Lee Wardlaw is the kind of children’s author most people aspire to be. Never restricting herself to one genre, she has published both picture books and a series of middle-grade novels – all of them delightful, accessible, and hugely popular.
She also thinks outside the box. In two picture books, she used a form of Japanese poetry called senryu (SEN-ree-yoo). Like haiku, senryu poetry features 3 unrhymed lines of 17 syllables. Senryu is actually a form of haiku that is specifically about human foibles – except in Wardlaw’s books, where senryu captures the foibles of felines.
If you don’t have them on your bookshelves, Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku and Won Ton and Chopstick: a Cat and Dog Tale Told in Haiku would be wonderful additions!
I’m honored that Lee is my “Short & Snappy” interviewee this week. Read on!
CSM: WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE PICTURE BOOKS ABOUT CATS IN SENRYU?
LW: The first poems I wrote for WON TON were haiku. Lovely and lyrical, but lacking the poignancy, the orneriness, the true voice of a feisty shelter cat. Once I switched to senryu, Won Ton’s personality pounced onto the page. But of course! Cats are the embodiment and personification (feline-ification?) of senryu.
CSM: IS THERE A REAL CAT BEHIND WON TON (OR DOG BEHIND CHOPSTICK)?
LW: Won Ton is a mishmash of family kitties. I based his and Boy’s story on my son who, at age 8, adopted an abandoned kitten. (12 years later they’re still best buds!) I’m fluent in Cat but don’t speak a lick of Dog, so research was critical for creating Chopstick.
CSM: TELL US ABOUT YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS. WHAT ROLE DOES INTUITION PLAY?
LW: None whatsoever! My subconscious, however, plays a crucial role. I begin every book brainstorming plot, theme, characters and their conflicts. Brainstorming on paper is key to unlocking a treasure trove of stored knowledge. It brings to the surface what I want to say, how I want to say it…and why.
CSM: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE PARENTS WITH KIDS WHO WANT TO BE WRITERS?
LW: Read. Write. Repeat. Read aloud daily: You to them, them to you….through high school! (We did.) Read everything – plays, poems, essays, biographies, humor, historical, fantasy, adventure. The best readers make the best writers. Oh, and writing every day – even if only for ten minutes – is a worthy habit!
CSM: I ONCE HEARD AN EDITOR SAY THAT IT’S LESS IMPORTANT TO WRITE FOR THE MARKET THAN IT IS TO WRITE THE STORY THAT’S BURNING INSIDE OF YOU. WHAT’S YOUR OPINION?
LW: When I wrote WON TON, there wasn’t a market for picture books in senryu. In fact, eight publishers rejected WON TON before it found a forever home. But my passion for that cat and the friendship he forges with Boy is what made their story authentic, universal, timeless – and salable.
(*Featured illustration by Eugene Yelchin)
Lee Wardlaw swears that her first spoken word was 'kitty'. Since then, she's shared her life with 30 cats (not all at the same time!) and published 30 books for children and young adults including WON TON - A CAT TALE TOLD IN HAIKU (Holt; illustrated by Eugene Yelchin), recipient of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Children's Poetry Award and the Myra Cohn Livingston Poetry Award (among others). A companion title, WON TON AND CHOPSTICK, was published last year, and has already earned the Book Source Scout Award for Best Children's Poetry. Lee lives in Santa Barbara, CA with her family, which includes their cats Papaya and Haiku. Find her online (leewardlaw.com), on Facebook, and at Twitter.
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