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True Story Blog


This past weekend, I attended my first NESCBWI conference. This is the kind of event that could easily overwhelm me—a sea of information, opinions, tips, and name tags. (And I was only there for the Saturday session!) Thankfully, it was a group of friendly people. And fortunately, I had a simple strategy: let all the presentations wash over me and see what lingered. There was a lot! But a few things—from technical to inspirational—are still on my mind today. You could call this little list tasty nuggets, pearls of wisdom, or ideas for the writer's toolkit. But I just call it Some Stuff that Stuck:

I'll Buy That! with Editor Julia Maguire: The Knopf editor discussed what it is that editors want to see in manuscripts. Be authentic and respect the readers were two big takeaways along with an interesting tip—try shuffling your manuscript pages for a random-page edit.

Fireside Chat with Melissa Sweet: There was no fireplace but it was cozy. The Caldecott Honor author/illustrator answered questions and shared stories about how she creates her books. I learned that Ms. Sweet LOVES the minutiae of bookmaking. Perhaps it is that love that fuels her success. She made me want to pay more attention to the smallest details . . . ones that could be overlooked but might make all the difference.

Lying About History with Jeannine Atkins, Burleigh Muten, Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple: I wish this had been a dinner party with a big, round table and lots of time. These amazing writers shared some wonderful stories about their historical works and I wanted to hear more. (And Ms. Stemple was a hilarious host!) Jane Yolen's "Recycle your research" advice stayed with me. I wrote two nonfiction manuscripts that were ready for submission when I learned that more established writers got there first. Ugh. Now I'm rethinking those manuscripts and how they might be worked into a different genre or maybe a magazine article.

Seven Revision Tips to Take Your PB from WAAH to WOW! with Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: All seven of these tips are interesting. (A scientist-turned-kidlit-writer, Ms. Bardhan-Quallen has a specific method wrapped in a fun presentation!) The one that I'm going to tackle first in my PB manuscripts—instead of using adverbs and adjectives, use stronger nouns and verbs. I think that might be a game changer.

Writing the Rainbow: Creating LGBTQ+ Characters and Stories: A powerful presentation by Lisa Bunker, Mary E. Cronin, Kevin L. Lewis, and agent Linda Camacho! I was particularly struck by Kevin L. Lewis when he spoke about children who are not connected to their community and made to feel like outsiders. In their isolation, they stand out as prey. This is why we need more books with characters who are LGBTQ+ kids—to bring them into the group and keep them safe.

If you would like to learn about SCBWI (Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators) events near you, visit https://www.scbwi.org/annual-conferences/
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Hannah Barnaby has worked as a children’s book editor, a bookseller, and a teacher of writing for children and young adults. Her first novel, WONDER SHOW, was a William C. Morris nominee. Today she is sharing the stories behind her first two picture books—BAD GUY (May 9, 2017) and GARCIA & COLETTE GO EXPLORING (June 20, 2017)!

Q. Was BAD GUY the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. Not by a long shot! My first attempts at picture book writing date back to the early 2000s, when I was working as an editor at Houghton Mifflin and getting my MFA from Vermont College. I had edited several picture books by then and I was sure I could manage to write one that worked, but I couldn't quite crack the code. The first real attempt was a series of rhyming couplets about different kinds of homes -- and to prove that you should never throw anything away, I sent my agent a revised version of that manuscript a couple of weeks ago. Some stories just need a long incubation period!

Q. What inspired BAD GUY and GARCIA & COLETTE?
A. The two stories are very different, but they were both inspired by real-life encounters. BAD GUY came from a rule at my childrens' preschool ("There are no bad guys on our playground."), and GARCIA & COLETTE came from a dinner at the University of Virginia, where I was seated between an astronomer and a marine biologist. Both of them spoke about their fields of study in such similar terms that I started mentally comparing space and sea, and thinking about the parallels between them. By the time I got home that night, I had a pretty good idea about how to structure the manuscript.

Q. How did you pick the title for your books BAD GUY and GARCIA & COLETTE?
A. The title for BAD GUY never changed, although there was some debate about whether including the word "bad" in a picture book title was too risky. GARCIA & COLETTE was a bit more complicated -- my editor, Susan Kochan, and I went around and around with lists of subtitles, shortening and lengthening and changing, until we finally settled on GARCIA AND COLETTE GO EXPLORING. We wanted to get the word "exploring" in there because we knew it would convey a sense of adventure to young readers.

