Anna Staniszewski is one of our daughter’s favorite authors. Our daughter is nine, with great taste in books, so we always pay very close attention to who she’s loving as a middle grade reader. We were all lucky enough to meet Anna at least year’s New England SCBWI Conference and had the chance to pick her brain after about writing, writers, MFA programs, kids’ books, and whatever else spilled out of our collective heads.
The Book Doctors: I’d like to start with the MFA programs, because we hear such conflicting things, particularly for children’s book writers. What are the benefits of going to a program like the one at Simmons College where you teach?
Anna Staniszewski: I hear that question a lot. For me, I think that it comes down to two things. If you want to be a published writer, you have to put in the work. Some people need a structured environment like an MFA program. I know I did. For other people, they can do it on their own. Another benefit of having an MFA program is the community aspect of it. You have this network that you’re part of—people with similar interests and goals. Some say you can’t be taught to write. While I think ultimately the actual storytelling voice is hard to teach, I obviously believe that you can teach someone to write, because I attended an MFA program and I teach in one.
TBD: What kinds of things do you actual teach in an MFA program for children’s literature?
AS: When the students come into the MFA program at Simmons, we really break down the basics. We look at character, plot, structure, setting, all those things, which seem really basic because we do so many of them by instinct, because we see how they work in other people’s stories. But if you really break down how they work, then you can take them and use them in your own story. The more aware you are of the different building blocks of fiction, the more consciously you can use them to benefit the story that you’re working on.
TBD: What was the transition like going from student to published author to teacher?
AS: When I first started at Simmons, I originally went for the MA of Children’s Literature. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to go into publishing. But my first semester there they were just launching that MFA program–this was over ten years ago–and so I thought that’s exactly what I want to do, I want to do both those things. Once I knew that, I was really focused throughout that program on wanting to be published when I graduated, and then when I finished, I actually applied to the Writer Resident Program at the Boston Public Library and, miraculously, got it the next year. Right after I graduated I was a writer-in-residence at the BPL, which was amazing. I think that really gave me such a boost of confidence that writing could be a real job for me! Right after I finished at the BPL, I went to teaching. Originally, for the first year that I taught, I taught all over the Boston area. I was really lucky when an opening popped up in Simmons, where they needed someone to teach in the MFA program, so I was able to do that right around the time that I got my agent. That was interesting to go through the submission process all while I was teaching other students who were trying to get to the same point.
TBD: One thing that we run into all the time is that people think that it is easier to write a children’s book than an adult book, particularly when it comes to picture books, and what I find amusing, in terms of length of time, is that it takes longer to publish a picture book than it does any other kind of book that I’ve ever seen.
AS: Absolutely! I sold my first picture book in 2011, and it is coming out in 2017. It was a long process! (Even though book publishing is a slow process, it’s rare for a book to take this long.) I think because there are so few words, you have to pick the exact, perfect words for every spread. And then there’s this whole other element if you’re not the illustrator and you just have to wait and hope that it all comes together! Writing picture books is such a specific craft, I was actually a little bit intimidated by it for a while. For me, writing a novel somehow feels less scary.
TBD: For those writers out there who really know nothing about the craft of picture books, do you have a few tips?
AS: I would say the big thing is thinking about what would you like to see illustrated because I think a lot of times you’ll have a certain idea of “wouldn’t this be cute” and “wouldn’t this be fun,” but then you really have to think, “Can I get several illustrations out of this?” Then there are the parts of your book that not only could be illustrated, but also are begging to be illustrated! That’s why you need to find an idea that doesn’t just resonate with people, but that’s demanding to be illustrated.
The other thing I often tell students, because this is true of my own experience, is that an idea is not a story. The picture book I mentioned that’s coming out in 2017–the one that took six years–that was one where it took me a good year to find what I was actually trying to say. I came up with the idea, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun if a boy turned a dog into a dinosaur?” And so I kind of played around with it, and it just wasn’t really working. I think part of it was because I wasn’t really thinking about the illustration potential. But I think a bigger part of it was that while it was a fun idea, it wasn’t really a story. And so I had to really dig into it. It took me a while to find what it needed to be about, which was the relationship between the boy and what turned out to be just a dinosaur.
Probably the most important thing in a picture book is the emotional component to the story. Because picture books are so short, there’s so little time to get the point across. You need something readers can really connect to on an emotional level because otherwise it’s just a fun story and you forget about it. But if there’s that deeper emotional layer, then readers will come back to it over and over.
TBD: We love that last one! We do a lot of work with writers to try to help them figure out how to pitch their books, and many writers have tremendous difficulties doing this. We get so many pitches where we don’t see an emotional connection with their main character. They just have an idea, there’s no actual plot or story there.
AS: It’s true, because by the time you finish reading a story, if there’s no emotional component and there’s no real plot, you find yourself asking, “Why did I just read this?” There has to be something there, even if it’s not a traditional story arc. My picture book, Power Down, Little Robot, is not a traditional story arc. It’s about a robot that doesn’t want to go to bed. It tries out all these different things to prevent going to bed, so it’s more like a list-type story. But I really try to highlight the mother-son relationship there. I hope, by the end, readers feel changed by the story, even if it doesn’t have a traditional beginning, middle, and end.
TBD: It’s confusing to many people who are starting out in the field what the category Middle Grade even means–the age range, where it diverges from early reader, how it stretches up to YA but doesn’t cross over into it. Can you give us your thoughts on this?
AS: I get this question all the time as well. I think people define it slightly differently, but this is how I think about it. I think the characters are typically between the ages of eight and twelve or thirteen. There are also early chapter books, and I do include those in early middle-grade, so in early chapter books, the protagonist can sometimes be in second grade or age seven. But a lot of early readers of chapter books are very much riding that line between picture book and novel. So I look at early chapter books on a case-by-case basis to know where exactly those fall. I feel like once you get into high school, that’s where it gets tougher. In my novels, most of my characters are thirteen or fourteen, which is at the upper end of middle-grade, often referred to as “tweens.” And even fifteen years ago, those would have been published as YA. Because YA has aged up so much, middle-grade has had to expand a little bit and the characters have become a little older.
