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Q&A Blog

Lovely Beasts: The Surprising Truth

Lovely Beasts: The Surprising Truth by Kate Gardner and illustrated by Heidi Smith (HarperCollins, September 18, 2018)
This week’s Q&A is a very special interview because it is with Kate Gardner—the editor of my #firstpicturebook. I’m so happy that after years of guiding other writers on their publishing journeys, she has now set off on her own. Published on September 18, LOVELY BEASTS “presents an interesting and focused subject in an exemplary manner” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) and “will do much for the reputations of some of our more maligned animals” (Booklist).

Q. Was LOVELY BEASTS 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 actually wrote a very simple concept book called SNOW FALLS before LOVELY BEASTS. Tundra Books will be publishing it, but it's been delayed re: finding the right illustrator.
 
Q. What inspired LOVELY BEASTS?
A. Agent extraordinaire, Kirsten Hall, sent me a piece of Heidi's Smith art and asked if I had any book ideas for it. I was thrilled, flattered, and jumped at the chance. I thought that a nonfiction approach with a twist would engage readers and help shatter stereotypes at the same time—for it’s impossible not to worry about the danger of misperceptions, now more than ever. And many of these misconceptions have led to the near-extinction of some of these beautiful animals.
 
Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. The project was originally called GENTLE BEASTS. But as my editor Alessandra Balzer pointed out, not all of the featured beasts could accurately be described as "gentle" . . . So we went for something a bit more subjective.
  
Q. What kind of resources did you use in your research for this nonfiction book?
A. For my day job, I'm a children's book editor, and I've been lucky to work with many amazing writers on many fantastic books. For almost 15 years, I've worked with Sy Montgomery on her nonfiction projects and much of what I've learned from her, I've incorporated into LOVELY BEASTS.
 
Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. Heidi’s amazing art, of course! But I also love the simplicity of the book—all that negative space, large type, and pages turns. The page turns were something I felt strongly about and was happy when Alessandra and Heidi agreed that they helped create some tension and structure. And as an editor, while I never look for overt messages in books, I do hope that the idea of getting to know a person/place/thing before making a judgement call about it will be something that rises up naturally from LOVELY BEASTS and starts some conversations between readers.

Q. What information do you include in the back matter?
A. We had only one page to spare for back matter and we decided to include suggestions for further reading for both young and older readers.
 
Q. Did LOVELY BEASTS receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Amazingly, we received a preempt from Alessandra Balzer at Balzer + Bray (now I'm spoiled, even though I know that preempts are the exception to the rule!).
 
Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on LOVELY BEASTS.
A. My heart beat fast - very fast! I wasn't expecting things to move so quickly and while I'm familiar with the submission process from the editorial perspective, it was different to be on the other side of the desk. All I remember was that it was at night, I was sitting in the car in the driveway, and it was very cold—but Kirsten's call warmed me up quick.
  
Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. LOVELY BEASTS is also Heidi Smith's debut and I think she's definitely an illustrator to watch. She is so incredibly talented and her art hasn't stopped giving me goosebumps since the first time I saw it.
 
Q. How long did LOVELY BEASTS take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. I received the offer in January 2017 and the book is pubbing this month, so a little over 1.5 years.
 
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. I originally had more beasts and had to cut a few to make the pagination work. One animal I was sad to omit from the original manuscript was pigs - because I do think that if you ask someone to describe pigs in 2 or 3 words, they're bound to say something like "filthy" or "disgusting." Which isn't actually true. Pigs are incredibly smart and bathe in mud as a way to keep cool (it also works as sunscreen). And much like cats, pigs keep their toilet area far away from their living and eating areas. There is even a population of pigs who live on Exuma Island in the Bahamas who are known for regularly swimming in the pristine waters there.
 
Q. Have you read LOVELY BEASTS to any kids? If so, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. Not yet! LOVELY BEASTS will be published on 9/18 and I'll have my first bookstore event on the 22nd (biting finger nails in anticipation).
 
Q. Did you create any book swag for LOVELY BEASTS? If so, what kind?
A. I have always loved making necklaces and I made a beast themed one for a giveaway/raffle, which is currently running on Instagram through Sept 17th.
 
Q. What is your #1 tip for picture-book writers?
A. I think the next best practice for writing after writing itself, is reading. Reading and studying other picture books helps you figure out what you think works, what you think doesn't, and how that will inform your own approach. And if you're not also an illustrator, I think it's important to leave plenty of room for the art to meet the text and do its own storytelling.
 
Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. For me, the thing that helps me generate new ideas is actually walking. So I walk most of my commute, which gives me time to mull ideas and approaches over — my brain just seems to work differently when I'm walking vs. sitting at a desk!
 
