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True Story Blog


Former librarian and current Marketing Director at Kids Can Press, Naseem Hrab knows how long it takes to make a book. But even she felt like it took forever to publish her #firstpicturebook IRA CRUMB MAKES A PRETTY GOOD FRIEND—“A fast-moving text that speaks to the fear children have about being the new kid anywhere in life….especially welcome on the shelves for back-to-school storytimes and shared readings” (School Library Journal).

Q. Was IRA CRUMB MAKES A PRETTY GOOD FRIEND the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. Nope, it was not the first picture book manuscript I wrote. In my early twenties, I wrote a story about a little girl who didn’t like the lunch her mom packed for her. My story was unoriginal and didn’t really have a compelling narrative—there are plenty of published books that tackle that topic better than my attempt. And I got a very kind, personalized rejection letter from the publishing company I had sent it to. Ten years later, I started taking improv classes and I finally learned how to craft a story.

A. The story is inspired by my own experiences making new friends—I was the new kid in fourth grade. Sometimes, this loud, gregarious part of my personality comes out when I’m meeting new people and it feels like it’s TOO MUCH!!! And when I was a kid, I once tried so hard to make friends with this one kid that I made her cry. Yikes!!! I think I’ve learned a lot since that time in my life.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. The title popped into my head when I was writing the book. I like to write drafts with a title in mind because it helps me to frame up the narrative. Later on, after the book was accepted at Owlkids, a few different title options were suggested, like “Ira Crumb: New Kid Seeks Friend,” but I always felt like IRA CRUMB MAKES A PRETTY GOOD FRIEND fit the book best because it seems to make people laugh when you say it (“He’s just a pretty good friend? Not a GREAT one?”) and because of the double meaning—Ira is a pretty good friend and he also makes a pretty good friend in Malcolm.

Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A. Both! Typically, when I start working on a story, I'll write by hand using a pencil or a really inky pen—something that lets me write really fast and loose. In these early stages, every idea matters, so I avoid using an eraser or crossing anything out. My notes start out so messy! As the narrative starts to reveal itself, my notes will get neater and neater and that’s a sign that things are cooking, so I move to my laptop.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Ira lets an anteater know he’s got a booger in his nose cave. It definitely wasn’t in the first draft—I came up with the line much later on.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. Sometimes I choose the names of people I know and, other times, like with the name Ira Crumb, a name pops into my head and feels right. (Also, in super early drafts, Ira was a small piece of cake, so that’s how he originally got his last name.)

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. I feel like the story is told in a combination of third-person narrative and first-person action and dialogue. The narrator’s descriptions and Ira’s reality are kind of at odds with each other in certain moments, and this dichotomy makes for a lot of humorous moments.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing IRA CRUMB MAKES A PRETTY GOOD FRIEND?
A. I wanted to tell a story about an animal interviewing potential new friends, and then that turned into a story about a piece of cake trying to make friends, and then that turned into a kid who tried too hard to make friends. So, I guess I didn’t know much when I started writing the story!

Q. Did IRA CRUMB MAKES A PRETTY GOOD FRIEND receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Ira came to be published in a neat way: I had workshopped Ira in a writing club I had formed with a few publishing and librarian folks. (I’m a former librarian and I work as a marketing director for a children’s publishing company.) One of our members, Karen Li, is the editorial director of Owlkids. After reading the manuscript in our club, Karen asked me to submit it to Owlkids. The manuscript was presented to their editorial board under the pen name Abe Bishop and that was that!

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on IRA CRUMB MAKES A PRETTY GOOD FRIEND.
A. OMG. DREAMS *CAN* COME TRUE. And then I bawled.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. Karen is incredibly collaborative, so we discussed what style we thought might be the best fit for the book and we were both on the same page. When she put forth Josh Holinaty’s name, I was super excited—I was familiar with his work in children’s books. I love how sophisticated, energetic and colorful his illustrations are.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. Josh’s illustrations are so expressive and lively. He is so good at capturing emotion and movement. Ira has a larger-than-life personality and Josh made that personality a reality. Also, Josh and I seem to find the same types of things funny, so I was thrilled with all of the humor that he brought to the story. His illustrations make me laugh out loud!