While part of the way I define middle grade is by age, part of it I define by focus. It’s not only the content, but also how you deal with the content. So in middle-grade, if it’s younger middle grade, you might get away with a little bit of romance, but there are a lot of kids who don’t want that in their books. Whereas if it’s upper middle-grade, you might see a little bit of romance and you might see some darker things like war and death. With the latter, they tend to be handled a little bit more in the background or off-screen, so they are certainly there and they’re impacting the main character, but not in a direct way. For example, if there’s a character with something very serious going on in her life, maybe that’s not happening to the main character, it’s happening to the main character’s friend or somebody else in the family. In middle grade, you’re still kind of discovering what the world is like, whereas in young adult, I’d say it’s “Now that I know what the world is like, how do I fit in?” In YA, the focus is more inward, where middle-grade is more outward.
TBD: In your bio you write, “When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch.” We thought this was so funny, and it’s just the sort of thing our nine-year-old daughter would love. Speaking of our nine-year-old daughter, she loves your books so much and just had the experience where she sat down with The Dirt Diary and couldn’t get up until she finished. You captured something that felt grounded in reality yet she could fantasize. How do you come up with your stories? Are they things that just come to you, or are they things you’ve been thinking about since you were little?
AS: I feel that I never have a lack of ideas. I feel like my brain is open, that it’s always asking “What if this happened?” I’m always kind of twisting the things that I notice, and thinking about “What if I told it this way?” Then it’s just a matter of figuring out what am I most excited about, and that’s what I decide to write about. But sometimes I feel like the process is a little bit mysterious. With my first book, My Very UnFairy Tale Life, I was working on something completely different. I was working on a sort of depressing book that ended up not going anywhere, and I needed something fun to work on. So I sat down and I just thought “Okay, I’ll just write a fun scene, just for myself,” and I wrote a scene about a girl who came home from school to find a talking frog sitting on her bed, and if that was me, I would have screamed and run out of the room, but she was so annoyed at the sight of the frog, and she actually grabbed that frog and she threw it out a window. I thought, “Who is this character? I need to know more about her!” I would write a chapter or two every once in a while, just for my own amusement, and that’s how that book came about. With my book The Dirt Diary, I heard a story on the radio about a girl who used to work for her mom’s cleaning business and a bell went off in my head. So for me, the premise comes first a lot of times, but it’s not until I connect with the characters that I go with it.
I feel that what you were saying about being rooted in the real world with a little bit of fantasy or magic, those are the kinds of stories I’ve always loved the most, and so I feel like that’s what I most enjoy writing as well.
TBD: We were impressed with how you dealt with class issues in The Dirt Diary. Our daughter happens to be in a public school that is very mixed, class-wise, from the very top to the very bottom. We were happy to see her reading a book that made her think about class. Speaking of which, your dedication may be our favorite ever: To anyone who has ever had to clean a toilet.
AS: I always thought I’d write fantasy. I wasn’t sure I had realistic fiction in me until I started writing it. For me, I guess what helped me was that I felt like my entire middle school existence could be summed up in the word “embarrassed.” I was nothing but embarrassed all the time. I also needed to know “Where do I fit in?” So a lot of those class issues are things that I experienced in school, where there were kids who lived in the big fancy houses and their families had big fancy cars, and then there were the rest of us. There was a lot of pressure no matter where you were on that hierarchy, and I thought that was something worth exploring. It also felt very true to my character because of the situation I put her in, and it also felt very true emotionally for me. A lot of people ask me how much of that story comes from my personal experience, and it’s very little. I did not clean houses for a living. I try to avoid cleaning houses at all, even my own. But I feel the emotional element is very true to life, and so I feel like I took a character who is very shy and very awkward, and took those qualities from myself when I was her age and amplified them by ten.
TBD: Something we run into every day with clients trying to get children’s books published is the desire tell us what their book is trying to teach. I would love for you to say something about the didactic nature of children’s books, and what do you advise on that?
AS: I think the important thing is telling a good story, and if there’s something that comes out of that for the reader, that’s fantastic, but if that’s the aim–if you go into it looking to teach something—it will show. The story always has to come first. When I set out to write a book, I’m not thinking what I want the reader to learn, or what do I want the character to learn, I just focus on something much more simple, like how does the character change. I try to think of it in a very specific way. With The Dirt Diary, for example, it’s about a character finding her voice. Though that may imply that maybe she learned some things along the way, that’s not what the story is really about. I think about: “Where does she start?” She’s shy, she can’t speak up for herself. “Where does she end?” She comes out of her shell a little bit, she speaks up for herself, at least when she really needs to. I’m not just trying to hit the reader over the head with a lesson or a moral. As a reader, I like to be able to think about the book myself and also feel like I have grown and changed along with the character; that’s more valuable than having a very obvious and concrete lesson.
Anna Staniszewski is the author of several tween novels, including The Dirt Diary and Once Upon a Cruise, and the picture books Power Down, Little Robot and Dogosaurus Rex. She lives outside of Boston and teaches at Simmons College. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. You can learn more about her and her books at www.annastan.com.
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We at The Book Doctors love National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). For those of you who don’t know, they are an organization that gets together in informal ways all over the world, and in the month of November, WriMos (NaNoWriMo participants) write 50,000 words. No plot, no problem. Many, many writers have gone on to get book deals after participating. Every year, we do an online Pitchapalooza with NaNoWriMo, and we get some fantastic pitches. One of our winners, Stacy McAnulty, had such a great pitch, and wrote such a wonderful book, that she got a book deal. Her book is out now, so we wanted to check in with her to see what it was like to go from NaNoWriMo to getting a book deal. We’re doing another online NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza until March 31, 2016. See below for details.
