Interview: Susanna Leonard Hill author of Punxsutawney Phyllis, Can’t Sleep without Sheep (and more)

I have had so much fun “researching” the works of Susanna Leonard Hill’s collection of  books as I prepared for our interview. I’ve been poring over board books, picture books, and even an easy reader. With each book I kept scribbling more and more questions. So many, in fact, that I’ve split the interview so that there are fresh questions here and on the Reading Tub website. Let’s get started …

Do you still have the masterpiece you wrote as a second grade author? Susanna still has The Girl and The Witch … and she takes it with her on school visits to share with her audience. Susanna’s first book, The House that Mack Built (Simon & Schuster, 2002) has been followed by seven other books for young audiences in the last eight years, and her ninth will be published in March 2011.

  • Taxi! A Matchbox License Plate series book (Little Simon, 2005);
  • Punxsutawney Phyllis (Holiday House, 2006);
  • No Sword Fighting in the House (Holiday House, 2007);
  • Airplane Flight: A Lift-the-Flap Adventure (Little Simon, 2009);
  • Freight Train: A Lift-the-Flap Adventure (Little Simon, 2009);
  • Not Yet, Rose! (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers,  2009);
  • Can’t Sleep without Sheep (Walker Books for Young Readers, 2010); and
  • April Fool, Phyllis! (Holiday House,  March 2011).

big sister waiting for new baby picture book

Susanna is a multi-award winning author recognized by a variety of organizations and in multiple contests.

  • Not Yet, Rose (now a picture book) took First Place in the 2005 Southwest Writer’s Children’s Picture Book Contest;
  • three stories tied for First Place in the 2005 Seven Hills Contest for Writers (Children’s Fiction) for 3 stories;
  • Punxsutawney Phyllis (a picture book) was a Booklist Children’s Pick in 2005 and an Amelia Bloomer Project Feminist Books for Youth choice in 2006;
  • “The One-Hour Bicycle,” earned a First Place in the 2006 writing contest sponsored by the CNW/FFWA  (Cassell Network of Writers/Florida Freelance Writers Assocation) Florida State Writing Competition-Children’s Literature Division;
  • in the 2007 CNW/FFWA contest, her story “The Sisters Club”  took First Place;
  • also in 2007, “Gone Fishin'” won First Place in the 2007 Seven Hills Contest for Writers (Children’s Fiction);
  • Susanna’s easy reader No Sword Fighting in the House is a Junior Library Guild selection; and
  • last but not least … “Rainy Day Parade” is a new story that will appear in an upcoming issue of Highlights Magazine.

Born and raised in New York City, Susanna now lives in New York’s Hudson Valley. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in English (huzzah!) and Psychology from Middlebury College. She then went on to get her M.A. and M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology and Special Education of Children With Learning Disabilities from Teacher’s College, Columbia University. For many years, Susanna taught dyslexic students, but stopped after her third child was born. Now she spends her time being a mom, writing, and visiting schools whenever she gets the opportunity.

Please welcome Susanna Leonard Hill to the Reading Tub!

RT: Hi Susanna, welcome to the Reading Tub! I have to tell you that my new favorite book is Can’t Sleep Without Sheep! What a clever, fun bedtime story. Is there a real Ava who inspired it?

Susanna: Well, yes, but his name is Jon. The idea for this story originally came to me because my son had trouble falling asleep. His mind was always so busy! He would get into bed and have what he called his “thinking time.” Long after I had tucked him in, he would be wide awake and full of questions:  “Mom, what is the temperature of the sun?” or “Mom, how much does a dinosaur’s brain weigh?” or “Mom, why do bats hang upside down when they sleep?”

Of course even when it is not the middle of the night I am not a reliable source for the answers to such questions, so I would say, “That is a very interesting question. We’ll look it up in the morning. But right now it’s time to go to sleep.” This would lead to the suggestion that he try counting sheep… The other part of the inspiration came from a mattress commercial I heard on the radio. “Tired of counting sheep?” they inquired. And I thought, “Hmmm… what if it was the sheep who got tired of being counted?” The two parts of the idea came together to make Can’t Sleep Without Sheep, but I really can’t tell you why I decided the main character should be a girl!

