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 KRISTEN FULTON.


Quick Links

Find Authors

My First Picture Book Q&A

THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT

May 30, 2016

Tags: THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT, Penny Parker Klostermann, Ben Mantle, Random House Books for Young Readers, 2015

Today we are chatting with former teacher and current picture-book writer Penny Parker Klostermann. Her second book, A COOKED UP FAIRY TALE, is due out next year. Here she looks back at creating her first picture book, THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT—Named Best in Rhyme 2015 in conjunction with the Rhyming Picture Book Revolution Conference.

Q. Was THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT the first picture book manuscript that you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. It was not the first. If I checked my files correctly, it was the twelfth. The first one I wrote was titled THE IMAGINATION SITUATION. It is still sitting. I've revisited it a few times to see if I could find my way to revisions, but so far it's a no-go.

Q. What inspired THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT?
A few things.

A. First, I knew I wanted to do a retelling of THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY. In fact, I just counted my ideas for a retelling in my list of PIBOIDMO (Picture Book Idea Month) ideas over the years and I have twenty-one different main characters that I thought might work for this book and none of the ideas say "dragon." But I still kind of count this as a PIBOIDMO idea, as the spark was there.
Second, for about two years I took pictures of clouds that took on familiar shapes. One evening I photographed one that looked just like a dragon and I thought what a great main character a dragon would make if I could just find a story for him.
Finally, one day I was determined to find a main character for my retelling and I visited Tara Lazar's list of 500+ Things Kids Like. There was dragon again. I started writing and the the rest is history.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. Once I had the first thing the dragon would swallow, it made sense for that to be my title.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. Probably the annoying steed galloping around at a terrible speed. In my first draft I had a horse that galloped and trotted around, of course. A member of my critique group suggested the steed since it fits with knights and castles. I was embarrassed that I'd missed that wonderful detail. Yay for critique groups!

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. That was an easy decision because I mirrored the original.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT?
A. Only about fifty percent. My first draft was 274 words. The final text is 481 words.

Q. Did THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT receive any rejection letters? Yes. If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Ten, counting submissions to both agents and editors.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT.
A. Total excitement. And disbelief! Really this reaction was when my agent, Tricia Lawrence, let me know there was strong interest. But, my editor, Maria Modugno, wanted revisions. I think that's pretty typical for a first-time author. I imagine she wanted to see if I had it in me. Plus, my story was in rhyme so revisions can be tricky. After I came through, we got an official offer.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. Maria did ask if we had suggestions and we gave a few. Really, I didn't expect to be asked so I didn't have a strong feel. Then when Maria said her first choice was Ben Mantle and Tricia and I saw his work we were delighted.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. I loved how he captured the dragon's personality. And the color palette is perfection. Ben Mantle nailed the whole thing and added so much to the story.

Q. How long did THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Just under 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. I wouldn't change a thing. I felt very lucky to have an editor who attended to every detail and was determined to make the book the best it could be.

Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT?
A. The most memorable thing so far is a drawing of my dragon that was given to me by a 3rd grade girl. She drew it during my presentation at her school. I loved that she loved my dragon enough to draw him. And she did a fabulous job.

Q. When you do readings of THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. Kids love the spread where the dragon is completely bloated and roars, "Okay . . . enough! I've had enough— More than enough of this swallowing stuff." The dragon is so fat that it's hard not to laugh. And, of course, the BURRRRRP! spread is a favorite, too.

Q. What is your #1 tip on writing picture books?
A. Join SCBWI. There are a lot of resources out there, but SCBWI led me to most of them. Sorry, I can't just stop with one :-) Remember that even though revision is hard, that's usually where the magic happens.
Read! Read! Read!
To learn more about Penny Parker Klostermann and her books, visit her website

JOURNEY: BASED ON THE TRUE STORY OF OR7, THE MOST FAMOUS WOLF IN THE WEST.

