Meet mentor Melissa Iwai

When I began putting out feelers as to what illustrators would be a good fit for this contest, one name kept coming up—Melissa Iwai. My sources were correct and she said yes! Melissa is living out her life-long dream of writing and illustrating children’s books. Her detailed attention to balancing art and story truly makes her work shine, and her thoughtful approach to each project is evident in her published books. Melissa is a member of the very select group of “kidlit authors or illustrators who are married to kidlit authors or illustrators (her husband is Denis Markell).” She can also claim membership in an even smaller group of “kidlit authors or illustrators who have published a book with their spouse.” Finally, she belongs to the most elite group of all, “author/illustrators who have illustrated a Writing with the Stars mentor’s book”—Megan Bryant’s Snow Globe. Melissa is also the only mentor who has a partner-in-crime for this contest; she’ll be teaming up with her husband Denis, a brilliant writer in his own right.

Your composition is very dynamic. How did you develop your style, and which artists/illustrators were your biggest influences?

Thank you! My style has evolved over the years, and I think it keeps on changing. Some of my illustration heroes who have influenced me are Mary Blair, Garth Williams, Marc Simont, Gyo Fujikawa, Ezra Jack Keats, Bruegel, Diego Rivera, Honore Daumier, Richard Scarry and Eyvind Earle.

When you get another author’s manuscript, how do you initially approach the new project? Do you read and sit on it awhile or immediately start sketching ideas as you read?

I definitely wait and think about it awhile! I like to mull it over and live with it in my brain and let it percolate. Often my best ideas and imagery come to me when I am waking up in the morning or lying in the sauna at the gym. Then I get down to sketching.

Your husband, Denis Markell, is part of your team for this mentorship. You illustrated two of his books, The Great Stroller Adventure and Hush Little Monster. How did you both approach those collaborations? Did you work together or develop your ideas separately?

Since we live together, we are always talking about our work with each other. We eat lunch together almost every day. He is the only author I have collaborated with at the concept stage of a story! So yes, we worked on both stories together from the beginning. Denis came up with the ideas for both, and then we bounced ideas off each other when developing it further. I would sketch things and then show him and we’d discuss it. 

If you could re-illustrate any classic, what would you choose and why?

I have a fascination with the Pied Piper of Hamlin. It is such a strange, dark tale. I’ve always wanted to illustrate that story, and even made a dummy of it many years ago when I was an art student. Last year, I chose a scene from it to create for a painting that was in a group show of fairy tales at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.

How do you choose your color palette for a particular project?

I try to capture the mood of the story with color. It depends on the manuscript. For example, I recently illustrated two books for Scholastic—one takes place in the winter and one in the spring. So the seasons really informed the color palette of each book. The winter book, My Snow Globe, by Megan E. Bryant (one of the WWTS mentors), has a lot of blues, purples and deep greens in it, with accents of red and orange. The spring-based companion book, My Easter Egg, has an array of light greens along with bright colors such as magenta, lilac, gold, and turquoise, capturing an Easter feel.

After I have an idea of the kind of color I want to include, I look at various sources of color inspiration: my own collection of swatches I keep in a folder, Pinterest, clothes catalogs, shop windows etc. Then I paint swatches of color in watercolor and scan them into the computer. I compile a specific file of my color swatches, and I use this color palette file for reference for all of the illustrations in the book. I find that when I do this, it is easier to keep my colors consistent. Also it gives the book, as a whole, a sense of cohesiveness. 

Thank you Melissa! To learn more about Melissa, and the opportunity to win a mentorship with her and Denis, enter Writing with the Stars at http://beckytarabooks.com/contest/

Meet mentor Katy Duffield

I “met” Katy when a friend recommended her critiquing service. Katy helped me tremendously with my manuscript. So when I began recruiting authors who I thought would be great mentors, Katy came to mind immediately.

You’ve written several non-fiction books about U.S. presidents, tech icons, animals, battles, and poltergeists. How do you do research for all those different topics?

First, I have to say that I truly love the research process. I like the challenge of trying to ensure accuracy, and I like digging for interesting, little known facts. Research for each book can take different approaches, but I generally begin scouring the internet for reputable sources. I search for both general information and for primary sources. Looking up articles in old newspapers, magazines, and on specialized sites can lead to good info. I also use library e-databases, and, of course, print books to find detailed information on my topic. Depending on the topic, I often interview people and sometimes visit various places for more hands-on research. I try my best to leave no stone unturned, and I often have a difficult time letting go of the research process to begin the actual writing.

