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Debut Picture Book Author, Ann Ingalls

I have known Ann Ingalls for only a year, but it feels like forever. Ann and I are friends and members of the same picture book critique group in Kansas City. So when she announced this summer that her debut picture book, THE LITTLE PIANO GIRL: THE STORY OF MARY LOU WILLIAMS, JAZZ LEGEND, would be published in January 2010 by Houghton Mifflin, we were all thrilled.

Ann has graciously agreed to answer a few questions about her path to publication.

JJS: Ann, thanks for joining us. Tell us a little about you. What caused you to want to be a writer?

AI: My dad used to take my siblings and me to the library each week. We could check out as many books as we liked. Our grandmother and Aunt Dorothy bought us books for Christmas, something I still do for my loved ones. I read for hours every single day.

When I got to college, my professors said that I had a talent for writing and storytelling. I don’t think I ever realized that before. I got lots of A’s. It was one of the first times I ever realized I was good at something besides doing cartwheels and the splits.

JJS: How did you get the idea to write about Mary Lou Williams?

AI: I had written an alphabet picture book called “J is for Jive.” I sent it to the Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors for a read. Bill Paprota, president of that organization at that time, suggested I take a look at Mary Lou Williams for the letter W. The more I read about her, the more intrigued I became. I spoke to Maryann [Macdonald, Ann’s sister and co-author] and we agreed to collaborate. We shared the research, shared the responsibility of looking for an agent, shared the responsibility of writing and editing and looking for endorsements. We have written and sold other work so we knew how we could successfully do this.

JJS: How did you find your editor?

AI: Wendy Lawton at Books & Such was my agent at the time. She sent LITTLE PIANO GIRL around to about a dozen publishers. Several publishers were interested but didn’t think Mary Lou Williams was well enough known. That really is the reason we wrote the book. Though there are two biographies written about her for adults, none were written for children.

JJS: What has the editorial process been like?

AI: Erica Zappy at Houghton Mifflin has been my editor. From our first communication via email, she has been positive about the project, even sharing comments from others on the editorial staff, saying things like, “It has become a real favorite around here.” She worked tirelessly to find just the right illustrator. Erica looked at many illustrators’ work for about a year until she was able to snag Giselle Potter, who I think brings just the right touch to the work. I was lucky enough to meet Giselle in Kansas City at the DNA Litfest that Reading Reptile [children’s indie bookstore] holds annually. That was a huge thrill for me. [Sidenote: I love Giselle Potter!]

JJS: How long did it take, from submission to publication?

AI: LITTLE PIANO GIRL was submitted in the fall of 2006. We received contracts within about 3 months. It took one full year to find an illustrator and another full year to complete the images. It has taken another year to print and promote the book.

Serendipitously, it will be released on the centennial year of Mary Lou Williams’ birth. As a result, the Lincoln Center, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the American Jazz Museum and the Kennedy Center will all be having special events in her honor.

JJS: Very cool! How has your story changed over time?

AI: It changed hugely over time. We knew we wanted to show that Mary Lou Williams was a musical prodigy and that she supported her family financially by the time she was about 8 years of age. We wanted readers to see that hard work and talent can allow one to rise above his/her circumstances. We also wanted anyone reading the book to feel that race and gender are not barriers to success. I hope we’ve achieved that.

JJS: How are you promoting your book?

AI: So far, I’ve been contacting schools, libraries, colleges, assisted living facilities, you name it, about giving presentations. About half the time, those responsible for an event will schedule something. I have to be honest and say that since I’m unknown, many people are not willing to take a chance. The uncertain economy has also played a part in that many schools have less money for these types of events.

JJS: Anything you’d do differently next time?

AI: Next time I would not bring any water or coffee anywhere near my computer. My cat, Harry, lunged across my desk and spilled just enough to kill my computer. Naughty boy!

JJS: I know you write picture books. Any other genre? And what’s next for you?

AI: I write poems, prayers, meditations, and I have written some teacher competency exams and ACT prep exams. I hope someday to write a middle grade book and a murder mystery. I have the victim and the murderer all figured out. Now…how to get from the beginning to the very grisly end?

I am currently working with a different writing partner on a book of poetry, and I will continue to write for Highlights and High Five, as I find that to be very satisfying work.

JJS: Thanks for your time, Ann. And have fun with the launch of your first book!

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