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Meet Mentor Rachel Ruiz

My sister Becky met Rachel through a common network of TV production friends from her casting days. A natural storyteller, Rachel had been creating content for Reality TV, news, and documentaries for National Geographic, A&E, the History Channel, and the Oprah Winfrey Network. So, it is not surprising that while working on the Obama campaign and trying to explain who POTUS was to her three-year-old daughter, she was inspired to write her first picture book, WHEN PENNY MET POTUS.  

Your book, WHEN PENNY MET POTUS, was inspired by your daughter’s questions about President Obama. But in the book, the POTUS is a woman. Was that your idea, the publisher’s, or the illustrator’s? 

It was my idea. Other than shortening the manuscript a bit, my publisher left the story intact. I wanted Penny’s journey to end on an inspirational note. I wanted Penny to realize she can be president one day, or anything else she dreams of being. And hopefully, that’s the takeaway for all readers and listeners.

WHEN HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON PLAYED ICE HOCKEY and WHEN ROSA PARKS WENT FISHING are about two important women. Who else would be on your wish list to write about?

Oh, so many! Michelle Obama, Katherine Johnson, Eliza Hamilton, and Sally Ride are just a few.

Do you know if Hillary Clinton read your book?

Yes, she read both WHEN PENNY MET POTUS and WHEN HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON PLAYED ICE HOCKEY because I sent them to her! She wrote back the most kind, supportive, and inspiring words.

As someone who has worked in entertainment for years, what surprised you most about the publishing industry?

In the world of television production, things move very fast and there is a lot of deadline pressure. So, I guess I was surprised at how much slower things move in the publishing world.

Is there a difference between how you approach your storytelling for TV versus for books? Any similarities?

There is. When I write for TV or the Internet, I have to be a lot more concise than when I’m writing books. I have to figure out the most interesting way to tell the whole story in 2-3 minutes, as opposed to 32 pages. This skill is helpful when writing children’s books because it helps me drill down to the heart of my story, and then expand on it.

What specific things did you do on your road to publication that were the most helpful to your success?

Doing lots (and lots) of research on children’s books! Learning what’s already been published on the topics and the stories I want to write about.

What are you working on next?

I’m writing a graphic novel about Martin Luther King Jr. for kids, and it will be available next year. I’m super excited about it because my daughter and I are very into graphic novels at the moment. I’m especially excited about the opportunity to tell a non-fiction story in a new and fun way.

Rachel also incorporates her film-making and storytelling skills to create promotional book trailers. Through her production company with her husband, Flash Rock Films, Rachel has produced trailers for her own books. She would love to help more authors with their own book trailer needs. If you are in the market for a book trailer, you can check out some of her projects here:  http://www.flashrockfilms.com/  

To learn more about Rachel visit https://www.rachelruizbooks.com/

Thank you, Rachel. Remember to support our mentors by buying their books, leaving on-line reviews, and telling your librarians.

To learn how to apply for a mentorship with Writing with the Stars  http://beckytarabooks.com/wwts-contest/

  

Meet Mentor Stacy McAnulty

Some days I pinch myself. Am I really about to be a published author? Did Stacy McAnulty really take me under her wing? When do I wake up? From helping me with my writing and holding my hand through my auction to dealing with publicity departments and how to prepare for the professional reviews smackdown, Stacy’s tutelage has been invaluable in countless ways. This is where it all began folks—with this amazing, generous author. Without Stacy, there wouldn’t be a Writing with the Stars. Her career is on fire and she deserves every bit of it! So, raise a glass to Stacy!

When you offered a free mentorship a few years ago, did you ever imagine your good deed would lead to this?

NO! I wanted to do something to help new writers, but I didn’t have the time or skills to start a big program. I basically wanted a pyramid scheme. I’d help someone, then he/she would help someone else. (That doesn’t exactly make a pyramid. More of a chain reaction.) But you blew it up! Now we are rewarding dozens of aspiring writers. And it doesn’t cost the writer anything. The kidlit community has been very generous.

You recently released your first nonfiction picture book, EARTH! MY FIRST 4.54 BILLION YEARS. Can you tell us how this was a different process from writing fiction picture books?  

I didn’t mean too. I started writing a book about a pet rock, and it just wasn’t working. I realized I was trying to tell Earth’s history. So I switched to NF. All writing is scary and difficult. With nonfiction, you need sources and “proof” (and there’s a lot of contradiction in science and history). It’s also challenging to create a plot because you can’t manipulate a story to fit your writing goals. Yet somehow, I’ve fallen in love with NF and have five more coming out with Henry Holt.

Did you know from the pre-writing phase that the story would be from the Earth’s POV?

After I dumped the pet rock story, every draft of EARTH was from her POV. I subscribed to the Oscar Wilde saying, “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you.” (Which he may or may not have actually said.) I wanted to make kids laugh and Earth—imagined as 4.54-year-old child—was the perfect character to do that.

Your books, BEAUTIFUL and BRAVE are impactful to readers. What are some of the coolest responses you have received from kids about those books?

I love when I see these books used in schools. One teacher had the kids write “I’m beautiful because…” and the students could not use physical descriptions. They had answers like because I’m a good friend, because I work hard, because I love Jesus.

What about adults?

With BEAUTIFUL, I’ve signed and personalized the book for lots of kids but also for high school graduates, for grandmothers, for teachers, and for a teen finishing treatment for an eating disorder. Women are connecting with it in ways I hadn’t considered.

Your first middle grade novel comes out next year, THE MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL. Can you tell us a bit about it and where the idea came from?

MLG is about a 12-year-old who was struck by lightning and is now a math genius. After being homeschooled for 4 years, she’s technically ready for college, but her grandmother sends her to public middle school instead. She doesn’t exactly fit in. Which is how I felt—and probably most kids feel—in middle school. The idea for MLG came from reading books about acquired savant syndrome. It’s a real thing! Major head trauma can rewire our brains. This idea fascinated me. My character sprang from this.  

