Monday, December 6, 2021

Author Interview: Zeena Pliska

A Latinx woman, Zeena, with black curly hair, and a maroon shirt, smiles at the camera
Today, I'm excited to welcome Author Zeena Pliska to my blog! Her debut, Hello, Little One! (Page Street Kids, 2020), illustrated by Fiona Halliday, came out in 2020. It is beautiful and touching, and if you haven't read it . . . well, then I'm extra excited to introduce you to Zeena and this lovely book. 

I am in green!

Hi Zeena, welcome to my blog!

Thanks so much for having me, Janet. It’s truly an honor!

The honor is all mine. Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to write children's books?

 I spend my days immersed in the joy of 5-year-olds. I’m a kindergarten teacher by day and a children’s book author by night in Los Angeles, California. As a progressive public-school educator, I believe that the most important aspect of teaching is listening to children. Often, children’s stories come through me rather than from me. A lifetime storyteller, I have facilitated stories as a theater director, visual artist, photographer and journalist. I think “in stories,” in narratives, and am enchanted by all the stories that surround me.

I wrote my first picture book in 1995 but was too involved in theater directing to really pursue another direction at the time. Years passed. I developed as an exhibiting visual artist and lived with other artists in a loft.  

When I had my daughter, painting and photography were replaced by parenting. It was no longer feasible to create stories in mediums that literally took up space and required a studio/loft. Those delightful and play-filled years of early parenting consumed my time and became my “artistic” pursuit. When my child entered her teenage years, my storytelling reemerged in the form of picture book manuscripts (they didn’t take up physical space and could be stored on a computer.)

I’ve now entered that world as a children’s book author and feel like I’ve found my sweet spot. Although, theater directing, filmmaking, painting, and photographing still call out, seeking my attention…

I love that you've been involved in so many different creative pursuits. And I agree, it can be hard to settle on just one, but I completely agree that writing picture books is a sweet place to be! Can you please tell us about your book?

Book cover with a monarch butterfly talking to a catterpillar and the title Hello, Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story
Hello, Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story is a fictional picture book about a young monarch caterpillar who longs for friendship. Having hatched among leaves of a Milkweed plant, it crawls from green leaf to green leaf looking for a friend. And then, it sees Orange, an adult monarch butterfly as it flits, flutters, and flies. When Orange lands on a flower near Little One, the two strike up a friendship. Together they move through the lifecycle as their friendship grows, each sharing their unique point of view with the other.

It’s a story of longing. Youth wanting to catch up with age, and age savoring its memories of youth. The two at different stages of their lives, meeting in that wondrous two-week window when both are able to connect, love, appreciate, and admire each other.


The story came to life in my kindergarten world of youthful energy. Originally titled Orange, it is a story of friendship, love, loss, grief, and renewal. 

So fun to learn it had a different title! And I have to say, your book really tackles all those topics in such a sweet and tender way. What inspired you to write it?

When I close my eyes, I am right back in that moment when the story of Hello, Little One jumped into my heart.

The school where I teach is located in the Mar Vista/Venice Beach area.  We are a waystation for monarchs so it’s not unusual to see these beautiful creatures grace our playground.  In fact, they are our official mascot. They flit, flutter, and swoop as children's laughter and sounds of play can be heard in the background.


One day at recess time, I was walking on my way to the main office. In between the classrooms, a majestic monarch butterfly fluttered about, landing on the flowers in the garden boxes.   I was mesmerized by the moment. I wondered, “What must that  butterfly see and experience?” 

 

As I wondered, I was struck by the sad, bittersweet thought that the life cycle of this monarch was almost done. It had only about two weeks to live. I was struck by both the strength of this creature and the fragility of life. In that moment, the character of Orange was born.


I am a great lover of irony.  The story developed around the  friendship between a young caterpillar at the beginning of its life cycle and an elder butterfly at the end of its life cycle. The story was  anchored in the two points of view from the different stages of the life cycle and the  perspectives each can offer the other.  A caterpillar who sees everything in life for the first time  and can’t wait to grow up and fly with its friend and a butterfly who fondly remembers its youth while sharing the beauty and wonder that comes with experience and age. It was important that the story not just focus on the perspective of the adult,  but  respect the voice of the child, giving equal value to both viewpoints.  


You can definitely feel that as you read. The wonder of Little One, and the wisdom of Orange. But I'm sure that beautiful balance you captured didn't happen without work. Would you mind sharing a little about your revision process?


I wrote the story 7 years prior to its publication.  I have been a teacher in Los Angeles for many years. The scientific principles embedded in the story were already a part of my working knowledge as I have taught them to kindergarteners for a long time. I developed as an educator during the years of whole language, core literature, and thematic teaching when picture books were at the center of learning science and social studies concepts. It was a different time, before scripted curriculum. 


It is still how I teach, using picture books to draw out student inquiry and student-led projects. Teaching informs my writing. The scientific concepts emerged in the story authentically and organically.  While I researched specific facts and details for the back matter, I did not do any research for the initial story. Because the  science concepts were just there, it was the emotional story that really drove my process.


One of the first times I shared my story with a large, public critique group of children’s book writers, I read the manuscript not knowing what to expect. I didn’t understand rhythm, word choice, lyrical language etc. It was both exhilarating and terrifying to reach the end and experience the response. A woman sobbed. She had connected with the grief in the story. It had triggered her own loss and touched her. The room was moved. The story had taken listeners to a place where they had felt big emotions.  I thought I had done my job as a writer. But the manuscript had miles to go and so did I, in my development of craft.


The word count was way too long and suddenly, the manuscript was a play. I was delighted to work with my young students to build the story and present it at a dedication ceremony to unveil a section of our campus, known as The Wildlands. The characters became more fully developed as I co-created with 5-year-olds. The play was performed by students who culminated from our school in 2020, the year the book was released. Bittersweet. I can still hear their youthful and poignant delivery of the lines as they flit, fluttered, and flew around the outdoor native garden. It was a beginning.


