What inspired their picture books? 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 writer is SUSAN HOOD!


Quick Links

Find Authors

My #FirstPictureBook Q&A

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

THE TIPTOE GUIDE TO TRACKING FAIRIES

November 14, 2016

Tags: THE TIPTOE GUIDE TO TRACKING FAIRIES, Ammi-Joan Paquette, Christa Unzner, Tanglewood Books, 2009

Ammi-Joan Paquette is an agent, mother, traveler, chocolate connoisseur, and a writer of picture books and chapter books, including the PRINCESS JUNIPER series. But today she takes some time to look back at her very first picture book, THE TIPTOE GUIDE TO TRACKING FAIRIES where "kids will enjoy spotting the fantastical creatures hiding here and there amongst the flora and fauna of the outdoor settings” (Booklist).

Q. Was THE TIPTOE GUIDE TO TRACKING FAIRIES the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A: It’s definitely not the first manuscript I wrote - I’ve always been working on many different projects at once. This first dates back I think to 2005, so I’ve got no idea what other manuscripts were in the works back then. But I do know they were many, and generally in poor shape. ;)

Q. What inspired THE TIPTOE GUIDE TO TRACKING FAIRIES?
A: It was inspired by a nature walk I took with my daughters, who were then 6 and 8. They were not especially keen on walks at that time, so we decided that, to liven things up, we would take a stroll through our local nature preserve while being on the lookout for spots where fairies might be hiding. From there the story took on a life of its own - and the result is as you see it!

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A: Originally the book was called simply TRACKING FAIRIES. However, my editor felt this could invoke a harsher feel: ‘tracking’ in the sense of ‘hunting’ (poor fairies!). My writer friend Natalie Lorenzi suggested the “Tiptoe Guide” portion, which I think did a brilliant job of softening and tying the whole title together. I love the result!

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A: I think my favorite is probably the final page-turn spread revealing the fairies at the end. And interestingly, this was NOT in the original draft! My first incarnations were all very true to life, whereby the fairies were not found this time, but we had so much fun looking for them and will return again another time. The idea being that the readers could see the fairies, even though the kids didn’t. But my editor wisely said that we needed that satisfying payoff where the kids DO find their fairies - and I’m so glad she did.

Q. How long did THE TIPTOE GUIDE TO TRACKING FAIRIES take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A: First started writing it in 2005. It sold in 2007, and was published in 2009.

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 confess that there is a word repetition on the first page that makes me wilt each time I see it ;)

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A: Read as many picture books as you can, especially ones which are debuts and newly released. Familiarizing yourself with what’s out there and what’s selling now is a really valuable tool to crafting your own masterpieces!

To learn more about Ammi-Joan Paquette, visit her website.

TICKTOCK BANNEKER'S CLOCK

November 7, 2016

Tags: TICKTOCK BANNEKER'S CLOCK, Shana Keller, David C. Gardner, Sleeping Bear Press, 2016

Shana Keller is a busy writer, mom, wife, and traveler but today she takes some time to talk about her first picture book, TICKTOCK BANNEKER'S CLOCK—"a lovely book about time, patience and genius in its purest form" (Black History Channel).

Q. Was TICKTOCK BANNEKER'S CLOCK 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, Banneker was not my first picture book. I’ve written several. The first one was about storms and it is currently unpublished.

Q. What inspired TICKTOCK BANNEKER'S CLOCK?
A. The fact that I had never heard of him until my 1st grader came home with an article about his overall achievements. Intrigued, I began to research him.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. Through trial and error. I knew that I wanted his name in the title, and luckily my editor supported that.

Q. What resources did you use while researching TICKTOCK BANNEKER'S CLOCK? 
A. I started off with the library of course and read everything I could get my hands on, which wasn’t much compared to say, Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman. A lot of previous books published about him were no longer circulating. I ended up finding several books online and frequenting used bookstores both at home (Pennsylvania) and one state over (Ohio)! After initial reading, I contacted the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park & Museum. That visit led to meeting one of Banneker’s collateral descendants, which led to meeting others, and then the opportunity to interview them. I also went to the Maryland Historical Society and was able to find some of those hard-to-find books and see original documents that mentioned Banneker.

Q. How did you decide where to start and end this nonfiction story?
A. The more I researched him, the more it felt right to focus his story on the achievement that everyone supported during a divisive time in our history, and one he did of his own volition. It’s noted that people came from near and far to see his clock.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. My favorite part is when he realizes he can cure wood. That’s problem solving and perseverance at its best! Yes, that part made it in the book.

Q. Did TICKTOCK BANNEKER'S CLOCK receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Yes. Seven (I believe), and one request for a myth, rather than a historical biography, which was still a rejection but encouraging nonetheless.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on TICKTOCK BANNEKER'S CLOCK.
A. Pure shock and joy. I read the email about thirty times. Then read it out loud to my husband. I know I scared him at first. He thought something really bad happened because of my total shock!

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book? 
A. I didn’t have any initial input, but fortunately they paired me with an amazing illustrator. My input came afterwards when the sketches were made.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. It was kind of like reading the offer letter again. Pure joy and excitement.

Q. How long did TICKTOCK BANNEKER'S CLOCK take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. We were fast-tracked, which I know is unusual. It only took one year.

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 thing! I love it.

Q. Can you share any memorable parts of letters from kids about TICKTOCK BANNEKER'S CLOCK?
A. We gave my daughter’s teacher a book for their classroom library. They made a thank you card with a picture of the pocket watch on the front. It is the sweetest card ever.

Q. When you do readings of TICKTOCK BANNEKER'S CLOCK, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. When Banneker sets his clock on the mantel, that sense of pride pervades.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Find a topic you love or a person you love and go with it.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. Journaling, but not for me, it’s for my characters!

Q. What are you working on now?
I have several on-going projects. I’m working on two other picture books, both historical, and literally as of Saturday, a new middle-grade story has sunk itself into my mind! I’m obsessed with it.
To learn more about Shana Keller and her projects, visit her website