Feb. 12, 2016
Today we present debut picture book author Trisha Speed Shaskan, whose book PUNK SKUNKS (HarperCollins), illustrated by Stephen Shaskan, just came out this week. Be sure to enter her giveaway for a copy signed by BOTH her and the illustrator.
Tell us about your background and how you came to write for children.
As a child, I wrote stories, poems, journal entries, and occasionally a song. My first mystery was “The Case of Missing Wheelchair,” which wasn’t a mystery and didn’t include a wheelchair!
By the time I was a teen, my parents gave me a typewriter. I typed and printed an entire book of my own poems, which were very teenage and very depressing, including “I am a Statue!”
While I was an English major at the University of Minnesota, I continued to write stories, but I also took a class in children’s literature from the curator of The Kerlan Collection, which is an amazing children's literature archive full of manuscripts and illustrations, including an original painting from GOOD NIGHT MOON! While perusing the Kerlan, I wore white gloves and paged through an ancient-version of stories about King Arthur! I studied the history of children’s literature and the breadth it encompasses, including such gems as the George and Martha series. Currently at the Kerlan, you can see Kate DiCamillo’s drafts of her novels or Melissa Sweet’s original art for BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY THE TRUE STORY OF THE PUPPETEER OF MACY'S PARADE, which is three-dimensional! I encourage all authors and illustrators to visit and donate your work to it! (If you’re interested here’s a link:https://www.lib.umn.edu/clrc/kerlan-collection)
During college, I studied abroad in London where I first read THE HOBBIT while traveling the countryside by train. I loved that book so much I created my own Hobbit board game—but I also wanted to write for that audience: middle-grade children. Today, I’m still working on some middle grade novel manuscripts, which haven’t been published.
By the time I graduated college, I fell into teaching creative writing and storytelling to children at an after-school program. Each week, I checked out piles of picture books from the library to inspire the students. I discovered such gems as KING BIDGOOD'S IN THE BATHTUB by Audrey Wood and illustrated by Don Wood, which remains one of my all-time-favorites. After being an educator for years, I took a part-time job as a bookseller at Wild Rumpus Books For Young Readers. While still working there, I began an M.F.A. program in creative writing where I focused on writing for children. By the end of my first year of grad school, I sold an easy reader I wrote, THE TREASURE MAP. to a local publisher Picture Window Books/Capstone Press and began writing books-for-hire for the school/library market. Ten years later, I sold PUNK SKUNKS. Two years after that, the book was published.
Congrats on your debut, PUNK SKUNKS! What a cute story -tell us about how it came about.
Thanks for enjoying it! My husband Stephen Shaskan (the illustrator of the book) and I worked together to create the idea and characters for the book. We play music together and are both educators who shared music with kids, which is where the idea was born.
While I was writing the story that became PUNK SKUNKS, I worked as a literacy coach at an elementary school in an after school program where two first grade girls were BFFs one day, but not friends the next day. Sometimes, their friendship would fluctuate hourly. I taught the girls conflict/resolution skills. I later realized those experiences subconsciously came into the story. In the book, Kit and Buzz are BSFs—best skunks forever—until they clash. Like those first graders, Kit and Buzz have big feelings. And they have to figure out how to solve the problem.
How closely did you work with your husband during the creative process, either during the writing or illustrating?
To some degree, Stephen and I collaborate on all of our books. On each book one of us has created, the other person has critiqued the story for text and illustrations, or offered some text or illustration ideas. Before creating Punk Skunks, Stephen and I had worked together on projects I had written first, then he had illustrated, but we hadn’t created the original idea for a story together and carried it out.
Stephen usually develops characters by drawing them. I develop characters by brainstorming and writing. For PUNK SKUNKS, we brainstormed ideas out loud together. Since Stephen and I both play music (I play the drums and he plays guitar and keyboards), and we both have shared music in classrooms with kids, one of our first ideas was to write about two characters who play music together.
We brainstormed names and personality traits. We outlined the story. From there, Stephen sketched the characters. I wrote a draft. I finished a draft and Stephen critiqued it. Stephen finished some drawings and I critiqued them. Then our critique group read the story. We each revised separately. When we sold the book, we both worked separately. I worked on the revisions and when I had completed them, I handed the story to Stephen. While illustrating, Stephen added a sequence I didn’t know would occur. It’s the part where Kit sets out to sell her drums, which was perfect for the pacing of the story. I was surprised by that sequence and loved it!
Did you submit the project jointly? If so, doesn't that contravene most advice given to separate authors and illustrators?
Great question. Most beginning authors and illustrators are told not to submit a project jointly. (That’s what I was told!) That advice often changes as you progress in your career path. If you are a professional, which means you are agented, published, or both, the rules often change. Sometimes, agents will pair clients—an author and illustrator—and submit a dummy for their clients.
Sometimes if you’re married or related, the rules change. By the time Stephen and I submitted PUNK SKUNKS together, I had written and published over thirty books for the school/library market. Stephen had published two trade (which means bookstore) picture books that he wrote and illustrated. We were both agented. When we submitted the story, our agents collaborated. My agent is Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, Inc. Stephen’s agent is Teresa Kietlinski at Prospect Agency. They are both fantastic agents.
Funny you should ask! The skunks were originally star-nosed moles, but our editor asked us to consider a different burrowing animal that was more common/recognizable to everyone. We both decided to try it. When brainstorming, punk skunks came up. From there, Stephen sketched. Compared to the moles, the skunks had the ability to show more expression through their hair and tails. Stephen gave Buzz a Mohawk. Kit’s tail is more rounded, whereas Buzz’s tail is jagged. Punk Skunks also fit our story. From the beginning, the moles were more punk rock than rock-n-roll. Once Stephen had the illustrations approved (by the editor), I revised the story several times.
What are you working on now?
I’m always working on several projects. I just finished revising the final draft of the first book in a graphic novel series written for first and second grade students tentatively titled: Q & RAY: THE CASE OF THE MISSING MOLA LISA. Q is a hedgehog. Ray is a rat. Together, they solve mysteries. The book will be illustrated by Stephen and published in 2017 by Lerner. I am also working on a few picture books and hope to return to my middle-grade novel this year.
What advice would you give to aspiring picture book authors?
Welcome! You’ve chosen an amazing format to write. Because this format is so amazing—concise, poetic, active, and written for young children, it requires great care.
Get educated! Read tons of picture books, both the classics and current picture books. Read books on craft, take some creative writing classes, or both.
Mix it up! Try writing different kinds of picture books—tender, humorous, scary. By trying a range of topics and types of stories, you might surprise yourself, but along the way, you’ll find your voice.
Get connected! Find a writing community to support your goals. Seek out critique partners. Forge friendships. It’s a tough field, but worth the time and effort. Don’t give up!
What is something most people don't know about you?
One summer while I was in college at University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, I worked as Goldy Gopher the mascot. I wasn’t the sports’ Goldy. I was the public relations Goldy. I attended children’s and family events such as a baseball camp and the Minnesota State Fair. Turns out, people heckle Goldy Gopher. Often!
Where can people find you online?
Here’s are links to:
Check out the trailer here too:
Trisha Speed Shaskan has written over thirty books for children, including her latest picture book Punk Skunks. Trisha has an MFA in creative writing. Trisha has worked as a bookseller, educator, and youth worker. Trisha lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband Stephen, and their cat Eartha, and dog, Bea. Visit her online at www.trishaspeedshaskan.com