The series stars Dylan, a middle child with a big sister and a little brother. The first book focuses on Dylan starting school, and feeling like he is in the shadow of his older sister, Sydney. But throughout the story, Dylan realizes his own position as an older brother as well. The second book takes place when Dylan and his family move and the kids must switch schools and make new friends. Dylan’s anxieties manifest themselves in nightmares, and, with the help of his sister, he must learn to overcome the “Night Horse” in his dreams.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with the author to get some of her thoughts on writing for children, collaborating with an illustrator, use of the unreliable narrator, the world of self publishing, and more!
After the interview, be sure to check out how to enter our contest to win a FREE, SIGNED copy of SuperDylan and the Night Horse!
Here is the full Q&A from our interview:
Both stories are really cute stories and incredibly funny. I actually found myself laughing out loud. What do you have to keep in mind while writing to help you create stories that appeal to both kids and the adults reading to them?
You have to be true to both the kids and the adults in the story. All characters should have their own agendas, just like real people do. Children want to be the best at everything: the smartest, the funniest, the bravest, the strongest, the best looking, the best liked. Basically, I look at children as more honest versions of adults. A lot of the humor in the SuperDylan books comes from Dylan’s honesty about what he wants, and this should appeal to both kids and adults because it’s basic human nature unmasked.
We've had workshop classes together, but and I've never had the chance to read stories you've written that are intended for children. While writing, did you notice any differences in your approach to kids’ fiction as opposed to adult fiction?
Sure. This is an easy one. In kids’ fiction, you can provide happy endings. You can resolve plot issues. In adult fiction, there’s an inclination to end on an unresolved chord, with everything in disarray. We’re trained to distrust literary fiction that ties up all the strings, but we all know that sometimes in life, threads really ARE tied up. Issues really ARE resolved. I think we’ve all had times in our lives when we know a certain problematic chapter has ended. In kid lit, we’re allowed to realize that reality. Here’s a problem – here’s the wrong approach to solving it – here’s how the wrong approach caused another problem – here’s how the right approach can resolve the problem for everyone. This pattern is as much a part of real life as the unresolved ending we find in adult fiction.
Night Horse deals with the issue of nightmares, and Sydney offers Dylan some great coping techniques. Is this something you've used in your childhood or with your own children?
It takes some concentration to control dreams as fully as Dylan does by the end of the book, but it’s possible for kids to succeed. And really, that’s what we train kids to do when we read them bedtime stories. We free their minds of their own worries by providing them with someone else’s worries and subsequent solutions.
I use a related technique for myself quite a bit. In fact, in her narrative craft book, Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway calls the technique “Worry it and walk away.” Try it sometime. Before bed, go over a decision you’re trying to make or a problem you’re having with your writing. Force yourself to take it as far as your conscious mind will allow, and then switch to something else that will help you sleep, such as reading a book or listening to music or whatever. Often, by working the situation as far as you can with your conscious mind and then dismissing it, you’ll push it down deeper for your subconscious mind to deal with. Our subconscious mind is where the best work is done – it’s much less hampered and censored.
What do your boys think about Dylan and his siblings?
My boys love the Dylan books. They picked out the names of the minor characters and some of the characters’ wardrobes. My eight-year-old loves to read the books and make fun of Dylan’s silly mix-ups. “Oh no, Dylan!” he’ll say and laugh. My six-year-old told me that the way Dylan treats Nate in the first book is similar to the way his older brother treats him sometimes. “Did you notice that? I mean, that is a funny coincidence,” he said. Yes, a funny coincidence, indeed.
Dylan is a flawed hero, and an unreliable narrator, it makes the story very funny and very real. We see all of the characters through Dylan's eyes, yet through their dialogue and other means, we're able to understand the characters from an outsider’s perspective as well. Do you have any suggestions for writers looking to work with an unreliable narrator?
I think we’re all flawed heroes in real life, just as we are all unreliable narrators. How can we be anything else, you know? None of us is perfect or omniscient, and every narrative chunk of our lives is lived strictly through our own limited perception. I guess my suggestion is to be clear about the ways in which a certain narrator is unreliable. The unreliability has to be consistent enough to simultaneously serve as characterization. Dylan’s unreliability revolves around his perception that everything good that happens to him is a result of his grandiose skill and everything bad that happens is a result of either bad luck or someone else having it out for him. But really, don’t we all slip into that line of thinking sometimes?
You and your brother worked together on this project, what was it like collaborating?
It was a blast! We have a similar sense of humor, so it was so much fun to toss ideas back and forth and to play off each other’s work. It was also fun to experience the difference between the processes of writing and drawing. I focused on creating a plot arc that made sense without being too predictable; Grant focused on maintaining a certain sense of uniformity for each character while still making each drawing fresh and funny. In the final stages, I nitpicked by changing my wordings a dozen times, and he nitpicked by making multiple minute changes to lines, hues, and shadings. Luckily, we are both good at aiming for perfection but also realizing when it’s time to let go and be proud of the final project. We’re proud of the high quality of both our books.
You self-published this through Amazon. How difficult was this process, and do you have any suggestions for other writers looking to self publish?
It’s very easy to self-publish on Amazon, but not every project is right for self-publishing. You have to think honestly about what you want from the publishing experience. When I decided to self-publish the first SuperDylan book, I determined that I would be happy if we sold 200 copies. I wasn't in it for the money; I just wanted to share these stories with others and I wanted the stories to be published while my kids were still young enough to enjoy them. We've definitely surpassed that and I’m very pleased. Additionally, my choice to self-publish has gotten my name out there and I've been approached for exciting projects, such as serving as the 2014 Visiting Author at Mercersburg Elementary School and writing a children’s book to accompany a public sculpture in my hometown of Hagerstown, MD.
However, I’m currently working on a full length adult novel that I started back in 2009. I wouldn't self-publish my adult novel because I know I wouldn't be happy with only selling 200 copies after 5 years of work. Your path to publication should depend very much on your expectations for your specific project.
On the same topic, the first SyperDylan book was offered in a Kindle version as well - when it comes to illustrations in a digital book, how much additional work is it to format images in a digital book?
The color schemes are different and the alignment is different. Kindle is a lot of fun, but formatting a picture book for Kindle is not for anyone with OCD. Since Kindle users can choose their font size, the pictures don’t stay exactly where you place them. You can’t wrap text as easily as you can in a print version.
These first two stories were such a pleasure to read. Are we going to have more SuperDylan to look forward to? What might we see in his later adventures?
I have a few other works-in-progress right now, so it may be a year or so before I write a third Dylan book. At that point, I’ll most likely use these same characters in a middle grade book, geared for children 10-12 years old. The story would be longer with more detail and plot developments, and it probably wouldn't contain color illustrations. But the characters in the family would remain the same, just in slightly older versions. I really like Dylan and his family, and I’m looking forward to following them over the years as my own kids change and develop.
I want to thank Ms. Miller again for her time with this interview, and I’m glad I had the chance to talk with her about her books. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to see what happens to Dylan when he’s a little bit older. If you haven’t read the books yet, check them out on Amazon. Even as an adult, they are interesting and funny stories.
Want to win a copy of Night Horse?? Comment below with your answer to the following question, and one lucky person will win a signed copy from the author herself!
Here is the question:
Are there any books that you've read that have helped you through a fear, anxiety, or generally tough time? If not, when you were a kid, what was something you were really afraid of, and how did you get through it?