ANY PARTICIPANT WHO BUYS THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO GETTING YOUR BOOK PUBLISHED GETS A FREE 20 MINUTE CONSULTATION WITH THE BOOK DOCTORS (email with proof of purchase to Sterryhead@Gmail.com)
Stacy McAnulty: We’re starting with the question that always embarrasses me because I didn’t read as a young kid. I can remember sitting in fourth grade with the book How to Eat Fried Worms open on my desk, and instead of reading the words, I literally counted them. I’d count all the words, then turn the page so the teacher would assume I was quietly reading.
Also, we didn’t have many books in the house. I remember enjoying Little Golden Books and the picture book The Fourteen Bear Summer and Winter (which was held together with duct tape).
I didn’t fall in love with a book until high school, and that was Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I never counted the words in that book. It’s about 1,000 pages; the word count must be in the mid six-figures. That novel blew me away and was also held together with tape.
TBD: What made you want to do something as ridiculous as write a book?
SM: It is ridiculous! It’s a crazy challenge similar to climbing Mount Everest or swimming the English Channel. But I guess what appeals to me about writing a book (over climbing or swimming) is you can do it in your PJs. And while eating gummy worms. And you likely aren’t going to fall to your death or be eaten by a shark. Not much physical danger involved in writing a book. Though today my right shoulder is a little tight.
I have to write. It’s almost a sickness. Plots, crazy ideas, and conversations with imaginary characters are constantly running through my head. The only way to get these persistent thoughts out of my head is to write them down (or type them up). Maybe it is a sickness?! Multiple Mass Ideas Sickness. Obsessive Writing Disorder.
TBD: Where did you get the idea for The Dino Files series?
SM: My son asked for a “real-life dinosaur” for his fifth birthday. Obviously, he was about sixty-five million years too late. I started writing the first draft for him. I’d write a chapter during karate class and read it to him immediately after. It was great motivation having someone eager to hear the next segment of the story.
TBD: What were some of the joys and difficulties of writing in the voice of a kid?
SM: I’ve been told I’m immature (not sure if it was meant as a compliment, but I’ll take it). I like to joke around, and I love to learn. Isn’t that the makings of a kid? Children get to be crazy. They can blow a giant bubble with gum and truly believe this is a reasonable transportation method for traveling to the moon. Their world has many rules. Don’t touch that. Don’t go there. Quiet down. Be still. But their imaginary worlds are still full of endless possibilities. Gravity? We don’t need no stinkin’ gravity. Writing for kids lets me be a kid.
As for difficulties? There are some limits to the language and sentence structure. Fortunately, I have a limited vocabulary. You don’t want to discourage a reader, but you also don’t want to talk down to a kid. They’ll pick up on that quick. The biggest challenge in The Dino Files series is the word count. My editor wanted between ten and eleven thousand words. We needed to leave room for Mike Boldt‘s pictures and teaser chapters for the next book. That meant reducing the first manuscript by twenty-five percent. Cutting can be harder than adding words. At least for me. I had to slash jokes, description, and even characters. I learned to stay true to the story and focus on the action.
TBD: Did you have kids read the book as you were developing it?
SM: In general, I only share my work with the kids I cook dinner for–which is a small group of three. As I mentioned, I read the first draft to my son as I was writing it. Unfortunately, young kids don’t appreciate revision. When I created the next draft, I asked my son if he wanted to hear it. The answer was no. Luckily, I have two other kids. My eldest is a teenager. You want honest feedback? Ask a teen to critique your work. She read the next few drafts aloud to me. It’s great to hear your words interpreted in someone else’s brain and mouth. She also loved to point out my inconsistencies, and she would yawn dramatically at the boring parts (which have all now been cut!).
TBD: How did you go about getting your book deal?
SM: I’d published a picture book in 2013 with a small press (unagented). I knew that if I wanted a career, an agent was vital. I entered contests and went to conferences. But, in the end, I was pulled from the dreaded slush pile. I queried my now-agent with a picture book. I was sending out about a dozen queries a month. Lori Kilkelly offered representation based on that book, but I asked her to read The Dino Files before I accepted her offer. I wanted to know if she liked my longer works as well. Lori did see potential in The Dino Files. Potential is code word for needs another revision.
About seven months later, we went out with The Dino Files. Random House Kids replied a few weeks later: What a great read! Does the author have ideas for future books in the series? Those are the moments writers live for.
TBD: What are you doing to promote and market your book?
SM: Marketing a book for kids is tricky. You want to connect with the reader, which, for The Dino Files, are kids ages seven to ten. But this demographic doesn’t have Twitter or Facebook accounts, not to mention credit cards for online buying or the ability to drive the minivan to the bookstore. So I need to connect through the adults in their lives first. I offer free Skype visits for classrooms. I’ve created a website with printouts and videos that parents and teachers can share with their kids. I’ve sent postcards to libraries and bookstores. I know there are dino-loving kids out there. I want to meet them. I want them to tell me I say Deinonychus wrong. I want them to tell me what kind of dinosaur would make the best pet. I want to inspire future paleontologists (and future writers!).
TBD: It’s so exciting to get a three-book deal. Are you already working on the next book?
SM: All the books are done and hitting shelves this year! The Dino Files series is intended for kids in elementary school. We hope they fall in love with the first book. And if they do, we can’t expect them to wait a year for the next book. Kids are binge readers. They want more. We are ready to give them more.
I’m currently working on a middle-grade novel about a twelve-year-old math savant. She has been homeschooled and is technically ready for college, but her grandmother insists she give public middle school a try first. And I’m always working on picture books.
TBD: How did National Novel Writing Month help you write your book and get it published?
