Lori Alexander is the author of picture books Backhoe Joe (HarperCollins) and Famously Phoebe (Sterling Children’s), as well as the upcoming chapter book, All in a Drop, a biography of scientist Antony van Leeuwenhoek (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). She grew up in San Diego and attended UCSD and SDSU for her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, respectively. When the year-round 72-degree weather became unbearable, she moved to Arizona. She currently lives in Tucson with her scientist husband and two book-loving kids.
You can find out more about Lori on her website at lorialexanderbooks.com or follow her on Twitter at @LoriJAlexander.
MR: So why construction in Backhoe Joe? Where did you come up with the idea for this particular story?
LA: My son is in middle school now but he was a huge construction fan when he was little. He had truck shirts and truck-themed birthdays and we read every construction book we could get our hands on. Most were nonfiction, explaining the parts of the trucks and the jobs they do. After many, many, repeated readings, I yearned for something with a plot. My son and I used to make up silly stories about the things we could do if we had our own backhoe. Somewhere in there was the seed idea for Backhoe Joe.
MR: Can you tell us how you come up with your story ideas? Is it real-life moments or just your imagination?
LA: Yes, most of my ideas begin with real-life moments based on things I’ve seen or heard. I volunteer a ton at my kids’ elementary school, in their classrooms, on field trips, and in the library. Talking with the kids and listening in on their conversations keeps me in touch with their general interests, what they think is hilarious, what makes them angry, etc. But other times, I’ve been inspired by a few words or a funny turn of phrase. I have a whole page of these snippets that would make catchy picture book titles just waiting for their stories to be told.
MR: What’s it like working with illustrators? Do you normally have exactly what you want in mind for the illustrations, or do you and the illustrator work back and forth to create something?
LA: When my agent sells one of my picture book manuscripts to a traditional publisher, it’s the text only. It’s the publisher’s job to hire the illustrator and the author has a limited amount of control at that point. This is a good thing! The illustrator takes the text and runs with it, usually adding dimensions the author never imagined. Typically, sketches, some color art, and the cover are shared with the author as a courtesy. In most cases, there’s no direct communication or back and forth between the author and the illustrator.
MR: What made you want to be a children’s author?
LA: Telling silly stories to my own kids. Reading amazing picture books to them day and night. When I had the opportunity to be a “guest reader” at their preschool, I brought along my favorite, funny picture books to share. Making a room full of kids laugh is addicting!
MR: I know you used to make books when you were younger, so did any of the stories you came up with then make it to the publishing table now?
LA: I should crack into the dusty cardboard box of “Lori’s Stuff—Do NOT Touch!” my parents recently lugged to Tucson from their attic in San Diego. There might be some gems inside. I do remember making a book filled with guinea pig facts, probably to show my parents how knowledgeable I was so they’d buy me one on the double (it worked!). But so far, none of my childhood ideas have been revisited.
MR: You said you would make books during rainy days in your hometown. Sadly, Tucson has hardly any rainy days, so how do you find inspiration for writing your stories?
LA: There’s still plenty of H2O-free inspiration in the southwest. I’m inspired by my kids and their friends as well as the work of other incredible picture book authors and illustrators. We’re at the local library/bookstore all the time. As we silently power walk to the “New Books” section, I’m not sure who’s more excited, me or the kids.
MR: What is your favorite children’s/young adult book?
LA: As a kid, my favorite book was Christina Katerina & The Box by Patricia Lee Gauch. I loved how creative the main character was with her empty refrigerator box. Right now, I’m loving the very sweet and clever Brobarians by Lindsay Ward. I don’t read much YA at the moment but I bet I’ll pick-it up when my kids get a bit older (my 11-year-old daughter loves to recommend books to me!).
MR: Have you ever written or plan to write a book with your own children as characters?
LA: Probably not, although they are great little muses. Picture book stories need to be larger than life so even if my kids give me an idea, it needs to be twisted and molded into something bigger.
MR: If you could work with any author or illustrator, who would it be and why?
LA: I bet every picture book author has a secret list of “dream illustrators” floating around in their head. There are so many great ones, it’s tough to narrow down. I love the work of Adam Rex, Christian Robinson, Molly Idle, Mathew Cordell, Chris Gall, Kate Beaton, Dan Santat, Tom Lichtenheld, Melissa Sweet. All completely different and amazing. My next book, All in a Drop, will be illustrated by Vivien Mildenberger. Her artwork is gorgeous and I can’t wait to see how the illustrations come out. Take a peek at her portfolio here.
MR: You’re having an event in Tucson soon, so what can we expect from that?
LA: Please join me for a Famously Phoebe book launch party on Saturday, October 14, 2017! The event begins at 11am at Mildred & Dildred in La Encantada. We’ll have a story time, make crafts, play games, win prizes, and eat treats. Yay, treats! Lots of FREE fun for kids, big and small!