Q&A with Lane Smith and Ruta Sepetys

« Back
This month, we’ve been lucky enough to interview not just one award-winning writer but two!

For the first time ever in the history of both the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals, winners from the United States have triumphed in both categories with Lane Smith winning the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal and Ruta Sepetys winning the CILIP Carnegie Medal as it celebrates its 80th anniversary.

There is a Tribe of Kids

About the book: Legendary illustrator Lane Smith takes us on a colourful adventure through the natural world, following a child as he weaves through the jungle, dives under the ocean and soars into the sky. Along the way he makes friends and causes mischief with a dazzling array of creatures both large and small – but can he find a tribe of his own? Full of warmth and humour, There Is a Tribe of Kids is a playful exploration of wild childhood–of curiosity, discovery and what it means to belong.

About the author: There is a shelf of books by renowned artist and author Lane Smith, including the New York Times bestselling It’s a Book and its companion, It’s a Little Book. In 2012, the Eric Carle Museum named him a Carle Artist for “lifelong innovation in the field of children’s picture books,” and in 2014 he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Illustrators. Lane Smith lives in a small town in rural Connecticut, USA with his wife, the designer Molly Leach, and a scurry of flying squirrels.

Many congratulations on winning the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal as the Awards celebrate their 60th year. How did it feel when they announced your name?
To be acknowledged from the land of many of my favourite illustrators is an enormous honour. Years ago, when graduating from art school, I was told that my work was too stylised-looking for the kids’ book market in the States and I would probably have to move to London where they took a more enlightened view of quirky artworks. I told my instructor that he was wrong, and that there were many wonderful books being published in the States, and showed him my books by Wildsmith, Blake, Browne, Steadman, Cousins, Oxenbury, Foreman and Burningham. And my instructor politely informed me that those were all British artists!

Tribe of Kids is a truly beautiful book. How did you come up with the idea for the story? Did it start with a sketch or a phrase or did the whole book pop into your head?
I wanted to do a story about a journey. About a lonely boy wanting to belong to a family. I knew I wanted lots of animals in the story and as I read some of their group names I thought collective nouns could be a fun way to keep the story moving.

The way that each page has been laid out and thought about so carefully has contributed greatly to its overall success. Could you talk us through the process?
I drew the boy with coloured pencils and painted the backgrounds with oil paints sprayed with acrylic varnishes for texture. I then used a computer to put them all together.

Where is your favourite place for working on your books?
My office, a 100-year-old red brick schoolhouse in the woods of Connecticut. I have decorated it like a school with maps on the walls and globes and chalkboards and an old desk and cursive type that runs all along the edge of the ceiling. It’s like going to school every day (except I never get yelled at by my teachers for doodling when I should be doing my maths).

How do you think your style has evolved over the years?
Years ago, I used this “collage” technique but with scissors and glue to put the pieces all together. Today I use my computer for cut-and- paste… which means I don’t have to wash glue off my hands every ten minutes.

Which illustrators have inspired you throughout your career?
If you could see my studio you would see a work space filled with books by Lucy Cousins, John Burningham, Anthony Browne, Mini Grey, Raymond Briggs and Quentin Blake.

Is there one picture book that you think all children should own? (You can’t say one of your own!)
I have many favourite books: Fishy by Leo Lionni, Circus by Brian Wildsmith, The Snowman by Raymond Briggs, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak… and lots more.

A Tribe of Kids is published by Two Hoots.

Salt to the Sea

About the book: Salt to the Sea is a hugely moving, brilliantly written novel, weaving together the stories of four young people who are all desperate to escape war-ravaged Germany in 1945 as the Soviet army sweeps in. They converge in a desperate attempt to board an overcrowded ship in a Baltic port, which is tragically then sunk by a torpedo.

About the author: Ruta Sepetys is the author of acclaimed YA novel, Between Shades of Grey. Born and raised in Michigan in a family of Lithuanian descent, Ruta now lives with her husband in Tennessee. In 2015 Ruta was awarded The Rockefeller Foundation’s prestigious Bellagio Center writing residency.

Many congratulations on winning the CILIP Carnegie Medal as the Awards celebrate their 80th year. How did it feel when they announced your name?

Thank you! It’s a tremendous honour. When the award was announced, my thoughts immediately turned to those who experienced the evacuation, but never had a chance to share their story.

Salt to the Sea is based on a tragic yet little-known moment in World War II history. How did you first become aware of it and decide to base your novel on it?
My father and his cousin both fled from Lithuania as children. My father made it to safety but his cousin became trapped in the region of former East Prussia and was granted passage on the doomed Wilhelm Gustloff. By a twist of fate, she was not able to board the ship the day of the voyage. She is the one who encouraged me to write about it.

I imagine that researching a book like Salt to the Sea takes some doing. Do you find the research part of constructing a novel as enjoyable as the writing part? How long did the research take for this book?
I spent three years researching and travelled to six different countries tracking down stories. I love the research process just as much as the writing. It’s during the research that the story begins to take shape.

Salt to the Sea centres around four young people all desperate to escape war-ravaged Germany. Why did you decide to focus on young people? How easy do you find it to tell their story?
When I was researching the novel, I was reminded how many regions and countries were affected and suffered during the evacuation. When I interviewed people from those different countries, each person viewed the experience differently, through their own cultural lens. So I created characters to give voice to a particular regional experience and allow the reader to look through their “lens.”

You’re often praised for the way you are able to portray human nature in such an intimate way making your characters so believable. How do you go about creating your characters?
I generally interview many people while researching a book. I then weave stories from several people together into one character. In that way I hope to represent a larger human experience and not just one person. So the characters I create are inspired by the many people I come across during research and also by people I know or admire.

Do you have a clear idea of what each one will be like or do they develop throughout the writing process?
Since history provides an outline for my novels, my creativity is in developing the characters. When I begin a novel, I’ll have a rough idea of the character’s archetype but they really take shape while I write.

When you are writing about such a tragic event, do you find the process emotionally draining or are you able to easily separate yourself from your writing?
When I’m writing a difficult scene I don’t step back from it. I try to stay present within it. That way, I’m immersed in the emotional truth of the scene and can hopefully convey that emotion to the reader.

What book would you advise that everybody reads? 
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was an Austrian psychologist and Holocaust survivor. The book reminds us that we can find strength through struggle. We can’t choose our hardships, but we can choose how we face our hardships.

What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on a novel set in Spain during the 1950’s that reveals hidden history under the Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys, is published by Puffin