Did you get the willies while you were writing your poltergeist book?

Nah. I don’t believe that stuff. J One thing I liked about writing for this series (I wrote another book for the series about the Bermuda Triangle) is that the publisher wanted me to present both sides of the story and allow readers to make up their own minds on what they believed. Yay for critical thinking!

Farmer McPeepers and Loud Lula have a very natural folksy voice to them. Where did you pick that up?

I’m from Arkansas and I’ve lived all my life in the South. If you could hear me talk, you would have no doubts as to where that voice derived. People say I have a bit of an accent.

What challenges do you have in writing fiction that you don’t have in non-fiction? Vice Versa?

This is a great question. The main challenges of nonfiction for me are ensuring factual accuracy and finding the perfect “heart” of the topic. The “heart” for some of my nonfiction books for the educational market is not quite as difficult, as these are generally more fact-based informational books. Nonfiction books for the trade market, though, need that perfect throughline—the “heart” that ties everything together. Another challenge is trying to figure out what to leave out when you find SO many cool facts you’d like to include but can’t.

As for fiction, my challenge is ALWAYS the overall plotting of a manuscript. I can come up with fun characters, the perfect title, interesting settings, a strong story problem, a compelling voice, and so forth, but sometimes combining all of those elements into a cohesive plot with a spot-on story arc can be a definite challenge. But I’ve learned if I stick with a story I love, it usually works itself out.

Thank you Katy! To learn how to apply for a mentorship with her check out  http://beckytarabooks.com/contest/

Meet mentor Marcie Colleen

Anyone involved in the kidlit community probably already knows Marcie Colleen. She is active in 12 x 12, teaches Kid Lit Summer School, and is a frequent presenter at SCBWI conferences, through online webinars and at a host of other venues. She is always extremely generous with both her advice and her time. In fact, I was hesitant to even ask Marcie to participate, as she gives so much to our community already. I used the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon approach and had one of my CPs who already knew her, reach out on my behalf. And luckily for us, she said YES! (Maybe I should create a game like that? Six Degrees of Marcie?) She is so full of knowledge and energy that her mentee will be lucky indeed.

How did you make the jump from picture books to chapter books, and do you think you will tackle middle grade one day?

First, let me say, I know that I got lucky. I was already writing picture books when I was approached by Erin Stein, publisher at Imprint/Macmillan. She had an idea for a chapter book series and needed an author. To tell you the truth, I was super nervous. Although I had often thought about delving into chapter books, I didn’t know the first thing about writing them. But the concept was so awesome that I couldn’t say no. As for a possible middle grade in the future, I definitely think there is a possibility. These shorter texts have been like a gateway drug to longer form. 

You are active in several children’s writing organizations. What did you find most helpful and worthwhile when you started to pursue your dream of writing for children?

The most worthwhile aspect has been the classes I have taken to focus on craft. Craft is king! I will never feel like I am finished learning. And it’s my foundation of craft that has gotten me this far.

Your bio states that you live with a mischievous sock monkey. Tell us about that.

Oh yes. I live with a seven-year-old sock monkey named Bloois who is always up to something. He has been the source of much inspiration. Living with Bloois is like living with a year-round Elf on the Shelf or the Dinovember dinosaurs. Once I came home to find Bloois had gotten into the marshmallows (see exhibit A). And he has a penchant for riding ceiling fans (see exhibit B). 

Bloois
Bloois Exhibit A
Bloois Exhibit B

 

 

 

 

 

 

I love funny titles and this one is soooo creative. Tell us what was the idea that sparked Love, Triangle?

It’s kind of a funny story. I attended my first ever conference—the Winter 2012 SCBWI conference in New York City. One of the keynotes was given by bestselling author, Cassandra Clare, and titled “Love Triangles and Forbidden Love: Creating and Maintaining Romantic Tension in YA Literature.” Much of what she had to say made me blush. I turned to picture book author, Jodi Moore, who was sitting next to me, and jokingly whispered, “Doubt I will use anything from THIS in a picture book.” Jodi responded, “You never know.” That planted the seed. At that moment, I wondered if there was any way I could possibly write a love triangle picture book. I kept mulling over the idea and, a little over a year later, the premise finally came to me: a Circle and a Square are best friends until a more interesting Triangle shows up. After lots of encouragement from friends, I sat down and wrote it. Guess you can never predict where inspiration will turn up.

What character in Super Happy Party Bears do you identify with most?

