The following post is an interview with Kat Shehata, author of Sea Biscuit vs. War Admiral, a non-fiction book for children about history’s most famous horse race.
RH: Your latest book, Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral, was released on June 13. What can readers expect from this story?
KS: Seabiscuit’s story embodies the spirit of America. The race between the horses took place in 1938 during The Great Depression at a time when the country was on the verge of war. War Admiral was a Triple Crown champion and Seabiscuit was winning and breaking track records across the country. However, the two champions had never raced against each other. This horse against horse match up is considered the greatest race in history.
RH: When you sat down to write Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral, what did you hope to communicate to your audience through the retelling of this historic race?
KH: No matter what the odds– never give up.
RH: What sets your story apart from others written on the subject?
KS: My goal was to give each horse a personality, but I was careful not to make the characters anthropomorphic. Readers will have to decide for themselves if the jockey was responsible for the outcome of the race or if it was the competitive nature of the winning horse.
RH: Who did the illustrations for this story, and how did you go about securing an illustrator? Were you able to have any input on the beautiful illustrations?
KS: The original illustrations for the picture book edition were done by Society of Illustrators award-winner, Jo McElwee. In the beginning, she had a big problem with her research. All of the reference photos from 1938 were in black and white. Our picture book was going to be in color. Staying true to the integrity of her work, Jo drove from Cincinnati to Saratoga Springs, New York, to visit a display that held the real silks worn by the horses and jockeys. In the new updated chapter book, Jo had to re-design the illustrations for a black and white interior. Jo and I have collaborated together on seven books. For each title we created a storyboard and met often to discuss ideas. We work very well together; Jo is my mom.
RH: What was your process for researching this book? How long did it take?
KS: I decided to write and publish this book when I read that Universal was making a movie based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend. In order to publish the book and get it on bookstore shelves by the time the movie premiered, we had to work around the clock. I had already read Ms. Hillenbrand’s book, so I was familiar with her version of Seabiscuit’s true story. As a children’s book author, I had to decide what part of Seabiscuit’s story would appeal to kids. I also had to decide where to start the story. While researching, I found footage of the actual race that aired in 1938. It still brings tears to my eyes. The race had tension, anticipation, and great characters. After watching the race, I knew where to begin and end my story. We ended up writing, editing, and illustrating the book in about three months. If you would like to see the real footage, visit my website.
RH: As a former zoo-keeper, you are well-known as an animal lover. What is it about animals that inspires you to tell stories, not only for small children, but for teens, as well?
KS: I have always had a special connection with animals. When I worked at the Cincinnati Zoo I had the privilege of working with and around exotic animals from around the world. One of my favorites was an orangutan named Rustle. Every morning when I came to work he greeted me with a big smile and super long outstretched arms. I used to brush his hair with a horse comb and rolled grapes to him from between the bars. I wasn’t able to have this type of relationship with all the animals—because some of them would eat me—but I have no doubt that animals are more “human” than people might imagine. I write for people who share my love for animals.
RH: You write for both children and young adults. What themes and subject matters do you like to explore when sitting down to write something new?
KS: I write what comes to me. I am currently working on a YA novel about a girl who can communicate with animals and nature. When the character Willow came to me, she wouldn’t let me go. And since day one there was a black wolf with golden eyes that never left her side. Then Brahm, a black Arabian, galloped into the story and after that a crow, a herd of angora goats, a Siamese cat and an old lion. I actually never sit down and think or look for characters. They find me. Then they neigh and bark and flap around in my imagination until I get their stories down on paper. I am never at a loss for ideas.
RH: In addition to being a talented writer, you are also a talented marketer of your work. What are a few tips for authors struggling to promote their work?
KS: You know I could rattle on for hours on this subject, Rebekah! My best advice is to let the subject of your work do the marketing for you. For example, I have never published a book that didn’t make money. Why? Because I pre-sell enough copies of every single book I publish before I send it off for printing. If I have a great idea but can’t pre-sell enough books to cover the print run—I kill the project. If you take a look at the last page of my picture books, there is a dedication to a non-profit organization. This marketing approach is what I call strategic partnerships.
RH: What is the best advice you can give to aspiring writers out there?
KS: My advice is very simple: know your audience. I write for people who love animals and respect the spirit of nature. People who share my passion will enjoy my books. A book for everyone is a book for no one. Once you pinpoint your audience, think about how to reach them in the most creative way possible. The funniest thing I was ever asked to do was to serve as Grand Marshall in a parade in Seabiscuit’s honor in a small town in Kentucky. Love what you do and don’t be afraid to stretch your creative mind. Life would be boring without creative people!
Kat Shehata is a former zookeeper who went to school with a bunch of animals, literally. She spent her junior and senior years of high school as a student of the animal conservation and care program at the Cincinnati Zoo. Ms. Shehata holds a bachelor’s degree in theatre from Wilmington College, a professional writing certificate from the University of Cincinnati, and an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Spalding University. She founded Angel Bea Publishing in 2002 and is the author of four picture books and one chapter book. Visit Ms. Shehata’s official website at http://www.katshehata.com .