What inspired their stories? How did they pick the titles? What did they do when they received an offer on their #firstpicturebook? In this weekly Q&A, writers share their experiences and tips. This week's interview is with JOY KELLER!


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My First Picture Book Q&A

MAE AND THE MOON

June 27, 2016

Tags: MAE AND THE MOON, Jami Gigot, Ripple Grove Press

Digital Artist Jami Gigot has worked on films such as Avatar, Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Captain America. But today, she is telling us the story of how she created her first picture book, MAE AND THE MOON—"a sweet, quiet story suitable for a cozy bedtime reading" (School Library Journal).

Q. Was MAE AND THE MOON 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 been writing several Shel Silverstein-style silly poems and wanted to do something with them, so I took a continuing education class in Picture Book Illustration at Emily Carr University. MAE AND THE MOON was an idea I started to develop while I was taking the course. It was the first picture book manuscript I wrote.

Q. What inspired MAE AND THE MOON?
A. As a toddler, my daughter was completely fascinated with the moon and we would play a game where we would try to spot it. One evening she said, "The moon is following us!" That single phrase started me writing.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. At first the project started as a poem called, "The Moon is Following Me." Ripple Grove Press loved the idea but didn't love the rhyme, so I rewrote the manuscript in a more traditional narrative style. In the poem the protagonist spoke in the first person and did not have a name. But, the character was always inspired by my daughter, and I was in fact drawing a stylized version of her. I toyed with the idea of having the character be called "the little girl", but in the end, I decided to go ahead and use my daughter's name, Mae. Hence, MAE AND THE MOON became the title.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. My favorite part of the book is the wordless page where she gives the moon a full body hug. This was not in the first draft at all. In the first draft Mae gets angry when the moon doesn't answer her, and when the moon disappears, she thinks she scared it away. This is very different from where the story ended up. The final draft has a much more imaginative tone with her journeying to space to find the moon.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. As I mentioned, Mae is actually my daughter's name and this character is loosely based on her. The dog character is completely made up and not based on a real dog. My publisher started calling the dog Luna, which is how we referred to her throughout the process, although her name is never mentioned in the book.

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. I tried different variations and this seemed to have the nicest tone.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing MAE AND THE MOON?
A. Only the very basic premise really. I knew a little girl would have a playful relationship with the moon, and would feel upset when it disappeared. It evolved from there. I often write several drafts of my stories and they tend to evolve into something that I hadn't necessarily thought about from the beginning.

Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. For MAE AND THE MOON, I wrote the initial poem that the story evolved from first. Very quickly though, I started doing character sketches, and creating a dummy book. Generally in my process, the images and text are linked from the beginning. I’ll have a draft of a manuscript next to character sketches in my sketchbook, and I’ll start making thumbnail storyboards pretty early on. Slowly things evolve to be more organized as I make revisions and work things out.

Q. Did MAE AND THE MOON receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. I sent it to around ten places, and I received rejections from four of those, and no responses from several. Then I got a call from Ripple Grove Press and the discussions started.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on MAE AND THE MOON.
I was over the moon of course!

Q. How long did MAE AND THE MOON take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. About a year for me to finish the book from the time of offer, and then another eight months or so before it hit shelves. During the process of making this book, I was also working full time as a digital film artist, and I'm a mother of two, so it was a lot of late nights. Despite the lack of sleep, I absolutely loved the entire experience of making this book. It truly is my passion to make picture books, and I learned so much along the way.

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 am still very much learning and honing my craft as both a writer and illustrator. That being said, I think that this book represents me at this moment in my career, and because the character is based on my daughter it will always be incredibly special to me. Rather than think about what I would change, I prefer to take what I learned and put that into my next project.

Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about MAE AND THE MOON?
A. One of my favorites is the question "How does she breathe in outer space?" Or, "Is that a pot on her head?"

Q. When you do readings of MAE AND THE MOON, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. The wordless pages are very fun because it gives a great opportunity for the kids to get involved. I like to open it up and let the kids tell me what's happening in the book.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. If this is your passion, keep at it! The children's writing community is absolutely amazing and supportive. Find a good critique group and work hard on your revisions and/or art, and be open to constructive criticism.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I am currently working on a project I am really excited about. It's a companion book for MAE AND THE MOON entitled SEB AND THE SUN. This one is for my son, Sebastien. It will have a similar look and vibe to MAE AND THE MOON, but is quite different, and brings many new challenges.

To learn more about Jami Gigot, visit her website.

10 Tips for Writing Picture Books

June 20, 2016

Tags: Victoria Sherrow, Miriam Glassman, Maryann Cocco-Leffler, Tara Lazar, Shennen Bersani, Cheryl Lawton Malone, Deborah Sosin, Audrey Vernick, Susan Montanari, Jean Taft

MARSHMALLOWS GALORE

June 13, 2016

Tags: MARSHMALLOWS GALORE, Donna Mae, Brandon Fall

Donna Mae dreamt of writing a children's book but, like so many of us, was busy taking care of a family. Once her children grew up and left home, she dusted off that old dream and made it sparkle! Today she shares the story of self-publishing her first picture book MARSHMALLOWS GALORE.

