Author Spotlight: Andrew Katz
Dec. 11, 2020
We're excited to feature author Andrew Katz and his recent picture book, I JUST WANT TO BE SUPER!, illustrated by Tony Luzano, (in French, Je suis Super Nino!) (CrackBoom! Books, 2020). Be sure to enter the giveaway to win a copy!
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for children.
I grew up in Montreal, Canada, the oldest for four children who are all close in age, and that gave me experience early on entertaining kids younger than me––reading them stories, making up games with them. (My siblings’ favorite game that we played was called simply “Bad Guys and Good Goods” and involved the “Bad Guy”––always me––sneaking to the other side of the backyard from my lair in the cabana, capturing one of them, and then pretending to fall asleep while the rest of the “Good Guys” freed their imprisoned friend and ran together back to their base.) But I also just loved stories for their own sake. I don’t remember this, but my mom tells me that when I was two, I would sit on the carpet in the playroom surrounded by those large-paged picture books that came with vinyl records. Apparently I would replay the record over and over until I could “read” (i.e. recite from memory) the whole story aloud to myself as I turned the pages. To this day, I could sit and absorb stories all day if I had time for it, whether in the form of oral storytelling, novels, plays, films, etc.
There has always seemed to me something miraculous about language––the way its sounds and rhythms resonate inside our minds and bodies, and the way our words can be understood, can communicate something to another human being. I have always been fascinated by childhood development as well––by attachment, object relations, and the ways in which our relationships to others and the world take shape. Writing for children allows me to explore both those interests at once. I started writing my first stories on my dad’s typewriter in his basement office––mostly spoofs of the Bruno and Boots series by my favorite writer at the time, Gordon Korman. Eventually, when I had young nieces and nephews, I began to write picture books for them, getting them illustrated by talented students at the college where I teach and just self-publishing a few copies for holiday or birthday presents. It was one of those books, co-written with my friend Juliana Léveillé-Trudel, that became my first published book, How To Catch A Bear Who Loves To Read (in French, Comment attraper un ours qui aime lire), which was nominated for a Forest of Reading award in 2020.
Whenever I sit down to write, and now when I read to kids in schools and libraries (and more recently on Zoom), my goal is simply to give back, as best I can, that experience I have always loved of being told a good story.
|© Tony Luzano|
Congrats on your picture book, I Just Want to Be Super! Tell us about the book and what inspired you.
I Just Want To Be Super! tells the story of Nino, a kid with LOTS of energy. One morning, Nino finds a mask that gives him amazing powers. He can’t wait to blast into action! But no one will let him do all the super things he wants to do. Instead, everybody tells him stuff like Put away your dishes. Get dressed. Be CAREFUL. As you can imagine, this dilemma frustrates Nino, as it does most kids––and how he will handle it is the central question of the story.
|© Tony Luzano|
The inspiration behind this book was my nephew, who is eight now, but who was three or four at the time I began thinking about writing a story for him. At that age, he was starting to get more and more negative feedback for his exuberance, which, not unlike Calvin in Calvin and Hobbes or Max in Where The Wild Things Are, could sometimes turn a little wild. His parents were concerned that my nephew was starting to form a negative view of himself, because of the increasing amount of impatience the caregivers in his life, including even themselves at times, were expressing towards him.
So I set out to write a story that presented my nephew’s energy in a positive light, as something super––figuratively and literally. I also wanted to show that a character like Nino is more than just his high energy; for instance, my nephew loves to wrestle, but he is also very gentle with and protective of animals. I wanted to encourage empathy for kids like my nephew by showing what it feels like to be bursting with energy and just wanting to find a way to use it. At the same time, I wanted to show young readers that there are lots of ways for them to be “super”––not only super fast and super strong but also super kind and super gentle, as Nino himself discovers in his own imaginative way.
Importantly, I didn’t want the conflict of the story to be between Nino and his parents, who set healthy boundaries throughout the book but in a warm and caring manner. The main conflict here is a more basic, developmental one, which every child, and adult for that matter, has to navigate to a greater or lesser extent: the conflict between just doing what we want to do and taking responsibility for our actions.
One other aspect of the book that I think is worth explaining is the fact that although I am not a POC, Nino is. How did this come about? Simply, the illustrator, Tony Luzano, is Filipino-Canadian. Both his parents immigrated to Canada from the Philippines, and Tony’s background seemed to everyone involved in the project like a terrific opportunity to represent a community that is underrepresented in picture books. Tony was therefore given free rein to decide how the characters looked, and he based their appearance on the people and places that were familiar to him growing up. The book doesn’t tell a Filipino story per se––Nino’s challenge is shared by kids across cultures––but to fit with the possibility that the family could be Filipino, I changed the name of Mom to Mama and of Dad to Papa and gave the children Filipino names. Tony’s illustrations also include subtle references to Filipino culture, such as the broom Papa uses to sweep (called a “Walis Tambo”), the basketball shorts he wears (basketball being the most popular sport in the Philippines) and the sun and stars that feature on the Filipino flag, which can be spotted in various places throughout the illustrations.
Was your road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?
I’d say something in between. Getting published always seemed so daunting that I hadn’t really attempted it, although I kept writing and self-publishing those stories for my nieces and nephews, and I kept attending talks and conferences about writing for kids, such as CANSCAIP’s Packaging Your Imagination, where, in a surreal moment, I had the privilege to present this year on their “Breaking-In” panel.