SM: Full disclosure, the first draft of The Dino Files was not an official NaNoWriMo win. The word count was only twenty thousand. (And the printed version is under eleven thousand.) But I have completed the fifty-thousand-word NaNoWriMo marathon three times. NaNoWriMo makes you accountable. Resolutions, promises written on sticky notes, self-imposed deadlines–none of these have the power and prestige of NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo could only be improved if, somehow, they could send an electric shock through your keyboard when you failed to meet a daily goal or if there was a multi-million-dollar cash prize at the end.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
SM: Yep, this is a tough question. Luckily, I have a definitive answer on what all writers must do. I’ll call it Stacy’s Top Commandments on Writing.
- Never talk about your first draft. (This is actually one of Stephen King’s rules.) If you’re telling your spouse or your hairdresser or your hedgehog all about your next project, you’re wasting your breath. Unless your hedgehog can take dictation. These people likely don’t care. Or at least, don’t care as much as you do. And when you actually sit down to write your story, it’ll feel like work. So when a coworker or a neighbor asks what you’re working on, just give them a title. But be vague. Maybe something like Sunset at Dawn.
- Carry a book everywhere. No, not your phone with a book app, not your Kindle, and definitely not a tablet. Writers read. If you’re carrying a book everywhere, you’re likely to read it. And it’s good karma to “advertise” another writer’s book.
- Compare yourself to everyone. Let’s be serious. You’re going to do it anyway. I’m just giving you permission. That way, you won’t feel guilty. Compare yourself to bestselling authors. Compare yourself to the guy in your critique group that just got a six-figure deal for a memoir about camping with his three-legged dog. Compare yourself to Jennifer Lawrence (because we all secretly want to be Jennifer Lawrence or her best friend). When you’re done comparing, move on to number four.
- Write every day. I hate this rule. It’s a cliché at this point like New Year’s resolutions and diets that start tomorrow. But…I do believe this strategy (can you call three words a strategy?) works for a first draft. You must add to your work in progress each day. Or you risk your pesky muse fleeing the scene.
- Get professional help. Of course, you may need help for your physical and mental problems, but I’m talking about your plot problems. Your character problems. Your spelling problems. You need to invest in yourself. I draw this inspiration from Vin Diesel. (Aren’t we all inspired by Vin Diesel?) He told a story on a talk show about saving up forty-some thousand dollars. Instead of buying a car or something flashy, he invested that money in himself. He made a small film with a friend to showcase his talent. That little movie led to a role in Saving Private Ryan. So if you are debating between buying a BMW and taking a writing class, take the class. Deciding between buying a Tesla and hiring an editor, get the editor. (Warning: And if you have forty-thousand dollars to pay an editor, I’m totally available.)
- Celebrate good times! It’s easy to get excited when an agent offers representation or when a publisher makes a deal or when a review is accompanied by a star. We know those are the rare, exciting moments in a writer’s life. But we must also celebrate the other big moments. When you type ‘the end’ on a manuscript, you deserve a dinner out. When you come up with that ultimate plot twist after you’ve been brainstorming (and crying about it) for a week, you deserve a glass of your favorite beverage. When you recover your work in progress from a fried hard drive, you deserve a glazed donut with sprinkles. (Guess how I spent my morning?) Take the time to celebrate your victories.
- You need writer friends. Of all my rules, this is a must. I would not be a published author without the support of my writerly friends. Your family won’t understand your problems and frustrations. Unless you are a family of writers. Your non-author friends won’t understand plot arcs and rejection letters. Your neighbors don’t understand these acronyms: WIP, YA, ARC. Writer friends can empathize like no others. They will listen for hours about rejection letters while your mom will give you two minutes (tops!) and then she’ll suggest you try something new like painting because you always liked to color when you were a child. Just today, a writer friend convinced me not to quit a project I’ve already sunk a year of my life into. Writer friends have given me advice on everything from how you organize an author visit, to how long should I wait before following up with an editor, to does this author photo make me look fun or crazy? Writers, while not exactly a rare breed (nine out of ten retirees are working on a memoir, and the other one has a picture book called The Adventures of [insert some animal that her grandson just loves]), work best in a nurturing, warm community. Just like bacteria.
For those of you not familiar with Pitchapalooza, here’s the skinny: You get 250 words to pitch your book. Twenty-five pitches will be randomly selected from all submissions. We will then critique the pitches online so you get to see what makes a great pitch. We will then choose one winner from the group. The winner will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for his/her manuscript. We will also crown a fan favorite who will receive a free one-hour consult with us (worth $250).
Beginning February 1, 2016, you can email your pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please do not attach your pitch, just embed it in the email. All pitches must be received by 11:59PM PST on February 29, 2016. The 25 random pitches will be posted on March 14, 2016. Winners will be announced on April 1, 2016. Anyone can vote for fan favorite, so get your social media engine running as soon as the pitches go up!
Learn more about the sixth annual NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza here.
Stacy McAnulty grew up outside of Albany, New York and received her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University at Buffalo. She currently lives in Kernersville, NC with her three children and two dogs. The Dino Files chapter book series follows a nine-year-old dinosaur expert, his paleontologist grandparents, a cat named Saurus, and fossils that might not be so extinct!
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We first met Roxanna Elden at Miami Dade College where we were teaching a class on publishing. From the second she opened her mouth (which she did frequently) it was obvious she was a published author waiting to happen. She asked so many questions. And they were good questions. She was funny, she was engaged, and she had a great idea for a book. In fact, after many trials and tribulations, she got that book published, and now she has a second book coming out. So we thought we’d check in on her and see how the process went.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: After the success of your first book, See Me After Class, what made you want to write a picture book for kids?
