Book Blog Tour: Ruth McNally Barshaw

>> Friday, May 11, 2007

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome Ruth McNally Barshaw to the Gratz Industries auditorium!

GI: First, give us the thirty second sales pitch on your first children's book, Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel.

RMB: Ellie's a kid who goes camping with relatives she can't stand and she keeps a sketch diary of it all. It has games, pranks, observations, nature facts, survival skills -- everything but the kitchen sink. Actually, there IS a kitchen sink in it, a camper's sink, which Ellie throws at her cousin. But because it's a kid story, it ends happy. (20 seconds)

GI: Your sketchbooks, many pages of which are posted on your web site at, are fantastic. Tell us more about them. How long have you been keeping sketchbooks? What sorts of things do you sketch? Do you worry about correcting your art as you work in your sketchbooks?

RMB: Thank you! I've been keeping a regular sketchbook-diary off and on since high school. One of the first is from my trip to Mexico at age 15. My mom made me take slide film for the camera, no print film. So when I wanted to view my photos from the trip it wasn't easy. I was so glad I had the sketchbook, to relive all the cool things that happened.

I sketch all sorts of things. The hardest thing to sketch was a soccer game. Running horses are really hard, too. The saddest thing is funerals; I think I've done 6. Happiest was the birth of my grandson. I started sketching with a pen 17 years ago. My grandpa was in poor health and I started writing him every few days, mostly cartoons of the funny things my kids were doing. Eventually it became cumbersome to sketch in pencil and redraw in ink. It was expedient to just sketch in pen. Scary, but expedient. I still make lots of mistakes. The perfectionist in me sometimes screams in pain at the mistakes. But few artists sketch in ink, and I feel it's a valuable skill, so I keep at it.

GI: Tell us about your experiences sketchbooking at the SCBWI Winter Conference, and how that led to you selling Ellie McDoodle.

RMB: I went to the 2005 conference not knowing where I was going to stay. I was flat broke, took out a loan to get there. I had a strong sense that something important would happen there. But even though Cecilia Yung, Penguin AD and SCBWI Advisory Board member, kept saying to the audience, "If you are great, we will find you," nobody seemed to find me. I sketched it all -- my angst and despair, and also all the many cool things that happened. When I got home I put it all on my website, all 180 pages.

Within days there was a huge buzz: Hundreds of emails arrived, many exhorting me to do a kids' book in that style. It took a while to convince me. I felt my work was not strong enough, or someone would have "found me." But I started the book, and an agent emailed me, all within a week of coming home from the conference. I finished the book as quickly as I could, the agent and I signed together, and she sold my book to Bloomsbury. From conference to sale was 6 months. Almost overnight, my life changed completely.

GI: Tell us about your other cartoon and illustration work. Did you go to school to be an artist? Was illustrating your job before you sold your first children's book? Where has your work appeared?

RMB: I went to Michigan State University to study advertising. I took 2 art courses but felt I didn't fit in with the studio artists so I took other art-like classes in landscape architecture, value engineering and mechanical drawing. I didn't fit in there, either, nor in advertising. I got a job at the newspaper doing comics and ads, then fell into a job with the university doing all kinds of fun promotional stuff. I quit to work out of my home when my (then-) youngest was 3. (She's now 18.) There I bounced around, looking for the right niche. It was an astoundingly frustrating time, mitigated by winning some big money in essay contests with little books.

My work has appeared in all sorts of things related to MSU; stadium cups, apparel, pizza boxes. I've designed a thousand t-shirts, drew caricatures at events, created a few comic strips. Most of my art stayed local, but if you visited a Marriott in California or the Washington DC area, maybe you saw my tourist maps.

A children's cookbook for a hospital was the first job in my life where I went to bed excited from working on it all day and woke up excited to get back to it again. I should have taken that as a clue: Get into kids' books. But, no. It took another 7 years. In the meantime I self-published lots of little books for family and friends. Uncle Charlie's Tasteless Booger Jokes is one of my favorites.

GI: I love your sketches of famous children's authors and illustrators! Have you ever shared your pictures with the writers and artists? If so, what's the best reaction you've ever gotten?

RMB: Thank you! I have shared my pictures with almost all of the writers and artists. They were all gracious and kind, except one who was somewhat dismissive. Maybe I didn't do a good job on that drawing.

The best reaction was Richard Peck, 16 years ago. I drew him at a school district awards luncheon for young writers (I was there because my kid won). He was delighted and promptly gave me his editor's name at Dial, saying I should contact her. I was far too scared and eventually lost the name. How I wish I'd contacted her. And how I wish I still had that drawing. It's around here somewhere. Someday I will meet him again and thank him for his confidence in me at a time when I had none.

Thanks Ruth! The book looks great - good luck with it!

You can follow Ruth's Book Blog Tour on Dotti Enderle's blog, Elizabeth Dulemba's blog, Karen Lee's blog, and Kim Norman's blog.


Genetta,  May 29, 2007 at 10:30 PM  

Great interview! Thanks, Alan and Ruth!

I was one of those who saw Ruth's sketches online after she returned from the 2005 SCBWI Conference. I've wondered since then what she's doing and if she ever did sketch a children's book and get it published.

Thanks for answering that question for me! I look forward to reading
"Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel"!


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