But publishing had always been a dream, and one day, some stars aligned: I was with my co-writer, Juliana, at a book fair in Havana, Cuba, where we befriended a sales rep from Chouette, an independent Montreal company who publish for kids, primarily picture books. We told her we had written a picture book together, and she encouraged us to send it in. We did––and heard nothing. We sent the book around to a few other publishers in Quebec, got a few nibbles but no bites, and figured that that was it. Then, six months after our trip to Cuba, we got an email from Chouette. It turns out they just hadn’t gotten to our book in the slush pile yet. They invited us in for a meeting, and about a year later, in November 2018, our first book was published. Fortunately, I had another story in my drawer––the one that became I Just Want To Be Super!––and was able to present that to Chouette shortly thereafter and have it published this past June 2020.
What projects are you working on now?
Our publisher has expressed interest in a sequel to How To Catch A Bear Who Loves To Read / Comment attraper un ours qui aime lire, and we hope to finish that up over the holidays, which, due the pandemic, will likely be very quiet, giving us lots of time to write. I also have another story in my drawer that I wrote for my niece years ago that I’d like to dust off and continue developing in the coming months.
What advice would you give to your younger self? Is it the same you'd give to other aspiring authors?
I think I think would tell myself the same thing I would tell other young and otherwise aspiring authors: have fun and work hard. Having fun is essential, because the impulse to write begins from pleasure––the pleasure, as I mentioned earlier, of making sounds, of forming words and sentences, of telling a story, and of communicating. There is a lot of play and spontaneity involved in writing. But developing any kind of mastery of language and stories is also hard work––typically, you have to try this and that, and endure a great deal of trial and error, as you find your way towards something you like.
Kids playing in a sandbox work on their creations with intense focus, and at the same time everything they make remains loose and can always be knocked down and restarted. That, to me, is also a helpful attitude to have when writing.
Writing is one of those activities where the more you put into it, the more it gives back to you––not necessarily in terms of fame and fortune (there’s not much of that for most published writers anyway) but in terms of happiness, insight, empathy, openness and other rewards of the spirit. And sometimes you wind up publishing a book, too, and people read your work, and they may even take something meaningful from it, and that is very gratifying. But you don’t need to publish a book to share your work; you can send your work to family and friends, join a writing group, attend an open mic night, exchange writing through all kinds of sites online, play Dungeons & Dragons, etc. (In an interview, film maker Jon Favreau said that he learned how to tell a story by playing D&D as a kid.) And at the end of the day, the pleasure of writing itself should, ideally, remain its own greatest reward.
I didn’t talk about reading, although that’s the first thing people usually bring up when asked for advice about writing. But yes––read, read, read, first and foremost for the pleasure of it. My youngest niece is 11 now, and it’s been amazing to watch her just devour books, and to see her beginning to write her own stories, which are already far more brilliant than anything I could have written at her age and probably even than I could write now. In reading all those books, she wasn’t trying to learn how to write; she was just “into” them. But through the process of reading them, the excitement, the humour and the architecture of stories clearly got into her blood and bones, and she now has that knowledge in her fingertips.
One last bit of advice would probably be: try to find a writing buddy. And/or buddies! Writing with Juliana has been an unexpectedly fruitful collaboration, in part, I think, because we are different writers––we each bring a perspective and an approach that the other needs to the table. (We wrote an article about our co-writing process for Canadian Children’s Book News in their summer 2019 issue, titled “Writing with Four Hands in Two Languages”, which anyone interested can read here.) I have also learned and benefited a ton from various writing groups I’ve been a part of. Again, the variety of perspectives and approaches, from people you trust, can push you to clarify and render as vivid as possible the language and the story for readers. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention writing commuities such as KIDLIT411! I’ve had some really helpful conversations through your group, and even made some new acquaintances and friends.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
I was part of an amateur swing dance troupe in Montreal for six years. ☺ I had a lot of fun throwing people into the air––and catching them, of course.
Where can people find you online?
I have a website that is still under construction:
And these are my social media handles:
I’m also part of an all-Canadian group of picture book writers and illustrators called Picture Books, Eh! The goal of the group is to support and co-promote not only our own work but the work of other Canadian picture book makers, including folks from marginalized communities who are typically underrepresented in children’s book publishing. People can find the group here:
And if any of your readers are Canadian and releasing a traditionally published picture book in 2021––and especially if they identify as BIPOC, LGBTQ+, dis/differently abled––they are welcome to get in touch about joining the group at email@example.com
Andrew Katz just wants to write stories, but he sometimes has to put his dishes in the sink––a lot like his nephew, who inspired the character of Nino in Andrew’s second picture book, illustrated by Tony Luzano, I Just Want To Be Super! (in French, Je suis Super Nino!), published by CrackBoom! Books, June 2020.
Andrew is also the author of How To Catch A Bear Who Loves To Read, co-written with Juliana Léveillé-Trudel and illustrated by Gemini Award-winning animation director and illustrator Joseph Sherman (CrackBoom! Books, November 2018). The French version, Comment attraper un ours qui aime lire, was nominated for a 2020 Forest of Reading Award.
Andrew teaches Children’s Literature and Creative Writing at Dawson College in Montreal. In 2013 he won his school’s Director General’s Award for Teaching Excellence.