My #FirstPictureBook Q&A

What inspired these Halloween-friendly picture books?

October 30, 2017

Tags: Joy Keller, Ed Masessa, Miriam Glassman, Abraham Schroeder

Click to read entire Q&As by these #firstpicturebook authors:

Joy Keller: When my kids were little, they had very specific taste in books. My daughter only wanted to read Halloween books, and my son only wanted to read truck books. I thought to myself, “Why hasn’t someone written a book about monsters and trucks? It could be called MONSTER TRUCKS.” Bingo! There was my idea.

Ed Masessa: Like many of my generation, The Wizard of Oz was my favorite movie as a child. It was shown once a year on TV and it wasn’t until we got our first color TV that I realized that part of it was filmed in color. The flying monkey scene might have been terrifying if I hadn’t been so inquisitive. As they threw Scarecrow’s straw all around, I always wondered what happened to his bones. I thought it would be a cool tribute to my childhood imagination to create a scarecrow with a skeleton.

Miriam Glassman:My eldest daughter inspired this story when she was very young and said, “What if there was a queen who so mean, all she ever ate was burnt cupcakes?” At the same time, I was somewhat obsessed with the score from the Sondheim musical, Into the Woods, particularly the storyline of the witch and her attachment issues with her daughter, Rapunzel. Somehow, thoughts of Rapunzel came together with those of the burnt-cupcake eating queen. I turned her into a witch, and imagined her as the sister of the witch from Rapunzel. I wondered what would happen if that baby was left in the sister’s hands to raise. Though I didn’t consciously set out to write an adoption story, that’s what it turned out to be. Perhaps subconsciously, I was thinking about my two adopted nieces.

Abraham Schroeder : Around 2005 or 2006 I was working at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on a massive project to organize and catalog the collection of roughly 50,000 Japanese woodblock prints. Among them I found a charming image of bats and an umbrella from the 1880's by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. Soon after that, the first little couplet started bouncing around in my head: "The gentleman bat, with his gentleman's cane, went out for a walk one night in the rain." The rhythms and ideas kept coming back to me, especially when I was out walking, gradually becoming more complex and interesting, and eventually I started writing all the bits and snippets down so I could start shaping them into a cohesive story.

Did your #firstpicturebook receive any rejection letters?

September 4, 2017

Tags: Emma Bland Smith, Susan Hood, Nancy Churnin, Deborah Freedman, Josh Funk, Ed Masessa, Brittany R. Jacobs, Lori Alexander, Camille Andros, Katey Howes

After three years of rejection, I finally sold my second picture book biography! (Check back in a few weeks to learn more about that project.) Honestly, I stopped keeping track of how many rejection letters it received once it reached 50. “We like it, but we don’t love it” seemed to be the running theme. But it wasn’t until one publisher sent me a long and thoughtful email with specific suggestions, that my manuscript clicked, clicked, CLICKED into place. So to celebrate acceptance after so much rejection, I’m reposting 10 Q&As with these #firstpicturebook authors:

Nancy Churnin: “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….”

Deborah Freedman: “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.”

Josh Funk: “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 ...”

Ed Masessa: “My agent, Marcia Wernick, helped me polish the draft and sent it to a half dozen or so editors over the course of several months. They all came back with a “well done, but…” And all of the ‘buts’ hit upon a central theme – the story dragged. So I kept the bones of the story and went to work on picking up the pace and the fun factor.”

Brittany R. Jacobs: “We had one heckuva time selling the Kraken, and it was because of the artwork. About 20 houses turned us down because they didn't love my illustration style. There was even a point where I considered selling the manuscript and letting someone else do the artwork. Thankfully Pow! saved the day and offered a contract for both text and illustrations, and we ended up with a lovely book.”

Lori Alexander: “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.…”

Camille Andros: “A. Yes! Of course! Probably around two dozen or so from agents and then editors. But I wasn't really shopping Charlotte around as much as I was THE DRESS AND THE GIRL which was the first book I wrote and was more focused on initially. That book got lots and lots of rejections, but each personalized rejection (they weren't all like that of course) and the feedback that came with it was so helpful in improving each manuscript.”

Katey Howes: “Oh, yes! I received at least ten very nice rejection letters for GRANDMOTHER THORN before getting the incredibly exciting call from Rob Broder of Ripple Grove Press. Most of the rejections claimed to love the lyricism and symbolism of the story, but said that it would be a tough sell in the current market because it was “quiet.” Several agents who read GRANDMOTHER THORN asked to see other works from me.”

Emma Bland Smith: “I didn’t receive many rejections for this manuscript, but I want to state that I have received many dozens, maybe even hundreds, of rejections, in total, for all my of manuscripts, over the six or so years I’ve been submitting! And I still am. With JOURNEY, it was a case of the right story getting to the right publisher at the right time. I’m very grateful.”

