Interview with Ruth McNally Barshaw and Two Giveaways

I’m thrilled to share this amazing interview with Ruth McNally Barshaw, the author and illustrator of the popular Ellie McDoodle series.  Toward the bottom, you’ll see how two lucky readers can win a personalized Ellie book of their choice…and Ruth will even add some surprise sketches inside each book!

Here’s the Indiebound summary of the first sketch-filled book in this fun series: Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel.

Ellie McDougal (better known to her friends as Ellie McDoodle because she loves to draw) is a nearly-twelve-year-old prisoner . . . of her aunt, uncle, three annoying cousins, and her baby brother, Ben-Ben. Sentenced to a week-long camping trip with them while her parents are out of town, Ellie is absolutely, positively determined to hate every single minute of the experience. Thank goodness she at least has her sketch journal, in which she records all the excruciating (and okay, very funny) details. Mosquito bites and trips to the Fred Moose museum she can handle. But how will she keep her journal from falling into Er-ick the Enemy’s hands? And what will happen when–gasp–she actually starts having fun? Part graphic novel, part confessional journal, part wilderness survival guide, Ellie’s story is a treat for young campers, vacationers, or anyone looking for a great summer read.

Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Ruth.  Your Ellie McDoodle books are so much fun.  I love Ellie’s sketches, the humorous way she sees the world, and all the great games she shares with readers.  How did you come up with the idea for your series?

Photo of Ruth taken by Emily Barshaw, age 13

Thanks so much, Mindy! This is truly an honor.

Ellie McDoodle started as an essay about camping. My dad was in the National Guard and every summer for two weeks my big family camped near his military camp: Plenty of hilarity, there. I brought the essay and four picture book projects to my first SCBWI Conference in September, 2003, and read it in the peer critiques session.  I’m forever in debt to Debbie Taylor, Shanda Trent and Vicky Lorencen, three brilliant writers who pegged it as a beginning to a funny middle grade novel. I put it away because I was concentrating on picture books, not novels.

Eighteen months later I came home from my first national SCBWI Winter Conference a little disappointed that nobody discovered me and that I apparently still had a long way to go before I was “ready”. I’d sketched the conference, and I put all 180 pages on my website. (It’s still there.) I sent the link around a little and was INUNDATED with emails – an avalanche! — urging me to do a kids’ book in that style. Mary Siddals (Compost Stew) in particular pushed me. I pushed back, tired of failing in comic strips, rubberstamping, advertising, portraiture: Trust me, nobody wanted my cartoony work.

I was wrong, Mary was right. I tried writing and illustrating in that sketchy style. I used the summer camp idea (but didn’t reread the essay) and the ideas just flowed! It worked! Three weeks later I had a 100-page illustrated manuscript and an agent. But I had no idea there were other similar books, like Amelia’s 6th Grade Journal and Diary of a Wimpy Kid (which came out a month before Ellie). And I didn’t know my book would be a series until my editor asked about making Ben-Ben Ellie’s brother instead of her cousin, “so he could be in future books.”

I’d love to know more about the way you write and illustrate your books—do you wait until the words are perfect before working on the illustrations, or do you sketch as you create the text?

If I waited for the words to be perfect I’d still be waiting. 🙂 I just do my best and hope the mistakes get caught. It’s easiest for me to write and illustrate at the same time – I’ve been doing that since I was 15. But it’s smarter to finish the text, get it to its best, and then start the art. That’s what I’d advise to other author-illustrators. It’s also faster, because then you’re not tweaking both the writing and the art endlessly.

How long does it usually take you to write and illustrate a book?

I’m getting faster at it, out of necessity; the publisher keeps compressing the deadlines into less time (which is okay with me. I love a good challenge). The book I’m doing right now, Ellie McDoodle: Most Valuable Player, will have taken about eight months when it’s done, but of course there is a lot of down time in there – whole months where I was waiting to hear back. So, actual time: Four months so far, and maybe six total.

What advice do you have for kids or adults who are interested in writing or illustrating a book?

Start a journal. Join SCBWI and mingle with your fellow creatives. Read at least a hundred books in your genre, and read everything else, too. Write as often as you can. Don’t try for perfection – just do your best. Persist in the face of obstacles. Laugh at danger and rejections. Don’t quit your day job. Buy low, sell high.

Do you have a fun writing and illustrating exercise to share with us?

Yes! Check out this picture:

I drew this in my sketchjournal (on page 89) when I was 16. What’s significant here is that this sort of picture can demonstrate Art Literacy in action.

When you get stuck while creating, or when you want to write a new story, or if you’re a teacher and want to assign writing with richer results, start with a character.  Draw the character and add personality traits as callouts. Then write.  I do this with all of my school visit audiences and it’s great fun.

What the kids don’t know is that by drawing first, you create richer writing – that’s Art Literacy, defined.  And what some writers might not know is, when you’re stuck in a scene and don’t know what comes next, drawing the scene – even with stick figures! – might inspire a solution.

Are any of your characters based on real people?

Almost all are! Usually it’s two people plus me. My worst traits show up in my characters. Ellie’s cousin Deanna was originally going to be her main nemesis in book 1. Deanna’s based on both a relative and a girl in high school who gave me nightmares. Funny thing, though: I added my own faults to the mix and Deanna became a more interesting character. That high school girl? If I met her today I’d probably thank her.

