food). Even before the book was released, Isle of You was the featured book at the Minnesota State Fair during its Literacy Day.
Hundreds of people stopped by the library display to visit with me, take part in games and crafts related to the book, and view the pages of the story on large cardboard signs. Ours is the second largest state fair in the country, so it was wonderful exposure!
What are some picture books that have come out in the last few years that make you laugh or have inspired you?
Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam and Dave Dig a Hole is marvelously creative and original.
I’m always delighted when a book can surprise me, and this book did just that.
Crash, Splash, or Moo! by Bob Shea made me laugh, and I love fresh, funny books.
What is something you are currently working on that you can share with us?
I have two new picture books in the works with illustrator Mike Wohnoutka, See the Cat: Three Stories About a Dog and How to Apologize. As you know, authors frequently have little to no contact with their illustrators, but Mike is one of my best friends. We have two previous joint books, and it has been such a pleasure to share the joys (and frustrations) of creating a book with someone who is such a good friend.
Your website shows that you offer lots of options for school visits. I loved reading some of the quotes from teachers and librarians about your visits (great idea!) What is something you always try to accomplish when you visit a school?
One of my goals is to make students realize that not only are they authors now, but that books are created by ordinary people, and that they could someday become published authors and illustrators too. I share the many joys I’ve had as an author, but also the frustrations as well, including the many rejection letters. Teachers always comment on what an important lesson that is for students to hear; no matter what they do in life, they will face many stumbling blocks, and learning perseverance is a crucial life skill.
For one thing, school visits provide income which allows me to survive financially as a writer, and that’s very important. But it also gives me a chance to work with children again. It was a heart-wrenching decision when I left the classroom to work full-time as an author and illustrator. Visiting schools gives me a chance to share with kids my passion for writing and drawing without having to deal with all the challenges that a regular teacher faces. It’s truly the best of both worlds.
Talk to us about a memorable moment from one of your school visits.
Several years ago I was at a book signing event and a young woman stopped by with her husband and two children. “You may not remember me,” she said, “but you visited my school when I was in sixth grade. I still have the story I wrote with you. Your visit was part of the reason why I majored in English in college, and why writing is part of my career today. I wanted to bring my family to meet the man who inspired me to become a writer.” As authors, we don’t always realize that a simple school visit can have a powerful impact on a child. We are able to inspire and encourage students in a way that their regular teacher might not be able to do. It’s why I take my school presentations so seriously.
You are also a professional pumpkin carver. Your work is SO COOL! Which carvings have been your favorite?
I began carving elaborate jack-o’-lanterns about thirty years ago shortly after the tiny pumpkin saw blades came on the market. I also use a V-shaped linoleum carving tool. I never dreamed my hobby would take off the way that it has! I’ve been invited to carve pumpkins for television shows, sports teams, and plenty of book events. A single pumpkin can take me anywhere from an hour to eight hours to carve. Over the past thirty years, I’ve carved hundreds of pumpkins. Here are photos of a few favorites.
I think we forget sometimes that rejection is still something published authors deal with. When one of your stories is rejected, how do you move forward in a positive way?
My first reaction is to think that I’m all washed up and that I’ll never in my life have another story published. After allowing myself to feel discouraged for a bit, I remind myself how badly I want to continue publishing books. This is my dream. Do I want to give up on my dream, or do I want to persevere? Viewing the rejection as a challenge, something that I’m not going to allow to stop me from achieving my dream, fires me up to keep trying.
How can you encourage writers who are dealing with rejection from agents, trying to get their work out there?
This is a hard, competitive career. Every author gets rejected, either by agents or editors. One of the things I show students is my stack of 198 rejection letters (actually I have a lot more, but now I get rejection emails instead of letters). When you are overwhelmed with rejections, it’s hard to know when, if ever, that long-awaited acceptance will come. But it could happen with your very next submission. If you quit, you’ll never find out. I also encourage others (and remind myself) to enjoy the journey. Take pleasure in the writing, and the wonderful people you meet on the way to publication. A quote on my refrigerator says, “Between the wish and the thing, life lies waiting.”
What is something upcoming that you want to celebrate or promote?
This summer I will have two chapter books published, I Was an Outer-Space Chicken and Planet of the Penguins. This is a new genre for me. I love puzzles, and I was asked if I could create a series about two kids who solve math puzzles in order to resolve the conflicts in the story. It was a fun challenge!
Thank you so much for sharing your time and author life with us, David!
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ABOUT David LaRochelle
David LaRochelle has been creating books for young people for over twenty-five years. His many picture book titles include The Best Pet of All, How Martha Saved Her Parents from Green Beans, and Moo!
He is the recipient of the Sid Fleischman Humor Award, multiple children’s choice awards, and a three-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award.
A former elementary school teacher, David still visits many classrooms around the Midwest (and world!) each year, talking with students about books, writing, and illustrating. When he is not creating new books, he loves to read, play board games, and carve unique jack-o’-lanterns, which you can view at his website davidlarochelle.com.
Other Interviews featuring David LaRochelle
Brian Gehrlein is an educator and youth services librarian living in Kansas City with his wife, Katherine, and son, Peter. He is represented by Melissa Richeson of Apokedak Literary Agency. He thanks you for reading this post. He thanks you for reading this sentence. He thanks you for being kind to squirrels. At least he thinks you are kind to squirrels. If you are not kind to squirrels, please stop reading immediately. Since you are continuing to read, I can only assume you are a person who is kind to squirrels. Way to go, man. Way to go.