Roxanna Elden: The idea came from watching my dog, Rudy, as he adjusted to having a new baby human in the house. Like a lot of dogs, Rudy was the “baby” of our family before we had kids. Ever since, he’s had to deal with all kinds of indignities–pulled ears, missed walks, and lots of interruptions to his couch naps. And, of course, he has had to learn to share the spotlight. A little after Rudy’s first new human was born, I was suffering pangs of “pet parent guilt,” and called my friend, Ginger. She already had two kids at the time, and she noted the similarities between Rudy’s situation and what older siblings go through when a baby comes along. She also just happens to be one of the Chicago-land area’s top illustrators. By the end of that conversation we had a book in the works.
TBD: Since your first book was nonfiction, did you have to find a new agent, develop new social media outlets, or find a new publisher?
RE: Same agent: magnificent Rita Rosenkranz. New publisher: marvelous Sky Pony Press. There is a bit of crossover from the audience of See Me After Class, because some elementary teachers have told me that they’re reading the book with their students, and high school writing teachers sometimes do picture book projects. And, of course, lots of teachers are moms and dads and dog lovers. We are in the process of posting lesson materials on a popular lesson-sharing site called Teachers Pay Teachers. Despite the name of the site, everything in Rudy the Dog’s “store” will be free.
TBD: Obviously your two books are in very different categories, but what did you learn from your first book that you were able to apply to this new book?
RE: The whole publishing process, from pitching the book to working with editors to looking for ways to connect with readers, was actually similar for both books. The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published was my road map through the process the first time, saving me years of trial and error. For this book, I reread the sections I needed to review and also ordered a copy for Ginger. The main lesson I learned from my first publishing experience is that marketing a book is (a) ongoing, and (b) unpredictable. With See Me After Class, I’ve done hundreds of different things over the past ten years to get the book into the hands of teachers who would love and benefit from it. These efforts ranged from epic to tiny, and the results ranged from total wash to big break. There hasn’t been a recognizable pattern. For authors, if you do 100 things and only 6 pay off, the temptation is to wish you could have saved the time of doing the other 94 things. But it’s important to remember that what “worked” wasn’t the six lucky breaks you got. It was the fact that you tried 100 different approaches.
TBD: How did you go about getting your book deal for your new book?
RE: Our agent, Rita Rosenkranz, showed it to Jenny Pierson at Sky Pony, and she made an offer on it immediately. Having gone through the publishing process already, I knew this was pretty rare. We all had a conversation and by the end of it, Ginger and I both agreed that Sky Pony would be a great fit for the book.
TBD: How are you planning to promote and market this book?
RE: We have a website, www.rudythedog.net, where people can sign up to have Rudy send birthday cards to their favorite little humans and pet birthday cards to their pets. Also, because Rudy the canine-narrator is based on my real-life dog, we made a stamp out of Rudy’s paw so he can “paw-tograph” books at book signings. We’ve authorized kids in six different cities to be paw-thorized paw-tograhers. They have a stamp and a notarized letter that lets them sign copies on behalf of Rudy. And I spend more time than I’d like to admit thinking of dog-related puns.
TBD: Have you learned anything about picture books from being a teacher?
RE: No one knows better than teachers how important it is to read to kids as often and as early as possible. I’m hoping that as both a teacher and children’s book author, I can find creative ways to help more parents read to their children in ways that encourage a love of books and develop early reading skills. We’ve already put a reading guide on the website that describe some skills any adult can help kids develop, and we’re working on more materials now.
TBD: What was it like working with an illustrator?
RE: In most cases, the publisher buys the book and then chooses the illustrator, so our experience is unusual, but in this case I pitched the book as a team with illustrator, Ginger Seehafer. The two of us are longtime friends–we met about 20 years ago as the only female caricature artists at a Six Flags theme park. That was the end of my career as an artist, but Ginger went on to become a top professional illustrator, doing work for big companies like Glade, Tropicana, and Hotels.com, all the way down to small companies just getting started. She had done my sample cover art when I was pitching See Me After Class, so I knew how good she was at turning verbal ideas into pictures without losing anything in translation. While discussing the book, we kicked ideas back and forth in both text and visual form until we came up with a final product. My description or text might spark an idea for Ginger, or she might send a picture that gave me an idea for a line in the book.
TBD: How did you determine how much text and how much picture would be on every page?
RE: We have a pretty good sample size of kids in the 2-6 year old age range, so for early drafts we just thought about what they would understand. Then we worked with the editors at Sky Pony, Jenny Pierson and Julie Matysik, who had experience with children’s books and helped get the book into its final form.
TBD: What you want readers to take away from this book?
RE: We hope it will help older siblings adjust to having a new baby in the house–and reassure them that it’s okay to have mixed feelings about sharing attention with another little human. (From what I’ve heard, I was horrible when my sister was born, and now we are best friends.) We also want to calm the nerves of new parents whose dogs used to be the baby of the family and who are now experiencing “pet parent guilt” as they find themselves juggling vet and pediatrician visits, dog feeding and baby feeding, and yeah… maybe have forgotten to clip the dog’s nails for a while, okay?
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for picture book writers?
RE: Young children read books differently than adults do. Adults form a mental picture of the action as they read the words. Kids mostly look at the pictures while someone reads the words aloud to them, so the picture has to tell part of the story. Ginger and I learned this the hard way. There was a page in the book where we had put an exclamation point over Rudy’s head to show that he was surprised. In the first round of comments, the editors pointed out that punctuation marks don’t mean anything to kids who can’t read yet.
Roxanna Elden has been a teacher for eleven years and is the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. Her inspiration for Rudy’s New Human came from watching her dog, Rudy Elden, as he adjusted to having a new baby human in the house. She lives in Miami, Florida, with Rudy and his (now two!) little humans.
Ginger Seehafer is an illustrator who works as a commercial storyboard and
concept artist in the Chicagoland area. She studied at the American Academy of Art and started her art career as a caricature artist at Six Flags Great America. Ginger loves making art that inspires joy and creativity, especially in children who may become future artists themselves. She lives with her husband, two little humans, and two cats in Roselle, Illinois.
