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Q&A Blog

TOBY

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.
A.*&^#%#^%^^!%^()))!)**#&^#^%^ SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!
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.
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THE SOUND OF SILENCE

Katrina Goldsaito worked as TV journalist and producer in Tokyo and is currently writing a YA novel. But today she tells us how she created her first picture book, THE SOUND OF SILENCE—"An inviting tale that will stretch inquisitive and observant young minds—and may even lead children to a greater appreciation of that golden commodity, silence" (Kirkus Reviews).

Q. Was THE SOUND OF SILENCE 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 SOUND OF SILENCE was somewhere in a pile of ten manuscripts that my partner and I decided to write in ten days. Every night after my epic days as a TV Journalist in Tokyo for NHK-World, I’d come home and write a picture book. We’d sit on the floor and I’d write a page and hand it to him to illustrate. Every day for ten days. A very early (and nearly unrecognizable) draft came out during that creative sprint.

Q. What inspired THE SOUND OF SILENCE?
A. The story is one my father told us growing up—of a musician who was also my dad’s neighbor (and who I later found out was the famous contemporary composer Toru Takemitsu) told my father that his favorite sound was the sound of silence.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. It was such a long process! There were emails! And committees! And brainstorms! And I still am not sure about it—mostly because when you google it you get Simon and Garfunkel. (Who I love).

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. That’s such a wonderful question, because I love the end, and your follow-up question is making me realize that the ending is the heart of the story. The heart was there in some form even in the earliest drafts. 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 (just like the silence that little Yoshio finds!)

Also, I love Julia’s aerials in the spread with the family eating and Yoshio taking a bath, gorgeous. (And the bamboo grove. And the end. And EVERYTHING. Juliaaaaaa!!!!)

Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. Yoshio is my dad’s name, and your question is making me realize that no one else has names in the book!!

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. Hmm, I never thought about telling it in anything but third. (Just as the novel I’m working on can’t seem to be in anything but first). I think it’s about how it appears in my imagination—the voice is clear to me from the beginning.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing THE SOUND OF SILENCE?
A. Originally the story had a few focuses—one of which was that the boy was always late to school (That got completely jettisoned, thank goodness), the other was that he was connecting with different traditional artisans, which was focused into the one character of the koto player. Bethany Strout was the genius behind making her a woman—one of my favorite changes that came with art.

Q. Did THE SOUND OF SILENCE receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. It didn’t. Though I did work with Alvina Ling at Little, Brown for almost a year before it went to acquisitions. I learned everything in that year, it was such an incredible gift, that mentorship.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on THE SOUND OF SILENCE.
A. Tears. :)

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. A lot! I was very lucky that this was such a collaborative process and the editorial team was so respectful and interested in my thoughts on illustrators. We had such a similar vision for the book, and we all knew that Julia was and is the perfect artist to create Yoshio’s illustrated world.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. Those last pages. Ohhh, I love them so much. In those last pages when he finds silence I feel like Julia and I are so perfectly in sync. I still get a little teary when I read them.

Q. How long did THE SOUND OF SILENCE take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. 5 years! 6 if you count the year before it sold. I loved that it took so long. I loved working on other projects and knowing it was in the wings waiting, and telling people about it and preparing for it to show up in the world. I wouldn’t have sped it up at all.

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 single thing.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Write what you love, write something that you want to spend a long time with (because it can take a long time) and be relentless in your love of the book and your love of the craft. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. That ten books in ten days exercise was amazing. Just committing to creating no matter what happened: no matter if we were tired or bored or feeling insecure, that we would make no matter what.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I'm performing at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco (Om I'm Home) where I'm pouring tea for visitors in my own version of a Japanese tea ceremony. We continue to make WeDokiDoki. A new picture book is with my editor, my first YA novel, Otemba is nearly ready for submission; and I am always lovingly dipping into a memoir project called The Last Speaker of a Secret Language.

To learn more about Katrina and her projects, visit her here or on Twitter at @inlovethere
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THE BEAR AND THE PIANO

David Litchfield's illustrations have appeared in newspapers, magazines, and books. Starting in 2010, he did a drawing every day for a year and later hosted a Ted Talk about how that changed his life. Today he talks about how he created his first picture book THE BEAR AND THE PIANO—"one of those rare books that children can return to again and again through the years, each time finding new meaning appropriate to their varying ages and stages” (Kirkus Reviews).

Q. You had illustrated several book covers before THE BEAR AND THE PIANO. How did you make the transition to writer/illustrator?
A. Well actually, THE BEAR AND THE PIANO is my first ever book. I got the gig before any other commissions, which was strange as I had no experience of narrative illustration really. My editor Katie Cotton must have just seen the desire I had to create books and took a huge leap of faith in signing me up to do the book.

After I pitched the idea to Katie I drew the thumbnails and the rough version of the book as well as a few full colour spreads. This took me a couple of weeks working around other jobs in the evenings, etc. But thankfully, Katie was impressed enough by this to say yes and commission the book.