The weirdest thing about having a large stable of characters is you sometimes meet their real-life incarnation. Ellie is based on me and my three daughters. But once last year I saw a real life Ellie McDoodle on the volleyball court at my daughter’s middle school game in East Lansing. I swear, the girl looked precisely like Ellie. My family talked me out of approaching the girl or giving her a note. It was probably a good thing since I pride myself in not yet being named on anybody’s restraining order.

Can you give us a glimpse of what the future holds for you and Ellie McDoodle?

Sketch for book 4, Ellie McDoodle: Most Valuable Player

Ellie McDoodle: Most Valuable Player comes out next spring (I hope). It’s all about sports and competition and academic games. I’m waiting to hear back on the revisions, and then I’ll ink in the art and tweak the writing and hope it’s good. I’m not a good judge of my own work.

My wish list (dare I hope?): A movie, a PBS kids’ show, dolls, a journal in every hand, a long list of Ellie McDoodle books, respect from smart people. I’d like to write and illustrate many more books, and I want them to always improve from the book I did last.  More than all of that, though, I just want to stay busy doing something worthwhile. On my deathbed, I want to be drawing cartoons in a sketchjournal.

Here are two more rough sketches from the upcoming Ellie McDoodle: Most Valuable Player.

Hop on over to Ruth’s website to discover more about her books, fun freebies, and teaching guides.  And here’s a great video of Ruth teaching a cartoon workshop.

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat and for sharing your wonderful sketches, Ruth. I can’t wait to read Ellie McDoodle: Most Valuable Player in Spring 2012!

Want to be entered in an extra-special giveaway?  TWO lucky winners will receive a personalized Ellie book of their choice…and Ruth has offered to add some surprise sketches in the books!  Leave a comment below and our random generator will choose two lucky winners on Thursday, February 24th.  You’ll get extra entries for sharing a link on your blog, Facebook, Twitter, or if you click the ‘Follow this blog’ button in Networked Blogs on the lower right side of our site.

***Please mention each link in a new comment so the generator will add your extra entries.  Winners must live in the US or Canada.  Good luck!

If you have any questions for Ruth, please leave them in the comments.  She’d love to answer them for you.  What a great opportunity–thanks again for everything, Ruth!

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle-grade novels and is constantly inspired by her ten and thirteen year-old daughters, adventurous sock and underwear munching puppy, and two stinky but adorable ferrets. Visit her blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.

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Mindy Alyse Weiss
Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle grade novels with heart and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her two daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix who was rescued from the Everglades.
  1. Thanks for this good information and interview. I want to purchase it for my library (if I don’t get the give-away:).

  2. I have a 12 year old neice that is a super talented artist. Right now she is bent on fashion design… but when she grows up and realizes how feisty the fashion industry can be, I want her to know that art is in everything. Your story is a great example on how not to lose your dream- just change your stream! Thanks, if I don’t win, I’m still sending your books to her.


  3. Goodness. Thank you. What kind comments!
    Caroline — I remember talking with you but I don’t remember knowing that Amanda was your niece. She was adorable, one of my favorites. And I saw Becky while giving blood a couple months ago.
    Erin, I knew you were brilliant, but a PhD? Holy cow. Congratulations! And thank you for granting my wish. 🙂
    Gbemi — you’re an inspiration with your creativity.
    Marsha — the more people I meet in this business, the more I realize that fear and obstacles and discouragement are a universal part of the process. Persistence is what matters.
    Barbara, thanks so much for helping reluctant readers and for spreading ideas that work to other teachers. One of the reluctant reader stories that touched me most was hearing about a 14-year old boy who’s an Ellie McDoodle fan. He’s far outside the targeted audience and I’m honored he found my books worth re-reading.
    Sheela — you are proof that art literacy works. 🙂
    Pragmatic Mom — your daughter has a huge advantage with a mother who supports her dreams. Best wishes to her (even though she’s my future competition) 😉
    Thank you all, very much.

  4. Mindy,

    This was such an interesting post. Thank goodness Ruth didn’t give up on her “cartoony work.” Mindy, I love that you have giveaways.

  5. My students love these books! And I love that they are both fun and smart – great quality! Thanks for writing them, and thanks for the chance at the fun giveaway!

  6. Wonderful, engaging interview. Loved the story about how writing and drawing all worked out!

  7. Thank you, Ruth and Mindy! This was so inspiring. I can’t wait to try sketching my characters and scenes.

  8. Thanks so much for the post; loved it. I’d love to win for my 11-year-old who might want to be an illustrator when she grows up. She’s already announced that she wants to go to RISD.

  9. Excellent interview, Mindy and Ruth! Wow, reading that section on art literacy really made a lightbulb go off in my head. There have been a few times, now that I think of it, when I was stuck with a scene and/or a character’s motivation, and I actually DID draw out the characters in my notebook. At the time I thought of it more as doodling, but the process did really help to open up my mind and think of the character in a different way. I will try sketching more often now and see how that goes.

    I loved those SCBWI conference sketches btw! 🙂

  10. Great interview Ruth. It’s so interesting to read how you started writing this series. And I remember the SCBWI conference when you were signing your first book. It was so awesome. Good luck with the new one.

  11. We’ve got the first Ellie book and can’t wait to see more! Thanks for the super interview.

    zenzart at hotmail dot com