There are a dozen Super Happy Party Bears. Although they have their own individual attributes they operate like a relentlessly cheery Greek chorus. And each one is in some way a spirit animal of mine. 

You claim to have a picture of yourself with Lin-Manuel Miranda. As someone afflicted with Hamalaria (complete obsession with all things Hamilton the Musical), I must see this. Can you tell us how you got a picture with the Shakespeare of our day?

My previous career was in the NYC theatre world. I worked for a few companies which created educational materials for Broadway shows. In any case, Broadway was my SCBWI back then. It was my tribe. In April 2009, my friend Lisa Howard was in the musical 9 TO 5 and invited me to the opening night performance and party. This was pre-HAMILTON, of course. Lin-Manuel was starring at the time in his debut Broadway show, IN THE HEIGHTS, and was at the party. My friend Eddie and I chatted with him a bit about his recent success. It was Eddie who insisted we take photos. It’s not usually my style to do so, but I am so happy I have it now. 

(I am very happy she has it too, as I can’t stop looking at it!)

Marcie and Lin-Manuel Miranda

 

Thank you Marcie! To apply for a mentorship with her- http://beckytarabooks.com/contest/

Meet mentor Beth Ferry

I have been a Beth Ferry fangirl from the beginning of her career. Stick and Stone came to my attention before it was released (probably by perusing Publishers Marketplace). I immediately pre-ordered and was over the moon when I got my hands on it. Then came Land Shark which I liked even better. I have a shark-obsessed son, so it was an instant hit in our house. So when I sat down to dream up this contest, my top priority was to get great mentors. I immediately put Beth on my “wish list”. Eventually I mustered up the courage to ask her and SHE SAID YES! And now I get to ask her some more questions!

You have said the inspiration for your amazing book, Stick and Stone, came from a Train song, Drops of Jupiter. Can you tell me about Land Shark and how you came up with that idea?

Land Shark was inspired by a friend’s puppy who was chewing on a piece of furniture. Although I have lived through this very same experience, I couldn’t find the humor in it until it was happening to someone else. Somehow my mind jumped from puppy to shark and I began researching what these two had in common—which is quite a lot—biting, chewing, swimming, great sense of smell, etc. From there the story just worked—boy wants shark, but comes to love a dog who acts like a shark. I think anyone who has ever had a puppy can totally relate.

One of the many things I love about Land Shark is the MC’s haircut (it resembles a shark fin). Did you know Ben Mantle was planning on that, and what was your reaction when you saw it?

I love the main character’s hair too! And no, it was a complete and delightful surprise. When I saw the first sketches, I loved how the little boy looked. It would have never occurred to me to give him shark fin hair, but it was perfect.

Between your published books and upcoming titles-Land Shark, Pirate’s Perfect Pet, Swashby and the Sea, A Small Blue Whale– there is definitely a “sea” theme going on. Does living by the shore influence you, or do you think you would be writing about these subjects no matter where you lived?

Living by the beach has definitely influenced my subject matter. I’ve lived close to the ocean my whole life, so I think it’s a subconscious, but natural thing. I just like everything that has to do with the beach. I never really think “I’m going to write about the beach,” it just happens. Swashby is the only story where I set out to write about the sea as a character. After these books, my next five books have nothing to do with the sea, which is probably a good thing.

What future projects are you especially excited about?

It’s hard not to be excited about them all. Tom Lichtenheld and I are working on a book together which is fantastically fun. I also have the opportunity to work with the Fan Brothers on a book called The Scarecrow. I’m anticipating seeing sketches soon for Swashby and the Sea, which is very exciting. Lastly, I’ve recently sold my first non-fiction book so I am excited about that.

Thank you, Beth! To apply for a mentorship with Beth- http://beckytarabooks.com/contest/

Meet mentor Penny Parker Klostermann

In honor of Penny’s magically poetic There Was an Old Dragon Who Swallowed a Knight, I had my rhyming friend (aka Derick Wilder) conjure up a fitting introduction…

There was a kind author who picked up her pen.

She had an idea, then started to grin.

 

She picked up her pen to conjure a rhyme,

then polished and tweaked it till it was sublime.

 

She added an arc, for that was imperative,

and also included impeccable narrative.

 

She wrote of a dragon, a knight and a castle

(swallowed up whole, to the last golden tassel).

 

She added a lady, a squire and a cook.

Then wrapped it all up with a wonderful hook.

 

She’s a children’s book author – there have been many.

But few are as bright as this shiny new Penny!

