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Life on the Deckle Edge

On board ROSA'S BUS with Jo S. Kittinger

This week of Thanksgiving, I’m especially thankful for our guest. Jo S. Kittinger is a prolific author, co-Regional Advisor for our SCBWI Southern Breeze region, and all-around wonderful person. Jo’s insightful comments during a critique six years ago resulted in a submission that led to my first sale – Sir Mike to Eileen Robinson, formerly of Scholastic Library. So I love Jo for all kinds of reasons – including that she was willing to drop by and tell us about her new book, Rosa’s Bus (Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills Press), and a little more about herself.

Welcome, Jo!

How did you become a writer?


Some people know they are writers from a young age. Not me. I knew I had to be creative - but it might be pottery one year, photography the next. As a teen I used to sit in the woods and write poetry. But I didn't take writing seriously until I had children and they were all finally in school. I saw an ad in the school newsletter about some classes Kersten Hamilton was offering on writing for children and signed up. I fell in love with it and have been writing ever since. But I was always a reader and reading is the foundation for writing.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing some of your art and photography. How do your sensibilities on the visual-arts side of things inform your work?

I think it definitely gives me an advantage. Picture books are my favorite genre, because I can so clearly see the pictures in my mind as I write. I love leaving room for the illustrator to add his or her perspective on my work. Still, it's always a surprise! Steven Walker's interpretation of Rosa's Bus is better than anything I could have imagined.

On the other hand, I'm currently writing a novel and it is much harder for me to put everything into words. Without illustrations to add dimension to my writing, I'm left struggling to describe settings, moods, etc. with mere words.

Let’s talk about Rosa’s Bus. It’s “the biography of a bus” – readers get a good glimpse into early, pivotal moments in the civil rights movement. How did you become interested in Rosa Parks and also in the actual bus on which she refused to give up her seat in 1955?

The Civil Rights movement isn't so much an interest of mine. Rather it is part of who I am -- having grown up in the South during the height of activism. I wasn't actively involved, since I was a child, living in a protective home -- but seeing segregation, hearing racist remarks, questioning "why?" shaped the fiber of who I am.

Donny Williams, whose family owned the actual bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, called me one day, sparking my interest in the bus and the story it held. I was able to talk with Donny at length, hearing his stories about the bus. The bus, to me, is like the Liberty Bell --a physical reminder, a National Treasure.

Illustrator Steven Walker’s paintings are powerful without being sentimental. Can you tell us more about the pairing of his art with your words?

As I mentioned before, I think Walker's illustrations are magnificent. When I first saw the book, I wasn't sure. The artwork was so powerful. I was taken aback by the stoic faces throughout the book -- the lack of other emotions. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was perfect. The people enduring the bus boycott had to be stoic. Many of them would rather not be walking, but they were determined not to give up, until they received better treatment on the buses.

You’ve written many nonfiction books on a variety of subjects. Tell us a little bit about your research process.

First I do an overview of the topic -- often using easy sources like Wikepedia, and Googling the topic. Then, I try to narrow my focus. I look for what I think will be interesting tidbits that will fascinate kids. Of course, if primary sources are available, such as with Rosa's Bus, I make the most of those. Like most nonfiction writers I know, I dig and dig, read and search, taking tons of notes. I want to verify all my facts in three places if possible. The hard part is stopping the research and getting down to writing.

And what about your writing process – are you very disciplined each day, or do you pull all-nighters, or do you have some other approach?

I work well under pressure, so I enjoy deadlines. When a deadline is looming, I will work late, skip cleaning the house, forgo cooking dinner and lose myself in the work. When there is no deadline, it's much harder to avoid the tyranny of the urgent, and distraction often pulls me away from my writing.

Those of us in Southern Breeze wonder how in the world you wear your many hats so successfully! What makes you give up much of your own creative time to devote to SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators)? [And, when do you sleep?!]

It may sound strange, but I feel this is where God has placed me to minister to others. When I hear of others' success, I'm thrilled beyond measure. I think when God calls you to do something, He also gives you the grace needed to do the work. And I've been blessed in return by being in this position. So many of my own opportunities have arisen because I've been involved with SCBWI.

You have many hobbies and interests – I know you’re always up for an adventure! What are some of your favorite things to do when you’re not writing or organizing events for other writers and illustrators?

I love to be on a river, paddling a canoe or kayak. My husband and I both love nature, love traveling to beautiful locations to birdwatch and search for other animals. I'm also a game fanatic. Anyone up for Pictionary?

Can you give us a sneak peek into the next picture book you have coming out?

The House on Dirty-Third Street, a fictional picture book with Peachtree Publishers, is currently being illustrated by Thomas Gonzales. I'm SO excited that he is my illustrator for this book. You may know his work from 14 Cows for America. Thomas is incredibly talented and I can't wait to see his work on my book!

Want to leave us with a fun fact not many people know about you? Pretty please?

With a cherry on top? I love cherries! I've been known to steal the cherries off other people's sundaes! Right, Joan Broerman?

Thank you, Jo, for sharing a look into your busy, productive life!

Thank you Robyn, for letting me visit with your blog followers. As Thanksgiving approaches, I'm tremendously grateful for all the amazing, talented friends I've come to know through SCBWI -- including you!

[Aw, thanks Jo!] To learn more about Jo and see her terrific book trailer for Rosa’s Bus at www.jokittinger.com, please click here.
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