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True Story Blog


Originally from Iceland, Hrefna Bragadottir has lived in the UK for the past 14 years and earned an M.A. in Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Arts. During her final year at Cambridge, she created a project that would turn into her #firstpicturebook, BAXTER'S BOOK—"the story of a peculiar blue birdlike creature who auditions to be in a book, but doesn’t conform to expectations. Simple words and comic pictures let us know that even the odd deserve attention" (The Sunday Times).

Q. Was BAXTER'S BOOK 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, it was my first picture book. I did an MA in Children's Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art, and it was part of my final year masters project. I'd had lots of concept ideas during my time on the course, but BAXTER'S BOOK was the first one I wrote from start to finish.

Q. What inspired BAXTER'S BOOK?
A. That's a very good question. I guess BAXTER'S BOOK was born out of my own insecurities as an aspiring writer/ illustrator. I was nearing the end of my masters degree and I still had no idea what to write about or what my 'voice' as an illustrator should be, yet alone how to get anything published! I remember a few of my tutors saying how important it is to write from the heart but I didn't really know what my heart had to say. I had been to a lecture about popular animals featured in picture books and I remember thinking 'What about the less conventional animals? Surely they deserve some attention, too! A few days later I did a doodle in my sketchbook of two unusual looking creatures having a conversation about how they would never make it into a book. And that's when the idea for BAXTER'S BOOK was born.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. When I first drew the character I decided to call him Nelson. I'm not sure why I picked that name, it just seemed to fit very nicely. The only problem with it was that the title didn't tell the reader what the book was about, and the publisher felt we needed to include the word 'book' in there. Nelson's Book didn’t sound quite right so I searched for lots of names beginning with B, and found Baxter!

Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A. It's usually a bit of both. I start with a concept and make little doodles and notes on random pieces of paper. I tend to work much better on cheap paper that I can throw away as I find sketchbooks a bit intimidating, especially brand new ones! There's something about a pristine sketchbook that stops my creativity from flowing freely - I somehow become too concerned with getting it right first time. Once I've gathered lots of sketches and notes together, I then type anything about the character that comes to mind, and try not to worry too much about the content during the early stages of an idea.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. My favorite part of BAXTER'S BOOK is when he disappears behind the stage curtains and thinks to himself 'What if I'm not good enough to be in a book?' It pretty much sums up how I felt about embarking upon a new career at the time, but it's also something that children can relate to as they go through the process of discovering who they are. I guess that's what my tutors meant when they told me to write from the heart. It was always in the first draft but my editor very cleverly made it a double page spread to give that moment a bit more drama.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. I decided to name the other characters by their animal names Wolf, Lion, Bear and Rabbit, to keep them as generic popular picture book animals with lots of 'book acting' experience.

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in first person?
A. I played around with telling it in third person, but it just didn’t feel as strong. I wanted Baxter to talk directly to the reader in the present moment to get a better sense of the journey he goes on. It keeps it short and sweet.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing BAXTER'S BOOK?
A. That's an interesting question. I guess the idea was floating around in my head for a while and I had to brainstorm different scenarios before the ending got resolved. My housemate once told me it's so important to let ideas grow by nurturing them. She used to refer to it as putting them in a 'greenhouse' until they're strong enough to grow outside by themselves. I think so many great ideas get dismissed too early and it's such a shame. They need time and patience to flourish.

Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. It was a mix of both. I drew Baxter once I had the concept idea for the book, but then the images evolved with the words, and vice versa.

Q. Did BAXTER'S BOOK receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Baxter's Book got picked up at our London graduation show, so I was fortunate enough to not have to go through that process.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on BAXTER'S BOOK.
A. I was absolutely over the moon, but also a bit overwhelmed as everything happened so quickly. I had several publishers interested in the book as a result of the show and an agent who wanted to represent me. It was very surreal to go from quite a lot of self doubt to suddenly having so much interest in my work.

Q. How long did BAXTER'S BOOK take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. I received the offer in February 2014 and it got published in February 2016, so 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. Yes, I really loved the name Nelson, so it took a while to adjust to Baxter. But it's funny because I don’t even think about it now!

