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Interview with Sheila Sweeny Higginson

Sheila Sweeny HigginsonSheila Sweeny Higginson, author and founder of Inkathinka, is our next Wizard of Words! Our featured storyteller has a long history working and writing for big names in children’s books and media, including Disney, Scholastic and Nickelodeon. She’s committed her professional career and talents to furthering education for children everywhere. Let’s dive right in and learn more about this Wizard of Words!

 

7 Magic Islands: Thank you for answering our questions, Sheila! Tell us a little bit about your background. What kind of books did you read growing up? How did you get your start as an author?

Sheila: A lot of my life choices tie into my early experiences. When I was little, I was a huge fan of The Electric Company, particularly Morgan Freeman’s character Easy Reader. I wanted to be cool like him, so I figured out how to read my first book—Bears in the Night by Stan and Jan Berenstain—on my own. Since then, I’ve read pretty much everything and anything I could get my hands on. My childhood favorites are pretty standard, The Secret Garden and The Little Prince, but the author that was most inspiring to my 8-year-old self was Ruth Chew. She wrote wonderful books about magic, including my favorite, The Wednesday Witch. A witch on a vacuum cleaner flying over the Belt Parkway! It was incredibly inspiring to a little Brooklyn girl with a big imagination, and it sparked a lifelong passion for the fantasy genre. I knew that I wanted to be a writer since first grade, but along the way I considered some other careers, such as doctor, astrophysicist, and genetic engineer because I also love science. By the time I was looking at colleges, I decided that I would stick with writing because I could keep reading and learning about any subject, and I thought I would become a science journalist. In senior year of college, we were required to have an internship. Children’s Television Workshop had a science show for kids called 3-2-1 Contact, and while the show was no longer in production, they had a magazine for The Electric Company. I interned for The Electric Company and then got a job as editorial assistant in the magazine group working for all the magazines,
Minnie in Paris by Sheila Sweeny Higginson and it was during that time that I first learned how challenging it was to write for kids. I decided it was a challenge I wanted to tackle, and I’ve spent the rest of my career trying to do just that.

7 Magic Islands: It’s so wonderful to hear you found a career you love and that challenges you! There are writers out there who would love to work with the companies you’ve worked for, like the Sesame Workshop. What’s it like working for these high-profile employers?

Sheila: Looking back, my early days at Children’s Television Workshop were like a Ruth Chew book—magical! I was surrounded by smart, creative, and amazingly talented people and I learned from the best of the best. In fact, I’m still learning from and working with many of them. Even though the company had grown from its early days, it still had a workshop feel, and I loved working at a place where it felt like everyone really believed in the mission of using media to educate and inspire children. As a teacher, I tell my students that it doesn’t matter what type of company your work for, where you start, or what industry you’re in. The qualities of being a dedicated, hard worker are what you need to succeed. On the first day of my internship, I stayed until almost everyone but my editor had left the office, well after closing time, becauseDoc McStuffins Bubble Trouble - Includes Stickers! I didn’t want to go home when there was still work to be done. I tried to keep busy and would do any job to help out, from cleaning out closets to organizing files.

7 Magic Islands: It sounds like you found a place where you really belonged! You spent several years as an editor for some big names in the media entertainment industry. As an editor, what tips can you offer writers looking to impress the publishing powerhouses?

Sheila: I don’t know if I know how to impress the publishing powerhouses; I think I’m still trying to figure that out! My tip would be to do your homework. I’ve heard and read tons of ideas, but what many people don’t realize is that the idea is not enough. You have to do your homework to make the idea soar. Who is your audience? Do the voices of your characters match the voices of that audience? What other works is your story similar to? How will make sure that it’s different enough to stand out? Look around a bookstore—where do you see your book fitting on the shelf? I could go on and on, but good ideas come along all the time. Again, it’s the hard work you put in that will make your idea great.

7 Magic Islands: Hard work is all too important when it comes to achieving a dream! Speaking of achieving goals, you sometimes achieve goals as part of a team; for example, by collaborating with artists like Sam Williams for You’re Getting A Baby Brother/Sister! How do authors and illustrators work together as far as your experience is concerned?
You're Getting a Baby Brother by Sheila Sweeny

Sheila: As a freelance author, I don’t get to collaborate directly with the artists who illustrate my books. I write art specs and sometimes review the sketches and art and give feedback on them, but that’s usually through the editor. Sam Williams was great because he totally captured what was in my mind when I wrote that book. I’m a visual person, so when I write, particularly picture books, I see the illustrations unfold during the writing process. Unfortunately, I have trouble even drawing stick figures, so I have to keep my fingers crossed and hope that my specs are enough to convey that vision or that I get assigned an artist who just seems to know what I’m thinking.You're Getting a Baby Sister by Sheila Sweeny

7 Magic Islands: It seems Sam did a fine job of doing just that! If we may continue on collaboration and the Baby Brother/Sister books, they seem to be among the more unique titles in your body of work. What do you want children to take away from a book about a very important moment in any older siblings’ life?