You are extremely prolific. Currently published are 7 picture books and 6 chapter books and you have several more under contract, including 2 novels, 3 chapter books, and 9 picture books. How do you schedule your writing time?

I have three kids, and I work while they’re at school. That’s when I do most of my writing and editing. In the evenings and on weekends, I do most of my marketing. I estimate I put in 60 hours per week. (My husband thinks it’s closer to 80.) Unfortunately, writing is only half the job for an author. The other half is spent on website design and maintenance, social media, arranging school visits, doing school visits, running to the bank and post office, travel for festivals and conferences, taxes and other financial paperwork, mentoring, blogging, critique groups, creating presentations, emails, designing swag, emails, teaching, etc.

Have you ever messed up somebody’s book with a sharpie while signing it?

YES. Recently I spelled birthday wrong. I CANNOT chat while signing. I always mess up if I talk while writing.

What is something about the industry that still surprises you?

There’s always more to want. There’s always a next level. Of course, I was excited to land an agent. Of course, I was thrilled to get a book deal. But then you want the NEXT book deal. Then, when the book nears publication, you want good reviews. When it’s out, you want decent sales. Then you want… basically, the WANT LIST is never ending. You want it in B&N, Target, Costco, on the Indie Next List, reviewed in NYT, Entertainment Weekly, Wall Street Journal, added to best-of-year lists, considered for awards, on bestseller lists, etc. I’m thrilled to have the career I have, but I need to keep hustling (and writing) to get to those next milestones.

Tell us a bit about your newest funny picture book (April 10, 2018) MAX EXPLAINS EVERYTHING, illustrated by Deborah Hocking. Is he like your own son?  

Max was inspired by all three of my kids. He’s a funny know-it-all with a big heart. In the books, he advises readers on subjects on which he’s an expert. The first book comes out in April and it’s about the grocery store. (Aren’t all kids experts on the grocery store? They probably have to go there a lot.) Book 2 is about soccer and book 3 is about caring for a puppy.

When you finish a book, who reads it first?

Either my online critique group—we’ve been together for almost 5 years—or my oldest daughter. She’s 16 and has been reading PB manuscripts for a decade. She’s well on her way to being a kick-butt editor.

What would you tell struggling writers on the verge of quitting? Your struggle is not unique. Most writers have felt this way at one time. I still threaten to quit almost weekly. (It’s basically a running joke in our family now.) It took me over ten years to get published. I used to say that I could have been a doctor or lawyer, if I’d gone back to school instead of spending those years churning out manuscripts. If you really want to quit, perhaps you could set a deadline before making this decision. I’d suggest this: 12* polished PB manuscripts** with 50 rejections on each***. If you still want to quit after this achievement, so be it. (But you KNOW number 13 was the one that would have gotten published.)

*12 is a good number because Aaron Rodgers wears it. Go, Pack, Go!

**by polished PB manuscripts, I mean you have at least 6 saved revisions on your PC and the final version has been mercilessly critiqued by another writer

***rejections can be from agents or editors, but 50 is the minimum

Thank you. Stacy. Please remember to support these mentor authors by buying these books, leaving online reviews and telling your librarians. For all the details on how to apply to Writing with the Stars click here: http://beckytarabooks.com/wwts-contest/

 

Meet Mentor Annie Silvestro

BUNNY’S BOOK CLUB is one of those books that, when I saw it, I thought, “Yes! Brilliant idea.” And the book delivered, as it was every bit as good as it looked. So, when thinking about my Dream Team of mentors for Writing with the Stars, Annie Silvestro immediately came to mind. Anyone who conjures up such a great concept for a picture book is someone I would want to learn from. Fortunately, she said yes, and one lucky mentee (maybe you?) will not only discover the secrets of reading bunnies and skating mice, but a whole lot more.   

BUNNY’S BOOK CLUB is one of my favorite picture books. What was the idea spark behind the book and how long did you work on this book before it was sold?   

Thank you so much! Believe it or not the idea was sparked while I was dressed as a bunny for a Parent Show we put on for the children at my son’s preschool. It was a couple of years before I wrote it down and the story had a few major revisions (and tons of minor ones!) before it sold.

You were a member of Picture the Books, a group of picture book authors who had debuts in 2017. What was the best part of being in a debut group?

I am so grateful for Picture the Books—an extraordinary group of authors and illustrators who have been so incredibly supportive and helpful through every step of the process. The best part has been the bond and friendships it has created between us that will certainly carry on well beyond 2017!

How did you select the name Lucy for the character in MICE SKATING?

It’s one of my favorite names! I have two boys—if I had a girl I would surely have named her Lucy. This is the next best thing.

How long, on average, does it take you to write a new book, and how many do you write in a year?

Great question—that totally varies depending on the idea. MICE SKATING was relatively quick to write which was great. Bunny was much longer. I’m not sure how many I write in a year—this has been a slower writing year because of the learning curve with having books out in the world, doing school visits and signings, and all the fun that comes with marketing and publicity.

What were the things you worried about pre-publication that now, as a published author with two great books under your belt, you don’t worry about anymore?

I am a natural worrier! But now that I have been through the process I’m definitely more relaxed about how things work with bookstore events and school visits. The unknown is always the hardest part.

What do you think are the most important things you did while learning the craft? What would you recommend to all the aspiring picture book writers out there?

I think the most important thing is really taking your time. Be patient. Read and write as much as you can. Join the SCBWI, go to conferences, attend workshops, get critiques. Know that not every manuscript is necessarily a winner, but everything you write is part of a bigger learning process. Last but not least, try not to compare yourself to others.

You have a new book coming out next Christmas, THE CHRISTMAS TREE WHO LOVED TRAINS. Do you want to give us a mini-synopsis? 

