Today we have an update from the 2018 contest. Vong Bidania won a mentorship with Jennifer K. Mann and is sharing her experience with us today.
I was really fortunate to win a mentorship with Jennifer Mann in 2018. Jennifer’s picture books are so charming and her illustrations are beyond adorable. I felt honored that she picked me as her mentee.
At the time of the mentorship, I had two manuscripts I was working on. One was a picture book that I was hoping to query.The other was a folktale chapter book I had submitted to a publisher. The publisher requested I revise this chapter book into a picture book. I had been struggling with this revision for months because I found it so difficult to cut it down to picture book length. Jennifer graciously helped me with both manuscripts.
First she gave me feedback on my picture book and query letter for that book, and then after some edits she said they were ready to go. Next she read my folktale chapter book. Jennifer talked to me about mentor texts, gave me incredibly helpful comments about paring down text, and asked me important questions about my character. After that, she advised me to scrap my original manuscript and start from scratch instead of trying to cut it. It seemed like this would be overwhelming, but because I had already answered the questions she provided me, I was able to rewrite the entire chapter book as a picture book in just a few days. I absolutely loved my new manuscript.
When I felt I had polished this manuscript enough, I resubmitted this to the publisher. They got back to me and said they were interested! They even asked for more picture book ideas because they wanted them to be part of a whole series. When I sent them my other ideas, I decided to pitch another chapter book series I had started writing. A few months later, I received a publishing offer for my chapter book series! Shortly after, I found an agent. I am now represented by Tina Dubois of ICM and my chapter book series ASTRID AND APOLLO is being published by Capstone in 2020. For now, Capstone is holding off on the folktale picture book series and they plan to relook at this at a future date.
This mentorship helped set off a chain of events that led to my publishing deal. Because I won the mentorship with Jennifer, I was able to revise my folktale manuscript into a picture book and submit it to Capstone, who requested more picture book ideas from me, and when I shared ASTRID & APOLLO with them, they wanted to publish it. This would not have happened if it weren’t for Jennifer’s comments and guidance. I learned so much about writing picture books from her. Her revision notes were extremely useful and I will continue to use the process she taught me for all of my picture books. I am really grateful for WWTS and for the time and thoughtful feedback that Jennifer gave me. She was supportive, kind and encouraging. I gained so much from working with her and I still can’t wait to publish that folktale picture book series someday! I will always be thankful for this mentorship, which helped set me on my path to becoming a published author.
Thank you Vong, for that update and I’m so happy for your success.
Jen won a mentorship with author Cate Berry in the 2019 WWTS contest. Here are a few words about her experience.
I was deeply honored to be chosen by Cate as her mentee. With the many rejections and downs of this industry, just being picked was a huge affirmation of my children’s book writing dream. It also meant so much that someone was willing to take a chance on me.
Cate was warm, generous, accessible, and fun. She’s a teacher of picture book writing, so she brought many gifts and strengths to the mentorship. Most of all, she impressed upon me the need to bring a sense of play to writing. For instance, she had me reading fifteen minutes of poetry each day and doing both poetry and free writing exercises. This helped boost my imagination, creativity, and language. She also helped me get in touch with my senses and emotions, which translated into richer picture books. Cate encouraged me to read and analyze many picture books in-depth.
I really hit the jackpot with having Cate as my mentor! During the internship, we emailed, texted, and spoke on the phone. Once per month, Cate critiqued several of my manuscripts and reviewed my picture book analyses and writing exercises. She gave me frequent recommendations of picture books and craft books to read, as well as new picture book structures to try. Cate also challenged me to query. Widely.
It was a privilege to work (virtually) alongside and get to know Cate as a mentor and friend. She expected a lot from me, but I was enthusiastic to soak up as much from our time as possible. What I loved most was how Cate kept telling me in a dozen different ways how much she believed in me. Her faith instilled greater confidence in my abilities. As I told Cate, now that I know I have the skills and talent, I will never give up!
We are thrilled to welcome Dev Petty to Writing with the Stars. Dev is the author of the hilarious I Don’t Want to be a Frog series and Claymates. She’s also a former visual effects artist and worked on The Matrix; how cool is that? She’s one of the top funny ladies in picture book writing circles and runs a critique service—so humor writers, take note!
You had a pretty awesome job as a visual effects artist on The Matrix. Do you think that has helped you as a writer?