 

Before you were a picture book author, you were an elementary school PE teacher, and you created games based on books. Would you share one of those with us?

I created a game based on Bony Legs, written by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Dirk Zimmer. Here is a short synopsis of the story:

 When a terrible witch vows to eat a little girl for supper, the girl escapes with the help of a mirror and comb given to her by the witch’s cat and dog.

First, I read the book. Then I chose two or three students to be Old Bony Legs. They wore colored pinnies. All the other students were given a card to carry as the students playing Old Bony Legs chased them. The cards had a picture of either a mirror, a comb, or Old Bony Legs. When a student was tagged, they had to hand their card over to the Old Bony Legs that tagged them. If the card had a mirror or a comb on it, the student was free to get another card from me. If it had Old Bony Legs on it, they switched places with the Old Bony Legs that tagged them. This kept the students constantly active, and it was exciting for them to reveal the picture on their card.

There Was an Old Dragon Who Swallowed a Knight has won several awards, including Best in Rhyme at the 2015 Rhyming Picture Book Revolution Conference. The book is full of surprising rhymes. You talked about one of these in your interview with Matthew Winner on his All the Wonders podcast, and it was impressive how long you took to explore alternatives to castle/hassle (which you felt was the obvious choice) to eventually get to the alternative castle/tassel (the surprising choice).  It took you days, and yet the result seems effortless. How long, on average, do you work on a rhyming manuscript before it goes to your critique partners?

It’s really hard to say because each story is so different. I spent seven days on DRAGON before sending it to my critique group the first time. But that was really quick. And it was earlier in my writing career and now I think I would have held onto it longer and perfected it more before sending it to them. Other than DRAGON, I would say that after a draft is written I spend about two months perfecting a rhyming manuscript before sending it to my group.

Do you have any best practices for rhyming picture book writers as to how to find those less predictable choices?

I research my character, setting, and anything else I think is relative, and then paste the research at the bottom of my story. This immediately helps as I’m looking for language that’s relevant to my story. For instance, with DRAGON I researched medieval times. I wanted to know who would work with a knight and in a castle. This helped with ideas for rhymes and ideas for my story. And I always keep RhymeZone.com and Thesaurus.com open in my browser. I use them constantly to see if there is a rhyme I’m not thinking of or if there is a synonym with options for more surprising rhymes.

You have a feature on your blog “A Great Nephew and a Great Aunt” which highlights collaborations between you and your seventh-grade nephew Landon, as well as guest collaborators. It’s a great introduction to the cooperative process of making picture books. What inspired you to start this series?

I was trying to think of something different to blog about. Since I also write poetry and feel that writing poetry has helped me immensely with writing picture books, I thought I would share poems. But I wanted another element. I wanted images. So I thought it would be great to have an illustration to go along with the poem. I’m not an artist so that wasn’t an option. Then I thought about my nephew, Landon, who is a very talented artist. I loved this idea because I love children’s art. When I taught school seeing their art hanging in the hallways made me smile. So I ran it by his parents and then they ran it by him and “A Great Nephew and a Great Aunt” was born.

Any fun new projects you want to share with us? When does A Cooked-Up Fairytale release?

At this point I have several stories on submission but no new book deals. A Cooked-Up Fairytale releases September 5, 2017. I’ve seen the final art and it’s amazing!

There Was an Old Dragon Who Swallowed a Knight is written in rhyme but A Cooked-Up Fairytale is written in prose. Do you prefer rhyming over prose or vice versa?

I don’t prefer one over the other. It seems that a story comes to me one way or the other. In fact, my stories on submission are half rhyme and half prose, and one of them is both — prose with a rhyming refrain.

Thank you Penny! To apply for a mentorship with Penny please see http://beckytarabooks.com/contest/

Meet mentor Andrea Zuill

 

I became an instant fan of Andrea Zuill when I picked up her debut picture book Wolf Camp. I loved the quirky illustration style and the imaginative and funny text. I appreciated the concept—the way she found a new angle on a dog book and made it fresh. But the book also had the most important quality for me—a laugh out loud scene that made it impossible to leave the bookstore without it. (I will post that scene at the end of this interview for any deprived people who have not seen this book yet!) So when it was time to recruit for this contest, I knew I had to ask her or I would never forgive myself for not trying.

What is your method for writing a picture book and do you find yourself experimenting a lot during the process? What comes first? The words or the pictures?