Sure! Thanks for asking! THE CHRISTMAS TREE WHO LOVED TRAINS, illustrated by Paola Zakimi, tells the story of a train-loving tree who, with the help of a little holiday magic, learns to love so much more. It’s particularly special to me because my oldest son is a train lover and, as a result, our family has spent lots of time on trains and at train stations. Our train under the Christmas tree is always a highlight of the holiday season.

What other projects are you working on?

I’m very excited for the upcoming Bunny sequel, BUNNY’S BOOK CLUB GOES TO SCHOOL, out in Summer of 2019. And I have a few ideas percolating that I’m looking forward to digging into next.

Thank you so much for having me and for including me as a mentor this year, I’m thrilled to participate and to share all I’ve learned thus far!

Thank you, Annie! Please remember to support the mentors by buying their books, leaving on-line reviews, and telling your librarians. Details on how to apply for a Writing with the Stars mentorship with Annie are here: http://beckytarabooks.com/wwts-contest/

Meet Mentor Jody Jensen Shaffer

I have to thank Alastair Heim for introducing me to the brilliant Jody Jensen Shaffer. I was fortunate enough to be at a conference with both of them, and he recommended I ask Jody to be part of Writing with the Stars. When I looked at her body of work, I immediately knew she was great mentor material. Luckily, she said yes, and some mentee is going to be very happy she did.

Your new book, A CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK, illustrated by Daniel Miyares, comes out February 20, 2018. Can you speak a little about the inspiration behind it? It’s such a clever concept. 

Thanks, Tara! I had been thinking about Kate DiCamillo’s inspiration for The Tale of Despereaux and loved the idea of an “unlikely hero” as the main character for a picture book. A rock was about as unlikely a hero as I could imagine—since Kate had already used a mouse, ha—and my first line in an early draft was “Rocky loved his rock star relatives,” so I combined an unlikely hero with rock puns, and it was, er … rock and roll from there.

PRUDENCE THE PART-TIME COW was the Missouri Center for the Book’s pick to represent the state at the National Book Festival this year. Congratulations! What was that like? Did you attend the event? 

Yes, such a nice surprise! I was super excited to learn that Prudence was chosen to go to D.C.! I didn’t attend the festival, but several friends who did sent me pictures, and it was great to see my STEM-loving cow represent my state!

In addition to over 30 books for children, you have a long list of magazine credits. Did you start writing for children’s magazines before or after your first book was published? What are some of the differences in storytelling for magazines versus picture books? 

I started writing for kids’ magazines first, since I thought I might be able to break into that market more quickly than I could by writing picture books. My kids subscribed to all the great magazines, so I had lots of current market information available. I still mainly publish poetry for magazines, rather than stories, but I’ve done both.

There are several differences between storytelling in magazines and storytelling in picture books. One of the main differences is the number of spreads at your disposal. With magazines, a story might cover two spreads, while in a picture book, you usually have around 14 spreads to work with. As a result, in magazine storytelling, you include more visual description, more transitions, and more dialogue tags. With picture books, one spread might be set in Africa, and the next spread might take place in a child’s room. Also, the art helps tell the story, so you don’t include many descriptions. And many times, the page turn serves as the transition, so you don’t need to add one in the text. I find writing magazine fiction more like writing an essay, while writing picture books is more like writing poetry.

Several of your non-fiction credits include books on celebrities, including Taylor Swift, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Taylor Lautner, and The Rock. Did you get to interview them? If not, how did you research a living celebrity? Do you have any idea if they have read the books? 

Wouldn’t that have been fun! No, I didn’t personally interview any of the celebrities I wrote about, but I did use lots of reliable, first person resources, like interviews others did with the celebrities, YouTube interviews with the celebrity, and interviews from their hometown newspapers when they were first beginning their careers. And, of course, now that they’re well-known, there is lots of information to choose from, sometimes even autobiographies. I don’t know if any of them read my books, but that would be a hoot!

How did you get into that type of work?

While I was learning how to write fiction picture books, I began freelancing with a few book packagers and publishers to write nonfiction picture books. Most of my nonfiction work is a result of those relationships.

You wrote a book about the history of cookies, THE WAY THE COOKIE CRUMBLED, so I have to ask—what is your favorite cookie?

That was a fun one to write and research! In terms of pre-packaged cookies, probably Oreos—double-stuff, please—and for homemade, probably Snickerdoodles, my dad’s favorite.

What kind of writing schedule do you keep?

Now that my kids are in school during the day, I write most days during those hours. I also frequently write or edit in the evenings.

How did you connect with your agent?

Stephanie Fretwell-Hill spoke at the Missouri-Kansas SCBWI conference in 2016. I really liked her and subbed to her six months later. We’ve been working together since January 2017.

What are you working on?

I’ve got lots of things in the hopper, as we say. I’m working on another celebrity biography I’m excited about, and we have several projects out with editors now. I’ve also got a new idea I’m playing with, either on paper or in my head. I’m excited to see what 2018 holds!

Thanks for including me in Writing with The Stars, Tara!

Thank you, Jody.  Look for A CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK on February 20, 2018. IT’S YOUR FIRST DAY OF BUSY BUS! releases July 3, 2018.  All details about applying for a mentorship with Jody can be found here http://beckytarabooks.com/wwts-contest/

Meet Mentor Josh Funk

Unless you have been living under a kidlit rock, you know Josh Funk. He is, hands down, one of the busiest and most prolific people in the industry. In addition, he’s a huge supporter of both established authors and new writers. It would have been so easy for Josh to say he was too busy for Writing with the Stars, but he rearranged his fridge and found some space behind the condiments, making me as happy as a Pirasaur with treasure! So to thank Josh, I asked my friend and fellow writer, Derick Wilder, to kick things off with a rhyme (I hope it doesn’t leave a  stinky stench).

