My First Picture Book Q&A
September 26, 2016
This week, I'm posting 10 tips from previous posts. If you would like to sign up for my monthly newsletter, hop on over here. (Last week's contest has ended and the winner has been notified by email.)
Jami Gigot: "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."
Christin Lozano: "Spend lots of time at your local public library reading what's currently being published as well as older titles. This will give you the best picture of the children's picture book world and it may even spark an idea for your first book."
Lauri Fortino: "Don’t try to copy what others have done. Create something new. Write the stories that only you can write."
Nancy Churnin: "If you are writing a non-fiction biography, ask yourself what was the person’s dream when that person was a child."
David Litchfield: "What I have learnt is that a good idea and a good concept can impress anyone."
Josh Funk: "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."
Katrina Goldsaito: "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."
Deborah Freedman: "READ READ READ, and then read some more. With intention."
Heather Lang: "As the rejections continued to trickle in on my fiction, Alice inspired me to keep going. I kept a quote from her on my desk: When the going gets tough and you feel like throwing your hands in the air, listen to that voice that tells you, ‘Keep going. Hang in there.’ Guts and determination will pull you through.”
Hazel Mitchell: "It's good for the parent to have something to read aloud and not just to look at the pictures and also gives the child something to linger over."
September 19, 2016
TOBY. "This familiar story with a family cast not often seen in picture books will warm dog-loving hearts.—School Library JournalOriginally from England, where she attended art-college and served in the Royal Navy, Hazel Mitchell now lives and works in Maine. She has illustrated many books for children including Imani’s Moon, One Word Pearl, Animally, and Where Do Fairies Go When It Snows? But today, she is talking about her author-illustrator debut,
Q. You illustrated several books before TOBY. How did you make the transition to writer/illustrator and how does it compare with being an illustrator of someone else's work?
A. That's a good question. I have always written, but I've always been an artist first, even at school. It's what I was best at. But throughout my life I've always tinkered with story ideas. Finishing them was the big problem! It's easy to start, right? I think we all have a mountain of unfinished projects in drawers or under the mattress. So, I went to art college, art became my career (I worked as a graphic designer until I came to America in 2000). When I began to finally think seriously about trying to get work in the children's trade book industry, it was natural that I'd showcase my artwork first and that's how I got my first books to illustrate. But I was still working on stories. It was a great learning curve illustrating first and I enjoy collaborating very much with authors. But I still wanted to write my own books! And I wanted an agent and I wanted one who would represent my writing too. So I figured I'd better start finishing my story ideas. I'd been rejected by agents in the past (part of the course), but when I started to write about Toby finishing the first draft/dummy happened in 4 weeks. And strangely enough, my agent, Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown Ltd., signed me 4 weeks after that! This is my first book as author and illustrator. It's different in several ways from being illustrator only. When you receive a manuscript to illustrate, the idea is all ready conceived, you are working with someone else's idea. When it's your story, you are working on both sides of the fence at once. When I'm illustrating someone else's book I am always conscious of their words, hoping they will like the finished product and that I will do them justice. When I was illustrating my own book I felt like I had a split personality in some ways. I am looking forward to working on more of my own stories, but I also want to work on other manuscripts too ... because it's a wonderment drawing things you would never have conceived yourself.
Q. What inspired TOBY?
A. Toby, my poodle! I adopted him from Houlton Humane Animal Shelter, Aroostook, Maine in fall 2013. I posted a lot about him on social media and his development as a very fearful dog. People really loved him. It was actually Harold Underdown who suggested I write a book about him. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. It was always 'TOBY'. My editor (Liz Bicknell) and art director (Ann Stott) at Candlewick threw some other ideas on the table, but 'TOBY' was the final choice.
Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I have a lot of favorite parts, because although Toby is adopted in the book by a fictionalized character, much of what happens is from real stuff that happened with Toby. I think my fav scene is the part where the boy, who is Toby's new owner, comes downstairs when Toby's howling, gives him a toy rabbit and sleeps next to Toby to sooth him, (my husband did that the first few nights Toby was with us). And yes it was in the first draft (and we had about 5 drafts!).
Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. This is easy - I only have one named character! The boy and the Dad in the story are unnamed. Although Dad calls the boy 'Bud' affectionately. I don't know if that is his real name. My husband calls his son 'Bud' occasionally.
