Abigail’s Q&A with Children’s Picture-Book Creator Artie Knapp

Abigail speaks with children’s book author Artie Knapp about his latest book featuring a reluctant baby river otter.

Children’s picture-book author Artie Knapp has a knack for writing charming children’s books, and with the publication of  The Wasp and the Canary in 2006, Knapp found his life’s calling and now claims five children’s books and over forty published stories to his credit.
Last month, Ohio University Press published the Green Earth Book Award shortlist finalist’s latest book, Little Otter Learns to Swim ($15.95, 32 pages)a tale that follows a baby river otter as she learns how to navigate her environment. Unlike a baby otter at the Columbus Zoo where a baby otter was plunged into the water by its mother–sink or swim, as the saying goes–Knapp’s creature is guided by a far more understanding mama. Accompanied by sweet and charismatic illustrations by wildlife artist Guy Hobbs, the rhyming picture book is a lovely introduction to water habitats, conservation, and the importance of trying new things.
Abigail spoke recently with Knapp about Little Otter Learns to Swim and asked about his writing process, his favorite books, and how he overcomes the dreaded writer’s block.
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1. What inspired you to write this book? While watching my daughter learn to swim one afternoon, I wondered what animals have to be taught as well. So when we arrived back home, I began doing some research. I would have guessed that river otters know how to swim the moment they’re born, like some other animals do. But I was surprised to learn that river otters are taught to swim by their mothers when they’re one to three months old. That intrigued me and got me started with writing my story.

 
2. Do you always write about nature? I don’t always write about nature specifically, but nature is something that I am passionate about. I did write the picture book Living Green: A Turtle’s Quest for a Cleaner Planet. Animals are usually the main characters in my stories. I care about the well-being of animals, so I suppose that’s why I use them in my writing so frequently.

3. Are all of your books written in rhyme? Little Otter Learns to Swim is my first book written in rhyme. I have however had children’s poems published in publications such as Humpy Dumpty’s Magazine, and in Oxford University Press course-books.

 
4. Do you always work with the same illustrator? If not, do you have a choice in who illustrates your book? I don’t always work with the same illustrator, and it’s ultimately the publisher who decides who will illustrate the book. I have been very fortunate with the illustrators who have illustrated my stories.

 

5. Is your favorite animal an otter? If not, what is? I like river otters a lot, but if I had to pick a favorite animal, it would be my cat, Bella. Her nickname is Bell-Girl. She is often sitting on my desk as I write my stories.

 
6. How do you know when the story is just right? Do you read it out loud? I do read my stories aloud. As I have progressed in my career, I’ve learned to set my work aside when I think it’s done. Then after a couple of weeks, I’ll reread my story to see if I still like it. A fresh set of eyes after some time has passed has helped to make my work better. If it still reads the same to me after coming back to it, then I usually feel that the story is right. Other times I’ll come back to a story after a break and make changes. Then I’ll set it aside again and come back to it until I feel that it’s where I want it to be.

 
7. Do you visit schools or libraries? I have visited both schools and libraries, but mostly schools. It’s a lot of fun doing author visits. I enjoy speaking with students, and they inspire me to keep writing.  

8. When did you know you wanted to be a children’s book author?  I originally started out writing science-fiction stories. Randomly, I wrote a children’s story titled The Wasp and the Canary. That story along with another one I wrote titled The Hummingbird Who Chewed Bubblegum were published simultaneously on a popular site called Candlelightstories.com. Getting published is a great feeling for an author. Those two stories getting published encouraged me to write another children’s story. After writing my third children’s story Sprinting Spencer Still Wants to Run, I felt that I was onto something. From there, I began to write children’s stories frequently and now cannot imagine not writing stories for kids.

9. What kind of books did you read growing up? I didn’t read as much as I should have growing up. I was always outside playing and watched a lot of T.V. I did enjoy comic books and read a lot of classic picture books stories. The Hardy Boys series are the first books that I remember finding hard to put down.

 
10. What are your favorite children’s books? I enjoy stories that don’t necessarily have a defined ending, but make you the reader left to ponder what happened. My favorite picture book creators are Peter Brown, Don Freeman, Kevin Henkes, Robert McCloskey, Chris Van Allsburg, and Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are by the late Maurice Sendak is my all-time favorite picture book.
 
11. What do you do when you’re having a hard time writing or coming up with an idea? I like to take walks. I enjoy the exercise and the fresh air helps too. I also enjoy listening to music. Music often helps me to get back into the zone of being creative. 

Clowning Around with Elisabeth Helland Larsen

The author of Life and I: A Story About Death talks about writing and working as a clown in hospitals and refugee camps.

