Author Spotlight: Charlotte Agell
Happy Monday and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight!
Today I am very happy to get back into our "normal" interviews--although if you've read much from me, "normal" probably isn't a word you'd use to describe me or these posts!
Because normal isn't any fun.
With these interviews, my hope is to always ask deep questions and to provide industry relevant (and entertaining) content that is visually appealing for all picture book lovers and creators.
Maybe Tomorrow? was definitely one of my top five favorite picture books from 2019 and after this post, I hope you'll consider giving it a read. Or two. Or eight. It's one of those books that really sits with you in a unique way. It lingers. It whispers, read me again. And then you do. And it's better the second, and third, and fourth time around. Trust me. I cannot be hyperbolic enough about this book.
In case you were wondering, later this week we will have an Author/Champion Spotlight Interview with Kaitlyn Sanchez (plus giveaway!) and next week have an Agent Spotlight with Erin Casey of Gallt & Zacker (plus giveaway!) And possibly...maybe...an announcement about a certain person who created this here blog. Cough. Me. Cough. We'll see...
At any rate, Charlotte Agell has some great thoughts below as well as a giveaway of her own so dive right in!
Why are you reading this sentence? There's an awesome interview below! Go on...scroll down...
Coffee, time outside, and interactions with kids … and all of these come free with my “day job” - teaching in a public school. First of all, dark and early and then as the morning goes along, the coffee! Recess duty helps with being outside, but I definitely crave more time, even (especially?) during Maine’s strong winters.
Fortunately, I do not teach most Fridays and I live in such a beautiful place that I go outside as much as possible, on skis, on foot, in a kayak.… It’s where I think best. Kids. They’re really the most important ingredient. I learn so much from them. My own two are grown now, but I’m still in a classroom, so I always know plenty of kids!
What’s something you absolutely must have in your refrigerator or pantry?
Well, there’s the coffee (see above). Also, pickled herring. I am from Sweden, after all!
What is one goal that you have for yourself in 2020?
I’ve got some books in various stages, and always have book-related goals. On another, but related note, a goal is to breathe more deeply, to seek stillness.
I remember learning English, after my family moved from Sweden to Canada, way back when. Part of this involved countless trips to the public library. I remember thinking it was so great to have a baby sister, since one could pile even more books in the pram!
I can't remember a time that I wasn't reading, writing, and drawing.
Maybe Tomorrow? was easily one of my favorite books from this past year. I first discovered it on a picture book builders blog post and grabbed a copy right away. How did Maybe Tomorrow? Come about? What’s the story behind the story?
Brian, thank you so much. I am so happy that the book resonates. It has a multipart origin story. I bought a small clay figurine from a store in my town. It was a clay rhino, imported from Africa (I am not sure which country). She sat on my desk for years, seeming truly sad. She told me her name was Elba.
(In my original dummy, before Ana’s amazing illustrations, Elba is a rhino.)
Also, a 6th grader asked me if I ever got writer’s block. I found myself telling her that no, I didn’t, that I tended to have too many ideas, sort of like butterflies. Elba’s sadness was such a block; then there was that image of butterflies. All at once, I found myself writing about Elba and Norris, listening to them.
When I recommend this book to friends, I love the conversations we have after they read the story. It’s just one of those books you have to talk about after you read it. What have some of those conversations been like for you, and the general response to the book?
I have been so heartened by the response. I almost want to use the word outpouring. The events have encompassed many venues so far, including, for example, a library event for adults, about grieving. I feel, in some way, that this book has work to do out there in the world, helping us talk about a really hard topic.
Something I really appreciated about this story is its emotional depth through the use of metaphor. Metaphors in picture books can be challenging, but the payoff is the important conversations kids and adults get to have about what the metaphor means. Elba’s block stands almost as a third character in the book. Why was it better to use a metaphorical block as a symbol of Elba’s internal conflict rather than just showing her as sad?
Everyone’s sadness is their own sadness. We can’t unpack anybody else’s. Having her sadness appear as a block was fairly organic, in that I didn’t really explicitly think to do it. I like how different readers respond to it differently, but how everyone “gets” it. A very young reader told me he knew what was inside her block. When I asked, he whispered “Little Bird.” This was a very literal thought, but oh so true.
Every time I read Maybe Tomorrow? new questions seem to pop into my head. One lingering question that I always wonder is what does it mean that some of Norris’ butterflies leave him?
That’s a good question. I think perhaps it is that everything is always in flux. The butterflies originally exemplified ideas, but came to stand in for joy. Norris is so full of joy, but nothing lasts forever.
A tiny detail some may have missed that I found very effective is the artwork after the story on the back copyright page. We see Elba and Norris enjoying their picnic, and, for the first time, the third character (Elba’s block) is not present. However, she is still tethered to it, though it is not visible.
This suggests while Elba has changed because of Norris’ friendship, she has not fully untethered herself from the block, and therefore her journey to healing is ongoing. This rang very true to me. I have to ask...was this something you included in the art notes or was this an original contribution from Ana? Why was it important to include this idea as the final image?
I am SOOOOO glad you asked this question. When I saw the final artwork, I had a chance to weigh in. This picnic scene, at the time, did not feature any allusion to Elba’s block. It was very important to me that we honor her line: I will always have this block, you know.” So, I asked if Ana could work with it. Her idea of just showing the tether, the simple line, seemed like a brilliant solution to me. (Sidenote: I showed some 6th graders who were working on their own picture books and they also picked up on the missing block. This solidified my reasoning and made me bold enough to ask for this visual edit.)
Maybe Tomorrow? is my 13th book. There’s been a 14th shortly after (Mud, Sand, and Snow - my first board book!). I’ve got a professional development book, done with a teaching colleague, coming out this spring. Each book does have lessons, that’s for sure. Maybe Tomorrow? and the journey toward it remind me that some books have long incubation periods. Elba (the clay figurine who insisted on being bought) sat on my desk for YEARS before anything “happened.” Books cannot be forced, only courted (I guess I learn that a lot!!)
What words of encouragement or practical advice can you offer other writers or illustrators?
Set goals for yourself. Work on your craft daily, if even for a few moments. Be willing to let a book take you on a detour. My first published book, The Sailor’s Book, started life as a chapter book but became a picture book, almost as if I were boiling down maple sap into syrup. Trust your process. Admire others, but try to be only yourself.
I’m very hopeful about a new picture book idea regarding a lion who knows they are really a flamingo. As a teacher, I feel one of my big roles is to encourage children to dare to grow up to be themselves. Sometimes, the world is not very good at allowing that! Having an 8th grade student come out as transgender in my classroom was one of the most amazing and real things in my teaching career. This book idea isn’t about that, but it’s quite inspired by the courage that that particular journey took, and (once again) by the empowering and healing role of FRIENDSHIP.
Complete the following sentence: “the world needs picture books because…”
picture books are ART and art wakes up the world.
Thank you so much for this amazing book and for sharing your time with us, Charlotte!
And thank YOU, reading kidlit fam! If you haven't grabbed a copy of Maybe Tomorrow? please fix that. Perhaps you'd like a signed copy...check out the giveaway details below for your chance to win just that!
Signed copy of Maybe Tomorrow?