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Author Susan Verde has published a new book called “Hey, Wall”, and she joins Tim to talk about all things writing and art. Listen as they discuss Susan’s previous books, her inspiration and writing process, and how she just can’t seem to stop being teamed up with Peter Reynolds. Full episode transcript below.
Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz. Today’s guest is someone I am very excited about, author Susan Verde is going to be here to chat with me. Now, you are probably familiar with her book called The Museum. It is about a girl who tours the art museum and it is just an adventure for her. Each piece of art evokes a new feeling in her. There is curiosity. There is joy. There is silliness, and ultimately, there’s inspiration. When she steps in front of this empty canvas, this blank slate, this visit to the museum has energized her, and she wants to create. She wants to express herself. It is a great book to read to your class when it’s time to make and when it’s time to create.
Now, Susan also has a new book that has just been released. It’s called Hey Wall, and she was kind enough to send me an advanced copy a few weeks back. I will just say that if you teach elementary, or if you have kids at home, you’re going to want to pick up a copy of the book. Hey Wall is flat-out an amazing book with amazing illustrations. It tells the story of a kid who lives in kind of a bleak neighborhood. He sets out to transform it with art. He organizes his neighbors, and they collaborate to figure out what is special about their neighborhood, and they create this beautiful mural. The book is written in just this elegant verse, and it shows how art is powerful, and art is meaningful, and how art can bring a community together. Those are the themes that you can find in so many of Susan’s books. They’re about empowerment and strength and emotion and being proud of who you are.
I want to talk to Susan about those ideas, but I also want to ask her about where she finds inspiration and what her writing process looks like, and how she always seems to somehow end up collaborating with Peter Reynolds. She is waiting to chat. Let me bring her on, and we will see what she has to say. All right. Susan Verde is joining me now. Susan, how are you?
Susan: I’m very well, thank you. How are you?
Tim: I’m doing well also. I’m really excited to talk to you. If you don’t mind, I’ll just dive in. Art teachers love all of your books, and I think just about every art teacher has read The Museum to one of their classes. It’s an exciting book. It’s inspirational. It gets kids wanting to start creating. I want to ask you, how did you come up with the original idea for that book? Where did the inspiration come from for that?
Susan: Yeah. Well, first of all, thank you for that amazing compliment. That means a lot. The Museum was actually … I mean, I drew from a lot of things, pardon the pun. The original experience that began the whole Museum story was one that I had with my own son at a museum, a local museum in East Hampton where we live. He just hates it when I share this story when I go on school visits, so I do it all the time. I know. That’s my job. It usually has pictures with it and all kinds of embarrassing things, but no.
We were in a museum and he actually just suddenly sort of laid down on the floor of the museum, and I was like, “Gabriel, what are you doing?” He said, “Mom, I can’t look at anymore paintings of food. I’m starving.” Right? I’m like, oh my gosh. What am I going to do? What I did is … It happened to be a wonderful museum where they has a sort of interactive gallery. There was paper and pencils and whatever, so I picked something up and I just started to write a poem about how all the art was making him feel in terms of hunger and food and all of that. Then, that became the story as I really began to think about how I interacted with art as a child. How I wish I could have interacted in a very visceral physical way, but how art inspired me. I grew up in Manhattan and was very lucky to have museums as sort of my field trips and places my parents would take me.
Art was really significant in my life, and I just started thinking about all the art that I knew and I could recall and how it had inspired me and made me feel, and then put that, how it inspired me to create into the story. That’s where it came from originally.
Tim: That’s really cool. I like hearing the behind the scenes look at that. I’ll probably ask you a little bit more about that. Before we get there, I want to talk about your new book. It’s called Hey Wall. When I read it, I found that to be really inspirational as well. It’s about community and collaboration and culture. I was pretty fascinated by the note from the author at the end of the book. You talked about your own experiences kind of like you were just sharing there as a kid. You talked about artists and street art. You talked about the power of art to transform. I guess my question when I was reading through that is, how do you take all of these big ideas, these huge ideas and simplify them into 32 pages? How do you take these big thoughts and put them in into a children’s book?
