David Henry Sterry

Author, book doctor, raker of muck

David Henry Sterry

Tag: kids books

Peter Reynolds, Picture Book Master, Talks to The Book Doctors about Books, Kids, Writing, Twins & How to Get Published Successfully

We met Peter Reynolds at the New England Society for Children Book Writers and Illustrators Conference, when he gave one of the best talks we ever heard.  Whimsical and serious, passionate and jovial, wise and yet curious, Mister Reynolds was everything you’d want in a wildly successful picture book writer.  Plus, he was inspiring.  Much like his books.  The Dot, which has become a classic, is deceptively simple.  Like all great books, it works on many levels.  It can be read as a simple romp.  It is also a child’s coming-of-age story.  On a deeper level it’s about Art, how people become artists, and how the Artist torch is passed from one generation to the next.  So we thought we’d sit down with him and have a little chat about kids, writing, art, and life.  By the way, if any writer has an interest in writing a book for kids, all the way up to Young and New Adult, you’re crazy not to join the SCBWI, and going to their conferences.  They have chapters all over the country.  They are awesome.

The Book Doctors: How did you get into the business of professionally writing books for kids?

1IQEfSIQEuyTY94stlBnnB9RcYwx_ak_0cqvdhRgzUEcpP_mOKydlrGatExgba9W0ahcQ3pcZCo76o-hXMb8n1VgUO7RrMQMiw=s0-d-e1-ft preynolds21HiRes_approvedPeter Reynolds: I took the Long and Winding Road at the junction of Serendipity and Daydreaming. So many things “set the stage” for me being a writer for children (and grown up children), but I owe a lot to my daughter, Sarah Reynolds whose voracious appetite for stories demanded that I start coming up with stories to supplement what we could fit on her shelves or take from the library.  Writing for her reset my creativity compass. You can get lost among the forests, swamps, and thickets of possible plots and characters, but she helped me focus on telling her a story- and instinctively I felt a need to give her something worthy of her intelligence and perhaps a scrap or two of wisdom I had clumsily gathered along the way.

TBD:  Teachers have played such a big part in your development as an artist (& a human it would seem), why do you think we undervalue teachers so radically & horribly in our society?

PR: How long do we have? Seriously, I could go on for days on this subject.  I actually think most of us DO value the role of teachers, but we allow politicians and policy makers–who spend little to no time with children in learning environments–to strip away the resources and flexibility for great teachers to “do their thing.” If our government could control restaurants the way they do schools, you’d find Gordon Ramsey working as a fry cook at McDonalds.  America takes pride in being independent and innovative. Our public education system-being a system–inherently strives to be efficient and in doing so, chops out all the “messy bits.” It’s this very “fringy” stuff that is required for innovation.

Book Doctors, you’ve inspired me to go out and hug the nearest teacher and cheer them on. Actually, the creative teachers DO know how to sneak in the good stuff. That, combined with the fact that technology is getting cheaper and into the hands of kids, is about to transform radically the world of schools as we know them.

TBD:  How do you go about developing a picture book story?  What’s your process, from idea through publication?

PR: We should have booked a week long Caribbean cruise. Here’s the nutshell version: My “story radar” goes off, I jot the idea down, and sometimes just one image or even a rough version of what the cover might look like. I roughly storyboard the images and add captions. I share with a few people. I read it out loud. Finesse and tweak. Then I share it with my agent, Holly McGhee at Pippin Properties who is a fabulous editor, thinker and guide. Then it’s on to find the right publisher. Once the book has a “home,” I work with the editor and art director to refine. The sales team gets into the mix when it comes time to confirm or change the title of the book and create the cover. When we’re all happy, it goes off to the printer and the long wait begins before getting that first preview copy. It may be a few months after that before the book shows up on bookshop shelves. That whole process can be squeezed into a year, but most often–from spark to finish–it can be about two years.

TBD:  You seem to have many projects going on, how do you juggle all of them, running your business, and having a life?

