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5 Questions With… Kate Sullivan (ON LINDEN SQUARE)

by Kate Sullivan
October 18, 2013

Kate Sullivan likes to play around with words, music, and pictures. She is a storyteller who uses a multimedia approach to touch audiences. A linguist by training (B.A. in French and Latin), she is also an award-winning composer and performer. Kate has also been painting for many years, everything from portraits and landscapes to cartoons. Her writings include a travel memoir, a screenplay, short stories, and poetry. Kate lives with her husband in Newburyport, Massachusetts, a little city on the ocean, where they enjoy a country mouse–city mouse life. ON LINDEN SQUARE is her first picture book for children.

5 Questions With... Kate Sullivan (ON LINDEN SQUARE)ON LINDEN SQUARE began as a manuscript in a course at the Rhode Island School of Design. Can you tell us about its path from draft to published picture book? 

The real-life story of the blizzard on Linden Square rattled around in my head for almost 20 years. It wasn’t until I enrolled in the ‘How to Create a Picture Book Dummy’ course at Rhode Island School of Design that I made the leap of putting it to paper.

The course was a revelation about so many things, first and foremost about writing a story in a compelling yet concise way, with intriguing characters, plenty of detail and vivid description that crackles with life. I learned about paring down a story, about pacing, where to place text, how illustrations can sometimes enhance the written word and sometimes eliminate the need for them!

First drafts are often long-winded. Mine was! I wanted to get in every detail of that magical day on Linden Square. Slowly, slowly, with the helpful feedback of colleagues, I was able to merge details, eliminate repetition and leave what became the essence of the finished story—the way in which the snow transformed the neighborhood and turned strangers into friends.
In ON LINDEN SQUARE, Stella Mae Culpepper, unites her adult neighbors in a task. How does it benefit children to read about people their age in leadership roles? 

Children love stories where they are in charge, where they are making decisions on their own, without the grownups hovering over them, telling them how it should go. When given the space, children can experiment, learn about themselves and grow in the process. I have four grown children and I know how scary it is to give a child a bit of freedom (varying bits for varying kids!) to figure things out on their own.

The first draft of ON LINDEN SQUARE featured Stella Mae’s mother as the great facilitator—based on, who else—me! My classmates wondered out loud if it might not be better to have the child be the one who thinks up the idea of a snow sculpture. And of course, they were right!

I began to think of all the stories I loved as a child. (They DO stay with you, don’t they!) They often feature hapless grownups who can’t figure out what to do until a child innocently offers a solution to the problem at hand.

In MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL, the classic tale by Virginia Lee Burton, the townsfolk are totally flummoxed until a little boy steps forward to suggest that Mike Mulligan stay with his beloved Mary Anne in the hole they dug and become the heating source for the new town hall. In THE DUTCHESS BAKES A CAKE by Virginia Kahl, it is the youngest child Gunhilde who comes up with a happy solution to the fact that her mother is stranded at the top of a cake that she baked with entirely too much yeast! And of course, Dr. Seuss was famous for imbuing his smallest characters with the most wisdom!

I had these strong little wise children in mind when I put Stella Mae in charge.
The antagonist in your story doesn’t seem to be a single person, but the “mind my own business” attitude of Stella Mae’s neighbors. What made you choose to take on this mindset in your book? 

The world is a busy place full of people going about their busy lives. We’ve lost a bit of that old-fashioned sense of community, of listening, of noticing, of helping one another.
A child (or a puppy!) can break through that ‘busy-barrier’ like a warm knife through butter! A child will say what he thinks, not what he’s supposed to think. The walls come tumbling down and connections are made.

And of course, there’s nothing like a snowstorm to force everyone out of their normal routines—to stop and experience the simple pleasures.

ON LINDEN SQUARE is a book about the quiet bonds  in a neighborhood. We need to nurture the connections we have with our neighbors—everything from a friendly hello to helping out in times of trouble. Our cyber world is threatening these face-to-face connections. Technology is not going away but I do feel very strongly that we need to pay close attention to our physical surroundings and offer our time and our help to enrich our own lives and the lives of our neighbors.

When I spend time talking with children about the characters in ON LINDEN SQUARE, I encourage them to think about their own neighbors. Who are they? What do they look like? Are they old? Young? What kinds of things do they do? This becomes a great creative writing exercise for the classroom, and gives students an opportunity to illustrate their own descriptions.

The ON LINDEN SQUARE Facebook page will feature a “Who’s Your Neighbor?” section where teachers can contribute students’ drawings and descriptions. How wonderful for kids to get a glimpse of other kids’ lives around the country and the world!  

With Stella in the lead, the townspeople agree on “Ferdinand Ganesh, the Jazzy Dancing Baba Feng Shui Elephant-Mouse” as the very unique name for the snowman they’ve made. What made you interested in packing such diverse cultural elements into one name?  

As I wrote ON LINDEN SQUARE, I realized how important it would be to create a neighborhood full of diverse and quirky people, to reflect the reality of the world around us. They include Fernando, who likes to sing Spanish love songs with his karaoke machine, the Chatterjees, the Indian couple who want to move to Mexico, Mr. Rubenstein, a wobbly old man who likes to read and do magic tricks, the fancily dressed couple who take tango lessons, Mouse Lady who wanders through the streets singing to herself, and the man in the pork pie hat who rides his bike around the neighborhood, collecting bottles and cans for the nickel deposits. 

Each person has a different vision of what the world is like and so it makes perfect sense that when they all get together to build a giant snow sculpture, they would a invent a creature according to their own imaginations. It is only when The Chatterjees happen by and ask, “What is it?” that they realize they don’t really know. And of course, it’s Stella Mae who comes up with the name that pleases them all!  

 Musical references abound in ON LINDEN SQUARE. How else does your background as a musician influence your writing? 

 Music is in my bones. I grew up in a family of singers in a time when every house had a piano and most kids took piano lessons. Music was a constant in the house.

We were also a family of words. My father played with words. Never satisfied with an existing word, he would invent and twist them into clever new shapes and meanings. My mother loved children’s poetry and we all could recite many of our favorites. We were weaned on music and words, on the likes of Ogden Nash, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Rogers and Hammerstein.

5 Questions With Kate Sullivan (ON LINDEN SQUARE)This powerful combination of music and words has been my steady companion throughout my life as both a musician and a writer.

It’s inescapable. Everything has a rhythm and a timbre and a song. I notice the ding of the toaster and the buzz of the razor, the clank of a hammer, the sing-song of the voice of the train conductor.

When I write words, I’m always looking for that rhythmic, effortless flow—trying to avoid words or combination of words that will thump and bump the listener off the imagination wagon!

Children are naturals at this. They feel the cadences, are transported by song. And I don’t mean listening, I mean singing! You don’t feel the spirit until you sing out loud! Singing is transformative, a transcendent combination of using our bodies to combine music and words. That’s why Fernando sings “Ay ay ay ay, Canta y no llores” along with his karaoke machine and why the magical day on Linden Square ends with a tango.

Some families make music a part of their lives, others may not have the time or interest. I’m hoping that some of the terms used in the book and explored further in the glossary can serve as an introduction to the world of music whether at home or in the classroom.

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