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Children's author/illustrators team up on prize-winning books for early readers

Children's author/illustrators team up on prize-winning books for early readers

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Mike Wohnoutka and David LaRochelle, who illustrated and wrote "See the Cat."

Mike Wohnoutka and David LaRochelle, who illustrated and wrote "See the Cat." (Star-Tribune/TNS)

On the afternoon of Jan. 24, two children's authors were lured to a Zoom meeting under false pretenses.

David LaRochelle of White Bear Lake and Mike Wohnoutka of Minneapolis had been invited to take part in a panel discussion for the American Library Association. But when they clicked on the Zoom link, there was no panel — instead, they saw seven people beaming at them.

"We have good news," one of them said.

LaRochelle and Wohnoutka's latest collaboration — a book called "See the Cat: Three Stories About a Dog" — had just won the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for the best book for beginning readers.

"We both just started blubbering," Wohnoutka said.

Between them, LaRochelle and Wohnoutka have written or illustrated (or both) more than 50 books for children. They began collaborating in 2013, and their first book together, "Moo!" won a Minnesota Book Award. "See the Cat" is their third book together, with four more on the way.

Via Zoom, LaRochelle and Wohnoutka talked about why they teamed up, how writing for children is a little like writing poetry, and how to know when your writing group hates your work. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: How did you each get your start?

Mike: When I was a kid, I loved to draw. When I got into high school I entered this statewide competition, and a drawing of my dad earned me a scholarship to the Savannah, Georgia, College of Art and Design.

During the first week of college they brought in these different illustrators and the first one they brought in was David Shannon, who illustrates children's books, and I thought, "You can do that?" I didn't know you could do that for a living.

David: I knew what I wanted to do when I got out of college — I wanted to work for Hallmark cards. So after graduation, I went down for an interview and they told me no, I didn't draw well enough.

So I taught fourth grade in Coon Rapids for four years. I wrote a story I would read to my fourth-graders, and a teacher I worked with named Kathy Haubrich said I should send it out. I said "Maybe later, when I write something really good." She took the story and called up an editor at [Minneapolis-based] Lerner Publications and read it to him over the phone, and the editor said, "Tell him to send it to me."

Kathy Haubrich. Without her, I would still be saying "Someday I'll write something really good."

Q: What goes into writing and illustrating a book for beginning readers? I think people look at a few words on the page and think it's easy.

David: It's not easy, and sometimes it's embarrassing when people ask you "How long did it take you write that book that was just one word ["Moo!"]" and you say, two, three years.

It might be easy to write a story, but to write an engaging story is harder. People who are much smarter than I am have compared writing picture books to writing poetry — every word has to count.

Really good training for me was a hobby I had for many years — I was a contest-enterer. Jingle contests. When you have a limit of 30 words, that means you cannot use 31 words. Invariably when I got rid of those extra words it was stronger.

Mike: With so many arts, writing or music or anything, you want to make it look like it took no effort at all. I have hundreds and hundred of sketches of Max [the dog in "See the Cat"]. I drew him over a hundred times, and if the arm wasn't perfect, I'd draw it again. I redrew it and redrew it and redrew it until finally it looked like it took no effort.

Q: So speaking of the one-word book, "Moo!," how did you come to collaborate on it?

David: I had plotted it out with images — typically, I will bring a manuscript to our writing group, but for some of the books it's a little dummy. I really wanted to illustrate that book, but at that time Mike was having an art show and he sent out postcards to everyone, and the picture on the postcard was a picture of a cow. And when I saw that I thought that was who I wanted to illustrate that book.

So I cautiously approached Mike and said, "Would you have any interest in illustrating this?" And Mike said …

Mike: … Moo! So I joined the writers group about 10 years ago and that's when David brought in the moo story. I remember going home and telling my wife, I really want to illustrate this story. But David is a very talented illustrator and I didn't want to take it away from him.

But that is the bottom line for David and me. When we work on a book together, we let our egos go. We want to create the best book possible. The more we work together, the more collaborative the projects have become.

Q: How is the writing group useful?

David: This particular writing group has been going on for many years. [Minnesota children's writers] Jane Resh Thomas and Phyllis Root used to be members, John Coy is a member. To have that immediate feedback for my stories — you send something out to an editor, you might not hear back for six months. The group lets me know immediately what they think.

Mike: I wouldn't be a writer without this writers group. I mentioned to John Coy way back that I was thinking about writing, and about a week later he called me and said, "We want to invite you to be part of it," and I sure didn't think I was ready. I really hemmed and hawed about it, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Q: Would members of your writing group tell you honestly if they hated something you showed them?

David: They never use the word hate, but you can tell when they don't like something.

Mike: Oh, yeah. They're very silent. It can be very awkward.

Q: So what have been the highs and lows of writing books?

David: What people don't realize is the stack of 200 rejection letters. They don't see all the stories that I write that I never even bring to the writing group because they're not good enough. Or things that get that stony silence. It's been 32 years since my first book and there have been a lot of low spots. [With the Geisel award], I'm just savoring the moment.

Mike: Every once in a while I feel guilty, and I think, "Do I deserve this?" And then I think, "This is my 30th book. I've been at this for a long time."

David: Mike and I, when we teamed up for "Moo!," that was one of the best things that happened to me in my career, not just because Mike is such a good illustrator but because there's so much joy in creating a book with a good friend.

Mike: It's a very isolating career. You're in your studio alone. And to win this award with such a good friend is just the icing on the cake.

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