I always start with a character that I love and form a story around them. How I create the story is very impulse driven. Sometimes I try writing it first or at least try to get some of the interesting bits written down so I remember them. Very often in the middle of this I get the urge to start drawing, and I’ve learned over the years to go with my instinct. It becomes a back and forth of writing a bit then drawing. It’s very important to me not to impose too many rules when I’m trying to develop a story.

What are the main influences on your work?

I adore Ian Falconer’s character Olivia. His books were the first ones I gleaned onto when I started in children’s books. Quentin Blake is a master. I use his books a lot when I’m stuck and need to jump-start my brain. Ryan Higgins’ Mother Bruce is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. And even though he’s not a picture book author, I love Terry Pratchett.  

What mediums and tools do you like to work with?

I work with ink (drawing pens), watercolor and Photoshop.

How do you go about selecting your palette?

I try to do a few test pieces to get a feel for what I want. I try to keep it simple so I am able to keep the color consistent throughout the story.

You were mentored yourself when you won the LA SCBWI mentorship. How did that experience help you on your journey?

There’s nothing better than having a person with fresh eyes look at your work. They spotted things that I couldn’t see. The SCBWI mentorship is a very short mentorship. It is mainly one meeting with each of the mentors. I feel if you can find a mentor that you can work with over time, that is the best. 

Can you tell us about how your own dog, Homer, influenced the character in Wolf Camp?

My family adopted Homer after our first dog passed away. He was just a puppy at a local shelter. I found him online and fell in love with his little face. When we got him home we noticed some interesting things about him. He likes rules. He doesn’t like to get into trouble, so when he learns a rule he follows it. He’s a scaredy cat. He’s pretty sure the world is out to get him. He was never much of a dog to watch TV, but one day, we were watching a documentary about wolves in Yellowstone. He watched the whole thing. That’s when I started thinking about what would it be like for a very domesticated dog getting a chance to live as a wild wolf.  

You have another book coming out this spring, Dance is for Everyone. Can you tell us a bit about it and what was the inspiration spark?

You might say that this book is my answer to artistic elitism. I’m a firm believer that art is for everyone and is not just for the gifted. Plus, I was an awkward child so dance was not considered an option for me. The Alligator in the story is that awkward child, but instead of being turned away from dance she is embraced.

Thank you Andrea! To learn more about Andrea and apply for a mentorship- http://beckytarabooks.com/contest/

Hilarious excerpt from Wolf Camp.

Meet mentor Paul Czajak

I was at my first conference, New England SCBWI in 2015, when I met Paul Czajak. I was sitting behind him in a marketing class. I’d been waiting for Seaver the Weaver to be released (it was on my “awesome looking picture books coming out list”) when I realized who he was and fangirled him. “You’re the Seaver the Weaver guy!” He called security and …. just kidding, Paul was very nice about it. So when thinking of mentors for this contest, specifically masters of rhyme, I immediately thought of asking Paul. Luckily, he was nice to me again and said yes!

Your Monster and Me series has been very successful with five books to date. How long had you been working towards publication when the first Monster was acquired? Did you know it was going to be a series from the beginning?

I was writing for about a year when my offer for the Monster series came through. I had written a story called My Monster Needs a Haircut, I dropped the “My” during the editing process, and sent it out to a handful of houses that were accepting open submissions. Within a month, I received two offers, one of which was from Mighty Media. Both houses were small independent publishers, but I decided to go with Mighty Media since they saw the series potential and asked if I had other Monster stories I could send. At the time, I was working on my second and had ideas for a few others. I of course said, “sure, I have plenty to share,” and quickly got to writing. I think I wrote three others within that week, and was able to send them the drafts. They liked them and the rest is history!

How did you connect with your publisher? Did you have an agent at the time?

I was constantly looking for publishing houses online that accepted open submissions since I did not have an agent at the time. I subscribed to an email service/blog that would send out notifications of houses that had open submissions. Mighty Media was in one of those emails and so I did a cold submission. So yes, it was a slush pile submission of a rhyming book, bought as a series, also known as a “unicorn.”

There is lots of advice out there for new kidlit writers not to write in rhyme for various reasons, some of them legitimate. Were you told not to write in rhyme when you started out?  Why did you ignore that advice?

At the time, I was told the same thing, and when I got this idea for Monster I wasn’t thinking, “I’m going to write a rhyming book.” The story just came out that way. My daughter said to me one day when I was driving her to preschool, “My monster needs a haircut,” and then I immediately thought

his hair is getting long

It’s looking very matted and the style is all wrong.

I took him to the barber and he trembled quite a bit.