Josh’s Funky Beats

by

Derick Wilder

 

All of Josh’s children’s books

have his distinctive style.

He is known for flawless rhyme,

his beard, and playful smile.

 

Authors conjure characters

to keep the kids engrossed.

So, of course, Josh brought to life

a pancake and French toast.

 

Check out Josh’s writing guide.

Each lesson is sublime.

Oops, I just read number 8—

to never write in rhyme.

(https://www.joshfunkbooks.com/resources-for-writers)

 

What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you at a school visit?

In truth, I don’t do too many school visits due to the day job (I’m a software engineer).

One of the things I like to do during school visits is to create characters with students, asking volunteers for their input. I often ask one student for their favorite food and then another for a job they want to have when they grow up—and then we combine them to create a character. Usually it’s something basic like Professor Pizza or Doctor Hot Dog. But every once in a while, I get a great one.

At one particular visit, I got a President Peanut—which was incredibly spot on. At another, a tiny toddler gave me “geneticist”—which was brilliant—and the most adorable thing coming from someone so small (it’s possible I misheard her and she was saying chicken nugget, which would have answered the previous question; in retrospect, she might not have been that brilliant after all).

What is your writing Kryptonite?

Hmm. Twitter, I guess? I dunno. I’m not sure I have one Kryptonite that rules them all. I actually don’t think too much about my time management issues and it’s been working out pretty well.

When writing picture books, I often get really excited about a particular idea and spend a frenzied amount of time on it for a few days. If I don’t have any ideas at a given time, I have enough to do regarding revision, publicity, events, etc., that I’m always busy with something.

Now I feel like I should have a writing Kryptonite. Maybe not having a writing Kryptonite is my writing Kryptonite?

What is the best thing you ever bought with your earnings?

Earnings? You know I write picture books, right? I started getting large coffees instead of medium, I guess.

Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad ones?

I’ll read the professional journal reviews. And also Kirkus (zing!). And if an educator or blogger has taken the time to review my book, I’m happy to tweet back to them.

But user reviews—I try not to. At the beginning of 2017 I stopped looking at weekly sales numbers, sales rankings, star ratings, etc. I thought “What would Ame Dyckman do?” And then I asked Ame Dyckman what she does—and her answer was to act like a five-year-old.

So that’s how I approach reviews—I act like a five-year-old.

How many stories do you write a year that never make it to your agent?

As the years have gone by and I have less free time to just write, I’ve had to be more calculated about how I spend my writing time. I’m definitely very picky with the ideas that I decide to pursue. I’d say that I probably send 80% of what I write to my agent, but not everything gets shopped to editors for various reasons (timing/quality).

What is the best money you spent on learning the craft?

Going to the Annual New England SCBWI Regional Spring Conference. In 2012, my first writing conference ever, I went for a single day of the three day conference and it was a life-changing experience. As soon as I walked into the conference hotel I knew this was the place for me. I was fortunate to meet a few people who suggested I volunteer the following year, which was exactly what I did in 2013.

And in 2013 I met all the right people—new critique partners, mentors, friends, and lo and behold, in 2016 and 2017 I was co-director of the NESCBWI Conference.

If you live anywhere near New England, mark your calendars for April 20-22, 2018. Registration usually opens in early February, and it WILL fill up—so sign up fast!

You are a huge supporter of independent bookstores and spend a lot of time in them. What is the weirdest thing that has happened to you while doing an event? Best thing?

I think the weirdest and best thing were probably the same.

At Bookbug in Kalamazoo, MI (which you should totally visit if you can), about five minutes before my event, Joanna Parzakonis (owner of Bookbug) whispered to me, “Sarah Stewart and David Small just walked in.”

As I’m sure you know, Sarah Stewart and David Small are an incredible husband and wife author/illustrator team (fwiw, David Small has a collection of seals marked ‘Caldecott’). Their book, The Gardener, is one of my all-time favorite picture books (one of four books that I often credit with making me want to become a writer).

Now don’t get too excited. David and Sarah didn’t come to Bookbug for my event; they’re locals and were there to sign some orders that had come in. But of course, Joanna introduced me and when I told them that The Gardener is one of my favorites, Sarah looked at me sternly and asked, “Why is that?” It was almost as if she was testing me, because, truth be told, The Gardener is one of their most famous books, so any respectful person might say the same thing even if they didn’t mean it—or even know the book that well.

I said, “Because of that wordless spread at the end when Uncle Jim comes to the roof and sees the garden … I get chills every time I read it.” Then Sarah gave me the warmest smile and a hug (apparently I’d passed her test). Joanna had them sign a copy of The Gardener for me, and Sarah wrote the sweetest inspiring note inside.

I was certainly flying pretty high for the rest of the day after that one!

If you ever had the opportunity to open your own indie bookstore, what would you call it?

Since this is totally hypothetical (running a bookstore is soooooo much more work than just ‘reading books all day’ like we all dream), I’m waffling between going with something sassy like Between the Sheets or something on the nose like Coffee and Books.

Did anybody mentor you while learning, officially or unofficially? If you could choose someone to mentor you right now, who would it be?

Starting in the fall of 2011, I took a class through the Lexington (MA) Community Education program taught by author Jane Sutton (The Problem with Cauliflower, Don’t Call Me Sydney, the upcoming Paulie’s Passover Predicament). The course (that I took 8 times between 2011 and 2014) was an incredible introduction to the world of picture books – and it’s still being taught today!

When I met author Anna Staniszewski (Dogosaurus Rex, Power Down, Little Robot, The Dirty Diary MG series) in 2013, she offered invaluable writing insight via critiques of my manuscripts as well as terrific and timely career advice.

