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“I was dealing with the stress of surgery and possible cancer and honestly my book deal was the one thing that kept me hopeful. Even if everything went wrong, I still had that.”

—Kelly Leigh Miller

Illustrator Kelly Leigh Miller received her book offer when she was in the hospital awaiting surgery. Today she is healthy and happy to be celebrating her "loveable" (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) #firstpicturebook. I AM A WOLF is “a joyful debut, starring a stray with the force of personality, if definitely not the disposition, of a Chris Raschka dog"  (Booklist).


Q. You worked as an illustrator before your debut book I AM A WOLF. How did you make the transition to writer/illustrator and how does it compare with being an illustrator of someone else's work?

A. Most of the work I did as an illustrator was editorial work or toy based. I always wanted to work on children's books. I've illustrated other's self published comics before and really enjoyed that. I do notice there is a difference in how I work if I wrote the story or if someone else did. When I work on someone else's writing, I want to make sure I get their vision right and try to make my drawings as clear as possible. Usually my initial drawings are tighter and look more finished. That way if there are any changes, I can do it in the sketch phase, which is far easier than the final art phase. 

In contrast, when I'm writing and illustrating, I kind of do both at once. It's very loose and intuitive. Usually I have to draw really messy thumbnails while I write and most of my writing is done in my sketchbook. Then when it comes to the sketch phase, they are far looser than I would normally show anyone. In the case of my children's book, I didn't feel my rough drawings were tight enough to pitch so I tried something new where I draw really quickly in blocks of grey shapes for my book dummy. Since I both wrote and illustrated it, I could try this sort of experimental book dummy drawing where as before, I would probably want to check with the writer. 

When it comes down to it, I really like both. I really love illustrating my own stories but  illustrating others stories makes it so I can illustrate stories that I would have never thought to write but equally love!


Q. Was I AM A WOLF 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! The first official manuscript I wrote was back in 2011, maybe? It was my thesis back in college. It was called THE HANDYMAN and was a story about a girl who found out her grandpa was a superhero. At the time, I didn't really do anything with it, but when I met my agent years later back in 2016, I cleaned it up and tried pitching it again. We worked with it, but realized it might be better for an older middle grade crowd so I've been working to adapt it to an older crowd. It's changed quite a lot since I originally pitched it but the core message is the same.


Q. What inspired I AM A WOLF?

A. My current dog actually! Haha! I feel like so many people write about their pets and now I am one of them. We had adopted her from the shelter the year before I wrote the script. Because the shelter rescued her from animal control, they don't know exactly what happened to her but based on some behavioral issues, they think she might have been through some abuse. She was afraid of everything! She was extremely hard to train, but she is such a sweetheart. Before we took the time to train her though, she was the dog everyone overlooked at the shelter. She had been there quite a while because she barked at everyone who came close to her! When we met her though, she took instantly to us. Sometimes I feel like the dog just has to find the right home and the right people they trust to work though whatever they are going through. Also training. Lots of training. 


Q. How did you pick the title of your book?

A. It was actually just the working title and it sort of stuck with the book! I'm very bad at titles. I picked it because it was the most memorable line out of the book in my opinion as just a placeholder then it turned out everyone liked it as a title so it stayed! 


Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?

A. A little bit of half and half. I write my rough drafts in my sketchbook but edit on the computer.


Q. How did you select the names for your characters? 

A. I write down a bunch of names that I like when I come across them in my sketchbook. When it comes to naming individual characters, I try to pick a name from the list that seems to suit the characters personality.


Q. What made you decide to tell the story in first, second, or third person? 

A. The story just sort of came to me in first person! It made the most sense for the story I was trying to tell.


Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing I AM A WOLF? 

A. I AM A WOLF is one of the weirder scripts since I got the full story all at once in my head and wrote the initial dummy in about a week. I've written many other book dummies between my first one and I AM A WOLF, and this is the first time this has ever happened. I have a feeling it's a fluke though. I've written a few other dummies after that in between deadlines and those are following my normal pattern of me figuring the stories out through many drafts. 


Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?

A. They both appeared at the same time! Part of the story is the words playing off what is specifically happening in the illustration.


Q. Did I AM A WOLF receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?

A. If it did, I'm honestly not sure. The book went to auction since we had a few publishers interested and I kind of was more interested in that than the rejections! I think I pitched 2 or 3 other scripts to publishers before I AM A WOLF that all got rejected. I'm not new to rejection and I like to stay on the positive side!


Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on I AM A WOLF.