Q. How did you decide between telling the story in first person or third person?
A. Originally I wanted it to be almost wordless. But as I worked on the story with my editor and art director, we felt more words were needed. So it's mostly conversational in graphic panels, with some short lines in first person to lead the reader from one scene to another. It's good for the parent to have something to read aloud and not just to look at the pictures and also gives the child something to linger over.
Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing TOBY?
A. Hmm. A fair bit. I knew that it was about my dog in a fictionalized setting. (Writing about me would have been boring ... and the child is someone the reader can identify with). But I didn't know the ending. Well I did, but I didn't know how I would get to it. And a LOT changed in revisions!
Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. I started this process doing lots of scenes about Toby that I sketched and then linked together. There where very few words. As the story grew in revision more words were added, and taken away, and added. It was an interesting process and very different from how I imagined it worked in the beginning of my career... write a manuscript - draw the pictures. It's a BOOK!
Q. Did TOBY receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Easy again ... NONE. My agent signed me on the strength of Toby and Elizabeth Bicknell at Candlewick bought it. (But if you want to see my big pile of rejection letters from all my other projects, I can count them).
Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on TOBY.
But I also need to add to this that while the manuscript was being considered at Candlewick, the real Toby went missing! He was gone for eight days (and he had never even really been out of our garden!). There was huge search for him locally, people were holding their breath on social media and checking in to see if he had been found. At that time no one even knew the book was on submission! Luckily Toby found his way back ... if he hadn't I didn't know if I could have done the book. Talk about high drama ...
Q. How long did TOBY take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. The offer was made Labor Day 2014 and publication day is Sept 13th 2016. So almost exactly 2 years!
Q. Is there anything you would change in the book today? (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. That's hard. There are always things you want to change. Images you wish you could do over ... I don't think there is anything I want to add. We did edit out one scene though, where Toby licks the boy's hand when he is sleeping. Toby did that to me the first week he was with us. He wouldn't touch us when we were awake. But it wasn't moving the story forward in the book. Kill your darlings!
Q. What is your #1 tip for writing picture books?
A. Write what's in your heart.
Watch TOBY's book trailer.
To learn more about Hazel and all her books, visit her at her website.
A winner has been selected and the contest is now closed. Thanks for participating! To celebrate TOBY's publication, Hazel is giving away a copy of TOBY. Simply comment below to enter. One comment per person, US addresses only, please.
September 12, 2016
QUEEN OF THE TRACK: ALICE COACHMAN, OLYMPIC HIGH-JUMP CHAMPION—"a rich, deep depiction of Coachman's determination to overcome obstacles." (Booklist)Heather Lang writes nonfiction picture books about extraordinary women, including The Original Cowgirl: The Wild Adventures of Lucille Mulhall, Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine, and her upcoming book Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark (December 2016). But today she looks back and shares the story of writing her first picture book,
Q. Was QUEEN OF THE TRACK 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 wish! It took me seven years to write something worthy of publication. When my kids were little my love for Jane Yolen’s OWL MOON inspired me to write a lyrical picture book called GETAWAY about the kids’ fishing adventures with their grandfather. My kids illustrated it, and we gave it to my father-in-law for Christmas. It might have been a sweet story, but let’s just say I had no business submitting it to publishers. Maybe I’ll take it out of the drawer someday and work on it again…
Q. What inspired QUEEN OF THE TRACK?
A. QUEEN was my first attempt at writing nonfiction. I had written and submitted half-a-dozen picture books and two chapter books and received lots of rejections. I was a lawyer in my previous life and always loved research, so I decided to try nonfiction. Why not?! I immediately adored the research—the treasure hunt. I love sports, so I searched for a female athlete, and when I read about Alice Coachman I was amazed I’d never heard of this phenomenal woman. As the rejections continued to trickle in on my fiction, Alice inspired me to keep going. I kept a quote from her on my desk: “When the going gets tough and you feel like throwing your hands in the air, listen to that voice that tells you, ‘Keep going. Hang in there.’ Guts and determination will pull you through.”
Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. “Queen of the Track,” was one of Alice’s nicknames. Although she wasn’t treated like a queen by society, she behaved like one and really did dominate the track for a number of years in sprinting events and the high jump. The title also worked nicely with the ending—the King presents Alice (“the Queen”) with her gold medal.
