Author interview : David LaRochelle

David LaRochelle is a full-time author and illustrator from Minnesota.  I met him for the first time when he volunteered in the Alphabet Forest at the Minnesota State Fair in 2011.  He was the author of the day, and along with all of the other activities at the Alphabet Forest, he had brought along an activity to share with fair-goers.

I was working that day, too, and I enjoyed watching David with the kids.  He talked to them as if they were real people—which they are, but not everyone talks to children so freely and listens to them so intently.  And despite the fact that the day was hot and humid, he was patient and had a smile for everyone.  (He’ll tell you that it wasn’t so bad—he was in the shade and there was a breeze.  Don’t listen to him—the temperature was 103!)

So after David volunteered over eight hours on a sweltering day, with thousands—maybe zillions—of kids stopping by to make something at his table, I decided to ask him for a favor, too.  I said, “We have this little blog about books.  Could we interview you?”

David could have said a lot of things.  He could have said, “Sure!”  or “Yeah.”  He could have said, “I suppose” or “Maybe.”  He could have asked, “Just how little is your blog?”  But what he said was, “I’d be honored.”

What a classy guy!

For more information about David, check out his website.

I’ve read that you had several pets while growing up.  My boys did too, including birds (lovebird, finches, and cockatiels), reptiles (Kenyan sand boa, ball python, corn snake, leopard gecko, and blue-tongued skink), fish, rodents (guinea pigs, gerbils, hamsters, mice, and rats), and other mammals (rabbits, ferrets, and dogs).  We also had a hermit crab and a walking stick bug.  Tell me about your favorite pet.

Wow. I thought I had a variety of pets growing up, but my list doesn’t come close to what your boys have had! Without a doubt our family’s favorite pet was our dog Caesar, a miniature poodle. Even my dad, who initially resisted the idea of getting a dog, treated Caesar like a member of the family. He fed him food off his fork (“he didn’t touch the metal”) and gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when Caesar was accidentally electrocuted after chewing on a lamp cord. Caesar lived a long life, but the day my mom and I had to finally put him down was one of the saddest days of my life. In my opinion, he was the best pet of all.

Right now we are down to two dogs and the skink.  Do you have any pets now?

Several years ago I inherited a large fish tank filled with koi, but one by one they made the trip to the big fishpond in the sky and I haven’t had any pets since.

You mentioned to me at the State Fair that your photographer took many, many photos in order to find the 26 you’ve used in Minnesota’s Hidden Alphabet…but I can’t remember the details.  Can you refresh my memory?

This book is the brainchild of Joe Rossi, who worked as a photographer for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press for over twenty years. Over the course of 18 months, Joe took more than 12,000 photographs before he captured the 26 that you see in the book. He said that the hardest letter to find was “Q,” and once he had that, he knew he could finish the project. The photos were originally published in the DNR’s Conservation Volunteer magazine. Response to the photos was so strong that the Minnesota Historical Society Press wanted to turn the pictures into a book, and I was the lucky Minnesota author asked to write the accompanying text.

Pass along our admiration for the beautiful photos!  My favorite is the “W” made by the trout lily.

The “W” is my favorite, too! Kids especially like the letter “J,” formed by a pelican’s open mouth. Joe didn’t realize he had a “J” until he returned home from the day’s photo session and was looking through his shots and discovered the letter hidden in the shape of the bird’s beak.

When you were a teacher, did you teach math like in 1+1=5 : And Other Unlikely Additions?

I never used equations like the ones in my book, but I was always devising puzzles and games to use in the classroom. Students would ask, “Can we play games again today?” not realizing that they were actually practicing their math skills.

How many years did you teach?  What grades?

I taught fourth grade for four years before I left to pursue a career as an author and illustrator. That was over 24 years ago! I miss being a classroom teacher, but I still get to visit many elementary schools each year. Now I’m like an uncle or grandparent; I get to do the fun things with the kids without the tough stuff (discipline, homework, report cards) that regular classroom teachers have to deal with.

Did you like math when you were in school?  Anything you despised?  Were you a good student?

I did like math in school, but I wasn’t always very careful with my math homework. Overall, I was a very good student…with one exception. I was terrible at gym. I couldn’t throw a ball or sink a basket and I was always the last kid picked when it came time to choose teams. When I finally became a junior in high school and no longer had to take gym class, I was ecstatic.

Where do you get ideas for your books?  Do all/most of your ideas make it into print?

I wish I had a good answer for this question, but I don’t. My ideas come from everywhere: things that have happened to me, things that I think might be funny, things that are purely imagined. Two of my stories had their origins in writing contests. When I get an idea, I’ll jot it down in one of my notebooks (my apartment is filled with them). Months, or even years, later I might revisit an idea and try to turn it into a book. But even when I turn an idea into a complete story, that doesn’t guarantee it will make it into print. I’ve accumulated over 200 rejection letters, with several more added this summer.  Persistence is one of the most important traits for anyone who wants to be an author.

