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Children’s Author

Picture Book Author Diana Murray

Hey everyone,

Today we’ve been joined by children’s picture book author Diana Murray.

Thanks for stopping by, Diana!  How did you begin writing for children?

When I was eight years old, I wrote and illustrated my first book. Instead of trying to get it published, I buried it under a tree. I imagined that archeologists might find it someday and put it on display in some shiny, futuristic museum.

In college, I majored in psychology and (unofficially) minored in art. After that, I worked in the field of graphic design. When I left my job to stay home with my first daughter, I started reading her picture books. Lots and lots of picture books. I had never really been exposed to that genre before. I had never had that magical “picture book experience” as a kid. It felt wonderful to share those moments of bonding with my daughter. I began to fall in love with picture books and buy them by the dozens. I had picture books squeezed onto every shelf in my apartment (not to mention the chairs and tables). How did I not know about them before? They were the perfect blend of everything I adored–art, creativity, philosophy, psychology, humor, wordplay, quiet, conciseness–all in an attention-span-friendly, easy-to-share package.

After some fumbling around, I finally joined SCBWI around 2007. I started exchanging manuscripts with other writers, making some contacts, and learning the basics.

You’ve been published in lots of great children’s magazines.  Tell us about your magazine work.

When I started writing, I focused on picture books exclusively. But in 2008 I joined a great critique group and soon began to write more and more short poems. I got better at interpreting criticism and applying it to my own revisions, as well as offering constructive criticism to others. Slowly but surely, my form rejections turned into personal rejections with invites to submit again, and finally, acceptances. My first acceptance to a major children’s magazine came from Spider in 2010. Since then, I’ve sold twelve poems to Highlights for Children, Highlights High Five, and Highlights Hello, as well as one poem to Clubhouse Jr. It’s worth noting that some magazines take many months to respond to submissions, so the process can take awhile. “Unwelcome to Opposite Island” was the first poem I ever got to see in print. It was published in the July 2012 issue of Highlights. It was wonderful to see how the illustrator could bring it to life.

Your story, GRIMELDA, THE VERY MESSY WITCH, won the 2010 Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators’ Barbara Karlin Grant, awarded to an aspiring picture book author. Tell us about the story and your win.

The manuscript grew out of a concept I had for a quirky, messy character. The plot for the story kicked around in my mind for a few weeks, and once I started writing, it just poured out. Sometimes I forget this, but I was about seven months pregnant at the time! Anyway, I could tell from the reaction of my crit group that I might be onto something. I polished it up a bit and sent it off with my grant application. I got the call in early July. I didn’t pick up, as I assumed a telemarketer had been calling me all day. When I listened to the message, I nearly fell over in shock. It was just the confidence boost I needed. I felt like things were finally starting to come together. That was the first time I openly shared my secret passion with my family (not including my husband, of course, who had been supportive all along).

There’s a bit more about my experience winning the grant here: http://taralazar.com/2010/07/06/piboidmo-success-story/.

More recently, you landed an agent and sold your first THREE picture books! Can you give us some details?

When I read about my agent, who was new, I had a strong feeling that she might be “the one”. I queried her with GRIMELDA. In a couple of weeks, she wrote me back that she really liked it, was sharing it around, and that she wanted to see what I else I had. I selected five more manuscripts to send to her. After a great phone conversation, we decided to work together, with an initial focus on selling two picture books: GRIMELDA, THE VERY MESSY WITCH, and NED THE KNITTING PIRATE: A SALTY YARN.

There’s more about my experience getting an agent here: http://frolickingthroughcyberspace.blogspot.com/2012/09/how-diana-murray-got-her-agent-plus.html.

At this time, I can’t give too many specifics about what went down, exactly. But to sum things up, NED and GRIMELDA both sold pretty quickly. GRIMELDA sold in a two-book deal, so that will be my first experience writing a manuscript under contract. It’s extremely exciting!

What advice do you have for those who write poetry or picture books for children?

Read everything you can get your hands on in your genre, never stop learning, write what excites you, crit and be critted (both equally important), revise wisely, don’t get stuck on one manuscript, take chances, and have fun!

There’s some more advice here: http://laurasassitales.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/write-like-a-top-chef-with-diana-murray/.

Thanks for sharing a bit about your writing, Diana.  Good luck!
Thanks so much for having me, Jody, and congratulations on your new and upcoming releases!

Diana Murray is a picture book author and poet represented by Brianne Johnson at Writers House. She lives in the Bronx with her husband, two very messy children, and a goldfish named Pickle. http://www.dianamurray.com.

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Margo Sorenson, Children’s Author


Margo Sorenson is a children’s book author with 27 books to her name. Margo’s latest, ALOHA FOR CAROL ANN, was published by Marimba Books in April 2011.

Welcome, Margo! Glad you could join us.

Thank you, Jody! I’m very happy to be here.

Tell us about ALOHA FOR CAROL ANN. What’s it about?

This is the story of eight-year-old Carol Ann who so does NOT want to move to Hawaii, where everything is so strange and different, and she wishes she were back at her old school. How will she ever feel at home here?

Sounds fun. How did you find Marimba Books? Tell us about your publishing journey with them.

I first began writing ALOHA FOR CAROL ANN in 1989 (no, that’s not a typo!) and I would read the various versions aloud to my middle school students, who would make comments, trying to spare my feelings! I began submitting it to publishers, and it was rejected many, many times. When I’d get feedback from editors, I’d revise it again, and I’d ask my fellow teachers for help, as well. I believed in the story, because I’d seen it reenacted so many times during our ten years in Hawaii, and I wanted to share the aloha spirit that our family had found there. It’s so important not only to show kindness to others, making them feel welcome, but also to be willing to accept that kindness and that wonderful welcome. Coach John Wooden said, “You cannot live a perfect day until you do something for someone who will never be able to repay you.”