Susan: It definitely takes a lot of editing. I think because I guess I’m still stuck in my kid self and then having my own kids, I’m kind of always in that world. I remember being a child. These big ideas were ones that I considered that kids all consider and sometimes we don’t give them enough credit actually. I think that they are thinking about these things. It’s just finding the right language. The concepts can be as big as they need to be. It’s really just thinking about the right language and understanding how I might understand things as a kid and how other kids might understand things. Again, keeping the concepts there, but just really choosing the right language. Luckily, it’s something I like doing and hopefully I’m good at doing, breaking it down into a way that someone younger can understand.
Tim: Well, yeah. I think you definitely can do that. My kids, my own kids, they’re 10 and eight. They both read the book, and they loved it. They both starting talking about a lot of those big ideas as well. We had a great discussion on just the power of art to bring people together to form communities, and so I think yeah, it’s definitely something that’s getting across there. I think about this-
Susan: I’m so glad. I’m really glad. I mean, my hope that is that that kind of thing happens. That the book doesn’t just end and that’s it. That it does inspire these conversations or questions about what really are we talking about, or what are you understanding and what are are not understanding, and how can we talk about it and bring it to the forefront. I’m thrilled that you’re having those kinds of conversations with your kids, because that’s really the hope and the intention. I always laugh because I’m not a visual artist. I don’t draw. I don’t paint, but it’s so a part of who I am and what has informed me that it had to come out.
Tim: Yeah. I think that’s great to say, and I think that’s great for people to hear too, because especially as art teachers, we are teaching all kids. We’re not just teaching the artists. I think it’s powerful if we’re using these books. We can say the person who wrote this is not an artist, but they see the power of art. They see what can be accomplished through art, and so I think that’s something that everybody can use in their classes.
Susan: Yeah. I mean, it’s so influential in terms of just self-expression no matter how you do it. Even if you’re not painting, drawing, creating in that way, the visual and the expression and the freedom of art can inspire you in so many other ways.
Tim: That’s really well said. I can shift gears just a little bit. I wanted to ask you if you can share with our listeners a little bit about your writing process. You talked about sitting down in the café in the art museum and starting to write a poem about the experience there. With some of your other books like when an idea first strikes, where do you go from there? How does that process go? If you don’t mind sharing a little bit of kind of behind the scenes look, how long does it usually take you to get that original idea, write it, edit it, find an illustrator? How does it take from original inspiration to the actual book being published?
Susan: Yeah. Well, when I first get an idea, I mean, you probably know this. You can get ideas in the most inconvenient of places. Right?
Susan: Thankfully we have phones now where we can record, and we can take notes, and you try and hang on to that. There have been rare but some occasions when I’ve had to pull over in my car and actually write something down before I forget it. Typically I get an idea and then I will tell you I get most of my work done in my local Starbucks. The people who work there actually refer to it as my office. Embarrassing and wonderful at the same time. It’s nice. I like to be out of my house when I’m writing because I find myself getting very distracted in my own home. I like bustle of people around me, but also being able to just be a little disconnected and an observer in that context.
Once I get an idea, some of them flow. They all require editing. None just flow and then I send them into my editor and they’re done. They all have required some editing whether it’s a word here, a word there or whatever it is. Some of them just come out, and some of them require a lot more deconstruction and work and time and energy. I would say from start … Once I feel that the story or the idea is at a place where I want to show my agent or a publisher, and I sent that out. If they want it, if they like, the publisher will be the one to choose the illustrator. I actually don’t have any say in that. Most authors do not. Peter and I, Peter Reynolds and I had a different relationship. We actually brought The Museum as a dummy together to his agent, and then it subsequently sold to a publisher Abrams. Normally, they don’t want you to attach an illustrator to anything. They like to choose that.
From that, the concept to the illustrator to publication can be anywhere from a year to a two years. It’s a lot of hurry up and wait. It feels like you’ve written it. I mean, I wrote Hey Wall. I must have written Hey Wall three years ago.
Susan: Yeah. It really can be a very long process between the writing and then the publication.
Tim: Yeah. That does take a lot of patience. I definitely need to ask you about working with Peter Reynolds because art teachers love Peter Reynolds. I know that you used to be an elementary school teacher. I guess the question is like, how did you make that transition from being in the classroom to being an author? Writing a book, working the Peter Reynolds, and finding a publisher to get started with this career.
