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!


Quick Links

Find Authors

My First Picture Book Q&A

THE NIAN MONSTER

February 27, 2017

Tags: THE NIAN MONSTER, Andrea Wang, Alina Chau, Albert Whitman, 2016

A former environmental consultant, Andrea Wang has written several nonfiction books but when she came across an old folktale, the idea for her #firstpicturebook was born. Today she shares the story behind THE NIAN MONSTER—a "fun-filled holiday adventure" (Foreword Reviews) that "thrills but doesn’t threaten" (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

Q. Was THE NIAN MONSTER 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 NIAN MONSTER was probably the fifth or sixth picture book manuscript I’ve written. The first picture book was a story about a young boy who is a spy for a secret environmental agency. It was too big a plot for a picture book and has since been transformed into a middle grade novel.

Q. What inspired THE NIAN MONSTER?
A. I came across the old folktale about the Nian monster and was intrigued because I’d never heard it when I was a child. I like stories about monsters and I especially like trickster tales, so I thought I’d try to write a retelling in a contemporary setting.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. I’d initially titled it The Return of the Nian Monster, but since very few people were familiar with the original folktale, it didn’t feel quite right. Shortening it to just The Nian Monster seemed like a good way to introduce readers to him.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. [Spoiler Alert!] My favorite part is when the Nian monster’s jaws get stuck together with sticky rice cake. It wasn’t in the first draft or the second, but when I finally hit upon using traditional Chinese New Year foods to defeat Nian, that scene appeared right away.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters? 
A. The Nian monster was already named, so that was a given. I chose Xingling’s name based on what it means – “born with a clever nature.”

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person? 
A. I think using third person retained the sort of timeless, folktale quality of the story.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing THE NIAN MONSTER? 
A. I stayed close to the structure of the original folktale, where the monster is defeated by a person who figures out his three weaknesses. I knew I wanted the protagonist to be a smart and brave girl, and that the tricks used on Nian in the folktale wouldn’t work on him anymore. Everything else I figured out through many revisions.

Q. Did THE NIAN MONSTER receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. THE NIAN MONSTER received about 8 rejections from editors, which really wasn’t bad. Two of those rejections were after the manuscript had been taken to acquisitions, though, which was hard.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on THE NIAN MONSTER.
A. I couldn’t quite believe what was happening. To be honest, I had forgotten that I had submitted the manuscript to Albert Whitman because it had been so long (nearly 18 months). And to suddenly be plucked out of the slush pile felt unreal.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book? 
A. My editor, Kristin Zelazko, was very kind about receiving my suggestions for illustrators and passing them along to the art director. They didn’t end up choosing anyone I had suggested, but I really could not be happier that they selected Alina Chau. I didn’t think that as a debut author I would be so lucky as to have someone of her caliber illustrate my book.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. I was blown away by the colors and the culturally-accurate details. Alina made the story come alive!

Q. How long did THE NIAN MONSTER take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. I received the offer in February 2015 and the book was released on December 1, 2016, so it was just a couple months shy of two years from start to finish. It sounds like a long time, but the months just flew by!

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 didn’t have to edit much of the original manuscript that I submitted, which was great. All my “darlings” stayed in the story. There’s one line, though, that I think I’d change now that I’ve read it out loud so many times: “Nian’s wide, wicked jaws were stuck fast.” I keep stumbling over the “stuck fast” part. I think I’d either leave out the word “fast” or replace it with “together.”

Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about THE NIAN MONSTER?
A. I haven’t received any letters from kids yet, but at one storytime event, a girl said she thought Nian was cute and cuddly. But after I read the part about Nian eating entire villages, she announced that he was mean and she didn’t like him anymore! (I wouldn’t like having a monster threaten to eat me, either.) Another child told me that she would defeat the monster with chocolate cake, which sounds like a great idea to me. Especially if it’s a flourless chocolate cake – those things are deadly! :)

Q. When you do readings of THE NIAN MONSTER, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. I do an interactive storytime which was created by Kirsten Cappy of Curious City DPW (www.curiouscitydpw.com). I have a giant Nian monster mask and the kids can come up and “feed” him the food items mentioned in the book. There are fireworks at the end of the story and each child gets a paper bag to fill with air and pop. They all love making noise and helping me send away the Nian monster!

