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True Story Blog


Alina Surnaite left Cambridge School of Art with an M.A. in Children’s Book Illustration and with a book contract! Like her artistic hero Maurice Sendak, she doesn’t believe in shying away from exploring darker themes. Alina’s #firstpicturebook I LOVE YOU, BUNNY is a bedtime book about overcoming those nighttime fears that all of us have had. Thank you Alina for participating in the Q&A and congrats on your debut!

Q. Did you work as a book illustrator before I LOVE YOU, BUNNY? If so, 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 was studying and making my own picture books. I was fortunate to get an offer for my Master's Project (I Love You, Bunny) when I finished the MA in Children's Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art. I have been working on a few self-initiated projects illustrating classic children's fiction. It allows me to experiment with techniques and character designs.

Q. Was I LOVE YOU, BUNNY 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 my sixth picture book story. The first one was Little Frog from Trash Kingdom about a young frog's journey outside his pond. It was created during the week-long Summer School at Cambridge School of Art and was very different from my current work. It did receive interest from a few publishers, but Little Frog is now quietly sitting on my shelf with other dummy books.

Q. What inspired I LOVE YOU, BUNNY?
3. My younger self when I used to wake up at dawn, my little sister and her bunny toy, my cat-loving mum and our childhood tabby cat. A handful of other books from different authors also influenced my story, including Komako Sakai, Eileen and Marc Rosenthals and Alexis Deacon. I was also inspired by the dark autumn days in the UK and beautiful sunrises.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. The book was titled Morning Monster first, but my publisher and I changed it later.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I really like this ending scene, which is also part of the cover, with the characters happily reunited and having a well-deserved rest. It was not part of my first draft, but is a much better ending for a bedtime story.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters? 
A. I like simple and short names, such as Suzy. The cat was hunting in the morning mist in my original story so I called her Misty.

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person? 
A. My editor suggested to add a narrator as my original story did not have one and thus could not be read as a bedtime story.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing I LOVE YOU, BUNNY? 
A. I had an idea of a girl waking up at dawn and discovering night creatures. It slowly developed as I received feedback from my MA tutors and course mates, which I am very grateful for.

Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. I wrote it as a short poem first, then started sketching and storyboarding.

Q. Did I LOVE YOU, BUNNY receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. No. The publisher approached me just before the MA Children's Book Illustration degree show with an interest in my Master's Project. 

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on I LOVE YOU, BUNNY.
11. A lot of excitement with a bit of fear of the unknown. 

Q. How long did I LOVE YOU, BUNNY take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Two and a half 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. I liked the endpapers that were part of my first draft, but were a bit too scary for a bedtime story about the fear of darkness. I am happy with the yellow endpapers and the nice vignettes to start and end the story in the final book.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
14. Don't get too precious about your work and never take any critique personally. Seek constructive feedback on your book (such as in SCBWI critique groups, writing retreats, and workshops with industry people), be open to changes, but also know your values and listen to your heart first.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. I like writing down observations and ideas on my phone whenever something inspires me, sometimes it turns out rhymed, sometimes not. I wish I had a daily writing exercise to practise my writing skills. 
As for marketing, I think that you have to show your voice in your social media posts as well as in your books. It is a new form of storytelling and, ideally, your posts should be adapted for each specific platform, which takes time and practice. Posting regularly helps, even if weekly.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. Two very different picture book stories. One is a project about sharing space that I started during the last term of my MA studies. The other one is part of a narrative non-fiction series featuring twin sisters enjoying nature and different seasons.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
A. My website: www.alinasurnaite.com
I can also be found here:

Thanks for inviting me for this nice interview on your blog, Karlin!
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This is not a Valentine

Elementary school librarian, book blogger, and Emmy-winning visual effects and motion graphics artist Carter Higgins is here today to talk about her #firstpicturebook. The title popped into her head while riding a bus and, from that spark, she created THIS IS NOT A VALENTINE—“A sort of anti-valentine for those who want to show the ones they love they care without being all mushy (or spending any money). (Kirkus Reviews

Q. Was THIS IS NOT A VALENTINE 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 not! The first picture book manuscript I ever wrote is long gone and pretty bad. It was unrefined and uninformed, but it was really good practice material.

