As founder of The 2021derfuls group, I’m particularly inspired by multi-published children’s authors and illustrators. These creators have established successful careers in the industry and are still going strong, despite a global pandemic and an ever-changing market. The Impertinent Interview seeks not only to feature their newest books, but also to ask a few questions about what makes them tick and how they identify as kid lit creators.
Today, I’m “impertinently” interviewing guest author Ellen Leventhal, who has three published picture books to her credit. The most recent, A Flood of Kindness, illustrated by Blythe Russo and published by Worthy Kids, will release on April 13th, 2021.
Happy book birthday and thank you for being here, Ellen!
Thank you so much, Katelyn for having me here and asking such interesting questions. They definitely made me think!
Let’s start with the dreaded Blank Page. What is your most common mistake/hurdle when writing that first draft?
Sometimes getting that hook in the beginning is a problem on the first draft (and second and third, and…). You want to pull your readers in right away, and that’s something I have to work on. The other thing I tend to do in my early drafts is wander away from the storyline. It’s not always clear to me as I write it, but as a reader, I find myself asking what the story is really about. Often on those early drafts, story to be about too much, and in a picture book, that won’t work. But I don’t stress because I know it twill work its way out during revision.
What kind of writer are you? Are you a plotter? A pantser? A plantser? Something else?
I would say I am a plantser. I haven’t heard it put that way before, but what a great word ! I usually write a very basic plot of where I want to go, but the pantser in me often takes over after that. It’s sometimes fun to see where my characters go, and then I tweak a lot in revision. As we all know, writing is re-writing.
Introvert or extrovert and how does this effect your career in general & your PR work out there?
I’ve come to the conclusion that I am an extroverted introvert. I can be outgoing, but crowds make me crazy. I’m not comfortable with a lot of strangers, and I’m not great with small talk. But put me in a school or someplace else where I can talk about books, writing, kindness, or anything else I am passionate about, and I won’t shut
up ! I can be silly and outgoing for hours at a school, but afterwards, I definitely need some alone time. As far as the PR work, that is SO difficult for me. The actual, « Buy my book, please » or « Here’s a good review, » is terribly hard for me. I embarrass easily, and to be honest, I ask myself, « What are you doing? You’re not that good ! » Yes, PR is HARD especially when Imposter Syndrome is your closest friend. I have a PB biography coming out (unknown date), and I think I will do better at that because I will be promoting my subject, not myself.
What about your writing career worries you most/keeps you up at night?
Going back to the previous question, I wonder if I can do a good enough job at marketing my work when that goes against my basic personality. I also worry that I don’t have any more good stories inside me.
(I think a lot of writer-readers are nodding their heads right now!) What was your single biggest influence from childhood that feeds your writing today? From adulthood?
My father was definitely an influence on my writing when I was a kid. He was a technical writer, but he also always wrote stories and poetry for us. I tried to do the same for my children when they were growing up. As far as an influence from adulthood, aside from all my kidlit friends who do incredible work (including the wonderful Katelyn Aronson 😉 ) I would say my children and my students influenced my writing, and now my grandchildren and I write stories together. They are great little idea generators.
Your first memory of an encounter with the “heart” of a story? Maybe an emotional moment where a story spoke directly to you—possibly choking you up? Similarly, has your own story ever made you cry?
I clearly remember reading a middle grade novel called FOLLOW MY LEADER about a seeing eye dog. I remember sitting on a rock in a park reading it and wondering what it would be like to be blind. I felt I was in the story. The funny thing is that I read it many years later, and didn’t feel a thing. That reminds me that words and events resonate with different people at different times. Now, watching children react to a book always brings me back to my own childhood. As an adult, when Leslie went to Terabithia by herself, I knew something would happen, and
the tears just came. (Ignore the teacher in the corner trying not to yell, « Don’t go, Leslie ! » )
My latest book, A FLOOD OF KINDNESS, which releases on April 13, definitely chokes me up a bit. It is based on a true event, and when I watched my critique group read it, I saw the emotion in them, which, of course, almost brought me to to tears. I hope my last line brings an « Ahh » to readers as it does to me.
What is your absolute favorite spread of your newest book and are you at liberty to show it here?
I can’t say that any specific spread is my favorite. They are all tell different parts of the story, but I do like this one because it’s the lead up to the end which is emotional:
A line of your text you had to take out against your will? A darling you had to kill?
I had to change a lot in LOLA CAN’T LEAP. I loved the line « Great Grandma Gertie held the record for jumping the highest. » The possible illustrations for this line danced in my head. But of course the story was much better without a lot of the extraneous lines, even if I loved them.
If all we had were your books to go on, what might we wrongly assume about you?
Since most of my published works are picture books, people may wrongly assume that I only enjoy that age group. Actually, I taught fifth grade for many years, and I love that age and middle school kids.
What unofficial “industry rules” has your published work managed to break through?
I don’t know that I broke through because it was the publisher’s idea, but an author isn’t always lucky enough to be privy to the illustration process. However, I was able to work closely with Joel Cook, illustrator of DON’T EAT THE BLUEBONNETS and Noelle Shawa, illustrator of LOLA CAN’T LEAP. I got to see each step and even collaborate a bit. However, I had very little to say since they are both such talented illustrators and really brought the characters to life in a way a could never imagine myself.
Shamelessly plug your newest book! Why should we buy A Flood of Kindness?
This book celebrates the healing power of kindness which is universal. All children deal with sadness and loss in some way, whether it stems from a natural disaster, the death of a pet, or moving to a new place. A Flood of Kindness acknowledges those difficult feelings and helps readers process them. Charlotte endures a flood and has to move to a shelter for a while. Although Charlotte’s situation is extreme, everyone goes through difficulties at one time or another. Through this book, children will be encouraged to be kind to those who need a friend and empowered with the knowledge that they can help others by accepting and passing on acts of kindness.
Blythe Russo’s beautiful illustrations complement the story. They capture the mood and the emotion so well that a child will know what’s going on even without the words. Her small touches and little hints of what comes next will have children reading this over and over to find more details. Blythe expertly moves the reader through dark days and into the sunlight of hope with her use of color and facial expressions.
Is there a story behind this story?
Yes. I live in Houston, and some may remember the devastation that Hurricane Harvey caused in 2017. However my community had just gone through the 2015 Memorial Day flood and the 2016 Tax Day flood as well. We had just cleaned up from the 2016 flood when Harvey slammed us. On the surface, this book is a story about a young girl navigating through a difficult time after she loses her possessions in a flood. However, the real story is about how kindness helps people and communities heal during turbulent times. Here in Houston, I saw that firsthand.
My fictional character, Charlotte mirrors that of many children I knew and those with whom I worked. They were angry and felt helpless. Of course, many adults felt that way too. But when I stood outside my ruined home, I thought of Mr. Rogers’s call to “Look for the helpers.” I didn’t have to look far. Anyone whose home was without damage reached out to us, and their kindness was a blanket of hope. At that point, I knew that if I was ever going to write something about these floods, I would focus on kindness and hope.
What message do you hope readers will take from A Flood of Kindness?
We have had and will continue to have challenging times. I hope this book is received as a story of empathy, hope, and empowerment. My wish is that young readers understand the power of kindness and believe they have the power to make things better, even if it’s for one person.
Wonderful, Ellen. Thank you so much for your time. We’re wishing you continued success and many more books!
Thank you so much for having me here, Katelyn!
Support Ellen Leventhal’s work by ordering her new book at any of the links below. IndieBound helps you order directly from your local independent bookstore, which could surely use the support as well!