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Critique Across Missouri

Hey, everyone,

Last week I had the opportunity to host four other picture book writers in my home to talk picture books. What fun!

We discussed characterization, pacing, story problems, illustration, the rule of three, emotional resonance, and lots more. We critiqued one another’s work and even heard a couple of original songs by one of the attendees.

The event was called Critique Across Missouri, and it was organized by Kim Piddington, Missouri’s RA for SCBWI. Several groups held similar sessions all over the state.

Thanks, Kim, for getting us started, and thanks to those of you who sat around my kitchen table last Wednesday morning!

Sue Gallion, Ann Ingalls, Shelly Long, Luanne Marten

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Children’s Author Blog Hop

Hey, everyone!
I’m excited to participate
in the Children’s Author Blog Hop. What’s a blog hop? Authors answer four
identical questions and then invite three more kidlit authors to join in. I was
delighted to be asked by my friend and fellow children’s author LAURA SASSI.
Here’s a bit about her:
Laura is a children’s
writer and former teacher. Her poems, stories, articles and crafts have
appeared in many publications including Highlights for Children, Cricket,
Ladybug, Spider, Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse and Clubhouse
Jr., FamilyFun, and Pack-O-Fun. She has a passion for playing with
words and rhyming and is delighted to announce that her first picture
book, GOODNIGHT, ARK, will be published by Zonderkidz, a Harper Collins Company
and is scheduled to debut in August 2014. She is represented by Lara Perkins of
the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Laura writes from her century-old home
in New Jersey where she lives with her awesome husband, two adorable kids, and
a black cockapoo named Sophie. She can be found on the web at:  www.laurasassitales.wordpress.com.
Thanks for asking me to participate, Laura! Here are my answers to the four blog hop questions.
I’m always thinking of a
new story, writing a new story, or thinking of and revising an old one. Lots of
times I’m doing all of those things at once. It’s good to have several projects
percolating! Right now I’m brainstorming an ending to a picture book I thought already had an
ending. Turns out, I was wrong! Endings are tough and soooo important! I’ll
stick with it until it’s just right.
The concept of this
particular picture book is what sets it apart. And the main character is
atypical, some might say quirky.
I love writing poetry, and
writing picture books is a lot like writing poetry, whether the texts rhyme or
not. Picture books are partly about choosing the very best word to propel the
story and partly about letting the illustrations do their thing. I love that
combination. I write for kids because I still remember what it feels like to be
a kid. I had a great childhood. I love the innocence of childhood, all the
possibilities and awe that come with being new to the world.
Getting the endings right!
Also, finding just the right editor/publisher for my work can be challenging.
Thank goodness I’ve got an agent to help me with that! [Shout out to Kathleen
Rushall! Woot!]
Without further ado,
please join me in celebrating the following three fabulous children’s authors.
NANCY VIAU is the author
of two nature-inspired picture books:  Look What I Can Do!, which School Library Journal calls
“wonderfully expressive” and “a gently affirming tale perfect for
parent-and-child sharing,” and Storm Song, 
a fun read-aloud filled with rhythmic text thatcaptures
the excitement of thunder, lightning, and rain. Viau
is also the author of the middle-grade novel Samantha Hansen Has
Rocks in Her Head. 
She lives
with her family in New Jersey, but loves to travel anywhere her frequent
flyer miles take her. You can follow Nancy at http://www.nancyviau.com/.
‘F’ with the words “get a tutor” on his college writing paper, and after that
he never thought he’d become a writer. But after spending twenty years as a
chemist, he knew his creativity could no longer be contained. He his first picture
book, Monster Needs A Costume,
illustrated by Wendy Grieb was recently released through Scarletta
Kids.  This is the first picture book in the Monster & Me
series (all of which will be illustrated by Wendy), with the second, Monster
Needs His Sleep
 due April 2014 and then Monster Needs A Christmas Tree set
for September 2014.  He has also recently signed a contract for Seaver
the Weaver
 which will be illustrated by Ben Hilts of The Hilts
Brothers and is planned for April 2015. Living in Massachusetts
with his wife and two little monsters, Paul has rediscovered his passion for
writing and looks forward to sharing his stories for years to come. Catch up with Paul at http://paulczajak.com/.