Susan: Yeah. I was a kindergarten, a nursery school and then a kindergarten teacher for many years and I think an avid picture book collector forever. I think starting there sort of planted the seeds of what are kids grappling with, what would I like to see in the world, and all kinds of ideas. Writing was something I always did as just a release, a way to do something else for myself creatively. I began compiling this stack of stuff, of story ideas and things like that. When I left teaching, I was fortunately enough to be able to stay home with my children for a number of years. Then, as they got a little bit older and my stack of stories got larger, I made a conscious decision to try to do something with them, to really try and get them out into the world. I knew it was a difficult process. It’s not an easy one.
I happened to have a friend, Emma Walton Hamilton. She’s Julie Andrews’ daughter, and they had written a series of picture books together. She every summer had a writing conference held out here in South Hampton near where I live. I asked her, “What can I do with this giant stack of stuff?” She said, “Well, come take a workshop. Come see if it inspires or helps you.” One summer, I went to her workshop, and then the following summer Peter Reynolds was teaching. I was already a huge fan, and so I said, “Well, I’m definitely taking this workshop.” I did. One of the perks was being able to show him my work. We sat down together and he started going through everything and he came across The Museum, and he said, “You know, this is a book, and I’ll be very upset if someone else illustrates it.”
After pinching myself and looking around and making sure he was talking to me, we spent the next six months creating this dummy on little file cards actually. I worked on the text. He did some sketches. We sent it in to his agent, and then within two weeks it had sold to Abrams. Then, his agent took me on as a client, and I subsequently changed agents, but that’s how the whole process began. It was really wonderful and kind of amazing. I was very lucky the way it happened.
Tim: Yeah. That is really serendipitous, but that is a great story. I absolutely love it.
Susan: You know, it was a wonderful thing to live, and to continue to work with him is just incredible. I feel like we … It’s a really nice fit. I love writing for him, and I feel like he gets it. You know and all art teachers know he’s just wonderful and incredible.
Tim: Yeah, absolutely. Well, hey, it’s just about time to get out of here, but I do have one last question for you. I know you have eight or nine or 10 books published now. Not for sure. If you had to choose one of your books, like just one that you wanted somebody to read, which one would it be and why?
Susan: Oh my goodness. That is a really tough question.
Tim: Sorry to put you on the spot.
Susan: Read them all, read them all. I have to say at this moment in time with everything going on in the world, with all that kids are dealing with, it’s a new one, and it’s not even out yet. It will be out in October. It’s with Peter Reynolds and it’s called I Am Human, a book of empathy. I think that I would love people to read that one because I think we’re at a place where we need to remember what connects all of us, and how making mistakes is part of learning, and how that is part of being human. Walking in each other’s footsteps, and so I think I would say that one. I Am Human. Of course, Peter’s illustrations are just brilliant.
Tim: Yeah. I’m really looking forward to seeing that one. That will be really good. All right, cool. Susan, thank you so much for joining me today. It has been a pleasure to talk to you, and I’m so glad that we could do this.
Susan: Well, thank you so much for having me. It’s been great.
Tim: I really enjoyed talking to Susan. Hearing about how she got started, what her creative process and her publishing schedule looks like, and all of that great behind the scenes information. However, we talked a lot so we are pushing this a little bit too long, and I need to wrap it up. I will just tell you this. If you want to connect with Susan, her website is susanverde.com, and she is at Susan Verde on both Twitter and Instagram. There’s a Susan Verde Author Facebook page. You can order Hey Wall or The Museum or any of her other books on Amazon or IndieBound or wherever you like to purchase your books. If you’re looking for more ideas on how to bring literature into your classroom, I have a great suggestion for you. Take a look at the pro-learning pack called Literacy Strategies in the Art Room. It was filmed by Megan Dehner, and it is full of examples and ideas for incorporating literacy and language art strategies throughout your curriculum. There are 16 videos, nine downloadable resources, and so many incredible ideas. It is definitely worth your time.
All right. That is it for us. Thank you again to Susan Verde, and make sure you get out and grab a copy of Hey Wall. Thanks again for listening. Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. As I always tell you and as I just told you a few second ago, thank you for listening. We always appreciate it. Next week is the return of the always popular, Shannon Lauffer, and we’ll be chatting about finding success working with paraprofessionals. Make sure you tune in.