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Interview with Leslie Helakoski, Prize-Winning Picture Book Author and Illustrator

Leslie Helakoski

Leslie Helakoski

“Interview with Leslie Helakoski, Prize-Winning Picture Book Author and Illustrator” by Joan Y. Edwards

Leslie Helakoski was one of the presenters at the Highlights Foundation workshop I attended in April, 2015 in Honesdale, Pennsylvania called, “Picture Books and All That Jazz.” 

Leslie is the author of eight picture books including Michigan Reads winners Big Chickens, and Woolbur. Her books, known for their word play and humor, have won acclaim from Junior Library Guild and with starred reviews in Kirkus and award nominations in over 20 states. She has illustrated her three most recent books, including Doggone Feet! (a best math choice by Scholastic Magazine) and her newest release, Big Pigs.

Leslie, I am very impressed with your writing and illustrating talents. Thank you for being a guest on my blog. I know that learning about you and hearing your advice will intrigue and delight my readers.

You’re welcome. I’m glad to be here. Let’s get started.

  1. Where were you born? Abbeville, Louisiana.
  2. Where was your favorite place to live as a child? I grew up in Louisiana, and lived on the banks of Vermilion Bayou. I still love it there and am always looking forward to going back. The culture there is so interesting and the food and music inspires me.
  3. Which states have you called “home?” I’ve lived in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, South Carolina, as well as Louisiana and both the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. I loved each of them.
  4. Did you ever want to hide when you were a child? I loved hiding as a child. My siblings and I were always building camps in the woods or crawling into some hole to hide.
  5. What are your favorite places to read a book? In a tree, on the beach, in a hammock.
  6. How did you do in English in high school? Aced it!
  7. When and why did you decide to become an author? In the eighties and nineties I came across fun picture books like Frog and Toad, George and Martha, The Stinky Cheese Man  —they were beautiful and funny and the kids I read to loved them. As a graphic designer and new parent, I thought ‘I can do this.”
  8. Have you always illustrated your books? I have always wanted to illustrate my books but the publishers have not always been in agreement. Sometimes it is a marketing decision to pair a new writer with an established illustrator. Sometimes it is an aesthetic choice—how an editor envisions the book that makes them choose a different artist. In my case, I think I wasn’t ready to  illustrate my first few books, even though I thought I was. It took me a while to understand the depth of illustrating and not just designing a page.
  9. Who or what has been the most help and inspiration to you as a writer? Joining SCBWI – Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators has been the most helpful thing I’ve ever done for my writing and illustrating.
  10. Which is your favorite genre? Comedy, drama, poetry, I love them all.
  11. What’s your favorite book? Impossible to say overall. I love the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary. I loved them as a child and find them still relevant today.
  12. What are you writing now? Four different manuscripts… all picture books. Each is getting good comments from editors but they have  not sold yet. I’m hoping to announce something about them soon.
  13. What are you illustrating now? I’m working on a dummy for one of my projects. It has very spare language and I think a dummy showing how the book could look will help it sell.
  14. What resources have helped you improve your illustration skills? Taking a painting class, being in a critique group with other illustrators I admire.
  15. What has been the most exhilarating moment for you as a writer? Oh, my first sale with a major publisher (Big Chickens) and the starred reviews it received.

  16. Do you ever cry while writing or illustrating your books? Nope.
  17. Do you outline and plan your books ahead of time or do you let your books develop on their own as you write them? I’ve done both. Not sure which is better—anything that gets the story out works.
  18. What is your advice for people who have rhyming in their picture books? If you are going to rhyme, you’d better do your homework. Read tons of books in rhyme, scour websites on rhyme, listen, attend workshops on rhyme. Do not accept mediocre rhyme. Rhyme is fabulous fun when it is on beat.
  19. How can writers use rhythm and sound to make their children’s books come alive even if it is not a rhyming book? Studying poetry can help prose as well as rhyme. Listen to music and lyrics as well—I sometimes try to get my words to echo the rhythm of a musical piece for mood.
  20. What are 3 ways to create an unforgettable character? Shoot, if I knew how to do this, I wouldn’t be waiting to hear on four manuscripts.
  21. What do you do when your story gives you trouble?  Here are some questions I ask myself when I’m struggling with a manuscript: What is the outer conflict? What is the inner conflict? Is the problem clear? How is the problem solved? (Resolution) What is the theme? (Be concise.) Is there a universal connection?  What is the take-away?  Is it child appropriate? Has it been done? And if so, how is this different?
  22. Please explain what you mean by theme or take away? The theme of a book, or the take-away, as some people call it is the underlying message of the story. For example, in Big Chickens, the story is about four fearful chickens running away from a wolf. But the theme, or what I want kids to leave with, is a message about how fear itself causes problems.
  23. What are the main things a writer should check when revising a manuscript? What is the theme or take away?  What is the connection for a child?
  24. How can a writer tell when a manuscript is ready for submission to an editor or agent? If you have revised it until you can’t see straight, then put it aside for a few weeks and gone through revisions again. Then show it to your critique group—WHAT? You don’t have one? Then get one!— After all you’ve done all of the above, then it might be ready to send to an editor or agent. Never, never hurry to submit. Send your very best work.
  25. How did you find your agent? I was submitting to several agents when I saw my agent speak at an SCBWI event. I liked her attitude and savvy. Before I had an agent, I submitted to names I’d see written up in newsletters and professionals I’d meet at conferences.
  26. Which blog do you believe all authors should read? I don’t read a lot of blogs regularly. I am too distracted by the internet to use it wisely and end up procrastinating.

