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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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