Susan Hood: “My first version had the same main character and the same ending, but it was a completely different story. A more modern story. My editor thought it had possibilities, but it was rejected in Acquisitions. I was so disappointed, I stuck it in a drawer for years.”

SCARECROW MAGIC

October 30, 2016

Tags: SCARECROW MAGIC, Ed Masessa, Matt Myers, Orchard Books, 2015

Ed Masessa's work includes managing selections for Scholastic Book Fairs, critiquing books, and writing children's books. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller THE WANDMAKER'S GUIDEBOOK but today he looks back at his first picture book, SCARECROW MAGIC—"Halloween-worthy chills for any time of year." (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

Q. Was SCARECROW MAGIC 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’ve written at least 20 picture manuscripts but Scarecrow is the first one that has been published. Which means there are many more to come! My very first attempt (some 15 years ago) was about a woodpecker with a soft beak – quite a handicap. I still believe in that one and plan to make some adjustments to make it more relevant to the current diversity initiatives that are sweeping the publishing industry. I might have been ahead of my time.

Q. What inspired SCARECROW MAGIC?
A. Like many of my generation, The Wizard of Oz was my favorite movie as a child. It was shown once a year on TV and it wasn’t until we got our first color TV that I realized that part of it was filmed in color. The flying monkey scene might have been terrifying if I hadn’t been so inquisitive. As they threw Scarecrow’s straw all around, I always wondered what happened to his bones. I thought it would be a cool tribute to my childhood imagination to create a scarecrow with a skeleton.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. I tend to believe that a full moon holds a bit of magic that is capable of making strange things happen. Add a scarecrow, and there you have it.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. When they are playing jacks and eating snacks and treats that have the odor of feet. My original draft spent too much time on the set-up and not enough time having fun. I started adding more games and coming up with gross ideas and that’s when the story took off.

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. Honestly, I never considered telling it any other way.

Q. Was SCARECROW MAGIC always in rhyme or was there another version in prose?
A. The story was always intended rhyme. That said, I’ve heard many editors at conferences tell authors that they really don’t like to see submissions written in rhyme. Yet so many picture books are rhyming. The trick is in making it rhyme with a natural cadence. I have a musical background which I think helped.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing SCARECROW MAGIC?
A. I knew the beginning and the end, and that I wanted it to be a fun book to read aloud. Everything that happened in the middle evolved over the course of many revisions.

Q. Did SCARECROW MAGIC receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. My agent, Marcia Wernick, helped me polish the draft and sent it to a half dozen or so editors over the course of several months. They all came back with a “well done, but…” And all of the ‘buts’ hit upon a central theme – the story dragged. So I kept the bones of the story and went to work on picking up the pace and the fun factor.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on SCARECROW MAGIC.
A. I was so happy I almost hung up the phone without asking how much the publisher was offering.


Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. Most picture book authors are not given the opportunity to select an illustrator, but because I’ve been working in children’s publishing for 20 years, I was allowed to offer some suggestions. Matt Myers was my first choice and I was elated that they agreed.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. I thought it was brilliant! He totally captured the balance between fun and scary. And the back cover concept was amazing! I never saw that coming and actually laughed out loud when I saw it.

Q. How long did SCARECROW MAGIC take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. About two years, but I think part of that was because it is definitely a Fall book.

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. No, but I liked the character so much that I wrote a sequel… that will probably never be published. It was a heartwarming Christmas story with Scarecrow helping an abandoned puppy. And even though I had Scarecrow dressed in a ratty old Santa suit, there was a lot of resistance to using a scarecrow as a “Christmas” character. I’ve not given up, but I may eventually give in and turn the scarecrow into a snowman.

Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about SCARECROW MAGIC?
A. Some of the hand-drawn pictures I get are pretty funny – and usually better than I could have done.

Q. When you do readings of SCARECROW MAGIC, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. When Scarecrow jumps into the pond with just his underwear on. I didn’t write that into my notes and never saw it coming. But Matt has a terrific sense of humor and knew that any scene with underwear would tickle a kid’s funny bone.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. If something isn’t working, don’t force it. Just scrap it and find a different approach. There are very few bad ideas but lots of bad execution.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share? I love going to art shows and museums.
A. My favorite exercise is taking a piece of art or an ancient artifact and creating a story about it. I just let my imagination run wild. The more bizarre the better, because usually I will hit on something that can be fleshed out. There is a lot of truth to the adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I am revising the sequel to the Wandmaker, my first novel which was published in May. Wandmaker’s Apprentice is due out in Summer 2017. I am also working on my next picture book as well as a chapter book series that pays a bit of homage to one of my childhood heroes, Ray Harryhausen.

To learn more about Ed Masessa and his books, visit his website.