Sheila: It’s funny, the reviews on Amazon for those books are generally very positive, but there are a couple of very negative ones, too. I understand it, because parents want their kids to embrace the experience. I wanted the books to be an honest conversation with kids, not a “you’re going to be so happy and love your new sibling!” Kids may be small, but they’re not fooled easily. There’s a lot an older sibling has to give up when a new sibling is born. I know; I’m the oldest of four. I actually didn’t write them as books at all. My niece had been begging her parents for a baby sibling for years when my sister-in-law got pregnant. She and my older son are the same age, and I already had his little brother, so I watched her eager anticipation with a little skepticism. I knew that the reality was going to be so much different than her expectations. On the night before her baby brother was born, I woke up in the middle of the night with this poem pretty much already written in my head. It started as a chant of her name “…Alexa Janaé, Alexa Janaé, your new baby brother is coming today…” I printed it up and gave it to her as a big sister present. Much later, I thought that it might make a good book, so I worked on whittling it down into book form and sent it to my editor, who luckily agreed.

7 Magic Islands: It’s so important to respect kids as little people, and clearly you keep that in mind. And it’s so nice you got to share that special gift with the world! In addition to illustrators, a big part of your body of work is collaborative with other authors; you’ve done a number of solo projects as well. What are the advantages and disadvantages of working alone or working collaboratively with other writers?

Sheila: I do collaborate with other writers on different projects outside of the book realm. I enjoy those experiences because the life of a freelance writer can be a lonely one. Luckily, I’m the mother of two boys, so I don’t often have the chance to be lonely—or alone—but like most writers I know, I tend to be an introvert. I sometimes don’t even realize how introverted I can be until I realize that I’ve been locked up in a room for hours on end without any human contact. Working with other writers gives me the chance to get out of that solitary space, even if it just means we’re on a phone finessing dialogue for a script.

7 Magic Islands: It’s always nice to change up your work environment; it keeps things even more interesting than usual! Throughout your career, you’ve worked on a number of educational/informative non-fiction books like your sports books, including Wacky Baseball Facts to Bat Around and Wacky Basketball Facts to Bounce Around. What’s the secret to making sports stats and facts exciting and interesting to a young audience?

Wacky Basketball Facts to Bounce Around by Sheila SweenyWacky Baseball Facts to Bat Around by Sheila SweenySheila: I think if you’ve been around any 10-year-old boys like the one who lives in my house, you know that sports stats and facts are inherently exciting and interesting to a particular young audience. The challenge is to make those stats also understandable and relatable to kids. Also, when I write books like that, I think of myself more as a curator. Kids have access to an overwhelming amount of information on any subject now, so when I write nonfiction books, it’s my job to pull together the most interesting details that may be hard to find in the sea of content on the Internet.

7 Magic Islands: We like to think of ourselves as curators of fiction! You’ve written stories about the adventures of several licensed characters like Kai-Lan of Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, Jake and Finn of Adventure Time fame and many more. What is your process when it comes to writing stories faithful to established characters?

Listen with Kai lan (Ni Hao, Kai lan)Sheila: It helps to have voices in your head. I have a lot of character voices fighting for space up there, trying to be heard. Some of them are original, but many are created by other people. The first part of the process of writing for licensed properties is reading as many scripts and watching as many episodes as I can. I take notes and try to synthesize the language patterns of the individual characters. Sometimes it’s an easy process. I was already a big fan of Adventure Time before I was given that assignment, and I was also able to choose my favorite episodes to write about, so I chose ones with characters I love and relate to, like Marceline the Vampire Queen. The most difficult stories to write are when it’s a new property and I only have a script to work with, so I don’t know really know how it’s all going to look on screen, or how the characters will actually sound. I try to connect the characters to people and kids I know, and then it makes it a little easier to imagine what they would say and sound like.

7 Magic Islands: However you look at it, writing for different characters seems both fun and challenging! While your audience remains much the same, the characters you write for face unique challenges and live in one-of-a-kind worlds. For you, what character has been especially fun to write for?

Sheila: It’s so much fun writing as Adventure Time characters; I get to be wild and magical which is all I ever really wanted to be. The language of those characters, especially Finn and Jake, is just so…algebraic! I’m also a fan of Mordecai and Rigby from Regular Show (my ringtone is from Regular Show) and was able to incorporate the characters into a couple of graphic novels I did for Cartoon Network. And keeping with the CN theme, I had a lot of fun flipping the Ben10 scripts and writing the stories from Gwen’s point of view. If I could go back and relive my teen years (with magical powers) I’d want to be Gwen from Ben10 Alien Force.

7 Magic Islands: Aren’t cartoons awesome? In 2000, you created Inkathinka, a company dedicated to creating content for children’s and educational media. What gave you the idea to create the company?

Sheila: Many times when difficult things happen, people will say, “Everything happens for a reason.” It seems cliché, but in my case it’s true. I was pregnant with my first son when my department at Sesame Workshop closed, and I lost my job. I did some freelancing before when I was in between jobs, but it was a big leap of faith to make the commitment to going out of my own without a safety net, especially knowing there would soon be another mouth to feed. It was the best decision I ever made, both for my writing career and for my family.