PR: I do indeed, but I have great people around me to help get it all done. I have my wonderful team in Boston, FableVision, my bookshop staff at The Blue Bunny, my agents at Pippin Properties, among other great friends and colleagues. Balance though is key. I’ve worked hard in the past few years to get the formula right. Less is more. Less travel, more time with my 3 year old son. I have a new studio called The Sanctuary which, in theory, is my very own thinking and creativity temple, but I do occasionally find my son sprawled out painting mostly on sheets of paper, but also the floor. He actually reminds me of what freedom really looks like.

TBD:  I’m so jealous that you have a twin.  What’s that like?

PR: For me, it’s amazing. We both feel blessed. Not sure how you “singletons” do it. The journey is so much easier when you have a twin to share it with. While we are technically “identical” twins,  Paul is not a “duplicate” of me. He is the being who is connected to me and able to extend my sensing of the universe (and vice verse.) It’s like two spaceships shooting in opposite directions to explore the universe, but in constant communication and transmitting to the one database back at ground control.

Our advice to everyone, if you don’t have a twin- go out there and find one!

TBD:  So many picture book authors stress the lesson they’re trying to teach kids instead of character & story. Could you address this?

PR: I think that is a common trap. That “being on the nose” is a fear that kids won’t “get it.” Kids are mighty smart and they can smell “a lesson” a mile way. Hey, sometimes it’s a place to start, so whatever works for you, but then try to find a more creative way to get the audience to “connect the dots” after they’ve closed the book.

TBD: Why do you think there is a prejudice against rhyme in the picture book world?

PR: Well, on a practical note, rhyming books make it difficult to translate into the many other languages on the planet. It would be a real doozy to find equivalent words for “kale” and “pail” in Persian.  Having said that, I think you can put that on ignore and just make a rhyming story that works. Rhyming books, done well, are a lot of fun to read aloud. My upcoming book collaboration, YOU & ME is a rhyming delight from Susan Verde. Do what makes you happy and the kids around you.

TBD: What are the greatest joys & frustrations about writing picture books?

PR: It is mostly JOY. I absolutely love sharing my stories with so many people around the world. Seeing the “ripples” that just one story can make is a “wow.” International Dot Day is a great example. Over a million teachers and students put down their regular work and tests on Sept 15th to celebrate creativity.

 

The frustration is having to schedule creativity. The publisher might have a deadline for a book due in September which means that I have to be ready to roll and really feel it in January. Trying to find that “surfer’s perfect wave” in the middle of a cold, winter’s day might not happen.  Eventually, a wave appears and you ride it in to shore.

TBD: How did The Dot become such a great success?

PR: The Dot was my way to come to rescue of children (and adults) whose creativity and confidence had been steamrolled. As it turns out, there are plenty of folks facing this challenge. While it often gets labeled as an “art book,” the idea is really about bravery. Bravery is a universal concept. That helps a book find a big audience.

TBD: What advice do you have for beginning writers trying to break into the picture book racquet?

PR: Start with a real story. A startling memory of your own. A wee bit of advice your Dad shared. A wish you have for yourself – or for the world. Find the idea you know or believe in. One that you’d be very sorry if you lost along the way.

Find your network. Could just be your “twin,” or it could be a gaggle of Twitter friends, or the kids at the local library, or an organization like SCBWI .

Be brave. Make ONE book where you throw out all the rules, all the advice you have been given, all the notes in all the writing workshops, and create something just for YOU.

The most important advice I can give is this: KEEP GOING, NEVER STOP.

I’m planning on doing the same.

Peter H. Reynolds is the author and illustrator of the Creatrilogy series which includes The Dot, Ish, and Sky Color (Candlewick Press/Walker Books) Other books in his collection include I’m Here (Simon & Schuster), The North Star (Candlewick Press/Walker Books), as well as many collaborative works, which include The Judy Moody series (Candlewick Press/Walker Books) with Meghan McDonald. He is also co-founder of FableVision, a children’s media studio in Boston. His family runs The Blue Bunny Book & Toy Store in his hometown of Dedham, Massachusetts.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2010).