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Patience and lots of perseverance. It's a very slow moving industry so if you get a book deal, don’t give up your day job until you have a few more projects on the go.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. As I'm brainstorming story plots, I find it very helpful to consider how the characters are feeling, what they like or dislike and why? A lot of it will be unusable waffle, but it frees me up and stops me getting a writers block before the idea has had space to grow.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I'm currently illustrating a text by another author, but I'm not sure how much I can say about it at this stage. It's being published next year…. I've also got an idea for another picture book, but it's still growing in the 'greenhouse' so isn't quite ready to face the world yet.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
Website: www.hrefnabragadottir.com
Twitter: www.twitter.com/Hrefna_Braga
Instagram: www.instagram.com/hrefnabraga/
Facebook page: Hrefna Bragadottir Illustration
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10 Writers Talk Titles

How did you pick the title for your #firstpicturebook? Ten writers answer this question below. Click on the quote to flash back to the original Q&A.

Maryann Cocca-Leffler: There was an old ad for Prince Pasta on TV …Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day…which was catchy. I wrote to the Prince Pasta Company to make sure there was no problem using my title. It was Okayed and the title stuck.

Susan Montanari: In the dream the woman said, “That’s not a dog it’s a chicken.”

Maria Gianferrari: 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!

Emma Bland Smith: JOURNEY is the name that a child (actually two children in different states) submitted in a naming contest sponsored by a conservation organization, Oregon Wild. (The full name of the book is JOURNEY: Based on the True Story of OR7, the Most Famous Wolf in the West.) I love the name because it evokes the wolf’s adventurous spirit.

Karlin Gray: In reading Nadia Comaneci's autobiography, I learned that she was a rambunctious toddler who had tons of energy.... While I was writing my book, I also had a three-year old who loved to fling himself from couch to couch. Constant movement was a theme on the page and in my own living room. The two collided and created NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN'T SIT STILL.

Heather Lang: “Queen of the Track,” was one of Alice’s nicknames. Although she wasn’t treated like a queen by society, she behaved like one and really did dominate the track for a number of years in sprinting events and the high jump. The title also worked nicely with the ending—the King presents Alice (“the Queen”) with her gold medal.

Ammi-Joan Paquette: Originally the book was called simply TRACKING FAIRIES. However, my editor felt this could invoke a harsher feel: ‘tracking’ in the sense of ‘hunting’ (poor fairies!). My writer friend Natalie Lorenzi suggested the “Tiptoe Guide” portion, which I think did a brilliant job of softening and tying the whole title together. I love the result!

Jodi McKay: I honestly didn’t think that this would remain the title. It’s just what I kept asking myself for so long and still do for that matter. Even now, as I write the answers to these questions, I’m going back and forth looking for the right words. It’s crazy, but it’s part of my process.

Wendy BooydeGraaff: This is one of those times when the title came first, and then the story. My daughter and I were at the park and she was playing pretend and said, “Salad Pie,” which I thought was so clever and creative that I repeated it in my head over and over all the way home. Then, during her rest time, I scribbled out the first draft of the story.

Cheryl Keely: The original title was Here to There and Me to You. I liked the thought of bridges making connections and bringing people together. I really liked the line in the book containing those words. It seemed to me to sum up the best connection of all – me to you and you to me. A Book of Bridges was added later to make it clear that the book was about bridges. It helps to let readers to know what a book is about!
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After spending ten years as a physical therapist specializing in brain injury rehabilitation, Katey Howes turned her attention to becoming a children’s author. She is a team member of All the Wonders website and writes a popular blog, kateywrites. And come August—her #firstpicturebook will be published by Ripple Grove Press! Thank you Katey for giving us a peek into the process:

Q. Was GRANDMOTHER THORN the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. I’ve written a lot of short stories and poems over the years, but I really began writing picture book manuscripts in 2014, when I decided to quit my job as a physical therapist and focus on a writing career. GRANDMOTHER THORN was the third picture book manuscript I felt was “ready to polish,” though there were dozens of false starts and ideas that never made it to that stage. The first manuscript I felt was polished enough to submit was rejected by a few agents as “too quiet for the market” and sat in a drawer for a few years. I’m reworking it right now with the help of my critique group and agent. And that second manuscript was the beginnings of what is now MAGNOLIA MUDD AND THE SUPER JUMPTASTIC LAUNCHER DELUXE, which is being published by Sterling in Fall 2017. Back then, I called it Julia Mudd Won’t Wear That Dress. What a difference a few years makes!

