Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Featured Guest Interview with Author Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen never thought she’d grow up to be a writer. As a child, she thought of being a doctor (but she’s afraid of blood), a lawyer (but she doesn’t like losing arguments), a carpenter (but she’s too clumsy), a model (but she likes eating too much), a presidential candidate (but she had a dissolute youth), a UN ambassador (the argument losing thing again)… almost everything but a writer.

In fact, in 2001, Sudipta was well on her way to not being a writer. She had graduated from the California Institute of Technology in 1998 with a BS in Biology, spent a year in Boston, and then had returned to Caltech as a PhD candidate in developmental biology. Even the birth of her first child, Isabella, didn’t change Sudipta’s plans – she thought she’d take a long maternity leave then return to graduate school. Then, her daughter Brooklyn came along.

With two small children, Sudipta found herself less interested in biology as she was in parenting. And for the first time, she found that she had stories to tell, stories she wanted to share with her daughters, and she decided to try to get published. After a half-dozen rejections, in 2003, Sudipta sold her first story to a children’s magazine, Highlights for Children. 

Using her science background as a springboard, Sudipta began writing nonfiction for children. She has now written 18 nonfiction books for kids, ranging from science to history to biography. Her first love, however, was always picture books, so using a facility with word play and a love for animals (especially pigs), Sudipta worked on a number of manuscripts. Her first picture book, Tightrope Poppy, the High-Wire Pig, illustrated by Sarah Dillard, about a proud pig who perseveres was published in 2006. This was followed in 2007 by The Mine-o-saur, illustrated by David Clark, in 2008 by Ballots for Belva: The True Story of a Woman’s Race for the Presidency, illustrated by Courtney Martin, and in 2009 by The Hog Prince, illustrated by Jason Wolff. Sudipta has seven other picture books scheduled for the next few years, including Pirate Princess, illustrated by Jill McElmurry, Half Pint Pete the Pirate, illustrated by Geraldo Valeria, and The Hampire, illustrated by Howard Fine. Her children, now including a son named Sawyer who was born in 2006, are a constant source of inspiration. Sudipta has heard the words “Mine! Mine! Mine!” shouted so many times that The Mine-o-saur almost flowed out of her mind naturally. Watching her daughters devour donuts inspired The Hampire, dress up playdates inspired Pirate Princess, and she refuses to admit what (or whose snoring) inspired Snoring Beauty.

As for The Hog Prince, well, any girl—including Sudipta—will tell you that you have to kiss a lot of hogs before you find what you want in life.

Sudipta visits schools to share her stories and experience, and teaches writing to children and adults. She lives in New Jersey with her family and an imaginary pony named Penny.
How/When did you decide to pursue a career as a Children’s book author?  Was there an “ah-ha” moment when you just knew this was what you wanted to do?
I was on sabbatical from graduate school in developmental neurobiology to spend a year with my oldest child when, 14 months after her birth, I had a second child. At that point I decided that grad school was no longer in the cards because I wanted to raise my kids – but really wanted to be doing something that was “mine,” that was not related to motherhood. I had this idea that I could write with two babies in the house. (This was a stupid idea, because you can’t do anything with two babies in the house!)

As for the “ah-ha” moment, honestly, I don’t know. Everyday, even now, I struggle with trying to figure out whether I am any good at this – so I suppose I haven’t really decided yet if this is what I want to do when I grow up!

Where/When do you do most of your writing?
I have a beautiful office in my house, with a desk facing a window with a lovely view of my yard. It is decorated with photos of my children and copies of my books. And so I mostly write…barefoot in my bed upstairs, with the television on and surrounded by clutter.

As for when, I write when I can. When the kids are at school, after they are in bed…I’m always a mom first and then a writer, so my writing time is limited by their needs.

Please tell us about your latest book: Quackenstein Hatches a Family. 
Quackenstein was inspired by the idea that parents can both be excited about children and scared about their responsibilities.