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Persist! Keep reading, studying, writing, revising, and submitting.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. One of my new favorite exercises is by Jean Reidy, a friend and agency-mate. She has “10 Power Premise Questions” on her blog here (http://jeanreidy.com/2013/09/does-your-picture-book-premise-have-power/) that help you figure out if your picture book idea has what it takes to sell. I find it to be a handy, quick, but not necessarily painless way to sort through my ideas and decide which one to work on next. It’s especially helpful if you participate in Storystorm (formerly known as Picture Book Idea Month) and don’t know which idea to work on first!

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m working on a middle grade coming-of-age novel about a young Chinese girl who moves from Boston’s Chinatown to rural Ohio. I tend to keep my WIPs close to my chest, so that’s all I’m ready to say about it now.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
A. My website is www.andreaywang.com
Twitter: @AndreaYWang, although I’m still learning the ropes with Twitter.
Facebook: andrea.c.wang
Instagram: @andreawhywang.

Thanks so much for interviewing me and I hope to see you and your readers around online!

WHERE ARE THE WORDS?

December 11, 2016

Tags: WHERE ARE THE WORDS?, Jodi McKay, Denise Holmes, Albert Whitman, 2016

This month Jodi McKay's debut picture book will be published and today she found all the right words to tell us about WHERE ARE THE WORDS? Leave a comment below to win a copy!

Q. Was WHERE ARE THE WORDS? the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. WHERE ARE THE WORDS? was definitely not the first story I wrote. There are at least a dozen that came before all of which are tucked away waiting for their turn to be revised.

I actually happened to come across my first manuscript (which I wrote and illustrated) the other day when I was cleaning out the deepest recesses of my basement. Believe me, that’s where it belongs. It was a collection of rhyming poems about different half kid, half animal characters. That’s right, humanimals. Good thing it didn’t work, eh?

Q. What inspired WHERE ARE THE WORDS??
A. I spend a lot of time staring at my computer, willing words to appear on the screen. It was one of these intense staring episodes that I wondered why I couldn’t find the right words for a story and then I thought, Hmmm can I write about that? “Of course!” I answered myself, “But you need to do it in a different way.” So I went through my mental list of possible characters and came across the punctuation marks. It all came together very quickly after that.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. I honestly didn’t think that this would remain the title. It’s just what I kept asking myself for so long and still do for that matter. Even now, as I write the answers to these questions, I’m going back and forth looking for the right words. It’s crazy, but it’s part of my process.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I love when Exclamation Point is trying to catch Run, Jump, Skip, and Hop. The words are doing exactly that, running, jumping, skipping, and hopping away from Exclamation Point which makes a funny and very active scene. Denise Holmes, the illustrator of this book, did a great job making that spread come to life.

This idea of trying to catch words came a little later in the revisions. I always had Exclamation Point trying to wrangle the words, but it wasn’t as literal as this.

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in first person?
A. Well, for a couple of reasons. One, I figured that if I wrote it in first person, then these unconventional characters may feel more relatable and two, I wanted this to be a simple story with a twist. I imagined children reading it and discovering that the characters speak as their roles dictate. That, to me, would be an incredible learning opportunity.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing WHERE ARE THE WORDS? 
A. I knew the problem and the characters rather quickly and I knew that I wanted the characters to speak in a way that shows their punctuation roles. After establishing the three main characters, Period, Question Mark, and Exclamation Point, I needed to add in other punctuation marks and figure out how they could or maybe weren’t able to help Period reach his goal of writing a story. I wanted there to be a sense of teamwork woven into the story so I really tried to have each character be important to creating that theme.

Q. Did WHERE ARE THE WORDS? receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. I am prefacing this with the statement that this is a highly unusual situation and I was very lucky to have experienced this.