Q. Was MARSHMALLOWS GALORE the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. MARSHMALLOWS GALORE was not the first one I wrote. The first one I wrote is the one I’m revising at the present moment. I wrote it many years ago. It needed a lot of revising, so I let it percolate.

Q. What event or person inspired MARSHMALLOWS GALORE?
A. I must confess, I was daydreaming at work! The thought came into my mind and I ran with it. It seemed like a silly concept, marshmallows falling from the sky, but I like SILLY.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. The story is about giant marshmallows falling from the sky. I envisioned giant marshmallows everywhere. The name seemed perfect. MARSHMALLOWS GALORE!

Q. What is your favorite part of MARSHMALLOWS GALORE? And was that part in the first draft?
A. My favorite part of the book is the end and it was always in the manuscript. I won’t give it away. It fills my heart!!!!!!

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in first person?
A. I write in rhyme, from my heart, and that is how it came out.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began to write MARSHMALLOWS GALORE?
A. My initial story was just a silly thought about giant marshmallows falling from the sky. Next I needed to tell a story about caring, sharing, compassion and maybe some much needed team work. I was hoping to write a story that would plant a seed! Ask the question? What would you do with giant marshmallows that fell from the sky?
I’ve created “The Marshmallow Pledge” that accompanies my reading, the kids recite it at the end of my story. Parents love it!!!

Q. MARSHMALLOWS GALORE is self-published. Can you tell us about the process? Did you submit it to traditional publishers?
A. I took on self-publishing as a personal challenge. I had an overwhelming feeling of Do This Book By Yourself. I took baby steps and decided that the only way I would be able to do that was to take fear and doubt out of the equation. It’s an all inspiring story from start to finish. Do you have all day ????? It’s really the story of my life.

Q. How did you select the illustrator for MARSHMALLOWS GALORE?
A. I’m a member of The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and there are many illustrators to choose from. But I found an illustrator's website and loved his work. It was the highlight of my life. I decided to do this book through an epiphany I had and people just showed up for me as I needed them. It was truly MEANT TO BE.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. I loved his color choices. He (Brandon Fall) is from Colorado, so his southwestern color scheme was very pleasing to me. We really hit it off throughout the process. Our collaboration was very easy and flowing. Brandon had illustrated six or seven books prior to mine. He does work for Disney and had been in the business for a while. He was so helpful and knowledgeable. The perfect fit for me. Like I said, the right people showed up for me as I needed them. The illustration he chose for the jacket is perfect!!!!

Q. How long did MARSHMALLOWS GALORE take to be published—from the time you decided to self-publish until it printed?
A. It took 18 glorious, fun-filled, baby-step months. I was so sad when it was over. I learned so much.
I now do all the marketing for my books and love every minute of it. It’s a lot of out-of-the-box thinking and it’s so much fun. I love to tell the story of how my book actually came over ON A SLOW BOAT FROM CHINA!!!! HAHAHA!!! It’s sooooo true.

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 think the only thing that I would change would be the shape of the giant marshmallow treat that the boy makes to share. It’s round and I think it should have been heart shaped to show more LOVE. There isn’t anything else I’d change.

Q. When you do readings of MARSHMALLOWS GALORE which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. There are two parts of the story that visually the children oooh!!!and ahh!!! over. The first being the pages where the giant marshmallows are falling from the sky and the pages where the boy and all his friends feed the WHOLE WORLD. That’s my favorite too.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
First, I want to say that it has to be your passion. It’s not as easy as some might think. And most of all, read and pay attention to what others are doing. Stay informed and be aware; think outside the box and never follow trends. Always do what YOU do. Believe in yourself and know that there is room for all. I think that’s more than one tip, but I could go on. Love what you do. I get to work from home—in my pajamas if I want to.
To learn more about Donna Mae, visit her website .



NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN'T SIT STILL

June 5, 2016

Tags: NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN'T SIT STILL, Karlin Gray, Christine Davenier, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, first picture book

Thank you to all the writers who have participated in this blog. I love learning about how someone travels from a moment of inspiration to a finished piece of work! I hope this blog is useful to other picture-book writers and encourages them to write on!

To mark my June 7th book launch, I'm answering this week's Q&A about my first picture book,
NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN'T SIT STILL.

Q. Was NADIA the first picture-book manuscript that you wrote? If not, what was the first picture book that you wrote and what happened to it?
A. My first picture-book manuscript was about a boy who couldn't find anyone to play with on the playground. It's just kind of sad and a little abstract. I don't think it's a story that kids would want to read over and over again so it hides in a drawer somewhere.

Q. What inspired NADIA?
A. My writing instructor was reviewing some nonfiction picture books and I couldn't remember reading a nonfiction picture book when I was a kid. I thought back to my six-year-old self and wondered, who would I have wanted to see in a picture book? The first name that popped into my head was Nadia Comaneci. I loved gymnastics and would have clutched a book like that close to my heart.