Q. What is your favorite part of each book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. Well, I don't want to give too much away, but...so many of my favorite parts of BAD GUY are in the illustrations. There are all kind of hints in Mike Yamada's brilliant art that deepen the family's story and hint at a broader narrative. Some of those details were included in the manuscript as illustration notes, and others came directly from Mike himself. Similarly, in GARCIA & COLETTE, Andrew Joyner found ways to turn my very straightforward text into absolute magic. The contrast between Garcia's journey up and Colette's journey down is amazing, and there are all sorts of clever little details throughout the illustrations that make the book feel like a treasure hunt. Neither one of these stories changed very much at all through the drafts, but once the art came into existence, both books deepened immeasurably.

Q. How did you decide between telling the story in first or third person in BAD GUY and GARCIA & COLETTE?
A. For me, the point-of-view for any story comes organically from the mood and tone of the story itself. BAD GUY is a character piece with a surprise at the end, so first-person/present-tense supports that effect. GARCIA & COLETTE is a more traditional friendship story with a very clear structure, so third-person/past-tense felt just right for it.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing BAD GUY and GARCIA & COLETTE?
A. It's so hard to remember! Because seeing the whole span of a picture book is simpler and more manageable than seeing an entire novel, and there are fewer twists and turns, I tend to have a strong sense of the beginnings and endings of my picture books before I draft them. Both BAD GUY and G&C have a bit of a twist at the end, and it took a few tries to get those right. In fact, the ending of G&C did change -- originally, they were still arguing on the final page and they hadn't achieved the compromise that they now manage to find at the end of the story.

Q. Did BAD GUY and GARCIA & COLETTE receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Oh, definitely. My agent, Linda Pratt, usually puts together a list of five or six editors to whom she'll send my picture book manuscripts and we often hear back pretty quickly from some of those editors, saying, "This just isn't for me." I know from my own days as an editor that connecting with a story is such an elusive and special thing -- if a manuscript doesn't grab you in some way, you just won't have the energy and passion to advocate for it all the way through acquisitions and publication. So I don't take rejections personally. BAD GUY and G&C were both turned down by three or four other publishers, but I believe so strongly that they connected with the right people. Working with Christian Trimmer on BAD GUY and Shauna Rossano and Susan Kochan on G&C was absolutely wonderful.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on BAD GUY and GARCIA & COLETTE.
A. I had worked on both manuscripts on the same writing retreat, and I sent them both to my agent while I was waiting at the airport for my flight home. My flight was delayed, so I wandered around for a while and got something to eat, and when I checked my email again about an hour later, there was a message from Linda saying, "These are both ready to go out on submission." In some ways, that moment was the really big thrill -- getting offers from editors was really exciting, obviously, but seeing that message from Linda and knowing that I'd finally cracked the picture book code was so amazing. I *may* have done a little airport dance. (And it hardly even bothered me that I got home HOURS later than expected.)

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for each book?
A. The process for the two books was very different. For G&C, Shauna Rossano and I had an extensive conversation about the style of art we might want for the book, and then went in search of the right person. We both loved Andrew Joyner's work because it struck the right balance between sweet and funny, with great background details that would add to the story. With BAD GUY, it was Christian Trimmer who matched Mike Yamada with the manuscript right away, even before he had put the project through acquisitions. He had this very clear vision of what Mike could do with the story and now I can't imagine it having been illustrated by anyone else.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover for BAD GUY and GARCIA & COLETTE?
A. In both cases, I was blown away by how different the illustrators' ideas were than mine, but also so excited by what I saw. The sets of sketches were very different -- Mike has an animation background (he worked on HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, KUNG FU PANDA 2, and BIG HERO 6) so his sketches looked a lot like storyboards, while Andrew's were much more detailed. Both illustrators already had such a strong sense of the characters, though, that I felt absolutely confident that I'd love the finished artwork. And I do!