One thing I like about your books is that they seem to be geared toward both genders…or maybe it’s more accurate to say that they’re not geared to either gender.  They are just fun, and funny.  Do you write with a certain audience in mind?

If anything, my audience is myself. My mother used to say that I never really grew up from fourth grade, and in many ways that’s true…which isn’t a bad thing for somebody who writes for children!

My older son, Alex, has always liked spooky, scary stories, so his little brother, Nathan, five years younger, wanted ghost stories, too.  Nathan, however, couldn’t handle anything scary.  The Haunted Hamburger and Other Ghostly Stories would be a great Halloween book for kids like him.

My temperament is much more akin to Nathan’s than Alex’s. As a kid, I was scared by everything. Our school library had a book of spooky stories titled Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery that all the boys in my class couldn’t wait to check out. I was so scared of that book, I couldn’t even look at the cover! Nathan doesn’t have to worry about Haunted Hamburger; it’s much more funny than scary.

And speaking of Halloween, you have a unique craft.  Tell us about your pumpkins.

I began carving intricate pumpkins about 25 years ago when the pumpkin carving kits with the tiny saw blades first arrived on the scene. I began to win carving contests which led to an appearance on a local gardening show which in turn led to several appearances on Good Morning America.  Now I get requests from across the country (most of which I have to turn down) to carve pumpkins for everything from weddings to basketball teams. Most of my pumpkins, however, are displayed on the front steps of a friend’s house each Halloween. You can view some of my creations at my website, davidlarochelle.com.

Like It’s a Tiger! many of your picture books would be great read-alouds.  Do you remember being read to as a child?  Who usually read to you—mom or dad?

I don’t remember either of my parents reading to me, but they always took me to the library so I had plenty of books to read on my own. I still remember the books that various teachers read to me in grade school: Mr. Popper’s Penguins, The Marvelous Land of Oz, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. As a fourth grade teacher, my favorite part of the day, and probably one of the most important things I ever did, was when I read to my students. James and the Giant Peach, The Stories Julian Tell, The Indian in the Cupboard, and Dear Mr. Henshaw were some of my, and my classes’, favorites.

Do you have someone small that you use as a guinea pig when you are writing your books?

I don’t test my stories on kids, but I’m in two great critique groups with other authors and illustrators and they are my guinea pigs. Their feedback is invaluable and helps me shape my books before I send them to an editor.

Why a tiger?  Why not a polar bear or a T. rex or a gorilla?

I think you’ve just come up with the sequel!

I’m looking forward to How Martha Saved Her Parents from Green Beans!  (It will be published in April 2013.) When I was young, I was fortunate that my dad did not like a lot of “icky” foods like broccoli and carrots and beets.  This meant that my mom did not make them very much; and when she did, we usually got out of eating them by saying, “But DAD doesn’t eat them!”  Did your parents have to MAKE you eat anything when you were young?

I was a very picky eater when I was growing up, but fortunately my parents didn’t force me to eat a lot of “icky” foods, with one exception: ham. I spent many hours alone at the dinner table with a few tiny pieces of cold ham I was expected to eat. I’d smother a piece in ketchup, gag it down, and then stare at the plate for another ten minutes before tackling another piece. Ugh.

Most of those foods I hated have grown on me…though I still turn my nose up at Brussels sprouts.  Is there anything you hate to eat now as an adult?

Like you, I have much wider tastes now that I’m an adult. But along with ham, I still detest eggs. If you want to see my face turn green, serve me a plate of ham and eggs for breakfast. Brussels sprouts? Yum!

What are you working on now?

I’m just finishing up the illustrations for the first picture book where I get to be both author and illustrator. The title is still in limbo, but it’s about a boy who gets dragged to the art museum against his will, and has a much more exciting time than he expected. I’m also very much looking forward to a book that will be published next fall called MOO., illustrated superbly by Mike Wohnoutka. Mike’s illustrations make me laugh every time I see them.

Mackin always uses a flower on its website and marketing materials.  If you were a flower, which would you like to be?  Why?

The lilac is my all time favorite flower, but I think I’d like to be a wildflower, like trillium, so I could live in the woods.

Well, David, we’re looking forward to your upcoming books.  Thanks for spending time with us today; we have been honored to have you join us.  Best wishes!

If you are a follower of our blog, you might have read our earlier posts on a couple of books by David LaRochelle.  See Teaching Math with Picture Books and A Dozen (or so) Great Picture Books, 2011.  And here is a list of his picture books:

1+1=5 : And Other Unlikely Additions. 9781402759956. 2010. Gr K-2.

The Best Pet of All. 9780525471295. 2004. Gr P-2.

The End. 9780439640114. 2007. Gr P-2.

The Haunted Hamburger and Other Ghostly Stories. 9780525422723. Gr K-3.

It’s a Tiger!  9780811869256. 2012. Gr P-1.

Minnesota’s Hidden Alphabet. 9780873518086. 2011. Gr P-2.

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