Check Leslie’s website her latest books and workshops: www.helakoskibooks.com
Twitter at @helakoski

Here are two articles about Leslie:

“9 Picture Book Topics to Avoid (Or Be Ready for Stiff Competition and Write a Story with a Fresh Take)” by Leslie Helakoski and Darcy Pattison

“Q & A with Leslie Helakoski: DOGGONE FEET:” http://annemarieobrienauthor.com/2013/09/q-a-with-leslie-helakoski-doggone-feet/

Here are three of Leslie’s Fun-filled Books:

Big Chickens Fly the Coop by Leslie Helakoski

Big Chickens Fly the Coop
by Leslie Helakoski

Big Chickens Fly the Coop http://www.amazon.com/Big-Chickens-Coop-Leslie-Helakoski/dp/0142414646/

Woolbur by Leslie Helakoski

Woolbur by Leslie Helakoski

Woolbur http://www.amazon.com/Woolbur-Leslie-Helakoski/dp/B005X9FTN6/

Doggone Feet! by Leslie Helakoski

Doggone Feet!
by Leslie Helakoski

Doggone Feet! http://www.amazon.com/Doggone-Feet-Leslie-Helakoski/dp/1590789334

Thank you for doing this interview with me, Leslie. It was fun, fun, fun!

Please leave a comment for Leslie or ask her a question. She would love to hear from you.

Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards
Copyright © 2015 Joan Y. Edwards


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14 Responses

  1. Joan,
    What a great interview with Leslie. Thank you. I love, love, love Leslie and her books. Getting to attend “Picture Books and All that Jazz” (Highlights workshop) with you was priceless.


    • Hi Linda. I’m glad you got a lot out of the workshop. Say hello to the steamy Carolinas for me.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Linda,
      Thanks for writing. So glad you thought Leslie’s interview was great and that you love, love, love her. You are right, the Picture Books and All That Jazz workshop was priceless because Leslie and Darcy Pattison believed in us and our writing and were willing to share many of their techniques at getting our manuscripts to the “sold” stage!

      Celebrate you.
      Never Give Up


  2. Thanks so much for this fabulous interview, Joan and Leslie. I especially appreciate #18 and #19. Great advice!

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you are a rhymer or even just thinking about rhyming, familiarize yourself with this website: writingrhymeandmeter.com
      and read rhyming books aloud so you can really hear the meter and rhythm. Have fun.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks so much for the website suggestion, Leslie!


        • Dear Becky,
          Thanks for writing. Leslie gave you another suggestion for a website to visit below. Isn’t she the sweetest lady?

          Celebrate you now.
          Never Give Up
          Joan Y. Edwards


    • Dear Becky,
      Thanks for writing. You’re welcome for the interview. It is a privilege to interview Leslie on my blog. I’m glad that you especially appreciated her advice in #18 and #19 about rhyming and rhythm. Good luck with your writing.

      Celebrate you.
      Never Give Up

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Kathleen!
        And Becky, there are lots of websites on rhyming, so keep reading as much as you can if it is fun for you. Also check out rhypibomo (rhyming Picture Book Month for old posts–very enlightening!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Dear Leslie,
          Thank you for taking time to write a note to Linda, Becky, and Kathleen. It means a lot to me. I know it means a lot to them, too. Good luck with the sales of your current books and I hope you get many more contracts for your fun stories!

          Celebrate you.
          Never Give Up


  3. Thanks for including me on your blog, Joan. The PB&J workshop brought together such a terrific group of hard workers and fun people.


    • Dear Leslie,

      You are welcome for my including you on my blog. It is an honor to have you as my guest. You and Darcy Pattison taught us great ways to get our manuscripts in good condition at the Picture Books and All That Jazz (PB&J) workshop. Thank you.


  4. Joan, great interview. I so enjoyed reading Leslie’s take on picture book writing! Her books are just adorable!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dear Kathleen,
    Thanks for writing. I’m glad you liked the interview with Leslie. She is very impressive. Leslie wrote a note to you and Becky up above.

    Celebrate you!
    Never Give Up


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