Author Spotlight: Alastair Heim
Author Spotlight: Alastair Heim
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One of my favorite things about hosting these interviews is seeing stuff like this:
Now, this doesn't fully reflect everything our generous authors, illustrators, and agents have given away...but it's a great start! More giveaways just around the corner...meaning right now!
Today, I'm jazzed to Spotlight ANOTHER Kansas City picture book superstar. Alastair Heim is the author of four hilarious, heartwarming picture books (with two more on the way!). His adorable (and fluffy) picture book, The Great Puppy Invasion, will be coming out in board book form this August, and his wildly successful, Hello, Door, was recently released in French under the title Bon Jour. So much happening for Alastair!
We will have THREE winners for this Spotlight Giveaway Contest, but make sure to actually read the interview! We will know if you haven't read it! False. We will not know...but we will be sad.
Alright, potatoes...enough announcements. Let's jump in with Alastair!
This is going to make me sound like I’m 11 years old, but the two things I absolutely have to have on hand, at all times, are Tootsie Pops and white cheddar popcorn. I normally eat pretty healthily, but these tasty treats are my not-so-secret indulgences.
Name three things you can’t do your job without.
My wife for her incredible support. My kids for all the ways they inspire me. And my back window, out of which I stare aimlessly until new ideas pop into my brain.
I feel the most inspired when I’m at home with my family. I do, of course, think of new ideas for books just about everywhere, but it’s when I’m home and comfortable that I seem to do my best writing and am at my most creative.
Tell us a little about your background and your journey into kid lit. Why picture books?
I grew up in Wisconsin, moved to Kansas City after college and started my career. Throughout my life, creative writing has always seemed to come pretty naturally to me. I wrote stories, here and there, as I was growing up (mostly for school assignments) and stayed pretty creative throughout college, but it wasn’t until my first child was born until I was even inspired to try and write picture books. We received a ton of books as baby shower gifts and there were some I loved, some I liked and a few…well, they can’t all be your favorites. Needless to say, I was inspired to try and write some of my own for the plain and simple fact that I thought it would be awesome for my kids to read a book that their dad actually wrote. Turns out, I was right and it has been a dream come true to read my books with my kiddos.
While I started writing a lot of picture books when I initially began this journey, the first one I actually finished was a book called Pay Me in Popsicles, Please! The story is about a little boy named Liam McCoy and his collie named Rollie. On the first day of summer vacation, Liam comes up with a brilliant plan to do all of the jobs and chores that his family and neighbors are always too busy to do – and the only thing he wants in return is popsicles. And while you think Liam has come up with a deliciously clever way to spend his summer, which he has, the book actually has a surprise ending the most readers don’t see coming. A friend of mine actually fully illustrated the story and, while it remains unpublished, this book is the reason I was able to get a literary agent and, in turn, led to me getting my first actual book deal for Love You, Too, which was published in 2016.
I came up with the idea for the story on a hot June day when I was mowing the lawn. Sweating profusely, I started thinking about what I might eat or drink to cool myself down after I was done. Popsicles were the first thing that came to mind and, with them, the initial idea for the story. Oh, and as far as where the book ended up, Pay Me in Popsicles, Please! exists as an “e-book” video that I created and occasionally send out to teachers and librarians to thank them after a school visit or event.
There are so many good, fun and amazing parts about this job, but my ABSOLUTE favorite thing is getting to read to kids in schools, libraries and at book events. There’s nothing like interacting with kids through the wonderfulness of picture books and I truly love it.
The Pennsylvania Center for the Book named Hello, Door one of the 2019 Best Children's Books for Family Literacy. Congratulations! I also saw that the New York Public Library named this same book as one the best books from 2018. That is such an honor! What does it mean to you to have your most recent picture book receive such recognition?
It’s a bit surreal and elicits a “someone pinch me, I’m dreaming” reaction in me to be honest, but it’s a huge honor for Alisa Coburn, the illustrator, and I. I’ve often said that I’m not writing books to win awards…I’m writing them to win BEDTIME. In other words, I want my books to be the ones that kids insist upon for mom and dad to read to them before they go to sleep. So, it was an incredibly nice and humbling surprise to have institutions like The New York Public Library and The Pennsylvania Center for the Book recognize and honor Hello, Door in such a way. I’m forever grateful to them for doing so.
I recently got to read Hello, Door and it is PHENOMENAL. So much fun. I really loved this sneaky fox. Hoping to see him again and again. Hello, Door, has also been translated into French! What is the story behind this book? What does it mean to you?
The way my process works is that I usually come up with the title for a book, first, before I think of an idea for the story (with a few exceptions here and there). In fact, I try to sit down and think of at least one or two new book titles every day and, when I do, I always write them down in a small journal I keep.
