Since I am new to the picture-book world, I wanted to learn from other writers. What inspired their stories? How did they go about crafting their first book? What did they do when they finally received that offer? These authors have been kind enough to share their experiences and tips in this Q&A. This week's writer is SUSAN FARRINGTON.


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WHAT I LOVE ABOUT YOU

February 12, 2017

Tags: WHAT I LOVE ABOUT YOU, Susan Farrington, HarperCollins, 2016

After mixed-media artist Susan Farrington created a MTA poster that was displayed in hundreds of NYC trains, publishers asked her if she had any ideas for a children's books. Susan answered with her debut author/illustrator picture book WHAT I LOVE ABOUT YOU—"a bright and appealing lap-sit choice (School Library Journal) that "speak[s] joyfully to the happy chaos of family life” (Publishers Weekly).

Q. Was WHAT I LOVE ABOUT YOU the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. The first picture book I wrote was called 'These Are A Few Of The Scariest Things'.
The text and cadence was based on the song 'My favorite things', so right there I had a problem with copyright. I still love the book and the idea of using a safe space (a child sitting on the lap of a loved one) to help kids talk about and overcome fears.
I did have an agent and publisher who were interested but we could not get the OK from the copyright division of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Q. What inspired WHAT I LOVE ABOUT YOU?
A. I have two daughters, They are now 17 and 20. There were so many times when they were growing up when I thought, 'gosh, I love that'... many of those observations made their way into 'What I Love About You!'

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. Originally it was going to be "Do You Know What I Love?', but changing it to 'What I Love About You!' seemed a stronger choice.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. The page where the parent and child are holding hands... 'Do you know what I love? I love when you hold my hand.'
Then on the next page it says... 'And when you let go to make new friends', that's my favorite.

Q. How did you decide to tell the story in first or third person?
A. It seemed natural to tell the story in the first person. I wanted the child to feel the parent/caregiver was speaking directly to them.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing WHAT I LOVE ABOUT YOU?
A. The concept started as a list and then evolved to include both the things we love about our children as well as acknowledgements that not everything is always perfect.

Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. I had the outline of the story done and then worked on some of the illustrations.
The dummy of the book contained 4 finished illustrations as well as rough sketches of the remaining pages.

Q. Did WHAT I LOVE ABOUT YOU receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. I was lucky in that I was asked if I 'had any children's books in me' from two publishers after they saw my poster on the NY subway.The poster was in hundreds of trains in NYC for the year 2014, you can see it here http://www.susanfarrington.com/mta-ny-poster.html.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on WHAT I LOVE ABOUT YOU.
A. Over the moon happy! I had always dreamed of doing a children's book, so it was literally a dream come true!

Q. How long did WHAT I LOVE ABOUT YOU take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. About two years. I was told up front that there was a long lead time and that proved to be true. I was given about a year to complete the art; the following year was printing/color corrections and other tweaking.

Q. Is there anything you would change in the book today if you could reprint it? (Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?)
A. There were two things that I wanted which were ruled out in the beginning of the process—handmade type that was multicolored, and a mirrored surface at the end. The editor and art director explained why these things needed to be changed and I deferred to their expertise.

Q. When you do readings of WHAT I LOVE ABOUT YOU, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. The children like the page where the creature sings very loud... it gets a lot of laughs.
The parents respond to my favorite pages: 'I love when you hold my hand...and when you let go to make new friends.'

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Write something that you would want to read over and over again.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. Start with a rough outline of your story, lay it out as it would read over 32 pages. Play with the rhythm until the flow feels right. Don't be afraid to start over. Have fun.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I have a follow up book tentatively called "How to be a friend'. I'll keep you posted on it's progress!

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
A.:
susanfarrington.com
https://www.etsy.com/shop/susanfarrington
https://www.facebook.com/susan-farrington-482547581810699/
https://twitter.com/sus_farrington
https://www.pinterest.com/susanfarrington/

A BOOK OF BRIDGES

February 5, 2017

Tags: A BOOK OF BRIDGES, Cheryl Keely, Celia Krampien, Sleeping Bear Press, February 2017

Cheryl Keely is a journalist and also volunteers with a pet therapy organization. Along with her dog Dagaz, she visits local schools where the children take turns reading to the dogs. This month, Sleeping Bear Press is publishing Cheryl's first picture book, A BOOK OF BRIDGES —"a fine introduction to bridges and the great truth of connectivity (Kirkus Reviews).

Q. Was A BOOK OF BRIDGES the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. No, a Book of Bridges: Here to There and Me to You (Sleeping Bear Press, illustrated by Celia Krampien, Feb. 2017) was not the first picture book manuscript I ever wrote. I lost count a long time ago as to how many books I have written, started to write, thought about writing, etc. My first picture book after I became serious about focusing on writing picture books got totally slammed by an editor at my first SCBWI event and almost made me want to give up right on the spot. (I’m glad I didn’t. Stick with it. It gets better) It is now buried deep, deep in my filing cabinet. Others written pre-decision to focus on PB writing are in a shoe box of memories.