Totally. Though it’s not as much because of any art skills. Those are handy since I understand a lot about composition and can develop my own marketing materials (bookmarks, trailers, etc.). What really informs my writing is having developed a sense of how a story comes together and what matters in a story and what you can strip out. VFX is really front-to-back—you sit in dailies and judge how the shot looks front-to-back. If there’s some wee thing in the way back that is wrong, you sometimes have to let that go and remind yourself that if the viewer is focused on that and not the big thing up front, you’ve failed. It’s a good lesson to focus on your characters and what matters. Picture books are really similar to movies in that they are entirely their own art form. Beginning, middle, and end through pictures and words.
You gave some advice to writers to “read more than you write.” What do you read that fires up your creative spirit?
I like to sit down once in a while with just a giant stack of picture books at the library and read one after another. From different eras, styles, you name it. You get a sense of how many different, interesting ways there are to tell a story, and it can get you out of a rut. I’m a ’70s kid and love that era of books—Silverstein, Charlip, Sendak, Steig, Pinkwater. So creative and funky!
I noticed that all your released picture books are all dialogue. I know that a lot of new writers are told that manuscripts consisting of only dialogue are hard to sell. How have you made it work for you?
Yes, it’s funny that everything out is all dialogue, since the next two are not. Dialogue is all timing and rhythm and using an authentic voice. I suppose my books in dialogue work because they mirror how I actually talk to some degree (which may not be such a good thing). Mostly, all dialogue really works for books that are somewhat less traditional and where the humor is the star of the show. It’s a great way to depict relationships but less suited for depicting elaborate plots and story points.
Claymates is a fun story and a collaboration with you and the illustrator Lauren Eldridge. How did that all come about?
That whole experience is a great reminder that creativity can bridge distances and differences. We became sort of “Twitter friends”, but didn’t know each other so well. She worked with clay and would make funny characters, and we decided we might like to work together. I couldn’t really think of a story of mine that would work illustrated dimensionally in clay, but the idea of the story being about the characters being clay was really interesting. It was fun to do something where the characters could be anything at all and totally elastic. I shared the idea with her and wrote it up. We realized the only way to pitch it to anyone would be to just do it …I mean, how do you explain CLAYMATES? So we did a full photographic dummy, all the while with her in Wisconsin and me in California. Once it was acquired, we did the WHOLE thing again, with lots of changes and lots more silliness. Now we’re the greatest of friends.
You write funny books. Why do you think women don’t get the credit they deserve for writing humorous PBs?
What an interesting and tricky question. I dig it! Well, the elephant in that particular room is that men are often perceived as being more funny. I think that perception is mostly so in most business, and in life, and certainly in media. But I think the greater issue, and the one that’s a little trickier to talk about in publishing, is about RISK. Flat out…men are given a longer leash to bend and break the rules and to take risks in their work than women are—especially in picture books. I may get some angry mail for that one, but I’ll live with it. And adding humor into the mix further complicates matters. I think the industry as a whole, even with so many women agents, editors, reviewers, etc., supports this inequity. BUT I think some recent discussions on this subject have been fruitful and give me hope—and I know SO many sharp, bold, funny women writers who are doing amazing work.
Was I Don’t Want to be a Frog written as a stand-alone, or did you have all three sequels in mind when you wrote it?
Honestly, FROG was one of the first picture books I ever wrote. I had no idea what I was doing at all and probably didn’t even know a series was possible. I just sat down one day, wrote it in an afternoon, and there it was. I’d love to say I had some elaborate plan, but I didn’t at all. I kind of built this plane (this career) in the air.
You also offer a critique service. If you could give a blanket critique, based on common mistakes you see, what would you say?
I do offer critiques, and I enjoy doing them very much. When I’m in a dry spell of my own writing, it keeps me engaged and my skills up. I would say the most common mistakes are writers not having a strong, punchy voice, especially in the opening. Sometimes writers forget that they’re spinning a yarn, telling a story and they—as the writer—play an important role in how that story is told. You get to have fun, be original, make an impression. There are SO many interesting ways to tell a story, and sometimes writers forget to do something original. I don’t mean weird for weird’s sake, but to take risks and be bold. A picture book can be rejected for a thousand different reasons and being sort of “meh” shouldn’t be one of them. Go out swinging!
As for finer points I see a lot: Too many dialogue tags or tags that aren’t just “said”—e.g., remarked, chortled, etc. Too long. Saggy middles. Muddy ideas. A lack of a takeaway/thread that is the central idea of the story. It needn’t be pedantic, but it should be present.
When do you know you’ve got an idea you want to turn into a picture book?