I actually thought of the title for Hello, Door back in 2012, but it wasn’t until 2016 (when I was flipping back through the pages of that journal) that the story finally popped into my head. When I rediscovered the title, the first question I asked myself was, “Why would someone say hello to a door?” Mr. Fox, or “Foxy” as Alisa Coburn calls him, immediately invaded my brain and the story started to flow from there.
This book means the world to me for a couple of reasons. First, it’s by far my shortest book from a word count standpoint, which allows the illustrations to really tell the story. Alisa Coburn did such a wonderful job bringing Foxy’s shenanigans to life and I discover something new in her artwork every time I reread it. Second, this book is the only one of my titles that has been translated to a foreign language (French AND Chinese), so it’s pretty incredible to think that there are parents reading my book to kids in countries I’ve never visited before.
I won The Great Puppy Invasion and Love You Too on a Picture Book Builders giveaway. Thanks again! I LOVED both of these. So did my family. Your sense of humor and skill with meter and rhyme are razor sharp. And it looks like these two will be available as board books in August and December! I would love to know how these two books came to be. Tell us the story behind these stories.
Thanks very much for your kind words, Brian!
The idea for Love You, Too came about on a car ride home from lunch back in 2010. My oldest, who was just a toddler at the time, started to fall asleep in her car seat when we were about five minutes from home. To keep her awake so that she would take a two-hour nap at home (instead of a three-minute nap in the car) I started talking to her. That day, she started repeating every word I was saying and thought it was hilarious. Something suddenly popped into my head and I blurted out, “When I say I love, you say you!” And she said, “You!” From there, I was inspired to write an interactive, together-time story where the parent starts the sentence and the child finishes it – which is what the book became.
The idea for The Great Puppy Invasion came to me when I discovered a piece of art in a building I happened to be in. It’s a small sculpture of five puppies stacked on top of each other “cheerleader pyramid” style. I looked at the puppy pile and suddenly thought to myself, “why are there so many dogs stacked on top of each other like that?” That’s when the premise for the book popped into my head: “Hundreds of puppies suddenly show up in a town that has never seen puppies before!” This story was a lot of fun to write, because when you think about it, puppy behavior is actually pretty ridiculous…especially if you’re experiencing it for the very first time.
I see you have a new book coming out 2021! The prequel to No Tooting at Tea!? What are you allowed to tell us about No Peeking at Presents?
Actually, my next book comes out in the Fall of 2020, but it hasn’t been officially announced just yet (it’s not No Peeking at Presents). And, while I am sworn to secrecy about the title of the book, I can tell you that the story is a fun read-aloud about an elephant who just wants everyone to be quiet. Hopefully, everything will be announced very soon!
I am incredibly focused on school visits and bookstore/library events to promote my books at the moment – whether that be in person or through Skype or FaceTime. The more I can get out and meet parents and kids, the more I can talk to them about my books and let them know that I write from a busy parent’s point of view – knowing full well that mom and dad don’t always have an hour every night to read with their kids before bed. Which is why I focus on trying to write enjoyable read-aloud books and aim to keep my stories short, clever, fun and heartfelt. I want my books to be the ones that put a smile on a child’s face before they drift off to sleep.
You participate in Kids Need Mentors. Can you tell us more about this initiative? What does that look like for you?
The #KidsNeedMentors initiative pairs book creators with students in schools throughout the country in a mentorship partnership that lasts the entire year. How the partnership works and what happens during the year from a structure standpoint are up to the author/illustrators and the teachers/librarians to figure out. The program began as a way to show students that authors and illustrators are, in fact, real people in an effort to inspire kids and help them realize that they have the talent, ideas and opportunity to share their own stories and ideas with the world.
Last year, I was approached by Jarrett Lerner (a friend and fellow kids book author of EngiNerds and Revenge of the Enginerds…be sure to check them out!) about participating in the program and I jumped at the chance. So, I had to figure out how I was going to interact with the three schools I’d been lucky enough to be partnered with – which is how I came up with “The Alastair Challenge.”
The Alastair Challenge is a school year-long project where I work with 2nd through 4th Grade classrooms to help them write and illustrate their very own book by the end of the year. Each part of the challenge lasts about a month (we usually kick off in September) and ends with me visiting each school in the spring to see all of the stories and ideas the kids came up with.
They start by, first, writing down as many ideas for characters as they can into an “idea journal” their teachers help them create. Next, they choose their favorites from all the characters they thought of and spend the next month drawing pictures of them. From there, they start to come up with book titles and spend time thinking through what a good beginning, middle and end to their story might be (with me giving them tips throughout the process). Finally, they create their own blank paper book (usually from a few 8.5” x 11” sheets of paper folded in half and stapled) and begin creating their final books, using all of the ideas and drawings they came up with as their guide.
