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Interview with Becky Van Vleet

Author Becky Van Vleet uses heartwarming memories in creating her series of “traveling” books for children. Her second book, Harvey the Traveling Harmonica, was released in September by Elk Lake Publishing. Harvey, like the other books in the series, combines three generations of one family with an inanimate object—Harvey in this case—who quickly becomes the star of the show.

Delightfully illustrated by artist Courtney Smith, Harvey the Traveling Harmonica appeals to children of all ages. The book also fulfills two of Becky Van Vleet’s fondest wishes: providing wholesome reading material for children and preserving family stories for future generations.

Welcome, Becky. What inspired you to write Harvey, the Traveling Harmonica?
Harvey is the second book in my “traveling” series. The common thread for the first two books and the others to follow is an inanimate object becoming the main character, traveling through three generations in a fun tale.

When you’re looking to publish, it helps to have a subject that few people have written about. I was inspired to write about a harmonica because my father played one. He was very musical. He also sang and played the violin. One of my sisters still has his harmonica. I have his violin.

Did he pass on his musical talent to you?
I came from a family of four girls. My mother wanted all of us to take piano lessons starting at age five, and I played the violin, too. I was in some singing groups in high school. I always enjoyed music. I credit that to both of my parents. My father really set the example. He instilled a love of music into my life at an early age.

Were your characters based on real people (or doggies)?
I named the little boy Walter after my father. The character of Buddy wasn’t named after a real pet. I wanted a fun dog to add some adventure to the story and create conflict. It seems that all children relate to dogs, even if they don’t have one.

Did you write this book with any particular children in mind?
I want to reach preschoolers because they enjoy read-alouds. I also want to reach early readers because they can read independently and follow the story elements of conflict and resolution. The target age group is ages 3-8.

How does your background as an educator help you relate to children?
I obtained a reading teacher endorsement in my graduate work. And coupled with working with all ages/grades of children through the years, I know how important it is for children to have quality books in their hands with wholesome storylines.

As a teacher, I read a lot of literature about the benefits of reading in the home. Children receive many academic benefits from being in books. Reading expands their vocabulary and helps with writing and spelling. Through the years I was teaching, I always encouraged that as much as I could.

Why did you include discussion questions in the back of a children’s book?
I believe it’s always good to have follow-up questions for comprehension purposes. The questions, followed by a song, add a bonus to the story itself.

If someone is interested in writing a picture book, how would they go about finding the right artist with which to collaborate?
If authors go with a traditional publisher, which I did, the publisher can make recommendations. If you go Indie, same thing, the Indie publisher you work with can also make recommendations. If your path is self-publication, you’re a bit more on your own. I suggest checking with local school art teachers and just putting the word out on social media that you are looking for one.

I have the same illustrator for both of my children's books, and I'm lucky to have her. Courtney Smith was one of three recommended by my publisher. When I heard from her, I thought she was someone I wanted to work with. It turns out that she lives only 45 minutes away from me. She invited me to lunch at her house and we had a good connection. To add to the story, her mother is an in-house editor at Elk Lake Publishers who worked on the graphic layout for Harvey. Our meeting was a God thing.

Reading Harvey from a writer’s point of view, I noticed the book has all the elements necessary for a great story. Compelling characters, conflict, emotion, tension, danger and resolution. I’ve never even considered that in a children’s book before. Did you sit down and think about all of that ahead of time, or do you write more organically?

This is a great question! Yes, I did plan out these elements to some degree ahead of time, forming a framework for the story. And these elements are important for children to hold their interest, just like adult books.

How long did it take you to plot?
Maybe a couple of weeks. When I write I'll create a framework. Then I try to come up with ideas to expand it and put it all together. Then I let it sit for a bit. I can't tell you how many times I've gone to bed at night and a new idea will come.

Later, I give the story to my freelance editor for her input. Then I'll make a few more changes before I send it off. I'm doing a chapter book now and it’s taking me forever.

Your website is about preserving family memories and sharing family stories for the next generations. How did that evolve?
From the beginning of time, stories have been told. In fact, before sound symbols came to be to constitute writing, everyone was a storyteller. In the Old Testament, we read of Esther’s Purim tradition she started, which is continuing to this day with modern-day Jews. I believe all of us should tell our stories, continue with family traditions, and preserve them for the next generations. As a baby boomer, I think it’s important for the traditions and stories I remember from the past two generations to be shared and passed along to the generations following me.

My mother created traditions in our family, and that meant a lot to me. I continued some of those traditions with my family, along with some new ones. I hope my daughters will pass them on. I kept a journal and have written a lot of things that are worth saving. This is who I am. I’ve dated and named the people in all our photos.

My first book, Talitha the Traveling Skirt, is based on a family tradition my mom started. It's a true story about a little skirt that gets passed around for three generations. My sisters and I are named in the book.

When Talitha was published, it was recommended that I should have a website. I fumed and fretted over that for a while. I wanted my website to be something I was passionate about. I decided I could be excited about a site that discusses family traditions and preserving family memories and stories.

What are your next projects?
I have already submitted my third “traveling” book for publication: Roxie and the Traveling Rocker. It will be awhile before it’s available. I plan to have four in the series.

I am currently working on a young adult book about my father’s adventures aboard the USS Denver, a light cruiser in World War II. I have a tape recording from 1991 of my father telling all his WWII stories and the events he experienced. I'm so glad I have that.

I also have the USS Denver deck logs, the daily data for how fast the ship was going, how many ships were out in the open seas, where they docked, the battles, and the firing of the guns. Those have been my biggest resource. I had to dig into some other areas, too. I found a book with some great history in it.

How do your faith and spiritual life play into the picture and affect your storytelling?
My faith and spiritual walk is my identify and that definitely comes into play with my calling to write wholesome books.

What’s your biggest challenge in balancing writing time with your other responsibilities?
I am fortunate in that I’m retired and my family is raised. But everyone struggles with time management. For me, I focus on my hierarchy: God first, family second, everything else third. My writing endeavors fall in the third place. And with this perspective, I find the balance I need.

Any event concerning your writing life for which you are proud?
I was extremely proud, although I tried to keep my feet on the ground, when my publisher, Elk Lake Publishing Inc, offered a contract for my first children’s book. The email came on Saturday, which I wasn’t expecting. I stood up and clapped and my husband heard me shouting.

If you could have coffee with an author, dead or alive, whose work you admire, who would that be? What would you ask him or her?
I would love to have coffee with Patricia Polacco, a children’s author who I greatly admire. If I could, I’d ask her to read my children’s books and give me advice for future books.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?
I enjoy gardening in the summer months and oil painting whenever I can. I also enjoy the outdoors in Colorado—hiking and biking, especially with my husband. And spending quality time with my grandchildren cannot be beat!


Teresa Haugh lives with her husband in sunny Prescott, Arizona. When she is not writing, she enjoys music, hiking, reading, and visiting the gym (with audiobooks, of course). She loves meeting and talking with other authors about their writing journeys.

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