Author Interview: Merrily Kutner

Merrily Kutner is the author of the picture books Z is for Zombie (illustrated by John Manders and published by Albert Whitman & Company, 1999), Down on the Farm (illustrated by Will Hillenbrand and published by Holiday House, 2004), and The Zombie Nite Café (illustrated by Ethan Long and published by Holiday House, 2007). She is an online writing instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. She teaches a unique course on picture book diagramming and offers one-on-one online instruction and written critiques. Her next picture book, Alphabet Magic, is illustrated by Coleman Polhemus and will be published by Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press in 2010.

I have read two of Merrily's books and enjoyed them very much!

Down on the Farm is for readers aged 3-6. It follows a day in the life of a little goat living on a farm. Its really fun rhymes and beautiful illustrations have rustic charm and down-home goodness. It's perfect for reading aloud with kids.

The Zombie Nite Café is for readers aged 4-8. It is about a boy and his dog stumbling upon a diner for ghouls, aliens, and other monsters. The Zombie Nite Café also has fun rhymes. The story and illustrations are scary AND funny, so the book is not too scary for children. Perfect for Halloween, or any other night the young 'uns want to read/hear a creepy little story.

And now let us welcome the author of these great picture books, Merrily Kutner! Merrily is here to chat about her work. :o)

Hi, Merrily! Will you please share with us what motivates you to write for children?

I want kids to read…to realize that reading is more than just seeing a story unfold. It’s about using their imagination in a particular way that they wouldn’t with computer games or guitar hero. And, this reading skill will help them to think “outside the box” and problem solve. Most learning is based on reading. So, if kids enjoy reading they’ll embrace learning for the rest of their lives. I’d like to think that when kids read my books they will feel more positive about reading and they will want to read more…there’s a book for everyone…you just have to find it.

Do you have a particular writing process or any writing rituals?

No…I don’t have a funny hat or a lucky robe or even a set time of day that I write. I just write almost every day (I’d miss it if I didn’t). Sometimes it’s almost as if my computer calls to me…come, sit and write…and that makes me smile when I walk into my office.

What books and/or authors have influenced you as a writer for children? What are your favorite children's books?

My favorite classic book, by Dr. Seuss, is Horton Hears a Who. My mother read it to me and my sisters when we were young. I can still recite some of the words. It made quite an impression on me. I aspire to write with the whimsy and creativity of Dr. Seuss, the skill of Jane Yolen and the sensitivity of Eve Bunting.
One of my current favorite books is Fancy Nancy. That little girl could be me. I think there's a bit of fancy in most little girls. I love anything that glitters and I can't seem to get enough “leopard” anything!

What are the challenges of being a children's book writer?

With the state of publishing (cut backs and a tight market) and the economy now (can people afford to buy books?), I would say the biggest challenge is to keep writing in the face of such obstacles. Sometimes, it’s hard to keep going while the rejections pile up. And, once you have a book published, it’s quite a task to get the word out…ah, the business of book promotion.

Navigating through the maze of book promotion…it’s very challenging for a new author to find a way to distinguish her book from the many others out there. You need to think outside the box when it comes to promoting your book to get people's attention. I use many eye-catching props when I do book readings and school visits…that helps. Also, writers have to focus on making their voice stronger. My agent says that finding your own "brand" is critical to developing a fan base. 

Surviving the reviews is another challenge. Some reviews will be very good…some not so good. I remember being so caught up in the "first book thrills" that I wasn't prepared for what the critics might say. (Now, of course, I know better and I always hold my breath before I read them, like that does any good?). I emailed my editor about my disappointment. She told me that to survive in this biz I was going to have to develop a "thick skin" about reviews. She told me how books with disappointing reviews even go on to win awards. I recall joking, that developing a "thick skin" was better than a "thick waist." Yet, I don't think I ever really got over it. My books are like my babies. How can I not take bad reviews personally? But, I think she's got something there with that "thick skin" advice. Trying to develop a thick skin is worth doing if you can do it. I'm still working on it!
What is your definition of a “bad writing day”? How do you deal with bad writing days?

I don’t have many bad writing days. I really enjoy writing. I was frustrated though when my agent asked me to revise a story. After a number of revisions and going around and around the story eventually wound up almost the way I had it originally. It made me begin to doubt and second guess myself as a writer. I questioned whether my vision was sound…that was a very bad feeling. Insecurity is the kiss of death for a writer…it can really stifle creativity. Now, if I get frustrated about what I’m working on or I’m at an impasse I know that I have to switch gears…I go on to something else. That’s how I handle it now.

Which children's books would you like your work to match or surpass (in terms of writing, impact, popularity, or awards)?