RT: Sticking with the “girl power” characters for a minute … I saw on the Holiday House Books website that Punxsutawney Phyllis will be back in March 2011. Is that a twist of fate or just lucky timing? Can you tell us more about her new experiences?
Groundhog's Day book for kidsSusanna:
Phyllis WILL be back!  Her new adventure centers around April Fools Day, so the timing was planned, not lucky.  In April Fool, Phyllis! “it might be April Fools’ Day, but Punxsutawney Phyllis knows that winter isn’t over yet. Her infallible instincts tell her that a blizzard is brewing. Too bad no one will believe her. Luckily Phyllis uses a combination of common sense and uncommon abilities to lead the April Fools’ Day treasure hunters back to safety when the storm comes on quickly. Once again Phyllis gets the last laugh in this buoyant holiday tale.”  I’m quoting from the publisher’s information so I don’t give away anything I shouldn’t!

RT:  If you could introduce Phyllis to another children’s book character, who would that be? (and why, of course!)
Susanna: Hmm … what a question!  I think I’d like to see Phyllis and Olivia go head to head!  They are both such strong-willed, independent girls! Maybe Lilly as well.  Put those three together and you could have some real mayhem!!  She might get along famously with the Fantastic Mr. Fox. I think she would also like Charlotte (of web fame).  Phyllis is pretty outgoing and friendly, so I think there are a lot of children’s book characters she’d like to meet.

RT: I saw on your Facebook page that you are participating in PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month). Can you give us a hint about some of the picture book ideas you’re working on?
Let’s see…  I’m not actually working on the ideas yet – just making a list.  But I’ve got a couple about dinosaurs. I have always wanted to write a dinosaur book! There is also a possible haircut story, and a couple ideas for new twists on old favorites.
pop-up book with construction equipmentRT: The House that Mack Built, Airplane Flight, and Freight Train Trip are board books with rhyming stories. Getting that rhyme “just right” is (I understand) very difficult. Do you think it was easier, trickier, or just about “the same” in creating rhymes for these not-your-norm toddler subjects?
Rhyme is always tricky, especially for this age. You can’t force anything, you can’t use words that are too obscure just to fit the rhyme, you can’t slow the pace of the story by adding extra lines to make the rhyme work, and the rhyme has to be exact (no cheating as a lot of song writers can get away with, rhyming “nine” and “time,” for example). I don’t think it was necessarily any easier or harder to write rhyme for these subjects, with the possible exception of trying to work with words like “excavator”! The thing I find frustrating is at the editing phase when an editor may decide you need an article, or a word must be changed, and it throws off the rhythm. Sometimes the published result is less smooth than the original, which grates on my sense of meter!

RT: Along a similar line … your transportation books (which also includes Taxi!) and Punxsutawny Phyllis have a lot of nonfiction content. [I was very impressed when Phyllis talked about the Spring Zephyr.] Children’s librarian, blogger, and author Betsy Bird (Fuse #8 Production) recently posed this question to Fuse #8 readers: how much (if any) of their research should writers of fiction for children provide? Could you share your thoughts on that?
Groundhogs Day book for kidsSusanna: I think writers of fiction should only provide as much of the research as can be seamlessly woven into the story without sounding like a barely disguised lesson, and only what is necessary for full reader comprehension.  Sometimes, depending on the publisher, there is an opportunity to provide back matter on the subject that can be used to enhance the experience of the book at home or in the classroom.

Authors can transform that research material (especially what didn’t make it into the book) for activities and resource pages on their website.  Authors can also use what they learned to write non-fiction articles or books on the same topic.  But if you try to cram too much in, you usually end up slowing the pace and ruining the effect of the story.  This is especially true in books for youngest readers where you don’t have a lot of room for extra words.  Don’t get me wrong, though.  The research must be done so you can write authentically.

I spent a couple hours on the phone with a pilot learning everything I could about airplanes before I wrote Airplane Flight.  99 percent of what I learned didn’t make it into the book, but I had to know it. I needed it in my writing so I could say “press the ignition” rather than “turn the key,” for example; and I needed it for the notes to the illustrator to explain which wing had the red light and which one had the green.

