Please welcome my friend, literacy guide, and children’s author Anastasia Suen to the Reading Tub. I first *met* Anastasia many years ago through the Kidlitosphere Yahoo Group … then we met in person at BookExpo America in Los Angeles (2008), and then worked together through the first three years of the Cybils Easy Reader / Early Chapter Book panel, when she was the organizer.
We are thrilled that she thought to include us in her book launch for Road Work Ahead. Generally we don’t participate in blog tours, but what tipped me in favor of this tour (aside from the fact that she is a friend and mentor) is that Anastasia went the extra step of tailoring the collaboration to the emphasis of the host’s blog. So we’ll be talking about her new book Road Work Ahead, but in the context of reading aloud with kids and early literacy.Yesterday Anastasia was talking about revising a manuscript with Darcy Pattison at Fiction Notes and illustrator Jannie Ho talked about creating art with Everything Mom. [jump to the end for the full schedule.]
RT: Hi Anastasia, and welcome! I was so excited to sit with Road Work Ahead when I saw it. I guess I should ask the obvious question first: Is it a picture book or an easy reader?
Anastasia: Over the years I have found that most of my picture books use easy reader language. As a poet and a former kindergarten and first grade teacher, that’s just my writing style. As a result, most of my picture books can also be used as easy readers. They have simple words that can be easily decoded by a child just learning how to read. This book is no exception.
RT: Speaking of decoding … looking beyond that element, how do you see the importance of literacy content in illustrations? What are “keys” that parents can look for when they want visuals to help with learning to read?
Anastasia: This is a tricky question for me to answer, because what goes in the art is entirely up to the illustrator. Yes, I do write the text that goes in the story (and in this book I added what educators call “environmental print”) but the other extras in the art are not up to me. The illustrator does all of that.
It is my job to make sure that there are 15 different pictures in my story. That is because there are 15 “page turns” in a picture book. As you read the book, you turn the page 15 different times. When I write the story I have to make sure that I have 15 different images so that each page turn doesn’t look the same. The reason for this is twofold. One, it’s just not interesting to see the same thing page after page. You want the story to grow and change. Two, young children read pictures before they read words, so if I write a story that has lots of visuals in it, my young readers will remember what the words say by looking at the pictures.
RT: You’ve started to answer my question about how the imagery comes about. There is a lot happening on each of the pages that fits so perfectly with the story. Jannie Ho has lots of other things for kids to read. I’ve always been curious about the process: does an author have a way to share how they visualize a story with their illustrator?
Anastasia: The interesting thing about picture books is that the author doesn’t tell the illustrator what to draw. Both of our names are on the cover of the book, so most people think that we talked to each other while the book is being created. Actually we each work on the book separately. This is the protocol here in the United States. Essentially, the book begins with the author and after it is acquired by a publisher then it is sent to the illustrator. The editor does talk to both the author and illustrator, but the author and illustrator don’t talk to one another. The illustrator doesn’t tell the author what to write, and the author doesn’t tell the illustrator what to draw.
RT: I’d like to elaborate on a term you used: environmental print. Can you share a little more detail about what that is?
Anastasia: Absolutely. Environmental print comprises words from a child’s everyday environment. The title of the book and some lines in the text are the words on real road signs. We see these signs every day as we drive to and from preschool, the grocery store, etc. When my son was young, we talked about what the signs said and after a while both of my children could read them. You’ll see this at your house, too. This is why very young children they can “read” the names on the cereal box. These words (and numbers) are a part of their everyday environment.
RT: Are there ways that we can expand our child’s recognition of these everyday words?
Anastasia: As a young boy, my son loved to look at the machines along the road, so I started a photo book for him. This was back in the day when cameras had film. I would shoot snapshots of big machines and then take the film to the drug store for processing. We’d put his favorite photos into a little baby “brag” book. He looked at those pictures over and over. It was “his” book. Following his interests is actually where the idea for this book started.
Allowing your child to select what he reads is very important. When my son was two he told me he didn’t want to read “baby” books any more. He wanted to read “real” books, so from that point on, we only borrowed nonfiction books from the library for him. Fiction stories did not interest him at all. He wanted to know how the real world worked. And why not? The real world is very interesting!
My daughter, on the other hand, loved to read fiction (and she read some “favorites” over and over and over!) As long as they were both reading on their own, I was happy.
RT: First, Jannie’s illustration of the men working in trees is probably one of my favorites! Okay … Along that same lines, one of the other catch phrases we hear today is that kids today need a “literacy-rich environment.” What does that mean for parents?
Anastasia: It may be a new tagline, but it is something that families have done for years … it is just harder now that kids have so many other distractions and activities. When I was a girl, we went to the library every week, and we read together every night. It was a literacy-rich environment.
As a mom myself, I followed my mother’s example and did the same. Books were always a part of my life and my children’s lives as well. Experts recommend that your child have 600 hours of pre-literacy preparation before kindergarten. Reading together and working with words 20 minutes a day adds up to that 600 hours. Small steps get the job done!
RT: Thanks for stopping by Anastasia! We’ll miss you on the Cybils panels this year, and wish you the best of luck with your new book.
If you’d like to learn more about the making of Road Work Ahead, visit and like the Facebook Page.
Students Creating Art with Mary Ann Scheurer at Great Kid Books
Books and Children at Play with Melissa Taylor at Imagination Soup
Students Writing Poetry with Jone MacCullough at Check It Out!
Road Work Ahead
by Anastasia Suen, illustrated by Jannie Ho
Viking Juvenile, 2011
Cover image and interior illustrations from Road Work Ahead, used with the author’s permission.