I have a LOT of ideas…too many, really. I keep various idea files here and there, and I know one is ready to write when it’s the one nagging me at night and it keeps coming back around in my head. But, that’s not really enough. For me to choose an idea, it really has to have legs—I have to have been able to really suss out what I’m after and the takeaway and the vibe before I get going.
Can you tell us about your upcoming book Moth and Butterfly?
Well, that’s actually not going to be coming out until 2021. It’s a really lovely book about a moth and a butterfly who become friends as caterpillars and naturally change in big ways after they go through metamorphosis. It’s about how friendships change and stay the same. The amazing Ana Aranda (THE CHUPACABRA ATE THE CANDELABRA) is illustrating. She lives near me and we’ve been able to connect a couple of times. I’m thrilled! In 2020, I have THE BEAR MUST GO ON coming from Philomel. I was a theater kid and my own kids loved to put on shows when they were little. This book is about a group of forest critters who put on an elaborate show, but forget one very important thing…to write an actual show. The bear has to save the day.
Do you have any writing/creative routines?
Besides reading more than I write, I think more than I do anything. I knock an idea around for a long, long time in my head before I put any words on the page. I play with ideas for the story, tense, POV, and don’t begin writing until I really have it sorted in my head…and I can almost hear it. I do a lot of this sort of thinking in the sun on my deck. I also almost always start with a storyboard/dummy and not in a document. I use Debbie Ohi’s templates and have a big stack on my desk at all times. When I’m ready to write, I start there…I do the first few spreads and see if it’s working, and if it isn’t, I crumple it up and start again. Working via a dummy allows for a lot more connection between the turns and the words.
Thank you, Dev, for your time and for mentoring one lucky writer in 2019. All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.
Cate Berry is the author of the hilarious Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime (illustrated by Charles Santoso). She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and earned her Picture Book Intensive Certificate in the process. Cate loves teaching and offers many classes on writing picture books at The Writing Barn. You can visit her online at www.cateberry.com.
How or why did you choose a penguin and a tiny shrimp to star in your book?
You mean everyone
doesn’t write about silly crustaceans? Shocking!
These characters are a
loose composite of my kids, born fifteen months apart (not our best work but
now it’s peachy). They acted like a little vaudeville duo, the youngest riffing
off the oldest—NEVER sleeping.
My greatest love is
writing picture books with lots of heart, delivered in a fresh way. My inner
writer brain is one part four-year-old and three parts pink champagne so Penguin & Tiny
Shrimp popped into my head very naturally.
Do you have any writing rituals? If so, what are they?
All my rituals revolve around coffee. Coffee, coffee, coffee. I start my day with three espresso shots lovingly poured into a tall glass of almond milk, gently shaken over ice. Really, once I have that, I turn into Wonder Woman and the work flows easily.
Now that you’ve published your debut book (and with a sophomore book on the way), what are your writing goals?
That’s a great question. I’ve spent far too many hours plotting and scheming my next industry move only to circle back to what’s important and in my control: writing something every day. My wonderful advisor at Vermont College of Fine Arts trained me to dabble and play, and interact with my work daily. It doesn’t have to be serious or even productive. But keeping my mind childlike keeps me connected to my work. Plus, sometimes a gem of an idea pops out as a bonus!
If you were stranded on a deserted island for the rest of your life and you could bring only one book, what would it be?
Ermergahd. Just ONE?
I’m a huge E. B. White fan so I’d probably take Charlotte’s Web. Recently, I fell in love with Melissa Sweet’s biography Some Writer, a near perfect picture book about E.B.White. It reminded me that art takes time. And that’s okay. Letting a manuscript “marinate” often leads to greatness.
(So, I’d probably bribe someone to let me take two books. Tee hee.)
If you were stranded on a deserted island for the rest of your life and you could choose an unlimited supply of only one food, what would it be?
My first thought is Twinkies because they have a shelf life of twelve years. But I hate Twinkies, so I’d probably choose the fun-loving pineapple. It’s got vitamins, a sunny disposition and it’s the universal symbol of hospitality. (My super power is being friendly, even on a deserted island.)
Are you an early bird or night owl?
Pre-motherhood: night owl. Oh, the work I achieved between 10 PM and 2 AM.
Post-motherhood: I’m embracing the early bird mindset begrudgingly and finding it: pleasant! Also, getting a day’s work accomplished before 11 AM is thrilling.
What are your favorite non-writing related things to do?
