The Backstory: YOU ARE A READER!/YOU ARE A WRITER!
The spectacular April Jones Prince joins The Backstory today to chat about her latest book, YOU ARE A READER!/YOU ARE A WRITER! which is sure to be a classroom classic. With 14 published books, April is a master at her craft and full of inspiration for writers and teachers alike.
Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind YOU ARE A READER!/YOU ARE A WRITER!
First off, please tell us a little bit about your book.
Thank you for having me, Andrew! I love your blog and find so much inspiration in reading about other writers’ processes and ideas.
My new book, You Are a Reader!/You Are a Writer! is a tête-bêche book, or two books in one. You Are a Reader! starts from one side, and You Are a Writer! starts from the other. The two meet in the middle with the circular phrase, “Writers are readers and readers are writers and writers are…”
Each side of the book aims to encourage and empower readers and writers of all kinds and all ages, whether they read novels or news alerts or type tall tales or text messages. It has a diverse cast of 26 characters, each of whom appear on each side of the book and on the middle spread, and who together help celebrate the joys and sometimes challenges of reading and the imaginative possibilities and sometimes frustration of writing. The book offers empathy and suggestions but most of all aims to lift kids up and remind us all of the power of words.
I am SO excited about this book! It sounds like a must-have for every elementary classroom and the perfect way to set the tone for positive literacy experiences. The middle spread is to die for and the message is one that I will continue to revisit with my students throughout the entire year. I also love Christine Davenier's illustrations. They are warm, welcoming, and the perfect complement to your words.
What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?
It is my passionate belief that everyone is a reader and writer, and that everyone should be encouraged to see themselves that way. Reading and/or writing come easily to some, not so easily to others. But we ALL need to read and write to navigate our daily lives.
Reading is a way to gather information, learn new things, travel to places and times and meet people we otherwise wouldn’t. All of this builds knowledge and empathy, which are essential to democracy.
On the flip side, writing allows us to process thoughts and emotions and to share ideas across space and time. How powerful is that?! Reading and writing are skills that are worth learning to do well, and I wanted to be a cheerleader in that process.
The idea to turn this passion into a book came from working with kids. I have a book called What Do Wheels Do All Day?, and I’d been doing author visits with a class bookmaking component in this vein (i.e., What Do _____ Do All Day?) Reading was a wonderful topic to explore because there are so many ways to do it, and it allowed students to reflect upon and share their favorite things/places/ways to read. This class work evolved alongside my own manuscript, originally What Do Readers Do All Day?/What Do Writers Do All Day?
Your passion for this topic is undeniable and your reasons for why children should learn to read and write well are so powerful. I think it is only fitting that this story developed through your work with students.
How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now YOU ARE A READER!/YOU ARE A WRITER!? Was it something undeniable you had to write immediately or did you need to sit with this idea and let it grow for a while before it found its way to the page?
Usually, I am a ponder-er who needs to let ideas simmer and gestate. I tend to do a lot of prewriting, in the car, in the shower, on a walk or run. But this was a subject I knew a lot about and had a lot of feelings around. My schema was full! I had to get it out.
The words flowed quickly from my brain to my pencil. BUT… there were many, many revisions. Writing is rewriting, right? It’s difficult and can be frustrating, but it’s also exciting. And when you believe in something, you keep coming back to it like an itch you have to scratch.
I started working on this project way back in 2013, and it took on many incarnations and frameworks, including exploring the Readers component on its own. But I always wanted to showcase the reading and writing as two sides of the same coin (er… book!). The two processes are so integral—like multiplication and division—that I felt they had to be together.
I have to thank my family, critique group members, teacher friends, colleagues at Studio Goodwin Sturges, editor Margaret Ferguson, and illustrator Christine Davenier for helping shape this book into what it’s become. I love it so much!
I am always blown away by the amount of time a story can take to fully develop and by the dedication and perseverance authors have for their book babies. Even with an idea that was begging to be written, time and space (and of course revision, always lots of revision) were needed for it to fully evolve.
Where do you tend to find your inspiration or your sparks for ideas?
Often, from other books. Sometimes it’s just a tidbit or caption in a much larger book that sends me off to research or leads me into a story of my own.
I also get sparks from interviews and stories on NPR, articles in The New York Times, Boston Globe, and elsewhere, and from movies, podcasts, travel, museums, nature, conversations—and, of course, from kids!
I find that a lot of times, it’s not one source that leads me to an idea but a convergence of two things from different places, things that might not seem to go together. For example, diggers + pizza led to my book Dig In! Pirates + Goldilocks led to Goldenlocks and the Three Pirates. These idea mashups can lead to fun and creative projects.
All wonderful sources of inspiration! And mashups are a great idea for creating something unique and clever. So many fun and possibly zany ideas can grow from this strategy.
What books have been the most inspirational/impactful on your writing?
In terms of craft and mechanics, E.B. White’s classic The Elements of Style and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well are never far from my mind. Zinsser says you should be able to cut half of whatever you’ve written. (Oh my! But true.)