Jane Yolen, America’s Hans Christian Anderson, on Rejection, Reading Out Loud & the Keys to Writing Great Books for Kids

To read on Huffington Post click here.

One of the great things about attending a great writer’s conference is that you get to bask in the glow, and imbibe the wisdom of, great writers.  The New England Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference was just such a conference.  For anyone who loves writers, writing, books, and/or wants to be a writer of books, to be in the company of great thinkers and writers who are willing and able to articulate some of the truths that they have uncovered along the way is like being invited backstage at a convention for wizards, gods and goddesses.  Since this was our first SCBWI where we were going to present, we were a little nervous.  But everyone was so welcoming, kind and nice.  And one of the true gems of our time at the conference was getting to listen to Jane Yolen talk about writing, books and never giving up.

The Book Doctors:  Let’s start at the very beginning: how the heck did you get into the crazy business of writing books for kids?
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Jane Yolen: I began as a journalist for my pocketbook and a poet for my soul. Turns out I was a lousy journalist, so began working for (in order) Newsweek (research department), This Week magazine (researching facts checking), Saturday Review (in the production department,) Gold Medal Paperback Books (an Associate Editor go-fer and first reader).

Took a children’s book writing course, sold a nonfiction book for middle grades on women pirates and a rhymed concept picture book both to David McKay & Co, and they came out in 1963. The rest is history.

So in order to make a living, I worked for a children’s book packager for a year, then Knopf as Asst. Children’s Book editor for three and a half years, selling six more books to Macmillan, Seabury, and Funk & Wagnalls children’s books departments, went to Europe in a VW bus with my husband for almost a year (well, it WAS the 60’s after all!). Came home eight months pregnant, moved to Mass. and was a freelance writer for real after that.

That’s the short form.

TBD: You seem so unbelievably prolific, how do you find the time to do everything you’re doing?

JY: I love my work, have always been able to lose myself in stories and poems, and have been incredibly lucky as well.

TBD: Do you find there are difficulties with producing so much work?

JY: Of course. No one publisher sees me as “their” author, which means I often get short shrift in the promotion department. Also, it’s hard to sustain a body of work that’s spread about so widely and wildly dissimilar.  When you realize my best selling books are Owl Moon, the How Do Dinosaur books, and Devil’s Arithmetic, how can the public make sense of that! I have fans who think I only write picture books or only write SF and fantasy. I have fanatics of my poetry and are stunned to find out I write prose, too!

TBD: In your incredibly inspirational keynote speech at the annual New England Society for Childrens Writers and Book Illustrators, you mentioned that, despite having won so many awards and published so many books, you sometimes will get five rejection letters in a day.  I found that strangely and incredibly comforting.  How do you deal with rejection?

JY: Knowing that an editor is not rejecting me but is rejecting the work, helps. Remembering that Owl Moon was turned down by five editors, that Sleeping Ugly was turned down by thirteen, and they are both still in print 25 plus years later. Knowing that Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was turned down by 29 publishers and then won the Newbery.  That Dr. Seuss’s To Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street by even more publishers and almost 50 years later is still a bestseller also helps. And, as my late husband used to remind me, it’s harder to sell a great book to a publisher than a good one.

TBD: What you think are the keys to writing a successful picture book?

JY: Compression, lyricism, child-centeredness, and leaving room for glorious pictures.

TBD: How you go about promoting and marketing your books?

JY: I speak at conferences, do library readings, am loudly on FaceBook and Twitter, work with SCBWI, do interviews with anyone who asks (!), have Susan Raab as a publicist, write essays for places like Huffington Post, send a poem a day to 400+ subscribers, etc etc. Just like everyone else, I scramble. At 75 my scrambling is a bit slower than it’s been before, but it doesn’t stop me as much as it should!

TBD: Does being a poet influence your writing, both in picture books, and in longer works of prose?