What can you tell us about nErDcampKS?
This will be my first time attending (in June), so I’m not sure what to tell you quite yet. From what I hear, though, it is an incredibly awesome experience where book creators get to spend the day with teachers, librarians, students and pre-published authors talking, brainstorming and simply nerding out over all things books, writing and what it takes to get, and keep, children reading. I can’t wait!
I’m always fascinated by how different authors structure their author visits. When you visit a school, what do you hope to accomplish?
One of my favorite quotes of all time is attributed to Pablo Picasso and goes, “The creative adult is the child who survived,” and I structure all of my school visits around this central theme. Creativity has blessed my life in ways I couldn’t have possibly imagined and I love talking to kids about just how important it is for them to stay creative as they get older. The reason I even get to be a picture book author as an adult is because I am someone who fought for my creativity while I was growing up. There is so much peer pressure on kids to conform to what everyone else is doing as they get older…creativity doesn’t always come along for the ride.
When I meet with students, I talk to them about IDEAS – what kinds there are, where they come from and what to do with them once you think of a great one. I go through how I came up with the ideas for my books and always end the session with an interactive storytelling idea where kids come up with ideas of their own. I want every child I meet at author visits to walk away knowing that his or her creativity is important to the world and that their thoughts, and ideas, matter.
Share a memorable moment that has stuck with you from one of your school visits.
I have had some AMAZING school visits with some incredible kids, but a memory that truly stands out (that I also happen to have photographic evidence of) is from November of 2018. The Great Puppy Invasion was recently nominated for the 2019 Oklahoma Redbud Read-Aloud Award – voted on by tens of thousands of school kids across the state. As a result, I was lucky enough to be invited to do some school visits in Oklahoma just after Thanksgiving. Prior to my visit, I found out that a little girl named Marydith was actually part of the selection committee for the 2019 award, and that The Great Puppy Invasion was one of her favorite books of the year. In fact, she was a big part of the reason my book made the nomination list at all. And much to my surprise and delight, I actually had the chance to meet Marydith, and her awesome mom, on the very first school visit of my trip.
What are some picture books published recently that have inspired you or had you laughing out loud?
I’m a huge fan of humor and cleverness in picture books and there are SO many new ones that I absolutely love and, by mentioning any one of them, I would have to exclude others…and I don’t want offend any of my fellow picture book author pals. But, as far as I’m concerned, the more fun, funny and clever picture books are, the better.
You had some really great insights into critique feedback on #PBChat. For those who missed that chat, summarize your advice for how writers should give feedback to each other? What are some guiding principles you use when critiquing the work of another writer?
It’s always interesting for me to be asked to critique someone else’s work. I realize that because I’ve been published, it lends me a bit of credibility when it comes to offering thoughts and ideas to something a writer has put their whole heart into, but that doesn’t take away the fact that I still carry a fairly significant level of impostor syndrome when asked to do so. It’s for this reason that I take writing critiques incredibly seriously.
I actually prefer face-to-face critiques with writers. I want to know the story behind their story and what their motivation for writing it is and, ultimately, what the story means to them. While it’s my job in a critique setting to inform them of my own writing craft trials and tribulations in submitting work to publishers (the meter is off, most editors frown upon near-rhyme, etc.), I thoroughly enjoy giving feedback on how they could take their stories to the next level and what their narratives might be missing – based solely upon my own experience getting and digesting, sometimes painful, feedback from my agent and editors. I always start by assuring them that I am only one opinion and am, my no means, an expert in what I do (anyone who calls themselves an “expert” in anything are usually the first ones who need to go back to school.)
The beautiful thing about most established authors and illustrators is that we want to see EVERYONE get their work published. We live and work in a very unselfish industry, for the most part, and I always go into critiques wanting to help people get their work into the hands of readers everywhere.
Although I do have a few new things coming out soon, as you previously and graciously mentioned, I would absolutely LOVE for my first four books to start showing up in more libraries across the country. So, if you are reading this and your local library doesn’t have any copies of my books on their shelves, please go in and request that they carry them, lovely readers, if you would be so kind. If you do request them, please @ me on Twitter or Instagram to let me know you did so and there just might be a little “thank you” from me that I’ll send your way.
Complete the following sentence: “the world needs picture books because…”
…oftentimes, picture books are a child’s first introduction to creativity. And, since creativity is what truly makes the world a beautiful place, the earlier a child experiences and interacts with it, the better.
Thank you for sharing your time and journey with us, Alastair! I need someone to make me a t-shirt that says, "I don't write books to win awards…I’m write them to win BEDTIME."
And thank YOU, kid lit fam for stopping by this cozy nook of the internet to support amazing picture book authors like Alastair. To thank you for reading this interview, Alastair has a very generous giveaway and you can participate! See details below...