Rudy Elden has been a professional dog for eight years and is making his literary debut as the canine narrator of Rudy’s New Human. He likes lunchmeat, cheese, long naps, and medium-length walks.
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We first met Josh Funk at the New England SCBWI Conference. (If you’re not a member of this group and you’re interested in books for kids, as soon as you’re done reading this piece and sharing it with everyone you know, go join that group. If you haven’t been to one of their conferences, ditto.) We were struck with Josh’s fabulous combination of goofiness and seriousness. It’s something we aspire to at The Book Doctors. And when we found out his debut picture book was going to be dropping, we had a wonderful wave of serious goofiness come over us. It’s called Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, and it’s a ripping barnburner full of outlandish action, heroic and dastardly characters, roller coaster rhymes and some absolutely fabulous illustrations by Brendan Kearney. So we thought we’d sit down with Señor Funk and see what’s new on Funk Island.
To read this interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: First of all, congratulations. What did it feel like when you saw that first box of books arrive and you tore it open and there it was, your own baby book?
Josh Funk: Ahh, the Back to the Future moment: “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”
Well, I didn’t exactly have the ‘open the box moment’ that you see in the movies (or at least that one movie). The first physical copy of Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast that I got a copy of was the one the Sterling sales rep gave to Porter Square Books (in Cambridge, MA). I got a tweet from a friendly bookseller at PSB who said she found my book, so I immediately rushed to Cambridge.
The first thing I noticed was the amazing design. I knew it was going to have an embossed cover with foil, but it was really stunning. The book creaked a little when I opened it. I had seen a digital copy, but the clarity of the images on the pages was overwhelming compared to seeing it on the screen. And I think it smelled a little bit like maple syrup.
And then I jumped around giddily for about ten minutes before the booksellers asked me to leave out of fear I was scaring away all of their customers.
TBD: Why in the name of all that’s good and holy would you choose to get into the publishing business? Have you had your head examined recently? Been checked for brain parasites?
JF: Haven’t had my head examined lately. It’s possible I’m housing parasites. But the real reason is that I always read a lot of books to my kids. One day I thought, ‘I can do this.’
But once I joined my first critique group, then attended my first Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, I realized I had a lot to learn. But I also noticed that the kidlit community is so warm and welcoming and just plain fun. I quit my fantasy football leagues and started taking writing more seriously.
I’d like to think that even if I never sold a book, I’d still be happy just to be a part of the kidlit world.
TBD: How did you go about getting a book contract not only for Lady Pancake, but also for your next two books which are coming out?
JF: In the May of 2013, I gave up on trying to acquire a literary agent. I was getting almost no responses to my queries. Out of 35 queries for Lady Pancake, 1 agent responded with a rejection implying she read it (or at least read the title). The other 34 were made up of 10 form rejections and 24 black holes. I felt I was better than that, so I submitted Lady Pancake to 10 publishers via snail mail.
Around the same time, there was an open submission period to Scholastic via author/illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s Inkygirl blog. The Scholastic editor was looking for material suited for ages 0-5, and the only manuscript I had written for that age group was Pirasaurs! (most of my picture books are geared toward kids ages 4-8).
And then as late summer rolled around, I finished revising another manuscript (Dear Dragon) and decided to send it out to publishers that accepted submissions via email and online form.
By early November, Scholastic told me they were taking Pirasaurs! to acquisitions, Dear Dragon had garnered interest from two small publishers, and Sterling made an offer for Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast. All of that, plus a personal recommendation from a friend helped me obtain representation with an (awesome) agent. Over the next two months, my agent finalized the deals with Sterling and Scholastic and found a home for Dear Dragon at Penguin/Viking.
And that’s how I got an agent and sold three picture book manuscripts between November of 2013 and January of 2014. I know it’s a non-traditional path, but I feel extremely fortunate with the way it worked out.
TBD: Hasn’t anyone told you that rhyming books don’t sell? How did you overcome this ridiculous idea, and why do you think people keep saying that?
JF: Oh, boy. I have thought about this a LOT. Many rhyming picture books get published every year. So why do people say not to write in rhyme? Why is there this stigma? Well, there’s a single simple reason.
It’s very easy to write bad rhyme.
And lots of people do (please note that if you’re reading this and you like to write rhyming picture books, I’m not talking about you).
Everyone grew up reading and loving Dr. Seuss. Therefore, many people think that picture books are supposed to rhyme. When they start writing picture books, that’s how they write them. This includes me.
It’s a flawed way of thinking. Not everyone is cut out to write rhyming picture books. It’s actually rather difficult. I personally believe that a good rhyming picture book has an added level of charm. But there are so many mistakes you can make when writing a rhyming picture book (mostly to do with rhythm, all of which I’ve discussed in depth on my website and while leading workshops).
But here’s the problem. When a literary agent receives a query for a rhyming picture book manuscript, there’s a 99% chance that it’s bad rhyme. And it’s not worth the agent’s time to read 99 bad rhyming manuscripts, just to get to the one good one. And I completely understand and agree with that policy. Add to that the fact that it’ll be nearly as hard for an agent to sell a rhyming manuscript to an editor. I truly believe that this is why my query response rate was so utterly abysmal (in retrospect, I shouldn’t have said that the manuscript rhymed in the query).
I overcame this hurdle by first worked very hard to improve my rhyming, spending lots of time reverse-engineering critique partners’ comments.
Second, I bypassed agents. An agent is (rightfully) concerned with a writer’s entire body of work and career. If you submit a single rhyming manuscript embedded in an email query and that’s all they have to go on, it doesn’t make you a particularly enticing prospective client. But an editor is more concerned with a single manuscript. It’s not that they don’t care about you or your career, but if they like a manuscript, rhyming or not, that’s all they have to commit to.
