interview by Kristi Wright
The very first picture book class I took was with Dashka Slater. She was working on a book about a snail at the time, and years later, Escargot was released into the world! Dashka’s talents range from journalism to poetry, from YA nonfiction to picture books. In this excellent Q&A, you’ll discover the playfulness and commitment with which Dashka approaches her work. And you’ll be as charmed by her as children are by Escargot. –Anne-Marie
KidLit Craft: Your beloved Escargot series is now 4 books strong. How was he born? What was your inspiration?
Dashka Slater: Escargot was born in an egg, like all snails. Then he grew into a hand puppet, which is how we met. We first met in 2006 when he came to my rescue in a moment of crisis. My first picture book had just been published and a local school was sending forty kindergarteners to hear me read at one of my favorite independent bookstores. There was only one problem. I calculated that if I read my book very slowly and invited a lot of audience participation, the whole performance would take about six minutes. How on earth was I going to amuse a room full of children for another 24 minutes?
In a panic, I rummaged through my six-year-old son’s toy box, looking for props, funny hats, something, anything I could use to liven things up. Near the bottom of the toy box, I discovered a snail puppet. I put him on my hand.
Bonjour, he said. I am Escargot.
Escargot spoke in French accent. At length. About himself. And why not? He’s stunningly handsome. Charming. Debonair. And he makes a shimmery trail of definitely–not-slime wherever he goes. When we got to the bookstore the next day, he immediately took over the whole event. He danced, sang, told stories, interviewed audience members and air-kissed everyone – even the teachers. Finally, I had to stuff him into my bag just to get him to be quiet so that I could read my book.
After that, Escargot went with me everywhere — schools, libraries, and of course, bookstores. One day, at a bookstore event in San Francisco, Escargot met a children’s book author he greatly admires but whose name I won’t reveal. (It was Daniel Handler.) This unnamed author told me in no uncertain terms that Escargot needed a book of his own. Escargot heartily agreed. It was two against one. I really had no choice but to comply.
KidLit Craft: Did you always intend on breaking the 4th wall with Escargot or did that come later?
Dashka Slater: The trickiest aspect of turning Escargot-the-puppet into Escargot-the-book was figuring out how to reproduce the audience interaction that had always been central to Escargot’s persona. Daniel had advised me to “Just do what you do in person, but do it in a book,” or words to that effect, but I was many drafts in before I realized that required me to break the 4th wall.
KidLit Craft: Were there books you used as mentor texts or models for Escargot? What did you gain from studying them?
Dashka Slater: I didn’t really turn to mentor texts until I embarked on the sequels, at which point I needed to understand how to make each book in a series different but related. For that I looked at Deborah Underwood’s Cat series (Here Comes the Easter Cat, Here Comes the Tooth Fairy Cat, etc.) as well as Mo Willem’s Pigeon and Elephant and Piggy books, and many others. What I learned was that you need a certain amount of pattern repetition and character consistency, but some of the fun for the reader comes from seeing how a familiar character is going to behave in a different situation. In my introductory picture book class I talked about “repetition with variation” as being a standard structure for a picture book. It turns out to be an important structure for a picture book series as well!
KidLit Craft: Typically, picture book authors don’t have interaction with their illustrators, except through art notes. I understand you went through a different process. How did that work?
Dashka Slater: Illustrator Sydney Hanson and I didn’t have much interaction at the very beginning, aside from the usual process of providing notes after the initial sketches were complete. But now that we’re four books into the series, it’s much more collaborative. She’s so inventive and she knows Escargot so well! I love hearing her ideas for things that would be fun to draw or environments she can picture Escargot interacting with. If there’s something she says she wants to draw, I try to work it into the text.
KidLit Craft: You write across many age ranges and genres. How do you settle on a next project? Do you juggle multiple manuscripts at one time?
Dashka Slater: Some of the decisions are made for me, by what I have under contract, what editors are interested in, etc. But I am usually working on multiple projects at once. Currently I have a half dozen picture books in various stages of completion, an early draft of a middle grade novel, and I’m also revising a book of short stories for adults, and churning out the essays I write for my two Substack newsletters, one on the writing life and one on justice and accountability. I find it helpful to work in multiple genres because if I’m stuck on one thing, or just not feeling it, I can work on something else. And some of what I write for adults and young adults is so dark, it’s lovely to be able to have a silly or poetic picture book as a palate cleanser.
KidLit Craft: Along those lines, in August, your second non-fiction YA book, Accountable, is coming out. Can you tell us a bit about how that project got started and what your process was for bringing it to publication?
Dashka Slater: Accountable tells the true story of the origins and impacts of a racist Instagram account at a public high school from multiple perspectives, including the people targeted by the account, the person who created the account, and the people who followed the account. It’s the product of five years of original reporting and was just excerpted in the New York Times Magazine. I heard about the account while signing advance copies of my nonfiction narrative The 57 Bus and almost immediately approached the people involved to see if they wanted to work with me. It took some time, but eventually most of them did.
KidLit Craft: Do you consider yourself a pantser, a plotter, or something in between? Can you tell us a little about your writing process?
Dashka Slater: I am very much a plotter! The outline for Accountable was over 100 pages long and was incredibly detailed. Outlining it took months, in part because there was so much material – hundreds of hours of interviews and thousands of pages of legal documents. But once it was outlined, I wrote it fairly quickly. With fiction I tend to outline in a more general way, then write, then re-outline. I don’t always outline picture books, but sometimes I find it helps to at least think through the major plot points or beats.
KidLit Craft: How has the children’s book community been a part of your career?
Dashka Slater: I started out writing for adults and so when I published my first children’s book, after 15 years of writing for adults, I couldn’t believe what a warm welcome I got. People were immediately supportive and eager to share information. The collegiality of kidlit authors is one of the things that I love the most about this field. I’m fortunate to be a member of several different critique groups and writing circles, and to teach at Hamline [University’s Masters of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults program] with an absolutely incredible faculty. I learn so much from other writers, whether it’s from their feedback, their career advice, their wisdom about craft, their perspective on the work we do, or simply the pleasure of shop talking with others who share the same obsessions and believe in the value of writing for young people.
KidLit Craft: In addition to Accountable, what else should Dashka Slater fans be watching for in the future?
Dashka Slater: The fourth Escargot book comes out in February 2024, and there are more in the works. And there will be a sequel to my picture book Wild Blue. The new one is called Deep Blue and I’m super excited about it!
Dashka Slater is the New York Times-bestselling author of The 57 Bus, which won the Stonewall Book Award and was a YALSA nonfiction finalist. Her fiction includes The Book of Fatal Errors, the picture book Escargot, which won the Wanda Gag Book Award; Baby Shoes; The Antlered Ship, which was a Junior Library Guild Selection and received four starred reviews; and Dangerously Ever After. She is also an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, The New York Times Magazine, and Mother Jones. She lives in California.
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