May 23, 2016

Tags: JOURNEY: BASED ON THE TRUE STORY OF OR7, THE MOST FAMOUS WOLF IN THE WEST, Emma Bland Smith, Robin James, Little Bigfoot, an imprint of Sasquatch Books, October 2016

Emma Bland Smith is a mom, librarian, and the author of SAN FRANCISCO'S GLEN PARK AND DIAMOND HEIGHTS. But today she is discussing her debut picture book,
JOURNEY: BASED ON THE TRUE STORY OF OR7, THE MOST FAMOUS WOLF IN THE WEST—coming in October 2016.

Q. Was JOURNEY the first picture book manuscript that you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?)
A. No, JOURNEY was probably my seventh or eighth manuscript. I began writing about eight years ago, so I had amassed a small portfolio by the time I signed with my agent (Essie White of Storm Literary) in 2015. My first manuscript is a book about pie, accompanied by recipes. It’s unorthodox, but I’m still fiddling with it, and I have hope! In the meantime, we’re submitting my more traditional picture book manuscripts.

Q. What inspired JOURNEY?
A. I kept reading about this rogue wolf who was getting a lot of attention for traveling a vast distance, from northern Oregon to Northern California. People were worried about his safety (would he get shot?) and wondered if he would ever find a mate. There was the drama, right there, and then, when I read that a child had picked his name in a naming contest, I thought maybe that was the hook I needed to turn the story into a children’s book.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. JOURNEY is the name that a child (actually two children in different states) submitted in a naming contest sponsored by a conservation organization, Oregon Wild. (The full name of the book is JOURNEY: Based on the True Story of OR7, the Most Famous Wolf in the West.) I love the name because it evokes the wolf’s adventurous spirit.

Q. What kind of resources did you use while researching JOURNEY?
A. Well, mostly the internet. I read all the news articles I could about the wolf OR7. I read a few nonfiction books about wolves. And I contacted several officials with different governmental and conservation organizations. I emailed them a lot toward the end of the editing process, to make sure we got all the facts right. Although some of the events in the story have been fictionalized, much of it is factual, and that was a bit of pressure for me (I don’t usually write nonfiction). We also included a timeline and other nonfiction material in the back matter.

Q. How did you decide where to start and end this nonfiction story?
A. It made sense to start the story with the wolf leaving his family and heading out on his own. As far as the ending, that was a little trickier. In my first version (which I just looked back at), the ending was very vague and open, sort of flowery and poetic--not what editors are really looking for! There wasn’t a very satisfying conclusion because we didn’t really know what was going to happen with Journey. Luckily for me, sometime after that first draft, it came out in the news that he had met a mate and they’d had pups. That made for a much more exciting ending!

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I have to say that I’m not sure I have an answer to this one! I’m very fond of just about everything. I think I’m most partial to the sections with the wolf, because of how hard it was to get inside his head without veering into anthropomorphism. (Avoiding anthropomorphizing was something my wonderful editor, Christy Cox, felt strongly about, and she was right.)

