Saturday, April 10, 2010

Keynote Speaker: Judy Schachner

Eat, Prey, Lick: The Care and Feeding of the Furry Muse, aka Skippyjon Jones

Judy is the author/illustrator of the much-loved Skippyjon Jones books, as well as The Grannyman, Yo, Vikings!, and Willy and May.

Judy began her speech with an anecdote about a visit to a third-grade class about how a precocious boy raised his hand at the end of her talk and asked her if she had ADHD, because, as the boy explained, it seemed like her brain worked the same way as his brain! (Oh, the things kids say...)

Judy attended art school in Massachusetts, but she missed learning some basic techniques and mechanicals, and so instead of following the artist path right away she went into the greeting card company. She explains later that one of the hardest parts of being an illustrator is looking at your own work once it has been published and it can't be changed. She sees mistakes in the published version and wants to change them but she can't. She points out that she's still teaching herself and growing as an artist--if you look at the early Skippyjon Jones books, you can see the Skippyjon looks different than he does in the more recent ones.

(Btw, Judy's last name--Schachner--is pronounced Shack-ner.)

The things that are around her are what influence her and what she likes to write about--real people and real animals are what inspire her.

She's always had siamese cats, since she was a little girl. After getting married, she bought the runt of a siamese litter named Simon. After a rough start, he grew up into a wonderful, handsome cat. Simon, after he passed away, became the inspiration for one of Judy's first books, The Grannyman.

(This is definitely a woman after my own heart--she told us Simon's life story and I got tears in my eyes.)

Writing this book helped her realize that you don't need to write about huge things, you just need to write about your personal experience and use your own voice. Even though there are tons of animal stories out there, if you have a voice to speak about your own animal experiences, there is room for one more animal story.

Judy describes herself as a professional eight-year old. She has a big ball of mistakes--part of her writing process is to use mailing labels to write on. She writes and places the label on her dummy--if she doesn't like it, she peels it off and puts a different one on. Then she keeps the bad ones and has created a big ball of rejected mailing labels. She brings it to school visits to provide a concrete example of what the writing process looks like.

(I think this is genius!)

(Accompanying her speech are hilarious slides about her cat Tink, her ADORABLE adopted pitbull Buster, and of course, Skippyjone Jones--which all have their own voices, which she does! I can't even imagine what she's like on a school visit!)

After Simon, Judy adopted another kitten, who she named Skippyjon Jones (the full name being Skippyjon Jones, Bad-Ass Cat. She imagines when he walks around that he has his own theme music!) As Judy explains, to her her books are actually non-fiction because Skippyjon Jones is a real cat.

(Also, Judy does Skippy's voice and he sounds v. much like Puss from Shrek.)

Some of Skippy's personality is inspired by Judy's brother. Skippyjon Jones the actual cat sounds a lot like Skippy the book cat--with ears too big for his head and always getting into adventures and mishaps. Judy believes that people's pets are wonderful writers--they write the story for you.

Skippy never wears his cape the same way in the books--because in her head, Skippy is really a four or five year old, because when young children create their own worlds they never do it the exact same way twice.

Sadly, Skippyjon Jones the real cat passed away in 2007 :( But thankfully, there is a new kitten named Chicopee, who is adorable and has super-huge ears just like Skippyjon Jones.

Judy explains that she was never a straight-A student and that traveled a crooked path to get to where she is now, but she believes it was all for the best. When she was growing up, she wanted to be a nun, or a cowboy nun, or something else. She grew up in a strict household that limited her ability to study art as a child and adolescent. Because life could be strange at time, her way to escape was to create characters. What she didn't realize at the time when she was pretending and daydreaming--pretending to speak French, practicing British accents--she was really creating full characters in her head.

When she went to New York with a portfolio to try to become an illustrator, she thought she would only be an artist. But Random House saw that she wasn't just illustrating, she was creating characters through her pictures, and wanted her to write as well.

Writing a good story is about being able to write as much as being able to tell a good story--to find a rhythm that works for you. Judy's way of finding a rhythm was by reading other picture books out loud over and over again until she could feel the rhythm she wanted. Her first book--Willy and May--was picked up by Dutton and she's been the same editor ever since.

Yo, Vikings! is her favorite book and is a true story about her daughters--the voices in the book are inspired by the voices of her daughters.

Judy ends with a few important pieces of advice from personal experience. She says to feed your furry muse well. Your muse may not have fur--it could be a family member or a friend--but feed them, observe them, listen to their stories and their words. Even in the silliest stories, you're going to have nuggets of truth. Write your stories down, because no one else will.

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