I’m thrilled to welcome Ruth McNally Barshaw, the author and illustrator of the popular Ellie McDoodle series, back to the Mixed-Up Files. This has been a wonderful week for Ruth. Her birthday was on Monday–happy belated birthday, Ruth! And yesterday, Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel was released as a reissued paperback. Huge congrats! The new cover looks fantastic. Can you tell our readers a bit about your Ellie McDoodle series and why two of your books are being reissued?
Thanks so much, Mindy. Ellie McDoodle is a highly-illustrated, middle grade novel series about an 11-year-old girl who records her daily observations and art in a sketch journal. It has humor, games and crafts (complete with instructions), pranks, nature, and a lot of heart.
Bloomsbury, my publisher, tells me that Ellie McDoodle is doing well, selling overseas and in Canada and the United States. It’s on many school summer reading lists, state reading lists, and Battle of the Books lists and is gaining fans. With the third paperback coming out this summer and the fourth book coming out next spring, this is a good time to see what more can be done to appeal to Ellie McDoodle fans.
The reissue of book 2’s paperback, Ellie McDoodle: New Kid in School, and book 3’s paperback, Ellie McDoodle: Best Friends Fur-Ever, both come out July 5, 2011. All of the paperbacks have sketch lessons and other goodies in the back pages (that’s my terrific editor’s idea: Melanie Cecka of Bloomsbury).
Click on the covers to read their descriptions on Indiebound.
To celebrate, Ruth is giving away two autographed and personalized paperbacks of the newly reissued Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel. As an extra-special bonus, Ruth will also draw a sketch of each winner! (See below for details.)
Thank you again for the fabulous writing and illustrating exercise you gave us in the last interview. Everyone loved it. Do you have another exercise to share with us?
First, a little background. This comes from a poster I created when I ran a little advertising agency about 25 years ago. The poster said, “Before you settle on one, draw 50.” It had 50 thumbnails – small drawings – only in this case they were silly little drawings and sculptures illustrated on the nails of thumbs. The idea was to not settle on the first idea that comes to you, but to push yourself to think of more. Sometimes the best idea is the ninth one you think of. Or the twenty-ninth. So in that spirit, the exercise:
Draw or write or imagine 50 scenes with your character. This helps solidify the character’s personality, even if you never use the scenes in your story.
To get to 50, start with two scenes relating to the letter A. For example, your character goes apple picking. What is he wearing? Is he a hard worker? Does he stand on the ground and shake the tree? Climb to the very top? Eat whatever he picks? Another A scene: What’s his favorite animal? How does he relate to it?
Next, the letter B: How does your character feel about bees? Has he ever been stung? B can be for baking: What does your character cook up? Does he make a mess? Does he clean it up, himself? Who is he baking the dessert for?
Continue through the alphabet. I think by the time you get to the letter G you probably have a very good idea of exactly who your character is. And maybe you have a few ideas for scenes as well.
I love the humor in your Ellie series. Can you share some tips for writing funny books?
If you laugh while writing it, that’s a very good sign. Study humor. Read funny stuff. Know your audience and surprise them. Push it – try hard – never give up. Don’t worry if you’ve experienced some serious tragedy in your life. The funniest people I know have lived through awful times.
It’s easy to see that you and Ellie both love to sketch. How are the two of you different?
I think Ellie is a lot more brave and confident than I ever was. She’s part me as a tween, part me today, part each of my kids, and part her own self, a girl I’d have liked to have known, growing up. And maybe I don’t know everything there is to know about her, yet. While writing the manuscript for book 2 a few years ago I put in a subplot about a prank with flowers. It was a little bit mean-spirited, inspired by a bully. My editor struck it out saying Ellie would never do what I had her doing. I thought, hmm, my editor has said that I myself am Ellie. The flowerbed subplot really happened to me when I was a kid. Therefore it isn’t out of character for Ellie, right? Wrong. It was then that I learned that Ellie and I are two distinct entities.
I’d love to learn more about you, and what led you to become an author-illustrator.
I’m going to be frank, because I don’t think it serves kids to think that all writers and illustrators are perfect, born into gloriously happy lives, growing up comfortable and well-nurtured. I’ve had my share of personal failings.