Q. Did JOURNEY receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. My agent sent the book to a small selection of regional publishers, and I believe it was rejected—nicely, which I loved!—by two of them. Sasquatch contacted my agent very shortly after she submitted it and expressed interest. So I didn’t receive many rejections for this manuscript, but I want to state that I have received many dozens, maybe even hundreds, of rejections, in total, for all my of manuscripts, over the six or so years I’ve been submitting! And I still am. With Journey, it was a case of the right story getting to the right publisher at the right time. I’m very grateful.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on JOURNEY.
A. I spoke on the phone to the publisher, Gary Luke, at the very beginning of the negotiation process, before he even made an offer. (My agent set up the call.) At the end of our conversation, in which he discussed some potential edits, he said, “Well, I’m looking forward to publishing your book.” I hung up, then put my head down on my kitchen counter and cried. After countless rejections for other books, over the years, the relief and gratification was just immense.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. I did not have any input. In fact, that first time that I spoke to the publisher, he told me he already had an illustrator in mind. That was fine with me. It was my first book and I was in no situation to be demanding! Also, as it turned out, the illustrator, Robin James, was amazing and I couldn’t have chosen someone better suited if I’d had the chance.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the cover was! The wolf’s fur was so soft, I wanted to reach out and touch it. As for the inside art, I loved it all, especially the gorgeous landscapes. Robin did a really stunning spread of Crater Lake, and another of Mount Lassen. One thing that surprised me was the spot art. This is a new term for me, but apparently spot art refers (at least in this case) to small illustrations, often of a single object, that appear in a blank space in the spread. Robin included spot art of pancakes (for a diner setting), a wolf stuffie (adorable!), and a pile of thumb tacks (in the little girl’s bedroom, where she tracks the wolf’s progress on a bulletin board), among other things. Something about them--some cozy, solitary quality--just tugged at my heart, and I like what they add to the tone of the book.

Q. How long did JOURNEY take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. The process was unusually fast, I believe: about 18 months. Initially it was going to be longer—it was first slated for spring 2017, before the publisher bumped it up to fall 2016. The reason is that this is a time-sensitive subject. We wanted to get the book out there as soon as possible, while Journey himself is still with us and on people’s minds. The whole team—including editor Christy Cox, illustrator Robin James, production editor Emma Reh, and publicist Nicole Banholzer—worked so hard.

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 would have liked to include more of the history of wolves in America in the story, but due to length and style concerns, we had to cut most of that out. It was a little heavy and didn’t fit with the tone and voice; we didn’t want very young readers to get bored. We did include it in the back matter, though.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Join a critique group! I’m in one in-person group, and correspond by email with another. Both are amazing and indispensable. You might think your manuscript is perfect to start with, but after getting it critiqued and revising it, it will be even more perfect! (My process is always something like this: I write something. I think it’s great. I send it to my critique partners. They tell me everything that’s wrong with it and how to fix it. I lick my wounds for a few hours or days. Then I take their advice and revise it. Repeat several times.) If you can’t find a critique group, take an online course and make some friends that way who might become critique partners with you. Join SCBWI, go to conferences, and read everything on Kidlit411. It’s very hard to succeed on your own without a community of people to share information and advice with.

To learn more about Emma Bland Smith visit her website.

THE TOOTH MOUSE

May 15, 2016

Tags: THE TOOTH MOUSE, Susan Hood, Janice Nadeau, Kids Can Press, first picture book

Former book and magazine editor Susan Hood has written hundreds of children’s books. Her new picture book ADA'S VIOLIN is "a virtuoso piece of nonfiction, gloriously told and illustrated" (*School Library Journal). Today she looks back and discusses how she created her first picture book, THE TOOTH MOUSE. (more…)

A MORNING WITH GRANDPA

May 6, 2016

Tags: A MORNING WITH GRANDPA, Sylvia Liu, Christina Forshay, Lee & Low, first picture book

Environmental lawyer turned children’s author and illustrator, Sylvia Liu was lucky to do what she loved, protecting the oceans and the environment at the U.S. Department of Justice and the nonprofit group Oceana. Her good fortune continued when she won Lee & Low's 2013 New Voices Award. Today she shares the story behind all the work that went into the winning manuscript and her debut picture book, A MORNING WITH GRANDPA, illustrated by Christina Forshay. (more…)

FINDING WILD

May 2, 2016

Tags: FINDING WILD, Megan Wagner Lloyd, Abigail Halpin, Knopf/Random House, 2016

Megan Wagner Lloyd has helped organize community literacy and art events and taught creative writing to fourth graders. She is allergic to all animals with fur or feathers but that doesn't stop her from embracing nature. Today she shares the story behind FINDING WILD—a "sparkling debut" (Publishers Weekly) in bookstores May 10th. (more…)