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

SCRIBBLE

August 29, 2016

Tags: SCRIBBLE, Deborah Freedman, Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2007

A former architect, award-winning author and illustrator Deborah Freedman looks back to 2007 and talks about how she constructed her first picture book SCRIBBLE—"a clever gem of a book" (Publishers Weekly).

Q. Was SCRIBBLE 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. Oh my goodness no, SCRIBBLE is not the first picture book I ever wrote! I’d been messing around with picture book ideas for years before SCRIBBLE. My first books were tiny, personal little things that I made for my daughters when they were babies; eventually I started taking myself more seriously and made books with titles like THE PRINCESS SISTERS, and HERE COMES THE MARCHING BAND. I think of them now as ‘practice books’, an absolutely necessary part of my writing education, but tucked away in a dead-dummy drawer, where they belong.

Q. What inspired SCRIBBLE?
A. My daughters would have spent their entire childhoods drawing at the kitchen table, if I’d let them. They would draw one elaborate scene after another, and say, “write this down, Mommy. This is a picture of… the kitties are dancing around a maypole and then they will have cake,“and I’d dutifully write whatever along the bottom of the picture. I adore kids’ drawings, and one of my favorite things about them is that there is almost always a story behind them. Ask a child about even the scratchiest scribble, and chances are, there’s an imaginative narrative that goes with it. So all of that gave me the idea to tell a story about two sisters who like to draw, and the story behind their drawings.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. I really don’t remember… the title was there from the very beginning.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. My favorite part is probably when the two drawings, Scribble and Aurora, fall in love — an essential part of the book which was not there until the final draft. Which just goes to show —sometimes the best ideas arrive during revisions!

Q. How did you select the names for your characters? 
A. The sisters were named after my daughters, Emma and Lucie, although looking back, that was probably not a very good idea! Because the story isn’t true, and I still feel bad when people assume that it is. The real Emma and Lucie were mostly very kind to each other when they were little, but that would not have made a very interesting story. The Princess’s name, Aurora, comes from Sleeping Beauty.

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. The story is, in part, a slanted take on Sleeping Beauty, so I wanted it to have a fairy tale voice.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing SCRIBBLE? 
A. I knew that it would be about a child who imagines her drawing coming to life, who runs away with her drawing.

Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. I tend to “write with words and pictures” together. If I'm not doodling in a sketchbook or making thumbnail sketches while I’m writing, I at least have images in my head. It’s hard for me to separate the two.

Q. When you submitted SCRIBBLE to publishers, did it receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. SCRIBBLE received three rejection letters, for three different versions of the story. After each “pass”, I went back and started all over again. Two years of revisions definitely made the story much stronger, and I’m truly indebted to the two editors who took the time to give me honest feedback.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on SCRIBBLE.
A. Thrilled… and a little flabbergasted! After working on the book for so long, I could hardly believe it would one day be “finished” and that an editor was actually calling me.

Q. How long did SCRIBBLE take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. SCRIBBLE was released about two years after the initial offer — one year after I turned in the final art.

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. Well… I would redo the art. My skills have improved in the last ten years! But I’m still proud of the story as it is.

Q. When you do readings of SCRIBBLE, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. No question, the spread where Scribble gives Aurora a kiss! I never know if kids will say “awwww….” or “eeeeewwwww!” Either way, it’s always a funny moment.

Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about SCRIBBLE?
A. I love getting children’s drawings, their versions of Scribble and Aurora. But here’s the best ever letter I received, after a SCRIBBLE school visit: I loved the presentation with Deborah Freedman and the book of SCRIBBLE. The presentation was so AWSOME. I want to read the book SCRIBBLE for every second of my life!

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. READ READ READ, and then read some more. With intention.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. My 7th picture book. I feel so lucky to be saying that.

Thanks, Karlin, for asking me to revisit SCRIBBLE!

