Simply 7 with Linda Ashman: CHAMPION CHOMPERS

I love a good picture book poetry collection and boy have I got a great one for you today!

Linda HeadshotLinda Ashman has visited my blog before and I’ve talked about several of her books during my poetry picture book blitzes in April in years past.  She is the author of more than 40 picture books and the creator of The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books. Her books have been included on the “best of the year” lists of The New York TimesParenting and Child magazines, the New York Public Library, Bank Street College of Education, and the International Reading Association, and have been translated into many languages. She leads writing workshops and gives presentations about writing and children’s books at conferences and schools.  Linda grew up in New Jersey, worked in New York, and spent many years in Los Angeles and Denver. She now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with her husband, Jack Hicks, their son Jackson, and their two dogs, Sammy and Stella.  You can learn more about her and follow her blog at her website.

Champion CoverCHAMPION CHOMPERS, SUPER STINKERS, AND OTHER POEMS BY EXTRAORDINARY ANIMALS is a collection of mask poems.  Linda has written each poem as if the animals themselves are talking about why they should win each award.  As you see, they’re all competing for titles such as Stinkiest Animal, Fastest Flier, Slowest Mammal, etc.  And the book has been put into a genius setup.  It’s a guessing game!  Each animals gives you clues on the first page as to who they are and why they deserve the “award” before you turn the page and the answer is revealed.  BRILLIANT!  I read this to my students before school was over and they loved it.  They were shouting out answers on every page before the answers were revealed.  It’s a super engaging format that had them begging for more story time.  Trust me when I say that this is a book you won’t want to miss!

Welcome back Linda!

Me: This is a wonderful collection of mask poems (i.e., poems told from the point of view of the animals), each animal possessing a distinctive trait that earns them an “award.”  What gave you the idea for this book?

1Linda: Oh, boy. It’s hard to recall the original inspiration because this collection evolved so dramatically over the years. The first version, which I wrote way back in 2006, was called Extraordinary! and combined three types of superlatives—animals, plants and places—in one collection. The scope was much too broad and—not surprisingly—the manuscript racked up lots of rejections.

Many years later, with my agent’s encouragement (thank you, Jennifer Mattson!), I narrowed the focus to the most kid-friendly of the three categories: animals. The poems were kind of a mishmash stylistically, so I tried to figure out a way to tie them all together. Raising a competitive, sports-obsessed son gave me the contest idea and a new title: I’m Number One!  I reworked the existing poems and added new ones so that they were all written in the voice of animal “winners.” After acquiring the manuscript, my wonderful editor, Kathleen Keenen, suggested adding a few more animals with particular kid-appeal (like “stinkiest”). Kids Can Press also asked for a new title, so the evolution continued!

Me:  The illustrations by Aparna Varma are wonderful.  Did you have any illustration notes for her?  Or did she create the hints and page turn visuals for the book all on her own?  Were there any illustration surprises for you? 

2Linda: I agree—Aparna did a fabulous job! She managed to convey the essential character of the animals in a kid-friendly way, hitting the sweet spot between cartoonish and realistic, silly and serious. The guessing game design came from our editor, Kathleen, and the book’s designer, Barb Kelly. I know Aparna worked very closely with them throughout to come up with the design and clues and keep the book looking consistent stylistically. I got to chat with her about her process in this blog post. As for surprises, I wasn’t sure if the guessing game concept would work for all the poems so I was thrilled to see that it did.  For some reason, I was especially delighted by the Peregrine falcon pages.

Me: This is the first picture book poetry collection I’ve seen from you in a while and I’m delighted that you returned to poetry.  I know it’s a hard market to break into.  Can you talk a little bit about the marketing of the book?  Was it a hard idea to sell?

3Linda: Yes, I stopped writing poetry for a long time—it was too discouraging! It makes sense that editors didn’t go for the early, overly-broad version of the manuscript. But even after I’d reshaped it into the current format, the response was mixed. With a few exceptions, I think there’s a general wariness toward poetry from a sales and marketing perspective. Several editors expressed interest in the collection and a few made offers, including Kids Can Press. Working with their team has been such a pleasure, and Kathleen’s smart and thoughtful editing made the manuscript much stronger. After such a circuitous route to publication, I feel really lucky that the book landed in just the right place.

Me:  I love all the side bars you’ve included throughout the book (I actually learned a few things I didn’t know already).  Can you tell us a bit about your research process?  How long did it take you to research all the different facts and tidbits that went into this story?

4Linda: I learned so much working on this book! The research process began with some books and websites featuring animal superlatives. As I read, I jotted down a list of potential candidates and took lots of notes, always looking for quirky characteristics, words and interesting facts that might inspire a poem. When I’d narrowed down my list of “winners,” I collected my notes, articles and resources in a notebook with a section for each animal. Later, when my editor asked for a few more poems, I hit the books, websites and videos again. In the process I discovered some incredible creatures, like the artistic white-spotted puffer fish who creates amazing underwater designs to lure a mate. (I encourage everyone to spend a few minutes watching this video to see how he does it.)  Aparna did a wonderful job of bringing this little fish to life.

Me: I love the variety of animals you have collected here.  Was it hard to choose which categories and animals to include?  Were there any that didn’t make it into the book?

Linda: It was a bit challenging! I considered all sorts of superlatives—loudest, smartest, weirdest, best parent—that I didn’t wind up using. Some characteristics were too difficult to measure, too fuzzy, or there wasn’t a clear winner. I also wanted to have a mix of mammals, birds, and ocean-dwellers, so that played into the choice as well. And, of course, I had to be able to write a poem about the creature. As for animals that didn’t make it, one of the first animals on my list was the mountain goat as “Best Climber,” but I never managed to come up with anything. (Sorry, mountain goat!)

Me: I found your back matter both surprising and intriguing.  You didn’t give more facts about the animals (or resources to learn more about them from your research).  Instead, you talked about biodiversity and endangered animals, among other things.  Why are these important messages for you to share with young readers?

Screen Shot 2023-05-08 at 5.52.00 PMLinda: I’m so concerned about animals and the future of this beautiful, amazing—and increasingly threatened—planet we share. I’ve written quite a few books inspired by animals over the years, and I guess I’m always hoping that kids reading the books might feel that same sense of awe and wonder I feel toward our co-inhabitants when they learn more about them. Wonder leads to appreciation and, hopefully, to care and concern. While the concept of biodiversity is quite complex, the core of it is very simple: we’re all connected. I hope this section introduces kids to that idea and reminds parents and teachers of what we stand to lose if we don’t take care of other beings.

Me: I love that.  Any advice for aspiring poetry picture book writers?

Linda: I’d give aspiring poetry picture book writers the same advice I give to aspiring picture book writers generally: Read! Get lots of poetry books from the library, especially those written in the last few years, and read them aloud, study them, type them up to get a sense of language, rhythm, line breaks, etc. The National Council of Teachers of English publishes the NCTE Notable Poetry Books list each year, which is a good place to start. And, it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), read your poems aloud, have someone else read them aloud to you, and revise, revise, revise!

That is good advice.  Thank you for stopping by my blog again today Linda.

Dear readers, if you love animals, poetry, and picture books like I do, then this book hits the sweet spot combining all three.  It’s a fun guessing game, a great example of mask poetry, and full of fun facts as well.  Don’t miss it!

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