I received one rejection from an agent who favorited it on #pitmad. I then sent it to an author whose critique service I had won in a contest. She offered a few suggestions and then asked if I would be interested in sending it to her editor. Um, heck yeah! I sent it to her editor at Albert Whitman and waited for a couple of months with no word. Assuming this meant no, I started to query it. Two weeks after I sent three queries out, I opened my email and there it was, an offer to publish a story about punctuation marks trying to find words to write a story.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on WHERE ARE THE WORDS?
A. You know that feeling when you are about to go over the top of the first hill of a roller coaster and you want to puke and laugh at the same time? It was kind of like that. I called my husband who immediately thought someone had been in a horrible accident because I was cry-yelling. Then I just kinda sat and let it sink in. Once the initial shock left my body I allowed myself to be excited. I am not a very excitable person so this was a big deal.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book? 
A. None at all, I just got really lucky. Denise is an extremely talented artist who took punctuation marks and gave them life. I had no idea how that was going to happen, but she did it and now the book is so much more that I had imagined it could be. I am very grateful to have been able to work with Denise.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. I really liked the mannerisms of the characters. Their facial expressions are fairly simple, but the way their arms move and how they are positioned really gives a sense of personality and adds more heart to the story. I also loved the colors that Denise used.

Q. How long did WHERE ARE THE WORDS? take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. It has been almost two years and like most published authors will tell you, the two longest years of my life. I have learned a lot about the publishing process and about myself in that time so I appreciate it all of it.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Find your people first. Not your wife or husband, not your best friend, but people who know what writing is like and who can offer you not only specific support (say that 5 times), but honest and experienced feedback about your manuscripts. The kidlit community is vast and wonderful. There are published and pre-published authors available to share knowledge and writerly love for anyone who seeks it. These are the people you want in your corner as your write your stories. I could not have done this without my critique groups, SCBWI, and all of my online author friends who have so graciously given their wisdom. Find your people.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. I am a big advocate for a good story arc and I try to make sure that I hit all of the elements of the arc by asking myself this: Who, Wants, But, So, Then, Sign off. In other words, the main character has a goal, but something stands in his/her way of achieving that goal so he/she tries three different and increasingly harder ways of reaching that goal (failing each time), then the main character learns something or changes in some way that helps him/her finally get to that goal. All is well so the story wraps up usually in a funny, circular, or open ended way. Getting all of the key parts of a story down is an art form that I am still working on, but I like to start there.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I am currently working on a picture book idea that hit me while I was supposed to be relaxing at the end of a yoga session. I don’t normally think about mice as I sink into child’s pose, but once they popped in my head they wouldn’t leave me alone. Very chatty, those mice.
I’m also revising several stories that I plan on sending to my agent soon. She is very editorial, which I love so I anticipate revising some more afterwards.

Thanks for having me on your blog, Karlin!

Jodi would love to hear from you! You can find her on:
Her website- www.JodiMcKayBooks.com (Look for the teacher’s’ guide!)
Email- Jodi@JodiMcKayBooks.com
Facebook- https://www.facebook.com/JLMcKayBooks/
Twitter- https://twitter.com/JLMcKay1

A WINNER WAS EMAILED AND THIS CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED. To celebrate WHERE ARE THE WORDS? publication, Jodi is giving away a copy of WHERE ARE THE WORDS? Simply comment below to enter. One comment per person, US addresses only, please.

THE WILLIAM HOY STORY: HOW A DEAF BASEBALL PLAYER CHANGED THE GAME

July 18, 2016

Tags: THE WILLIAM HOY STORY: HOW A DEAF BASEBALL PLAYER CHANGED THE GAME, Nancy Churnin, Jez Tuya, Albert Whitman, 2016

Nancy Churnin is a theater critic and busy baseball-loving mom to four boys but today she tells us about the long road to publishing her first picture book THE WILLIAM HOY STORY—"a rewarding read-aloud choice for baseball fans" (Booklist) and a New York Public Library Recommended Book.