7 Magic Islands: We’re thrilled you found such success during such a hard time! The team at Inkathinka works on more than just books – they also assist with plays, teacher guides, magazine articles and much more. What has been the most memorable project for Inkathinka thus far?

Sheila: There isn’t a set team for Inkathinka. Because I’ve been fortunate to work with many talented people, I’m able to tap into them when a project calls for more than I can handle on my own. My most memorable project so far was a labor of love started with a friend and colleague from Sesame and Scholastic days. We wanted to do something to use new media to inspire underserved populations of kids to get excited about science, math, and technology— kids who might never consider being an engineer, or a programmer, or a biologist. We pulled together an incredible team (many from 3-2-1- Contact days) and were able to get a planning grant from the National Science Foundation that we used to build a beta site and test our hypothesis. The results were encouraging, and even though the project is on the backburner at the present time, I still believe that with the right funding sources we can make it work.

7 Magic Islands: That’s such a neat educational project. We can’t wait to see how it goes! Inkathinka is coming up on 15 years in business. How has the company grown over time?

Sheila: The company has grown in line with the ways the industry has changed. It’s been a revolutionary time in the content creation arena. When I started Inkathinka, I was a new mom who almost exclusively wrote books and magazine articles for U.S. markets. The world has changed a lot in 14 years, with the explosion of the Internet and the rise of the global economy. The past few years I’ve had several clients in Asia. I’ve also shifted more and more to digital media, such as Web-based content, game applications, and e-books. But I’m also still an old-school bibliophile, so I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing books, and I hope I’ll always be able to flip the paper pages of them.

7 Magic Islands: There’s nothing quite like an old-fashioned book! As a writer, you’ve written everything from biographies to early reading books. What kind of project would you like to work on that you haven’t yet done? A few of those voices in my head will not go away, and not all of them fit into the type of work I’ve done before. I have a couple of young-adult characters whose stories I’d like to put on page. I’ve also been working on a few screenplays, some for kids, one for grown-ups, and I’d like to finish them and get them out into the world, too.

7 Magic Islands: Wow! You have quite a few ideas, if you’ll excuse the reference, in your workshop! You’ve dedicated your working life to children through fiction and educational books. How do you encourage children to read more?

Sheila: Great question, because as a mom, a teacher, and a passionate reader, it is something I’ve thought about a lot. I worry that in this day of standardized testing, we’ve been moving kids away from reading for the love of it and more toward reading for the need of it. Jake and the Never Land Pirates Cubby's Mixed-Up MapThere’s something magical that happens when a reader finds THAT book, the book that makes a reader totally want to get lost in it. It’s a different book for every reader, and it’s a very, very difficult challenge to make that match for young readers. I applaud the teachers and librarians who are skilled at doing it. My younger son was a good reader, but he did not love to read. He’d pore over non-fiction titles about sports and animals, always looking for a good fact along the way. But I didn’t see him get lost in a book until he brought the first Animorphs book home from fourth grade one day. He didn’t stop reading from the minute he got in the house until bedtime. He read several Animorphs that week, and didn’t stop until he had finished all 54 books plus the companion books by the end of fourth grade. 60 books that school year! I was thrilled. I would never have thought to give him an Animorph book, and if his teacher had only thought about his Lexile level, she wouldn’t have given him one either. But I would rather watch him gasp out loud while intently devouring 60 below-level books than one that was on his level. I am sure that the key to encouraging kids to read is getting THAT book into their hands.

7 Magic Islands: THAT book certainly is something special. When you’re not writing or working with the Inkathinka team, what do you do for fun and in your time away from work?

Sheila: I live in the Adirondack Mountains in the summer, and it’s the battery recharge that gets me through the school year in NYC. I enjoy almost everything about it; hiking in the woods, swimming and kayaking in the lake, bonding with the other moms at the beach. As a mom, one of my greatest pleasures is just sitting back and watching my boys enjoy life, which they do a lot when they’re up there. My husband is a musician, so I also enjoy watching him play and write music. It’s fascinating to me because it taps into such a different part of the creative brain than the one I use for my work. I also spend some of my time away from work being an involved, activist parent in our Brooklyn community. I’m on the Community Education Council for our school district and I try to be a part of the fight for important issues like privacy for student data and fewer high-stakes assessments.

7 Magic Islands: You have so many books to your name already in addition to founding and operating Inkathinka. What’s next for your writing career and for Inkathinka?

Sheila: I hope what’s next is that I have time to finish up some of those screenplays and work with a great team to make them come to life. I’ve been writing a lot by myself this year, and I feel like I’m ready to put the introvert aside and work collaboratively. I have just the people I want to work with in mind. I also really hope to find a way to get involved with helping inspire a diverse group of kids to get excited about STEM subjects, whether it’s with the project I mentioned earlier or another venue. I saw the Google diversity stats and find it very disheartening that we’re still having this conversation.

To learn more about Sheila Sweeny Higginson and her company, visit her online at http://inkathinka.com, check out her author page at Amazon and find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

 

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