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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Encouraging Young Readers: An Interview with Pepper Springfield

What was your inspiration for your first book? 
One night, several years ago, one phrase popped into my head: “Bob the slob.” That was it.  I had been thinking about how I wanted to create funny, entertaining books with relatable characters for kids who aren’t necessarily great readers. I wanted the books to be written in rhyme and be easy to read so kids who struggle with reading could feel successful.  And, because adults (teachers, librarians, parents and grandparents) are gatekeepers of children’s books—I wanted to create a series that grown-ups would also want to pick up from the shelf and have fun sharing with children.

Bob the slob is definitely relatable. Where did you go from there?
Little by little, I built a world around that one phrase—“Bob the slob”— and created a story about a family of slobs named Bob and a family of super neat characters all named Tweet. (Except that the youngest member of each family is not like the others.)  Encouraged by a flamboyant character named Mo the two families independently—and unwittingly—both move to Bonefish Street—and end up living across the street from each other.  It’s a real “Hatfield vs. McCoy” moment.

I had no idea where that one phrase—“Bob the slob”— was going to take me or how hard it was going to be to get there. I just got to the point where I couldn’t stop thinking about “Bob the slob” so I finally sat down and started to write to see where it would lead. 

Did you originally have the idea of writing a series? Or did the Bobs and Tweets (your book characters) just take over?
Yes! I knew I wanted to write a series because I know that once kids get hooked on a book they are hungry for more stories about those characters.  But I certainly didn’t know—and still don’t—where those characters want to go in their next book so they are definitely driving the bus.

Was there any particular author you read that made you think:  “I could write like that.”?
I am inspired by great children’s (and adult!) book creators whose characters and series feel timeless and continue to captivate readers across many decades.  There are many, many authors I admire and strive to emulate in different ways, but some of my favorites who have created series with lasting appeal to a wide and diverse population of readers are: Dr. Seuss, Dav Pilkey, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Mary Pope Osborne, Jerry Pallotta, and Jeff Kinney.  It is no small feat to ignite kids’ interest in reading and reach millions of kids and their families year after year—and these authors have all done that.

I make many school visits each year and talk to hundreds of kids about books and reading.  Kids have a lot going on in their lives and reading can take a back seat, particularly when kids struggle with fluency or can’t find anything they are interested in.

So I saw a hole to be filled. I was looking for the next book for kids who had outgrown early readers such as Frog and Toad and were ready for more complex plots but couldn’t handle longer chapter books.  I really wanted to find books that would help stop kids from dropping out of reading because they weren’t having enough fun—or feeling good enough about themselves—doing it.  Eventually, I came to realize that I could try to create these books myself

How long did it take you to write your first book? 
It took me five years from that first phrase “Bob the slob” and the first concept of Bobs and Tweets to the final published book. If you search through my laptop you will find hundreds of false starts!

How many rewrites did you do on it? 
When I started writing in earnest I had to print everything out to be able to re-read and re-write so I also have bunches of tote bags stuffed with printed drafts and revisions.  (By now, I have trained my brain to work on my digital drafts and I don’t need to print everything out.)

I was also very disorganized.  I think I was so self-conscious about trying to be a writer that I didn’t allow myself to develop a real system for tracking my latest drafts. So I often started rewriting everything from scratch. It took me a really long time to accept the fact that I actually was writing a book, give myself permission to come up with a process that worked for me, and act like a real writer.

But for me, the writing is all in the rewriting.  Sometimes, when my writing isn’t going well, I will force myself to get something—any nonsense—down, just so I will have something to revise from.  I hear writers talk about the process of rewriting but I didn’t fully understand what they meant until I sat down to write myself. Ideas do not come out of my head perfectly formed.  I need to get them down in words and then start shaping and reshaping and reshaping some more.

 Were you active with any writing critique groups?  
I was so self-conscious and so terrified about telling anyone I was writing a book that I didn’t know where to go for feedback.  In my day job, I am supposed to be an expert in children’s publishing and I really feared that if a book I wrote wasn’t well-received that I would be exposed as a fraud who didn’t know what she was doing.