Q. Was THE WILLIAM HOY STORY the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. There have been so many manuscripts over the years, I can’t remember which was first. But one I remember most fondly is Monroe and the Mousecracker, Sweet! about a mouse who dreams of starring as the Mouse King in The Nutcracker. It’s still in my file cabinet and it still makes me laugh!

Q. What inspired THE WILLIAM HOY STORY?
A. I became friends with a Deaf man named Steve Sandy, whose decades-long dream is to get William Hoy in the National Baseball Hall of Fame., where William would be the first Deaf player to get that honor. I wanted to find a way to help. I thought of the most powerful people I knew and I realized: kids! I will share the story of William Hoy with kids and they will write the letters and send the drawings that will make it happen. At that point I had not yet realized there was more to writing picture books than putting down whatever came into my head and stuffing the results in file cabinets. Slowly I realized I had to learn the craft. So I took courses and challenges and got critiques and wrote, wrote, wrote while Steve kept me going with fabulous primary source material and patiently answered question after question after question about William Hoy and what it was like to grow up Deaf in the late nineteenth century.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. Wendy Grencik, my wonderful editor at Albert Whitman & Company, picked the title. It is simple and to the point and I really like the second part of it: THE WILLIAM HOY STORY: HOW A DEAF BASEBALL PLAYER CHANGED THE GAME.

Q. What resources did you use while researching THE WILLIAM HOY STORY?
A. Steve Sandy provided me with reams of newspaper articles about William Hoy from the 19th century and beyond as William lived 99 years from the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln to John F. Kennedy! Steve is friends with the Hoy family and, through them, was able to supply me with family pictures, too. I did my own searches and was lucky to get the encouragement and support of Texas Rangers Hall of Fame announcer Eric Nadel. He wrote a book for adults about baseball that includes Hoy and fact checked my baseball details. I am so proud that Eric wrote a blurb for the back of my book and has been reading it to kids as part of his Texas Rangers Summer Reading program.

Q. How did you decide where to start and end this nonfiction story?
A. It took me a long time to realize that the heart of the story was how his difference — his Deafness in a hearing world — was his gift to baseball. Because he was Deaf, he signed. He taught those signs to the umpires so he could play the game he loved. Those signs, which we still use today, make baseball a better game for everyone. Once that came to me, I realized I need to begin with the signs (his mother giving him Deaf applause when he practiced his throws as a boy) and finally show how he was loved by the fans when they greeted him with Deaf applause as his mother had done. The connecting thread was the applause. I used it to connect from the time he was a boy to a young rookie ballplayer to a successful and popular ballplayer.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. It wasn’t there in the first draft literally, but I like to think it was waiting to be fished out of the initial sea of words. The Deaf applause, which is in three key places, is my favorite part—especially at the end when it brings a tear to his eye. It brings one to mine as well. Every time.

Q. Did THE WILLIAM HOY STORY receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. The rejection letters came in three phases. The first phase was for the version of the story I wrote before I realized I needed to study this craft. There were lots of those! The second phase was after my lovely agent, Karen Grencik, took me on hours after reading the version I had written after taking multiple courses and challenges and gotten help from fabulous critique partners. Those were personalized and regretful rejections which were a big step up from the form letters I had gotten after submitting to the slush piles. The third phase came after I carefully considered a common thread in the comments in the rejections. I had a brainstorm and got the idea of transforming a straightforward biography to a narrative about how signs changed his life and how he used them to change the lives of others for the better. That got a couple of rejections, but when Karen sent the new manuscript to Wendy, Wendy responded affirmatively that same day!

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on THE WILLIAM HOY STORY.
A. Utter, pure elation. Joy for me, for Steve, for William Hoy. Thankfulness that this opportunity was opening for me to fulfill my promise to myself, to Steve, to William Hoy and to give this happiness to my family.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. Wendy picked the illustrator, Jez Tuya, and he’s been wonderful! She shared early sketches with me and my only comments were regard to historical accuracy, particularly that in the early days no one wore baseball gloves. Through Steve, I was able to supply Jez (through Wendy) lots of historical photographs. I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by how Jez melded accuracy with a bright friendly style that kids love.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. William Hoy was coming to life. It was like finally getting to meet someone you have corresponded with for years but never got to meet in person!