My husband is a composer and we host monthly music parties at our house. Lots of musicians and artists drop by and I enjoy singing with them (I was a songwriter once-upon-a-time).
I also love entertaining and connecting people. I would have had a rollicking career in 1920’s Paris hosting salons.
Can you tell us about your next book, Chicken Break?
It’s an Ocean’s 11-style, barnyard breakout counting book—told in rhyme!
I adore mash-up books, or books that do more than one
thing. This one includes counting, accumulation, wordplay and…going wild! (Plus,
chickens. Who doesn’t love chickens?)
This book took three years of revision before it clicked so I’m super excited about its publication in October 2019 (MacMillan/Feiwel & Friends).
What is the best advice you can give aspiring picture book writers?
Read, read, read and then read some more. I wrote a
blog post about reading at least three hundred picture books before you begin
writing them in earnest. It’s like learning another language, there is so much
packed into this short form.
But after reading enough of them, you start to absorb
the format into your subconscious. Picture books must have all the integrity of
a novel but accomplish it in six hundred words or less (if it’s fiction, that
is). It’s a tall order, but reading a LOT will give you a huge advantage.
What’s on your mind these days regarding writing?
I’ve self-appointed myself the modern Lorax: I speak
for the humorous and playful picture books. I often think funny books don’t get
the respect that they deserve. It’s hard
to write something effortlessly humorous. And our culture (myself included)
often rewards serious, hard-hitting books more “worthy” of our purchases.
Perhaps we feel our kids will be better educated if they read these? And, of course, that’s true.
I also feel
kids and grown-ups need levity, perhaps now more than ever. We need to unwind
and give our brains a hit of serotonin. Yes, laughter delivers “feel good”
I love helping writers develop fun, funny, playful
picture books—with heart, of course. Picture books are shared and read
together. Imagine starting and ending your day with a giggle and a hug? It matters.
Deb Pilutti is the author and illustrator of Ten Rules of Being a Superhero, The Secrets of Ninja School, and Bear and Squirrel are Friends…Yes, Really! She is the illustrator of Idea Jar (written by WWTS mentor Adam Lehrhaupt), The TwelveDays of Christmas in Michigan (written by Susan Collins Thoms), and The City Kid and The Suburb Kid (written by Linda Bleck). We are thrilled to have Deb and her amazing art as part of Writing with the Stars.
As a former toy designer, what is your favorite toy or a toy you wish you had created?
Maybe not a favorite, but I loved poring over the back of comic books for the kitschy toys that were promoted, like Sea Monkeys! The ad for them was amazing. If only it were true. The Sea Monkeys had faces and hair ribbons or ties. You only needed to add water and you would have a tank full of little buddies. I believed every word and sent away for them with such hope, and I was thrilled when the package arrived. I diligently followed the instructions and looked for signs of life each morning. Much later, I learned that Sea Monkeys are desiccated brine shrimp that become reanimated with water. Mine did not. I’m not going to go into detail about the despair I felt when I had a tankful of nothing—it’s just too sad. But there’s a good chance I would order them again if I saw an ad…
You are drawn to humor in your work. Besides researching Bugs Bunny cartoons, what are your favorite characters, books, movies, comedians, etc. that define your type of humor?
I enjoy subtle or dry humor, and misdirection, which can be difficult to use when creating for a young audience. Ian Falconer does it masterfully in the OLIVIA series. While I did read quite a bit as a child, I also watched copious amounts of TV. Especially cartoons. This was once a source of shame, until I realized that I received a master class in humor, pacing and illustration from the artists at Warner Brothers studios and Jay Ward animations. My sensibilities were defined by episodes of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, Rocky & Bullwinkle, Fractured Fairy Tales and of course that one with the singing frog! The humor in these programs ranged from slapstick to sophisticated—I definitely did not always catch the joke the first time around.
Is there any difference in your process when you illustrate another author’s text versus illustrating your own?
My process involves a lot of sitting and staring. It’s not glamorous, but it works for me. The idea for my own story may begin with a drawing, but I won’t start sketching the dummy until after the story is buttoned down, which is similar to the way I work with another author’s text. The difference is that while creating my own stories, I often end up cutting a lot of text or making edits during the dummy phase because I can use a character or situation to advance the plot.
Bear and Squirrel are Friends…Yes, Really! is a favorite of mine as I love subversive humor. How did these characters and plot begin?
