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Author Spotlight: Alastair Heim with Hello, Tree



Happy snowy Friday and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight!


How's the weather where you are? Enjoying this arctic blast with subzero temps and epic negative windchills?! Yeah, nope. Me neither. Well, I hope your space heaters and furnaces are functioning at full blast and that you're (like my wife, Katherine) safely hunkered down under an electric blanket for a significant portion of the day. You know what else can warm your heart? Picture books, family, and holiday magic! Also vats of hot chocolate. Bubbling hot chocolate in stainless steel, industrial-sized vats that would make Willy Wonka jealous...


Well, I can't provide vats of hot chocolate but I can share a little bit about a lovely Christmasy...foxy picture book that released this fall.


Today, for the second time, we feature Alastair Heim...who often loves to rhyme...(see what I did there?). I recently had the pleasure of getting to meet Alastair in person at a local author fair. We've chatted over Zoom before but this was the first time we had the chance to visit in person. Alastair has been a willing champion of PB Spotlight for years now. He's been a participant in every single PBCritiqueFest and has always been available for questions as I've navigated the sometimes ambiguous kidlit publishing waters. So, I'm excited to spotlight his newest collaboration with Alisa Coburn!


About the book:

Roguish Fox makes Christmas mischief all over town! He takes a tree, a wreath, the carrot from a snowman's nose, Christmas decorations, tons of toys, and tasty treats. Then he settles back at home for a cozy Christmas Eve with all the wonderful items he's "collected." He gets so cozy, in fact, that he falls asleep and almost forgets to prepare for Santa! But as the clock strikes midnight, Santa arrives and scolds naughty Fox, making him put back all the things he stole. On Christmas Day, Fox wakes up groggy, sad, and alone, until he hears the ding-dong of his doorbell. It's Fox's friends from town delivering a snowball right to his face...and also a Christmas tree! The final scene is a warm and bright Christmas party in Fox's home with everyone from town.


Alright, are you ready? Here's Alastair!

 

My family loves this book! It's definitely been a go-to during bedtime snuggles and stories this month (so recommend for this week!). When I saw you announce this one I was so pumped that Sneaky Fox got to delight us with more shenanigans (if you haven't read Hello, Door go grab a copy!) It made me think about our first interview back in 2019. Who doesn't love a good follow-up book?! Hashtag author goals, am I right? We have to know...how did Hello, Tree come about?!


Thank you, Brian, for the incredibly kind words about the book! I’m thrilled you and your family are enjoying it. AND it was great to finally get to meet you in person in November, too. The idea for Hello, Tree came to me almost immediately after I received Alisa Coburn’s final artwork of Hello, Door back in 2017. She created such a beautifully timeless aesthetic and vibrant world that Foxy (as she calls him) lives in, that I was struck by what would happen next for this sneaky fox. The holidays are an incredibly special time for my family and the thought of Foxy at Christmas was all I needed for inspiration.


Looking back at the process of crafting Hello, Tree, what have you observed are the differences between writing the first book (Hello, Door) and writing this follow-up? What was your collaboration with Alisa Coburn like this time around?



Honestly, the process of writing this book was very similar to writing Hello, Door. Both ideas came to me almost fully formed in my mind and crafting the narrative for the first draft of the story only took me a couple of hours (subsequent drafts required more time, of course). Alisa Coburn and I hadn’t connected (she lives in England) until after the art for Hello, Door was finished. Once Hello, Door was released in 2018, she and I stayed in touch and struck up a friendship through email and we actually did collaborate a bit on Hello, Tree prior to her illustrating it.


In most cases, picture book authors and illustrators don’t have any contact when books are being created. But Alisa and I threw caution to the wind and the results, I would say, turned out fantastic. That being said, the visual charm in both books is entirely the result of Alisa’s awesomeness. In my opinion, she is one of the most talented and underrated children’s book illustrators in the business today and more people should really know about her work. She’s incredible and I’m lucky to have her as a partner on three of my books (and counting).


A topic I’ve been captivated by lately is the purpose and power of art notes...and it’s also definitely something that I’ve noticed newer picture book writers are curious about. What’s your take on the function and opportunity of art notes in a picture book manuscript and what did that look like in Hello, Tree?


I suffer from, what I affectionately call, the “curse of the writer who can’t draw.” When I’m writing my stories, I can see them as clear as day in my head, but I don’t have an ounce of illustration talent in my DNA and cannot draw to save my life. So, for someone like me who wants to make sure what I’m seeing in my head has the potential to make it to the illustrations, I depend on art notes pretty heavily.


That being said, I firmly believe illustration notes should be treated as SUGGESTIONS and not absolute directives for the illustrator. My creative philosophy is, “the idea doesn’t care who has it” and I’ve been lucky enough to work with illustrators who have brought my stories to life in ways better than I had imagined. You have to give illustrators as blank as a canvas to paint on and, from what I have come to find out, a lot of illustrators would rather not have a ton of art notes. So, I try to be thoughtful about what I put in my notes and include only the things I think are important to the narrative.