Since then, I have taken on a fair few projects for other authors. This is a very different process as you need to take on board the authors viewpoint for the world they have created.
Each way of working has their own enjoyable challenges and unique processes to follow.

Q. What inspired THE BEAR AND THE PIANO?
A. I think when you want to follow a certain dream you have to step out of your comfort zone. And also I think so many people are moving around and moving away these days that's it's sometimes important to remember your roots and where you come from. But obviously told in a very sweet, friendly way.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. I liked how it was a matter of factly style title. It describes what the main story points are and I think that's quite cool.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I really like the giant theatre spread with the bear playing the grande piano in front of all of those people. This was one of the first images I sketched out and I could see it perfectly in my head. I'm really happy with how that spread turned out actually. From an illustration point of view I think it's a pretty good drawing (in my humble opinion). From a story point of view I think it's a good visual device of showing how far the bear has come and how different his life is compared to when he was playing on the tatty old piano in the forest.

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. Ooh, I don't know actually. It just was a natural thing. I didn't really think about it at the time. But now that I am thinking, maybe it's because if I had have written it from the Bears perspective and have the bear narrate it would have broken the Magic a bit. After all, if the bear can talk and tell us the story, it's not to far to stretch our belief that the bear can play the piano. So maybe, sub consciously, that's why I wrote it in the third person.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing THE BEAR AND THE PIANO?
A. All of it. actually, I sketched it out in my sketchbook before writing a word for it. Once I had the pictures mapped out it was quite easy to add the words. I think that's actually my favourite way of working.

Q. Did THE BEAR AND THE PIANO receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. It didn't actually. It may sound like I'm showing off a bit, but my first ever pitch meeting with a publisher was with Katie at France's Lincoln which went great and she loved the idea and the book got signed up. So, yep, no rejections (feel slightly smug now).

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on THE BEAR AND THE PIANO.
A. I remember I left France's Lincoln offices and went to Starbucks and had a sausage sandwich. I rang my wife and told her the good news and then emailed my agent. I then floated on a cloud of joy home from London to Bedford. It was a bloody brilliant day.

Q. How long did THE BEAR AND THE PIANO take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. It was a fairly quick process. Pretty much 1 year exactly. I got the green light on the project from France's Lincoln in September 2014 and then it was published in September 2015.

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. There was an extra spread which had the Bear running through the city streets just before he heads back to the forest. But part of the process of working with Katie was looking at what worked for the story and what might slow it down. This was a fantastic learning curve and even though I loved the look of the city spread I could see that it just wasn't needed at all. But to be honest I really don't think I would change anything within the book. I'm really rather fond of It :)

Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about THE BEAR AND THE PIANO?
A. I've had some great letters from kids who have read the book. I love getting letters. A couple of weeks ago I even got given a book drawn by a 7 year old girl called 'the bear & the Trumpet' which was inspired by my book. I'm even a character in the book which is amazing.
I still can't get over the fact that the book I drew in my cramped little spare room in our old flat is now being read by children all across the world. It's amazing really.

Q. When you do readings of THE BEAR AND THE PIANO, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. The big reveal at the end when the bear returns home is always nice. In fact I did a reading at a primary school last month and the teacher started crying at that point. It was a bit awkward. But also lovely and funny.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Being passionate about what you do, and having a strong portfolio is helpful (if you want to illustrate too).

But what I have learnt is that a good idea and a good concept can impress anyone. I think that publishers like to work closely with authors and illustrators in developing an idea. So the fact that The Bear & the Piano was just a very loose idea—literally just a paragraph synopsis and a few sketches—when I pitched it, was actually something that worked in its favour.

To learn more about how David created THE BEAR AND THE PIANO, visit his blog.

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

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.
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NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN'T SIT STILL

Thank you to all the writers who have participated in this blog. I love learning about how someone travels from a moment of inspiration to a finished piece of work! I hope this blog is useful to other picture-book writers and encourages them to write on!

To mark my June 7th book launch, I'm answering this week's Q&A about my first picture book,
NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN'T SIT STILL.

Q. Was NADIA the first picture-book manuscript that you wrote? If not, what was the first picture book that you wrote and what happened to it?
A. My first picture-book manuscript was about a boy who couldn't find anyone to play with on the playground. It's just kind of sad and a little abstract. I don't think it's a story that kids would want to read over and over again so it hides in a drawer somewhere.

Q. What inspired NADIA?
A. My writing instructor was reviewing some nonfiction picture books and I couldn't remember reading a nonfiction picture book when I was a kid. I thought back to my six-year-old self and wondered, who would I have wanted to see in a picture book? The first name that popped into my head was Nadia Comaneci. I loved gymnastics and would have clutched a book like that close to my heart.