RT: In browsing the book pages on your site, I noticed that all of your books have a book trailer. You also have a broad social media presence with a Facebook page, a blog, YouTube channel, and as a Goodreads author. Do you find that they complement your goals or adds to the “work” in sharing and celebrating your books?
Susanna: I really enjoy making the book trailers.  It is a different way of bringing the book to life.  A lot of people shop online now, rather than going into a book store and flipping through the pages.  A book trailer gives a little of that feel, so you have a better idea what you’re getting.  Book trailers are a lot of work … although in my case, I often get a lot of help from my much more technologically-savvy children! The other things – Facebook and my website, for example – do not take much time.  My website only needs updating form time to time, and posting on Facebook is a pretty quick job.  I hope that whatever social media presence I have complements my books and makes them more accessible to parents, teachers, and librarians.

bedtime story about counting sheep

RT: Just this week you added a blog to your portfolio. Why did you decide to start blogging and what will you blog about?Susanna: I decided to start blogging because I was hoping to encourage more interaction between myself and the people who read my books and are interested in the world of children’s books in general.  The Facebook fan page is great, but it doesn’t always reach people the way I would hope.  If they happen to be online near the time I post something, they’ll probably see it.  If not, it all too often falls off the bottom of the news feed, so unless they go check my page specifically they miss a lot.  I’m hoping the blog will work better.  If people subscribe/follow then they’ll always know when there’s news.  Also, I really want to have more of a dialogue.  I like sharing with other writers about the experience of being a writer.  I like to hear from teachers and librarians about what works and what doesn’t, and what things they’d like to see in children’s literature.  I like to hear from parents about what books their kids like to hear over and over and why, and which books they like to read over and over and why.  And I like to hear from kids (or adults) who are aspiring writers and are interested in the process or need help or encouragement.

RT: Before becoming a full-time mom and writer, you taught dyslexic students for many years. Do your memories of those experiences impact how you envision your audience when you write?
To some degree, but only in that I’m even more aware of how important it is for stories to grab readers.  A child who is struggling to read is not going to put the time in on something that doesn’t catch and keep his/her interest from the first sentence.  But this should be true of all writing for all children any way, so it just serves as a reinforcement.

RT: Do you have suggestions on ways we as parents (or adults in general) can help struggling readers?
Every reader who struggles has different issues, so I would hesitate to be too specific, but I think the most important thing is to make reading as fun and stress-free as possible. Anyone who has ever been told they have to practice the piano for half an hour or else there’s no TV knows that nothing makes piano practice a chore faster.

The same goes exponentially for reading – you can give up learning piano, but to get on in the world, you really must learn to read. Kids who are struggling feel that pressure all the time, every day.  The anxiety of not being able to keep up at something so important, something most everyone else they know can do with ease, can be overwhelming.

So try not to make reading a chore. The most important thing is that they read whatever they can and/or will – any practice in reading is better than none. If it has to be comic books or graphic novels, books that, as a parent or teacher, you might think are too easy, subject matter (like vampires and werewolves) that might not be your first choice, sports magazines etc. – reading is reading, and the more practice every child gets, the better.

Of equal importance is to read to children, especially the ones that struggle. They can comprehend far better than they can decode, and everyone loves a good story. By reading to them, they still get the experience, the chance to exercise their imagination, the exposure to new vocabulary and ideas, all so important for language and comprehension development. And if they struggle with comprehension as well, you are there to help untangle that with them.

RT: I’m cheering as I read your answer! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Only that reading is magical, and every child deserves the chance to enjoy it.  In this day of computers, video games, social media etc, where everything is so instantaneous and so aggressively catchy, it’s harder and harder to get kids hooked on books.
Don’t let them miss out on the wonders of reading.  And for the many kids who aren’t fortunate enough to have books in their homes, and the ones who need extra help learning to read, do what you can to help.  Support your local library.  Donate used books.  Every little bit helps.
To read Susanna’s bio and our interview, please go to the Reading Tub website.  Here are other ways to connect with Susanna …
All photographs and illustrations are copyrighted by Susanna Leonard Hill. All rights reserved. They were used in this interview with permission. No further use is allowed without Ms. Hill’s permission.
Images are linked to; illustrations link to the individual book pages on her site.

6 responses to “Interview: Susanna Leonard Hill author of Punxsutawney Phyllis, Can’t Sleep without Sheep (and more)

    1. Thanks for the feedback Carla. Susanna has a wonderful *eye* for good stories and is a story teller who grabs kids with her first page. Hope you can find some at your library to enjoy.

Comments are closed.