Nancy Bo Flood started her career as a brain research psychologist and counselor. She later became a teacher, parent, and author of many award-winning books for children and young adults, including First Laugh, Welcome Baby (A Junior Library Guild Selection, 2018), Cowboy Up, Ride the Navajo Rodeo (A Junior Library Guild Selection, 2014), Warriors in the Crossfire (Colorado Book of the Year, 2011), and Navajo Year, Walk Through Many Seasons (Arizona Book of the Year, 2007).
Nancy has lived all over the world – in Malawi, Africa, Hawaii, Japan, the western Pacific, the Western Slope of Colorado, and the Navajo Nation. Her experiences have informed her world view and her writing. Nancy believes that “Story is a powerful way to build compassion and bridge understanding between cultures. Story has the power to heal as well as teach.”
Thank you, Nancy, for agreeing to let me interview you for the Collaboration Corner.
Which of your picture books started out as collaborations, and what type of collaborations were they (i.e., written in collaboration, or a writer/illustrator collaboration)?
Collaboration, first let’s define it. Collaborate is described in the Random House Thesaurus as “to work together, side by side, to team up, join forces, create together, cooperate, unite. Synonyms suggested are co-operate, collude, join, assist.
Few books are written in isolation. The myth of the lonely (crazy) author writing for weeks in solitude is not accurate. Yes, I do spend many hours writing in my office, alone. But that is after weeks of research. Research takes many forms – professional conversations (via email or phone) with scientists, authors, editors or educators, reading others’ books, attending conferences and discussing ideas, problems, etc. And, certainly, presenting my drafts to other writers for feedback.
So what is collaboration and how does it differ from research or a critique?
First, I view collaboration as a continuum. When I collaborated with Rose Tahe, Navajo elder and educator, to create First Laugh, Welcome Baby, we came to the table as equals. We each brought our own perspective and, most important, our own recognized strengths. On Wednesdays after school (Rose was working as a substitute teacher) we met at the Junction Restaurant. Rose ordered a slice of lemon meringue pie, and we read and critiqued each other’s writing. Rose was also working on her memoir at the time.
An equally important collaboration for First Laugh was the input of the editor, Karen Boss, and the illustrator, Jonathan Nelson. In the latest issue of SCBWI Bulletin (Summer 2019) the article by Jess Racklyeft (page 15) – “Respecting the Illustrator”, describes the shift from No Collaboration between author and illustrator to a working relationship/ open communication between author, editor, and illustrator. Jess states “A picture book is a collaboration, and the creators are of equal value and ownership. It’s changing now that publishers are ‘allowing’ greater interactivity between the creators, which is, of course, how is should be.”
This collaboration was especially important for First Laugh. Karen Boss suggested that we extend the perspective about how families welcome new babies. An author’s note was added that described several different cultural traditions. As Johnathan created sketches and thumbnails for the book, he forwarded samples. Both Karen and I responded with questions and suggestions. All of this “interactivity” helped create a better book.
Assisting or cooperating is a continuum, not an “all or nothing.” The degree of collaboration I’ve experienced – sought – for each book I’ve written has been different for each book. I began my career as a research neuropsychologist. As a researcher I couldn’t imagine working without collaboration. If one brain is good, then a dozen brains are better!
In your experience, what are some of the reasons publishers generally prefer to match a manuscript with an illustrator of their own choosing?
Editors have the advantage of experience – experience in weaving together the strengths of both words and images. They also have experience having worked with and seen many different illustration types and styles. An editor may know an artist who is brilliant at including additional elements. In Stephanie Parsley Ledyard’s Pie Is for Sharing, the illustrator, Jason Chin, added an entire summer theme of families picnicking etc as part of celebrating the Fourth of July. Reading Ledyard’s delightful descriptions of sharing is one experience. Seeing the substories of children sharing – and not sharing – with friends, dogs, and parents – is an added experience.
Editors also have the job of matching story tone with visual tone. In my newest picture book, I Will Dance, which will come out next year, the editor, Reka Simonson, chose an illustrator, Julianna Swaney, who created “Matisse-like” flowing images that added to the emotional tone of a story about a child who can barely move yet who wants, with all her heart, to dance – “not pretend, not imagine, not alone.” Initially I had imagined the book done with photographs. Wrong. The tone would have been more somber, heavier.
An important job of a good editor is “seeing beyond the words,” seeing possibilities that can enrich and extend the story.
Yet you’ve successfully created many books in collaboration with other writers and illustrators/photographers prior to finding a publisher. When do you think it’s okay (or even preferred) for a writer to collaborate prior to publication? What makes certain collaborations an “exception” to the general rule?
Collaboration is working together. “To see anew.”
In my experience, I seek collaboration when I feel I cannot discover the breadth or depth that I want. Sometimes I mean emotionally, such with Soldier Sister, Fly Home. I needed to learn how it felt to have a sister go to war, so I asked Navajo friends. Sometimes I mean scientifically, such as in Sand to Stone.
The photographer for Sand to Stone and Back Again, Tony Kuyper, was trained as a pharmacist, but photography was his passion. My husband and I hiked with Tony whenever he extended an invitation. Why? Because Tony saw the high desert differently. He saw how light and time changed the appearance and the experience of seeing sandstone. I read stacks of geology books trying to write Sand to Stone and Back Again, but nothing I wrote conveyed how rocks, cliffs, mountains, are not static. I needed Tony’s vision, his images. Happily the editor agreed.
Having a resume that includes published work helps. But what is always key is having a strong fresh story, fiction or nonfiction. Your own perspective. Your own voice. Your passion sparks the editor’s interest.
Great point. What are the benefits and challenges of working in collaboration with another writer or illustrator to create a picture book?
Collaboration provides a richer multi-perspective experience, not just my experiences, beliefs, and understanding. Sometimes working in collaboration challenges what I thought knew. Then I have to re-think and reconsider. All of this helps create a more accurate and authentic story.
Let’s talk some more about your most recently published picture book collaboration with Rose Ann Tahe (Diné), First Laugh, Welcome Baby. How did you and Rose combine your writing styles and visions for First Laugh? Were you always on the same page?
Our initial agreement – our vision for the book – was to combine traditional with contemporary. Navajo, like all Indian Nations, is not past-tense. The family lives in an apartment in a city. Dad works on buildings. Mom teaches at a school. Grandparents help with child-care.
You’ve submitted an author/illustrator collaboration and had the publisher acquire your manuscript, but not the accompanying art. How did you and the illustrator deal with that? Had you talked to each other about that possibility in advance?
That was the case for I Will Dance. The photographer with whom I worked and I understood from the beginning that the editor had the final call, and that the editor might choose not to include her photographs.
Do you recommend that writers and illustrators talk about this possibility before deciding to collaborate?
What other advice would you give to unpublished writers and illustrators about submitting a collaboration?
Be ready to listen. Be willing to revise, to change. Keep what is important to you. Be persistent. Publishing is not the bottom line. Connecting your work with the RIGHT publisher/ editor is the bottom line.
Thank you, Nancy, for sharing your knowledge and experience with us.