Q. What inspired A BOOK OF BRIDGES?
A. Like many of my ideas, a few lines came to me as I was settling down to take a nap. I liked the rhythm of them, so I emailed the lines to myself. Then I emailed a few more and a few more and then got up from my nap. It was not a restful nap, but it was productive.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. The original title was Here to There and Me to You. I liked the thought of bridges making connections and bringing people together. I really liked the line in the book containing those words. It seemed to me to sum up the best connection of all – me to you and you to me. A Book of Bridges was added later to make it clear that the book was about bridges. It helps to let readers to know what a book is about!

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. My favorite part is the ending line and that was in the book from the start.

Q. What kind of resources did you use in your research for this book?
A. I read as many books on bridges as I could from the local library (yeah for libraries) and researched bridge sites on-line.

Q. How did you decide which bridges to use in A BOOK OF BRIDGES?
A. Well, at first the bridge research was just for me to learn about different kinds of bridges and the facts weren’t originally included in the book. I wanted a wide variety showcasing different types of bridges and how they connect us to many different things. Sara Rockett at Sleeping Bear Press critiqued my story during a SCBWI Midsouth event and we talked about the research I did and she liked the idea of adding the facts. It fit well with the types of books Sleeping Bear Press publishes. I went back and added facts about the types of bridges contained in the story. A few were changed later. But it was hard. There are so many cool types of bridges out there.

Q. Did A BOOK OF BRIDGES receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. I have been reluctant to submit and have only just started putting my work out into the world, but I do take advantage of opportunities within SCBWI to have my work reviewed. I was very fortunate with this book. I had it critiqued at a Midsouth SCBWI event in 2014. The agent doing the critique thought the book was OK, but wasn’t interested. She gave me some really good feedback and I worked that into a rewrite. I had the story critiqued again at a Midsouth SCBWI event in 2015. Sarah Rockett at Sleeping Bear Press did the critique and liked the story. She asked me to revise and submit to her. I was walking on air. I made the changes we talked about and sent the story off. She said, “yes,” we would like to buy this book! Funnily enough, she didn’t like the changes I’d made based on the first critique and the rewrite I did was more closely aligned with the version I had critiqued the first time – with the addition of the facts. Just goes to show how subjective writing is and to keep at a story you really believe in as the right publisher is out there looking for it.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on A BOOK OF BRIDGES.
A. I’m still walking on air. It also still feels a bit like a dream.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. I had no input on choosing the illustrator. But I am so happy with Sleeping Bear Press’ choice. Celia Krampien is very talented and I love her artwork. 

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. Oh my god, that’s my book. With pictures. My story …is ... becoming …a book! I loved the cover from the get go. It has multiple layers to it and captures so many of the bridges and the connections made by them and the people who use them.

Q. How long did A BOOK OF BRIDGES take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A: I submitted the revised story in November 2015 and received word in January 2016 that Sleeping Bear Press would like to acquire the book. It was around July I learned it would be coming out in February. I’m still stunned by how quickly it’s all happened.

Q. Is there anything you would change in the book today if you could reprint it? (Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?)
A: I had one line in there I really liked — “or be used for sneaking past trolls to make-believe lands” — because I liked the bridge it made to our imaginations. It is not in the book as it didn’t really fit with all the other realistic bridges. It was replaced with an animal bridge and that made me happy as I love animals and think it’s so fun that there are bridges just for animals. I’d had the bridge in an early version but pulled it because I had too many examples. It all worked out in the end.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Just keep writing. Just keep writing. Just keep writing.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. I set a timer (usually 15 minutes) and write whatever comes out in that time. I find it to be both focusing and freeing. How weird is that? But with the time limit, I have to focus on getting something — anything — down, but since it can be anything, it’s also freeing. I will also use this method for revisions, too, so I have to get something done and not agonize of “what” to get done.

Q. What are you working on now?
A: I have a couple of stories out on submission (yeah, I’m getting better at putting myself out there) and a list of ideas I’ve been generating as a Storystorm participant in January that I’m hoping to turn into several manuscripts as a member of the 12 x 12 Picture Book Challenge 2017.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
A: Please come visit me at:
www.cherylkeely.com
@clkeely
www.facebook.com/CherylKeelyBooks/

Thank you so much for inviting me on your blog. May your day have some happy.

SALAD PIE

January 30, 2017

Tags: SALAD PIE, Wendy BooydeGraaff, Bryan Langdo, Ripple Grove Press, 2016

A contractor for an educational research foundation and a global relocation company, Wendy BooydeGraaff is also the author of a book which has inspired several children to go outside, pick up shiny gum wrappers at the park, and add them to a pretend pie. Today she talks to us about her #firstpicturebook SALAD PIE—“a fine addition to collections in need of imaginative friendship tales” (School Library Journal).

