Today I get to introduce you to a book by a local Alaskan author that I’ve known for a few years now. And no, this is NOT an “Alaskan” book. 😉
Brooke Hartman is a force to be reckoned with. She was president of the Alaska Writers Guild for a few years and has helped to put on the annual Fall Conference with our local SCBWI group for many years now. Her picture book debut (“Dream Flights on Arctic Nights”) was released right around the same time as my hubby’s book. She is also an Alaskan mom and an award-winning author of books for children. When she isn’t writing, you can find her flying, fishing, and having fun with her family, enjoying all the magic life has to offer. You can learn more about her at her website, or follow her on Instagram and Facebook.
“Lotte’s Magical Paper Puppets” is a fantastic creative nonfiction picture book about a forgotten female figure in history. Lotte Reiniger is credited with inventing animated feature films long before Disney, by animating fantastical paper cut outs. I admit that as a fan of film, this is a story that grabbed my interest immediately. Especially when it’s a female creator! I won’t spoil the story, but let’s just say that there’s a LOT of reasons why she became lost to history. If the book wasn’t interesting enough, there is also the stunning cut paper art work to accompany it that make this a book that should NOT be missed.
Me: This is your second picture book that has been published (with another one out next year and another under contract). What is it that draws you to picture books?
Brooke: I didn’t start out writing picture books, actually. I started out writing YA fantasy (and am still slowly but surely working on that). But many years ago, I had an idea for a picture book about a dragon that ate unicorns (!) and loved the challenge of writing in that format. Picture book texts might seem simple, but they have to capture the attention of both the child listener and adult reader, be entertaining, often carry some sort of hook or message, and do it all in 600 words or fewer. After I had kids of my own and was reading a whole lotta picture books, even more ideas kept flooding my head. Soon I had half a dozen polished picture book manuscripts and figured I might as well start querying those, too.
Me: This is your first picture book nonfiction biography. All of your other picture books are fiction. What made you want to write a nonfiction story?
Brooke: I thought I wrote mostly fiction, too, until I recently looked over all my picture book projects and realized that the vast majority of them have some nonfiction element. Even my first picture book, Dream Flights on Arctic Nights, is a fictional story to introduce readers to a nonfiction subject: the arctic and the animals who live there. But really, I write about any subject that grabs me and won’t let me go. If I get an idea, I chew on it for a few days. If it’s still stuck in my head a week (or longer) later, there’s a chance that concept might stick with readers, as well.
Me: What was it about Lotte Reiniger’s story that first grabbed you and drew you to write about it?
Brooke: I was surfing FaceBook one day and came across a video someone shared about Lotte’s life (you can watch it for free on YouTube!). I was awestruck by this fearless pioneer of animation history, and also by the fact that I’d never heard of her before. I was no stranger to fantasy in film, and grew up on steady diet of anything Jim Henson and George Lucas could cook up. But Lotte’s flms were something completely new, almost ethereal. Her story resonated over and over in my head, and soon the first stanza of a story about her life did, too:
Long before a cartoon mouse,
Or Snow White swept a little house,
There was a girl named Charlotte.
Everyone called her Lotte.
That was it! I had to write about her. The rest of the story flowed out, and that stanza is still the same as it was the first day it all started.
Me: Did you have to do a lot of research for this story? Can you tell us a bit about that process?
Brooke: So. Much. Research! I wanted to ensure I got every detail of Lotte’s life exactly right while keeping a narrative flow. I watched as many of her films as I could, dove into her IMDB and Wikipedia pages, and read two biographies about her from cover to cover. For one of these biographies, Lotte Reiniger; Pioneer of Film Animation, I even got in touch with the author and swapped questions about Lotte’s life as there were facts—such as when Lotte pasted her silhouette puppets up in windows and shops during the last months of WWII—that I wanted to double check. This author (Whitney Grace) and I still keep in touch, and are even doing an article for a puppetry journal together.
Me: Kathryn Carr’s illustrations in this book are absolutely perfect. Did you communicate with her at all during the creation of them? Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Brooke: Aren’t they breathtaking? I wasn’t sure what Page Street’s art team had in mind for illustrations, but when they sent me links to Kathryn’s website, I couldn’t believe how perfectly her style mirrored Lotte’s. We were in touch a little throughout the process, though most of our communication came through the editor and art director. But I’ve bought several items from her online shop that she does on the side, like these beautiful papercut silhouette nightlights that are now in my kids’ rooms. As for surprises, I really loved the little details around the text and the occasional lone image that made this book extra special.
Me: Any advice for other picture book writers?
Brooke: 1) Get tons of feedback whenever and wherever you can—be it from critique partners and beta readers, manuscript review opportunities and roundtables, conferences, SCBWI, or online writing events. We all want to be our own best editors, but this whole process has shown me that it’s virtually impossible not to become blind to your own work.
2) One polished picture book isn’t enough. Agents and editors want to know what else you have up your writing sleeve. Plus, if a project you submit isn’t quite right for them but they like your writing style, they may ask you what else you have in the hopper—and you want to be prepared if they do.
3) Join online writing communities through Social Media or writing associations. Facebook Groups like Sub It Club can toss you feedback on a query letter or synopsis in a pinch, and Twitter has a multitude of pitch contests. In fact, one of these contests (#PitMad) is how I met my editor for Lotte!
Me: Great advice! Lotte created a lot of stories about fairy tales. I think it might be safe to say that she loved them. Do you also love fairy tales? If so, do you have a favorite fairy tale that you were drawn to as a child?
Brooke: Lotte was sort of her own fairytale, which is why I wanted to write her story in a more whimsical, fairytale style, relying less on physical numbers and figures so that the fantastical story of her life shone through. In fact, Kirkus called this book “too much fairytale,” which I took as a compliment—and I hope Lotte would, too!
As for my own favorite fairytale, I love lesser-read classics like Snow White and Rose Red (my eight year old daughter and I just finished reading Emily Winfield Martin’s novelized version of this story, which is beautifully done) or Russian folktales such as The Magic Pony and anything about a Firebird or Baba Yaga. But the magic in these stories, and the feeling that those with kind hearts will always triumph, is what I believe drew Lotte to fairytales, and what drew me to Lotte.
I love that. I too am drawn to fairy tales for their infinite possibilities. And I too loved that book by Emily Winfield Martin! The illustrations were gorgeous, and the settings and characters were so lushly divine! Great choice. Thank you again for stopping by Brooke.
Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance to track this book down, I cannot recommend it enough. It’s a great story about a woman who should be remembered for her contribution to film. She had stories to tell that delighted and entertained, but they were feats of engineering not to be sneered at. This picture book captures her story so perfectly that it should be savored and cherished, just like her work.