Q. How long did BAD GUY and GARCIA & COLETTE take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. BAD GUY went under contract in March 2015 and will pub in May 2017; G&C was acquired in December 2014 and will pub in June 2017. So about two and a half years in both cases.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Read, read, read. Go to a favorite indie bookstore with a great children's section, or the nearest public library, and spend a day reading as many picture books as you can. Take note of the differences and similarities between classic stories and newer ones, of structural patterns and character types, of endings and plot twists. If there are books that you feel an especially strong connection with, spend some time articulating what you like about them (and also what you don't like about others). Type out the text of picture books written by other people so you can study the stories without the illustrations. The more you immerse yourself in the genre, the better you'll understand it.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. I'm not a frequent user of writing exercises, other than simple brainstorming and list-making when I trying to puzzle out a story's structure. But one exercise I have used many times with my students is The Backpack Exercise, which asks them to imagine their character arriving in a new place and identify what he or she is carrying. What kind of bag? What's inside it? Is your character in an airport, a bus station, etc? It's designed to help writers focus on the concrete objects that are important to a character and deepen that sense of individuality a good character must have.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I'm working on a variety of picture books that are in various stages -- some drafts, some revisions. I'm also in the early stages of a new draft of a novel that has gone from being an edgy, backwoods YA to a semi-magical middle-grade. It's a story that clearly wants to be told but is playing hard to get.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
A. http://www.hannahbarnaby.com
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Chana Stiefel is the author of more than 20 nonfiction books for kids (topics range from exploding volcanoes to stinky castles). But next month Feiwel & Friends will publish her #firstpicturebook DADDY DEPOT—a story she wrote eight years ago!

Q. Was DADDY DEPOT the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. My first manuscript was called THE SNUGGLE FAMILY, a picture book about a family who never gets out of bed. Throughout the week, they have a Board meeting, play group, a tea party, a baseball game, and ultimately a wedding…in bed. I think I sent it to one publisher, got one rejection, and was completely discouraged. Once a year I go back to it to try to revise it. But I like the original, even though it’s far from perfect. It just makes me smile.

Q. What inspired DADDY DEPOT?
A. A bedtime story! My daughter was upset with my husband about something and I said, “Let’s return him to the Daddy store!” We made up a story about a girl who returns her father to the Daddy Depot. After bedtime, I ran downstairs and wrote my first draft. That was in 2009.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
In my mind, the Daddy store looked like Home Depot, with aisle after aisle of dads up for grabs. DADDY DEPOT seemed like a perfect fit. Also my favorite English teacher used to say, “A little alliteration let’s the lesson linger longer.”

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. Ooh, that’s a tough one. One of my favorite scenes is when Lizzie, my MC, rolls her dad into her red wagon and drags him all the way to DADDY DEPOT. She’s tough, she’s strong, and she’s determined. It’s about empowerment—taking charge of your problem. This scene was definitely not in my first draft. In fact, her mom drove her to Daddy Depot! When I started writing, I didn’t have a clue about writing picture books. The first draft was 1,000 words and it rhymed…badly. It had too many characters, no conflict, and no climax. I had a lot to learn.

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person? 
A. I guess that’s what came naturally.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing DADDY DEPOT? 
A. I had the basic idea but I went through dozens of revisions. DADDY DEPOT was the manuscript that I shaped and re-shaped while learning the ropes of picture-book writing.

Q. Did DADDY DEPOT receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. I had sent it out to a few editors (and got a bunch of rejections) before I met my agent, John Cusick. When he submitted DADDY DEPOT, it sold pretty quickly to Feiwel & Friends. I think we got about 10 rejections in all.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on DADDY DEPOT.
A. I remember getting a call from John when I was at the Recycling Center. I was screaming in my car. It was that moment of realization that my lifelong dream was coming true.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book? 
A. My editor was open to our suggestions, and I had a pretty long A-list. The publisher chose Andy Snair and I loved his work. I think the illustrations turned out great.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. My eyeballs jumped out of my head. My book was real! This was really happening. I will say that I had a strange sensation seeing Lizzie for the first time. When you create a character and live with her for a long time, you picture her in your head. Then an illustrator imagines her in an entirely different way. It’s a bit jarring…but then it’s wondrous. Now my Lizzie is Andy’s Lizzie (and everybody else’s too).

Q. How long did DADDY DEPOT take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. I got the offer in November 2013 and the book debuts May 16, 2017. (Its original pub date was 2016. Apparently, this happens often.) All in all, eight years from first draft to bookstores.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Never, ever give up. If publishing a picture book is your dream, do everything you can to learn about the process, join a critique group, write & revise, explore the market, read 1,000 picture books, network with other authors, query, submit, and start again. Be positive, be persistent, be professional. And never, ever give up.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. Actually exercise is my writing exercise. I come up with some of my best ideas—and solve lots of writing problems—while swimming laps. Sometimes you just have to get away from your computer and get your blood moving.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m writing a non-fiction book for National Geographic Kids about creepy animals. I’m also revising my first picture book biography, which I’m really excited about.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
A. My web site: www.chanastiefel.com.
Twitter: @chanastiefel
My blog: kidlittakeaways.com
Facebook: Chana Stiefel
Thanks so much for having me! Keep in touch!
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