I was a very anxious and insecure kid. I was smart but had ADD, OCD and a touch of dyslexia. I was socially inept. I blushed easily and was told often that I was too sensitive. I was an extremely critical perfectionist and found it impossible to live up to my own high expectations. Most of my art I threw away.
One drawing that survived I did at about age 13, of my big family when I was 7 (I’m the one in the top row, middle).
My dad died suddenly and tragically when I was 12. My mom married a person who was not a good match for our family, but life works out: she and my then-stepfather had two more kids whom we all adore.
As a teen I felt worthless and unlovable; I thought very few people saw the good in me. I was embarrassed by my terrible acne. I was competitive and territorial: if a relative had a particular hobby or career, then mine had to be different. This was tough – I had a zillion relatives! I planned my funeral often, but I also dreamed of growing up and having a good family. My first sketchjournal that I nurtured and kept came from my art teacher, when I was 15 and obviously troubled. I’ve kept one ever since, and today hundreds crowd my shelves.
I escaped to college, and strongly feel everyone should. I attended for 9 years and didn’t earn a degree, but I learned a lot about life and love and art and beauty, justice, independence and peace. For years I told everyone I was going to be famous someday. Now I see what that means and I don’t wish for fame anymore (I wish for wisdom).
I worked in advertising, which I mostly loved. I got my first taste of the author life while writing, illustrating and printing up a little story that was distributed with our Christmas cards in 1995. Still, it would be seven years before I got serious about kids’ books and gave it my best, educated effort, and three more years before my first book sold.
I’m lucky to have 4 awesome, creative, sensitive, brilliant kids, and three seriously cute grandkids. I’ve been married for 30 years to a writer, Charlie, who is a future famous kids’ book author. His writing is beautiful, powerful, poetic; I’m in awe of his grasp of language. We settled in the city next to the university where we met. I love it there, and I love that our children’s families have settled nearby. Charlie and I have lived on both ends of the wealth spectrum (trumpeted psychological studies to the contrary, having money was loads more fun). My first book, Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel, came out in 2007. The first paycheck rescued our house from foreclosure.
I’ve survived tragedy – recent, even. My life is not golden. I’m just working hard trying to get better at what I do best: chronicle life around me with a pen and paper.
And if I can do this, find what I am pretty good at and persist through obstacles and push beyond worthlessness and find lasting happiness, then maybe all those other insecure teens can, also. It’s worth trying.
This is a page from my sketchjournal, drawn on the way out of a meeting with my publisher in 2006.
They weren’t all middle grade books, but they’re all appropriate for middle grade audiences. These were books I read over and over as a child, or books that made me aware that authors are real people, or books I discovered as an adult and inspired me deeply. I love every single thing by Beverly Cleary, especially Ramona. And here are some other wonderful books that inspired me (click on each cover for more information).
Here are the titles of other wonderful books that influenced me to become an author-illustrator: Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss, The Three Pigs by David Wiesner, The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop, Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola, Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein, Peanuts by Charles Schulz, Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson, The Archie comics, The Portmanteau Book by Thomas Rockwell, Emily San by Barbara Leonard Reynolds, Little Colonel series by Annie Fellows Johnston.
Thank you so much for visiting us again and for sharing another wonderful writing and illustrating exercise, Ruth. I can’t wait to try it!
Two lucky winners will receive an autographed and personalized paperback of the newly reissued Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel, and they can send Ruth a photo to use when she sketches each of them with Ellie. She’ll also format the sketch so it can be used as an online avatar (like the drawing of Ruth at the top of this interview).
Leave a comment below and our random generator will choose two winners on Thursday, May 26th. You’ll get extra entries for sharing a link on your blog, Facebook, Twitter, or if you click the ‘Follow this blog’ button in Networked Blogs on the lower right side of our site.
*Please mention each link in a new comment so the generator will add your extra entries.
**If winners live outside the US or Canada, they’ll still receive the sketch. Instead of the autographed book, Ruth will give them a peek at a few digital pages from the next Ellie book, Ellie McDoodle: Most Valuable Player, a work in progress that will be published in Spring, 2012.
Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle-grade novels and is constantly inspired by her ten and thirteen year-old daughters, adventurous sock and underwear munching puppy, and two stinky but adorable ferrets. Visit her blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.