He stomped his feet, he cried out loud and then he had a fit.

For some reason the Monster stories just came naturally in rhyme. I think some stories just do that, where others are being forced because the author either likes to write in rhyme or feels that it’s necessary. Rhyme gets a bad rap for several reasons, one of which is marketing since it’s difficult to translate into other languages. But the biggest reason, I think, is because there are so many bad rhyming books out there and editors are tired of reading them. Writing in rhyme is not easy, and it takes work to have the correct meter and rhyme on top of having a great story. The most important thing about writing a rhyming book isn’t the rhyme, it’s having a great story. If you don’t have a great story, I don’t care how good the rhyme is. Rhyme will never make a bad story great, but it can make a great story bad.

Imagine an alternate reality where you do not have kids. Do you think you would have ended up a kidlit writer without them?

Probably not. I get all my great ideas from my kids. Without my daughter saying, “My monster needs a haircut,” Monster never would exist.

I love the fact that Seaver was a real spider. What is another odd or unique way you have thought of a book idea?

I once came up with the idea of a story after watching a Hallmark card commercial and thinking this would be so much funnier if it had zombies in it. Then I wrote a story about a zombie looking for love on Valentine’s Day, but I found out that story had basically been done. The idea still made me laugh, though, so I rewrote it as a take on the Frog Prince, but with zombies. My agent likes it and is currently shopping it around, so fingers crossed!

What is your writing process? Do you write daily?

I was going to take a break today but then someone sent me an interview that just HAD to be done. Kidding! I write almost every day. Either writing a new story, revising an old one or helping out a critique group buddy with one of their stories. Writing only gets better the more you do it. If you are waiting for that special feeling of inspiration to write, you may be waiting a long time, and during that time skills do diminish. I’m not saying you need to sit down and write a novel every day, but on those days you don’t have that idea for a story, go back to your older work and see how you can make it better. Who knows, maybe looking over an older piece may spark an idea for a newer one.

Any new projects you want to tell us about?

I do have several picture books I’m working on, none of which have sold yet. I’m also working on a YA novel. I’ve been through several revisions and finally shared it with my agent who then said it needs more conflict, therefore a rewrite. Let me tell you, rewriting a YA is not the same as rewriting a picture book. But as with all things it’s a journey, and if you’re not willing to deal with a few bumps in the road along the way, then stay home.

To learn more about Paul, and for the chance to win a mentorship, enter Writing with the Stars at http://beckytarabooks.com/contest/

 

Meet mentor Laura Gehl

 

 

I am a connoisseur of all picture books with potty jokes, underwear, farts, burps (I have three boys), so when I saw the title of One Big Pair of Underwear, I knew it was for me. The concept is great, the title brilliant, and so Laura Gehl joined my “picture book authors to watch” radar. I was thrilled when Laura agreed to participate in Writing with the Stars.

You have a B.A. in psychology from Yale and a Ph. D in neuroscience from Georgetown. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you were not planning on becoming a children’s book writer. How did you get into the industry?

I’ve always loved children’s books and writing, but children’s book writer definitely did not seem like a career I could actually aspire to. It was more in the category of “cool jobs I could never have,” like ballerina. I was pregnant with my second son when I finished graduate school. I worried I could not continue lab research and spend as much time as I wanted to with my family. So, I started science writing for both children and adults, which I still do today, and over time the science writing for children grew into writing children’s books. No luck on the ballerina front, though.

You have four kids! I think most writers with kids find it challenging to find writing time. What are your time management secrets?

If you think of writing as something you MUST do—like taxes or visiting the dentist, except way more fun—instead of a luxury to fit in if you can, I think that helps!  I am also a big fan of the “write every day” school of thought.  Most people feel weird if they don’t have a chance to brush their teeth on a certain day, or don’t have the opportunity to change their underwear on a certain day (okay, I may have one kid who does not feel weird about that at all). Even if you can only get in a few minutes of writing every day, you form the habit, and then you feel weird when you don’t write, which makes you more motivated to write every day, which keeps the cycle going!

I understand you are a chocoholic. Are you a “I only eat Vosges Haute Chocolate” type of person or “Give me a Hershey Bar” type?

It all depends on my level of desperation! I prefer good quality dark chocolate, and that is what I eat on a daily basis. But I was once in Ecuador, in the jungle, surrounded by cacao trees but with no actual processed chocolate anywhere for DAYS (shudder).  When I finally reached a location with Hershey’s chocolate bars, I think I ate five at once!  