Q. How long did IRA CRUMB MAKES A PRETTY GOOD FRIEND take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. About two-and-a-half years. Owlkids expressed an interest in publishing Ira in January 2015 and the book was released in August 2017. I’ve worked in book publishing for over ten years and I know it takes a long time to make a book, but this felt like FOREVER to me.

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. When I first sat down with my editor to discuss the manuscript, I said, “I’ll change anything you want, but I can’t take out the ‘You’ve got a booger in your nose cave, pal!’ line. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever written.” And she said, “Hmm … I was going to ask you to consider taking that line out.” I didn’t take it out and I don’t regret it. I think it’s the line that kids will find the funniest. That said, the thing with editorial feedback is that you normally should listen! Because 1) your editor wants to make the best book possible with you, and 2) you have to trust that if she suggests you change something, it’s because what you’ve written might not be working. And it’s your job to figure out solutions to the issues your editor points out. I love that quote about “killing your darlings” that’s attributed to every great writer, so let’s quote Stephen King’s version: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Focus on capturing emotion in your story. How does your character feel about what is happening to them? If you focus on your character’s emotions, their reactions and actions will reveal themselves to you. And if I had to give a #1.5 tip, it’d be: finish every draft you start.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. My favorite writing exercise is writing a “vomit draft.” It’s important to realize that nothing is going to be perfect in your first draft (or even a second or third draft), so you need to get something, anything, down on paper to give you something to work with and build on. My favorite marketing tip is: write a great book that people will talk about. Word of mouth is the #1 best way to get your book into the hands of readers.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. Right now, I'm working on a draft for a potential Ira Crumb 3. The second book in the Ira Crumb series is coming out in Fall 2018 and it’s tentatively titled IRA CRUMB FEELS THE FEELINGS. I also have a picture book coming out with Groundwood Books in Spring 2019—it’s called WEEKEND DAD and it’s completely different than the Ira books. It’s more serious and was inspired by my tenuous relationship with my father. I'm also working on a few other picture book ideas.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
Instagram: Naseemo
Twitter: @Naseemo
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Fresh out of art school, Jess Hong attended a book fair and showed her book dummy to Marissa Moss, an editor at Creston Books. The result was her #firstpicturebook which will be available October 1. Today she tells us how LOVELY—“a lively ode to being different” (The New York Times Book Review)—came to be.

Q. Was LOVELY the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. LOVELY is the first picture book I ever wrote or illustrated. It’s really surreal to see this project come into fruition!

Q. What inspired LOVELY?
A. The idea of making a conceptual children’s book always interested me, and I wanted the message of it to be inclusive and positive. The message is simply everyone is different and that is lovely. There are all kinds of people in this world, with an ever growing spectrum of differences. I think it’s important for kids to be able to learn that at a young age. It went through many changes and fine tuning but I’m very happy with where the book has landed.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. I wanted a variation of the word “beautiful”.  “Lovely” felt more descriptive and enrapturing of a person as a whole.

Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A. I wrote most of this book on post it notes.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I really like one of the spreads that features unique legs and feet. The idea was in the first draft, but the components and surprises in it were developed over the whole process.

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person? 
A. Since it isn’t a traditional story and more of a concept book it felt right to me for the overall tone.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing LOVELY? 
A. I had a super clear idea but a lot of the components of the book really was a gradual process. Things were added in all the way up to the end.

Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. I wrote a pretty loose version of the story first. I had some clear “opposite” concepts I really wanted to illustrate so I created those first and then made the story work around those. A lot of the pages were also open to interpretation illustration wise, so it was a fun journey figuring it all out.

Q. Did LOVELY receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. I was lucky enough to meet my editor (Marissa Moss of Creston Books) at a book fair the summer I graduated art school. I had literally just finished the dummy and it all worked out quite serendipitously.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on LOVELY.
A. Joy and elation. Slight shrieking. Frantic texting to share the news.