A. Great question! I have a small yard here in New Jersey, especially when compared to the open space I was accustomed to when I lived in the Midwest. To make the most of it, my husband and I planted raspberry and blackberry bushes in a narrow, sandy garden bed (about 18 inches wide and 6 feet long) between the back wall of the house and the stone patio. Well, the bushes must have liked it, because they grew like crazy! In a little over a year, the blackberry bush stretched almost 13 feet tall, and the raspberry bushes were trying to take over my patio. In an epic attempt to battle them into submission against a trellis, I got poked by one thorn too many and yelled “sooner or later, everything meets its match!” I was not entirely sure whether I was talking about the bush, or myself, but the idea for GRANDMOTHER THORN took root in that moment.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. I knew the theme I wanted for the book early on – but not where or when it would be set, or even a lot about the main characters. I wrote it many different ways, draping settings and voices around my theme to see what fit best. When I set it in a small Japanese village, inspired by the artistry of Japanese gardens, Grandmother Thorn practically wrote herself into the tale. I knew very quickly that her struggle and growth would be the heart of the story, and therefore the title.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I love the image of Grandmother Thorn as she follows her one friend, Ojiisan, along the pebbled path from her door, smoothing out stones disrupted by his twisted foot. This early glimpse into her need for order, and her willingness to allow order to be disrupted – for a short time – for the sake of her friend, has always seemed poignant to me. The detail was not part of early drafts, but evolved over time as I changed the characters slightly to both challenge and complement one another.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. At first, I wanted to use Japanese names for the characters – perhaps something that would literally translate to “Grandmother Thorn” and “Limping Man.” Our fairy tales and folk tales have such a tradition of these type of names – like Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, for example - and I felt it would lend to the folktale tone. After several conversations with native speakers of Japanese, hearing their thoughts on how the translations could be misconstrued, and realizing that for the average picture book reader they might also be difficult to pronounce, I decided to use names that would be simpler and easy to say.

Q. How did you decide whether to tell the story in first or third person?
A. I never considered writing this story in first person, as I really wanted to be able to look in on Grandmother’s world from the outside.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing GRANDMOTHER THORN?
A. As I mentioned before, I knew the theme I wanted to explore – that of balancing chaos and control - and the vehicle – a garden – that I wanted to use to create the story. But the specific characters and twists and turns of the plot evolved through a lot of exploration and many very different drafts.

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

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on GRANDMOTHER THORN.
A. I was pretty much in shock! I was actually out on my back patio, right next to the devilish berry bushes that started it all, when I received the call from Ripple Grove Press. Rob Broder told me that they had read the manuscript “at least a dozen times” and never grew tired of it, and that that was the quality they looked for in books they made. I remember getting teary-eyed as I realized that someone else connected with GRANDMOTHER THORN the way I did.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. Ripple Grove Press is wonderful in the way they respect the artistic vision of both the author and the illustrator. I was asked to provide links to images or portfolios that represented my vision of the book. Once the illustrator was selected, she took some time to build her own vision, and then asked if there were any images that had influenced me. I was able to share with her pictures of my berry bushes, as well as tell her how traditional woodblock prints (called ukiyo-e) by Japanese artist Hokusai helped me envision the story’s Shizuku village.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. The first glimpses of the illustrations blew me away. The intricacy of Rebecca Hahn’s work, and the way that she brought the garden to life – almost as a character in its own right – made my heart leap.

Q. How long did GRANDMOTHER THORN take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. All told, it will be about 30 months to publication.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Read as many picture books as you can!

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. I constantly write ideas – whether it’s for a plot, a character name, a funny line of dialogue – on sticky notes and stick them up on the side of my bookcase next to my desk. When I feel stumped or blocked or uninspired, I grab a note – or maybe 2 or 3 – and see what I can make of them in 15 minutes.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m revising a rhyming picture book manuscript and a middle grade novel, as well as drafting a picture book full of mythological creatures.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
A. My author website is a great place to start: www.kateyhowes.com! I’m active on Twitter @kateywrites and on Instagram @kidlitlove. You’ll also find me at All The Wonders, where I help readers journey beyond the book, and as a member of Picture the Books, a website featuring authors with 2017 debut picture books.
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