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True Story Blog


David Cundy owns a graphic design firm, creating identities and websites for organizations such as the Brooklyn Museum, Columbia University, and the Parsons School of Design. He has also taught at Yale and Fairfield University. But today he opens his classroom to us and talks about his #firstpicturebook ANIMALS SPELL LOVE—"an impressive demonstration of text as art" (Publishers Weekly) and “very highly recommended for family, elementary school, and community library picture book collections for young readers" (Children's Bookwatch, The Midwest Book Review)

Q. Was ANIMALS SPELL LOVE the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. ANIMALS SPELL LOVE is my debut children’s picture book. Its inspiration and genesis were a combination of serendipity and mindfulness, in that I had committed myself to a decade’s effort to launch my career as an author. Eight years, four adult fiction books and one non-fiction adult book proposal in, I succeeded with this lovely children’s book.

Q. What inspired ANIMALS SPELL LOVE?
A. ANIMALS SPELL LOVE was inspired by one of its illustrations – the Lovebirds, which I created to illustrate a poem. That was followed by six years’ work creating the other illustrations and text, and designing the book. And another two months connecting with my agent, and another six months securing a publisher.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. My agent – whose professionalism has been impeccable – was responsible for the title of the book, which I had positioned slightly differently (and less broadly). I expect to use the outtake for merchandising.

Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A. Because ANIMALS SPELL LOVE is a non-narrative picture book whose text is dictated by its content (to show how to say “Love” and “I love you” in sixteen languages), writing requirements were technical. The computer was necessary since I employed non-Latin alphabets with which I was unfamiliar and couldn’t have easily written in any event.

As a poet, I write “ambidextrously” on both paper and the screen! As an adult-content author and culture journalist, I of course use a computer. Simple children’s books don’t require word processing until the layout stage.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft? (Please send an image from the book or link to book trailer.)
A. I’m told that everyone has a favorite vignette in ANIMALS SPELL LOVE, as do I. My favorite part of Animals Spell Love is the reception it gets among kids and their family members, who are validated in their native languages, and excited to learn how others say “I love you.” And younger kids love to find the heart in every vignette, a feature of the book.

Q. Did you write the text first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. As mentioned above, ANIMALS SPELL LOVE arose from one of its illustrations – an animal word-picture of the word “Love.” Once I determined that the text would describe how to say “I love you,” completion of the book revolved around selecting the remaining animals and languages. The languages used are those most spoken around the world.

Q. What kind of resources did you use in your research for ANIMALS SPELL LOVE?
A. Many! Because I love poetry, I wanted ANIMALS SPELL LOVE to have poetic elements. So it includes, for example, an allusion to Isaac Watts’s “How doth the little busy bee” in the English vignette, and “Late afternoon,” a beautiful poem by Du Fu, which forms the actual “shaped poetry” illustration in the Chinese vignette. And because I am an artist, I included my own versions of Albrecht Durer’s “Little Owl” and a Chinese ceramic duck from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection. I also pay homage to children’s books, most obviously Dr. Seuss’s One Fish Two Fish in the Japanese vignette.

Language research was another matter. Although my language background includes French, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and Spanish, dealing with Amharic (Ethiopian) and Arabic, for example, required both research and precision; Arabic, notably, has four forms for each letter. And it turns out that in some languages, one says “I love you” differently to children, parents, elders, friends and lovers.

Q. Did ANIMALS SPELL LOVE receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. “Rejection” is part of the process. A wise author listens to and learns from editors for whom his/her book isn’t a “fit.” Shopping a book to multiple editors enables one to gain insights into first impressions, strengths and weaknesses – things to which authors (and even agents) are too close to objectively assess. Unsurprisingly, Animals Spell Love was accepted by the publisher I had surmised would accept it. My publisher is a dream to work with.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on ANIMALS SPELL LOVE.
A. As a debut author, I was of course elated – and relieved. Although I must say that the world of children’s book publishing these days can be understandably risk-averse – a challenge to the debut author.

Q. How long did ANIMALS SPELL LOVE take to be published – from the time you received an offer until it was printed?

A. From receipt of offer to books in hand, ANIMALS SPELL LOVE took just over a year – from September to November. We officially launched on Valentine’s Day 2017 – 17 months.

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. My agent specified that I add a “climax” vignette – a symphonic crescendo that brought everything together. I am so grateful.

At my publisher’s behest, I removed my translation of the Du Fu poem, which represented an inconsistent element not found anywhere else in the text. It’s good to have a little mystery, especially when it comes to language, and I’ve learned in life to pick my battles. In exchange, I got to keep the American Sign Language (butterfly) vignette, well worth the trade-off!

Q. When you do readings of ANIMALS SPELL LOVE, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. It’s different for every audience, because in America, every audience is different. At one public library event, for example, a family of Ethiopian origin came to see the Amharic (leopard) vignette. I’m delighted to report that at every event, all kids love saying “I love you” with the American Sign Language handsign.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Have an intriguing story to tell! And remember that you can make our world a better place by educating and inspiring children.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. Marketing is hard work, and you will be required to do far more of it than you might prefer. If you expect to succeed, you will need to have your own website, create a trailer, and actively promote events and library collection acquisition of your book – on an ongoing basis. Having a publicist is a valuable luxury.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m completing ANIMALS SPELL PEACE, the companion/sequel to ANIMALS SPELL LOVE. I expect that this pair will have a catalytic effect on each other, since their audiences both overlap and complement each other. Additional books are in the hopper!

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
Website: I set up my authorial website about six months before launch. It’s quite comprehensive, and includes event information and media resources.
Trailer: The ANIMALS SPELL LOVE trailer was Shelf-awareness.com’s “Trailer of the Day” on December 2, 2016.
Contact: My email is david@davidcundyauthor.com.
Publicity: My publicist is Diane Kebede (djkebede@gmail.com; 515-943-3883).

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