I figured I’d have better odds of someone actually reading my manuscript at a publishing house. And at least in this case, I was correct.
TBD: What are some of your favorite things about being a professional author? What are some of the most horrifying things about being a professional author?
JF: I love getting to meet fun people. Like other awesome authors I admire. And super cool teachers and librarians like those in the Nerdy Book Club. Seeing my son’s face the first time someone asked me for an autograph (part confusion, part amazement, part pride) – that was pretty cool. I also get to travel a little more than I used to.
Horrifying? I guess a Misery-type situation would be horrifying. Other than that, I’m all peaches and roses.
TBD: We are big lovers of pancakes and French toast around here. I, myself, leaned toward the pancake. Olive, our eight-year-old, often leans toward the French toast. I think you can divide all of humanity into these two categories. How did you come up with this fantastic idea for a book?
JF: One Saturday morning, I asked my kids what they wanted for breakfast. One said, “Pancakes.” The other said, “French toast.” “Pancakes.” “French toast.” “Pancakes!” “French toast!”
While the arguing continued, I checked the kitchen, and as you might have expected, all we had were waffles. To top it off (literally and figuratively), we had enough maple syrup left to fill a single square on a waffle grid.
It was on the way to the diner that I came up with the idea.
TBD: What was it like working with your editor? Illustrator? Agent?
JF: Zaneta Jung (my editor at Sterling) is terrific. We had one phone conversation discussing her revision notes, went back and forth for a week over email finalizing the manuscript, and that was pretty much it. Zaneta (pronounced ‘zuh-net-ta’) has so much energy and excitement for kids’ books. She has a great eye for picking out illustrators, too. She definitely had a hand in finding Brendan Kearney.
Like many author/illustrator relationships, Brendan and I didn’t really talk much (or at all). Rumor has it that the publishers like it this way. Author talks to editor editor talks to art director art director talks to illustrator. This way, the publisher maintains complete control of the message (good or bad). I’ve had nothing but good things to say about Brendan’s work on Lady Pancake, which I think have been relayed to him. I’ve had a handful of quick conversations with Brendan over Google chat, but that’s about it.
My agent, Kathleen Rushall, is a rock star! I was extremely fortunate to sign with her while she was actively building her picture book list. She represents picture books through young adult at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency and is strong in every aspect you’d want from an agent. She has a fabulous editorial eye, she has a good sense of what particular editors are looking for, she knows the business and contracts side, she’s extremely communicative, and she’s a genuine pleasure to work with. We, her clients, affectionately refer to ourselves at #TeamKrush. We even have a logo designed by author Jessie Devine for PitchWars.
TBD: What do you see is the value of going to a writer’s conference? And specifically how has being a member of SCBWI helped you in your career and as a person?
JF: I think going to a writer’s conference is valuable at many levels of your career. If you’re brand new to the writing world, you’ll be able to learn the basics. It’s important to learn not only the craft of writing, but also about the industry and its expectations (e.g. picture book manuscripts should be around 300-500 words).
Once you’ve learned the basics, you might meet people who will ultimately become your critique partners (this has happened to me).
Perhaps you’ll read a picture book manuscript at an event’s open mic session, which will validate that you’re on the right track (also happened to me).
Maybe you’ll have a good time, make some friends, and get to watch the one-of-a-kind #Pitchapalooza led by The Book Doctors (again, happened to me).
Conferences avail the opportunity to connect with agents and editors for critiques or casual conversations (networking is so important).
SCBWI kickstarted everything for my writing life. In 2012, I attended my first New England SCBWI Regional Conference as one of about 700 attendees. And in 2016, I’ll be co-coordinating the conference alongside Heather Kelly, writer and founder of The Writers’ Loft (planning is already heavily underway for next spring’s event).
In 2016, we’re trying something new. We thought it might be nice to hear from (and get face time with) leading educators and booksellers. We’re bringing in a panel tentatively called “The Voice of Reading” with Elizabeth Bluemle (author, bookseller, blogger at PW’s Shelftalker), Donalyn Miller (teacher, author of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, Nerdy Book Club co-founder), Susannah Richards (professor, expert in all things children’s literature), and John Schumacher (AKA Mr. Schu, school librarian, newly appointed Ambassador of School Libraries for Scholastic Book Fairs).
SCBWI has helped me so much in such a short period, I’m grateful for the opportunity to volunteer my time to plan the 2016 (and 2017) NE Regional Conferences.
TBD: I hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JF: Keep writing. When you finish a manuscript, write the next one. It’ll be even better than the last. Networking is half the battle. I’ve written a 12-Step Guide to Writing Picture Books available (for free) on my website here.
TBD: And finally, how do you keep it so funky?
JF: I eat lots of candy corn. I wear Old Spice deodorant. And I’m 17% psychic.
Josh Funk is the author of Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast (Sterling), available now. Josh is also the author of the forthcoming picture books Dear Dragon(Viking/Penguin 2016), Pirasaus! (Scholastic 2017), and more. Josh spends his days as a software engineer writing Java code and Python scripts, and his nights and weekend drinking Java coffee and writing picture book manuscripts, alongside his wife, children, and assorted pets and monsters. Josh is a board member of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA, and the co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conferences. Find out more about Josh, his books, his schedule for public appearances, and more at www.joshfunkbooks.com and on Twitter at @joshfunkbooks.
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The Book Doctors were lucky enough to get to keynote the New England chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. If you are in any way, shape, or form interested in writing a book for kids, you’re crazy not to hook up with this organization. There’s so many smart, encouraging, inspiring, learned people both teaching workshops and attending them. This year we were fortunate enough to meet one of the founders of SCBWI, Stephen Mooser, himself the author of over 60 books. So we thought we’d pick his brain about the intersection of books, kids and writing. To read on the Huffington Post click here.