And there are so many others who helped me along the way: Heather Kelly, founder of The Writers’ Loft, author Kristine Asselin who connected me to my agent, a plethora of critique partners over the years, and so on. I don’t think there’s anyone in particular I’d choose to mentor me—I’ll just keep soaking up as much information from as many talented individuals as I can.

You are a Little Free Library steward. What is the most unusual book you have seen in there?

Multiple novelizations of the Olsen Twin movies. Hands down.

Thank you, Josh. Please remember to support these mentor authors by buying their books, leaving on-line reviews and telling your librarians.

Bio: Josh Funk writes silly stories and somehow tricks people into publishing them as books—such as the Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast series (including The Case of the Stinky Stench and the upcoming Mission: Defrostable), It’s Not Jack and the BeanstalkDear DragonPirasaurs!, and the forthcoming Albie NewtonHow to Code a Sandcastle (in conjunction with Girls Who Code), Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience and Fortitude (in conjunction with the New York Public Library), It’s Not Hansel and Gretel, and more coming soon!

​Josh is a board member of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA and was the co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conferences.

Josh grew up in New England and studied Computer Science in school. Today, he still lives in New England and when not writing Java code or Python scripts, he drinks Java coffee and writes manuscripts.

Josh is terrible at writing bios, so please help fill in the blanks. Josh enjoys _______ during ________ and has always loved __________. He has played ____________ since age __ and his biggest fear in life is being eaten by a __________.

​For more information about Josh Funk, visit him at www.joshfunkbooks.com and on Twitter at @joshfunkbooks.

Meet Mentor Andrea Loney

I first noticed Andrea Loney as a fellow member of 12 x 12. I so loved TAKE A PICTURE OF ME, JAMES VANDERZEE! that I immediately knew I wanted to ask her to participate in Writing with the Stars. With amazing works in fiction and nonfiction, Andrea’s someone I know we’ll be hearing much more from in years to come!

TAKE A PICTURE OF ME, JAMES VANDERZEE!, won the Lee and Low New Voices Award and was recently nominated for an NAACP Image Award. That must be an amazing feeling of accomplishment. Were you shocked when you found out?

Yes, I was totally shocked. I just got back from the NAACP Image Award Nominee Luncheon and I’m still shocked. What an amazing honor.

How did you celebrate?

First I texted my whole family from coast to coast to let them know. Then my guy took me out to Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles to celebrate!

You volunteer with the organization Reading to Kids. What was it like reading your own book to the kids?

At Reading to Kids I usually read the assigned picture books, not my own. I did get to share my BUNNYBEAR picture book with a Pre-K class, a special needs class, and a third grade class, and it was awesome to listen to the insightful conversations the children shared in regards to the book.   

What is the most amazing thing you have witnessed while working for this program?

I am constantly amazed by how many girls and boys in the Reading to Kids program tell me they want to go to space someday. This is especially thrilling because the aerospace industry is huge in Los Angeles, with Space X, Virgin Galactic, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and more just a freeway ride away. We even have the Space Shuttle Endeavor here at the California Science Center. These kids are just a 45-minute drive away from their dreams.

What do you think are traps for aspiring writers?

I know that one of the biggest traps I fell into as an aspiring writer was getting too attached to one story, then feeling devastated when that story was rejected. What works for me is to work on multiple projects, submit multiple stories, pass the time waiting for responses by writing new projects, note but shrug off the inevitable rejections, and keep generating more new stories.

Do you have a preference for writing fiction versus nonfiction? Do you think one is easier than the other?

As a history buff, it’s always fun for me to imagine what life would have been like in another era, so that makes writing nonfiction a treat. But I also love writing fictional stories. I’m not sure that one is easier than the other—whether real life or a made-up story is the starting point, all books require some level of world-building, structure, and an emotional hook to create an immersive experience.

Your next book, DOUBLE BASS BLUES, is due out in 2019 from Knopf. Can you give us a synopsis share and how you got the idea?

DOUBLE BASS BLUES is a picture book about a young black boy who plays the double bass in his school orchestra on the suburban side of town and has to transport this huge instrument to the city side of town for a surprise performance. The idea came to me while I was teaching computer classes at an at-risk youth center in the heart of the city. My students had to overcome all sorts of logistical, transportation, and social obstacles just to make it to our little two-hour class. But they made it and I was so proud of them. And they were proud of themselves too.

Thank you, Andrea. Please remember to support our mentors by buying their books, leaving on-line reviews and telling your librarians. 

 

Meet Mentor Lindsay Ward

I discovered Lindsay’s book, WHEN BLUE MET EGG, and have been a fan of her work ever since. Lindsay has sweet books—PLEASE BRING BALLOONS and THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING THREE. But she is also great with humor—ROSCO VS. THE BABY, BROBARIANS, and DON’T FORGET DEXTER. All of her books are beautiful works of art.

I am not sure what to call your style? What do you call it? How do you get that amazing look?

Safari Chic. Just kidding. I’ve never really thought about this. I don’t really define my style by any particular term. In the beginning of my career I used a lot of cut paper for my books, so much so that I stopped considering other mediums to create my illustrations. Now I try to consider which medium will allow me to tell the story in the best way possible. I still love working in cut paper, but I enjoy stepping out with other mediums on occasion to stir things up a bit. In any illustrator’s work, I find that it’s their line work that ultimately ties everything together. I try to keep my line work light and fresh, so the work never feels stale. To achieve this I usually spend many, many, hours redrawing the same thing over and over again until it become second nature to draw. That way, when I sit down to work on the finishes for any of my books, I don’t hesitate in my line work and the characters come to life.

How long does a book with this method take to make?

Typically, it takes me 1-3 days to do a finished piece in cut paper depending on how intricate the cutting and details are in the illustration. My most time-consuming pieces to date are still the Brooklyn Bridge scene from WHEN BLUE MET EGG and the polar bear rumpus scene in PLEASE BRING BALLOONS. Working in any other medium, it’s usually less than 2 days per piece for me.