Twenty-two years later, I was still keeping an eye out for a publisher that I thought might be interested in the story, and lo, and behold, Marimba Books was founded, the perfect publisher for this story. I read about the founding of Marimba Books on the internet and researched the owners, Cheryl and Wade Hudson, who have an outstanding record in multicultural publishing with their other company, Just Us Books. I queried, was asked to send the manuscript, and the Hudsons acquired it, much to my and my family’s joy! They have been wonderful to work with, right from the very beginning, and they chose an illustrator, Priscilla Garcia Burris, who really made Carol Ann, the kids, and the beauty of Hawaii come to life on the pages.

Wow! Twenty-two years? You are the epitome of stick-to-itiveness!

Many people think a picture book author chooses her illustrator. Set the record straight for us. Did you know Priscilla Garcia Burris before CAROL ANN?

No, but I was familiar with her wonderful work and her national reputation as Illustrator Coordinator for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, so, needless to say, I was thrilled at the choice! She has truly made Hawaii come alive on the pages with her vibrant colors and empathetic renderings and has put in lots of touches that people who both live and visit there will recognize—touches that will make them smile—like the illustration in which Maile offers Carol Ann a spam musubi – yum!

You’ve written lots of books for children. Are they all picture books?

Of my 27 published books, only three are picture books: AMBROSE AND THE PRINCESS, AMBROSE AND THE CATHEDRAL DREAM, and ALOHA FOR CAROL ANN. The others are for readers ages 7-14, including FUNNY MAN, which was fortunate enough to be named a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award in Young Adult Fiction a few years ago. Because I taught middle and high school, I was familiar with that age group and their experiences, so that’s why they comprised my audience at the beginning of my writing journey. I am finding it’s a lot of fun to write word play and whimsy for younger readers, as well.

How long have you been writing seriously?

I wrote my first “book” at age 6, titled LEO AND BO-PEEP, and I illustrated it, too (unfortunately!). I still have it, and it makes me giggle. When I do school visits, the students always ask me this same question, so I show them the tattered and ancient “book,” much to their glee! Writing seriously didn’t begin until 1986 – and that writing was primarily articles about teaching for educational journals such as The English Journal and Independent School.

My first published book, in 1991, was one I co-authored with Anne Polkingharn, the wonderful and legendary librarian of the California K-8 school at which I was teaching, Harbor Day School. It was a reading record book with multiple activities for students to report on their reading, titled HOW TO SNEAK UP ON A GOOD BOOK (Perfection Learning), which is now out of print. At the same time, I had just begun working on ALOHA FOR CAROL ANN, and I was writing a work-for-hire for Bantam Sweet Dreams series, under my pseudonym Marcie Kremer, titled ALOHA LOVE (Bantam, 1994, out of print), a very “demure” teen romance about two debaters at Aina Hau School (Punahou School, where our daughters attended and where I taught) in Honolulu.

Based on the reading record book, I was offered a contract to write a new series for reluctant readers by Perfection Learning Corporation called Cover-to-Cover, and that snowballed into a total of twenty-one books for them, mostly fiction, but two non-fiction as well, TSUNAMI and HURRICANE, and five time-travel adventure-biographies. Writing for this audience was an exciting challenge, and I studied plotting by John Grisham, Nelson DeMille, and other adult thriller authors, and met with many reluctant readers to try and find out what would hook them into reading the next page. I also have written about 70 unpublished manuscripts (emphasis on the UN!), including YA, middle grade, and picture books, and I continue to revise and submit, revise and submit! When I retired early from teaching in 1994 because of our move to Minnesota, my time was freed up considerably—no more papers to grade or lessons to plan—not to mention that the long winters are perfect for writing!

What has been the most difficult part of the journey for you? The most rewarding?

The most difficult part of the journey for me has been to be patient and to be willing to recognize when some of my favorite words/characters/scenes/plots have to be cut. One of my favorite sayings about writing is one of the “Writer’s Commandments” from Ellen Kozak: “Thou Shalt Not Fall In Love With Thine Own Words.” I think all writers realize that it’s important to know when to put a manuscript away and then take it out to look at it later, with a clearer eye, but it’s not always fun to do that, either! It’s also daunting to field rejections and read (sometimes devastating) critiques, but, if we don’t keep revising and revising and submitting our manuscripts, we’ll never see them in the hands of young readers. Beryl Markham (WEST WITH THE NIGHT) once wrote, “Work and hope. But never hope more than you work.”

The most rewarding part of the journey is when I hear from young readers about one of my books that they’ve read. The reason we writers write is to try to create adventures on the page for our readers, and when those adventures resonate with them, it is very special. I thoroughly enjoy school visits, where I get to meet with young readers and talk with them about the writing process and about reading.

What are you working on next?

I’m always working simultaneously on several manuscripts – I find that it helps me to look at each one more objectively, instead of working on only one at a time. Right now, I’m working on a YA novel set in Italy and on three new picture books, as well as on six others that I’ve written in the last year. There’s always plenty of revising to do, and my wonderful and long-suffering critique partner and middle grade/early chapter book author Bonnie Graves has my back!

What’s the best part of being a children’s author?

I love to play with words, and, because books were among my best friends when I was growing up, I look forward to trying to create for young readers the same kinds of adventures I enjoyed reading. Kids are ready for new ideas. They embrace new horizons and enjoy being transported to new places and times, identifying with characters in books. The acclaimed author Virginia Hamilton once wrote, “Writing is what you know, remember, and imagine.” It’s so much fun to combine all those facets into a new story to share a new world with young readers.

Thanks, Margo! Much success to you and CAROL ANN!

Thank you so much for your invitation to be here, Jody! Mahalo nui loa!

Readers, learn more about Margo here.

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