Q. Was SALAD PIE the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. No, I wrote many things before SALAD PIE, and the first picture book manuscript I wrote and sent out was about the ubiquitous story line of a new sibling, so while I still think the manuscript is cute, it’s locked away in my files.

Q. What inspired SALAD PIE?
A. My creative and imaginative daughter, when she was two years old, going on three.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. This is one of those times when the title came first, and then the story. My daughter and I were at the park and she was playing pretend and said, “Salad Pie,” which I thought was so clever and creative that I repeated it in my head over and over all the way home. Then, during her rest time, I scribbled out the first draft of the story.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. Well, let me answer that creatively. In the first drafts, the ending was different. I had Herbert sitting down to enjoy Salad Pie with Maggie, and then he forgot to pretend to eat the pretend pie. He took a real bite of leaves and gum wrapper and crab apple, which I thought was quite funny and ironic (especially to adults). I agreed to change the ending for Ripple Grove Press, and I think it is a much better ending for this story, and it now highlights Maggie’s acceptance of Herbert and his ideas for their next playdate.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters? 
A. The names Maggie and Herbert are right there in my first handwritten draft. They just seemed like the right names that fit the characters; my subconcious chose them.

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person? 
A. Third person allows the reader to see the actions of Maggie and Herbert and make their own judgements.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing SALAD PIE? 
A. The entire story came out in the first draft. After that, it took many readings and critique group meetings to make sure the story was saying what I thought it did. That’s always the trick of writing for me: to make sure I’m saying what I think I’m saying.

Q. Did SALAD PIE receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Yes, I had some rejections but the number is locked in a secret vault. ;)

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on SALAD PIE.
A. Well, Ripple Grove Press had my manuscript for eight or nine months. I had politely nudged them twice at three-to-four month intervals to determine the status of SALAD PIE, and both times they asked for a little more time. Then I came back from a short vacation and heard the message on my home phone that they wanted to talk to me. I started getting excited, and sure enough, when I called back, Rob said they wanted to publish SALAD PIE. There were very few edits, mainly the ending, which he told me about before I signed the contract. Then we went over the manuscript a few more times, especially after the initial sketches were in, to make it perfect.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book? 
A. They asked for input, so I sent some ideas of illustrator styles, but they chose the illustrator, Bryan Langdo.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. The first illustration I saw was a character sketch of Maggie with her curly hair (which I loved because I have very curly hair) and puddle jumper boots. I thought her fun-loving, inventive personality was captured perfectly. The cover shows Maggie overjoyed with her invention, and Herbert in the background. I’m very happy with it.

Q. How long did SALAD PIE take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Just under two years.The verbal offer was in June of 2014, the contract was signed eight days later, and SALAD PIE was released on March 1, 2016.

Q. Is there anything you would change in the book today if you could reprint it? (Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?)
A. I’ve read this book aloud in book stores, on Skype visits, in real classrooms, and I don’t have any words or punctuation I want to change. This is surprising, because I am a nitpick, but also a tribute to Ripple Grove Press’s process, which was very careful and not rushed.

Q. When you do readings of SALAD PIE which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. Invariably, when Maggie and Salad Pie tumble down, down, down the slide…and I turn the page and—nope, I’m not going to tell you. You have to read the book! But at readings, I always get a reaction.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Spend lots of time thinking about the words you write, rereading them and making sure they really are the words that are telling the story in the best way possible.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. There are many writing exercises that I love, but I think my favourite stems from people-watching. Sit on a bench somewhere and watch the people who pass. Ask questions about them. Where are they going? What job do they do? Once you see someone that sparks your imagination, gather in as many details as possible about that person and then write. Make up everything you don’t know, from where they live to what books they read. It doesn’t matter if that person leaves—maybe it’s even better—because now you are in the realm of fiction, using your imagination to springboard there.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I am working on more picture books and a middle grade manuscript.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
A:
website: http://www.wendybooydegraaff.com/
Read about many other picture book authors and illustrators at On the Scene in 2016: https://onthescenein2016.wordpress.com/
Connect and share your favorite outdoorsy books on:
@BooyTweets: https://twitter.com/BooyTweets
Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/wbooydegraaff/salad-pie/
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/14531750.Wendy_BooydeGraaff.

BUNNY'S BOOK CLUB

January 23, 2017

Tags: BUNNY'S BOOK CLUB, Annie Silvestro, Tatjana Mai-Wyss, Doubleday Books for Young Readers, February 7, 2017

Annie Silvestro has worked as a magazine editor, convention consultant, and mother. And on February 7th, all of her hard work on her first picture book will pay off when it is displayed in bookstores. Inspired by her costume in a preschool show, BUNNY'S BOOK CLUB is "a love letter to the pleasures of reading and libraries" (School Library Journal)

Q. Was BUNNY'S BOOK CLUB the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. I had written many stories before Bunny. The very first was called LANCE THE LION, about a very vain but lonely lion who opens a hair salon in his cave. The story is locked away in a very deep drawer – I laugh about it now, but it will always have a place in my heart because it’s the idea that got me started as a writer.

