May 9, 2017

Tags: JABARI JUMPS, Gaia Cornwall, Candlewick, 2017

Illustrator Gaia Cornwall's work has been featured online, in interactive games, in films, as murals, and in various forms of print. But today is her book birthday! Let's celebrate with the #firstpicturebook Q&A of JABARI JUMPS—"A terrific seasonal storytime read-aloud that’s perfect for one-on-one sharing." (Starred review, School Library Journal)

Q. Was JABARI JUMPS the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. Ah no! I've written tons and tons of picture book manuscripts. I don't remember which was the first one exactly. Though I just re-worked and submitted a book idea that originally I had written and illustrated almost ten years ago. It never felt quite right, so I put it aside. I really like this version of it!

Q. What inspired JABARI JUMPS?
A. Originally, I started writing when African-American Olympic medalist swimmer Cullen Jones was winning tons of medals and awards. He's really amazing and now works with a swimming initiative "Make a Splash", that teaches kids how to swim. But personally, I've always loved to swim and remember clearly learning to jump off the diving board. I try to write stories about moments that are relatable to kids and that one stuck out for me.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
Once I had the name of my character-- Jabari-- adding "Jumps" seemed like a natural fit as that's the book in a nutshell. I feel like naming books is usually trickier, but in this case it came pretty easy.

Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A. Hmm. Well I tend to gather ideas mostly in a notebook-- a sketch, or a phrase I like. I've also started using my phone for this. But then I do a lot of typing on the computer. And then more scribbling. I guess I go back and forth a lot!

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. My favorite part is when he looks out on the city and whispers that he likes surprises. Technically, it wasn't in the first draft of the book-- though that was a very different book. Once I overhauled that and created the version that became this book, it was in the first draft of that for sure.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. The only character that's named is Jabari. I'm not totally sure where I first heard it. But it means "brave" in Swahili, so it seemed perfect for him.

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. I did versions of it in first person and in the end I liked the rhythm of how it sounded out loud in third person. But also it let the dad be a character in his own right as opposed to seeing him through Jabari's eyes-- as you would in first person. I think this way, adults will find him relatable, just like the kids will see themselves in Jabari.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing JABARI JUMPS?
A. The first versions were very simple--basically a visual gag of a kid putting on more and more gear before he jumped off the diving board. I still think that idea is funny, but I'm happy it developed into something more than that.

Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. I think in this case, I mostly wrote it first. Though it started with the basic image of a boy on the diving board. This is actually hard for me to answer--I think visually too, so even if I'm not actually drawing first, the images are there. If that makes sense.

Q. Did JABARI JUMPS receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. I think eight. --Which is not a lot by any means! But honestly, that's because it took me literally years to submit it and I had some good contacts when I finally did. I just checked and I had drafts of this in 2010. Which is ridiculous. Don't do that.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on JABARI JUMPS.
A. I was nursing my son who was a baby at the time. I burst into tears and then the laughing started. So lots of tearful laughter.

Q. How long did JABARI JUMPS take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. I signed a contract in 2014 and originally it was slated to come out in June 2016. It got pushed back to May 2017, which at the time was disappointing, but in reality worked perfectly as I ended up having another baby in the Spring of 2016. So a human baby last year and a book baby this year. One baby at a time!

Q. 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. One version compared how Jabari was feeling to different animals. In the end, I took them all out because it kind of diluted the story. It was a good call, but its always sad to take animals out-- they're so fun to draw!

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Hmm I have two:
1. READ. Read, read, read all the picture books you can get your hands on. Old ones are great, but if you want to submit your work to traditional publishers, you should be reading current books. Someone once said you should read 100 books in whatever genre you want to write in. So at least that many for picture books!

2. And find a critique group to show your work to. This is not easy to do--you have to trust them, value their judgement and you know, they have to be able to critique your work--not just tell you it's great. But don't give up! It doesn't matter if its online or in person, once you find them, those people are so invaluable.
My group offers great technical notes and ideas, are amazing cheerleaders, and also hold me accountable to my personal writing goals. I sincerely would not be where I am today without them.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. Join SCBWI and then take advantage of the smaller workshops and conferences. Personally, I've gotten way more out of weekend writing workshops and state/regional conferences. People tend to just get excited about the national conferences, but for me the smaller events are where its at.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I'm finishing up a first draft of a middle grade novel, working on a few different picture book manuscripts and kicking around a YA idea.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
A. You can find me at www.GaiaCornwall.com
Thanks for having me!


September 19, 2016

Tags: TOBY by Hazel Mitchell, first picture book, Candlewick, 2016

Originally 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, TOBY. "This familiar story with a family cast not often seen in picture books will warm dog-loving hearts.—School Library Journal

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.