Welcome to part 4 in our series “In the Muse”.
This week we bend the ear of Donna Shepherd, a most prolific children’s book author and inspirational writer.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Donna. Welcome to the table.
Thanks so much for inviting me to your cyberspace. Let me get some iced tea and dark chocolate and I’ll be ready to go.
I shall do the same. Let’s settle in. To rhyme or not to rhyme. That is my first question. The Donna Shepherd books that I’m familiar with rhyme. Do all of your stories rhyme or do you take it on a story by story basis?
When my children were little, all their favorite books rhymed. I don’t know if I forced them on my children (I hope not!), but they seemed to favor them. As a musician, I have a natural sense of rhythm, and I think that bleeds over into my writing. My son’s favorite books were by Shel Silverstein. I think I’ve read everything he ever wrote and listened to his recordings many times.
Did you have that intention from the get go when you first started writing picture books?
A few times, I’ve had ideas where I simply wrote the story, but next thing I knew, I’d be writing in rhyme again.
Seems like it suits you to a T. Your decision to create your Topsy Tale Series – did that start out as one story and develop into the series?
I wrote “Topsy Turvy Land” first which introduced several characters such as Chizzy, the mischievous green monkey, and Dotty, the hot pink polka-dotted hippo. Kevin Collier, the illustrator, came up with the idea to take some of the fun animals and write stories about them. Chizzy was up first with “Chizzy’s Topsy Tale” where he sneaks out of the house for a scary adventure in the jungle. Next, I wrote about Dotty. She encounters purple elephants down at the river in “Dotty’s Topsy Tale.” The last book in the series focuses on Sully who only sings solos. I decided to give Sully a sore throat! Now what was he to do? He learns to accept the help and friendship of others. “Sully’s Topsy Tale” is my favorite in the series.
Oh yes. Don’t tell the others but I’m kinda smitten with Sully myself. Did you have input on Kevin Collier’s crazy color scheme or was that his invention? It’s incredibly vivid; like a dream world.
The color scheme for “Topsy Turvy Land” was all Kevin. I wrote the story about a mixed up land with very unusual animals, but he ran with it. He also developed a process for these books that he didn’t use in others. I wrote a blog post about it sharing a step-by-step look.
On that note, how do you choose the illustrator that you think will bring your story to life?
Mostly – I don’t! I’m thankful that I am allowed some input, but the publisher has the final say on the illustrator for each book. With “Bradybug” I didn’t see any of the art from Kit Grady until the project was finished. I have a new book coming out soon called “Miss Emma Ant” which Jack Foster is illustrating. I have seen only the cover, and it’s the cutest little ant I’ve ever seen. I’m waiting with eager anticipation to see the rest of the book. I love the fact that while I write the words, the illustrators bring life and many times, new angles on the story that I would never have thought of.
Jack Foster is fantastic! We’ll be looking forward to that new addition coming down the pike. So when you find the right illustrator do you create a basic layout or breakdown of your story for the them to follow or do you leave them to find their own way?
I’ve rarely used notes for the illustrators, but trust them to bring their own creativity to the story. For instance, in “Ava’s Secret Tea Party,” there’s a scene in a diner. Bella Sinclair included a parody of Edward Hopper’s oil painting “Nighthawks” (1942). Gottfried Helnwein’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (watercolor, 1984) with Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Humphrey Bogart brought together Hollywood icons who had never met in real life. Bella Sinclair has done the same for our most cherished fairy tale characters in a delightfully imaginative way. Most children won’t get the joke, but their parents will!
That sounds inspired. You gotta please the parents as well. I will have to peek at that one. Where does the idea for your next book come from? Are you working on a new picture book as we speak?
I always have something in progress. Usually, I’ll get an idea for a book, but I let it simmer in my brain for a while. When it starts boiling, I sit down and write the beginning and how I’m pretty sure it will end – although all of it is liable to change. With the tea party book, I wrote the end before the beginning. When I think about it, I’ve done that more than once. Maybe being left-handed has something to do with it! Most everything I do is backwards, isn’t it?
Tis the season for summer reading. Do you have any advice for parents out there who are trying to inspire their wee ones to continue reading throughout the summer? Any pearls of wisdom and/or resources to suggest?
Both of my children loved to read, but I’m not sure how much credit I can take. Weekly trips to the library all summer were a must, and I let them choose their own books. And of course, I led by example, bringing home an armload of books to read myself. I don’t remember owning a lot of books when I was a child, but I loved the library.
Let’s end with a question about your favorite children’s book when you were a child. Do you remember reading it to yourself or did you have a storyteller parent or sibling who endeared you to the book.
The earliest memory I have is reading “The Bible Story” by Arthur S. Maxwell. I seem to remember that we had a series of those books with illustrated Bible stories. It’s likely that my mother picked them up at a garage sale. I loved them and read them all. I was the oldest of five children, and don’t remember Mom reading to me often, but I read early and easily, so I read to the younger ones.
Did those books inspire you to become a writer?
I don’t know that they inspired me to become a writer, but I do have a keen desire to write a Bible story one day. Come to think of it, perhaps they did leave an indelible impression after all!
I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to share your wisdom and whimsy with us. I’m a fan and I’m sure our audience gathered a new fan or two.
I had such fun recording “Poodle and Doodle” for Be There Bedtime Stories, and it’s always a joy to talk about writing for children. Thank you for the opportunity!
It’s been a pleasure, Donna. Let’s share that recording with our listeners. Here’s Donna reading a bit from Poodle and Doodle. Enjoy.
To see all of Donna’s books, here on Be There Bedtime Stories:
You can find out more tidbits and reach out to Donna directly, here:
At Guardian Angel Publishing here:
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