I wrote the book when I was pregnant with my son. I had already had two daughters and was convinced that I was going to have a third. When the doctor said that I would be having a boy, my first response was literally, "No, I'm not, and you can't make me."

As a mother, I loved my baby from the moment I knew of his existence. But as a person, I was terrified by the idea that I'd be having a son. I thought I knew nothing about being a good mother to a boy -- after all, I knew nothing about boys. I had two girls, I am a girl -- boys were a foreign concept. Loving him didn't take away my fears.

I wanted to write a story that depicted parents as being fallible. I hope the story shows that Quack had been silly to worry and once he truly saw his child, his heart melted and he realized that families can come in all shapes and sizes, but they somehow find a way to work. Parents can be foolish, can make mistakes, can be scared -- just as children can be foolish, can make mistakes and can be scared. 

You’ve written several books in rhyme.  Please share your thoughts on rhyme with us. 
Rhyme is wonderful – when it works. When it does not it is a thing of disgustingness. (I know that is not a word, but from a woman who has built a career out of creating words like “Quackenstein” and “Hampire,” what do you expect?)

I think when you can read through a rhyming book as if it had been written in prose and still have it sound “right,” you’ve done a good job with the rhyme. If you can’t, perhaps a rewrite is in order.

Do you do anything special to celebrate the release of each of your books?
I do, but I can’t share that here!

What is your favorite children’s book (not your own J) and why?
This is a tough one, as it changes. How about I answer it in this way: the biggest compliment I can give another author is to say that I wish I had written his or her book – and the book I currently most wish I’d written is Fifteen Animals by Sandra Boynton. It is just the perfect, simple book that is infinitely re-readable.

You have 3 children.  How much inspiration would you say comes directly from them, vs. other sources of inspiration?
My children have played a role in the inspiration of every single one of my books, but it would be misleading to say that they are my only – or even largest – source of inspiration. For the most part, they are a jumping off point – I might start with a behavior, an anecdote, or a silly quirk about them, but it is very important that the story be universal and not autobiographical.

A notable exception to this, however, would be Chicks Run Wild, as it is almost directly autobiographical, down to the toenail painting.

Please share with us your general process of writing a picture book….from concept to completion.
This is a tough question. Every book is different, obviously, but generally, I start with character. I think having a strong main character is the single most important thing for any book, whether it be a picture book, a chapter book, or a novel.

With the main character in mind, the next step is to create flaws in the character. It is not enough to have someone likeable – after all, no one wants to read about little miss perfect who never does anything wrong or has anything bad happen to her. It is the character’s flaws that endear him to the reader.

The last element I focus on is actually plot. I think about the character and his flaws and try to imagine what kind of problems those flaws might create – and then how those flaws may also redeem him.

I should also mention that with every book I work on, I carefully consider whether or not there is a way to work a platypus or a pig into the story. This is very important.

What is your favorite part of being a children’s book author?
That I get to create something from nothing. Most jobs involve pushing papers from one end of your desk to the other, or executing against someone else’s list of deliverables. In my job, I start with what is in my mind and my heart and I turn it into something real, that hopefully will touch the lives of my readers.

What is on the horizon for you?  New projects in the works?
Chick Run Wild was released in January 2011, so I am still actively promoting that. Then later this year, I’ve got Hampire (Illustrated by Howard Fine, July 2011) and The Worst Twelve Days of Christmas (Illustrated by Ryan Wood, December 2011) coming out, and I’m excited about both. As for new projects, I’ve realized that as my girls are growing older, I am more interested in writing longer books, so I’m working on a few chapter books and novels.

Please share with us any links to your website/blog where readers can learn more about you!

Quackenstein: 0810989735
Chicks Run Wild: 1442406739


  1. Great interview and I just love her books and so do my kids.

  2. Wonderful interview, thanks for posting, I feel out of the loop with the flu/cold thing that has hit the midwest. Hopefully back in the swing of things by the weekend. Virginia, thanks for posting. Love the books.



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