Thanks so much! I was attending a remote retreat in Michigan with a couple of writer friends when the idea for the story was conceived. We would write in a common space during the day and return to our individual tiny cabins in the woods at night. The setting was peaceful and we would see deer and squirrels and other wildlife out the window. My overactive imagination wondered if there were bears snuffling around the cabin while I tried to sleep. I never saw any, but during one writing session, I was doodling and ended up with a bear and squirrel on my page. I loved the dichotomy of the two characters and wondered if they could be friends, and what might happen if they were.
Who are your favorite artists or influences?
I love the humor and candor in Maira Kalman’s work. She taps into relatable feelings and emotions. I’m drawn to the sparse and graphic illustrations of Mary Blair and Alice and Martin Provensen. They are pros at distilling images to the simplest form, something I try to work toward. Eyvind Earle created ethereal landscapes and concept art for many of the Disney films. His use of color and value is illuminating.
What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?
Work harder than necessary. In an effort to grow, I started paying attention to the work habits of artists and professionals whose work I admired. One of the things I noticed is that they often will rework a piece of art or a story that I think is already pretty great. Their art director and editor may be perfectly happy with it. I would be happy with it. But the artist is not satisfied and keeps pushing and self-editing. And when I see the finished product, I realize they were right. It is even better.
Can you tell us a bit about your next book, Old Rock (is not boring)?
I’m just finishing up the final art! Old Rock came from a doodle. I drew a picture of a rock that I thought was funny and wondered if I could write a story about this character. Then I became stuck, because ROCKS DON’T DO ANYTHING, they just sit there. It seemed like a boring premise. Well, that’s what the story is about. Some of Old Rock’s friends, Tall Pine, Spotted Beetle and Hummingbird, think she’s boring. Old Rock reveals her own surprising story (hint: it’s not boring).
What other projects are you currently working on?
I’m also illustrating a sequel to Ten Rules of Being a Superhero. It’s called Ten Steps to Flying Like a Superhero. I had so much fun with the characters from the first book that they are back for another adventure. Lava Boy’s superhero toy, Captain Magma, wants to fly more than anything. They devise a plan, which does not go as anticipated.
Tammi Sauer is the prolific author of 25 published picture books (with many more in the pipeline). Tammi is finishing an epic year in which she released six books (her six-pack, as she refers to it). I had the pleasure of meeting Tammi in person this year, and I’m convinced that if there were a Miss Congeniality award in kidlit, this woman would win, hands down. I am thrilled to welcome Tammi to Writing with the Stars!
With 25 published books and more under contract, how is it possible that you’ve never had coffee?
This is one of life’s
great mysteries. While I don’t drink coffee, I am, however, a dedicated iced
tea drinker. I guzzle that stuff by the 32 oz. cup.
Here’s a little secret. I’m a weirdo about my tea at restaurants. I always order an extra glass of ice because most waiters don’t add extra ice when pouring refills. I like to have my extra ice at the ready! I also ask for an orange slice. I squeeze it into my tea to give it a little extra something-something.
Can you even imagine how high-maintenance I would be with COFFEE?!
What’s been the most unexpected source of inspiration for one of your books?
One night, when my kids were really little, my husband and I tucked them into bed. We were getting ready to sit down and watch a movie when we heard a knock at the door. We opened the door and saw a kid standing there. He looked like he was probably a fifth grader. He said, “Hi! I’m selling newspaper subscriptions. I’m trying to raise some money. I want to go to Cowboy Camp.” Well, this kid didn’t look like a cowboy or act like a cowboy or talk like a cowboy, and at first I thought, “Ooh. I hope he’ll be okay at Cowboy Camp.” Then I thought, “Ooh! That’s a great idea for a book!” So I wrote Cowboy Camp. It’s about a kid named Avery who goes to Cowboy Camp. He doesn’t fit in, he can’t do anything right, but he ends up saving the day anyway. The book debuted in 2005, and it’s still in print. YEEHAW!
If only more ideas would just knock on my door after the kids go to sleep…
You’ve written a few books about caring for pets (or aliens)—what is the most unusual pet you’ve ever had?
That would be
Lightning, the giant Madagascar hissing cockroach. When my daughter, Julia, was
little, she attended a camp called Bugmania. At the end of camp, the camp
counselor asked me if it was okay if my daughter came home with a bug. I said
sure because I thought Julia would choose one of the ladybugs or one of the
butterflies. Did Julia do that? Nooo. She came home with Lightning, the giant
Madagascar hissing cockroach, who ended up living in my house for five
If you weren’t a writer, what would your job be?
Can it be watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel? I’m REALLY good at that.
You’ve done a lot of school visits—what’s the best question a kid has ever asked you?