AMY DIXON grew up as one
of seven siblings, so the only peace and quiet she ever got was inside a book.
Once she had her own kids, she rediscovered her love for picture books at the
public library. It was the one place she knew all four of her kids would be
happy . . . and quiet. She writes from her home in Clovis, where she lives with
her four little inspirations and her marathon-running husband, Rob. MARATHON
MOUSE is her first picture book. Her second picture book, SOPHIE’S ANIMAL
PARADE, will be out from Sky Pony Press in Fall 2014. Find Amy online at http://www.amydixonbooks.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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Bridget Heos, Picture Book Author

What To Expect When You’re Expecting Larvae: A Guide for Insect Parents (And Curious Kids) (Lerner) is Kansas City author Bridget Heos’ first picture book, released this month. Bridget has joined us today to tell us about her book and her journey.

Welcome, Bridget, and congratulations on your new book! Tell us about it.

Well, up to now, all parenting guides have been for humans. That’s great…if you’re a human. What if you’re a fly? What if you’re a dragonfly? What if you’re a butterfly? Let’s widen the net. What if you’re anything ending in “fly?”
That’s who this book is for. And: children.
It teaches them all about larvae. (Larvae are any baby insects that don’t look like their parents.) It’s a great book for teachers teaching metamorphosis or insect units.

Sounds great! I saw much earlier versions of your manuscript, so I can’t wait to get my hands on the finished product.

Take us back a bit. When and how did you learn Lerner wanted your book?

Well, I’d sent it to 13 editors (a good, unlucky number!) Rejected! Then I sent it to my now agent Kelly Sonnack of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She took me on as a client and soon after let me know that Carol Hinz at Lerner was interested. It ended up selling in an auction, with Lerner offering a three-book deal. The next two books are What to Expect When You’re Expecting Pocket Babies and What to Expect When You’re Expecting Crocodilians. Carol–and Lerner—are awesome. They’re in Minneapolis. Being from the Midwest, I love that Minneapolis is a children’s book mecca. I hope to visit someday soon and soak it all in.

What have you learned along the way about publishing?

Well, it’s good to have an agent. Without Kelly, I’m confident I wouldn’t have sold any books. Also, she takes care of contracts and negotiations. And she’s very encouraging. This is a nice business. (To me it feels like I arrived at work to find that all of my colleagues are my sweet kindergarten teacher, Arlene Davis.) But it’s also a tough business, so it’s nice to have somebody on your side.

Secondly, you have to write a lot of books to make a living. I’m writing 12 this year, including work-for-hires, but it took me several years and a lot of pavement pounding, plus Kelly’s help to line up that many. (Work-for-hires are books in which the publisher develops the idea and asks you to write it for a flat fee—no royalties. They don’t pay as much as other books, but they pay faster.)
Currently, I work about 60 hours a week. I’m not complaining! Work is a blessing. I’m starting to write fictional picture books and to do some travel for nonfiction work. I should have a few exciting announcements about book deals later this year.

How have you been promoting your book?

I’ve done a library visit at The Plaza Library, part of The Kansas City Public Library system. I also have a library visit coming up through The Johnson County Public Library Dia! Children’s Book Day, on April 30 at the Oak Park Library. To promote these events, I gave the libraries silkworms as mascots. They’re basically the Official Mascots of Picture Books Being Awesome. I have a Facebook Page @Author Bridget Heos, where I share news about picture books, nonfiction children’s books, my books, and thoughts about professional wrestling (which is an interest.) I also got the chance to be in “The Kansas City Star” FYI section and on Fox 4 Morning News, through Save Everything! (and the Picture Book.)

That said, the publicity staff at Lerner has done much of the work. They sent galleys or copies to several bloggers and librarian and teacher journals. They’ve also met personally with some of these people—flying to New York in some cases. Through that effort, I’ve been featured in A Fuse #8 Production, Kirkus Reviews, and Instructor magazine (published by Scholastic.) They are also very encouraging of my publicity efforts (or publicity stunts, as my dad calls them.)

Tell us about your career. How long you’ve been writing, what caused you to want to write for children, and what’s coming up for you.

I always wanted to be a writer. Now, looking back, it’s obvious I would fall in love with writing children’s books. I was obsessed with Beatrix Potter. I loved musicals about orphans, such as Oliver! and Annie, and that theme is popular in children’s literature. In 5th grade, my friend and I put on a neighborhood play of The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman, featuring the music of—get this, Weird Al Yankovic—who is now also a children’s book writer!