JY: Absolutely. In picture books, it helps with the lyricism and compression that is so much a part of good picture book writing. But it is also a hallmark of my novel writing as well. I read everything aloud, novels as well as picture books. I believe the eye and ear are different listeners. So as writers, we have to please both.

TBD: What is the editing process like when you’re working on a picture book?

Reading it aloud over and over. Reading it to my critique group and listening to what they say. Showing it to my daughter Heidi Stemple who is a fabulous (and thorough-going) editor with great judgment. (As I used to show it to my husband when he was alive.) Trusting them and my agent to be honest with me.

TBD: I hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?

JY: Join SCBWI, the best money you will ever spend. Don’t be afraid to go to conferences,critique groups, have a beta reader (or several), but in the end trust your own judgment. Read what’s out there, then read and read some more to get a sense of how your work runs with or exceeds the pack. Don’t ever write just for a trend or fad because it’s a moving target and by the time you get your work out there, the trend or fad is gone. Dig deep, don’t be afraid to write fiercely, expose your heart. Also while you must remember publishing is a business and has to make money to stay in business, that shouldn’t be your motivation. Writing the book in your heart should be. But still you need to go armored into the publishing world, understand it, not be overwhelmed by it. Consider the editor your voice at the company while always being aware that she is also EMPLOYED by the company. It’s a tightrope for them. Don’t expect they will necessarily be on your side in every battle, even as they publish you. Don’t treat the editor as an adversary, but also don’t expect her to be your best friend. When doing business, put on your shark hat. When writing, put on your storytelling hat.

AND DON’T FORGET TO HAVE FUN AND TELL GREAT STORIES.

Jane Yolen, often called “the Hans Christian Andersen of America,” is the author of over 360 books, including OWL MOON, THE DEVIL’S ARITHMETIC, and HOW DO DINOSAURS SAY GOODNIGHT. The books range from rhymed picture books and baby board books, through middle grade fiction, poetry collections, nonfiction, and up to novels and story collections for young adults and adults.

A graduate of Smith College, with a Masters in Education from the University of Massachusetts, she teaches workshops, encourages new writers, lectures around the world. Her books and stories have won an assortment of awards–two Nebulas, a World Fantasy Award, a Caldecott Medal, the Golden Kite Award, three Mythopoeic awards, two Christopher Medals, a nomination for the National Book Award, and the Jewish Book Award, among many others. She is also the winner (for body of work) of the Kerlan Award, the World Fantasy Assn. Lifetime Achievement Award, Science Fiction Poetry Association Grand Master Award, the Catholic Library’s Regina Medal,  the du Grummond Medal, and the Smith College Medal. She was the first woman to give the St Andrews University’s Andrew Lang lecture since the lecture series was started in 1927. Six colleges and universities have given her honorary doctorates. Also worthy of note, her Skylark Award–given by NESFA, the New England Science Fiction Association, set her good coat on fire. If you need to know more about her, visit her at jane.yolen.com.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2010). Arielle Eckstut has been a literary agent for 20 years at The Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. She is also the author of eight books and co-founder of the iconic brand, LittleMissMatched. David Henry Sterry is the best-selling author of 16 books, on a wide variety of subject including memoir, sports, YA fiction and reference. His books been translated into 10 languages, and he’s been featured on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.  They have taught their workshop on how to get published everywhere from Stanford University to Smith College. They have appeared everywhere from The New York Times to NPR’s Morning Edition to USA Today. Twitter: @thebookdoctors

Tegan Tigani, Kid’s Book Buyer: How to Successfully Publish Your Children’s Book

2013-06-13-tegan.jpg We first met Tegan Tigani a few years ago while we were on tour in Seattle. She was so excited to give us the grand tour of her kingdom: the Queen Anne Book Company kids section, where she is the book buyer. Her enthusiasm and passion for books was completely contagious, she was exactly the kind of evangelist you want selling your book. We’ve subsequently used her to edit several of our clients’ children’s books, and she is one of the most knowledgeable people we’ve met when it comes to books in general and kids books specifically. So we thought we’d pick her brain to find out some of the secrets to successfully publishing a children’s book.