I was too embarrassed to join a writer’s group.  I didn’t even tell my close friends and family that I was working on a book.  Eventually, I got enough courage to hire an independent editor to work with me and give me feedback long before I submitted to a publisher and then I started to get the helpful feedback I needed.  

Who encouraged you along the way?
Nobody encouraged me along the way because I didn’t let anyone know what I was doing.  I stood firmly in my own way. I was really my own worst obstacle.

Tell me about your experience in writing for Scholastic. How did it come about?
Initially, I didn’t expect Scholastic to publish Bobs and Tweets.  I really just got up enough nerve to ask a publisher friend in the Trade division what she thought of it. 

I found Kristy Caldwell—a brilliant illustrator—on the SCBWI website. Kristy didn’t know me and I didn’t have a deal for the book yet but she was brave and interested enough to meet with me and together we created a dummy of Meet the Bobs and Tweets.

I also wrote up a survey for kids to answer questions about the book and the characters.  I made some copies of the black and white dummy and sent it with the survey to a few teachers I know to share with kids in their classes.  I got incredible feedback from those 
surveys—the kids who read the dummy said they loved the story and the characters. 

What happened next?
I took the dummy and the survey results to my publisher friend at Scholastic to ask for advice and she said they would be interested in publishing it.

I was thrilled but also very nervous.  I work very hard to make sure my editor, Celia Lee, knows I am totally receptive to all editorial feedback.  I try to make myself very coachable.  I have so much to learn as a writer and I didn’t want my day job (President of Scholastic Book Clubs) to be intimidating in any way.

One note: I don’t think a snazzy presentation necessarily gets your book submission noticed but it was important for me to show my concept and provide some supporting materials for my idea. Even though the finished book doesn’t look anything like that original dummy, it --and the surveys from kids --did a lot to help me convey what I was trying to do.

What is the hardest part of writing for you? Starting? Creating a scene? Dialog? etc?
I am happy to be distracted by Facebook updates, texts from my kids, and flash sales of any kind (!), so it takes me a while to sit down and fully concentrate on writing without giving in to interruptions and fun distractions.

Even when I get rid of all the distractions I have days when I sit in front of my computer for hours and get nothing. And I find if it’s not coming, I will fall asleep.  That seems to be my stress reaction.  So I’ve learned to go with it: just put my head down for a few minutes, wake up, then get on with it.

In general, the hardest part of writing for me is keeping my main characters—Dean Bob and Lou Tweet—front and center and giving them agency.  I love to develop lots of interesting tangential plot lines and I also tend to focus on some of my adult characters (such as Mo, the self-appointed Mayor of Bonefish Street; Ms. Pat, the kids’ teacher, and Mark, the Bonefish Street Pool lifeguard) and have to keep pulling the main plot back to the kids.

Do you have a daily writing commitment? 
It does get tricky when I can’t get my writing to flow because I don’t have a regular schedule and I have a day job, so I constantly have to find scraps of time to write.  I plan my weekends carefully and try to make sure I block out at least a few hours to write.  I have learned, it comes out bit by bit.

Does rhyming come easily to you?
Rhyming is really hard.  I have to work to create very “tight rhymes” which will be read the same way, with the same cadence, by most readers.   I began asking my family to read the rhymes aloud to me as I wrote so I could hear pitfalls in the rhyming structure.

Of course, the only person forcing me to write in rhyme is…me! But the Bobs and Tweets books are designed to be easy to read and I think rhyming helps that so it’s worth the struggle.

We have all experienced rejection. Give me an example of one you’ve had, and how you learned to write past it.
Even though I experience all kinds of rejection in my corporate job every day, the fear of rejection for my writing held me back for years.  I was so terrified of rejection that I created a pseudonym—Pepper Springfield—and I didn’t tell anyone but one close friend and my immediate family that I was really Pepper. 