Sure, awards are great and who wouldn’t want to be on the best seller’s list? To be recognized by one’s peers is a worthy aspiration. But, is it like a popularity contest? And, I’m not sure what criteria reviewers or judges look for when deciding on awards. I’d rather know that kids are reading and enjoying my books. If I write books that get kids reading, well, that means more to me. When my first book was named an IRA/CBC Children’s Choice Book (a program sponsored by the International Reading Association and the Children’s Book Council where 10,000 school kids around the United States vote on their favorite 100 books for that year), I was thrilled because the kids had voted for it. They’re my audience…I write for them, and to be validated by them meant a lot to me. I’d love my books to be as popular and embraced by kids as The Cat in the Hat or Fancy Nancy or If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

Do you keep up with the blogs of the kidlitosphere? Which do you read regularly? Have you considered starting your own blog?

It’s funny that you ask this question. I have an author friend who is begging me to blog and sign up on different list serves. I consider myself a bit challenged when it comes to all the blogging and online exploration. I’m trying to get with it but I confess I still don’t have a handle on it. I’m still working on getting a web site up. I don’t read many blogs yet and I haven’t thought of starting my own. I guess I’m concerned it will take too much time away from writing. Right now I enjoy teaching an online writing course for the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and that takes some time away from my writing.

What inspired you to write Down on the Farm? What do you want readers to take away from Down on the Farm?

My young daughter inspired me to write the book. She used to walk around the house making all kinds of animal sounds…baa baa baa, nay, nay, nay etc. It was so cute. And, I read a lot of books about animals and farms to her. One day, while reading yet another book about the farm, I read the sentence…“and down on the farm you find ducks and pigs…” Suddenly the little tune popped into my head…down on the farm, down on the farm. I thought of all the animals that might be on a farm and the noises they made and grabbed my rhyming dictionary. The book practically wrote itself (in two weeks). My husband made fun of the “sing song-ness,” as he called it, but I felt kids would like it.

I hope young readers enjoy the whimsy of saying the animal noises and have fun singing the repetitive refrain. One of the most rewarding experiences I got from writing the book was when a father told me that he read it to his 18 month old son. He said they made the animal noises, sang down on the farm and they bonded. Then his son took my book to bed with him. For a writer to hear this…it doesn’t get any better than that!

Merrily, I certainly enjoyed the whimsy of Down on the Farm!

What inspired you to write The Zombie Nite Café? What do you want readers to take away from The Zombie Nite Café?

The idea for this book was born while I was out walking my dog, Curly, one foggy night. My mind wandered and I wondered (the sci-fi buff that I am) what would happen if I stumbled upon a place where there were monsters...say, like a café…the zombie nite café. Then the refrain came to me…”in the zombie nite café” and I worked out most of the book in my mind on the way home.

I hope that readers will enjoy the “rhyming-ness” of it all. It’s not really meant as a cautionary tale…but maybe it will whet kids’ appetites for sci- fi stories…my favorite kind of books.

I'm a big kid who enjoyed the "rhyming-ness" of The Zombie Nite Café. :D

Can you tell us about your next book, Alphabet Magic?

Alphabet Magic is due to be published in the fall of 2010 by Neal Porter Books. It’s not your typical alphabet book. It’s a story from A-Z told in alliteration about a magician who goofs up the tricks. It was inspired by my son, Jonathan, who at the age of 10 announced he was taking up magic. We purchased tricks from a magic store and he practiced and practiced. Whenever Jonathan put on a “magic show” he goofed up all the tricks. It was so funny and cute. Then I wondered “what if” a real magician kept goofing up the tricks and crazy things happened. Don’t you just love playing the “what if” game? I do…I play it a lot.

Merrily, thank you very much for spending time at Into the Wardrobe to chat about your work. I look forward to reading Alphabet Magic. Keep on playing the "what if" game - I see that it results in great children's books!

For the folks who want to contact Merrily, here is her email address: :o)


Candace Ryan said…
Tarie, awesome interview!

I'm one of Merrily's author friends, but even I learned some things about her from your interview that I didn't know before. Great job!
Tarie said…
Hi, Candace! Thank you! I am so glad you liked the interview.

I can't wait to check out *your* picture book. :D
shelburns said…
Tarie, great interview! I interviewed Merrily last month and learned even more about her from your questions.
Tarie said…
Hi, Shelly! Yes, I read your interview of Merrily as part of my research. I loved what you said about her books. :D
jama said…
Wow, I loved reading about Merrily and her books. The Zombie Night Cafe and the new alphabet book have really got me going. Thanks for this lovely interview!
Tarie said…
Jama, yay - I am happy you enjoyed it!

I am impatient for Merrily's alphabet book. Hahaha. :D