In Hello, Tree, my art notes were pretty minimal throughout, yet, specific at times. Here’s an example from the very first spread of the book…


Pg 6-7


(Art Note: Foxy is sneaking around his town, stealing things to decorate his OWN house for Christmas.)


Hello, tree. (Steals tree from Christmas tree lot.)


Hello, twine. (Ties tree to his car.)


Hello, wreath.


Hello, sign. (Sign says “Merry Christmas”)


Without giving too much away, redemption is an element of this delightful Christmas story. What kid-focused emotional thread did you seek to weave into this story that makes Hello, Tree transcend its intended season?


There’s an innocent mischievousness I believe children relate to that I wanted to capture in these stories. I think kids see a bit of themselves in characters who aren’t perfect or happen to do the wrong things at times. Most everyone deserves a second chance and has a shot at redemption, even Foxy, and I think that’s a good lesson for kids. Plus, we all love a good comeback story and Foxy is someone who never quite learns from his mistakes, yet, readers still seem to keep rooting for him. I really hope to get to see where his sneakiness takes him in future books.


I’d love to zoom in on your lyrics and words. In all of your books, your instinct for rhythm and sound is always rock solid. What line or phrase from the story do you like the most and why?


Well, thank you, again, for your kind words! When I write in rhyme, I agonize about the meter and am my own worst critic when it comes to the writing – which drives me to make it as tight and effortless to read as possible. One of the things that inspired me to try to write kid’s books in the first place were the not-so-awesomely-rhyming books (I’m not going to name any names here…everyone has their preferences) my wife and I received as baby shower gifts when my first child was born.


In Hello, Door, my absolute favorite rhyming stanza was on the spread where Foxy is stealing the rug and plants on the left side of the page, and he then steals a painting of a Renaissance-era bear wearing puffy pants. It still gives me a giggle every time I read it. The verse goes…


Hello, rug.


Hello, plants.


Hello, Mr. Fancy Pants.


In Hello, Tree, I really love this spread, equally for the humor it delivers…


Hello, bells. (Musician ringing handbells.)


Hello, bow. (Another musician playing the violin.)


Hello, kissy mistletoe! (Bears from “Hello, Door” kissing under mistletoe.)


…mostly because it features the bears from Hello, Door in a very fun way and elicits giggles every time I read it to kids.




Now let’s get foxy with Alisa’s artwork! You can totally tell she had so much fun with this one and her visuals really tell the story. What’s your favorite artistic element and why? What’s your favorite whole spread and why?


I absolutely love every square inch of what Alisa created in this book. She puts so much love into her work and the aesthetic has a “holiday classic” quality to it, in that, if you didn’t know that the book had been released in 2022, you might have guessed that Hello, Tree had been out for decades (in my very humble opinion) if asked.


Regarding my favorite spread, I would challenge anyone to look at this spread and not have it fill their hearts with holiday joy…


Hello, flowers.


Hello, strings.


HELLO, ALL YOU CHRISTMAS THINGS!!!



The page on the right side of the spread with all the Christmas ornaments Alisa illustrated is, quite possibly, one of my favorite holiday pieces of art of all time. In fact, I asked Alisa to send me that page and am planning to have it framed in the future so that I can decorate my home with it for all of my Christmases yet to come.


Tell us something that surprised you or that you discovered during the process of writing Hello, Tree or seeing it come to life.


When you read the book, you will notice that there is a secondary storyline in there featuring three rabbits, starting at the beginning of the story. Foxy steals the carrot nose off the snowman the rabbits are building, and they immediately dart after him. He evades their chase by stealing and dressing up in the clothes of a life-size nutcracker and, while you THINK you’ve seen the last of the rabbits, they turn up at the “tail end” of the story (pun intended) in a way that beautifully brings the ending home. The rabbits were never a part of my original manuscript when I wrote it. They were, 100%, Alisa Coburn’s idea and their part in the book is what makes the story even more special.



Complete the following sentence: “the world needs picture books because…”


…kids deserve joy.


Thank you so much for stopping by, Alastair! Congrats on this book and for all you have in the works--sending you positive vibes for 2023!


And thank YOU, kidlit fam for visiting Picture Book Spotlight! If you want to have your own copy of Alastair and Alisa's new book, Hello, Tree, check out the details below to enter the giveaway.



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***The deadline for this contest is Thursday, December 29th at 9AM CST


The winner will be contacted on Thursday, December 29th and announced on Twitter and Facebook***



About Alastair Heim

My name is Alastair Heim and I write children's picture books. I live in Kansas City with my awesomely, awesome family who inspires me everyday. Laughter is my favorite sound, purple is my favorite color, and other-people-cooking-for-me is my favorite food. I am a huge fan of music and have been known to play the guitar with impeccable mediocrity.


I started writing picture books because of my kids - plain and simple. After experiencing the joy, laughter and wondrous awe picture books brought them (and still continue to), I thought that there would be nothing cooler than to see that same reaction come from one of Daddy's stories. And boy, was I right. I'm grateful, everyday, for getting to write these books and hope that, at the very least, one of mine puts a smile on your kid's faces, too.


Alastair's website, Alastair on Twitter





 

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