In the Muse: Janet Halfmann


Art and Story Come to Life With Janet Halfmann:

We are on the road to picture book enlightenment with a new blog series called In the Muse. Let’s huddle up by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa and ponder the birth of a story with Janet Halfmann.

Mary:
Hi Janet. Welcome and thanks for taking the time to chat with us about the writing process. After I read a children’s book I always have questions floating ‘round my head regarding the creative process. Here are just a few that I’d love to pick your brain about.

How do you choose the right artist to bring each character and scene to life? Do you use storyboards to define each page or do you use a more loose structure when working with an artist?

Janet Halfmann

Janet Halfmann

Janet:
The publisher almost always chooses the artist. Artists submit samples of their illustrations to the publisher. Then when a publisher buys a story, they decide which artist they think will work best for the project. The artist for two of my Sylvan Dell Publishing books, “Fur and Feathers” and “Little Skink’s Tail,” is Laurie Allen Klein. She talked about her process when “Fur and Feathers” came out in 2010: http://kayespenguinposts.blogspot.com/2010/08/giveaway-guest-post-laurie-illustrator.html

Laurie also wrote very entertaining posts about the entire process (7 chapters, I think) on her blog:

http://www.lauriekleinarts.com/blog/?m=201001

Two of my recent books, “Star of the Sea: A Day in the Life of a Starfish” and “Eggs 1, 2, 3: Who Will the Babies Be?” use collage art. The first is illustrated by Joan Paley and the second by Betsy Thompson. Not only is the art fabulous, but the books lend themselves so well to be inspiration for a child’s own collage art.

Mary:
Does the beginning spark of a story come from a character you imagine or a life experience you want to write about? Does the inspiration come easy to you?

Janet:
My inspiration comes from many places: what’s happening around me, my grandkids, what I read, places I visit, and on and on. Sometimes the character comes first. For example, I got the idea for “Little Skink’s Tail” while writing a book about all kinds of lizards. I was fascinated by skinks, a kind of lizard, which usually have bright blue tails when they’re young. Skinks can snap off this tail to escape danger, and it keeps right on wriggling! Other stories come from life experience, such as “Grandma Is a Slowpoke,” coming out from Star Bright Books, probably in 2014. This story is about going on walks with my grandkids, and how I always make them stop and look at every thing in nature that I find fascinating—with a twist at the end.

I like to write nonfiction as well as fiction, so I usually have more ideas than I have time to research and develop them. Besides nature and animals, I like to write about people who have achieved something great but who for the most part have been lost to history. For example, my book “Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story” is about a slave who stole a Confederate gunboat in Charleston Harbor during the Civil War and delivered his and the crew’s families to freedom, and the boat to the Union navy.

Mary:
Sounds like you navigate all borders in your writing. I love historical books for kids. How did you hone your writing skills? Was it practice, practice, practice or was there a book or a teacher that helped you realize your talent?

Janet:
Mostly it was practice, practice, practice. I have been writing most of my life—I was a newspaper reporter, a magazine writer and editor, and a creator of coloring and activity books for Golden Books before I became a children’s author. Creating coloring books was very helpful for my career in creating picture books now. Golden Books did coloring books for all the major characters like Batman and Sesame Street, plus all the Disney movie characters, like Lion King. So as an editor and writer, I had to rewrite entire movie scripts very simply with a great picture to color on every page. That was great training for writing picture books, where the art tells half the story.

Mary:
I agree. Art and story. It’s always about that perfect pairing. I have to ask a couple of questions about one of my favorite books that you’ve written, “Fur and Feathers”. Where was the jumping off point for the story? Was it Grandma’s huge sewing box or the animal coats?  

Fur and Feathers

Janet:
It was the animal coats. I saw on the publisher’s website that they wanted a book on animal coats. So I came up with a fun story that would feature the coats of a large variety of animals. The idea for the sewing box came from the big box of sewing odds and ends for creating costumes, etc. that I always kept handy when our four kids were growing up. I found out later that the artist’s mom loved to sew, and the grandma in the book is actually modeled after Laurie’s mother.

Mary:
Can you talk a little bit about why you decided to sneak an image of Little Skink, from your book “Little Skink’s Tail,” into the howling, windstorm? Do you fit little secrets into all of your books?

Janet:
Laurie Allen Klein (the illustrator) snuck Little Skink into the windstorm. She also put the Little Skink book on a shelf in Sophia’s room later in the book. In “Little Skink’s Tail,” Laurie also added a special touch. She put a caterpillar’s chrysalis early in the book. So all through the story as Little Skink is growing back her tail, the caterpillar is turning into a monarch butterfly. I love these special touches, as do the kids!

Mary:
The holiday season is in full swing. Do you have a favorite Christmas story that gets you in the mood for Jingle Bells, chestnuts roasting, mistletoe and the like? Have you ever written a holiday story or ever thought about it?

Janet:
I love the story of “Frosty the Snowman,” and the song as well. Yes, I have written a Christmas story, but I’m still trying to sell it. The story was inspired by an Australian Christmas carol about kangaroos. I just recently had the story critiqued by an editor at a writer conference, so I’m reworking parts of it to make it even better—hopefully some day an editor will fall in love with it and kids will be able to read it at Christmas!

Mary:
And here is my final question, which I am sure gives us great insight on what makes you a great writer. What is your favorite sandwich?

Janet:
My favorite sandwich is a bit strange—I like roast beef ground up and mixed with mayo and sweet relish, stuffed into homemade just-baked rolls. Yum!!!!

Mary:
You had me at “homemade just-baked rolls”! Thanks so much for sharing the behind the scenes of your creative talents, Janet. Before you leave us can you tempt us with any current project ideas you have marinating?

Janet:
I have two new books coming out in 2014: “Rainbow of Birds,” an original legend about how the birds gave the world the rainbow, from Guardian Angel Publishing; and “Animal Teachers” from Blue Apple Books. I have another book, about a slave who was an amazing teacher both before and after the Civil War, coming out from Lee & Low Books in Fall 2015. I’m currently working on another story from the Civil War period about another daring female hero.

Mary:
Sounds enticing. I’ve got my eye on the daring female hero story.

Well that does it for the first of our Blog series “In the Muse”.  Stayed tuned for our delightful conversation with Janet’s cohort in crime, Laurie Allen Klein.  You can catch up with Janet on her website at
http://www.janethalfmann.com/

and on Twitter and Facebook here:
https://twitter.com/JanetHalfmann
https://www.facebook.com/janethalfmann

Or better yet, let’s listen in as she reads an excerpt from “Little Skink’s Tale”. Meet Janet. Happy storytelling!

http://bit.ly/MmW73w

Little Skink's Tale

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3 thoughts on “In the Muse: Janet Halfmann

  1. Great insight! “Fur and Feathers” is one of my favorites. It’s neat to see the synergy of inspiration between the publisher and the author – Sylvan Dell Publishing is a co-conspirator, in this case. Looking forward to more titles in the year to come, Janet. THANKS for sharing!

    • My pleasure! This is half the enjoyment I get out of Children’s Books; the behind the scenes inspiration and insight into a creative endeavor. It stirs my own creative juices! And I thank you for that.

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