Q. Is there a public launch for the book (reading/part at bookstore, library, etc.)? If so, please provide details:
A. Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts on September 22nd at 3 pm.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I have another picture book coming out with B + B, IF YOU LIVE HERE, but we're still searching for an illustrator, so no pub date yet. And with the hot weather, I haven’t been walking on my commute as much – I need to hit the streets and start thinking about new ideas!
 
Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
A. I'm on Instagram @keaosullivan
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Too busy to blog

It’s back-to-school chaos so I’ll return in a couple weeks with new #firstpicturebook Q&As. Enjoy the last weeks of summer!
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#FirstPictureBook Flashback

“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.”—author/illustrator David Litchfield

In July 2016, I interviewed David Litchfield about his #firstpicturebook THE BEAR AND THE PIANO. So what has David been up to since then? THE BEAR, THE PIANO, THE DOG & THE FIDDLE and GRANDAD’S SECRET GIANT along with illustrating several books for other writers! To revisit his #firstpicturebook Q&A, click here.

To learn more about David’s author/illustrator work, follow these links:

GRANDAD’S SECRET GIANT: “Funny, touching and visually stunning, this really is a book to treasure.”—Daily Mail

THE BEAR, THE PIANO, THE DOG & THE FIDDLE: Coming March 2019. Preorder now!

See more of David’s illustration work at his website.
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SAMMY’S SPOOKTACULAR HALLOWEEN

Animator and illustrator Mike Petrik loves Halloween! As a kid, he decorated his house in August. Now, as a grown-up, he’s celebrating this summer with the publication of his #firstpicturebook SAMMY’S SPOOKTACULAR HALLOWEEN—a “lavishly illustrated, laugh-out-loud picture book about a boy who loves Halloween so much that he tries to celebrate it year-round.” (Booklist)

Q. You worked as an illustrator before SAMMY’S SPOOKTACULAR HALLOWEEN.   How did you make the transition to writer/illustrator and how does it compare with being an illustrator of someone else's work?
A. Storytelling was always something I loved to do, but I was never really confident in my ability to write for children's publishing.  I put together a dummy of SAMMY’S SPOOKTACULAR HALLOWEEN to send along with query letters when I was looking for agent representation.  When I found Teresa at Bookmark Literary, she loved the idea so much that we did several rounds of revisions and sent it out, which ended up selling! When I'm illustrating for my own stories, I always kind of know what to expect from myself.  If I'm working on illustrating a story or poem for Highlights for Children, for example, I may have the opportunity to draw something I never would have otherwise, which is always a fun challenge!

Q. Was SAMMY’S SPOOKTACULAR HALLOWEEN the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. Yes! This is the first one I put together when I really wanted to take this whole children's publishing thing seriously.  

Q. What inspired SAMMY’S SPOOKTACULAR HALLOWEEN?
A. Well, it's sort of autobiographical.  My Mom likes to tell the story of the day she came home from work and my brother and I had dragged out and hung all of the Halloween decorations in early August.  I just love the whole Halloween season, and now that I have a family of my own, it's exciting to see my own children get excited about it too.  This past October for my daughters birthday, we did a whole haunted basement walk through for the kids, and my middle son Sammy had a blast jumping out and scaring the older kids!  Guess its in the blood.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. The title was something we muddled with forever.  Nothing sounded right, and the list grew and grew.  I was even at a point of listing words and combining them together, just as a way to hopefully land on the winner.  In the end, I knew I wanted the words Sammy in there and Halloween in there.  I'm 99% sure it was the awesome folks over at Two Lions who suggested the final title.

Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A. A little of both.  A lot of writing happened alongside drawing in the sketchbook.  Once I had some solid ideas there, I would type it out.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. What turned out to be my favorite spread was the one of the haunted house fully operational and showcasing all the cool spooky stuff they had built.  I drew this one last because it was the scariest to me and I was worried that I wouldn't get the image that I had in my head onto the paper.  This particular spread wasn't included in the first draft, but I'm glad it's in there now!  

Q. How did you select the names for your characters? 
A. Molly, Sammy, and Luke are the names of my three kids! 

Q. How did you decide between telling the story in first, second, or third person? 
A. Using a narrator to tell the story of Sammy was something I had from the very first dummy.  I wanted a tone of a traditional holiday story, with a narrator taking us through the events, then we get a closer look as we move into the dialogue.  

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing SAMMY’S SPOOKTACULAR HALLOWEEN? 
A. The story structure from the very first dummy to the final is essentially the same.  I knew the story I wanted to tell, and through all of the revisions, the heart of the story remained the same.  

Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. Writing and illustrating happened along side each other, which was great to keep it fresh for myself as I moved along.  Doodling in the sketchbook would reveal new things that I never would have discovered if I was just writing, and vice versa. 

Q. Did SAMMY’S SPOOKTACULAR HALLOWEEN receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Oh boy, yes.  If I had to put a number on it, probably around 30? 

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on SAMMY’S SPOOKTACULAR HALLOWEEN.
A. I couldn't really believe it!  There were a couple of "hey, we are interested in this, but maybe in year or two we can fit it in..." types of responses.  Which, even though they were rejections, it felt nice to get a positive response to the book.  So, when the offer came in, I told myself not to get excited until I actually had my name on a legal contract. 

Q. How long did SAMMY’S SPOOKTACULAR HALLOWEEN take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. It was about a year and a half from when I signed the contract to when I delivered final files.  

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. There was one scene from a very early draft of Sammy writing a love letter to monsters on Valentines Day.  It didn't really fit, so unfortunately had to go. 

Q. Did you create any book swag for SAMMY’S SPOOKTACULAR HALLOWEEN? If so, what kind?
A. Nothing yet since we are so early in promoting, but I have some plans!  A trick or treat bag with some Sammy art on it to give away, along with bookmarks that double as trading cards of the characters.  The big one though is I will have a Sammy plush figure to give away as a prize on release day!  

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Don't stop.  No matter what.  If you really want it, be the one who is up late working on a dummy while every else has thrown in the towel.  

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. I am biased since I am an illustrator, but I don't think I would be able to write without sketching ideas along side the writing.  Maybe this is something to try if you are having a creative block?

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I actually just turned in rough illustrations on a new story for the August 2018 issue of Highlights for Children.  All farm animal themed! 

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
A.
www.mikepetrik.com
https://twitter.com/mikepetrik
https://www.instagram.com/mikepetrik/
https://www.facebook.com/mikepetrikillustration

If you have read SAMMY’S SPOOKTACULAR HALLOWEEN, please consider writing a review:
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IVER & ELLSWORTH

Driving past a seltzer factory, Casey W. Robinson saw something that inspired her #firstpicturebook. Today she tells us how she travelled from that moment of inspiration to the publication of IVER & ELLSWORTH —“an original and unfailingly entertaining picture book" (Midwest Book Review), “sure to be a bedtime favorite.” (BookPage).

Q. Was IVER & ELLSWORTH the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. Definitely not! I wrote many (terrible) picture book manuscripts before Iver & Ellsworth. They all sit very neatly in a file marked OLD on my computer.

Q. What inspired IVER & ELLSWORTH?
A. I was on a road trip with my family and we drove past the Polar Seltzer factory in nearby Worcester, MA. The factory has a rooftop bear, which we’ve driven past many times. But this time as we waved to the bear I thought, I wonder what this bear’s name is and what kind of life he leads… this would make a great story.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. It was the obvious choice!

Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A. Mostly on the computer because it’s fast and I constantly fiddle with words as I write. But I take notes on paper whenever I think of a phrase, first line, bit of dialog etc so there are scraps of paper all over my house and tucked into pockets of clothing and jackets.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. The two-page spread that begins “Before he returns to work, Iver always makes sure that Ellsworth looks his best.” This was in the first draft. I just love the way Melissa pulled it all into one spread.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters? 
A. “Iver” was easy – it felt like it suited his character, an older name, uncommon but not too quirky. (I have a list of names I like that I keep for characters yet to be created.) Originally the bear’s name was Orson. But as that is the trademarked name of the Polar Seltzer bear, my editor and I brainstormed new names – he liked “Ellsworth” because of the character in Deadwood, and I liked it because it's a town in Maine near where I grew up.

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person? 
A. Third person provided the right distance from which to observe this story.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing IVER & ELLSWORTH? 
A. I knew the beginning – both the setting and how to establish their deep friendship. But I had no idea how it would end! I wrote and re-wrote many different endings before I settled on one that felt right. And then we changed it again during revisions.

Q. Did IVER & ELLSWORTH receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Actually, no. Ripple Grove Press was my first submission. I took a long time to assess which publisher would be the right fit for the story. Also: I’ve received plenty of rejections since then!

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on IVER & ELLSWORTH.
A. Ecstatic. I remember jumping up and down in my kitchen with excitement and the stunned looks of delight on my three daughters’ faces as they watched me and wondered what on earth was happening.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book? 
A. Rob and I had a few in-depth conversations about general art direction. I sent him the names of a few illustrators whose style felt similar to what I had in mind for IVER & ELLSWORTH. We were definitely on the same page and I felt very comfortable when he said I’d hear from him once he had signed the illustrator.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. When I saw the very first sketch of the characters, my first reaction was “Of course!” I didn’t know Iver wears a cap and has a mustache, but of course he does. I had the same reaction when I saw the jacket cover – Of course. It’s perfect.

Q. How long did IVER & ELLSWORTH take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Two years.

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. We turned a good portion of what I’d written for the second half of the book into wordless spreads, so I edited out probably ~150 words. But for good reason – that part of the book is now much more powerful because you get to experience it visually alongside the main characters.

Q. When you read IVER & ELLSWORTH to kids, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. When the wordless spreads begin, kids usually lean right in to see what’s happening. The scene where Ellsworth is next to the Dinosaur billboard seems to be a crowd pleaser.

Q. Did you create any book swag for IVER & ELLSWORTH? If so, what kind?
A. I did – bookmarks, post cards and stickers. For my book launch event I also got balloons printed with Ellsworth on one side, which I love!

Q. What is your #1 tip for picture-book writers?
A. Read as much as possible – all types of picture books, old and new. And don’t limit yourself to picture books: novels, graphic novels, poetry -- be insatiably curious about words and the art of storytelling.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. Marketing tip: Spend time helping to promote other authors and the books you love – write online reviews or reviews on your blog, post book covers on social media, retweet news of deals or book launches. The kidlit community is fueled by this kind of reciprocity; it will come back around when it’s your turn to celebrate.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. Many more picture book manuscripts. I have about 6 that are in various stages of revision.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
www.CaseyWRobinson.com
https://twitter.com/CaseyWRobinson
https://www.instagram.com/cwrobinson/

If you have read this book, please consider writing a review:
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Cloud Conductor

Kellie Byrnes is a children’s author, full-time freelance writer, and book reviewer. Her #firstpicturebook was acquired by a publisher after she attended her first kidlit conference. Today she tells us how she constructed the CLOUD CONDUCTOR—“Inspiring and full of positive messages . . . [an] exquisite book” (kids-bookreview.com).

Q. Was CLOUD CONDUCTOR the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. Cloud Conductor was the first manuscript I wrote, actually. I came up with the idea, started to write it, and then realized I needed to keep reading and learning about picture books more. When I came back to it, though, it flowed much more easily.

Q. What inspired CLOUD CONDUCTOR?
A. The book was inspired by my reading an article about a sick child. I wondered how a little kid would cope with being cooped up inside for so long when they’re ill, not being able to do the things they normally enjoy. My mind wandered and I thought about how the imagination would be so important during these times. I pictured a child looking at the clouds, and seeing fun shapes in them. From there, the title ‘Cloud Conductor’ popped into my head, and I knew this was something I had to write, and follow the story of.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. As mentioned above, the title actually came very early on, when I was first thinking about the idea for the story. It was nice that it flowed so well. These days, I often struggle to name my manuscripts – I find it really challenging!

Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A. I use both options. When I’m first brainstorming ideas and plotting out picture books, I do it all by hand. For the first draft, it might start as handwritten too, or sometimes I just go straight to the computer. It depends how well developed the idea is, and what my mood is, to be honest!

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
I love all the illustrations in the book (the illustrator, Ann-Marie Finn, did a wonderful job). But I particularly love a spread towards the beginning of the book, where it shows Frankie, the main character, working on an invention.

I didn’t specify in the text what the invention would be, but Ann-Marie turned it into an automatic ball thrower for Frankie’s dog. As the owner of two dogs, who has spent countless hours over the last decade throwing balls for them to fetch, this really hit home! I really like the way it shows Frankie’s curious and persevering nature, too.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters? 
A. I originally wrote the story with a different name for the main character. However, my publisher wanted this to be changed, since the name I had used she felt was too popular at the time, plus they’d just published another book that had a character with the same name. So I brainstormed with a friend, did research online and in baby-name books, and proposed a few options. In the end, though, the name Frankie just popped it my head! It wasn’t a name that I had brainstormed, but something must have made my subconscious come up with it. I have no idea what, though!

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in first, second, or third person? 
A. I wrote the book in third person, and this was pretty much just based on the fact that most picture books I had read were written that way. Today, I still typically write my picture books in third person. Occasionally this changes, but not often.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing CLOUD CONDUCTOR? 
A. Hmmm, when I first started to try and write it (before I got stuck because I didn’t understand picture book structure well enough), I think I knew the beginning and ending, but not really all the details of the middle.

Q. Did CLOUD CONDUCTOR receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. No, I was really fortunate with Cloud Conductor. I attended my first kidlit conference in July 2016, and booked in for manuscript assessments with a couple of editors. I just wanted to get feedback to see if I was on the right track with my writing, but happily I actually got a contract from one of the editors I saw there. So no rejection letters for this one. I have numerous other rejections now, though, for other manuscripts!

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on CLOUD CONDUCTOR.
A. I was absolutely over the moon! I had always wanted to be an author, but then put those dreams aside for many years after I worked in the publishing industry for a time and saw how challenging it was to get published (plus I thought I needed more life experience, to have stories to tell).

Really, it was all just about a lack of confidence though. Finally getting that first contract, after committing to myself in mid-2015 that I would finally start to work on my own books, was amazing. Quite life changing, in fact.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book? 
A. I didn’t have any input into the illustrator chosen. I was thrilled when I was told who it was though, as I was already a fan of Ann-Marie’s work.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. The main thing that jumped out at me was the color palette. I didn’t see early sketches at all, just illustrations when they were a fair way along, so all in color. I absolutely love the colors used throughout, and the way they add more meaning to the book.

Q. How long did CLOUD CONDUCTOR take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. It was a little under two years.

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. I didn’t add anything later, but the ending was changed. I initially had it ending way too sadly for a picture book! There was an image I saw in my head, in the original ending, that I really loved though, but I was okay with changing things. It’s important to listen to publishers, after all, especially for your first book!

Q. Have you read  CLOUD CONDUCTOR to kids? If so, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. Kids seem to be most intrigued when the story launches into the images Frankie sees in the sky. After all, most little ones have spent some time looking up at the clouds and seeing fun shapes, so I think they immediately identify with that.

Q. Did you create any book swag for CLOUD CONDUCTOR? If so, what kind?
A. The publishers created some great bookmarks and coloring-in sheets to go with the book, which is great. Plus, I’m also excited to announce that some gift cards have just been released, which are based on illustrations from the book.

There are two designs at the moment, which can be purchased separately to the book, and which feature Frankie. They can be used for a variety of occasions and uses. I just received my copies recently and the cards look amazing – wonderful quality, and really fun, positive messages. I hope other people like them as much as I do!

Q. What is your #1 tip for picture-book writers?
A. Keep reading, learning, and writing. I don’t think there’s any substitute for any of those steps.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. When it comes to marketing, try not to be afraid to put yourself out there. I know it can be challenging, but the more you send press releases or contact bloggers or journalists to see if they might be interested in profiling you and/or your book, the easier it gets. Plus, try to make life as easy for others as possible, by including all the info and images they might need upfront. People are busy, so the more work you do for them, the more likely it is they’ll run your story.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. Lots of things! I’m someone who flits about from project to project, depending on my mood, so I always have at least 5 or more things on the go at once. I’m editing and writing new picture books (fiction and non-fiction); editing and writing junior fiction novels; and working on some outlines for middle grade and young adults books.

I also have my second picture book coming out late next year – it’s a humorous story about some cheeky animals – so I’m discussing illustrations and ideas with the illustrator and publisher as required. I can’t wait for that book to be published!

I am also a book reviewer and blogger. I review children’s books each month and interview authors and illustrators about their work, creative processes, inspirations, favorite books and more. This keeps me busy, too. In addition, I’m a full-time freelance writer, so my life is pretty well taken up with words and stories!

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
A. My website is www.KellieByrnes.com, and you’ll find my blog here too.
As for social media, please connect with me on Twitter at @KellieJByrnes, on Facebook at KellieByrnesAuthor, and on Instagram (I’m not really active on there yet, but will be as soon as I find some more time) at kellie_byrnes.
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Monty & Sylvester: A Tale of Everyday Super Heroes

Carly Gledhill has worked as a print designer for studios and retailers and completed an M.A. in children’s book illustration. In April, she became an author too when her #firstpicturebook was published by Orchard Books. Today she tells us about creating MONTY & SYLVESTER: A Tale of Everyday Super Heroes, including how she got the names for her characters after watching a popular daytime television show.

Q. Was MONTY & SYLVESTER the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. MONTY & SYLVESTER is the first book I finished writing from start to end, I had tried a few times before to write but nothing came together. The book was quite a quick process, everything fell into place organically, although I still wasn’t sure it was any good when I had finished. I completed an MA in Children’s Book Illustration and had made many novelty books to avoid having to write a story, so it’s not my natural habitat.

Q. What inspired MONTY & SYLVESTER?
A. I drew the characters first and they existed for a while before I came back to them. I loved the unlikely friendship between big furry bear and little blue mouse. I was trying, and failing, to work on other stories, so I thought I’d give these 2 another go. The original drawings really inspired the story at this point, the characters seemed quite naive and lovable so the story naturally lent this way. I decided they should become superheroes when thinking about what kids do at play time, obviously flying and saving the world was what I did as a toddler so it seemed about right. They are the least likely characters to do well at being superheroes too which is where the humour kicks in, pow!

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. I wanted the title to reflect the everyday playtime nature of the story. Obviously MONTY & SYLVESTER need their name in lights on the cover as they are the stars, but it is just a tale of playtime gone exciting, it could happen to anyone!

Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A. All by hand for this one, there isn’t an awful lot of text in the book and a lot of it relies on humour. I drew it all out as I illustrated the book. I’ve always used type in my illustration so knew where and what it should look like to enhance the story. Some of the original hand-drawn type made it into the final version too.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. The first spread is probably my favourite. It hasn’t really changed since the first draft and sums up the personalities of our protagonists straight away! It’s a soft introduction to the book, sets the scene with a few clues of what’s to come!

Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. They were originally named after a couple of property developers on daytime TV Favourite ‘Homes under the Hammer’. (I don’t watch daytime TV usually I was just waiting for a delivery to arrive, honestly.)

Q. How did you decide between telling the story in first, second, or third person?
A. Oh dear, I didn’t, it’s a bit of a mish-mash of narration and the characters chatting away!

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing MONTY & SYLVESTER?
A. I had the basic outline ready—2 friends want to be super heroes that day, they’re a bit rubbish at it, they need a plan! I knew the setting would be domestic. I think that was about it. It really escalated from there with a different problem at the turn of each page, introducing more characters and peril!

Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. I have to get excited about the characters so I usually start with a good drawing of what they will look like then usually they talk to me and lead their own adventure!

With MONTY & SYLVESTER I didn’t know what I was doing, so I did both at the same time. Now I’ve got more of a clue. I try to write the story first before illustrating the spreads, working on storyboards with rough sketches.

Q. Did MONTY & SYLVESTER receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. I was very lucky in this respect, I sent the book to my agent Arabella at the Bright Agency and very soon Orchard Books were interested in it. I couldn’t believe my luck!

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on MONTY & SYLVESTER.
A. Disbelief, excitement, ticking off life goals with a big pen!

Q. How long did MONTY & SYLVESTER take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. It’s been about a year and a half, which as an illustrator who has worked commercially for years, seems forever! I’ve just received my advanced copies of the book, so it still isn’t out in the world yet. I can’t wait!

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. It was more the opposite with this book. The initial book had very clean spreads, very minimal with a pared down colour palette and I had to add more in. More was needed to make the book more colourful and action packed, inspired by classic Batman with graphic stars and action words.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. It’s fine to give up on an idea and move on to something else, not every idea will work. You’ll know when you’re onto the right one. Also leaving your desk and going for a walk, or taking a few days off to refuel the mind is usually a good idea when things get frustrating.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. I love storyboards. Making the story fit with exciting doodle illustrations is my favourite part. I usually have lots of blank storyboards printed out and go through tens of them before everything fits and flows together. It’s picture book problem solving!

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m just completing the second MONTY & SYLVESTER book with Orchard (top secret at the mo). Then I’m going to have a bit of time to draw and be creative and think of some new book ideas. I also have a children’s brand called Corby Tindersticks, I’ve just designed some new products so I’m working on marketing those too! You can see more at www.corbytindersticks.com

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
A.
www.carlygledhill.com
instagram.com/carly_gledhill
twitter.com/carlygledhill
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CURIOSITY

While doing research for his #firstpicturebook, Markus Motum visited the NASA’s Twitter account for the Mars Rover which was written in first person. Markus knew that element would help the reader connect with the robot’s story so he followed the rover’s lead in CURIOSITY —“a fascinating page turner” (New York Journal of Books) and an “engaging children’s book debut” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

Q. Was CURIOSITY the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. It was my first after graduating, however my final major project at university was a picture book. I already loved picture books but it was that project which cemented the fact that I wanted to make them myself.

Q. What inspired CURIOSITY?
A. The true story of Curiosity—a rover the size of a 1 tonne car, successfully making its way to Mars, attempting a never before done landing—to me was stranger, or rather, more wonderful then fiction. On the one hand it was a great scientific based story, but on the other I just saw this amazing story with a rover people seemed to care about on a personal level. 

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. The name of the rover was such a perfect fit for the title of the book. The book shows where your curiosity can take you. Clara Ma won a NASA competition to name the rover, and part of her submitted essay for the competition is used to close out the book itself. 

Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A. I'll start by hand, as ideas or sentences come to me I'll want to get them down immediately, for me there's no more instant method than pen to paper. Notes or paragraphs will be jotted all around my sketchbooks. As the project progresses and I need something resembling a coherent story, I need the computer to help!

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft? 
A. I always liked the last few spreads, which take place after the rover has finished telling us about her journey. The story beats haven't changed since my original idea. I also had to change the colour of the Martian sky for one spread, as the colours I had chosen didn't match up to the time of day it would have been when Curiosity landed on local Martian time! I really liked the new colours and how it turned out. 

Q. What kind of resources did you use in your research for this story?
A. I used a number of books, including the Haynes Owner's Workshop manual which featured previous rovers like Spirit and Opportunity, as well as Curiosity. NASA is great at putting out content whether it be written or videos, so I had a great library of resources from things they just make public. Finally to make sure the book held up to factual and scientific scrutiny, Walker brought on a Mars expert, Stuart Atkinson, who brought some great insight to the project and was great at making sure the text (and pictures!) were kept accurate. 

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in first person? 
A. In the very early days, when I was still approaching how I might tackle the book and story, I visited the rovers official Twitter account, and saw that the rover tweets in the 1st person. “My launch was a total success!” or “I’m making final preparations for my landing...wish me luck.” It created an immediate connection for audiences with this rover. It anthropomorphized the rover beautifully, and I knew having the rover talk directly to the readers could help in getting them engaged. I didn't want this to be a dry science lesson. By the end I wanted readers to really care about this rover and its amazing journey, and hopefully having it in the 1st person helped achieve this. 

Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. The story was only very loosely planned out before the images I wanted in there started popping into my head, from there they would appear in tandem. 

Q. Did CURIOSITY receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. I made a list of dream publishers I would love to be published by, and was going to work my way down the list, sending my only copy of the book to each in turn. That was the plan, but Walker Books, at the top of the list, asked me to come have a meeting with them. Needless to say I was rather caught off guard!

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on CURIOSITY.
A. I tried to remain as calm as possible — I didn't want to risk counting my chickens before they had hatched. Needless to say my parents reaction more then made up for my seemingly calm one!

Q. How long did CURIOSITY take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. It took a little over year, which was spent making many iterations and changes to the one I had originally pitched to Walker. Some of this was narrative based, to help the book and story flow better, and some of this was changing illustrations based on Stuart's Mars knowledge.  

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. Towards the end of the book there was an additional spread of the rover with no text which I really wanted to keep, but we had too many pages so the spread had to go. There was so much to cover in the book, there was nowhere else we could take pages out!

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books? 
A. Spend time working on your idea/story. Once you've got your foundations established, everything else will fall into place that much easier. 

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. It’s not a very original one, but always have your pen and sketchbook/paper to hand wherever you go. You can guarantee inspiration or an idea is going to come to you when you least expect, not when when you need it the most! 

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I'm currently working on a book cover for a novel by Walker Books— producing artwork for someone else's writing is a first for me, and solidifying ideas for the difficult second album, or rather picture book!

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
A. I'm on Twitter (@markusmotum ), Instagram (markus_motum), and my blog can be found at www.markusillustration.blogspot.com 
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On vacation...will be back soon.

Will be back soon with new #firstpicturebook Q&As!
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THOMAS PAINE AND THE DANGEROUS WORD

After teaching American Revolution history in elementary and middle schools, Sarah Jane Marsh became intrigued with Thomas Paine—author of the pamphlet Common Sense, which rallied the American people to declare independence against England. His journey of courage, failure, and resilience inspired her to write her #firstpicturebook. In THOMAS PAINE AND THE DANGEROUS WORD, “Marsh does a fine job of mixing the personal and public elements of Paine's life; he comes across as not just a historical figure, but a fully realized fellow, with hopes and dreams, enthusiasms and disappointments.” (Booklist, starred review)

Q. Was THOMAS PAINE AND THE DANGEROUS WORD the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it? 
A. THOMAS PAINE was my first picture book manuscript. Once I committed to writing about Paine, I spent three years researching and experimenting with different angles and voices across multiple drafts.
 
Q. What inspired THOMAS PAINE AND THE DANGEROUS WORD?
 A. I developed a fascination with the American Revolution after reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s INDEPENDENT DAMES with my kids. I became such a nut about the subject that my daughters’ 5th grade teachers invited me to teach the American Revolution to their grade.
 
Along the way I became enamored with Paine and his renegade spirit and resilient life. Before he wrote his scandalous Common Sense advocating for American independence, he sewed corsets in England.  As a teenager, he ran away to be a privateer (a government-approved pirate) and later struggled through repeated failures before discovering he had knack with words. His story inspired me to persevere with my own writing aspirations. No one had written a picture book biography on him, so I wanted to try.
 
Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
 A. Students often discover Thomas Paine and his Common Sense in a sanitized paragraph in their history textbook. We forget that Paine wrote about a dangerous subject during a dangerous time. He was counseled not to write about the subject of independence or even mention the word. Common Sense was shocking. It was explosive. And it was a game-changer. I wanted to capture those feelings in THOMAS PAINE AND THE DANGEROUS WORD.  
 
Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
 A. I prefer to write by hand when I’m starting out. It’s less daunting. I jot down research notes in a spiral notebook and when I’m inspired by a gem of information, I scribble my own retelling in different voices. When I have a good sense of the story, I switch to Scrivener on my computer and write lots of bad drafts, rearranging and retelling different story beats. Ultimately, I set aside about 95% of my writing as I streamline the story for young readers.
 
Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
 A. I love when “persuaded by words on a page,” teenage Paine runs away to be a privateer with Captain Death aboard the Terrible. It shows his courage in taking action to change his destiny. And later, he uses his own words to persuade American colonists to change their destiny by declaring independence. But also, it’s important to show kids that sometimes the results of our big moves are not what we expect. Sometimes what we say “no” to is as important as what we say “yes” to.
 
The privateering scene was in my first draft, but in more detail with twists and turns. We discussed eliminating this section because of the lengthy word count, but compromised by slimming it down. And Ed’s action-packed illustration was the cherry on top. To my delight, this is the section kids most want to talk about.
 
Q. What kind of resources did you use in your research for this nonfiction story?
A. I seeped myself in history by reading books and Paine’s own words, watching documentaries, visiting the historical sites, and tracking down primary sources online. I’m a stickler for using primary sources, so I went on some wild journeys to chase particular quotes to the original source. A particular thrill was finding the original newspaper advertisement for the Terrible in a database through my local library.
 
Q. How did you decide on the timeframe of this nonfiction story?
 A. Determining a timeframe was a real challenge. Thomas Paine led a full life stirring up trouble around the world with his opinionated writings. However, I wanted to concentrate on his role in the American Revolution. My original draft extended through the end of the war and was 3900 words. I knew I needed to cut, cut, cut!
 
My agent, Caryn Wiseman, suggested ending my manuscript at the Declaration of Independence and moving the rest to the author’s note. This is valuable advice for nonfiction writers. You can always tell more of your story in the back matter.
 
Q. Did THOMAS PAINE AND THE DANGEROUS WORD receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
 A. We received about 7 rejections.  We knew my manuscript was risky because of the length -- about 2500 words. But my agent Caryn was an ardent supporter of the lengthy story and advocated for it. She found a similar spirit in Disney-Hyperion editor Rotem Moscovich who embraced Thomas and his resilient journey and dedicated 80 pages to tell his story.
 
Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on THOMAS PAINE AND THE DANGEROUS WORD.
 A. Stunned. Caryn had kept me in the loop about the many meetings in the approval process, so we were crossing fingers and toes that THOMAS PAINE would make it through. When the offer came, I felt a deep sense of relief and appreciation that Disney-Hyperion loved this story as much as I did.
 
Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. To my surprise, Disney invited me to submit a “wish list” of illustrators. I had been so focused on crafting the best possible manuscript that I hadn’t allowed myself to daydream about potential illustrators. However, I loved Edwin Fotheringham’s work so he topped my list. His book with Barbara Kerley, THOSE REBELS, JOHN & TOM, was a mentor text and all his books are rich with emotion and historical detail. I was thrilled and nervous when Disney sent my manuscript to Ed and stunned when he accepted. I cried.
 
Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. Well, I cried again. It was amazing to see dear Thomas Paine come alive in Ed’s unique illustrative style. I had spent three years alone with these words and Ed added more emotion and detail to elevate the story beyond my capabilities. And Disney went all out with the jacket cover. I love the bold red color and Lincoln’s sprawling quote on the back. And when you remove the jacket cover there is another bold surprise!
 
Q. How long did THOMAS PAINE AND THE DANGEROUS WORD take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
 A. Almost three years. At 80 pages, THOMAS PAINE is not a typical picture book and was an especially large project to illustrate. I also appreciate that Disney was equally committed to getting the history right. We fact-checked with retired history professor Dr. Jett Conner and went through several rounds of fine-tuning with Disney copyeditors. So including my three years crafting the manuscript, this was a six year journey.
  
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. Always. My achilles heel as a nonfiction writer is that I want to share ALL the good stuff. It pains me to leave tidbits out, but I’m getting better about recognizing that more can be shared in the back matter and school visits. There is a scene in THOMAS PAINE that I cut for word length that I might revisit in another picture book. And one omitted detail still haunts me, which is Captain Death and his ship Terrible were scheduled to leave from Execution Dock. But I’m taking that tidbit with me on school visits to show that fact is often stranger than fiction!
 
Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
 A. Study other successful picture books, especially the ones you love. Outline the story arc and analyze the different components. What angle did the author take in starting the story? How do they introduce character and motivation? Is there a climax or page-turning tension? Is there a theme and how is it revealed? How does the emotional journey change from beginning to end? You don’t have to copy what you learn, just understand the different techniques employed. Don’t be afraid to be a self-taught writer.
 
Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. In the later stages of writing, I like to storyboard my books or make a picture book dummy. (Debbie Ohi has a great storyboard template here).

I quickly sketch with bad stick figures, just to get a sense of scene. Mostly I see how the text reads page to page: where the page turns might be, how the scenes change, and where I need to trim my text for pacing.
 
Q. What are you working on now?
A. My next book is MOST WANTED: JOHN HANCOCK AND SAMUEL ADAMS, a prequel to the history in THOMAS PAINE. This book will span ten years before Common Sense and feature the troublemaking partnership that landed these two men at the top of Britain’s most wanted list. I’m excited to work again with Ed Fotheringham and our team at Disney-Hyperion.
 
Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
A. I’m on Twitter at @MsSarahJMarsh, Facebook at @SarahJaneMarshBooks, and my website is www.sarahjanemarsh.com. Thanks for hosting me, Karlin!

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