Q. What kind of resources did you use while researching NADIA?
A. Everything I could find: Olympic coverage, interviews with Ms. Comaneci, newspaper and magazine articles, and books—Nadia Comaneci's two autobiographies along with Bela Karolyi's autobiography were essential! The official websites of Nadia Comaneci and Bart Conner, the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame, and the Olympic Studies Center were also key resources.
Some of these can be found on my Pinterest page along with some videos of Comaneci and my messy first page draft.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. At first, I wanted the word "hope" to be in the title because Nadia's name means "hope" and she was an Olympic-hopeful-turned-champion. But I didn't come up with anything that I liked. In reading Nadia Comaneci's autobiography Letters to a Young Gymnast (Basic Books), I learned that she was a rambunctious toddler who had tons of energy. She wrote, “If I wasn’t playing soccer or climbing trees, then I was doing cartwheels. The freedom of movement was intoxicating, and I could never stand still.” While I was writing my book, I also had a three-year old who loved to fling himself from couch to couch. (And honestly, he still does.) Constant movement was a theme on the page and in my own living room. The two collided and created NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN'T SIT STILL.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. My favorite part of the text: "Soon, Nadia was flying from bar to bar, from floor to vault, and high above the beam." This wasn't in my first draft. My first draft: "Nadia practiced and practiced and practiced even more until she performed her routines perfectly." Bleh, boring! Around the second or third draft, I focused on "show don't tell" and brought in the image of flying. It was also a good way to cover the four areas of women's gymnastics in one sentence. At a school reading, the librarian asked what the kids liked about the book and one boy recited that very line. I almost cried.

For several reasons, my favorite illustration is Nadia flipping on the beam. First, I have a distinct childhood memory of staring up at the TV and watching in awe as Comaneci danced, flew, and flipped on a four-inch beam. Second, this illustration is based on a famous Olympic photo where the photographer shows several frames within one combination of moves. Finally, the illustration is such a great foil to the previous beam illustration where she falls off in her first competition. Thank you Christine Davenier!

Q. How did you select the time frame for NADIA?
A. For me, the heart of the story is how a "flaw" fueled the way to excellence. So I started the story when Nadia was a four-year-old bouncing off the walls and getting into trouble and ended it when she was 14 and made Olympic history. I love how illustrator Christine Davenier used the same idea for the first and last page but also showed Nadia's transformation.

Q. Did NADIA receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Oh yes, it was rejected by several publishers and agents. I remember one agent said that although she was passing on the book, she could see that I wrote nonfiction very well. That was such an encouraging rejection! I continued to receive rejection letters after my offer. Happily, I tossed those in the trash.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on NADIA.
A. One day I received an email with NADIA in the subject line. I assumed it was another rejection letter. Instead, it was an HMH editor saying she would do triple back flips if I'd accept her offer. I jumped up and down and called my husband and parents. Neither answered. I couldn't tell anyone until I told them so I kept texting my husband, "Good news, good news," until he responded. He came home, grilled steaks, and opened a bottle of champagne.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. My editor Kate O'Sullivan was kind enough to ask me for suggestions although I knew I didn't have a say in the matter. She was so excited when Christine Davenier accepted and I trusted her completely. I can't imagine anyone else illustrating NADIA.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. Christine Davenier's artwork reminded me of "swimming through an ocean of air"—words used by sportscaster Jim McKay when he described Comaneci at the '76 Olympics.

Q. How long did NADIA take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Three years. My editor told me in the offer letter that she wanted to publish it in time for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

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 love to cut text that doesn't move the story forward so I don't miss anything that was edited out. (For example, my first draft had a sentence or two describing Nadia's mother as a homemaker and her father as a mechanic. Those descriptions were not essential to the overall story so I took them out.) I do regret that I wasn't able to get an interview with Ms. Comaneci. I think having a Q&A in the back matter would have added another layer of meaning. I should have tried harder but I wanted to respect her privacy.

Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about NADIA?
A. After my first school visit, I received a package of letters from the kids. They were all so sweet and encouraging. One wrote, "This book was amazing. We think you should keep up the good work because we want to read more, thanks." I might wallpaper my office with it.

Q. When you do readings of NADIA, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. When Nadia receives the score of a 1.00, the kids get fired up: "What?! That's not fair!" It's the same reaction the crowd had that day in Montreal. The kids settle down once they learn it was really a 10.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those of us who want to write picture books?
A. I think all the doors in my head burst open when one of my writing instructors said: "Write your first draft fast and don't stop to correct anything. Just get it all out. It might terrible and that's ok because no one else will see it but you." Then go back, again and again, and revise. Characters, dialogue, plot points, and themes will emerge. And guess what—if you end up hating it, you toss it in a drawer. No big deal.

Q. What else are you working on?
A. I'm always working on nonfiction and fiction picture books. On my desk, there is a box of working manuscripts with stories about presidents, magicians, explorers, athletes, mermaids, monsters, scarecrows, cats, mice, and one sad moth. I hope they behave when I turn off the lights.

Come visit me this summer at these book events.