In today’s Picture the Books Two Debut Interview, Debut author Ariel Bernstein interviews debut author Jessica Petersen about her debut picture book, OLD TRACKS, NEW TRICKS, which released in March.
Ariel: Jessica, congratulations on your picture book debut, OLD TRACKS, NEW TRICKS! Did you think of the title right away, or did you come up with it sometime after you wrote the story?
Jessica: Thank you so much, Ariel! I’m thrilled that it’s finally out in the world.
OLD TRACKS, NEW TRICKS is somewhat unusual for a debut picture book in that it was written under contract. I was offered the opportunity to write and photo-illustrate it based on an idea I’d shared with my editor (a STEM-focused picture book about wooden train tracks), and the phrase that became the title was something I mentioned as a possible tagline in our first conversation about what that book would actually look like. Then after about a week of working on the story, I suggested it as the title along with a more developed story idea, and it stuck.
This pattern is repeating itself with the book I’m working on now, and I remember a similar thing happening with my YA work-in-progress. It seems that if I can strike on a good title early on, it helps me define the core and the scope of the story, and from then on I can use it as a touchstone to determine if I’m staying true to what I intend to write.
Ariel: If you could choose to live in the world of any picture book, which world would it be? Why?
Jessica: The world in Quest by Aaron Becker. (Journey, of course, is the first book in the series, and Return comes at the end, but we read Quest first and it’s still our favorite.) The idea of being able to change the world with art — in this case, the bright rainbow chalk sticks — has always really appealed to me. It’s been a theme in my own writing and artwork for a long time.
Ariel: You get to pick a pen name – what is it?
Jessica: For this book, I think Clickety McClack might have been fun. It has kind of a “Boaty McBoatface” vibe. That would crack my son up. I may have to use it for a character someday, in a bedtime story for him if nothing else.
Ariel: If you could take credit for ANY other published PB out there, which one would you choose?
Jessica: That’s a tough one! Off the top of my head, I’ll pick ROBO-SAUCE by Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri. We’re big fans of all of their books, but the moment my son and I got to the point in ROBO-SAUCE where the entire book transforms was truly epic, especially because it was built up to and then built upon so skillfully with both the words and illustrations. I would love to be able to create that kind of moment of amazement and laughter for readers with one of my own books.
Ariel: How many siblings do you have and where do you fall in the birth order? Did it matter?
Jessica: I have two much-older half brothers, and both of them went to live with their father as teenagers, so I seem to have gotten a strange grab bag of traits out of the bargain: baby of the family, first born, and only child. That feeling of separation from my siblings likely contributed to my tendency to get engrossed in my own imaginary worlds.
Ariel: Favorite first line of any book, any genre?
Jessica: I’m terrible at choosing a favorite of anything, but the first line of CHIME by Franny Billingsley is wonderfully effective: “I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged. Now, if you please.” You have the mystery of wondering why she wants to be hanged — immediately! — plus you get the voice of the protagonist in full force from the beginning.
Ariel: Tell me about the pet/s you had growing up.
Jessica: When I was young, my family had a wild range of animals: cats, dogs, a guinea pig, a goat herd, a pony (briefly), chickens, parakeets, and even a pig at one point, but I’ve always mainly been a cat person, even when some of those other animals were supposed to be my pets. Cats are pretty much the perfect companions for bookworms, and I almost always named mine after characters in whatever book I had read most recently. My favorite cat (my companion from when I was a teenager until he passed away a few years ago) was an orange tabby who loved to sit in the middle of my son’s wooden train layouts in his golden years. It’s no coincidence that CAT Track in my book was drawn with an orange crayon.
Ariel: Most fun or funniest job you’ve had, besides author/illustrator?
Jessica: One of my first jobs was working with Japanese exchange students during the summer. As far as high school/college jobs go, you really can’t beat getting paid to hang out with new friends and show them around town! We also got to play a lot of preschool games and activities with them (they were education majors), which was fun to have an excuse to do as a teenager without looking uncool.
Ariel: The artwork in your book is pretty unique as they’re not the usual picture book illustrations. Can you tell us about it?
Jessica: In addition to some practical reasons for it, we felt it was important to illustrate OLD TRACKS, NEW TRICKS with photos of real toys so that kids could readily connect the tracks in the book to the ones in their homes and classrooms. But in order to write the book as a story, I needed characters!