Q. What inspired BUNNY'S BOOK CLUB?
A. Every year at the preschool my kids attended, the parents put on a show for the students. My first year in the show, I had a part as a bunny. I looked so ridiculous in my full-on bunny costume, I started brainstorming crazy things a bunny would do. One of those ideas planted the seed for BUNNY’S BOOK CLUB.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. My fantastic editor at Doubleday Books for Young Readers, Frances Gilbert, suggested the title after we went through a few rounds of edits and the original title no longer fit.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I think my favorite part is when Porcupine confronts Bunny about what he’s been up to and Bunny tells him about books and the library for the first time. A form of that scene was in the first draft. I also like when the animals get busted by the librarian.

Q. How did you decide between telling the story in first or third person? 
A. I generally feel more comfortable writing in the third person – though I hope to spread my wings one of these days!

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing BUNNY'S BOOK CLUB? 
A. The theme of the story and Bunny’s love of books were always central. I knew how the story was going to end up, but the “how” changed quite a bit over the course of many revisions.

Q. Did BUNNY'S BOOK CLUB receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Yes! I had a good number of rejections. I am grateful that my amazing agent, Liza Voges, saw its potential and that my editor was willing to take a chance on it!

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on BUNNY'S BOOK CLUB.
A. Screaming. Lots and lots of happy screaming! I was in the car on a road trip with my family. I may have frightened my children (briefly).

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book? 
A. The team at Doubleday chose Tatjana Mai-Wyss and I was over-the-moon when I heard. I am in love with her beautiful and charming illustrations!

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. I was beyond thrilled. Bunny and his friends are so adorable and each has his or her own unique personality. The porcupine hugging the book absolutely steals my heart. I adore the final spread and the cover is so bright and happy, it makes me smile every time I see it.

Q. How long did BUNNY'S BOOK CLUB take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Three years.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Join the SCBWI! I owe so much to this incredible organization – I can’t say enough positive things about it. Otherwise, read as much as you can and write as much as you can.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. My favorite and most necessary exercise is reading a story out loud so I can really hear the areas that are working and the ones that are not.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I have a few picture books ideas that I’m working through, and I’m also tackling a chapter book which I’m really excited about.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
A. Please find me on my website: www.anniesilvestro.com or on Twitter and Instagram, @anniesilvestro

PAX AND BLUE

January 16, 2017

Tags: PAX AND BLUE by Lori Richmond (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, February 7, 2017)

Lori Richmond is a Brooklyn-based children's illustrator, creative director, and designer. And on February 7th, she will add "author" to that list when PAX AND BLUE—a picture book she wrote and illustrated—is published by Paula Wiseman Books. "Nicely pitched to young readers' empathies" (Kirkus Reviews), PAX AND BLUE "speaks volumes about being a good friend" (Publishers Weekly). Thank you Lori for sharing your #firstpicturebook story:

Q. Was PAX AND BLUE the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. PAX AND BLUE was the first project I finished to a complete dummy. Many years before PAX AND BLUE, I took a picture book class but only half-wrote some pretty bad manuscripts, which, lucky for us all, are now dead in a drawer somewhere.

Q. What inspired PAX AND BLUE?
A. My younger son told me a true story about a pigeon who got lost on a subway train. We live in New York City, so subway rides are part of our daily life. It is quite funny to think of a pigeon commuting on the subway, but I was really touched by how my son was concerned that the bird may be scared. Pigeons are not the most revered urban animals, but, to a child, he was just a little bird that needed help.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. The original title was PAX AND THE PIGEON. I love alliteration. But after chatting with my editor, we decided that PAX AND BLUE was friendlier and introduced both characters sooner.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I love the sequence when Blue the pigeon follows Pax down the stairs all the way on to the train— this is pretty much intact from the original dummy.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. Again, the alliteration… I knew I wanted a “P” name for the boy, since I was going to pair it with the word “Pigeon” in the original title. I searched baby name lists to get ideas, and loved how Pax meant “peace,” since the character is so thoughtful, empathic, and solves this really chaotic problem for everyone. And Blue has some bright blue feathers on his body!

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. I feel most comfortable writing in third person.

Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. I write first and then illustrate. In that process, words begin to get cut as the pictures begin to do the talking. Original drafts of PAX AND BLUE had a lot more words than wound up in the final book.