Q. What resources did you use while researching QUEEN OF THE TRACK?
A. I read newspaper and magazine articles, lots of books about the 1948 Olympics and the segregated south, and an adult biography. I watched video interviews and historic footage and studied old photos. And of course, my favorite resource was Alice herself. She and her son were so helpful—answering my many questions. It was such a thrill to finally meet her in person after the book came out. We spent a wonderful day together in Albany, Georgia!
Q. How did you decide where to start and end this nonfiction story?
A. It’s always a challenge with picture book biographies deciding whether to focus on one event or a short part of a person’s life or even an entire life. Lots of things factor into that decision, like what research is available and what I really want my book to be about. I decided I wanted the book to be about Alice’s incredible determination and tenacity in the face of so many obstacles—poverty, segregation, and gender discrimination. In order to pull that off, I needed to start with her childhood. I always knew I wanted to end the book with her winning the gold medal—such a high point.
Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I had to look back at my first draft to answer this—there were sooooo many drafts. I love the scene when she ran barefoot on the dirt roads and tied together sticks and rags to make her own jumps. It’s the fact that drew me immediately to this story, so that has always been a favorite. I also love the spread on the bus in London—where, unlike the segregated south, she could sit in any seat she wanted to admire the English countryside. That scene was not in my early drafts, and I love the emotion the art conveys.
Q. Did QUEEN OF THE TRACK receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. No, I was extremely lucky on this book. I had a critique with a former editor from Boyds Mills Press. She was so helpful and in the end offered to send it to Larry Rosler, a Senior Editor at Boyds Mills. The 2012 Olympics were going to be in London for the first time since 1948 (when Alice won gold), so there was a big marketing tie-in. (And no, I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t realize this when I started writing the book—it was dumb luck!) They accepted it right away.
Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on QUEEN OF THE TRACK.
A. I had to sit down and take some deep breaths! Then I immediately called the people who had been with me every step of the way—my husband and friends from my writing group.
Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. Zero. The publisher had a great relationship with Floyd Cooper, and they knew right away he would be perfect for the book. I was ecstatic. Imagine having your first book illustrated by Floyd Cooper?!
Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. It’s difficult to describe the thrill! It’s the first time when I truly believed there would be a book. And Floyd’s art was gorgeous. He captured Alice’s spirit and the mood perfectly.
Q. How long did QUEEN OF THE TRACK take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Two years and four months!
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. The truth is—I can always find something to tweak. It’s as difficult for me to stop tinkering with text as it is for me to stop researching. I’m sure there is a word I would replace or a phrase I could edit. But I’m really happy with the pacing of the book, so I don’t think I’d add any other scenes. If I did, I’d have to take something out, and there’s nothing I could part with!
Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about QUEEN OF THE TRACK?
A. One little girl offered me some advice—she said, “If you get more determined like Alice Coachman, I’m sure you could get better at the high jump.” My bio on the flap mentions how I jumped 3 ½ feet in sixth grade and won a blue ribbon. Apparently she didn’t think I was blue-ribbon-worthy!
Q. When you do readings of QUEEN OF THE TRACK, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. Kids love the suspense of the ending spreads--when she fights for gold at the Olympics.
Q. What is your #1 tip for writing picture books?
A. Other than read and write a lot, which I think most serious writers do anyway, I’d say, join a critique group and surround yourself with other writers. Not only does my writing get better from critiquing other writers’ work, but the feedback and support is essential in this tough business.
Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. That’s a toughie. It depends on the kind of book and what the problem is with the text. One thing I often do is rewrite the text in a different point of view. My picture book biographies have all been in third person. Early on I like to write a draft in first person. You will be amazed at the things you discover. It shows where you have holes, and it can really help with voice when you go back to third person.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m really excited about my next book SWIMMING WITH SHARKS: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark, coming out on December 1st. I’m having fun working on a book trailer, marketing materials, and my website. I’m also working on a new picture book biography and playing around with some fiction!
Thanks so much for these terrific questions, Karlin. It’s been a lot of fun remembering the challenges and joys of that first book! And congratulations on NADIA—what a fantastic book about another trailblazing Olympic champion!
To learn more about Heather and her books, visit her website.