But I didn’t know much about children’s books. Now, I see how my sons are with sports—they know the stats, the players, the intangibles. I didn’t have that kind of behind-the-scenes knowledge of children’s books, even though I loved them as much as my sons love sports today.

When my oldest son was little, he became obsessed with nonfiction. After reading about 100 nonfiction books to him (mostly about turtles but some about dinosaurs,) I fell in love with them. I felt so knowledgeable about turtles! And many of them were beautifully written, such as The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, by Barbara Kerley, ill. by Brian Selznick. I thought, “I wonder who writes all these nonfiction books?” I think I googled that very question. I had been writing for newspapers and magazines for several years, so nonfiction seemed like a natural fit. Eventually, I found a local writer’s group. I went to some events and then wrote What to Expect When You’re Expecting Larvae. My friend Ann Ingalls, who also writes nonfiction books for children, helped me a lot when I was getting started.

You’re also involved in a campaign to save the picture book called, appropriately enough, Save Everything! (and the picture book). Fill us in. What’s this about and how can people participate?

Save Everything! (and the Picture Book) is a program in which children read picture books, write reviews, and win picture books. The purpose is to show people the wide variety of picture books available to children of all ages. For instance, a second grader could spend an entire summer reading picture books solely about baseball. (My middle son did just that!) Picture books are great for literacy, imagination, and entertainment.

There is a new theme each month. (In June, it’s baseball.) This month it’s Save the Bookworms! (and the Picture Books They Eat.) You can visit http://savethepicturebook.blogspot.com to download the March flyer. There are book suggestions (including mine, this month!) but you can read any picture book about insects or books. Kids can win books, and teachers can win a basket of books for their classrooms.

What advice would you give to those entering the world of children’s writing? What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

I read somewhere that you need to read 100 books in your genre and write for 10 years before…I can’t remember what exactly is supposed to happen at that point. But those numbers are absolutely accurate. After reading the 100 picture books on Betsy Bird’s Fuse #8 Top 100 Picture Books Poll, fictional picture books started to click for me. Prior to writing nonfiction, I’d probably read more than 100 nonfiction picture books. Also, I’ve now been a writer for nearly 10 years. Like I said, I can’t remember what’s supposed to happen at this point. But from a craftsmanship perspective, I feel like I sort of know what I’m doing—though I still have a lot to learn.

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One of my favorite days of the year is right around the corner. Earth Day, April 22nd, is designed to heighten awareness of and appreciation for the Earth. What better way to do that than with a picture book about an oak tree? Critique partner and friend Alison Formento is the author of THIS TREE COUNTS! (Albert Whitman & Company, March 1, 2010), a part-counting, part-environmental awareness book with lovely language and illustrations.

Alison has agreed to stop by and answer some questions for us, on this the first stop of a blog tour.

JJS: Hi, Alison! How did THIS TREE COUNTS! go from idea to published book? Tell us about the path it took.

AF: Inspired by a large, old Oak tree, I wrote a simple ten line poem about ten animals in a giant tree telling its story, which sat unfinished in my computer files. A few months later, I saw an editor from Albert Whitman & Company speak on a panel at an SCBWI conference. After the conference, I submitted a story to her, which she rejected, but invited me to send something else, which I did. That story too, got a personal rejection and a note to send something for the very young, perhaps with a counting theme. I remembered my tree poem and worked on shaping it into story form, adding the children and teacher to hear the tree’s story, and how it encourages them to plant more trees. After I ran that early version through my critique group, I submitted it to the editor and four months later, received an offer. In my case, third time was the charm. The revision process was smooth, as my editor really saw the story the same way I did, as did the illustrator, Sarah Snow. We actually expanded the story, to add a few more kids and more about how trees count to our world. A year later, THIS TREE COUNTS! is out and I couldn’t be happier with the final product.

JJS: How long have you been writing for children?

AF: If you count my diary entries and the poems and stories I wrote as a child, then I’ve been writing for children a long time. As a freelance writer with credits in The New York Times, The Writer, Parenting and several other publications, I was first intrigued with writing non-fiction for children, and there are several factual elements to THIS TREE COUNTS! As common with many children’s book authors, when I read books to my kids, it inspired me to write my own stories. I joined the SCBWI about six years ago, attended several conferences, found compatible critique partners and have fully embraced the rewarding, and often arduous, journey as writer for children.