In December we reviewed Elisabeth Helland Larsen’s poignant examination of mortality in Life and I: A Story About DeathLarsen kindly answered a few of our questions about her work as a children’s book author and visiting hospital clown to children in critical care units and in refugee camps. (No creepy clowns here!) Larsen lives in Oslo, Norway, and answered our questions through a series of email exchanges at the dawn of January 2017.

LFS: Can you tell me about the I Am series? [Life and I is one in a trilogy of books on the subject.] What prompted you to take on these topics? 

EHL: This series is a result of my meetings with children and youth in various states of emergency over the past twenty years, and I’ve combined my own mix of fantasy and playfulness. For a very long time I’ve circled around the themes of death, life, and clowning. Nearly everything in my life deals with these topics. My aim is not to give any answers but to create conversations, reflections, or visual experiences. I believe the Norwegian publishing house Magikon and all the other countries that have translated the books are quite brave in taking on such a subject. These books wouldn’t be what they are without the talented illustrator Marine Schneider.

LFS: How did you get started as a clown? Do you work with a group?

EHL: I started with theater and clowning when I was very young because it gave me the freedom to do everything I wanted: meet people, travel around the world, and encounter different cultures. Playing, juggling, acrobatics, dancing, drawing–these are universal activities that each culture gives their own slant. After completing theater school in Paris, I became more and more involved in clowning in hospitals and refugee camps. Now I’m part of a group of hospital clowns in Norway called All Noses and I visit refugee kids as often as I can.

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LFS: How do children react when they meet you in clown costume?

EHL: The red nose is like a universal passport into all cultures. It is incredible how laughter and playing can unite us despite different circumstances. The power of love, humor, and playing can help children survive overwhelming odds. Laughter keeps us afloat when life gets tough. I am so amazed to see the power to overcome in every single human being. I’ve only had positive reactions to me in clown character.

LFS: How do you prepare for a clown show? 

EHL: These days I work in hospitals and I also tour a lot to promote my books, which I present through different kinds of performances than the ones I prepare for children in hospitals. I love to meet children and talk about books and big themes, especially taboo themes. Children are open to honest discussion about tough issues, but we need to be willing to have those conversations.

LFS: Where do you find inspiration for your books? 

EHL: As humans we all have hundreds of stories inside our hearts, minds and bodies. Some of us feel the urge and need to write them on paper or transform them into art.

LFS: Has writing grown out of your work as a clown? 

EHL: Writing has always been a important part off my life but in 2011 I became more serious about it after finishing a training program on writing children books at Norsk Barnebokinstitutt [the Norwegian Institute for Children’s Books].

LFS: What else would you like to tell me about your work?

EHL: I think that adults are duty-bound to encourage children to realize that life in today’s world can have meaning, but they need our guidance. I do what I can with my artistic tools, but we all have a responsibility to teach those who will one day lead the world.

Top photo by Christine Crüger. Reproduced with permission from the publisher.

Life and I: A Story About Death

A sensitive examination of the inseparability of life and death.

life-and-i
Image copyright 2016 Marine Schneider, text copyright 2016 Elisabeth Helland Larsen, reproduced with permission from Little Gestalten.
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Image copyright 2016 Marine Schneider, text copyright 2016 Elisabeth Helland Larsen, reproduced with permission from Little Gestalten.

 

Last week we explored Aimée de Jongh’s graphic novel that, among other things, grapples with the untimely death of a childhood friend. Certainly, Return of the Honey Buzzard is not for the under-14 set, but the review did prompt some readers to ask whether any new picture books for young children deal with death without being trite or too complex.

While Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit (1922) is a time-tested classic, a new picture book attempts a more didactic approach, and it works. Life and I: A Story About Death by Norwegian author Elisabeth Helland Larsen introduces a rosy-cheeked girl named Death who rides her pink bicycle en route to all living creatures. Young, old, animals, plants, even the unborn and the reluctant eventually meet her. Though the thought of Death’s arrival may seem frightening, Larsen makes sense of the inevitable: “If I were to disappear, who would make way for all yet to be born,” Death wonders. (Rosie Hedger’s seamless translation from the Norwegian is a tour de force.) Life, Death’s sister, also appears in the book, making the case that one cannot exist without the other.

Families in mourning will find Life and I quietly reassuring when trying to explain why living beings expire. Marine Schneider’s pencil illustrations are delicate yet surprisingly firm–Death may be imagined as a little girl, but she is unwavering.

(Originally published by Magikon Forlag as Jeg er Døden .)

Life and I: A Story About Death, by Elisabeth Helland Larsen, illustrated by Marine Schneider, translated by Rosie Hedger; Little Gestalten, $19.95, 48 pages, ages 4 +.