Will you marry me?
What is the thing you know now that you wish you had known earlier in your career?
I wish I had known how important it is to have a critique partner and/or group. Early on, I didn’t think I’d have time for this. Getting feedback from others, however, has pushed me to work harder and write better. Plus, it’s good to have people to celebrate and commiserate with.
What books are coming out next and can you tell us a bit about them?
2018, Wordy Birdy (Doubleday), illustrated by Dave Mottram,
was released. Wordy Birdy loves to talk, talk, talk. But she never listens. In
fact, Wordy Birdy had so much to say, she has another book due out February 5,
2019. It’s called Wordy Birdy Meets Mr. Cougarpants. In the first
book, Wordy Birdy’s talking gets her into some big trouble. In the second book,
Wordy Birdy’s constant chatter saves the day.
Next on the scene is A
Little Chicken (Sterling), illustrated by Dan Taylor. This book has
one of my all-time favorite first lines: “Dot was a little chicken who, let’s
face it, was a little chicken.” This book proves that sometimes a big hero…is
just a little chicken.
In June, two of my old pals, Nugget and Fang, return for the long-awaited SEA-quel. It’s called Nugget & Fang Go to School (Clarion), illustrated by Michael Slack. In this book, Fang gets invited to be a student at Mini Minnows Elementary. Fang loves this idea…until his first day of school. It turns out that even a big shark can sometimes feel like a fish out of water. With Nugget’s help, however, Fang realizes that school is better than fine. It’s FANG-tastic!
Thank you, Tammi, for your time and for mentoring one lucky writer in 2019. All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS Contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.
We are thrilled to welcome uber talented Deborah Marcero to Writing with the Stars. Deborah is the illustrator of Twinderella (written by Corey Rosen Schwartz) and the author and illustrator of Rosie and Crayon, Ursa’s Light, and the newly released and stunning My Heart is a Compass.
Can you tell me about your process? What comes first, the writing or the pictures, or both at the same time?
Sometimes a story idea comes first that I need to write out before drawing anything, and sometimes an image will come first, and the story will spring from there.
My Heart is a Compass has been getting a lot of buzz, including a starred review on Kirkus and recognition from Illinois Reads. What has been the most surprising moment so far?
The most surprising moment so far besides simply holding the book in my hands and realizing how much my whole heart is in there, was having the incredible opportunity to create this book with the team at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
How do you find inspiration for your writing and illustration?
I’ve found that nature, stillness, love, friendships, my childhood, and even small moments serve to inspire my creative spirit.
As a former teacher, what is your best memory of a child learning to create?
I was leading a writing workshop in a fifth grade classroom in Chicago Public Schools, modeling how to write a fictional story. To scaffold the instruction, we wrote a story together as a class. All I did was ask the questions and direct the plot. They came up with a main character, what he wanted, his struggle, how he overcame the struggle, and how he triumphed in the end. The entire class was so excited and engaged, I could barely believe it. They were almost jumping out of their seats, raising their hands with ideas to share. They cared so much about what happened to this character they created that they were all 100% invested. It showed them the power of story, and what could happen when they wrote something they cared about. The best part was when, the next year, students in that class came up to me and said, “Remember, Ms. M., when we wrote that story about Jerome?” I will never forget that.
I love clever character names. In Ursa’s Light, the main character is a little bear named Ursa, and I’m assuming this is a nod to the constellation Ursa Minor. Did you have that idea first, or did you name your character as the story progressed?
Yes, the name Ursa was a nod to the constellations (as she wanted to fly and ends up becoming a shooting star), and Ursa also means “Bear”. I love when a word or play on words can mean more than one thing. I ended up naming my character Ursa after several drafts of the story developed.
Who are some of your favorite artists or influences?
Frida Kahlo, Edward Gorey, Eric Carle, Georgia O’Keefe, Mary Blair, and Peter Sis.
What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?
Listen to that quiet voice inside, and do not compare yourself to anyone, anywhere, anytime. We are each on our own individual journeys. Try to create work from a place of play and discovery. Be willing to revise, challenge yourself and be challenged.
Can you tell us a bit about your next book releasing?
My next book, In a Jar, will be coming out in Spring 2020 with Putnam’s Sons, Penguin. It’s another author/illustrated book that is about a friendship that grows between two bunnies, Llewellyn and Evelyn, through their collection of memories in jars.
Thank you, Deborah, for your time and for mentoring one lucky author/illustrator in 2019. To see Deborah’s lovely illustration work, please visit her website www.deborahmarcero.com. All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS Contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.
