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Sunday, May 27, 2012

S.L. LaNeve: Welcome, Sue!

When she was the state coordinator of SCBWI critique groups, my friend and former critique buddy, Sue LaNeve, introduced me to the children's writing community in Florida. Lucky me! A critique group is like family. When the new group she'd helped organize dissolved, we all stayed connected. Even better, Sue brought me along to her own smaller group.

(And may I just insert a word about SCBWI, and especially Florida SCBWI. If you are moving to a new place, considering writing for kids, or want to polish your craft, there's nothing better than the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Go ahead, click on those links! Rumor has it, there are even a few spaces left in the Orlando conference next month!)

Three years ago, Sue took a hiatus to earn her MFA in Writing for Children at Vermont College. Sue claims those two years of intense study were life-changing in how she viewed herself as a writer. But those of us who worked with her pre-MFA always knew she was a serious writer.

Her first middle-grade novel, SPANKY: A Soldier's Son, is now available in Amazon Kindle and  Nook editions

It's a heartfelt, funny, realistic look at the feelings of a middle-school boy whose dad loves him and has great expectations. When his family moves to Florida for his firefighter dad's new job, Spanky hardly has time to figure out where his new school is or what's up with the flora and fauna in this strange new town before his dad's reserve unit is sent to Afghanistan. 

Perfect for kids who have a parent in the military, a middle-schooler lost in the crowd, or anybody looking for a great story, the eBook has garnered praise from organizations involved with military kids and families whose children know exactly how the main character in this story feels. The serious themes of bullying and family dynamics are dealt with in a way that will make children think hard about Spanky and his situation. 

Sue agreed to chat with me from her newest adventure, somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic Ocean!

AUGUSTA: What was your inspiration to write SPANKY: A Soldier's Son?

My heart had been brewing a story about a boy who saw his dad as a super hero and desperately wanted to make him proud. I had been kicking around the idea of Spanky’s dad being a soldier when serendipitously, I met a fellow VCFA student, Trent Reedy, who had recently returned from serving in Afghanistan. Trent was thrilled to be one of my military consultants because there were few books that spoke to the experience of children with a parent deployed. 

Then an author on faculty at VCFA, M.T. Anderson, gave a lecture on the Politics of Dr. Seuss, which fascinated me. I came away from that lecture with the belief that if I had any political interests, as a children’s book writer, I must try to instill that interest in children—not by any bombardment of beliefs, but in a way that would make them ask questions and form opinions. 

The story originally was set soon after 911. But  Richard Peck reviewed a few chapters from an early version and said that Spanky’s story was timeless and that by the time the book became published, kids would have no living memory of the 911 event. 

AUGUSTA: Was any part of the book based on real-life experiences?

We writers are a crazy bunch. We often work out our issues through our writing! Sometimes it is the direct and upfront inspiration for a story. Other times, the realization of why we write a story only becomes clear after we’ve completed a draft.  Spanky’s story had a little of both.

Spanky’s dad’s job as a fireman was my homage to the 911 firefighters. My own dad had served in the Army Air Force in WWII. He never spoke to me about his experiences, but I’d overhear him tell stories to his men friends. One story still stands out about how he became a fatalist watching planes around him explode in midair. Now as an adult, I know he didn’t want me to have to share his difficult memories or make them real in my mind. 

In a twisted way, it likely affected my characterization of Spanky. Spanky refuses to talk about his dad because acknowledging his own fears in his mixed-up mind would diminish Dad, the superhero. It would also make the possibility of something happening to dad become real.

AUGUSTA: Kid readers and fellow writers like to picture you holed up in a delightful writing cottage or perhaps sitting on the beach, notebook in hand. So tell us, where do you write?
Like most writers, I used to write literally everywhere—my office, a park bench, the couch, the car, a coffee shop. I have a small Lenovo x61 PC that I can almost fit into my purse!

AUGUSTA: And of course, now you'll be writing from the deck of your boat! I know you are an amazing editor. Any great tips? Can you tell us how you revised SPANKY?            

The wrong way. I tend to revise my first chapter as if nothing subsequent will work until it is perfect. What I know to be true is that sometimes, you don’t know what your first chapter will be until you reach the end. Sometimes it takes a complete draft to know what a story is really about.

AUGUSTA: I see heads out there nodding in agreement, mine especially.
Were you inspired to become a writer from anything you read as a child? Have you always wanted to write?

The crazy truth is I’ve read hundreds more children’s books as an adult than I did as a child. I do remember loving the rhythm of nursery rhymes. But there was one favorite book that had a cactus as a protag. I’ve lost the title and author but for some reason a memory of the cactus walking into the sunset with his friends at the end of the story is indelibly carved in my brain. I must have read that book a thousand times. Maybe one of your readers will know what it was? I’d love to find out why it touched me so.

AUGUSTA: Okay, readers! A cactus as a main character, anybody?
I've heard that one of the hardest parts about choosing a non-traditional route to publishing is that you must figure out ways to get your book into the hands of readers. Can you share a bit of your journey on this path and also tips to publicize your eBook, SPANKY: A Soldier's Son?

 I had reached the pinnacle of rejection in the traditional market, receiving personal letters and even a few phone calls from agents and editors. I could have been a few query letters away from a deal—or a few hundred. But my life changed and when we reached the decision to cruise now while we were healthy enough to do it, I knew my focus would have to change, at least for a few years.

Spanky needed to be out in the world now. While we are cruising, I will do everything I can via internet. The story would benefit any child, but it is particularly relevant to kids who are navigating life with a deployed parent. Just yesterday, I received a thank you letter from a soldier in Afghanistan. He said his kids needed books like mine.

AUGUSTA: What a great story! Thanks, Sue, for sharing your journey with us. 

 To find out more about Sue's writing, Spanky, and her journey to publication, you can follow her Vermont College MFA group blog here. Or check out her My Climbing Tree website here.

And if you have an interest in voyages, follow Sue at

For additional books about the impact of war on military families, click here for a special Memorial Day list of excellent books for middle grade readers. 
And another blogger has created this list of books about military families, for young readers of all ages.


Shannon Hitchcock said...

Great interview and congratulations to Sue! I'm envious that she's ditched the house to cruise.

Dr. Jan C. Lederman said...


Annemarie O'Brien said...

Great interview of an even greater writer and person. Kids do need your book and not just the kids who have parents overseas.

Annemarie O'Brien said...

A great interview from an even greater writer. Kids from all walks of life need SPANKY, not just those who have parents in the military. SPANKY is timeless.

Jessica Leader said...

Thanks for this, Augusta and Sue! I always feel grateful when a writer shares how her story came together. I'm especially interested in the insight that Sue's dad was saving the kids from distressing was stories--but how that must have felt frustrating as a kid not to hear them. Indeed, it's the kind of insight that can fuel a book!

Rachel Wilson said...

Yes! I love your insights about how the inspiration for a story sometimes lurks and pops up only after the story's written.

Theodora said...

While I knew a lot about Spanky and how the character developed, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the inteview. Congratulations, Sue1
You've made Spanky a likeable and realistic boy-next-door, one any kid, especially those who have a parent in the military, can relate to and understand.
Those of us in your last group always knew Spanky and you were headed for great things!

Augusta Scattergood said...

Thanks for all the comments. Great to hear from Sue's friends also. I will send her a signal to come back again soon!

Leslie Rose said...

I am excited to find a book for kids with someone in the military. Thanks for the rec.