The Brooklyn Bridge foldout scene from Blue.

(This blog post by Lindsay making BROBARIANS was a fascinating behind the scenes look. http://lindsaymward.com/category/making-a-picture-book/)

 

How do you determine the color palette?

Determining the color palette always takes me a while to decide no matter what medium I’m working in. With cut paper I find it’s a little easier because I can pick and choose paper that already exists. I just have to find the color combination I like the best. Usually, with cut paper, I make a swatch book where I cut out bits of each paper I like so I can keep track of it all while I’m deciding. To date, the palette for the DEXTER T. REXTER Series was the hardest to come up with. I knew I wanted to do a limited color palette but I wasn’t sure how to go about it especially knowing that I would need to stick with said palette for future books. I didn’t want to limit myself for future Dexter books, so I had to come up with something that would endure throughout a series. Thankfully, after I decided Dexter was going to be orange, the rest fell into place. The obvious choice became a blue palette (as blue is the complimentary color to orange), with hints of yellow here and there.

I love your book, WHEN BLUE MET EGG. I swear that is someone’s math homework cut up to make a skyscraper in there. Am I right? 

Thank you! Yes, I found old notebooks filled with math equations at a garage sale once. I loved the handwriting of the woman who wrote them. She was a math teacher. I love to collect interesting bits of paper like that to use in my work.

Also, how did the idea for a snowball being mistaken for an egg come to you?

After many, many, many, many, many rounds of revisions. I probably wrote 10-15 drafts of that story. At one point I think I may have even considered egg being a cloud … those early drafts were not pretty, to say the least. I remember I had just gotten off the phone with a friend of mine that I’ve known since we were kids. I was in the middle of writing WHEN BLUE MET EGG and my recent draft was still awful. I was thinking about how we’d been through so much together and, although we didn’t live in the same state anymore and rarely got to seen each other, we were still connected by our shared experiences. I was interested in telling a story about friendship that focused on a connection strengthened by shared experiences. Blue never questions her friendship with Egg, which is one of things I love most about her. And in the end, even after Egg has changed, Blue accepts Egg no matter what. I had lived in New York and wanted to show the magic of the city that I felt when I had been there. Exploring the city and snow was a huge part of that for me, which is something I tried to show through Blue and Egg’s adventures. Eventually, the two ideas merged together through this idea of a snowball. I could reveal what Egg had really been without the story having an unhappy ending. Blue is a glass-half-full character, so naturally she would pack Egg in her bucket, even after discovering that Egg wasn’t an egg at all, and they would be off to their next adventure.

Going out on a limb here, am I correct in assuming ROSCO VS. THE BABY was an idea generated from your real home life?

Yes. But oddly enough, not in the way you would think. Most readers think I wrote this book when I was pregnant with my first son as we would be bringing him home to our dog Sally. But in fact, I wasn’t pregnant when I wrote this story. We used to live next door to a dog that barked constantly. His name was Rosco. At the time I was trying to come up with a new book idea and I couldn’t think straight with Rosco’s constant barking in the background. So, I did what any writer would do and used what was right in front of me: Rosco. The funny thing was that not only did I end up experiencing my own book just over a year later, but the family who owned Rosco later had twins after I wrote the ending. True story. Sometimes life follows fiction.  

Your new book that was just released, DON’T FORGET DEXTER, is about a poor stuffed animal getting left at the doctor’s office. Was this based on true events?

Yes. When I was pregnant with our first child, my husband was required to get a T-Dap booster shot prior to our son’s birth. While sitting in the waiting room to get the shot, my husband texted me a photo of a toy dinosaur that had been abandoned under a chair. Beneath the photo he texted “well, they left me here.” I laughed and immediately sat down to write Dexter’s story.

How did you connect with your agent, Emily Van Beek?

I was lucky enough to connect with Emily through another editor. I was in the middle of working on HENRY FINDS HIS WORD when I found out my first agent was leaving the business altogether. It was a bit overwhelming to think of querying while I was in the middle of a book. I spoke with my editor at the time and she asked me who I would be interested in querying. I gave her a short list of agents and she said she’d be happy to reach out to them on my behalf. If you’ve ever queried agents, you know how tremendous of an offer this was! Emily was at the top of my list: I admired the work of many of her clients, I knew she had a great eye, plus we both loved the art of Polly Dunbar (my favorite contemporary children’s book illustrator). I had a feeling we’d be a good fit. Thankfully, Emily called me the next day offering representation and now, almost five years later, we are still working together.

On your blog, you posted some pictures that children made for you based on your art. One iteration of your book MUST BRING BALLOONS, had me flipping out. What was your reaction when you saw this? I hope that the Force is with this student, wherever he or she is …   

Seeing the artwork kids make in response to my books is one of my favorite things about being a children’s book author and illustrator. I love to see all the interesting directions they take my stories, like the piece you mentioned. I think it’s safe to say the Force was definitely with them.

You have stated that Mary Blair is someone you admire artistically. Did you read the picture book biography, Pocket Full of Colors: The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire by Amy Gugliemo and illustrated by Jaqueline Tourville?

I haven’t! It’s been on my list to read, and life and babies have unfortunately kept me from doing so. I definitely need to read it! I adore Mary Blair! She was such a pioneer and had an exquisite sense of color.

When did you know you wanted to illustrate children’s books?

When I was 15 I got my first job working at children’s book store, Hicklebee’s. There I met a lot of visiting authors and illustrators and realized that I wanted to be an illustrator too.

Was anyone in particular influential or helpful to you as you were learning the craft?

I studied illustration in college, but there wasn’t much offered on children’s book illustration at the time. Most of what I learned I had to figure out on my own through trial and error. However, there was one class I took that had a rotating professor who came in every 6 weeks to teach us a new medium. One of the 6-week sessions was all about cut paper. At the time, cut paper didn’t really click for me, but a few years out of college, suddenly it did. I don’t think I would have considered cut paper as a medium without that class.