Q. Why did you use a very limited color palette?
A. LYLE, LYLE, CROCODILE is my favorite classic city story, and his bright green color stands out so boldly in every illustration. This look had a huge influence on me when working on PAX AND BLUE. Because it is a friendship story, I wanted to put all the attention on the main friends and visually push back everything else in the busy city. The background people and environments blend together in the same monochromatic purplish-gray, while Pax and Blue are rendered to stand out in bright colors with a strong, bold line.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing PAX AND BLUE?
A. Since the story was based on a real situation, I had a pretty good base — but I still needed to establish an authentic friendship between Pax and Blue. I learned that it’s not really about creating plot points to move things along — it is about making sure the action in the story allows an emotional connection to happen between the characters, and, in turn, with the reader. That is what makes a story work.

Q. Did PAX AND BLUE receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. This was not a typical submission. I did a workshop at Highlights Foundation and my instructor saw promise in my work and passed samples along to a few editors. I was surprised to be contacted by Paula Wiseman, and she asked if I had any completed dummies. I sent PAX AND BLUE to her, and then we met in person a few weeks later. At that meeting, Paula told me she was interested in publishing it!

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on PAX AND BLUE.
A. Total freakout in the calmest and most professional way possible, because I didn’t believe it was real!

Q. How long did PAX AND BLUE take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. The story was sold in 2014, and the pub date is February 7, 2017.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Join SCBWI for the wonderful learning resources and community! And read picture books. Lots of them. Ask yourself why you like certain books. Analyze how the book is paced. How is the conflict introduced? How is it resolved? There is so much you can learn just by spending an afternoon at a library or indie bookstore.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. I am really bad at doing formal writing exercises. What I am good at is using the app Evernote to record seedlings of ideas. I have hundreds of Evernotes—each one represents one idea. Sometimes it’s just a title, or a theme, or a name. Sometimes it’s a story outline. I add to the notes over time. I wind up having this big repository of thought starters I can go back to when I am looking to start a new project.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m putting the finishing touches on my next author-illustrated title, BUNNY’S STAYCATION (Scholastic, 2018.) I am also doing final art for OOPSIE-DO! (by Tim Kubart, HarperCollins, 2018) and SKELLY’S HALLOWEEN (by David Martin, Macmillan/HenryHolt, 2018.)

Q. Where can readers find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
Website: LoriDraws.com
Twitter: @loririchmond
Instagram: ldm1025

Happy Holidays

December 22, 2016

Christmas came early for me this year. Last weekend, I woke up to find that Nadia Comaneci had posted on social media —"Karlin Gray did an amazing job with this book"—with an image of NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN'T SIT STILL and an Amazon link! I've always been proud of this book but that endorsement was delicious icing on the cake. I'm so thankful to everyone who helped me with this book, from my writing instructor Victoria Sherrow to my editor Kate O'Sullivan at HMH to the talented illustrator Christine Davenier.

I just want to remind writers that I don't have an agent. I workshopped my manuscript for a year. (Yes, my classmates were sick of it!) I sent it to every publisher that accepts unsolicited nonfiction picture books. It was rejected everywhere . . . until one person plucked it from the slush pile.

Since then, I have been writing, submitting, and receiving lots of rejection letters. And then one day, another editor picked up one of my manuscripts. Now my rhyming fiction picture book, AN ORDINARY MOTH, will be published by Sleeping Bear Press in 2018.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading this Q&A blog and learning about how writers created their first picture book. It will return in the New Year with new writers and new books. Until then, enjoy the holidays with family and friends before you go back to that drawer full of manuscripts!

WHERE ARE THE WORDS?

December 11, 2016

Tags: WHERE ARE THE WORDS?, Jodi McKay, Denise Holmes, Albert Whitman, 2016

This month Jodi McKay's debut picture book will be published and today she found all the right words to tell us about WHERE ARE THE WORDS? Leave a comment below to win a copy!

Q. Was WHERE ARE THE WORDS? the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. WHERE ARE THE WORDS? was definitely not the first story I wrote. There are at least a dozen that came before all of which are tucked away waiting for their turn to be revised.

I actually happened to come across my first manuscript (which I wrote and illustrated) the other day when I was cleaning out the deepest recesses of my basement. Believe me, that’s where it belongs. It was a collection of rhyming poems about different half kid, half animal characters. That’s right, humanimals. Good thing it didn’t work, eh?

Q. What inspired WHERE ARE THE WORDS??
A. I spend a lot of time staring at my computer, willing words to appear on the screen. It was one of these intense staring episodes that I wondered why I couldn’t find the right words for a story and then I thought, Hmmm can I write about that? “Of course!” I answered myself, “But you need to do it in a different way.” So I went through my mental list of possible characters and came across the punctuation marks. It all came together very quickly after that.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. I honestly didn’t think that this would remain the title. It’s just what I kept asking myself for so long and still do for that matter. Even now, as I write the answers to these questions, I’m going back and forth looking for the right words. It’s crazy, but it’s part of my process.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I love when Exclamation Point is trying to catch Run, Jump, Skip, and Hop. The words are doing exactly that, running, jumping, skipping, and hopping away from Exclamation Point which makes a funny and very active scene. Denise Holmes, the illustrator of this book, did a great job making that spread come to life.