The Book Doctors: How did you get started as a writer?
Stephen Mooser: I have a degree in film from UCLA and another from UCLA in Journalism so though I was not a very good filmmaker, I discovered that what I really liked was stories, and had always been writing stories as I grew up. After a three year stint in various jobs, including two of those years looking for treasures in Utah and Panama, also unsuccessfully, I got a job writing a reading program for a major publisher. Over five years I wrote almost 250 books for a program that, after a run in schools, became the basis for Learning Company’s Reader Rabbit — also at that job I met a fellow writer, Lin Oliver, and together we started the SCBWI in 1971.
TBD: What were your favorite books growing up, and why?
SM: I loved adventure — so Treasure Island may have been my all time favorite book, but I also read lots of science fiction, 2 newspapers every day, and lots of nonfiction, especially true stories of weird and strange events and people. Many of these interests eventually found their way into my books for children.
TBD: How did you get started in the book business?
SM: Writing the Reading Program and starting the SCBWI opened the door to publishing for children. Even from the organization’s early days I met generous and talented authors and agents who mentored me. Sid Fleischman became a mentor and lifelong friend and helped me with what became my first published book, 101 Black Cats, for Scholastic with illustrations by Quentin Blake.
TBD: How did you go about starting the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators?
SM: As I mentioned above I met Lin Oliver while we were writers on the Reading Program. We looked around for an organization to join and when we discovered there was nothing out there, we took out an ad in Writers Digest and a week later had our first 5 members. What we had not realized was what a wonderful community we had tapped into. The SCBWI, save for a small paid staff, is entirely made up of volunteers who run our 100 plus chapters around the world because they care about literacy and creating great books for children — without them we never would have grown to more than 22,000 members today.
TBD: Tell me about Class Clown Academy, it’s such a fun book!
SM: I have published more than 60 books for children, picture books, nonfiction, middle grade series and some novels, but when I began writing Class Clown Academya few years ago I found myself truly enjoying myself. Perhaps it was because I’d been a class clown myself, but primarily because I thought the short chapters that make up the book were really funny–my agent had described the manuscript as Wayside School meets Animal House–which I think is an apt description. I was disappointed then that my traditional publishers were not interested in the subject–because, as one said, teachers don’t like class clowns, and teachers buy books. Despite my protests that my Class Clowns just keep school on a light note and are not the disruptive troublemakers some confuse with a funny student. In any event I decided I wanted the book to find an audience and so put together a team of editors and designers, and an artist, and brought it onto the market.
TBD: What made you decide to develop an App for this book?
SM: Once I had the book I knew I needed to build a virtual school and so put together a team of animators and programmers and built and you can find the App in the Apple Store. The school has a very funny film in the CCA Theater called “Farts and You,” has a wacky science lab, a music room where you can play, and record, a concert on whoopee cushions and a student store where you can buy Class Clown Products — and, outside the Principal’s Office in the Diploma Mill you can print your own degree bestowing on you advanced class clown privileges. Over time I hope to organize an association of former class clowns and hold a convention. That should be quite an event, unruly, unpredictable and uproarious.
TBD: What do you think about the way the publishing business has changed since you first got into it?
SM: In some ways the changes have been profound–the consolidation of publishing houses into 4 or 5 giant corporations, and their desire to find and publish a blockbuster franchise such as Harry Potter and Hunger Games has been the most visible–but underneath it all the publishing houses are still populated by smart, dedicated editors who look for and publish wonderful books by some incredibly talented writers and artists. Writers and artists who in the past would have turned up their noses at the thought of writing a “kiddy book” have now discovered what a unique art form in particular a picture book can be. And the result is that we are in a Golden Age of children’s books.
TBD: What things do you see successful authors doing? Conversely, what are some of the mistakes you see writers make?
SM: To be a successful author today you have to also be an active advocate for your book. Publishers don’t have the staff or funds to properly promote any but the biggest books. Of course, you have to start by writing a good story.
I suppose one mistake writers make is writing for the current trend–if you even see there is a trend you are already too late. Write what makes you enjoy the process then, whether that sells or not, you have (1) had a good time and (2) learned a few things along the way that can only make you better at your craft.
TBD: What do you think is the value of a writer joining SCBWI?
SM: First, joining shows you are committed to better yourself as a professional, and you will immediately have access to scores of publications on every subject from lists of publishers and agents, to marketing tips, to ideas on craft and options regarding independent publishing. And of equal importance, you will find yourself part of a worldwide community of supportive writers and artists who can connect with in person at our many events or online.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have writers?
SM: My advice is for the new writer just entering the field. The competition is stiff–publishers get tens of thousands of manuscripts every year so you have to give them something that they have never seen before. I go to the movies once a week and I enjoy many of them, but most of them are just a variation on a theme–but every once in a while I see something that knocks me out–Star Wars, Pulp Fiction, Moonrise Kingdom were for me those films. If you come up with something fresh, whether a story idea or a character or an art style, you will sell that book even if you don’t have a track record or an agent. So, think hard, study hard and work hard and you will succeed–I promise you–in my forty plus years of children’s books I’ve seen that hundreds of times.
Stephen Mooser is the author of more than 60 books for children from picture book titles such as The Ghost with the Halloween Hiccups, to nonfiction, Lights! Camera! Scream!, series and chapter books, The All-Star Meatballs, The Treasure Hounds,The Creepy Creature Club, Goofball Malone, and novels such as The Hitchhiking Vampire and It’s A Weird, Weird School. His most recent title is Class Clown Academy which accompanies his interactive online virtual school. A former filmmaker and treasure hunter, many of his adventures have found their way into his books. Among his awards is The Christopher Medal for The New York Kids Book and a 2010 Eric Carle Honor Award as a Mentor. He is co-founder, with Lin Oliver, of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and currently serves as the organization’s President.