Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Interview with Ann Malaspina

Hi all! Hope you had a wonderful New Year and 2012 is off to a productive and awesome start. My interview today is with the lovely Ann Malaspina who dishes (see how I threw that food pun in there) about her island must read, a delicious recipe, and her new picture book: TOUCH THE SKY: ALICE COACHMAN, OLYMPIC HIGH JUMPER (Albert Whitman & Co.) which just came out this month!

Let's begin!

Ann, so glad you can join us today. It's a new year and I'm in the middle of a new project, as I'm sure are many others. So I wanted to pose a question that could help us writers avoid some pitfalls. Just like too much salt can ruin an exquisite meal, and the perfect dessert tempers earlier mistakes, what ingredients can destroy a book through overuse or salvage a book despite its flaws?

Writing picture books is a test of how few words you can use and still tell a story. These days, picture books are "supposed" to be 500 words or much less. A 50-word story is not unusual. So every word has to count, and when I pare down a text, I start by getting rid of most of the adjectives. I don't often use adverbs, but if I did, I'd get rid of them, too. As far as an ingredient than can salvage a flawed story... I'd say a really spectacular ending, preferably a surprise, with a dash of some really delectable loose ends.

Wow, I can't imagine telling a story in just 50 words, but paring down is a tip I can definitely use. It forces writers to focus on the necessary words as opposed to the filler ones. And, speaking of necessary, what is your favorite kitchen accessory or appliance and a favorite writing accessory or reference?

Both my kitchen and writing accessories are in desperate need of upgrades. Our stove is from the 1950s and the oven walls are actually disintegrating. My computer is about as old in computer-years and crashed twice this year. I do like my rolling pin and my trusty black stapler, both inherited from my grandmother; and I have to mention my favorite online writing reference, I started using the site when I was writing analogies for an educational testing company. I still turn to it when I’m stuck on finding the right word.

The computer crashing story gave me the chills. What a nightmare! Let's take a small break from writing questions while I recover. Can you share your three must-have foods/seasonings in your kitchen?

Lately, I’ve been cooking a lot with couscous. To me, it's a miracle food because it takes five minutes, and never burns or sticks to the pan. Also, I found a really good whole wheat couscous at Trader Joe's. My favorite supper right now is couscous with chunks of chicken, golden raisins, diced sweet potato, and cinnamon. I have a pot sitting in my refrigerator right now. Sweet potatoes and cinnamon are also favorites of mine in the winter, especially.

What a wonderful winter comfort food! I'm going to have to get the recipe from you. Let's continue with soothing food. Can you please share your favorite literary feast or treat. What makes this food and/or writing so memorable?

The hot cocoa that Charles Wallace heats for his sister Meg and mother on a stormy night in the first chapter of Madeleine L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME is pretty memorable. He also makes them sandwiches; tomato for Meg and liverwurst-and-cream cheese for his mother. The family’s midnight meal is a last moment of peace before Meg’s world turns upside down (Mrs. Whatsit soon arrives and Meg makes her a tuna sandwich with celery and sweet pickles), and the way L'Engle describes the close caring family makes me want to be in the kitchen with them.

That does sound like such a warm, inviting family. Is there another person whose zest for writing and/or life you would like to borrow? Why?

I’m in awe of Jane Yolen's zest for writing and life. Though I don’t know her personally, I follow her on Facebook and am amazed at her writing discipline, the many genres she writes in, from novels to picture books to poetry, and her continuing successes. She always seems to be starting new work, revising, submitting, and basically continuing to grow as a writer, when she could easily be resting on her laurels. I recently read her beautiful and disturbing novel Briar Rose.

I also really enjoy Jane Yolen's work and am so impressed with her productivity. However, you're quite productive yourself with yet another book out now. Can you tell us about it and your next project?

The 1996 Summer Olympics inspired TOUCH THE SKY. Since my parents live in Atlanta and had tickets, I was able to attend the Summer Olympics in 1996 and heard about Georgia high jumper Alice Coachman when she was honored during the ceremonies. I hadn't started writing picture books back then, but I got a nonfiction research grant for Alice's story from SCBWI in 2006, which gave me a big boost of encouragement. I researched and revised for literally five more years until it finally became a picture book manuscript. Many submissions later, I was thrilled that my editor at Albert Whitman believed it was an important story to tell.

As for what else I'm brewing, I just got back from Virginia, where I followed a caravan of trucks carrying some 90,000 wreaths from Maine to lay in Arlington National Cemetery. I hope that a picture book can come out of it. Like I do with many projects, I try to find something personal in my research, in case the book doesn’t happen. After the wreath ceremonies, my husband and I went to the cemetery's Visitor’s Center information desk to find the grave site of my great uncle, Ira Woodruff Black, an army colonel who retrieved art stolen by the Nazis after World War II. After much hiking, we found the grave on a pretty green hill, and my mother was thrilled to get the photograph. Also I have to mention the incredible crab cakes my husband and I ate at the Quarterdeck Restaurant in Arlington afterwards, which made the trip extremely worthwhile.

Ann, it was so lovely to have you, but our interview is now coming to a close. Before you go, can you tell us what book and food you would choose if you were marooned on an island and Pots & Pens granted your wish for only one book and one food to keep with you on the island?

That's a really hard question but I would probably be happy to be stranded with TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
by Harper Lee, because the characters are so great. For the food, it would have to be my mother’s tiropita, a Greek cheese pie that melts in your mouth.

Thank you, Ann, for joining us today. What recipe will you be sharing before you go?

I have to choose a recipe with lemons, since Alice, the heroine of my new picture book biography TOUCH THE SKY: ALICE COACHMAN, OLYMPIC HIGH JUMPER (Albert Whitman & Co.) always sucked on a lemon before she competed at track meets. She believed the lemon juice made her feel light and gave her good luck, and she made sure to bring a lemon to the London Olympics in 1948. It must have worked, because she won the women’s high jump, becoming the first African American woman to win a gold medal at the Olympics.

1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, well beaten
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup milk
1/3 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 325°F.
Mix 1 cup sugar and butter.
Add eggs and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. Stir well.
Add salt, flour, and baking powder to mixture.
Add milk and lemon zest.
Bake in a 8” x 4” well-greased loaf pan for 1 hour or until golden brown.
Cool on rack.
Mix 1/3 cup lemon juice and 1/4 cup sugar.
Drizzle mixture on the cake when removed from the oven.
Serve either warm or cool.


  1. I'm really looking forward to reading TOUCH THE SKY, especially with the 2012 Olympics coming up. Great post and thanks for the tasty recipes, too. The couscous sounds yummy and that lemon cake is something I know my family would enjoy.

  2. Wonderful interview, ladies! The recipe at the end is making my mouth water. I might need to take a snack break.

  3. I just made a lemon almond bread over the holiday. It was so yummy I want to try my hand at other lemony delights and this sounds perfect!

  4. Yay! A sporty book! I can't wait to read TOUCH THE SKY to my daughter. The lemon cake looks so yummy! ;)

  5. Awesome interview. TOUCH THE SKY is definitely on my TBR list! And the bread looks delish!

  6. Great interview ladies! I love lemon bread and am so glad to finally be able to try and bake a loaf of it. It looks so yummy!