Interview by Jocelyne Gregory
Vikki VanSickle is the award-winning author of many children’s books, including the 2018 Red Maple Award winning YA novel The Winnowing and, most recently, the picture book Teddy Bear of the Year. In addition to writing, she is the director of marketing and publicity for the young readers program at Penguin Random House Canada and has a recurring kids’ book segment on CTV Your Morning. She has degrees in drama (Queen’s University) and children’s literature (UBC) and credits past experience as a camp director, library programmer, and indie bookstore manager for helping her develop a well-rounded approach to the children’s book industry.
In Teddy Bear of the Year, the teddy bears’ hard work and empathy towards their people and each other comes with this sense of warmth and care. What inspired you to tell Teddy’s story?
I was very taken by the song “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” as a child. I loved the idea of a magical gathering of stuffed animals in the woods! I was interested in giving the basic concept a contemporary twist, layering in a Teddy Bears’ Association, official job descriptions for the teddies, and the kind of activities you might find at a modern office party. I think we spend a lot of time celebrating big achievements, but sometimes those little achievements or small acts of kindness have the biggest impact. I know first-hand how a simple complement or a thank you note can turn your whole day around. I wanted to celebrate the smaller things that provide comfort and kindness, and who better to exemplify that than a teddy bear?
There is a skill to writing picture books and bringing a story together with a limited word count. Do you go through many revisions? Or do you have an idea of how long it should be when you begin to write?
I don’t set out with a word count or length in mind. When I begin, I feel my way through the story, paying attention to narrative, character growth, and the beats or pacing. I write a number of drafts, some with very different beginnings or endings, some with very tiny differences in word choice, and I read all of these drafts aloud. Picture books are meant to be read aloud and you have to hear them “in the air” to get a feel for the story.
What advice would you give for people working on their own picture books? And, if you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self?
Read as many picture books as you can out loud. Then try typing out the text of your favourites, so you can get a sense of how short it is, and how much of the story lives in the artwork. People often overwrite when they start writing picture books or don’t fully grasp the partnership of the art and the words. The golden rule “show don’t tell” is especially true in picture books, but until you’ve studied them and tried a few it can be a difficult concept to grasp.
If you can, I recommend reading aloud to kids. Take note of what they find interesting or boring, what stops them, or what inspires conversation. It’s easy to get caught up in nostalgia and write what you THINK kids will like, but it’s (probably) been quite some time since you were five years old and sensibilities change. While I am always on some level writing something for myself, I do try and think about how the story will resonate with contemporary kids.
To my younger self I would say, “Don’t worry so much about the words. It’s all about the story.” In many ways, writing a picture book is like writing a play. The playwright very rarely has anything to do with casting, costumes, set design, or direction. The same is true when you’re the author but not the illustrator of a book. You have to create a strong framework for someone else to build on.
What is your favourite writing space? Is it at a desk? or the beach? or the kitchen table?
I write either at my kitchen table, near a big window and with easy access to the kettle, or in my bedroom at a desk. It depends if I want a more airy (kitchen) or cozy (bedroom) space. I also take lots of walks, which I find is the best way to mull over an idea.
What are you working on next?
I have a picture book coming out in February 2021 called ANONYMOUSE, which is a story about a mouse who creates street art for the animals in a city. The art is by Anna Pirolli and it is spectacular! I’m also about to go into edits for another picture book, which is a re-telling of Christina Rossetti’s famous poem Goblin Market, about a girl who rescues her sister from a sinister market. In my version, the goblins are all fairytale villains. I often describe my work as love letters to things that I love, and ANONYMOUSE is very much a reflection on how much I love street art and also my concern for animals living in urban spaces, and Goblin Market (still working on that title) is an ode to fairytales and Gothic literature.
I’m also working on a few middle grade novels, which is my other genre of choice. I’ve been playing around with voice and structure lately, potentially writing a diary-style book or an oral history. I like to change it up!
As a graduate of UBC’s Master of Arts in Children’s Literature program, how did you find that the program helped you find your place in publishing, and your voice as a writer? (bonus question!)
I loved everything about the MACL program! I often describe the two years I spent in Vancouver at UBC as my “Renaissance Period,” during which I discovered my love of writing for children, the big wide world of children’s books, and friends and mentors that I still have today. The interdisciplinary nature of the program gave me a well-rounded sense of the ecosystem of children’s literature, including publishing, education, librarianship, and child development. Before I entered the program I was struggling a bit with my writing, but once I gave writing for kids a go, I realized that my voice is naturally suited to younger readers. I don’t know who I would be or where I would be if not for the MACL program. It was a major turning point in my life.
Our reviews of Vikki VanSickle’s books: