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True Story Blog


Maria Gianferrari writes both fiction and nonfiction picture books from her sunny, book-lined study in northern Virginia, with dog, Becca as her muse. Maria has several books forthcoming, including a second to PENNY AND JELLY: The School Show, illustrated by Thyra Heder. Today she tells us how her first picture book was created.

Q. Was PENNY AND JELLY the first picture-book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book that you wrote and what happened to it?
A. No, I believe my first was TERRIFIC TONGUES, which began as a poem. It’s a concept book about cool animal tongues which still retains some of its original poetic elements. It was acquired by Boyds Mills Press. They’re currently seeking an illustrator.

Q. What event or person inspired PENNY AND JELLY?
A. PENNY & JELLY was literally inspired when my daughter, Anya, who was around 5 at the time, began playing a harmonica, and our dog, Becca, joined in song. It was so funny, and adorable and sweet that I decided I must write about it. It was also very much inspired by Anya and Becca’s relationship: Anya’s an only child, and Becca is like her dog sister/playmate.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. The original title of the book was PENELOPE, UNTALENTED. However, because I received a two-book deal, we needed a title that could carry to the second book, so Penny & Jelly was born!

Q. What is your favorite part of PENNY AND JELLY? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I love the “Best Friend” ending. The story originally ended with the lines, “They were not in tune./But their duet had harmony.” Though I loved the feeling and humor in the lines, I knew it wasn’t quite finished yet. It took awhile, and then I finally had that “a-ha” moment, and the pieces came together in the ending.

I also love the cross-outs, my friend and critique partner Lisa Robinson’s idea. They’re the perfect accompaniment to Penny’s lists.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. Jelly was always Jelly—I just loved the sound of it. It’s funny-sounding, and it also felt like the kind of name a young kid might select for a dog. As I mentioned above, Penny was originally, Penelope. I liked the classic nature of the name, and again, it has some inherent humor. I love the rhythm of Penny & Jelly, and how they’re reminiscent of peanut butter and jelly, both in tone and in the idea that they’re complementary.

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. I’m not really sure. I guess I wanted an overarching narrative voice, and it felt like it worked. It began in third person, and I didn’t veer from that during revision.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began to write PENNY AND JELLY?
A. I knew that it was going to be a story about a bond between a girl and her canine BFF, but it took some time to come up with the talent show plot. After I figured that out, I wanted it be untraditional in terms of the talents, to be a story of creativity and resilience.

Q. Did PENNY AND JELLY receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Yes! I checked my records and it received eight rejections before it was acquired by the lovely and amazing, Cynthia Platt.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on this book.
A. Complete and total elation! I did a dance around the living room with Anya. Becca looked at us like we were crazy. A one book deal would have been fantastic on its own, but to have gotten a two-book debut deal was totally surreal.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for PENNY AND JELLY?
A. Cynthia was kind enough to show me some of Thyra’s early dog sketches and sketches of Penny, and I was in love! I could tell she was a dog lover like me. Her sketches had so much personality. I knew Cynthia had found just the right illustrator.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. I LOVED them! I was in total awe of the way that Thyra portrayed both Penny & Jelly with such tender humor and feeling, and how she added layers of visual playfulness to the text. There are so many cute details. I especially love Penny’s mismatched socks.

Q. How long did PENNY AND JELLY take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Cynthia is incredibly smart and extremely organized; Thyra delivered the art quickly, despite the fact that she was also busy with her debut, Fraidy Zoo. The offer came in February 2013, and it was released in July 2015, which is amazingly fast.

Q. Is there anything you would change in the book today if you could reprint it? (Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?)
A. No! I love it just the way it is!

Q. When you do readings of PENNY AND JELLY which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. There are a few sections where people chuckle: the VOILÀ page (where Jelly is dressed up—who hasn’t done that with their dogs?). I think the magician part also gets a few laughs. The ending usually elicits more of an “Awww!” which is really nice.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Don’t give up! Even though picture books are short, they’re not easy to write. They often undergo multiple revisions and entirely change shape. It takes time to improve your craft. Keep reading; keep writing and join a critique group for feedback.

Thanks for having me here, Karlin! Congrats on your own debut, NADIA!

To learn more about Maria, visit her website and on Facebook.

CONTEST CLOSED Win a copy of PENNY & JELLY: THE SCHOOL SHOW! (U.S. Residents only.) Leave a comment to enter. The winner will be announced on Monday, May 2. Read More 
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Abraham Schroeder is a stay-at-home dad, artist, designer, and author of TWO MANY TABLES. But today he talks about crafting his first picture book, THE GENTLEMAN BAT.
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Laban Carrick Hill is the author of more than twenty-five books, including National Book Award Finalist HARLEM STOMP! and the "completely awesome" (Time) WHEN THE BEAT WAS BORN . Today he shares the story behind his first nonfiction picture book, DAVE THE POTTER .

Q. What inspired you to write the nonfiction picture book, DAVE THE POTTER?

A.I’m a gadfly and show up at all kinds of events and conferences where I wouldn’t normally belong. I’m curious about everything. In 2002 I went to a Middle Passage Conference back. Though most of the presentations were boring and very academic, there was one presentation about African influence in African American art. (I tell this in more detail in the back matter of my book.) At one point during the presentation, a slide went up with a pot that had a poem written on it’s side. I had never heard of this potter poet, and I found the poem powerful and moving. I wrote the name and the poem down without any intention of writing a picture book. I just found his story fascinating.

Q. What kind of resources did you use while researching DAVE THE POTTER?

A. When I went home, I started researching Dave online. I found almost nothing on him. There was one exhibition catalog and one or two academic articles, but no books. No one knew much about him. I ordered the catalog and in the back was a list of poems. The poems were skillful and thoughtful in a way that resonated through the centuries the way good poetry does. I saw the kinds of 19th century themes that are prevalent in Whitman and Dickinson as well as themes that were unique to him and his circumstances. It inspired me to want to start a conversation with Dave and his work so I began writing a poem, not a children’s poem, but just a poem. I brought it to my poetry writers’ group and we workshopped it. All the members of the group are published poets. In addition, I have a MFA in Poetry from Columbia University School of the Arts. Over the decades I’ve studied with three Nobel Prize Winning poets and seven Pulitzer Prize winning poets.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?

My favorite part of the book is the spread where Dave spread his arms out and hanging from the limbs of the tree behind him, like a bottle tree, is the history of African American culture. What makes this illustration so wonderful and why it works so well with the words is that Brian doesn’t just literally represent the images I describe in my words, which is about Dave curling up in a ball in the pot and being embraced. Rather, he takes the spirit of that embrace and opens it up to reveal the breadth and width of African American existence. The way image and words have a conversation on this spread is what the best of picture books do. There is no failure of imagination, which is the case in so many picture books, even good ones.

This was part of the early drafts of the poem, but not exactly as it appears in the book. I wrote around 30 or more drafts of this poem. It took many different permutations. At one point it was rhymed couplets because I couldn’t figure out how to turn this into a kids’ picture book. There are two similes that I put in the poem that made it clear to me that I was finally reaching my audience. They were “like a magician pulling a rabbit out of hat” and “as fast as a carnival’s wheel of fortune.” When I got to those similes I knew I had found the right voice for the piece.

Q. How did you decide where to start and end this nonfiction story?

This was certainly one of the biggest challenges for me. But this is the case for every book I write. I always start with big ideas and huge ambitions. The thought of trying to represent slavery and create a discussion about slavery—and the long history of terror, rape, slavery, and murder that America is built on—made for some very long drafts of the poem. It wasn’t until I decided to just let Dave’s actions as a potter be a kind of massive metonymy/synecdoche for the larger themes that the poem really began to come together. What he does and who he is—his on-the-ground life, his massive pots, his poems—told that larger message without me mediating it with my words. In fact, I think it would have diminished the book—as well as been patronizing—if I had tried to do something like that. I can’t speak for Dave. I—and anyone else for that matter—can barely interpret his life with the few, random clues that have been left behind.

Q. Did you receive any rejection letters when you submitted this story to publishers? If so, how many (ballpark)?

A. The book was rejected by 12 major publishers including Little Brown, its final home.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on DAVE THE POTTER.

A. Editors did not get interested in the book until Harlem Stomp! A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance was a 2004 National Book Award Finalist. It was while I was down in NYC for the awards ceremony when my agent started to receive revived. Then Scholastic, Hyperion, and Little Brown came back to my agent with concrete offers, which were significantly higher than either I or my agent had imagined before the recognition for Harlem Stomp! I even received an email from the publisher at Hyperion at the time who told me that my poem had made her cry.

I ended up choosing Little Brown, even though they had originally rejected the book, because of the way they promoted Harlem Stomp! and really put their weight behind it. I had had the opposite experience with both Scholastic and Hyperion in the past with books of mine that they published.

The best publishing houses that I have worked with over the years have been Little Brown and Roaring Brook, who published When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop. But you have to remember publishing isn’t like it was thirty years ago when a publisher would get behind you and stick with you. Now, every time I put a book on the market it’s like I’m beginning all over again for the first time.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?

A. I was very involved in choosing the illustrator. My wife at the time had been in charge of choosing illustrators for Sports Illustrated magazine as well as other publications. She had also designed Harlem Stomp! and America Dreaming. So we had many discussions with the art director and editor. Bryan Collier was ours and Little Brown’s first choice right off, but it turned out he was booked. LB wanted to choose a top African American illustrator, but all of them had contracts for illustrating books several years in advance, and some were no longer illustrating books with African American themes and content. Then, in 2008, four years after LB purchased the book, Bryan Collier contacted LB that he was now free. One of his books dropped out, and he would like to illustrate Dave. As you can imagine, I was ecstatic. The work he did on Dave lifted that book from the mere mortal stratosphere to the immortal.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?

A. The title picked itself. Dave the Potter was so evocative on its own, and that was his name. He was called Dave the Potter. The subtitle took a little thinking. We knew we wanted those three words but what order. Then we decided to create a natural hierarchy with the most important word, Artist, first, the second most important word, Poet, second, and the third most important word, Slave, last. I think we all knew that we did not want to privilege “slave” over “artist” or “poet.”

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the finished book?

A. Bryan Colliers illustrations. A picture book is not a word book. The words in a picture book need to serve the illustrations, not the other way around, even though the illustrations would not exist if not the words had been written first. What I tried to do was provide artfully descriptive language that would be a springboard for the illustrator to do their thing. It was humbling for me to see how Bryan responded to my words in such an imaginative and original way. I feel like Bryan and I had a real conversation.

Q. How long did DAVE THE POTTER take to be published--from the time you received an offer until it was printed?

A. The manuscript was bought at the end of 2004 and was published in the fall of 2010. A long time.

Q. If you could reprint the book today, is there anything you would change? (Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?)

A. No, I think the book speaks for itself. There have been times when I have received my copies of my published book in the past and I have sat down and completely rewritten the book for my own satisfaction. Dave the Potter was not one of those books.

Q. At readings of DAVE THE POTTER, which part of the book received the best reaction?

A. The gatefold. They way it functions is a lot of fun to read. I make it a big deal when I get to it.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?

A. Well, I hear from a lot of people who want to write picture books. They somehow think it is easier to write a picture book than a novel. I’m always reminded of Blaise Pascal’s famous quote, “Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” Because you are publishing on 700-1000 words or less, you have to worry over these words more than anything else you could ever write. To do that, you need to follow some advice I received from the Pulitzer Prize Winning poet Ellen Bryan Voigt, “Well, you need to put your butt in the chair every morning and write. It’s a job and you need to show up for it every day.” I have known a number of writers who are much more talented than me, but did not follow that advice. They no long write.

To learn more about Laban's books, visit his website.
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Today we are chatting with Jean Taft about her first picture book WORM WEATHER—"part of a Common Core series that highlights such concepts as weather, animals and friendship – but there’s nothing stiff about the sweet story that encourages readers to look for changes in the weather, imagine life as a worm, and revel in the simple pleasures of rainy days and rainbows” (The Virginian Pilot)

Q. Is WORM WEATHER the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was your first manuscript and what became of it?
A. Hi Karlin! Thank you so much for inviting me to My First Picture Book Q&A. WORM WEATHER just came out in October 2015 and these past few months have been very exciting! I am so happy to be invited here. WORM WEATHER was the first piece I wrote that I thought could actually become a book. It was also the first story I had ever written in rhyme and now most of my work is in rhyme. I first presented WORM WEATHER to a group of peers at the NESCBWI Spring Conference in 2011, but it wasn’t until 2014 that WORM WEATHER found a home with Penguin Young Readers. (And yes, it had been rejected by several editors and agents prior to publication!)

Q.What event or person inspired WORM WEATHER?
A. I dedicated the book to my mom because she really did take my sister and me on walks in all kinds of weather! We always loved that rainy weather when the worms crawl out on the sidewalks. You know, worm weather! Of course, my sister and I also liked snowy weather, but that’s a different story!

Q.How did you pick the title of your book? Were there other titles that you considered?
A. It was always WORM WEATHER. Thankfully the publisher also liked the title.

Q.What is your favorite sentence or scene in WORM WEATHER? Was it in the first draft?
A. That’s like asking a parent which kid is your favorite kid! How can I choose only one among wiggling worms, splashing in puddles, thunder, lightning, mud, a belly flop, pizza, a rainbow, and the playground?

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

Q.WORM WEATHER is in rhyme. Is this how you first wrote it? Did you write a version of the story in prose?
A. This story was always in rhyme. One day when I was walking my dog in the rain and the worms were out on the sidewalk, it hit me: drip-drop-skip-and-hop. And WORM WEATHER the rhyming story was born! This was my first story in rhyme, and now I love writing in rhyme. I enjoy the challenge of telling the story and moving the story along with rhyming words. However, this is an interesting question as I just took a story that I originally wrote in prose and rewrote it in rhyme and now it is much more fun to read!

Q.How much of the story did you know when you began to write?
A. I knew I wanted to write a story about walking in the rain when the worms crawl out on the sidewalk. I did not know at the beginning that there would be mud and pizza along with the rain and the worms!

Q.Did you map out the pages with a dummy? Or did you leave it up to the editor and illustrator?
A. When I do school visits and we talk about book lingo, I always tell the students that the book dummy is one of my favorite things! I make a book dummy out of index cards for all my stories and work on the pagination from that. Sometimes I don’t fully understand how a story is (or isn’t) flowing until I make a book dummy. When I submitted WORM WEATHER, the editor asked that the story be paged out.

Q.Describe your reaction when you received an offer on WORM WEATHER.
A. Over the top excited! Completely in shock! Can I tell you the whole story? I participated in a writer’s round table at the NY SCBWI conference in 2014 and had decided to bring WORM WEATHER at the last minute. The editor at the table, Bonnie Bader, requested my manuscript which was so exciting! But it wasn’t until the next day when I met her again that it became even more real. She told me she had been looking for me and wanted to be sure I would send my manuscript to her. She gave me her contact information again and I could barely even think! In fact, I was so in shock I didn’t even give her my business card! It was completely overwhelming. And then, as I was at the conference, I had to sit through a number of key notes! I was so distracted I can’t even remember who they were. I just wanted to jump up and be happy! Instead I drew doodles all over my notebook. I will never forget that joy! Then, months later the offer and the contract finally arrived! And it was joy all over again!

Q.What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. I had no input and I didn’t even blink an eye as I thought that was normal. I had no idea how the story was going to look in pictures until I received the sketches. I loved the sketches! I have written another weather story (snow) and I would love to have it illustrated by Matt Hunt. I really want to see those two kids in their snow suits! I want to say a great big thank you to Matt! Matt’s illustrations truly bring WORM WEATHER to life. Hi Matt!

Q.What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. Well, with the cover it was love at first sight! The sketches I had seen were all in black and white. But the cover was finished! And in color! I made so many copies of that cover, sent it out to friends and family, got bookmarks, hung it in my office. I loved the sketches, but once I saw the cover I knew I was going to love the book.

Q.How long did WORM WEATHER take to be published—from the time you got an offer until it was printed?
A. Forever! I met the editor in February 2014 and sent her the story right away. I didn’t hear back until May! Then the contract arrived in June with a publication date set for 18 months later, October 2015.

Q.What are you working on now?
A. So many things! I feel lost if I don’t have a pile of stories to work on! I love school visits and I have been revising my school presentations. I currently am working on two picture book series. One stars a koala, the other stars a goat. Both are in rhyme and so much fun to write. I also have any early chapter book series in the works. As my editor just left Penguin and I am without an agent, I have been researching and querying agents. Always writing! And reading! I forgot to mention reading!
I just wanted to add one more thing. Everyone has tips for writers and here is mine. Your first book only comes out once! Your first book is very special. You will never have your debut book come out again! Live it up! Enjoy it! Make a big deal out of it! If you don’t, no one else will either. When WORM WEATHER was coming out I planned both a children’s book signing party at my local book store and a cocktail party at a restaurant. I wanted both the kids-cupcake-party AND the champagne-party! Surround yourself with people who love you and are happy for your success. If you don’t have any people in the book business to invite, don’t fret! Invite those who are important to you. I did and I enjoyed every minute of that day! You will, too!
To learn more about Jean, visit her website. Read More 
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