To learn more about Deborah's works including her upcoming book SHY, visit her at her website or @deborahfreedman.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

August 22, 2016

Tags: THE SOUND OF SILENCE, Katrina Goldsaito, Julia Kuo, Little, Brown, 2016

Katrina Goldsaito worked as TV journalist and producer in Tokyo and is currently writing a YA novel. But today she tells us how she created her first picture book, THE SOUND OF SILENCE—"An inviting tale that will stretch inquisitive and observant young minds—and may even lead children to a greater appreciation of that golden commodity, silence" (Kirkus Reviews).

Q. Was THE SOUND OF SILENCE 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 SOUND OF SILENCE was somewhere in a pile of ten manuscripts that my partner and I decided to write in ten days. Every night after my epic days as a TV Journalist in Tokyo for NHK-World, I’d come home and write a picture book. We’d sit on the floor and I’d write a page and hand it to him to illustrate. Every day for ten days. A very early (and nearly unrecognizable) draft came out during that creative sprint.

Q. What inspired THE SOUND OF SILENCE?
A. The story is one my father told us growing up—of a musician who was also my dad’s neighbor (and who I later found out was the famous contemporary composer Toru Takemitsu) told my father that his favorite sound was the sound of silence.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. It was such a long process! There were emails! And committees! And brainstorms! And I still am not sure about it—mostly because when you google it you get Simon and Garfunkel. (Who I love).

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. That’s such a wonderful question, because I love the end, and your follow-up question is making me realize that the ending is the heart of the story. The heart was there in some form even in the earliest drafts. Rewriting was all about revealing the heart, all about making sure that every piece of the story is beating along with it—but it was there all along (just like the silence that little Yoshio finds!)

Also, I love Julia’s aerials in the spread with the family eating and Yoshio taking a bath, gorgeous. (And the bamboo grove. And the end. And EVERYTHING. Juliaaaaaa!!!!)

Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. Yoshio is my dad’s name, and your question is making me realize that no one else has names in the book!!

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. Hmm, I never thought about telling it in anything but third. (Just as the novel I’m working on can’t seem to be in anything but first). I think it’s about how it appears in my imagination—the voice is clear to me from the beginning.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing THE SOUND OF SILENCE?
A. Originally the story had a few focuses—one of which was that the boy was always late to school (That got completely jettisoned, thank goodness), the other was that he was connecting with different traditional artisans, which was focused into the one character of the koto player. Bethany Strout was the genius behind making her a woman—one of my favorite changes that came with art.

Q. Did THE SOUND OF SILENCE receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. It didn’t. Though I did work with Alvina Ling at Little, Brown for almost a year before it went to acquisitions. I learned everything in that year, it was such an incredible gift, that mentorship.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on THE SOUND OF SILENCE.
A. Tears. :)

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. A lot! I was very lucky that this was such a collaborative process and the editorial team was so respectful and interested in my thoughts on illustrators. We had such a similar vision for the book, and we all knew that Julia was and is the perfect artist to create Yoshio’s illustrated world.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. Those last pages. Ohhh, I love them so much. In those last pages when he finds silence I feel like Julia and I are so perfectly in sync. I still get a little teary when I read them.

Q. How long did THE SOUND OF SILENCE take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. 5 years! 6 if you count the year before it sold. I loved that it took so long. I loved working on other projects and knowing it was in the wings waiting, and telling people about it and preparing for it to show up in the world. I wouldn’t have sped it up at all.

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. Not a single thing.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Write what you love, write something that you want to spend a long time with (because it can take a long time) and be relentless in your love of the book and your love of the craft. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. That ten books in ten days exercise was amazing. Just committing to creating no matter what happened: no matter if we were tired or bored or feeling insecure, that we would make no matter what.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I'm performing at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco (Om I'm Home) where I'm pouring tea for visitors in my own version of a Japanese tea ceremony. We continue to make WeDokiDoki. A new picture book is with my editor, my first YA novel, Otemba is nearly ready for submission; and I am always lovingly dipping into a memoir project called The Last Speaker of a Secret Language.

