Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is an author filling big high-heeled shoes in the world of picture books. (She LOVES high heels.) I met her when she presented at the 2013 New England SCBWI conference. She is a dynamo! I’m so glad she agreed to be interviewed for our blog. Enjoy her words of wisdom. Sudipta has generously offered to give away a picture book critique with a 15-minute phone call to one lucky winner. Directions for entering are at the bottom of this post. Good luck!
Carol Gordon Ekster: Chicks Run Wild is just one of your fantastic picture books that I love. It is rhythmic, clever, adorable, and very marketable. How did you come up with the idea? Did it go through rejection and revision? Can you tell us about the path to publication?
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: Chicks Run Wild is based on my own life – my autobiography, if you will. I am a single mother of three, and it seems like every night at bedtime I kiss my kids goodnight, I tuck them in, I shut the door, and five minutes later, I hear, “She’s touching me!” and other variations of wildness! It is actually a story that most people can really connect to, no matter how old you are. As kids, we know the feeling of wanting to stay up after bedtime. As parents, we know the feeling of wanting our kids to just go to sleep! To add to that a level of fun and family bonding – well, that’s a little autobiographical, as well. I have a very close relationship with my children — they play a huge role in all of the stories I write — and Chicks is, in many ways, my tribute to them
This book was rejected by about a dozen people before finally finding a home at Simon & Schuster. And, like every book, of course it went through revision. One of my favorite stories about the revision process on Chicks was the question of whether chickens have hips. In one part of the book I write that Mama puts her “wings on hips,” and my editor and I actually debated whether or not chickens have hips – because, obviously, if they didn’t, the line wouldn’t make any sense. I remember thinking at the time, it’s a book about talking chickens in pajamas, but not having hips would make it too implausible? Luckily, it turns out the chickens have hips and so the line was fine to keep in as is.
CGE: I know you started out in the field of science and once you had your children veered into telling stories for children. You started out as a nonfiction children’s writer and have flourished as a fun picture book author. Can you compare and contrast those genres for us and maybe tell us a little how you started doing rhyme?
SB: Well, I think at the heart of it, good writing is good writing. So it should not matter whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, poetry or biography — with whatever you write, you need to focus on the story. Everyone accepts that good fiction is founded on a great story, but the truth is that good nonfiction is founded on the same. Obviously, however, in fiction, you can make up whatever you need to have the story go where you need it to go, whereas in nonfiction, you are tied to the actual facts. Still, there is always a way to pick out the details that will tell the story you want to tell – in nonfiction, the creative challenge is finding that right path.
I didn’t start writing rhyming picture books after I had written nonfiction — those things really evolved in parallel. I happen to be more successful getting the nonfiction published early on in my career, but I’d always wanted to be a picture author and I always felt strongly about writing in rhyme. The problem was, however, when I first started writing, I didn’t know how to write at all! I had to learn how to talk to kids. I had to learn how to write for kids. Writing nonfiction for kids actually helped me learn the language of children, and that in turn helped me become a better picture book writer.
One thing I will say about writing in rhyme is that you either hear the rhyme and the rhythm, or you don’t. When I do workshops on writing picture books in rhyme, that is the very first thing I tell people. I can teach someone all the basics of rhyme, I can teach them how to read meter, I can teach them what iambic pentameter is, and so on. I can teach them all of those fundamentals but what I cannot teach is that innate ability to feel the rhythm and rhyme when it works. The truth is some people hear it and some people don’t. But just because you don’t hear the rhythm of the words doesn’t mean you can’t write picture books — so many wonderful picture books are written in prose. No one should feel like rhyme is essential for telling a picture book story — it’s just one way to do it. Each author needs to find his/her own story and his/her her own path.
CGE: Do you think you’d write nonfiction again?
SB: I never stopped writing nonfiction! In fact, I have a book coming out soon that I am very excited about. It is a picture book biography of Jackie Robinson — you know, of baseball fame? My book tells about a part of Jackie’s life but it has actually very little to do with baseball. I’m so excited to have found the story and I’m so excited to be bringing it to the world.
CGE: Sudipta, in the workshop I took with you at the NESBWI spring conference you mentioned that writers are in sales…no matter how beautiful your book is, it needs to sell. How much of your time do you dedicate to selling your books and how do you go about marketing?
