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True Story Blog

Spring back for inspiration

Today is April 2nd and it’s snowing here in Connecticut! So I’m going to look back at some #firstpicturebooks that promise warmer weather and inspire me to keep writing . . . instead of hiding under the covers like my dog Ellie. Click on each book title to read the complete #firstpicturebook Q&A:

“I've always loved spending time outside. When I was young I think I took this connection to the natural world for granted. I didn't realize that you really have to hang onto that, or the busyness of life will take over. With my own kids I've tried to encourage outdoor play and a sense of wonder for nature, in both big and little ways. I think all of this was in the back of my mind as I wrote FINDING WILD. I wanted to celebrate nature and the special connection kids--and, really, all of us--can experience when we take the time to notice the beauty and wild all around us.”

“One of my favorite parts of the book is the surfing spread where it shows a girl surfing. Not only is it wonderful to showcase girls in sports, but this young girl is clearly experienced enough to be able to surf “toes-on-the-nose” style. I remember this phrase coming to mind after I had been working on the manuscript for quite a while.”

“It was inspired by a nature walk I took with my daughters, who were then 6 and 8. They were not especially keen on walks at that time, so we decided that, to liven things up, we would take a stroll through our local nature preserve while being on the lookout for spots where fairies might be hiding. From there the story took on a life of its own - and the result is as you see it!”

“One day, while walking my dogs, I found the milkweed along the side of our quiet road had been mowed. Milkweed is vital to monarch survival. Monarch caterpillars were clinging to the drying plants. Seeing this was upsetting. The monarchs are in trouble, and I wanted to share their story.”

“My daughter and I were at the park and she was playing pretend and said, “Salad Pie,” which I thought was so clever and creative that I repeated it in my head over and over all the way home. Then, during her rest time, I scribbled out the first draft of the story.”

“I was remembering when my daughter began reading middle-grade novels. She sank so deep into those books that she was in another world.... So that’s what the first version of the story was about—a boy whose best friend (his cat) gets lost in books. Gradually the story changed so that the boy teaches the cat to read. And then two cats were being taught, but reading didn’t come equally easily to both...”

“I've always loved to swim and remember clearly learning to jump off the diving board. I try to write stories about moments that are relatable to kids and that one stuck out for me.”

“My husband and co-author Baldev Lamba is a landscape architect.  Years ago, we were walking in a harsh urban area, and he pointed to some weeds and wild flowers springing up through cracks in the cement. And he said something along the lines of, "See that? Nature is always there just waiting to come back." That stuck with me for a long time, and became the inspiration for our book.”

“The idea for the story came while playing outside in the rain with my children. They were so happy running in rain, splashing in pools of water and rolling in the dirt.”

“I spent three months researching daily everything I could about pollen, forest animals, black bears. I dug up every creature that eats pollen, wrote to vetters to double check the science. I hiked through a few national parks and pine forests, visited live bears in New Hampshire, observed a large honeybee hive at the Boston Museum of Science, and constantly researched bees pollinating flowers everywhere I could. I also contacted beekeepers, and went to multiple butterfly conservatories.”
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It's been a long road to publication. But after running a business and raising a family, Linda Vander Hayden finally reached her destination—publishing her first picture book! Today she shares the story behind MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS—"an appealing and appropriate addition to the nature shelf in the preschool and early elementary grades" (Kirkus Reviews).

Q. Was MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. My first picture book was a very long story about a crabby cat. I spent hours researching publishers who would love my story. I sent it out into the world and waited…and waited. Finally—a response! It was a form rejection (with many more to follow). Not one to give up easily, I revised my story, cutting the word count in half. Surely, now they would be interested. Alas, no. Though disappointed, I learned a lot from those rejections. It is all part of the journey.

Q. What inspired MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS?
A. For a long time, I’ve been concerned about what is happening to the monarchs. Once it was common to see many of these beautiful butterflies throughout summer and fall. Now, people report not seeing any or very few. Some of the challenges our monarch friends face are changing weather patterns, pesticides, herbicides, roadside mowing, and habitat destruction.