Carter Higgins is an Emmy-winning visual effects and motion graphics artist and ex-school librarian turned kidlit author. She is the author of A Rambler Steals Home (HMH) and two picture books, This is Not a Valentine (with Lucy Ruth Cummins) and Everything You Need for a Treehouse (with Emily Hughes), plus the forthcoming Bikes for Sale (with Zachariah OHora). She writes about picture books and graphic design at her blog, Design of the Picture Book.
You’re the author of several picture books and a middle grade novel. Does your writing practice differ a lot when working on a novel vs. a picture book, and if so, how?
I think a picture book is more difficult to write than longer fiction—the intricacies, the structure, the precise language—but the scope is more manageable than a middle grade novel. I can think about what my picture book is about and see it from end to end with more ease. Because of that, I find it easier to dip in and out of more than one picture book at a time. I can’t do that with longer fiction. As far as sitting down and doing the work, though? That’s equally hard.
Your upcoming picture book, Bikes for Sale, was inspired by a sign on a lamppost. What other interesting places have you found inspiration?
You know, this is the first time I’m thinking of this, but I think a lot of my wordplay roots are in my musical family. There are a lot of singers and instrumentalists and music teachers and just plain talent. I never mastered an instrument or had the same singing voice as my mother and sister. But I see how my writing is musical, inspired by rhythm and cadence and tempo. This Is Not a Valentine and Everything You Need for a Treehouse were titles before they were stories because I loved the way those little lumps of words sounded. A decade of teaching and listening to the quirky way kids speak has brought endless inspiration as well. I love to tap in to those small moments and the universal childhood experience.
You recently participated in Inktober and tapped back into your visual arts background. Can you tell us a little more about that and how it informed your picture book writing? Any plans to illustrate in the future?
That was fun! Librarian-ing and
motion design are so clearly connected through visual storytelling. At the time
of my career crossover, before I was seriously writing for kids, I didn’t
realize that was what I loved. Animating is all about timing and leading
the viewer through a sequence of images in an effective way. It’s the exact
same thing that makes a picture book satisfying. Though I’ve not illustrated
any of my own work (yet!), having an understanding of that style of pacing in
storytelling has helped immensely.
Do you write daily?
No way. I think daily, but that
doesn’t always translate to words on the page.
You worked for many years as an elementary librarian. Do you have a favorite story to share?
My last library was right next to a restroom. A third grader had been relaxing in the library during recess, but then he dashed out with a book in hand. I whoa-whoa-whoa-ed him, and he said, “Oh, I don’t want to check this out. I’m just taking it to the bathroom so I can read while I poop.”
You’re an unabashed fan of The Babysitters Club Club Podcast. Which babysitter did you relate to the most as a kid?
It’s so clear to me that I am a
Mary Anne—loyal, cautious, highly sensitive. But as a kid, I was absolutely
obsessed with Claudia? I loved Nancy Drew, liked art, and hid candy in my room.
But I did not have her confidence, her wardrobe, or her oomph. Isn’t that the
best thing about books? I could pretend.
Since you named the Spice Girls as the band you’d choose to be a member of, what would your Spice name be?
What did I tell you? True Mary Anne.
Thank you, Carter, for your time and
for mentoring one lucky writer in 2019. All information about how to apply to
Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS Contest tab. Applicants, please remember to
support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell
your local librarians how awesome they are.
Catherine Bailey is the author of Lucy Loves Sherman, Hypnosis Harry, Mind Your Monsters, and the forthcoming Lucy Loves Sherman’s Beach and Harbor Bound. She lives in Florida with her family. As a big fan of Lucy Loves Sherman, I am thrilled Catherine is participating in Writing with the Stars this year.
How did you begin your foray into kidlit? What was the catalyst that started it all for you?
I fell in love with writing in the first grade when I met the very inspiring James Howe. He signed two books for me, and I still whip them out at school visits today. By middle school, I was writing family newsletters and short stories. In high school, I earned an internship at a local paper. In college, I answered fan mail while working at the Cartoon Network. In law school—well, there was research AND writing—even better!
But it wasn’t until I had my first daughter in 2009 that I thought of writing as a profession. With a baby at home, I’d left my job and rediscovered Roald Dahl, The Grumpus Under the Rug, and a zillion other kidlit wonders, new and old. I also discovered I could write in the middle of the night after feedings because everyone was finally asleep. Plus, I’d been published in the educational and legal markets, so how hard could this be, right?