A. Kids and how honest they are—even when their truthfulness might feel a little rough around the edges. I thought of the title first, and then figured who might be saying that and why.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. I didn't pick it as much as it just landed with a thud in my head. I do remember where I was—getting on a shuttle bus to head to my school fair. It's been a good reminder to always keep your brain open. You never know when a mundane moment might make a spark.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. Oh, this is tough. One of the most rewarding things about making picture books as an author is that you can be a fan of your own book. Once it leaves your hands, an illustrator works their magic, and the whole thing is ushered by sharp, talented editors and art directors—it's a solid team effort.

My favorite part of the book is the picture on the title page—a moment not reflected in the text at all. A little girl slips her friend a Valentine. That's it. On the next page, before the text begins, we see his reaction to such sweetness. The text, then, becomes his response to her actions—bumbling, awkward, friendly love. The text invoked that visual story for Lucy Ruth Cummins, but (I hope!) she didn't feel at all directed by it. It's such a wonderful surprise of making picture books.
I am so lucky that Lucy is the illustrator of this book. She is so very brilliant and I love her work here so much.

Q. How did you decide between telling the story in first, second or third person?
A. This is Not a Valentine is written in second person, which wasn't so much a conscious decision as what felt exactly right for this story—I never even tried it in another point of view. It feels both personal and immediate, and also universal. The reader can take on the feelings of humility and hope that our hero has. You become very invested in his success or failure because you are right there with him. And don't all crushes feel oh-so-immersive? It was a perfect choice for this story.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing THIS IS NOT A VALENTINE?
A. Not much at all, which was also the joy of writing in second person. It allowed me to figure out who was telling the story, based on who he was talking to.

Q. Did THIS IS NOT A VALENTINE receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. It didn't, because we only submitted it to my editor at Chronicle Books. She was working on my first book already, and we wanted her to see this one as well.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on THIS IS NOT A VALENTINE.
A. This was the third book I have sold, and the feeling of awe and thankfulness and sheer delight has not changed with each of them. There's nothing like that yes!

Q. How long did THIS IS NOT A VALENTINE take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. We received an offer in the spring of 2015, and its publication date is December 26, 2017. Just in time for Valentine's Day!

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. I'd read everything you can get your hands on. The best picture books are created by people who are true fans of the form.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. Turn off the internet!

Q. What are you working on now?
A. My next book with Chronicle Books comes out in March of 2018, Everything You Need for a Treehouse, illustrated by Emily Hughes. It is stunning and I can't wait to share it!

I'm also revising a middle grade novel and working on more picture book ideas. A little momentum always helps.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
A. I blog at Design of the Picture Book: http://www.designofthepicturebook.com. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram @carterhiggins.
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Snow Sisters

SNOW SISTERS by Kerri Kokias and illustrated by Teagan White (Knopf, 2018)
I have a lot in common with author Kerri Kokias. We both love Shel Silverstein; we both dream about creating store window displays; we both started writing when we became stay-at-home moms; and we both wrote picture books about sisters. But Kerri worked as an ice cream server so she’s way cooler!

In the Northeast, we are getting ready for the next snow storm so it’s perfect timing for Kerri’s #firstpicturebook SNOW SISTERS—“captivating and even surprising” (Publishers Weekly) and “chock-full of ideas for fun on a snowy day” (Kirkus Reviews).

Q. Was SNOW SISTERS the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A: Heck no! The first picture book I wrote as an adult hoping to be a published author was called Journey to Dreamland. It’s still available if anyone wants to publish it. I can almost guarantee it would put kids to sleep! And I mean that because I hadn’t yet learned how to develop characters, form a satisfying narrative arc, leave room for the illustrations to tell part of the story, etc. I had a lot to learn about the craft of writing before I got from the stage of being able to string words into a sentence to being a published author. At my count, SNOW SISTERS was my 13th manuscript that I not only wrote but worked consistently to revise.

