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Life on the Deckle Edge

Exploring Big Cats and Little Kitties (and more) with Author Scotti Cohn

It's been a fun month of featuring nonfiction nature writers! For our last visit, I'm happy to host Scotti Cohn. I “met” Scotti online when her fellow Sylvan Dell author and my good friend Gail Karwoski told me about Scotti’s gorgeous rhyming picture book, ONE WOLF HOWLS (illustrated by Susan Detwiler). Needless to say, Scotti and I discovered we are pretty much from the same pack! The Illinois writer, who is planning to move to South Carolina in a few months, tackles a wide range of subjects for readers of all ages, and you should check out her great blogs. Today we welcome her for a sneak preview of her new book from Sylvan Dell, also illustrated by Susan Detwiler, BIG CAT, LITTLE KITTY.

Welcome, Scotti! We share a lot of passions, including members of the canine and feline families – wild or domestic. Tell us about your new book, BIG CAT, LITTLE KITTY. What does it have in store for young readers, and how did you come up with the idea for it?

Hello Robyn! Thanks for inviting me to be interviewed here.

I wrote BIG CAT, LITTLE KITTY because I love cats and have lived with cats pretty much my whole life. Currently I have five "little kitties." I have always been fascinated by the similarities and differences between big cats (like lions, tigers, etc.) and domestic cats. My pet cats often behave like their much larger relatives, only on a smaller scale. That seemed like a topic that young children would enjoy learning more about, so I started drafting a picture book manuscript. My first draft was written in blank-verse poetry. It was much too "adult" sounding, but I ran it by Sylvan Dell Publishing editor Donna German. She suggested that I write it in prose, so I did, and she accepted it for publication.

The book introduces young readers to various big cats and provides a glimpse into their habitats. In each case, the behavior and "catitude" of the big cat is echoed by a domestic cat on the next page. The book reinforces the concepts "big and little" and "same and different." In the back of the book there is a wealth of information and activities related to wild and domestic cats.

I love Susan Detwiler’s illustrations in ONE WOLF HOWLS. How are these two books similar? What do you think of the art for this new book?

Susan's artwork is awesome in general, and her cats (like her wolves) are wonderful. The two books are similar in that they introduce children to animal behavior and habitat in a "lyrical" way (even though BIG CAT is written in prose, the language is somewhat lyrical). Neither book has a "plot" or "narrative arc," but there is continuity and progress made as the narrative goes along. ONE WOLF HOWLS builds from one wolf in January to twelve wolves in December. BIG CAT uses the days of the week as a framework.

Tell us about your great new blog, "Wolf and Cat."

After BIG CAT, LITTLE KITTY was accepted for publication, I changed my existing blog, which was about wolves, to "Wolf and Cat". I created a collage from photos I have taken of wolves and cats to use as the background image. On the blog I share new items I find about wolves and cats that might interest people. I also occasionally share photos I have taken of these animals and information about my two picture books. I recently started a new series in which I plan to feature illustrators and artists who either specialize in wolf and cat pictures or whose wolf and cat art I happen to admire.

And now, tell us how you came to write about these wonderful animals. Did you grow up with all creatures great and small?

I grew up with cats here and there and one dog who didn't quite work out (we ended up giving her to another family). At one point, I had a couple of hamsters. That's about it. I took horseback riding lessons because I like horses, but I was never good at riding. I love visiting animals wherever they happen to live, but I don't actually surround myself with them at home (except for the cats).

How about those kitties you share your life with now?

I have five cats. I found one of them under the woodpile; two of them came from a shelter; and we got two of them from our veterinarian. I am a big fan of adopting strays and shelter animals.

Me too, and the ones in your house got lucky! Now, back to the writing - Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Pretty much. I started writing poems and stories when I was very young. At one point, I thought I'd like to be a veterinarian or a pediatrician. Then I found out you had to be good in science to do those jobs. I didn't particularly like science and didn't get my best grades in it. By the time I was in junior high school, I knew I wanted to write books.

[I understand that - I considered becoming a veterinarian until chemistry in high school confirmed my place in the humanities!] How about a peek into your writing process? First, how do you tackle research?

I love the internet for research. You can at least get started on any subject under the sun. Then you follow links and lists and go where they lead you. The key, of course, is to make sure the sources you use are reputable and accurate. My job with both ONE WOLF and BIG CAT was to make sure that the text I wrote was realistic. Once it was written, Sylvan Dell had it reviewed by experts on the subject, and I made any necessary changes. This combination of author diligence, editor review, and expert input seems to work very well.

What is your writing life like – do you keep a strict schedule at the keyboard or write in fits and frenzies, or both?

I do not keep a strict schedule. Most days, I divide my time between several different activities. If I'm under contract to write a book, I usually block out periods of time to work on it. I can be highly disciplined when necessary to meet deadlines, but otherwise I can be very relaxed about my writing. I'm not a morning person. It takes me quite a while to "gear up" each day. I often feel most energized later in the evening, and I can get a lot of writing done then.

We both love school visits and sharing animal information, along with writing tips, with young people. Tell us about your presentations and what kind of feedback you get from kids and teachers.

For my ONE WOLF HOWLS program, I use a wolf puppet and a Powerpoint presentation that I developed with music and sound effects. In between the Powerpoint slides, I interact with the kids, asking them questions and encouraging them to participate. I also do a presentation about "The Road to Publication" in which I use Powerpoint slides to take kids from Idea to Publication. I often get comments from teachers about how well I keep the children's attention. I use humor quite a lot, which kids seem to appreciate.

You’ve got a great blog for working writers, too. What’s the first thing you tell someone who asks you, “How do I get started writing for children?”

I advise people interested in writing for children to find an internet forum or local critique group where they can share their work and read the work of other writers. I also highly recommend membership and participation in SCBWI.

Now for a quick detour because I can’t leave it out – you also create wonderful jewelry! Has this been a lifelong passion, too? How does practicing a fine craft impact your writing?

I never imagined myself making jewelry. I'm not a "crafty" person in general. I don't knit, sew, crochet, scrapbook, or any of that. I did counted cross-stitch for awhile once upon a time. What happened with the jewelry is that a woman I met on Facebook posted a description of how to make a particular style of necklace that I really liked. I read the instructions and thought, "I can do that." I went to a local bead shop and paid for a lesson in which I made that necklace. I really enjoyed selecting and working with beads. My jewelry business grew out of that. There's no way I could ever wear all the pieces I've made -- so it made sense to me to sell it. In jewelry making, the emphasis is on working with my hands and creating something tangible in a fairly short amount of time. Writing is largely a mental process. That provides a different type of satisfaction. Because both activities require creativity and imagination, I think they complement each other.

That’s a great way to put it, and your pieces are gorgeous. Finally, pretty please with pawprints on top, tell us something not many people know about you . . . .

Not many people know that when I was 17 years old, Paul McCartney stepped on my foot. I was visiting London with my family and we went to EMI Studios because we had been told the Beatles were having a recording session that night. When they arrived, there were so many of us outside the studio, they did not stop to sign autographs. I was trying to take a close-up of Paul when he stepped out of the car and onto my foot. Then they all ran inside. Yes, I did eventually wash my foot.

Ha! Thank you for sharing that early step on the “long and winding road” (sorry) to become a children’s author, and thanks so much for visiting with us today! To learn more about Scotti, stop by her website. Be sure to check out her terrific blogs, and the fun, colorful book trailer for BIG CAT, LITTLE KITTY.
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