A. Haha so, my offer and signing story is a bit weird. I'm pretty open about this, but I actually received the offer in a hospital bed! At the time, I had a massive tumor and they removed it and my right ovary. Thankfully it didn't turn out to be cancerous but we didn't find that out until like a month or two later after testing. At the time though, I was dealing with the stress of surgery and possible cancer and honestly my book deal was the one thing that kept me hopeful. Even if everything went wrong, I still had that. 


The book went on auction around the time I was admitted to the hospital and when I was discharged, my agent and I had picked the final book offer. My signing story is definitely not a normal one! 


Q. How long did I AM A WOLF take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?

A. As of now, it will be published in Summer 2019! Publishing takes much longer than other fields I've worked in but that's because there is so much going on. There's editing revisions to tighten the story, sketch revisions for the same reason, final art, and then edits for the final art... It's just a long process. 


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?

Not really! The story is basically the same as when I pitched it, but so much better. Sometimes I get really close to my work and don't notice some obvious things to make it stronger so thankfully my editor is there to help out! I think all the changes to the script only made the story stronger. 


Q. What is your #1 tip for picture-book writers?

A. Keep writing and finish a book dummy/book script. Those seem like simple things, but they really aren't. You can learn a lot about your own writing process by finishing a story and looking at the finished product. You may not end up pitching it, but in the process of finishing a story, you learned a lot about yourself and how you write. Understanding your own writing process helps in the long run. 


Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?

A. I feel like I'm still learning when it comes to writing. I really like finding writing prompts online and practicing with those! They help me get out of my comfort zone and they don't always have to be long writing segments either, which is nice for times when I only have a few minutes to write.


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


Website: kellyleighmiller.com

Twitter: twitter.com/bookofkellz 

Instagram: instagram.com/bookofkellz


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Corinna Luyken submitted manuscripts and book dummies to publishers for 16 years! But it wasn’t until she was inspired by a series of mistakes that she created what would become her #firstpicturebook. Today she talks to us about perfection, progress, and the process of making THE BOOK OF MISTAKES—“a striking debut picture book" (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) that “lifts to the level of the sublime the idea of putting one’s slip-ups in perspective” (The Wall Street Journal).

Q. Was THE BOOK OF MISTAKES 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 wrote quite a few manuscripts before The Book of Mistakes! I also made 4 or 5 fully illustrated book dummies. But the first manuscript I ever submitted to publishers (back in 2001) was called Sore Feet. It was the story of a small shoe shop and it’s owner, Cornelius O’Leary. I received a few personal rejection letters for that story, which kept me going for years!

Q. What inspired THE BOOK OF MISTAKES?
A. It started with a series of mistakes. For years I drew with pens because I liked the fluid feel of ink on paper. I liked how, with pen, a line can take on a life of it’s own. But often that life would lead to shapes and marks I hadn’t intended and could not erase. Because I loved to draw - and loved to draw with ink - I learned to deal with those accidents. If I messed up something in a face, I’d add glasses. If I didn’t like the way I’d drawn a hand, I might add gloves. And somewhere along the way I learned to enjoy how each mistake forced me to find a new way of looking at the world.

And I began to wonder if celebrating mistakes was something that could be taught.

In my years working as both a teaching assistant and artist in residence in elementary schools, I started to notice a pattern. In every class there would be one or two kids who, within minutes of starting to draw, were raising their hand asking for another piece of paper. They didn’t like what they were seeing. They wanted to start over. They wanted to make it perfect. It became my job to help them see the possibility in that mistake, to see how they could keep going and transform their drawing or painting into something that they still might love.

This all came home for me when my daughter was four years old. At that age she loved everything she drew. She didn’t see mistakes, only pattern and line and color and texture. And she LOVED to draw. Then one day, while drawing, she burst into tears and threw her paper on the ground. She had made a mistake. She couldn’t fix it.

And it broke my heart.

Not yet, I remember thinking. Not her. Not already. Not now.

So I wrote this book. For her. For them. For me. For anyone who has ever made a mistake.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. The title came before anything else. Originally, I was thinking of something along the lines of The BIG Book of Miskakes, which was a phrase that I wrote down in my notebook a few years before the rest of the story came along.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. The thing that made me laugh out loud, when I was writing the story, was the frog-cat-cow. Which I still love. And of course the tree! I drew the tree seven or eight times to get it just right (in part because it crosses the gutter twice) and I never got tired of redrawing it. Both of those were in the first draft. But I also love the spread where you see the silhouette of the forest, and just the topmost hint of the girl’s glasses. That page turn makes kids gasp when I read it in classrooms. One or two kids will see it first, and let out an audible “oh!” and then suddenly all the kids are looking to see what they saw, and then there will be a chorus of oohs and ahs and kids saying “It’s her! I see the girl!” It’s so fun!