HA, HA, HA! Silly Catherine.
I had no clue how competitive the industry was, nor how difficult it was to write for children. But what I lacked in knowledge I made up for with persistence. And in addition to writing, I spent hours online learning about the publishing industry, from slush piles to agents to contracts. I subbed poetry to children’s magazines and worked up from there. I signed with an agent in December 2012, and finally my first book debuted in 2015 (that’s just about 31 years after I met James Howe).
But I promise, getting published is worth the wait! 🙂
What was the best thing you did to educate yourself about the industry when you started?
(1) Join SCBWI and (2) become active on Verla Kay’s “Blueboards”—an online forum for kidlit writers. The Blueboards have since become part of the SCBWI website, so now it’s a super convenient one-stop resource for writers and illustrators.
Do you have any writing rituals? What is your process?
I (try to) keep office hours, and I have a fairly defined “process” for writing.
After I have a specific idea, or I pull one from my files, I sit at my desk and write what I call a “vomit draft” in one sitting. It’s quick and awful and needs to be cleaned up—but at least the worst part is over. I have a beginning, middle, end, and title. Then I ignore the manuscript for at least two weeks before editing it. After I polish it up, I begin the critique stage. Then I ignore it some more. Then rewrites and more critiques, etc. It usually takes at least 4-6 months of this before I will send my agent a draft.
Lucy Loves Sherman is getting a sequel in March, 2019: Lucy Loves Sherman’s Beach. Was that always the plan when you wrote the first book or was it a surprise?
It was a surprise! I thought Lucy would be one and done, but Lucy disagreed—LOL! Her personality turned out to be so strong, and her temperament was so sassy and fun! I just had to think of what else she might love; something that aligned with the tone and subject of the first book.
Was writing a sequel easier or harder than expected?
Writing the sequel for Lucy Loves Sherman was surprisingly easy. I drafted, edited and submitted it in about a week, and it sold almost immediately. This is definitely NOT the norm for me!! I think it was so simple because I already knew Lucy’s voice and I quickly came up with an idea for her next adventure. In book #2, Lucy tackles pollution at her friend’s beach, which is something my seaside town happened to be struggling with at the time.
You have another book releasing in May 2019 (Disney-Hyperion) called Harbor Bound. Can you tell us a bit about this one?
Happily—thank you! Harbor Bound is a rhyming bedtime book about boats coming home through a storm, and it is inspired by personal experience. I grew up in a coastal town, I spent time working on sailboats in Greece, and I live in a house by the sea. So I knew eventually I would write a boat book! Early on the book was a lyrical list of vessel types. Cute but not exactly a “wow!” book. So I added in a storm and paralleled the action with how a child ends their day (coming home, bath time, bedtime, etc.). I was able to include nonfiction boat facts at the end, so there’s a nice balance of entertainment and education. The best part was that a good friend and crit partner was also working on a boat book, and she sold hers too! And I must give a shout out to the illustrator, Ellen Shi, and my captain—er, editor—Rotem at Disney Hyperion. They turned my little poem into a beautiful book. It sets sail in Summer of 2019, so keep a weather eye out!
How often do you get new picture book ideas and how many of those actually turn into a viable manuscript?
I’d say I have, maybe 20ish ideas a month, which turn into about 6-8 actual manuscripts I might consider editing.
What’s the funniest thing that has happened to you on an author visit?
I discreetly keep my phone out during school visits so I can check the time and stay on schedule. Once, smack dab in the middle of a presentation to a HUGE group of kids, I saw a missed call from my daughter’s school. Then another. And another. Then a text saying something to the effect of, “This is not an emergency, your child is safe, but you need to call us as soon as possible.” That was quickly followed by another message that read, “Your daughter has a bead up her nose and we can’t get it out.” And then something like, “It is really up in there!” So there I am, trying to focus and entertain a room full of squirmy kids—all while this crazy nose drama is unfolding on my iPhone screen. “We aren’t sure if it is a bead!” “We called your husband who says she will be fine!” “It may be a berry!” And so on and so on … Long story short I sped up the presentation, called the school, hopped in the car, zoomed into a Target and bought a Nose Frida (excellent nose-sucking device if you ever need one BTW!), and rushed to my child where I successfully removed the bead (not a berry). Everything ended well, I still get invited back to that school, and their wonderful media specialist still asks about my daughter—ha!
Thank you, Catherine, for your time and for mentoring one lucky writer in 2019. All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS Contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.