One day, while walking my dogs, I found the milkweed along the side of our quiet road had been mowed. Milkweed is vital to monarch survival. Monarch caterpillars were clinging to the drying plants. Seeing this was upsetting. The monarchs are in trouble, and I wanted to share their story.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. I loved the alliteration. And I love Irish names. My grandfather came to this country from Ireland when he was only 16. My sisters and I visited his childhood home a few years ago. It was an amazing experience!

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I have several. One, in particular, is when Mr. McGinty and his dog, Sophie, are rescuing the caterpillars. People pass by and shake their heads wondering why he bothers. But Mr. McGinty isn’t worried about how he is seen by others. He only wants to help the monarchs.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters? 
A. Mr. McGinty seemed to be the perfect name for this kind-hearted, energetic man who cares so much about nature. And I chose the name Sophie for his dog, because I thought it sounded gentle. Sophie adores Mr. McGinty and is always ready to share in his adventures, including a monarch mission!

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. It really wasn’t a conscious decision. The story just seemed to flow onto the page that way. I think using third person makes it more relatable to children. They can see themselves in the story and identify with Mr. McGinty’s love and concern for the monarchs.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS?
A. I knew about half the story when I began writing. Over the next couple years, with numerous revisions, the rest of the story took shape. I was also very fortunate to be part of the SCBWI mentorship program. I am so grateful to my mentor, who helped with final revisions.

Q. Did MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. It definitely did. I think most manuscripts receive rejections. Perhaps some stories are acquired right away, but they are probably few and far between. I received about seven rejections before learning that Sleeping Bear wanted to publish this story.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS.
A. I’m taking a deep breath here. My mother had passed away the month before, and I was (and still am) feeling her loss deeply. My mother was always in my corner. She told me to never give up on my writing. We were at our daughter’s home the evening my agent called with the exciting news. It is hard to describe the combination of sorrow at losing my mother so recently and the elation I felt when I learned of the offer from Sleeping Bear. I wish she could have been here to share my happiness, but I believe she knows.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. Sleeping Bear chose Eileen Ryan Ewen to illustrate the book, and I am delighted with her vision of Mr. McGinty and Sophie! MR. MCGINTY’S MONARCHS was a debut book for both of us!

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. It was thrilling to see this story come to life at last! I loved Eileen’s portrayal of Mr. McGinty. It was so different than how I pictured him. And so much better! I couldn’t believe it when I saw Sophie. She, too, looked very different than what I had pictured. What struck me immediately was that Sophie looked exactly like the dog my mother had when she was a little girl. Eileen had never seen a photo of my mother’s dog!

Q. How long did MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. It took about a year and a half from the time I received the offer until the book was released.

Q. Is there anything you would change in the book today if you could reprint it? (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 honestly can’t think of anything I would change. The story teaches while it entertains, and Eileen’s illustrations are beautiful. I also think the author notes are fun and kid friendly. I love reading this story to students and seeing their enthusiasm as they listen and later share their own butterfly stories with me.

Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS?
A. Yes, one little girl told me, “I want to be a superhero butterfly when I grow up.”

Q. When you do readings of MR. MCGINTY'S MONARCHS, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. The children have lots of fun following Sophie throughout the story. They love her hairdo when she visits the classroom with Mr. McGinty! And I hear them “Oooh” and “Aaah” when they see Eileen’s full-page spread of the monarchs being released.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. The best advice I can offer would be to join SCBWI. This organization offers many opportunities to grow as a writer and/or illustrator. I would also say be patient. It can be a very long road to publication, but along the way, you’ll meet supportive, talented people who will often be willing to help you achieve your goals. And as my mother once told me, “Don’t give up.”

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. I don’t really have a favorite writing exercise, but as I write, I try to use active verbs and make sure I’m showing (not telling) how my characters are feeling. I’ve also learned to remember to leave room for an illustrator to work his or her magic.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. For several years, I’ve been working on a manuscript about a red-tailed hawk that was injured in a landfill. When I heard about him from his rehabber, I knew I wanted to share his story. It’s taken a long time (and many different versions), but I think it’s finally coming together.

To learn more about Linda, visit her website
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