JJS: What’s the most rewarding part of being a published children’s author so far? What’s the most surprising part?

AF: I’ve just began sharing my book at libraries, schools and bookstores, but it’s exactly what I’d heard from other published children’s authors—Kids reactions to you and your story are the biggest rewards of all. Kids today are “greener” than ever, thanks to schools becoming more environmentally conscious, and they really enjoy telling me their favorite trees and how we use trees in our lives.

The surprising part about being a published author is how I’m able to promote my book much more than I thought I could handle. I feel fairly shy, but I’m so proud of the way my book has turned out, that it’s exciting to share it any way possible. And meeting so many wonderful kids, librarians and teachers so far has already sparked a lot of great ideas for new stories.

JJS: Thanks, Alison! I wish you much success with your book.

Readers, Alison is having a contest on her blog. Win her book and help her plant 40 trees to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. Just enter your favorite tree for a chance to win. http://alisonashleyformento.blogspot.com/

Or visit Alison’s website: http://www.alisonashleyformento.com/. A portion of all proceeds of her book will go to AmericanForest.org to help plant more trees.

Learn more about Alison and THIS TREE COUNTS! Tuesday as this blog tour continues at http://rachelwrites4kids.blogspot.com/ and Wednesday at http://anom3.livejournal.com/.

Congrats, Alison! All the best!

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Debut Picture Book Author, Judith Snyder

Well, it has happened again! Another of my critique buddies has published her first children’s picture book. Amazon describes Judith Snyder’s What Do You See? (Odyssey Books) this way:

“This title is full of imaginative approaches to artwork, and perfect for curious children, who are eager to combine shapes and sizes in art. There is no end to the creativity this book facilitates, as youngsters open their eyes and the windows of their own creativity. It is a perfect way for adults and youngsters to see the world in a whole new way.”

Judith has joined us today to talk about her book. Thanks for stopping by, Judith. Let’s start at the beginning.

How did you get your idea for this book?

When I first started teaching, back in the golden years when creative thinking took precedence over skill and drill worksheets, I participated in classes that encouraged teachers to get students to stretch their imaginations. That was when I started using simple line drawings to stimulate creative thinking. I started this activity with fifth graders and when I changed grade levels, I discovered that first and second graders could do these activities as well. So that was the initial idea that followed me into all my classrooms. Many years later on a car trip, I used this activity to entertain my grandson. Everyone in the car had fun brainstorming ideas for different shapes. I saved the doodles and the ideas, and combined them with rhyming couplets and voila—What Do You See?

[It pays to save those scraps of ideas!]

How did you find your editor, or how did she find you?

At my second SCBWI conference in 2006, I had the good fortune to be with a friend who won the chance to sit next to one of the guest editors at lunch. So, along with nine other conference goers, we had a wonderful chat with editor/publisher, Barbara Cilette of Odyssey Books. We all talked about the normal publishing questions, but what I remember most is discussing educational philosophy and how books should stimulate creativity and curiosity. This discussion was a great segue into my What Do You See? book proposal that I had been subbing with no success, so I asked Barbara about the best way to get my vision across to an editor. As a result, I mailed her the manuscript. I remember the wait felt like forever. When Barbara responded initially, it was a “Yes, I like your idea very much, but I can’t promise you anything just yet.”

So I waited a little longer…and I was thrilled when she invited me to lunch to discuss this manuscript and several others she was interested in. (The time from initial query to final book was about three years, which I understand now is common.) And then my books arrived at my door and I discovered it was worth the wait. They are beautiful.

[Amazon tells me my copy is on its way to Missouri. I can’t wait to read it!]

It sounds like you thought long and hard about how to make your proposal different from what was already on the market. Tell us about that.

This is a very important piece in getting noticed, and something that I consider as I develop my projects. My first magazine piece was an article and a folktale I sent out as a package, with the suggestion that they could be used together or individually. The article described how to tell a story and used examples from the folktale. It worked. They bought both.

With my Jump Start Your Library activity books, I stressed a hands-on approach, as opposed to simple worksheets, and proposed that the activities be pre-made to save librarians work.

Suggesting ideas outside-the-box can start the editor thinking, too. The concept for What Do You See? is so different from most other things on the market right now, that it was very difficult to market. Luckily, I found an editor with a vision and understanding of the creative process. This book goes far beyond a simple shape book to develop flexible and creative thinking. Preschoolers might enjoy it by finding shapes, but older students and adults are challenged with more abstract thinking.