Was there anything you splurged on when you got your first book advance?

I usually celebrate a book sale with extra chocolate…such as a Belgian Chocolate Shake from Häagen-Dazs.

Peep and Egg has been a very successful four book series. Is it easier to write in a series or a stand alone?

I think there are challenges to both. With a series, you need to stay true to the characters and style of the series, yet keep each individual book interesting.  With a stand-alone, you need to come up with a completely new idea and fresh, intriguing characters. I truly love both types of writing. 

I am always fascinated about where book ideas come from. Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming book My Pillow Keeps Moving and the spark that started that story?

My Pillow Keeps Moving is about a lonely man and a dog who needs a home and how they find each other.  When I started the story, the man was the main character and the dog was a source of slapstick humor (the title comes from the fact that the man mistakes the dog for a pillow and then does not understand why his pillow keeps moving around when he is trying to sleep). When I realized, in an AHA! moment, that the dog should be a more active participant, that the dog should make the decision to purposely disguise himself as a pillow and find himself a home, the magic really started to happen. I can’t wait for this book to come out.

Thank you Laura. To apply for a picture book writing mentorhsip with Laura- http://beckytarabooks.com/contest/

 

an image from One Big Pair of Underwear

Meet mentor Pam Calvert

 

I first learned of Pam Calvert back when I still owned my toy and book store. I hand-picked every book that made it onto the shelves, searching for books that were visually appealing and worked well with the themes of the toys I was selling, but were also unique in some way. I hit the jackpot when I found Princess Peepers. It was beautifully illustrated, relevant for my princess theme, and dealt with a niche subject in a novel way that would appeal to every little princess, bespectacled or not. Fast-forward a bunch of years and now I am on this side of the business and get to actually interview Pam!

I love that your main character in the Princess Peepers series wears glasses. What sparked this story idea and what has been the most gratifying part of sharing these books with children?

The idea came from a combination of things. A lady asked me if I could write a book about a princess with glasses or if I knew of a book like that because her little girl wouldn’t wear glasses, since princesses don’t. I found that odd, so I did some research and found out that it was indeed true! Princesses don’t wear glasses. Immediately, I set out to correct that situation and, along the way help the self- esteem of little girls. I knew the hardships of being different–I wore glasses as a child and suffered a lot of teasing. 

I loved the line in Princess Peepers Picks a Pet where she uses the phrase “Fairy Dust” like a curse word.  How did that come to you? Was it instant or something that took a while to come up with?

There was a little-known chapter book series that I loved where the little girl main character cursed using words like “bumbleberries” or “flapjacks.” I thought that was so cute and decided Princess Peepers should do something equally memorable. Thinking about her character, I figured she’d use words like “fairy dust” or “stinky troll’s feet.” Then I remembered how Robin, Batman’s sidekick, would use “Holy Fill-in-the-blank” and Peepers repertoire of cute curses was born. Holy glass slippers! 

You are dedicated to helping writers perfect their craft and your blog highlights many amazing educational opportunities. What did you find particularly helpful when starting out?

ICL (Institute for Children’s Literature) was by far the biggest help to me as a novice writer. I worked with two different authors and they helped me see that I needed A LOT of help. The class gave me kid goggles and a great perspective on how to write for children. After that, I was ready for picture books and furthered my education by taking Anastasia Suen’s Intensive Picture book Workshop. I’d advise anyone who really wants to get published to take some of her classes. Well worth the money.

What was the most amusing thing that has happened to you on a school visit?

Oh goodness! Something funny happens almost every time. The funniest was at a school in Mesquite. Here’s a conversation from that event (CK means cute kid):

I’m walking down the hallway after my presentations are over and after I signed some autographs (probably about fifty kids surrounded me in a flurry).

 CK 1: Ms. Calvert, you signed an autograph for me, didn’t you?

 Me (wide eyed, had-no-idea-if-I-did, smiling): Oh, well, yeah, of course!

 CK 1: THANKS!

 CK 2 (shakes head): Un uh! He forged your signature and is charging kids $2 an autograph!

 Me (stomach plunges)

There you go!

Thank you, Tara!

To apply for a picture book mentorship with Pam- http://beckytarabooks.com/contest/

Meet mentor Peter McCleery

 

 

One look at Peter McCleery’s website and you instantly know he’s a funny guy. I first learned of Peter when I was in the get-an-agent trenches. He was being interviewed about how he got his agent and shared his query letter. I tried to write a query in that humorous way, but I could not pull it off with aplomb. But, it worked for Peter and his debut picture book Bob and Joss Get Lost releases February 2017.

