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True Story Blog


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.
 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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Becky Cameron is a graduate of the Cambridge School of Art and the illustrator of PADDINGTON & THE CHRISTMAS VISITOR. And recently her #firstpicturebook as an author/illustrator was published. Inspired by Becky’s childhood memories of playing with her sisters, WISHING FOR A DRAGON is “a delightful whimsical debut . . . with just the sort of lovely little artistic touches we love to see in picture books” (ReadItDaddy).

Q. You worked as an illustrator before WISHING FOR A DRAGON. How did you make the transition to writer/illustrator and how does it compare with being an illustrator of someone else's work?
A. I knew for a long time that I wanted to illustrate and write my own books for children, it just took me a while to figure out how! It was after some research that I decided the best way to get into children's books was to go back to university so I saved up and completed a Masters in Children's Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art. I learnt a lot in that year and a half about the structure and pacing of books but also about the industry. 

I loved the creative freedom of writing my own narratives on the course and was over the moon that my first deal out of university was for one of my own books (Wishing for Dragon). From there it all just fell into place! I've illustrated other people's texts since and I think it's just a very different experience, I like the process and freedom of writing my own books but equally it can be a joy to help bring someone else's words to life. I think probably I'm still transitioning from illustrator to author-illustrator but I'm doing a lot more writing these days and an evening course on writing for children so hopefully there will be more to come.

Q. Was WISHING FOR A DRAGON 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 actually the third or fourth I'd written, and the least finished when my publisher picked it up. It was very rough around the edges and the illustrations very much informed the text (it was wordless to begin with- gasp!) My editor Emma helped me to restructure it and add more depth.

Q. What inspired WISHING FOR A DRAGON?
A. The imagination of me and my sisters when we were children and the endless games we played together.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. I can't count how many titles we went through for this book! Originally it was called "We're off on an Adventure" (quite a mouthful). Then for a long time we referred to it as 'adventure story' and then 'dragon book' and finally, after toying with lots of variations, my editor and I settled on WISHING FOR A DRAGON. I think it was the right choice to have the dragon in the title because he is such a central character.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I think my favourite part is when they finally meet Ella's dragon. I wanted it to be clear as soon as you saw him that he wasn't a scary dragon and I think (I hope!) that comes across in the text and the image.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters? 
A. I probably used an online baby name website. I just went for names that I thought sounded nice together!

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in first person? 
A. That is a very good question. I'd like to say it was done consciously but the truth is that was just how the story came out when I wrote it. I think because one of the children has this secret wish (to see a dragon) I wanted it to be from her perspective. I think because it was influenced by my childhood memories I probably felt like in a way I was the little girl telling the story and I was right in the action.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing WISHING FOR A DRAGON? 
A. Not very much! It was rewritten so many times I don't think much from the first draft has remained in the final book!

Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. I made the pictures first and when my publisher picked it up it was at a very early stage and wordless which I think is quite unusual. To make the text work we had to restructure and look at the text separately before redrawing the rough artwork to fit the pacing of the text. 

Nowadays the text comes to me more at the beginning of the idea process and then the pictures and text sort of develop together as one which I think is probably a better way to do it!

Q. Did WISHING FOR A DRAGON receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. It didn't because it wasn't submitted as such. I was lucky to meet lots of publishers and agents at my graduation show and had meetings with some of them where I showed them my portfolio and dummy books. A few showed interest in Wishing for a Dragon but were perhaps a bit apprehensive as it was so unfinished. I was very grateful to Emma Layfield at Hodder for putting her trust in me.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on WISHING FOR A DRAGON.
A. I did a little dance around the room before composing myself and setting to work on finding an agent! I had no idea what I was doing with contracts so thankfully the publisher was happy to wait for me to find an agent before I signed on the dotted line!

Q. How long did WISHING FOR A DRAGON take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Two years. I'm still getting used to how slow this industry is!

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've squeezed all of my favourite things into this book and I don't think I've had to leave anything out.... oh, other than the text originally started with 'We're off on an adventure...' which was then repeated throughout the text which I quite liked!