This idea of trying to catch words came a little later in the revisions. I always had Exclamation Point trying to wrangle the words, but it wasn’t as literal as this.

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in first person?
A. Well, for a couple of reasons. One, I figured that if I wrote it in first person, then these unconventional characters may feel more relatable and two, I wanted this to be a simple story with a twist. I imagined children reading it and discovering that the characters speak as their roles dictate. That, to me, would be an incredible learning opportunity.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing WHERE ARE THE WORDS? 
A. I knew the problem and the characters rather quickly and I knew that I wanted the characters to speak in a way that shows their punctuation roles. After establishing the three main characters, Period, Question Mark, and Exclamation Point, I needed to add in other punctuation marks and figure out how they could or maybe weren’t able to help Period reach his goal of writing a story. I wanted there to be a sense of teamwork woven into the story so I really tried to have each character be important to creating that theme.

Q. Did WHERE ARE THE WORDS? receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. I am prefacing this with the statement that this is a highly unusual situation and I was very lucky to have experienced this.

I received one rejection from an agent who favorited it on #pitmad. I then sent it to an author whose critique service I had won in a contest. She offered a few suggestions and then asked if I would be interested in sending it to her editor. Um, heck yeah! I sent it to her editor at Albert Whitman and waited for a couple of months with no word. Assuming this meant no, I started to query it. Two weeks after I sent three queries out, I opened my email and there it was, an offer to publish a story about punctuation marks trying to find words to write a story.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on WHERE ARE THE WORDS?
A. You know that feeling when you are about to go over the top of the first hill of a roller coaster and you want to puke and laugh at the same time? It was kind of like that. I called my husband who immediately thought someone had been in a horrible accident because I was cry-yelling. Then I just kinda sat and let it sink in. Once the initial shock left my body I allowed myself to be excited. I am not a very excitable person so this was a big deal.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book? 
A. None at all, I just got really lucky. Denise is an extremely talented artist who took punctuation marks and gave them life. I had no idea how that was going to happen, but she did it and now the book is so much more that I had imagined it could be. I am very grateful to have been able to work with Denise.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. I really liked the mannerisms of the characters. Their facial expressions are fairly simple, but the way their arms move and how they are positioned really gives a sense of personality and adds more heart to the story. I also loved the colors that Denise used.

Q. How long did WHERE ARE THE WORDS? take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. It has been almost two years and like most published authors will tell you, the two longest years of my life. I have learned a lot about the publishing process and about myself in that time so I appreciate it all of it.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Find your people first. Not your wife or husband, not your best friend, but people who know what writing is like and who can offer you not only specific support (say that 5 times), but honest and experienced feedback about your manuscripts. The kidlit community is vast and wonderful. There are published and pre-published authors available to share knowledge and writerly love for anyone who seeks it. These are the people you want in your corner as your write your stories. I could not have done this without my critique groups, SCBWI, and all of my online author friends who have so graciously given their wisdom. Find your people.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. I am a big advocate for a good story arc and I try to make sure that I hit all of the elements of the arc by asking myself this: Who, Wants, But, So, Then, Sign off. In other words, the main character has a goal, but something stands in his/her way of achieving that goal so he/she tries three different and increasingly harder ways of reaching that goal (failing each time), then the main character learns something or changes in some way that helps him/her finally get to that goal. All is well so the story wraps up usually in a funny, circular, or open ended way. Getting all of the key parts of a story down is an art form that I am still working on, but I like to start there.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I am currently working on a picture book idea that hit me while I was supposed to be relaxing at the end of a yoga session. I don’t normally think about mice as I sink into child’s pose, but once they popped in my head they wouldn’t leave me alone. Very chatty, those mice.
I’m also revising several stories that I plan on sending to my agent soon. She is very editorial, which I love so I anticipate revising some more afterwards.

Thanks for having me on your blog, Karlin!

Jodi would love to hear from you! You can find her on:
Her website- www.JodiMcKayBooks.com (Look for the teacher’s’ guide!)
Email- Jodi@JodiMcKayBooks.com
Facebook- https://www.facebook.com/JLMcKayBooks/
Twitter- https://twitter.com/JLMcKay1

A WINNER WAS EMAILED AND THIS CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED. To celebrate WHERE ARE THE WORDS? publication, Jodi is giving away a copy of WHERE ARE THE WORDS? Simply comment below to enter. One comment per person, US addresses only, please.

Happy Holidays!

December 4, 2016

I will be taking a blog break for most of the month of December while I visit with family and friends. Happy Holidays and Happy Writing!