What is your writing process? Do you write every day?

The word that might best describe my writing process is “sporadic.” So no, I do not write every day. Or every week. I probably wouldn’t recommend my approach for most people, because I certainly wish I was more productive and steady. Getting my butt in the chair is probably the hardest part of being a writer. An analogy of my writing process is akin to a miner. When I hit a creative vein, I’m enthusiastic and determined and I keep at it regularly until the creative flow dries up. Then I wait around for inspiration. But I long ago realized that the “waiting around” is as essential and productive part of the process as anything else. My mind is working on old ideas, new ideas, figuring out solutions to problems in manuscripts. That part is also “writing.” And it also gives me a good excuse why I’m not as productive as I’d like to be! Bonus!

I also think that it’s important to step back and put some distance between myself and my manuscripts. There’s old advice about putting your work in a drawer and forgetting about it for a while. It’s very valuable advice and works especially well for me because I have a terrible memory and often I’ll reread a manuscript and forget that I wrote entire parts of it. It gives me a very objective perspective. So, this means I have dozens of incomplete manuscripts in various stages of development. I go with the one that’s speaking the loudest and the one I’m most excited about at any given moment.

 

What was the idea that started Bob and Joss? How long did it take you to write?

The first draft came to me very quickly and completely. I woke up one morning and started writing it. I didn’t know what it was or who these characters were. But I had to get their dialogue and situation down as soon as I could. At that point all it was alternating dialogue between these two very different friends, Bob and Joss. No description, no action, just funny, absurd banter. It was almost like little vignettes or scenes. When I shared it with people almost everyone said, “This is great but it’s not a picture book.” So I shelved it for a few years. But it was always there speaking to me. So one day I pulled it back out and expanded it into an “easy readerish-graphic novel-chapter book type of thing. I sent that version off to my agent and a few weeks later we had a 2-book deal. Because a few publishing houses made offers it was interesting to see the wide range of approaches they had for the book. Some of them saw it as a picture book, one saw it as an early reader graphic novel series, and one wanted to lengthen it and turn it into a chapter book. In the end, HarperCollins’ vision of it as a picture book won out.

The sequel, Bob and Joss Take a Hike! (HarperCollins 2018), was a very different experience. I wrote many, many drafts of various ideas. Then, with a deadline approaching, I finally hit that creative vein I mentioned earlier and then it came somewhat easily. I guess I just had to keep picking away with my Mindaxe and blowing up ideas with my creative TNT.

 

Your first professional review is out and it was a good one! How nerve-wracking was that process?

I felt a huge amount of relief. When you do something creative you put yourself out there. You make yourself vulnerable. So when someone pats you on the back instead of pointing and laughing, it feels good. I felt even more relief afterward because I decided to google “bad Kirkus reviews” just to see what the alternative could have been. I don’t recommend this. They are known for being brutally honest and they do not disappoint. I feel especially lucky now and my sympathies are with any authors who receive a bad review.

 

Bob and Joss hit the debut jackpot with Vin Vogel illustrating. What was your reaction when you found out?

Vin is amazing. His images are so expressive, vibrant and fun. Our pairing came together a bit different than most picture books because Vin and I shared an agent. She sort of packaged us together knowing that it was a perfect fit. So, Vin did a few character sketches that were sent along with the manuscript to publishing houses. Most of the editors agreed that he was the perfect illustrator for the job! And he was. What I am impressed with most is how he visually created differences in the characters that are echoed in the dialogue and story. With one look at Bob and Joss you know who they are before they even start talking. That interplay is what makes picture books so special. One other side note: Vin’s illustrations of Bob and Joss look a lot like my two sons. What’s weird is that Vin had never met me or my kids. He had no idea what they looked like. Coincidence or fate?

 

Have you tried your hand at writing anything that is not humor based?

Well, I have a few works in progress that are not necessarily serious but they aren’t as jokey and absurd as Bob and Joss. I like to think they have more poignancy but still maintain a sense of irony and my particular voice (whatever that is). Back to the mining metaphor. If I’m excited about an idea I will follow it wherever it leads, even to a more serious place. Hopefully, in the future I will expand my comfort zone even further. That said, don’t expect to be reading heartfelt tearjerkers from me. I love writing funny stuff. That’s my wheelhouse.

Thank you Peter! For all contest rules and to apply http://beckytarabooks.com/contest/