SB: Oh, that is a tough question. I would estimate that I spend about half of my time on writing and half of my time on marketing (although under the marketing umbrella I would put everything from school visit prep to workshop development to creating actual promotional items, booking travel, booking events, etc.). But as for selling the actual book to the publisher, I’m very lucky in that I have a terrific agent, Rachel Orr [of the Prospect Agency] who for the last many, many years has been responsible for selling my books to publishers. I cannot complain about how well she’s done that job as I have a lot of books out and a lot more coming.
CGE: I love the section on your web page that says, “Top Secret Information Below. Run your cursor down the page to reveal.” How did you come up with that? And no wonder you don’t wear shoes in your house, you wear high heels everywhere else! (I also never wear shoes in my house, by the way.)
SB: I cannot take credit for the clever design of the page — it was my website designer, Donna Farrell’s idea to create the cursor reveal. The secret things idea is mine — I used to have pages of those on my old website, but they were just shown. When Donna redesigned my site, she came out with a way to make them even more secret.
CGE: I could tell by your workshop that you are a vibrant and passionate woman and author. What else do you attribute your success to in the world of publishing? Can you tell us how you became so knowledgeable in a field so different from the science field you went to school for?
SB: Thank you for calling me successful, although I’m not sure how successful I am. I have been very lucky in the last 10 years, but I don’t know if I feel like a “real author” yet!
I have been fortunate that publishers have been very welcoming toward my writing, but I actually got lucky in terms of getting on the path to success long before that. You know that I have a science background — I was an undergraduate and graduate student at the California Institute of Technology (that’s the Big Bang Theory school, if you don’t know) — where I received two degrees in Biology. I never took a creative writing course in all the years I was in higher education. You would think that that means I would have no basis in doing the things I do, but here’s the beautiful thing about what my professors gave me — they taught me how to think. Not think about science, but to think through any problem. When a scientist examines a problem, she looks at the world to develop a question, she develops a hypothesis, and then she outlines the experiments she will need to prove her hypothesis, to reach her goal. That’s exactly how I approach writing. I conceive of a character, I think about what the character’s goal is, and then I think about what steps that character would have to take to reach her goals. In some ways, I am still using every bit of training that I was given in school — I just use fewer amino acids!
CGE: How do you balance your writing with your professional development workshops and school visits? And do you have a structured writing schedule?
SB: I absolutely do not have a structured writing schedule! I am a single mother of three — I write when I can, I write when I feel sane. As for balancing professional development workshops and school visits with my writing, it is a constant balancing act. No one told me that the more successful I got as a writer, the less time I would have to actually write. But the very cool thing is that I’ve discovered that I enjoy teaching, whether it is going to school to talk to kids or talking to other professionals who are as passionate about literacy and education as I am. I thrive on the experience.
CGE: You have so many books with so many wonderful illustrators. Did you have any input in choosing your illustrators? Did you ever want to work with an illustrator again?
SB: I not only have no input in choosing my illustrators, most of the time I get no say in the selection or the illustration process! It really is a separate process from the writing, and as much as, speaking as an author, I’d like it if authors were more involved with the art, the truth is that artists need to have the same intellectual freedom to create as authors do. If you have someone looking over your shoulder offering “suggestions” or “critiques,” it’s hard to feel intellectually free.
Of course I would love to work with my illustrators again! I’m very lucky — my books are all gorgeous!
CGE: What’s in the future for Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen?
SB: 2014 will be a big year – I have four picture books coming out:
Also, my new series, The Spectacles of Destiny, is set to launch in the fall of 2014. Very exciting!
You can buy her books anywhere books are sold!
To enter the giveaway of a picture book critique with 15-minute phone call from Sudipta, click on this link to Rafflecopter* and follow the directions. You must have a U.S. address and phone to be eligible. Enter before midnight, Eastern Standard Time, on September 27. The lucky critique recipient will be announced on October 1.
*If you’re new to Rafflecopter, it’s pretty simple. Click on the link and the widget will ask you to sign in either with Facebook or with your email address. Rafflecopter lets you give us your contact info privately, and it does the random drawing for us at the end.
Check out our picture book giveaway on Tuesday’s post, too!