I’m also inspired by novels in verse, even though I don’t write novels. Their short, crisp language showcases the power of poetry and rhythm of words. Some favorites:
Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga
The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander.
As for voice and content, I find such joy and inspiration in the work of authors like Kathleen Krull, Tanya Lee Stone, Joy Hakim, Jean Fritz, Derrick Barnes, Mac Barnett, Oge Mora, and Rebecca Bond.
A stellar list of titles and authors!
What are the must haves for your workspace? Tools? Inspiration? Reference materials?
I don’t have an office and used to write in the dining room, but during the pandemic I carved out a new space in our sunroom—though I do still move around a lot with my laptop or paper!
In the sunroom, my favorite books sit behind me on a bookshelf, little gems of wisdom and wonder that fuel me on my journey.
On my desk, I always have a mechanical pencil and a black Pilot Acroball pen, different sizes of post-its, blank printer paper, and sometimes a notebook or legal pad. I tend to do a lot of my planning and early drafts on blank paper, where my mind can run free and make connections, unencumbered by lines.
A lovely writing space. It is always wonderful to have cherished books nearby to motivate and inspire.
When I’m writing nonfiction, my reference books are all around me, usually all splayed open. It’s messy but comes with the territory!
Any inspirational words of advice for aspiring authors?
In my work with fellow authors and with students at RISD, I encourage them to tell the story only THEY can tell, or in a way only they can tell it. You are your own story-stew, and no one else’s stew is just like yours. No one will tell your story just the way you will. So, you must do it!
YES! Finding our own voice and believing in it is a journey of its own. It is hard not to compare and want to emulate what has already been successful.
Another thing I would say is to read, read, read, especially in the genre you want to write. Read recently published books—as many as you can get your hands on. Read for enjoyment, and then read like a writer, thinking about what makes the text work. After all, writers are readers...
Reading like a writer is a powerful skill to develop. Looking at a text from this new lens can provide so much insight and inform our own craft when we go to put pen to paper.
Finally, if you’re a picture book writer, a terrific exercise is to type out the words of a few favorite books. This allows you to see what the editor saw, before there were illustrations. It gives you a whole different outlook on the story and its evolution. Magic!
This is such a useful strategy. When we are diving into mentor texts we are really comparing apples to oranges because of the differences in layout, structure, and the use of illustrations. By pulling out the text we can now compare the two pieces side by side in similar formats.
Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
Yes! I wanted to let readers know that I’m donating a portion of my proceeds from You Are a Reader!/You Are a Writer! to the 826 National network of youth writing centers and to First Book, to advance their work in providing writing tutoring and book access to youth in underserved communities. I recently attended the End Book Deserts virtual conference coordinated by Molly Ness, and I would really like to increase my work in this capacity. It is so important that we get books into kids’ hands and homes and that we help caregivers to be eager and comfortable sharers of books, even if they are not strong readers themselves.
You are an inspiration! What a thoughtful and generous idea.
In terms of future projects, I just finished a young picture book manuscript about building literal and figurative bridges, and I’m starting on two projects about libraries that I can’t discuss yet!
Woohoo! Good luck with all of these new projects. I can't wait until we can hear more about them!
Where can people connect more with you?
Please reach out—I’d love to hear from you.
Readers be sure to connect with April on social media. And if you are a teacher or principal, consider one of April's school visits. I have had the privilege of witnessing her in action and her presentations are phenomenal.
YOU ARE A READER!/YOU ARE A WRITER! (Margaret Ferguson Books, 2021) with illustrations by Christine Davenier is available now. This is the perfect book to help all kids to view themselves as readers and writers and to get them excited about literacy. Check it out and help spread the word to parents, teachers, and librarians about this very special book.
April is generously giving away a copy of YOU ARE A READER!/YOU ARE A WRITER! to one randomly selected winner.
Ways to enter:
1. Retweet my tweet about this blog post. Additional entry for tagging friends!
2. Leave a comment on this post.
3. Like our FB page and comment on this week's post.
4. Post about this interview on FB/Instagram and tell me in the comments that you did.
Each method earns an extra entry!
ABOUT APRIL JONES PRINCE
April Jones Prince is the author of 14 books for young readers, including You Are a Reader!/You Are a Writer!, as well as Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing, What Do Wheels Do All Day?, and two titles in Penguin’s popular “Who Was?” series. She is a former children’s book editor who currently works at Studio Goodwin Sturges, a children’s book agency in Providence, and co-teaches a picture book course for undergraduates at Rhode Island School of Design. A frequent presenter at schools and libraries, April works with writers of all ages to bring their stories and ideas to life. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two terrific teenage sons.
ABOUT ANDREW HACKET
Andrew’s background of being surrounded by children, both at work and at home, has been a treasure trove of inspiration.
A nature lover, Andrew can be found exploring the woods of Massachusetts with his wife and three kids.
While often witty and imaginative, Andrew’s stories can also delve into the more serious and emotional topics that children can experience.
Andrew is represented by Dan Cramer of Page Turner Literary.