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person? 
A. The first half of the book came to me, all at once. And that was just the way it arrived! The second half was another matter, and took an entire year to sort out.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing THE BOOK OF MISTAKES? 
A. I had a pretty good sense of the first half of the book. Which, at the time, I thought would be the entire book. I knew I wanted to include real mistakes that I make when I draw… so that first part was pretty easy. Originally, the story ended with the giant tree. And a line about how she wasn’t a mistake but was meant to be. But when I sent it along to (my now agent) Steven Malk, he felt like the ending could be stronger. It took me almost a year to find another way to end the story. It wasn’t easy, and I experimented a lot. And so I started to experiment with big splashes of ink. After that, it all came together pretty quickly, and the book doubled in size!

Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. With this story, the words and pictures came simultaneously.

Q. Did THE BOOK OF MISTAKES receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A It didn’t. I have received many rejection letters—I’d been sending out manuscripts and book dummies for almost 16 years. But when I wrote The Book of Mistakes I knew it was better than anything else I’d written. So I sent it to Steve Malk, an agent at Writers House, with fingers crossed. And fortunately, he loved it (except for the ending). But it was still an entire year of revising the story before I came up with the ending as it is now. At that point he signed me on as a client and we sent the book out. It ended up going to auction, with five publishers interested in it. That part all happened very quickly, between Thanksgiving and Christmas. So it was seventeen years of very slow progress and then a few weeks where everything came together very quickly!

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on THE BOOK OF MISTAKES.
A. I was over the moon! My husband and I both were. We jumped up and down a LOT. It was a pretty incredible time.

But then, pretty quickly, I realized there was still a lot of work to do! Which is a good thing, because in the end it is our relationship with the creative process (not the excitement of finding an agent and having a manuscript published) that will feed the next project, and the next…

Q. How long did THE BOOK OF MISTAKES take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. It was very close to finished when we submitted it, but I did have to ink up some of the final scenes and redraw the tree, and then assemble some of the bits and pieces in photoshop. All of that back and forth with the publisher took another 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. Yes! There was a part in the original story that had to go. A boy, with extra wide fingers.

I still love him. But early on, Steve said something about how I was starting to repeat myself with that character and line. And as soon as he said that, I realized he was right, it had to go.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. It takes patience and persistence, nothing in this industry moves quickly. (They call it the hurry up and wait industry for a reason.) But if you really love what you’re doing, if you’re passionate about making books for kids, you will persist. And your art will get better because of that. I have a favorite quote from Ira Glass that are worth repeating here:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me. 
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years that you're making stuff, what you're making isn't so good. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.  
And the thing that I would say to you, with all of my heart, is this—most everybody I know who does interesting, creative work went through a phase—they went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this.  And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you've got to  know it's normal.  And the most important thing you can do—is do a lot of work.  It is only by going through a volume of work that you will catch up and close that gap.  And the work you're making will be as good as your ambitions. 
I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It takes a while.  It’s gonna take you awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. And you've just got to fight your way through that— okay?” 

—Ira Glass 

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. As far as writing or illustrating exercises, I would just recommend this Chuck Close quote! Which I have found to be absolutely true and incredibly helpful. So much so, that I’ve quoted in a few other interviews, but I think it bears repeating over and over (and over) again:
“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you're sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that's almost never the case.” 

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I just finished illustrating a book called Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have A Horse, written by debut author Marcy Campbell, which is coming out August 14, 2018 from Dial Books. It is essentially a story about compassion and kindness. And seeing the world a bit differently. (The publishers description is: “Adrian Simcox tells anyone who will listen that he has a horse--the best and most beautiful horse anywhere. But Chloe does NOT believe him. Adrian Simcox lives in a tiny house. Where would he keep a horse? He has holes in his shoes. How would he pay for a horse? The more Adrian talks about his horse, the angrier Chloe gets. But when she calls him out at school and even complains about him to her mom, Chloe doesn't get the vindication she craves. She gets something far more important.”)

So now I am working on two new projects—one is my next book as author/illustrator. It is called my heart, my heart and is a meditation on/celebration of the heart. The art for that one is all monoprint printmaking and pencil, so it will look quite different from The Book of Mistakes!

I am also illustrating a middle grade novel by Carolyn Crimi, called Weird Little Robots, which will be released from Candlewick in the spring of 2019.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
t: @corinnaluyken
IG: corinnaluyken
fb: corinna Luyken illustration
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