Q. What kind of resources did you use while researching NADIA?
A. Everything I could find: Olympic coverage, interviews with Ms. Comaneci, newspaper and magazine articles, and books—Nadia Comaneci's two autobiographies along with Bela Karolyi's autobiography were essential! The official websites of Nadia Comaneci and Bart Conner, the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame, and the Olympic Studies Center were also key resources.
Some of these can be found on my Pinterest page along with some videos of Comaneci and my messy first page draft.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. At first, I wanted the word "hope" to be in the title because Nadia's name means "hope" and she was an Olympic-hopeful-turned-champion. But I didn't come up with anything that I liked. In reading Nadia Comaneci's autobiography Letters to a Young Gymnast (Basic Books), I learned that she was a rambunctious toddler who had tons of energy. She wrote, “If I wasn’t playing soccer or climbing trees, then I was doing cartwheels. The freedom of movement was intoxicating, and I could never stand still.” While I was writing my book, I also had a three-year old who loved to fling himself from couch to couch. (And honestly, he still does.) Constant movement was a theme on the page and in my own living room. The two collided and created NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN'T SIT STILL.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. My favorite part of the text: "Soon, Nadia was flying from bar to bar, from floor to vault, and high above the beam." This wasn't in my first draft. My first draft: "Nadia practiced and practiced and practiced even more until she performed her routines perfectly." Bleh, boring! Around the second or third draft, I focused on "show don't tell" and brought in the image of flying. It was also a good way to cover the four areas of women's gymnastics in one sentence. At a school reading, the librarian asked what the kids liked about the book and one boy recited that very line. I almost cried.

For several reasons, my favorite illustration is Nadia flipping on the beam. First, I have a distinct childhood memory of staring up at the TV and watching in awe as Comaneci danced, flew, and flipped on a four-inch beam. Second, this illustration is based on a famous Olympic photo where the photographer shows several frames within one combination of moves. Finally, the illustration is such a great foil to the previous beam illustration where she falls off in her first competition. Thank you Christine Davenier!

Q. How did you select the time frame for NADIA?
A. For me, the heart of the story is how a "flaw" fueled the way to excellence. So I started the story when Nadia was a four-year-old bouncing off the walls and getting into trouble and ended it when she was 14 and made Olympic history. I love how illustrator Christine Davenier used the same idea for the first and last page but also showed Nadia's transformation.

Q. Did NADIA receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Oh yes, it was rejected by several publishers and agents. I remember one agent said that although she was passing on the book, she could see that I wrote nonfiction very well. That was such an encouraging rejection! I continued to receive rejection letters after my offer. Happily, I tossed those in the trash.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on NADIA.
A. One day I received an email with NADIA in the subject line. I assumed it was another rejection letter. Instead, it was an HMH editor saying she would do triple back flips if I'd accept her offer. I jumped up and down and called my husband and parents. Neither answered. I couldn't tell anyone until I told them so I kept texting my husband, "Good news, good news," until he responded. He came home, grilled steaks, and opened a bottle of champagne.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. My editor Kate O'Sullivan was kind enough to ask me for suggestions although I knew I didn't have a say in the matter. She was so excited when Christine Davenier accepted and I trusted her completely. I can't imagine anyone else illustrating NADIA.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. Christine Davenier's artwork reminded me of "swimming through an ocean of air"—words used by sportscaster Jim McKay when he described Comaneci at the '76 Olympics.

Q. How long did NADIA take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Three years. My editor told me in the offer letter that she wanted to publish it in time for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

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 to cut text that doesn't move the story forward so I don't miss anything that was edited out. (For example, my first draft had a sentence or two describing Nadia's mother as a homemaker and her father as a mechanic. Those descriptions were not essential to the overall story so I took them out.) I do regret that I wasn't able to get an interview with Ms. Comaneci. I think having a Q&A in the back matter would have added another layer of meaning. I should have tried harder but I wanted to respect her privacy.

Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about NADIA?
A. After my first school visit, I received a package of letters from the kids. They were all so sweet and encouraging. One wrote, "This book was amazing. We think you should keep up the good work because we want to read more, thanks." I might wallpaper my office with it.

Q. When you do readings of NADIA, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. When Nadia receives the score of a 1.00, the kids get fired up: "What?! That's not fair!" It's the same reaction the crowd had that day in Montreal. The kids settle down once they learn it was really a 10.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those of us who want to write picture books?
A. I think all the doors in my head burst open when one of my writing instructors said: "Write your first draft fast and don't stop to correct anything. Just get it all out. It might terrible and that's ok because no one else will see it but you." Then go back, again and again, and revise. Characters, dialogue, plot points, and themes will emerge. And guess what—if you end up hating it, you toss it in a drawer. No big deal.

Q. What else are you working on?
A. I'm always working on nonfiction and fiction picture books. On my desk, there is a box of working manuscripts with stories about presidents, magicians, explorers, athletes, mermaids, monsters, scarecrows, cats, mice, and one sad moth. I hope they behave when I turn off the lights.

Come visit me this summer at these book events.
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FINDING WILD

Megan Wagner Lloyd has helped organize community literacy and art events and taught creative writing to fourth graders. She is allergic to all animals with fur or feathers but that doesn't stop her from embracing nature. Today she shares the story behind FINDING WILD—a "sparkling debut" (Publishers Weekly) in bookstores May 10th. Read More 
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