BACKHOE JOE

November 28, 2016

Tags: BACKHOE JOE By Lori Alexander and illustrated by Craig Cameron (Harper Children's, 2016)

As a kid, Lori Alexander made her own books to keep busy on rainy days. Now she's a grown up, a mom, and a picture-book writer (whether it's raining or not!). Today she talks to us about her debut book BACKHOE JOE—"A perfect, heartfelt book for boys and girls who like trucks and construction things" (San Francisco Book Review, 5-stars).

Q. Was BACKHOE JOE the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. Yes and no. My first attempt at a picture book was a story about construction trucks with a zoo setting. But that version lacked tension. It morphed into a story about a boy who wrote letters to his parents. Each letter explained why a backhoe was the perfect birthday gift. But that version lacked a just-right ending. One of his letters compared a backhoe to a puppy. Those few sentences were the spark for the current version of BACKHOE JOE. (TIP: Dig deep with your revisions. The story’s in there somewhere!)

Q. What inspired BACKHOE JOE?
A. My 3-year-old son’s love for all-things construction truck.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. I wanted a title with a nice ring to it (à la Fancy Nancy). In the story, J.O.E. is painted on the side of the backhoe and it stands for Jumbo Operating Equipment. When the boy character sees it, he calls the truck Joe.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. The twist ending. Yep, it was there from the get-go.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters? 
A. Besides Backhoe Joe, there’s only one named character—a boy named Nolan. At the time, my daughter had a Nolan in her preschool class. He could already read and that’s probably why the name stuck in my mind.

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. I flipped between 3rd person, 1st person (in my epistolary version), and back to 3rd person. Third felt right for the final version and is the most common picture book POV. (TIP: Try alternating the POV of your work-in-progress. You may like what the change does for your story).

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing BACKHOE JOE? 
A. Only that I wanted to tell a fictional truck story. I read so many truck books to my son when he was little. Many were non-fiction and that’s where he learned all the names of the trucks and their various functions. There seemed to be fewer fictional truck books and I wanted to take a stab at a story where a kid wanted a construction truck of his own.

Q. Did BACKHOE JOE receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Oh, yes! Pre-agent, I sent the early versions to various publishers and ended up in their slush piles. There were a handful of non-responses and some form rejections. I nearly gave up at that point. The process was so slow and I didn’t feel like I was learning enough from the rejections. But the more I read, the more I realized rejections are all part of the business. I kept at it and eventually landed an agent. Once I had an agent and JOE was closer to its current version, we received 3-4 rejections in the first round of submissions. One of the editors had a useful bit of feedback which helped me streamline the story into its current version. BACKHOE JOE sold in auction in the next round of submissions. (TIP: Don’t give up!)

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on BACKHOE JOE.
A. The day of the auction is right up there with my wedding day and the birth of my two kids. Sound crazy? Maybe. But now I know walking down an aisle and pushing out a kid or two is easier than selling a traditionally-published picture book (for me, at least!).

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book? 
A. Not much. The entire process was new to me as a debut author. They ran Craig Cameron’s name by me and shared a few illustrations from his portfolio. I remember reading his bio and learning he worked on Bob the Builder books so he seemed like a good fit.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. The first things that jumped out at me were the wheels that took the place of the Os in the title (love!) and Backhoe Joe’s big smile!

Q. How long did BACKHOE JOE take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. It sold in July 2012 and released in September 2014, so just over two years.

Q. Is there anything you would change in the book today if you could reprint it? (Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?)
A. Very little editing occurred after the sale. A few words added, a few removed. I try not to think about what I could have done differently. It would make me crazy!

Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about BACKHOE JOE?
A. I have received lots of sweet letters after visiting schools (with surprisingly good illustrations of backhoes!). But my favorite fan “mail” was a video sent to me by PB author Corey Rosen Schwartz. In it, a friend read BACKHOE JOE to her young son, who had memorized the text and was able to complete the last word in each sentence. It still warms my heart to see such a little guy “pre-reading” the text I wrote!

Q. When you do readings of BACKHOE JOE, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. Definitely the final spread. The illustration leads the kids to think one thing and then BAM! Twist ending. After we finish reading, I like to talk with the kids about why I chose that ending versus the expected one.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Don’t give up! You WILL receive rejections letters. So. Many. Rejections.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. I don’t have a writing exercise to share. I do like to participate in Tara Lazar’s annual PiBoIdMo event for idea generation. Check out her blog here.

Q. What are you working on now?
A picture book biography and a few other quirky fiction PB manuscripts. My next picture book, FAMOUSLY PHOEBE, comes out in Fall 2017 with Sterling.

To learn more about Lori and her projects, visit her website.

MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS

November 21, 2016

Tags: MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS, Linda Vander Heyden, Eileen Ryan Ewen, Sleeping Bear Press, 2016

It's been a long road to publication. But after running a business and raising a family, Linda Vander Hayden finally reached her destination—publishing her first picture book! Today she shares the story behind MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS—"an appealing and appropriate addition to the nature shelf in the preschool and early elementary grades" (Kirkus Reviews).