During that first conversation I had with my editor, as I was searching around for characters and a plot to go with my train track concept, I remembered a pattern I’d drawn for a fabric design challenge a few months before. It showed a circle of eight smiling train tracks and a ninth track off to the side, crying because it had been left out of the closed circle. I hurriedly took a photo of a track with my iPad, drew a face on it, and showed it to my editor, along with my initial idea of how we could weave the activities into a story.
Now it’s hard to imagine having done the illustrations any other way — the decision to digitally add faces to the tracks influenced pretty much every aspect of both the pictures and the text. Just the act of putting a face on a train track gets kids thinking about them in a new way, mirroring the way the trains in the book learn that tracks are more than just a railroad for their wheels to roll along.
I loved working in this style. It made the writing so much easier because I had the physical objects to both inspire and limit me. I love having limitations put on a creative project, because it gets the overly critical, self-editing part of my brain tied up with solving problems, and I’m free to create. Each step in the illustration process — from turning a new tracks and unpainted trains into a old, well-loved train set to setting up/lighting/taking/editing the photos to adding the digital elements — brought new problems to solve and new opportunities for storytelling and character development.
And the best part is that I can now take that process and collaborate on it with my readers. Kids have been sending in photos of their own “track tricks” through the book’s website, and I add faces to the trains and tracks in their photos. It is so fun, and the kids seem as thrilled about the results as I always am!
Ariel: All of the text in your book is dialogue, which I love! What do you enjoy about writing in dialogue?
Jessica: When I was young, the weakest point of my writing was dialogue, so much so that I think it discouraged me from thinking about writing books when I was in high school and college, although I had wanted to be an author in elementary school. I loved writing description, but dialogue? It always sounded flat and fake, and I had no idea how to get better at it, or that I even could get better at it.
After college, I played a collaborative writing game with friends. We each claimed one or more characters in a story world and wrote their parts, often talking back and forth through an online journal format without any dialogue tags or description. As my familiarity with my characters grew, I heard what they would say directly in my head, and I’d have to type quickly to keep up.
When I started writing seriously, I was amazed to find that dialogue seemed to now be the easiest part of writing for me. When I’m working on novel-length manuscripts, I often write a whole scene as dialogue first, and then go back and fill in the rest. It takes some work upfront — I have to know the characters and their inherent and situational points of conflict first — but it’s a real joy to have the words pour out so easily, especially when they’re pouring out in rhyme!
Ariel: Do you have any advice for writers about preparing for a debut publication?
Jessica: If you sit down to write your second book and it seems impossible, remember that you’re now comparing your rough drafts not just to your own level of pre-submission polish, but to a published work that several professionals helped you make as good as possible. If, like me, you also illustrated your book, you may have even more distance from the act of putting those first words down on paper. Especially if — again, like me — you didn’t or couldn’t make time to write during the illustration process.
The best cure I know of is to go back and read the earliest draft of your debut you can find. My editor recently sent me a very early draft of OLD TRACKS, NEW TRICKS she’d stumbled upon to show me how far it came over the course of writing and rewriting it, and that really helped me put things in perspective and start getting words down on the page again. Even if you think you know what the rough draft was like, you’re quite possibly remembering the second or third draft, not the very early writing you did on the project.
Ariel: What’s next for you? Are you currently working on a new project?
Jessica: I’m working on another book illustrated in the same style as OLD TRACKS, NEW TRICKS, but about something other than wooden trains this time. I’m in the exciting part where the title and the overall story are in place. The rhymes and rhythms are flowing and the visuals are popping into my imagination. With the previous book as a roadmap, it’s fun and reassuring to have the same landmarks in the development process repeating themselves. I know that isn’t likely to happen with every book, but for now it’s nice to have a sense that things are on course.
Jessica Petersen started inventing new tricks for old tracks when her son was a train-obsessed toddler. Their adventures inspire her blog, Play Trains!, where she writes about playing, learning, and reading with kids who love trains. She wrote, photographed, and illustrated OLD TRACKS, NEW TRICKS in her home in Seattle, Washington, where she lives with her husband, her son, and lots of happy wooden train tracks. You can visit Jessica online, on Twitter at @j_e_petersen, and on Instagram at @playtrains. And you can meet the little train tracks at oldtracksnewtricks.com, or on Instagram at @oldtracksnewtricks.
Ariel Bernstein is the author of I HAVE A BALLOON, illustrated by Scott Magoon (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon and Schuster, Sept. 26, 2017) and the chapter book series WARREN & DRAGON, illustrated by Mike Malbrough (Viking Children’s, Summer 2018). You can find Ariel online at http://www.arielbernsteinbooks.com, and on Twitter @ArielBBooks.