To learn more about Katrina and her projects, visit her here or on Twitter at @inlovethere

LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST

August 15, 2016

Tags: LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST, Josh Funk, Brendan Kearney, Sterling Children's Books, 2015

Author Josh Funk has two upcoming picture books but today he talks about crafting his very first picture book, LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST—"a ripping barnburner full of outlandish action, heroic and dastardly characters, roller coaster rhymes and some absolutely fabulous illustrations by Brendan Kearney" (David Henry Sterry, The Huffington Post) .

Q. Was LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast was definitely not the first (or second ... or third) manuscript I ever wrote. The first was about a fox and a squirrel and involved a mystery about a missing guitar. And it was ... pretty terrible. But I spent well over a year revising it - and it was a fantastic learning experience. Looking back on it, I realize that I'd have to completely rewrite it for it ever to fit today's picture book market (or just be any good). But I learned so much as I revised it. And I continued to write new manuscripts as I learned. One of which was Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast.

Q. What inspired LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST?
A. I had been writing picture book manuscripts for a while and was always on the lookout for new ideas. One Saturday morning I came down for breakfast and asked my kids what they wanted to eat. One said, "Pancakes!" and the other said, "French toast!" - and they argued for a bit. When I checked the freezer, all we had were waffles. It was on the way to the diner that I thought it might be fun to see a pancake and French toast arguing.

I asked my kids what a pancake and French toast might fight over and one of the kids said, "Syrup." I thought that was a brilliant idea. But I can't remember which of my kids said it. And now, years later, the kids fight about which of them came up with the idea. So what started with two kids arguing, continues today ... with two kids arguing.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. The names of the characters were always pretty descriptive and different, so Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast was the title since the very beginning.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. My favorite part is probably the bean avalanche. Not only is the two-page spread extremely colorful (illustrator Brendan Kearney once told me it took an entire week for him to color in those beans), but it's just such a silly thing to happen.

It was not part of the first draft. The first draft was actually just the two main characters arguing about who was more deserving of the syrup-- it was more of a debate. One of my critique partners made the comment that it needed more action (thanks, Jane). That's when it turned into a race.

I will say that the bean avalanche was something I mentioned in my cover and query letters, cause I thought it was a pretty descriptive and different thing.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. Most of it has to do with the fact that the story is written in rhyme. The way it flowed, I needed certain syllables in the right places and 'Lady' just fit. In the very very very first draft, Sir French Toast was actually Mister (because two syllables were needed). It was suggested I stick with the royalty theme (thanks, Carol!) and go with something like 'Sir' - so I did. And that's why the fourth line of the book is "sat Lady Pancake beside Sir French Toast." I used 'beside' as a two syllable replacement for the word 'and' when 'Sir' was originally 'Mister.'

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. Because there are multiple main characters, this seemed to fit best. I must admit though, it just came out this way at the start and I never considered changing it.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST?
A. I knew the two characters, the setting (inside the fridge), the conflict (only one drop of syrup was left in the bottle and they both wanted it), and the ending (I'm not telling here). None of that changed along the way. Almost everything else did.

Q. Did LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. I sent it to 36 agents. Two responded as if they read it. Ten sent me form rejections. The other 24 were black holes (I never received a response). So I gave up on agents.

I sent it snail mail to 10 publishers that accepted unsolicited submissions. One sent back a rejection. 8 never responded. So that all adds up to 45 rejections and ...

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST.
A. On the evening of October 30th, 2013, I received an email from an editor at Sterling saying they found my manuscript in the slush pile and they would be taking it to acquisitions the following week. While I was excited and encouraged, I'd had some close calls that didn't go through in the previous few months so I didn't get overly excited until ...

Eight days later I was at The Writers' Loft in Sherborn, MA (a local writing community), a few hours early for a picture book critique group (I hadn't yet critiqued the manuscripts we were going over that night) when I got the email. No one else was around, so I screamed a little. I giggled a bit. I called my family to tell them. It was pretty exhilarating!