Q. Was MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. My first picture book was a very long story about a crabby cat. I spent hours researching publishers who would love my story. I sent it out into the world and waited…and waited. Finally—a response! It was a form rejection (with many more to follow). Not one to give up easily, I revised my story, cutting the word count in half. Surely, now they would be interested. Alas, no. Though disappointed, I learned a lot from those rejections. It is all part of the journey.

Q. What inspired MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS?
A. For a long time, I’ve been concerned about what is happening to the monarchs. Once it was common to see many of these beautiful butterflies throughout summer and fall. Now, people report not seeing any or very few. Some of the challenges our monarch friends face are changing weather patterns, pesticides, herbicides, roadside mowing, and habitat destruction.

One day, while walking my dogs, I found the milkweed along the side of our quiet road had been mowed. Milkweed is vital to monarch survival. Monarch caterpillars were clinging to the drying plants. Seeing this was upsetting. The monarchs are in trouble, and I wanted to share their story.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. I loved the alliteration. And I love Irish names. My grandfather came to this country from Ireland when he was only 16. My sisters and I visited his childhood home a few years ago. It was an amazing experience!

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I have several. One, in particular, is when Mr. McGinty and his dog, Sophie, are rescuing the caterpillars. People pass by and shake their heads wondering why he bothers. But Mr. McGinty isn’t worried about how he is seen by others. He only wants to help the monarchs.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters? 
A. Mr. McGinty seemed to be the perfect name for this kind-hearted, energetic man who cares so much about nature. And I chose the name Sophie for his dog, because I thought it sounded gentle. Sophie adores Mr. McGinty and is always ready to share in his adventures, including a monarch mission!

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. It really wasn’t a conscious decision. The story just seemed to flow onto the page that way. I think using third person makes it more relatable to children. They can see themselves in the story and identify with Mr. McGinty’s love and concern for the monarchs.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS?
A. I knew about half the story when I began writing. Over the next couple years, with numerous revisions, the rest of the story took shape. I was also very fortunate to be part of the SCBWI mentorship program. I am so grateful to my mentor, who helped with final revisions.

Q. Did MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. It definitely did. I think most manuscripts receive rejections. Perhaps some stories are acquired right away, but they are probably few and far between. I received about seven rejections before learning that Sleeping Bear wanted to publish this story.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS.
A. I’m taking a deep breath here. My mother had passed away the month before, and I was (and still am) feeling her loss deeply. My mother was always in my corner. She told me to never give up on my writing. We were at our daughter’s home the evening my agent called with the exciting news. It is hard to describe the combination of sorrow at losing my mother so recently and the elation I felt when I learned of the offer from Sleeping Bear. I wish she could have been here to share my happiness, but I believe she knows.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. Sleeping Bear chose Eileen Ryan Ewen to illustrate the book, and I am delighted with her vision of Mr. McGinty and Sophie! MR. MCGINTY’S MONARCHS was a debut book for both of us!

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. It was thrilling to see this story come to life at last! I loved Eileen’s portrayal of Mr. McGinty. It was so different than how I pictured him. And so much better! I couldn’t believe it when I saw Sophie. She, too, looked very different than what I had pictured. What struck me immediately was that Sophie looked exactly like the dog my mother had when she was a little girl. Eileen had never seen a photo of my mother’s dog!

Q. How long did MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. It took about a year and a half from the time I received the offer until the book was released.

Q. Is there anything you would change in the book today if you could reprint it? (Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?)
A. I honestly can’t think of anything I would change. The story teaches while it entertains, and Eileen’s illustrations are beautiful. I also think the author notes are fun and kid friendly. I love reading this story to students and seeing their enthusiasm as they listen and later share their own butterfly stories with me.

Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS?
A. Yes, one little girl told me, “I want to be a superhero butterfly when I grow up.”

Q. When you do readings of MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. The children have lots of fun following Sophie throughout the story. They love her hairdo when she visits the classroom with Mr. McGinty! And I hear them “Oooh” and “Aaah” when they see Eileen’s full-page spread of the monarchs being released.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. The best advice I can offer would be to join SCBWI. This organization offers many opportunities to grow as a writer and/or illustrator. I would also say be patient. It can be a very long road to publication, but along the way, you’ll meet supportive, talented people who will often be willing to help you achieve your goals. And as my mother once told me, “Don’t give up.”

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. I don’t really have a favorite writing exercise, but as I write, I try to use active verbs and make sure I’m showing (not telling) how my characters are feeling. I’ve also learned to remember to leave room for an illustrator to work his or her magic.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. For several years, I’ve been working on a manuscript about a red-tailed hawk that was injured in a landfill. When I heard about him from his rehabber, I knew I wanted to share his story. It’s taken a long time (and many different versions), but I think it’s finally coming together.

To learn more about Linda, visit her website