I was so afraid of being “outed” as a fraud. As I said, in my day job at Scholastic, I’m supposed to be an expert on children’s books—how could I hold my head up if my books weren’t bestsellers or didn’t inspire great reviews? In a way, I rejected myself so no one else would be able to.  I didn’t allow anyone to support and encourage me or my writing life.

Finally, I realized that people are not lying in wait, hoping that I will screw up.  And even if there are people who don’t love the Bobs and Tweets, there’s nothing I can do to change that!

Although this fear of rejection still holds me back to some degree, I know now a snarky review can be hurtful but it won’t kill me.  I need to promote my books unapologetically, because if I don’t love them publicly then I cannot expect readers to discover and love them too! My advice to myself is to just keep going and not let fear hold me back.

What is some of the best writing advice that you’ve received or could give?
It’s funny until I sat down to answer these questions, I never put into words how The Bobs and Tweets got started.  And I realize I was actually unknowingly following some great advice I heard Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, give during his Harvard commencement speech when I was there with my Dad for his 65th college reunion last month.

 Addressing the graduates and alumni Zuckerberg said,  “Ideas don’t come out fully formed. They only become clear as you work on them. You just have to get started…The idea of a single eureka moment is a dangerous lie.”

When I first began the Bobs and Tweets series I only had one phrase “Bob the slob,” but as I kept working on it that phrase became two families, two best friends, a neighborhood, a community, and an entire world that I now love so much!

Are there any other points about writing that you would like to add?
Well, you have to tell a good story.  Otherwise, it’s just words. You have to have characters that people are rooting for.  Once you have that you can fill in the technical details but if you don’t have a good story, who cares?

I offer this from my perspective as Pepper Springfield, but also from my experience in my day job:  you need to step back and act like the intended reader of your own book. I get lots of submissions from writers and I wonder: would YOU really want to read this?  It might be an interesting concept but is it really an engaging read? Are you, the writer, interested in your own story? Because if you’re not, then no agent or publisher or editor or reader will be either!

I think I knew Bobs and Tweets was going to work because I would laugh out loud when I re-read the story. But when I read it back to myself I also have to be honest about the parts that are slow or overwritten.  I learned to pay attention to my own thought process.  Was I skipping over parts or reading them from a distance? If so, they weren’t connecting even to me and they had to be edited. Of course, that’s where editors come in.  If you can’t find one, use your friends or network and be open to their feedback.  You don’t have to take every idea everyone gives you but you do want to be approachable and listen. You can even learn a lot from bad feedback.

And I can’t say this enough: be prepared to cut! I cut at least 50% of what I write.  Just because I got it down on paper doesn’t mean it’s going to work as the book evolves. But often what I end up cutting makes room for something better and the result is a much stronger rhyme or scene. 

One more thing: writing and publishing are not the same thing.  There is an audience for everything written—even if the audience is only one person—the writer.  But publishing your book and trying to get others to read it is daunting.  On the one hand, these days, with social media and on-line booksellers, there are so many opportunities for you to connect your book to all kinds of possible audiences. But on the other hand, it takes a huge amount of time, energy, and attention to satisfy them all.

A book isn’t going to find a market without your help.  That’s why I had to stop hiding behind Pepper Springfield and get to work helping people discover my books.

My daughter helped push me to be a better “self-promoter.” She said, “Mom, people want to support you—they just need to know how!” So I finally sent an email to my friends and family and asked them to check out my book and they did and that momentum really encouraged me.

Do you have another book in the series? Can you give me a short synopsis?
I spent a lot of time building the world of Bonefish Street and the characters who live there and Kristy Caldwell spent years developing the characters visually so there is no way they are going to stay confined to two books!

We introduced the characters and their world in Meet the Bobs and Tweets. In book two, Perfecto Pet Show (pub date: 6/27/17) Lou and Dean along with their pets Chopper and Pretty Kitty perform in a Kid/Pet Talent Show. And I am excited to say I just got the go-ahead for Book Three—a Halloween title scheduled for Fall 2018.

Sounds like you have a full schedule ahead of you. If you would like to learn more about Pepper's current and upcoming books, here are some ways to do that. 

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