10 Questions for Michael Scotto

I don’t usually read early chapter books, but I thought the premise for Michael Scotto’s book Latasha and the Little Red Tornado sounded intriguing, and ended up being a great little story about a girl and her dog. Michael was more than willing to sit down (metaphorically), and answer a few questions about writing, reading, and Latasha. You can find out more at his website.

The book is on shelves today.

MF: This is your first novel! Congrats! What are the differences, for you, between writing picture books and novels?
MS: Picture books are a much more collaborative form. In a novel, the writer has complete control. The words do all of the heavy lifting — if the author doesn’t describe it, it doesn’t exist for the reader. In a picture book, the illustrator handles a lot of that “world building.” That can be scary for an author. In picture books, you have to let go of the text and trust that the illustrator will understand your vision — or even better, bring a new dimension that enriches and deepens what you’ve written.

MF: I’ve always wanted to ask this: which is “easier” to write picture books or novels?
MS: Each presents its own particular challenges. You have to be especially economical with words in a picture book, which for me is tough. That said, the writing of a novel requires a much greater time commitment, and also demands more complex storytelling. In my experience, novels have been been a more difficult undertaking. Of course, my illustrator would disagree!

MF: Why did you decide, after writing so many picture books, to write a novel?
MS: When I started Latasha, I’d been writing picture books for several years — a series aimed at the educational market. I love the series, but I’d been writing the same characters for so long that I was just itching to challenge myself in a new way. I thought it would be best to make a complete break from the kind of writing I had been doing.

MF: What inspired you to write about Latasha and her dog?

MS: When I sat down to write Latasha, I knew two things: I wanted to write about my hometown, Pittsburgh, and I wanted to write a story that involved a girl raising a dog. My wife and I had adopted a puppy half a year before I started the novel, and so I was eager to write about that experience. While I invented most of Ella’s misadventures, I drew her look and personality from my pup, Lucy…the original “little red tornado.”

As for Latasha herself — she came from an exercise that I did when I first began to write the book. I sat down at my favorite coffeeshop with a pen and pad, and began to free write, just to see what would come out. What came out, almost fully formed, was Latasha’s voice. The voice came to me so quickly that I knew I had no choice in the matter; she was going to be my protagonist. In fact, a lot of the opening of the book was drafted that day.

MF: Was it difficult to get into the character of an 8-year-old African American girl? What kind of research did you do?

MS: When writing Latasha, the trickiest terrain to navigate wasn’t the “girl” part or the “African-American” part, but the “8-year-old” part. It was difficult because Latasha is a very bright girl, with a manner of expression that makes her seem older than her years. At the same time, emotionally she’s still very young. Part of my research was just simple observation; studying kids, their mannerisms, how they interact with the world, how they speak. I also dug through a lot of personal writing I did when I was that age. It helped to remind me of how the world appeared to me at that age.

MF: You packed a lot into an early chapter book — working single mothers, making friends, cheating, loss — and yet it didn’t seem overwhelming for an 8-year-old reader. How did you achieve that balance?

MS: Thanks for the kind words! I really just tried to deal with each of these elements as honestly and matter-of-factly as I could, and then trust that the reader would follow me. It helps that Latasha is a very plucky, optimistic character. I think her can-do attitude makes the subject matter easier to digest.

MF: Do you have a favorite character or moment in the story?
MS: I absolutely loved writing Mrs. Okocho. The scene where she drives Latasha around to hang signs near the end of the book is one of my favorites.

MF: I liked Mrs. Okocho, too: she had such spunk and heart. Who, or what, inspires you to write?
MS: Deadlines inspire me! Actually, I write because I’m fascinated by people. I love seeing how people interact, how they behave, how they speak. I have a massive file on my computer that consists solely of interesting turns of phrase that I’ve heard people use. I especially like to explore lives and perspectives that differ from my own. It makes me a better, more empathetic human being to do so — and I think one of the most important tools a writer can have is empathy.

MF: What was the last book you’ve read and why did you love it?
MS: I just finished Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata, which won the Newbery Medal in 2005. A librarian friend of mine recommended it to me. It tells the story of a young Japanese girl growing up in Georgia. The book was gorgeously written, it featured a voice I’d never read before but found instantly relatable, it was emotional but never maudlin — I could go on and on. Suffice it to say, I adored it. The only trouble now is that now I’ve got to find an equally wonderful book to suggest to my friend! (I may lend her my copy of Wonderstruck.)

MF: Both are excellent books! And you can’t go wrong with Brian Selznick. If you don’t mind telling us, what can we expect from you next?

MS: I’ve got a lot on the horizon. The first big thing has to do with my picture book series. At the end of January, five titles from my “Tales of Midlandia” series will be released to the general public. These are humorous stories with a character-building or social element to them. They could be compared to the Berenstain Bears books in that way — only with much more detailed, rich illustration work. At the same time, my publisher is developing storybook apps for the iPad from these books, which I have been tapped to narrate! It’s a real thrill for me.

I also have a second novel in the pipeline, due out around Memorial Day 2012. It’s called Postcards From Pismo, and it tells the story of boy in California who strikes up a penpal friendship through letters with a soldier in Afghanistan. I’ve gotten to see some of the preliminary art and design work for it — it’s going to look awesome.

Lastly, I’m in the middle of drafting a sequel to Latasha and the Little Red Tornado. I don’t want to give away any details yet, but it follows Latasha through fourth grade and a whole bunch of new challenges. Thanks so much for your questions!

MF: All of which sound fascinating! Thank you so much for your time.
MS: Thanks again!

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