What is the one thing aspiring illustrators should be doing to move forward?

Be observant. There is a whole world out there filled with ideas just waiting for you to capture them.

Thank you, Lindsay! Please remember to support the mentors by buying their books, leaving on-line reviews and telling your librarians. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meet Mentor Lori Degman

 

Lori Degman is a master rhymer and the author of rhyming picture books COCK-A-DOODLE OOPS! And 1 ZANY ZOO. Lori is also the author of NORBERT’S BIG DREAM, which is equally delightful and in prose. If you write rhyming picture books and you have not read COCK-A-DOODLE OOPS!, you need to go get it right now. It is the prefect example of a picture book in rhyme done right. It should be required reading for all rhyming picture book writers learning the craft. Someone out there will get to learn directly from the rhyming virtuoso herself. I can’t wait to see who it is!

The rhythm and rhyme in COCK-A-DOODLE OOPS! and 1 ZANY ZOO is wonderful! Have you always been drawn to poetry? Which poets have influenced you the most?

Thanks—I work really hard to get the rhythm and rhyme just right. I’ve always enjoyed writing funny, rhyming poems, so writing rhyming picture books seemed like a natural next step. I think Jack Prelutsky and Shel Silverstein have influenced my style of writing—I love how they use humor, irony, and surprise. I’m inspired by contemporary rhymers: Jon Agee, Corey Rosen Schwartz, and Karma Wilson.

What do you think is the biggest hurdle writers face when trying to publish a rhyming picture book?

Rhyme gets a bad rap! Editors get so many rhyming picture book submissions, with overly simple rhymes and inconsistent meter, that they get turned off of rhyme. So, your meter has to be perfect and your rhyming words must be creative—and a great story doesn’t hurt either.

You also write in prose. How do you decide which to use for a certain story?

Typically, the stories I write in rhyme begin with a single, rhythmic sentence that pops into my head and it just has to be written in rhyme. Other stories begin as ideas—not specific lines—and they tend to be better-suited to prose. I’ve tried rewriting some of my prose stories in rhyme, but it has never worked, so I stuck with prose.

You have been a teacher of hearing-impaired students for many years. Has working with students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing impacted the way you use language and craft your stories?

I wish I could say it has – that would make a more interesting answer—but it really hasn’t. But, my love of rhyme and picture books has helped when teaching students phonics and reading.

Animals are a big theme in all of your books! What is your favorite animal and why? 

It’s so hard to choose just one! I love both dogs and cats for their companionship. I also really love horses and lions because they are beautiful and seem really Zen to me!

If you could go back in time and give your pre-published self one piece of advice, what would it be?  

I’d tell myself to be more assertive, have more confidence in my writing, and not to be afraid to submit my work. It took a while to realize that, when editors and agents read your manuscript for the first time, they’re hoping they’ll love it.

You have a new book coming in 2019, JUST READ. Can you give us a synopsis?

JUST READ is a series of rhyming vignettes about kids in a reading club, who celebrate where, when, how, what, and with whom you can read. Victoria Krylov is illustrating it and I couldn’t be more thrilled! I’ve seen several finished illustrations and they are magnificent!

Thank you, Lori! Please remember to support the mentors. Buy their books, leave online reviews and tell your librarians.

 

Meet Mentor Alastair Heim

 

Alastair Heim became my hero the minute I saw the sales announcement in Publishers Marketplace for NO TOOTING AT TEA. Anyone who gets a flatulence book through an editorial board is someone I am in awe of! Then I read an interview where he talked about Star Wars and I knew I had to ask him to be in Writing with the Stars this year. Luckily, he is as nice as he is funny and said yes! Also, I ended up at the SCBWI KS/MO conference this year and got to meet Alastair in person, where he was kind enough to give me a specially signed version of NO TOOTING AT TEA (pictured below). If fart books are not your thing, no worries. His other books are fart free and equally delightful. I can’t wait to see who Alastair will pick as his Padawan! 

 

You have been asked before, but please share the inspiration story for NO TOOTING AT TEA.  

Gladly! The inspiration for NO TOOTING AT TEA came from an imaginary tea party I was lucky enough to attend in March of 2014. Everything was going perfectly properly, until one of the other guests (not me!) broke the most important of tea party rules … she TOOTED. The hostess remained calm and politely reminded the flatulent party interrupter, “There’s no tooting at tea.” I started writing the story immediately.

I think Sara Not, the illustrator of NO TOOTING, has a great sense of humor. I am pretty sure that on page 4, Sara illustrated the littlest girl picking her nose and then on page 5, eating it. My son thought this was very funny. Had you noticed that before and do you agree with my assessment?

It is funny you should mention that! When my agent and I first received the illustrations back in 2015, she immediately thought that, too. I didn’t even notice it until she emailed me about it. When we reached out to my editor to confirm whether or not the little sister did, in fact, pick her nose and eat it, she responded back with, “Let’s just leave that up to the reader.” I completely agree with my editor ;-).

How did you find yourself writing for kids? Did you start before you had your own children or no?

I didn’t start trying to write children’s picture books until after my first child was born. My wife and I received tons and tons of picture books as baby shower gifts and, after reading every single one of them, I was inspired to write my own.

You worked for a long time to get published. Tell us why you persevered. What did you tell yourself to keep going?

Yes, it was roughly nine years from the time I started writing to when LOVE YOU, TOO was released.  I will be completely honest and tell you that when I was three years into trying to get published, I had every intention of giving up.  I had spent two years writing, another year and a half trying to get an agent, and was rejected by everyone I queried (including my own agent, Kelly, at first).