My story of a little caterpillar and Orange had come to life but it was still not ready for submission.  The manuscript stretched beyond what was reasonable for a picture book, well over 1200 words! Like many novice picture book writers, I did not yet understand the concept of word count and the process of precise word choice. It went through many revisions. Then, it went through many rejections. Rejections inform revisions. Revisions made me a stronger writer. They helped me develop my craft and the story that it finally became.

Word count and precise word choice can sound so simple, but it is definitely an art! And speaking of art . . . the art is gorgeous! The detail and intricacies are breathtaking. Fiona Halliday really brought everything to life. I’d love to hear about your process with the illustration. Did you get to help in choosing the illustrator? Did you include art notes? And what was your first reaction to seeing these gorgeous illustrations? Do you have a favorite image?

I was very lucky as a debut author. Page Street Kids asked for my input regarding the illustrator.  They sent some suggestions to me. Fiona’s work was stunning and unique. The editor and I were in agreement that Fiona was a great choice. The editor also knew she could depict the emotional connection between the two characters which was an essential piece of the storytelling.

 I had put very few illustration notes because I don’t see stories when I am writing them, I hear them.  This is so strange because I am also a visual artist.  I think I hear them because of the countless picture books I read aloud to my students as a teacher every day.


Fiona Halliday is  a Page Street Kids author/illustrator.  Her picture book,  Numenia and the Hurricane: A True Migration Story came out in January 2020. And, The Legend of the Storm Goose comes out in February of 2022.  Fiona lives in Austria.  We did not meet or communicate directly during the process.  There was a strict firewall for good reason.  We did finally meet 4 months after the release of the book at a virtual event. The event was  hosted by Second Star to the Right Books in Denver, Colorado and designed to reveal our first meeting with each other and to answer questions as the author and illustrator of Hello, Little One


It’s so strange to co-create a story and never meet during the process of creation but I think this is pretty standard in the industry. There were some moments during the process when the sketches looked completely different than the final art. The style and depiction didn’t seem to tell the same story I was trying to tell. I thought they were the direction that the illustrations were going in. It wasn’t until I met Fiona at the virtual event that she communicated her process and I understood that they had been very rough, first sketches when she was exploring the possibilities.


I love promoting this book so much because the illustrations are absolutely stunning. When I saw the illustrations for the first time, I think my heart skipped a beat.  They tell the story in a way that could never have been told with words alone.  That’s the magic of a picture book told through the words of the author and the pictures of the illustrator. My favorite image is the image of the two nestled up against each other as their separation becomes inevitable.


illustration of a monarch caterpillar and a monarch butterfly snuggling with a flowery background

Such a gorgeous image. The illustration process is so fascinating. It really is amazing to watch a story come to life from a second point of view. So now that Hello, Little One is out in the world, what is your favorite part of being an author? And what is next for you?

I am a storyteller by nature, and I believe in the power of story. Irony is also an element that weaves its way through my work. Playfully recognizing irony is very much part of how I experience the world. Although I am never trying to “teach” a lesson in my writing, it is always my hope that my work will create discourse.

 

I have several picture book manuscripts on submission through my agent Abigail Samoun of Red FoxLiterary. Themes that emerge for me presently in my picture books are stories of resistance and resilience. I like to challenge the status quo, giving children the opportunity to rethink possibilities not yet imagined as they navigate their world.


I have just written a graphic novel and am working on a contemporary YA novel. I love to tell stories in different formats. Each story that finds me and demands to be told has its own form that best suits it. So many stories, so little time.


My next picture book, Egyptian Lullaby, published by Roaring Brook Press comes out in 2023.


Congratulations! I can't wait to read it. And I love that you are writing in so many forms. I agree that every story demands its own form, and it can be fun to explore that!


Okay, are you ready? Speed round!

Butterfly vs. Caterpillar? 

Butterfly! I don’t mind crawling along and looking at life in detail through newborn eyes … but oh how I love to fly and see the world in all its vastness!

Ocean vs. Mountains? 

Ocean. I live 7 minutes from the ocean and the final version of Hello, Little One that made it submission-ready was written while looking out at the ocean in Playa Del Rey, CA.

Halloween vs. New Year’s Day? 

Halloween! Who doesn’t love transforming into any character they want for a whole night? The possibilities are endless…

Winnie-the-pooh character? 

Tigger. I love his youthful energy.

Ice cream vs. Cake? 

Ice cream, though it’s hard to imagine eating them separately. I guess that’s the basis for my answer. I can eat ice cream without cake but I can’t eat cake without ice cream.

Love it! So fun to learn more about you.  

Okay, I have one last question. I have a fascination for personalized license plates. Obviously, your characters couldn’t have them, but if we imagine a cute little caterpillar car, what do you think Little One might choose for their personalized license plate? You have 8 characters. Go!

Do You!

Love it! And for those of you who don't get it, you'll have to read the book! 

~~~

Zeena M. Pliska spends her days immersed in the joy of 5-year-olds. She is a kindergarten teacher by day and a children’s book author by night in Los Angeles, California. A progressive public school educator, she believes that the most important aspect of teaching is listening to children. A social justice activist and organizer for over 30 years, she brings race, class, and gender analysis to everything she does. A lifetime storyteller, she has facilitated stories as a theater director, visual artist, photographer and journalist. Her debut picture book, HELLO, LITTLE ONE: A MONARCH BUTTERFLY STORY from Page Street Kids came out May 12, 2020. Her second picture book EGYPTIAN LULLABY from Roaring Brook Press is due out in 2023.

You can learn more about Zeena and her books on her website, and she's also on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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