Q. How long did LOVELY take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. About a year.

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’m actually quite happy I didn’t have to edit out anything! I ended up adding and changing the story a lot throughout the whole process, and I had an amazing support system of my publishing team, teachers, and fellow children’s book illustrators and authors as a sounding board.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. I spent a long time just immersing myself into the world of children’s books and picking up ideas and inspiration. It gave me a great starting point and helped me understand what would work for my book.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. I met my editor at a book fair. My tip is to get out there and show people your work whenever you can. You never know who will be there and what kind of connections you can make.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m a full time illustrator at Papyrus. My day job and freelancing on the side is keeping me on my toes these days. 

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
Website: http://www.jesshong.net/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jesshongdraws/
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Did your #firstpicturebook receive any rejection letters?

After three years of rejection, I finally sold my second picture book biography! (Check back in a few weeks to learn more about that project.) Honestly, I stopped keeping track of how many rejection letters it received once it reached 50. “We like it, but we don’t love it” seemed to be the running theme. But it wasn’t until one publisher sent me a long and thoughtful email with specific suggestions, that my manuscript clicked, clicked, CLICKED into place. So to celebrate acceptance after so much rejection, I’m reposting 10 Q&As with these #firstpicturebook authors:

Nancy Churnin: “The rejection letters came in three phases. The first phase was for the version of the story I wrote before I realized I needed to study this craft. There were lots of those! The second phase was after my lovely agent, Karen Grencik, took me on hours after reading the version I had written after taking multiple courses and challenges and gotten help from fabulous critique partners. Those were personalized and regretful rejections which were a big step up from the form letters I had gotten after submitting to the slush piles. The third phase came after I carefully considered a common thread in the comments in the rejections….”

Deborah Freedman: “SCRIBBLE received three rejection letters, for three different versions of the story. After each “pass”, I went back and started all over again. Two years of revisions definitely made the story much stronger, and I’m truly indebted to the two editors who took the time to give me honest feedback.”

Josh Funk: “I sent it to 36 agents. Two responded as if they read it. Ten sent me form rejections. The other 24 were black holes (I never received a response). So I gave up on agents. I sent it snail mail to 10 publishers that accepted unsolicited submissions. One sent back a rejection. 8 never responded. So that all adds up to 45 rejections and ...”

Ed Masessa: “My agent, Marcia Wernick, helped me polish the draft and sent it to a half dozen or so editors over the course of several months. They all came back with a “well done, but…” And all of the ‘buts’ hit upon a central theme – the story dragged. So I kept the bones of the story and went to work on picking up the pace and the fun factor.”

Brittany R. Jacobs: “We had one heckuva time selling the Kraken, and it was because of the artwork. About 20 houses turned us down because they didn't love my illustration style. There was even a point where I considered selling the manuscript and letting someone else do the artwork. Thankfully Pow! saved the day and offered a contract for both text and illustrations, and we ended up with a lovely book.”

Lori Alexander: “Oh, yes! Pre-agent, I sent the early versions to various publishers and ended up in their slush piles. There were a handful of non-responses and some form rejections. I nearly gave up at that point. The process was so slow and I didn’t feel like I was learning enough from the rejections. But the more I read, the more I realized rejections are all part of the business.…”

Camille Andros: “A. Yes! Of course! Probably around two dozen or so from agents and then editors. But I wasn't really shopping Charlotte around as much as I was THE DRESS AND THE GIRL which was the first book I wrote and was more focused on initially. That book got lots and lots of rejections, but each personalized rejection (they weren't all like that of course) and the feedback that came with it was so helpful in improving each manuscript.”

Katey Howes: “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.”

Emma Bland Smith: “I didn’t receive many rejections for this manuscript, but I want to state that I have received many dozens, maybe even hundreds, of rejections, in total, for all my of manuscripts, over the six or so years I’ve been submitting! And I still am. With JOURNEY, it was a case of the right story getting to the right publisher at the right time. I’m very grateful.”

Susan Hood: “My first version had the same main character and the same ending, but it was a completely different story. A more modern story. My editor thought it had possibilities, but it was rejected in Acquisitions. I was so disappointed, I stuck it in a drawer for years.”

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