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. None. Sterling told me that they'd found an illustrator and sent me a link to Brendan Kearney's website. I was psyched. From the very beginning before I saw any of his sketches, I knew he'd be pretty perfect.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. Brendan had put so much thought into not just the main character, but so many of the side characters as well. Lady Pancake's whipped cream hair with a cherry and wafer crown along with Sir French Toast's strawberry hat blew me away. None of that was in my text. All he had were the character names. The rest came from Brendan's imagination.

And the cover is perfect. The color (bright turquoise-green) pops off the shelf, along with the embossed gold foil! And it's got so much tension and action built in to the illustrations. I love it!

Q. How long did LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Just under 22 months. Which is fast. Almost lightning fast for a picture book non-sequel where the author and illustrator are not the same person.

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. Nope. I wouldn't change a thing!

Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST?
A. Strangely, a lot of kids wonder whether Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast will ever get married (or if they already are married). I do know that if they did start a family and have kids, their children would definitely be crêpes (French pancakes).

Q. When you do readings of LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. The twist ending.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. I've put together a set of Resources for Writers on my website. But the most important thing I'd recommend is that you keep writing. As I said earlier, my first manuscript was terrible. My second was a little less terrible. Every book you write is likely to be better than the last, especially if you're going to conferences, getting feedback, learning about the industry, making (and learning) from mistakes, and more. I can't tell you how many times I've heard keynote speakers say that finally, it was their seventh book written that became their first one published. So keep writing. And keep writing new things.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I have two new books: Pirasaurs! (Scholastic) illustrated by Michael Slack and Dear Dragon (Viking/Penguin) illustrated by Rodolfo Montalvo. Next spring (2017), Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast: The Case of the Stinky Stench will be released. And then a few more are on the way after that.

To learn more about Josh and his books, visit his website.

WHAT DO I KNOW ABOUT NONFICTION PICTURE BOOKS?

August 8, 2016

Tags: Nonfiction picture books, Tara Lazar

Today I'm guest blogging over at Tara Lazar's website. Check it out--there's a giveaway of my book!


10 More Tips for Writing Picture Books

August 1, 2016

Tags: Laban Carrick Hill, Abraham Schroeder, Maria Gianferrari, Megan Wagner Lloyd, Sylvia Liu, Susan Hood, Emma Bland Smith, Penny Parker Klostermann, Karlin Gray, Donna Mae

Here is a list of tips pulled from previous posts. Click on the quote to read the writer's entire Q&A.

Laban Carrick Hill: "A picture book is not a word book. The words in a picture book need to serve the illustrations, not the other way around, even though the illustrations would not exist if not the words had been written first. What I tried to do was provide artfully descriptive language that would be a springboard for the illustrator to do their thing."

Abraham Schroeder: "If you can't stop thinking about even the faintest notion of an idea, a character, a little phrase, write it down and see what it turns into. Many times I've jotted down an idea that I think is totally silly, but after considering it objectively, sometimes months or years later, I realize there might be a whole a lot more to it."

Maria Gianferrari: "Don’t give up! Even though picture books are short, they’re not easy to write. They often undergo multiple revisions and entirely change shape. It takes time to improve your craft. Keep reading; keep writing and join a critique group for feedback."

Megan Wagner Lloyd: "Find your unique voice and trust the illustrator (aka keep your art notes to a minimum!)"

Sylvia Liu: "I had known about the award for over a decade. After I started writing picture books, I kept the award in the back of my mind each year, but it wasn’t until I wrote A MORNING WITH GRANDPA that I felt I had a story that was suitable for the contest."

Susan Hood: "An interesting exercise is to type out the text of a favorite picture book and then compare it to the finished book. It will help you see how the text works hand in hand with the art to create something new."

Emma Bland Smith: "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."

Penny Parker Klostermann: "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."

Karlin Gray: "I thought back to my six-year-old self and wondered, who would I have wanted to see in a picture book?"

Donna Mae: "I took on self-publishing as a personal challenge. I had an overwhelming feeling of Do This Book By Yourself."