Q. How long did THE WILLIAM HOY STORY take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Sixteen to seventeen months depending on how you count it. We received the offer in October of 2014. Then everything was quiet until the summer of 2015. Suddenly everything had to be proofread and questions had to be answered very quickly! There was some more back and forth in the fall. Then THE WILLIAM HOY STORY was published March 1, 2016 although people who pre-ordered were able to get it in February of 2016.

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 the book as is, but I have lots of extra anecdotes I like to bring to my presentations and kids and adults seem to enjoy getting extra inside information about his sense of humor, his honesty, and what an all around good guy he was.

Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about THE WILLIAM HOY STORY?
A. They are all wonderful and I treasure them all! Here are a couple that the kids addressed to the National Baseball Hall of Fame:

From Shylah D.: Mr. Hoy never gave up despite his inability to hear. His story shows how important it is that no matter what your handicap or disability is, to never give up on your dreams. If you work hard, they can come true. I will remember this story for the rest of my life. I know if it touched me, it will touch other kids just like me. Please enter Mr. Hoy into the Sports Hall of Fame. His story needs to be shared and heard by everyone.

From Payton N.: He's a big influence in many peoples lives including my little brother Tyler. Tyler is also deaf and he also plays on a baseball team but they're called The Angles. Their team is undefeated and I'm so proud of him! If you put William Hoy in The Hall of Fame it would make a big difference in his life. I really hope this letter convinces you because I told my brother I would try and I hate to make him sad.

From Elizabeth: I am an eleven year old girl who enjoys watching a baseball game. William Hoy changed baseball for everyone, and he's not in your hall of Fame! I don't understand why not!!!!! He was an amazing baseball player who was just DIFFERENT! William Hoy should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and it's silly if you don't see that!

Q. When you do readings of THE WILLIAM HOY STORY, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. The kids get really quiet when he is bullied, particularly by the pitcher who tricks him into thinking there’s another pitch coming because he knows William was too far away from the umpire to see that he had three strikes. Their eyes get big when William gets his big idea and starts scribbling on his pad. They are so joyful at the end when they can see what it means to him to be greeted by the crowd with Deaf applause.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Write the story you believe with your whole heart needs to be in the world, that will make a difference in children’s lives. When you commit to that story, you are an advocate for that story and you will become an unstoppable force. Sure, the story may need to be rewritten or reworked a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand times. You have to be open to learning, to growing to learn, to give the story everything it needs to breathe. Don’t make it about you because if you do your feelings will get battered and bruised. Make it about the story. You serve the story and your job is to keep going until you get it where it needs to go.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you recommend?
A. If you are writing a non-fiction biography, ask yourself what was the person’s dream when that person was a child. How did the dream change over time and how did the person make the dream come true? Can you feel the desire for that dream as intensely and urgently as your character? When you do, start writing!

Q. What are you working on now?
I am thrilled to report that my second book, another non-fiction picture book, Manjhi Moves a Mountain, will be published by Creston Books, in Fall of 2017. It’s the true story of a man who was motivated by love to move a mountain, using only a hammer, chisel and his own persistence. The amazing Marissa Moss is the editor and I am thrilled to report that I’ve seen some of the early illustrations by the fabulous Danny Popovici. Plus I have several manuscripts in progress and I have treated myself to Kristen Fulton’s amazing WOW retreat for children’s book writers July 17-23 for a week of writing, rewriting, and inspiration.

To learn more about Nancy, visit her website.

DARIO AND THE WHALE

March 7, 2016

Tags: Dario and the Whale, Cheryl Lawton Malone, Bistra Masseva, Albert Whitman, first picture book

Today we are chatting with writing instructor Cheryl Lawton Malone about her debut picture book,
DARIO AND THE WHALE—a "delightful story . . . based on the author’s actual experience on Cape Cod" (Kirkus Reviews). (more…)