Now that your book is out, how do you intend to promote it?

Thank goodness I have critique groups and Verla Kay’s message board. I’ve received support to motivate me into cyberspace (my website) and ideas to get me out into the other real world. Since I am a retired school librarian, I still have a few contacts in several metro area school districts to do some author presentations. I’m getting a slow start, but I wanted to make sure I would have my books before I did any presentations. I also think I’m very lucky to be a part of Odyssey Books first book launch. Though Barbara Ciletti has been in the publishing business for a long time, Odyssey Books is her very own imprint. And not only is she well versed in marketing strategies, she is as motivated as I am to get these books into the hands of children. We both are working hard for success.

Also, I am holding a contest on my website, judithsnyderwrites.com. You can win my book by answering a creative thinking question. I’ll put all the responders’ names into a hat and draw a winner. Stop by and check it out. The contest runs through Nov. 30, 2009.

What’s next for you?

I love picture books and that’s what I enjoy writing because that’s what I know best. But there is something niggling at me to take a risk and try a different kind of writing. So I’m starting to learn about writing chapter books and a middle grade realistic fantasy novel. I’ve had a few false starts, but I’m gearing up again.

Finally, what’s the best advice you’ve been given about writing?

I’ve received lots of great insights into the writing process from my critique groups and at conferences. But I have to go back to the very beginning of my journey, when I was just getting my feet wet and stretching my writing wings. Because I was a school librarian, I had opportunities to invite authors to my school and spend time with them at lunch and throughout the day. I remember asking the authors, Janet Stevens and Justin Mattott, how to get started on the “publishing a picture book” journey. Both replied with similar answers. Join SCBWI, go to conferences, get into a critique group, and write what you know. I followed their advice and it worked. And that’s the advice I would give to any other novice writer—that, and grow a thick skin because you’ll get a lot of rejections before you get that wonderful “YES!”

Thanks for your time, Judith. I wish you all the best with What Do You See?

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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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More Picture Book Love and Miscellany

Whoever named the crucial final page turn in a picture book “the mother of all page turns” must have had Kevin Sherry’s I’m The Biggest Thing In The Ocean in mind (Dial, 2007). Oh my. It’s a doosie. If you haven’t read this book, please do. It’s hilarious, and the voice is perfectly kid-like. I won’t ruin it for you, but let me leave you with this thought: I’m the biggest thing on this blog. 🙂

In other news, I got word recently that Humpty Dumpty will publish a poem of mine in their 2010 March/April issue! Woo hoo! Thanks, Terry!

And…I am overjoyed to say that I am in critique groups with three, count ’em, three debut picture book authors whose books are recently out or are coming out within the next few months. Stay tuned for author interviews, but for now, here they are…

What Do You See? by Judith Snyder (Odyssey)
This Tree Counts by Alison Formento (Albert Whitman)
The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend by Ann Ingalls and Maryann Macdonald (Houghton Mifflin)


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Children’s Book Week

It’s Children’s Book Week! And to celebrate, I read some of my picture books to two of my favorite elementary classes. What great audiences they were! Thanks to Mrs. Arth, Ms. Alvis and Mrs. Caywood and all your great students (especially my two favorites)!

Keep reading and writing!

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My Debut Picture Book

You asked for it! Okay, not all of you. But a few did. Okay two. Two of my friends. So here it is! THE EASTER BUNNY, my debut picture book, written and illustrated by my 10-year old self. (P.S. World rights still available. Call me.)

The first thing you’ll notice is the unique cover paper. Made from recycled wallpaper sample books, this stunning volume seamlessly melds art and text. And it’s sparkly.

Notice how the animal motif (bunny, tiger) builds on itself on the inside front cover. The title page is simple, yet classic in design, punctuated by a single flower in the top right corner. (And yes, I went through a period where I bubbled the dot above my i’s. Cool, huh?)

Page 1. The problem

Page 2. The community gets involved

Page 3. Mole knows something
Page 4. Mole spills (!!)

Page 5. Mumble, mumble

Page 6. Quick! To your homes!
Page 7. The big finish

What I learned by writing and illustrating my own book? You don’t have to start big. You just have to start. What will you write today?

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