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Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Choosing the “Best” Words: An Interview with Dave Ross

Dave Ross is an artist, author, and educator whose every career move has involved kids. To date, his book list includes 39 titles and more on the way. So let’s find out what keeps him going.

What made you decide to write for children?
Way back in 1974 I was an art teacher in an elementary school. The principal of the school would conduct his faculty meeting in the school library. The content of these meetings were not exactly stimulating for my art teacher brain. Out of boredom, I would pull a picture book off the shelf and read. I naively figured it would be easy to create something better. My first effort collected over 20 rejections.

So then how did you move forward?
While I never did sell that first manuscript, my drawings attracted the attention of the editor of a small publisher in New York City. While I illustrated nine books for Harvey House, my interest in writing was reignited by some of the joke and riddle books I worked on.

Turns out, joke and riddles are considered public domain. “Authors” of such works actually compile and modify existing humor to create these books. So Really Ridiculous Rabbit Riddles was born and my career as an author/illustrator as well.

What gives you inspiration for your stories?
As a young student, I was always getting in trouble for being the class clown. I never outgrew that aspect of my personality. Even today, the sound of children’s laughter makes me happy. Over the years, I have visited hundreds of elementary schools where I entertain students with funny stories and silly antics. I am perhaps the oldest class clown in America. It is by far my favorite thing to do.

You’ve written 39+ books. What keeps you going?
Seeing something that you created get published is still thrilling. Even better if lots of people buy it.

Do you consider yourself more of an illustrator or writer?
I like doing the artwork more than the writing. Ideas for both come easily, but the execution is much more laborious. Most people don’t realize how many drafts, revisions, and rewrites are required to create something to be read by an eight-year-old. 

You are an author and illustrator, but I see several of your titles have another illustrator. How do you let go and let someone else do the illustrations?
Ha! It is always a question of what the editor wants. My most successful book is the Book of Hugs. It was first published in 1980 with my illustrations. It did very well over the years. 

When I submitted a proposal for A Book
 of Friends in the 1990s, my editor suggested a package deal that would re-release the Book of Hugs and include a Book of Friends. However, they wanted a different “look” for the illustrations. Hence the different illustrator. Given that most of the writing as done, and the contract was very generous, it was an easy decision for me.

What’s the best encouragement you’ve had in your writing?
Back in 1981, Captain Kangaroo read Book of Hugs on his show. Still one of my favorite moments.

We have all experienced rejection. How have you learned to write past it?
It still stings but you have to develop a thick skin if you want to be in this business.

What has surprised you the most in writing and publishing?
Over the years I have met hundreds of fellow authors. It never ceases to amaze me what a diverse group we are. Most of the authors I crossed paths with enjoy sharing stories about their craft and publishing experiences. Early in my career, I met Isaac Asimov. He was very friendly and generous with his time. 

 has frustrated you the most about writing or illustrating?
Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out what an editor wants. I remember having a lengthy conversation about what kind of an expression I should draw on a cartoon carrot that was being eaten by a rabbit. The editor looked at several sketches and complained that they did not look unglued enough. So, I asked her how to draw an “unglued” carrot. She said, “Well if I could draw, I’d show you.”

What do you know now about writing that you wished you had known sooner?
I wish I had paid closer attention in 7th grade when they taught grammar. I am also an atrocious speller.

What is some of the best writing
 advice that you’ve received or could give?
Writing is all about choosing the “best” words. In my experience, your first effort is not your best. Be willing to revise and rewrite. When you think you are close to finished, have someone else read your writing to you. Listen to the sound of the sentences you created and compare the content to that of your imagination. Often we don’t include all the words we need. Other times we include too much. Never forget the old cliché, “show don’t tell.”

You and your wife founded an organization called Helping Hands School. Tell
me about it. How it started and where it is today.
Back in the early 1980s, my wife Kathleen and I were teachers in the same elementary school. I was the art teacher; she was a special education teacher. One day in the faculty room she said, “If I could get my hands on these kids earlier, I could do a better job.”

Well, I had my eye on an old dairy farm. I knew I wasn’t a farmer but I had no idea what I could do with this beautiful piece of property. We decided it would make a great preschool for special needs children. We started out in the summer of 1983 with 20 kids and 3 employees. 

Thirty years later, when we retired, the school se
rved over 300 kids a year with 66 employees. After we left, the board of directors decided to build a brand new facility. I am very proud to say, the school is still doing well in their new location. The old property is being re-developed into a daycare center so it will continue to serve young children.

 What's up next for your writing?
My last book, T’Bugs was a collaboration with Tom Lemery. Tom and I created a motley cast of characters who were genetically engineered by scientists in a mysterious and top-secret Lab. T’Bugs is short for Technobuggies - the creatures are hybrid insect / electronic devices. If T’Bugs has strong sales, we have discussed either a sequel or a prequel. Beyond that, I have considered another joke book based on geology.

That’s all for today’s interview. If you would like to learn more about Dave’s books and buy them, here are some links to get you started.

T’Bugs website:


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