Q. Did you create any book swag for WISHING FOR A DRAGON? If so, what kind?
A. No book swag but now I'm thinking maybe I should do! Plushy hot air balloons anybody?!

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Don't give up! Your first, second and third ideas might all be rubbish and get rejections but keep working at it until you hit gold.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. Keep making things for yourself. Write for yourself and draw (if that's your thing) for yourself. You never know what new ideas will spring from the little things you're making for pleasure. Even when I have a deadline looming I try to write down new ideas or sketch characters that pop into my head. They might not turn into anything or they might just be your next big story idea.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I'm working with Hodder again on an illustration brief for an exciting book project and I've just submitted a new picture book text to publishers. I've been working on it for some time, fingers crossed it finds a publishing home because I really love it!

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
@doodleyboo on twitter and instagram
Becky Cameron Illustration on facebook
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Elizabeth Lilly didn’t want to be a starving artist so she went to college to be an architect. But when she became distracted by writing stories and doodling all over her floor plans, she transferred to art school. On June 26th, Roaring Brook Press will publish Elizabeth Lilly’s #firstpicturebook GERALDINE—a “funny, thoroughly accomplished debut" (Publisher's Weekly, starred review). Congrats Elizabeth! Looks like your “distraction” paid off!

Q: Was GERALDINE 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, GERALDINE is my first picture book manuscript.
Q. What inspired GERALDINE?
A. I had a long, thin scrap of paper in my studio in 2013. On a whim, I drew a goofy giraffe barely fitting on the paper, craning her neck to drink out of a tiny glass with a huge, long straw. I pinned her to my studio wall and forgot about her till I needed a main character for a story assignment—she became Geraldine.
Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. The original title was LONG, LEAN GERALDINE. At the time, the whole manuscript was in rhyme, so I loved the sound of the rhyming words. I later rewrote the text to be shorter, simpler and un-rhyming, so my editor suggested the simpler GERALDINE.
Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A. For picture books, very much by hand—as an author-illustrator, drawing is a big part of the writing process. I like the looseness of being able to change the words to go with the pictures, or vice versa. I keep my pencil ready in my hand to erase or add words or pictures as needed. It’s usually a Pentel mechanical pencil, which I like because you don’t need to stop to sharpen, and you can buy replacement erasers in bulk.
Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. My favorite part of the book is when Geraldine meets Cassie, who she finds to be just as much an outsider as herself. That part was not in the first draft because Cassie never existed in the first draft. I invented her during the Big Rewrite. In the first draft, Geraldine figures out how to be happy in her new school through a long, complicated subplot where she ruined and then fixed a school play. It took up way too much time in the book and didn’t emotionally resonate in the end. In the rewrite, I figured out that a simpler, more realistic, and maybe scarier challenge for Geraldine in this situation was just to make one single true friend. And so, Cassie was born.
Q. How did you select the names for your characters? 
A. I just thought Geraldine was a good, fancy name for a giraffe girl with a big, dramatic personality. Her full name is Geraldine Giraffe, and alliteration always adds a small smackerel of goofy goodness. Cassie is a nickname for Casandra; it’s never mentioned, but in my mind, Cassie is Latina, like I am, maybe in a school where there aren’t a lot of Latino kids. She goes by Cassie in an effort to blend in as much as possible.
Q. How did you decide between telling the story in first, second, or third person? 
A. The first draft was in third person, but a writer friend later pointed out that first person narration can add warmth and personality. I changed it to first person for the Big Rewrite and I immediately felt Geraldine’s voice flow out naturally. My friend was right!
Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing GERALDINE? 
A. Almost none! It started with some silly sketches of a giraffe having trouble doing human things—standing taller than a diving board at a pool, laying over five yoga mats in a yoga class. I thought those were fun and interesting, and I was like cool! Done! A book full of funny giraffe drawings. Much later I figured out this character needed a fuller story with more emotional weight.
Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. The images first—my stories often start as drawings in my sketchbook of animals or people that seem to be characters that are asking for a story. I don’t have time to write stories for every sketch, so the drawings that happen to turn out extra special and interesting (I think of them as “sparkly”), I develop further into little stories or bits of writing that may or may not go further. For Geraldine, the character popped out visually in my sketches as EXTREMELY sparkly—she and her crazy yoga-mat shenanigans begged for a story right away.
Q. Did GERALDINE receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. I was really fortunate with GERALDINE—I queried mainly by email, asking for art directors, agents and editors to take a look at my work and give me short portfolio review meetings in person in New York. I was humbled and amazed to find the people I contacted were very receptive. 90% of them agreed to meet with me, I only got a few emails back saying, “we are not looking for anyone with your style right now, good luck!” I got a nibble on my first round of meetings that later led to signing my agency agreement.
Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on GERALDINE.
A. My biggest reaction was when I got my offer to be represented by my incredible agent, Elena Giovinazzo at Pippin Properties. Months before the offer, I very confidently gave her my GERALDINE dummy basically being like, here’s my amazing book! Where do I sign? Elena gently pointed out an agent-client agreement is best entered gradually, agreed to give me feedback on my book, and said we could work from there. I got an email from her with editorial notes—the manuscript was too long, a lot of key themes were emotionally off, and the completely rhyming text should have no rhymes. I had to throw out almost everything. But at the end of the email she encouraged me to revise and re-submit.
My blind confidence resurged. Great! I thought. She wants me to re-submit! What an invitation! So I thought and drew and sketched and thought for weeks, and finally sent her a newly drawn and written dummy. She sent back a polite email that said she was swamped with work and I should expect feedback within a month. The next day I got a new email from her that seemed more urgent, asking could we talk on the phone? She had something important to discuss. We finally got on the phone the next day and she told me my rewrite was one of the strongest rewrites she’d ever seen! It was nearly ready to sell as a picture book! Would I be her client? It was the best question I’d ever heard, and I was shocked and SO FREAKING HAPPY!! I called everyone I knew (very expensively, I was in Canada and paid roaming minutes) to tell them the news. I had a career!
Q. How long did GERALDINE take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Forever. I got my offer in January of 2015, it will be printed in June of 2018. Finally I’ll be able to point to something and say, look! THIS is the thing that made me pull 6 all-nighters in 2016! It’s real!
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. Just visual stuff, really. I had some simple, graphic endpapers and title-page images that I loved in the first draft of the dummy, but in order to squish in extra narrative elements in the rewrite, I had to throw them out. I still love them, maybe I can find a way to use them if GERALDINE gets a sequel…
Q. Have you read GERALDINE to kids? If so, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. Yes, I have! When Geraldine pretends to be the Queen of England and calls the other kids “dahhhhling” it always gets a good laugh. A lot of the book is more serious and thoughtful though so I hear nothing and I start sweating, hoping it’s making some impact on them and they’re not thinking about macaroni and cheese or something.
Q. Did you create any book swag for GERALDINE? If so, what kind?
A. I’d love to make stickers—I think they’re a crowd-pleaser. I’m also a dabbling animator so I’m aiming to make a short book trailer.
Q. What is your #1 tip for picture-book writers?
A. What you say is more important than how you say it. Make sure you have something meaty to say when you write, and a good reason to say it. That reason is what will keep you from giving up during the 6th and 10th and 12th rewrite! Also, when you’re stuck on what to say, sometimes it can help to imagine you are writing a book for your own 8-year-old self. What book would have helped that kid? Or delighted them?
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m starting the final art for my second author-illustrator picture book to be released from Holiday House. It’s a prose poem I wrote years ago about the different foods my Colombian Abuela and West Virginian Grandma cooked for me growing up. In my spare time I’m putting huge amounts of pressure on myself to write/draw a new character-oriented story for my third book that is delightfully sparkly and brilliant. It’s going medium-well, on good days.
Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
Website: www.elizabeth-lilly.com
 Twitter: @elizabethmlilly
 Instagram: @elizabethmlilly
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