Q. What inspired SNOW SISTERS?
A: I’ve written about this particular topic on Tara Lazar’s blog. My short answer is SNOW SISTERS is the convergence of three separate ideas. I had been thinking about writing a story in mirrored language for quite some time. One day, I saw a tweet where an editor questioned why there weren’t any books about characters who hated the snow. I thought that the mirrored language structure could work with that concept. After playing around with it for quite a while, I realized I wanted two characters and remembered another long ago story idea I had with two sisters who were opposites. Through the process of writing and revising, the story didn’t end up implementing the ideas in the way I first thought. The sisters aren’t really opposites, they just have their own distinct personalities, which gives them room to connect in unexpected ways. And neither hate the snow, they just interact with it differently. And that specific editor didn’t connect with the story…but someone else did!

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A: The title tells what the book is about, fits in with the mirrored structure of the text, and suits the acoustics of the story.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A: Great Question! I think my favorite part is when the sisters physically come together in the end. For most of the story they are separated and each doing their own thing—yet connecting in subtle ways which readers will discover with each reading. But the moment their parallel stories meet really packs a nice emotional punch. And yes, it was in the first draft.

Q. How did you decide whether to tell the story in first or third person?
A. It was easy to decide on third person because I wanted the two sisters to be weighted equally in the story. They are equally the main characters.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing SNOW SISTERS?
A: None really. I knew I wanted to tell a story in mirrored language, but the setting, characters, and narrative arc developed over time, and didn’t fully come to life until Teagan White illustrated it. It was both fun and frustrating, but mostly fun, to work the elements of storytelling into so few words and such an exact structure.

Q. Did SNOW SISTERS receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A: Yes, SNOW SISTERS received 6 rejections. And you know what? Those publishers wouldn’t have been the right fit for this book. You want to catch that editor/publishing house who share your vision because they are the ones that can help the book to reach it’s full potential.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on SNOW SISTERS.
A: I’m not a highly emotive person, so when my agent called me I was very happy but I wasn’t jumping for joy, or crying, or anything. I mostly felt a tremendous sense of relief because I had been working at this for so long and wasn’t going to stop. After the call, I had a bunch of nervous energy because I wanted to wait to tell my family and friends in person. I vacuumed because I couldn’t sit still and it gave me an excuse to bounce off the walls. (Do I know how to celebrate, or what?)

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A; More than I expected. This particular book is very illustration driven though, so that might be why. The great bulk of my manuscript was illustration notes because I thought it was best for this particular story to have all of the character development, and the majority of the plot portrayed in the illustrations, rather than with words. I was so grateful when, immediately after making the offer, my editor reached out to ask what kind of artist I was drawn to and to show me some of the people she was thinking of. It was clear we already had a similar vision, but we went back and forth a little bit and the Knopf design team suggested Teagan. I wasn’t familiar with her work so I’m so grateful that the designers at Knopf were.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A: The fist time I saw the sketches I was like, “These are sketches?” They looked like final art to me. I also remember noticing the way that Teagan had so seamlessly worked in so many little details into every single illustration, even in those first sketches.

Q. How long did SNOW SISTERS take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A: 33 months.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A: Read picture books. Old ones. New ones. Ones that you love. Ones that you don’t. Join SCBWI and participate in their programming.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A: Yes! Years ago I was at a regional SCBWI retreat where writing coach and editor Kendra Levin shared a guided visualization on meeting your character. It was so outside the logical/analytical way my brain works that I knew I needed a recording. I go back to it again and again, especially when I’m beginning or ending a project, or am stuck on something. Lucky for everyone, it’s available on her website. http://kendracoaching.com

Q. What are you working on now?
A: At this exact moment I’m between writing projects and schooling myself on marketing and publicity. I’m taking some time to work on my public speaking skills and developing school visit curriculum.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)

Learn more about Teagan White at:

More information on SNOW SISTERS!
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