THE BOOK DOCTORS: So, how did you get started in the ridiculous business of books?

TEGAN TIGANI: Serendipity!!! I’ve always loved reading, bookstores, and libraries; I volunteered and worked in my high school library back in the day. When I moved to Seattle from Rhode Island after college, I thought I was going to work in museums and education. (I studied History of Science in school.) My first day in town, the first place my then-boyfriend-now-husband took me was Queen Anne Books. As we left, new purchases in hand, I commented to him, “I’d love if I could get a little part-time job in a place like that until I find my real job.” The next day, the owners posted a sign that said “Book lover wanted.” I started working there that week. That was over 14 years ago.

TBD: Tell us what you do at Queen Anne Book Company.

TT: I am a bookseller and the Children’s Book Buyer. We all wear many hats, so I help with event coordination, website design, and all sorts of other things, but I spend most of my time recommending books, ringing up purchases, and meeting with publisher reps to decide what great new books we’ll carry in our kids’ and teen sections each season.

TBD: It’s been an incredible saga, what with the closing and re-opening at Queen Anne. What the heck happened?

TT: I wish I really knew! In April of 2012, a new owner bought Queen Anne Books, which had been beloved in the community for over 20 years. By the end of October 2012, she closed the store. After a truly sad holiday season, the community got the great news that a new owner and management team wanted to start a brand new bookstore in the location of the old Queen Anne Books, and Queen Anne Book Company was born. The new owners were able to hire four staff from Queen Anne Books, so we have some continuity even with our fresh, clean start.

TBD: What grabs you in a children’s book?

TT: In picture books, I tend to gravitate toward books that beg to be read aloud but also stand up to hours of flipping pages independently… I want something that uses clever, age-appropriate language and has illustrations that really contribute to the story. I find that good picture books are so crucial to readers’ developing comprehension; I love a book that makes the adult and child look at the picture and text again and really mull things over.
TBD: Why is there a prejudice in the picture book world against rhyming?

TT: Ha– I almost put “great rhymes” in my previous answer! So I don’t think there’s a prejudice against rhyming; I just think it’s very hard to do it right. If it’s not just right, you shouldn’t force it, so it’s better to go with prose. One of the biggest delights during my bookselling career was discovering Skippyjon Jones. I remember when that first came out, the rhymes were so good, we couldn’t stop reading it aloud to each other in the store. If you can get the rhythms of poetry to work in a kids’ book (Dr. Seuss!), it’s magical. If it’s not, even the youngest listeners will cock their heads, know something is off, and choose another book to read next time.

TBD: What mistakes do you see children’s book authors make?

TT: I have a very hard time with children’s books that are too preachy. Some kids and parents enjoy a concrete lesson, but most readers I know like to draw their own conclusions from books. I also wonder if some children’s book authors actually read their books aloud before they submitted them. Pacing and language are tremendously important in picture books, and I think reading aloud is one of the best ways to check if you’ve gotten it right.

TBD: What advice do you have for people who want to write a children’s book?

TT: Think about the audience. Before, during, and after, children’s book authors need to consider who they want to reach with their book. If they keep the audience in mind, voice, vocabulary, pacing, even subject matter will match, and the book will be more successful. My other piece of advice is to let the professional illustrators do the illustrations. I’m delighted by the layers of meaning well-done illustrations can add. The right illustrator can make a good book great.

TBD: Thanks, see you at the bookstore!

TT: Thanks, you too!

Tegan Tigani loves connecting readers and books, whether as bookseller and children’s book buyer at Queen Anne Book Company, tutor, freelance developmental editor, ghostwriter, editor of nwbooklovers.org, vice president of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, Seattle Book Examiner, blogger at tsquaredblog.blogspot.com, or party guest. When she isn’t reading or talking about books, she enjoys traveling, cooking, eating, and walking (sometimes all at the same time). She lives with her husband in Seattle.

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