In May of 2011, I was having lunch with Ed Ball, one of my very best friends and the person I dedicated THE GREAT PUPPY INVASION to. (Side note … Ed is a published author and one of the foremost experts on the Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins Guitar. He’s written two books about it that you should totally check out.) Anyway, I told Ed at that lunch that I was giving up on trying to get published. His exact words were, “No, you’re not.”

It was the encouragement from my wife, kids, and the other people in my life that kept me going. I hadn’t stopped writing new stories (I’m unable to stop), but I had gotten to the point where doubt was clouding everything and failure was starting to set in as inevitable. It wasn’t until a year and a half later, after a very strange series of events (that Ed Ball played another large part in), that I signed with Kelly Sonnack at Andrea Brown Literary in September of 2011.

How do you find time to write with a day job and three kids? What is your writing schedule like?

Whenever we don’t have an event or activity to go to on the weekend, we try to stay home as much as possible. It is on those weekends that I like to start new work or, at the very least, think up new book titles. I don’t usually write on weeknights, except when I have revisions from my agent or an edit to finish, of course.

I usually start my Saturday morning with eggs, coffee and an All the Wonders Podcast (recommended listening). From there, I usually work on one of my in-progress stories or, if I’m stuck, stare out of my back window until a new idea pops into my brain. I can’t tell you the number of book ideas that have come from simply staring out of a window. Most of them are not that good, but every once in a while, the scenery provides me with a winner.

Was there anyone who helped you on your way up?

I didn’t have any contacts in the publishing industry, nor was I a celebrity who wanted to write a picture book, so I can’t say I really had anyone on the inside help me out (until I signed with my agent). I did, however, have a wonderful network of friends and family who read my manuscripts, told me whether my stories sucked or not, and supported me when I was at my most doubtful. I also have a critique group (shout out to the Heartland Writers’ Critique!) who gives me wonderful and sometimes painful feedback on my stories.

I wish there had been a mentoring program like Writing with the Stars when I was first starting out. While a mentorship is not a guaranteed path to publication, having someone (who has been through the trenches) to consult with, learn from, and ask questions of is, to me, an invaluable tool I would have counted myself lucky to have had.

How many manuscripts did you write before you wrote your first one that sold?

LOVE YOU, TOO was the 21st manuscript I had written.

 

 

What were the best things you did to learn the craft?

There are a few things I did, and still do, that help me immensely. First, whenever I’m writing in rhyme, I read my writing aloud (multiple times) after I finish a stanza. I’m trying to make the rhyme as tight and effortless-to-read as possible. I will also, from time to time, record myself reading it so that I can hear it back and edit further, and even have my wife or friends read it aloud in front of me so that I can hear other people’s interpretations of it.

While I buy a ton of picture books for my kids, I try not to let other people’s work influence what I write—from a topic and subject matter standpoint. I want to come up with my own, original ideas, and trying to emulate someone else’s is never a good way to go. I do, however, pay close attention to writing craft and great rhyming when I find it.

What was the idea spark behind THE GREAT PUPPY INVASION?

The idea for THE GREAT PUPPY INVASION actually came from a piece of art located where I work. The sculpture is of five Dalmatian puppies stacked on top of each other “cheerleader pyramid” style. One day, I looked at the sculpture and thought, “Hundreds of puppies suddenly show up in a town that has never seen puppies before.” The title popped straight into my brain and I started writing the manuscript the following weekend. I found it wonderfully entertaining to imagine what people would think and how they’d react if they were experiencing puppy behavior for the first time.

Your new book, HELLO DOOR, debuts in January. Can you tell us a bit about it and how you got the idea?

HELLO, DOOR was actually a book title that I thought of back in 2012. A few years later (in 2016), I was flipping through a journal, in which I write down all of the titles I think of, and rediscovered it. It got me wondering about what a book called “HELLO, DOOR” might actually be about. So, I blurted out the words, “Hello, door. Hello, house…” and from there, it became the story of a sly and sneaky Fox, who greets everything he sees (and steals) with a polite, “Hello!”

The lovely ladies of NO TOOTING will be back for a sequel, NO PEEKING AT PRESENTS in 2018. What else can we look forward to from you?

Yes! Except NO PEEKING AT PRESENTS will now be released in the Fall of 2019. I have one other book coming out before or after that (I’m not sure which) in 2019 that I’m not legally allowed to announce quite yet. I can tell you that it’s a fun, rhyming read aloud book.

If there is anything you are dying to be asked in an interview, please feel free to ask yourself.

I’m not going to tell you what the question I’m dying to be asked is, but I will tell you that the answer is, “A Superman T-Shirt.” Like my editor once told me, “Let’s leave it up to the reader to decide” what the question is ;-).

Thank you, Alastair! Please remember to support these mentor authors by buying books, leaving online reviews, and telling your librarians. (But please, no tooting in the library.)

 

Meet Mentors Melissa Iwai and Denis Markell

 

I am so happy to welcome back Melissa Iwai and her husband Denis Markell for the second year of Writing with the Stars. Some lucky mentee will get expertise times two (maybe three if their son Jamie helps, too). Melissa is the author and illustrator of the recently released PIZZA DAY, SOUP DAY, and the illustrator of many more. Denis is the author of two picture books, HUSH LITTLE MONSTER and THE GREAT STROLLER ADVENTURE (both illustrated by Melissa), and the wonderful middle grade novel CLICK HERE TO START. Their efforts helped their mentee from last year polish her dummy and land an agent.

 

We will start with Melissa.

Your book, SOUP DAY, was inspired by your son but the MC is a girl! Why did you decide to change the gender?

MELISSA: I actually dreamed of a scene in SOUP DAY before I wrote it—in my dream I saw a woman cooking with a little girl, and cutting onions. I had a vision in my head of the artwork. So I combined that image with my experience cooking with Jamie, and decided to stay true to the dream vision.       

You have been very open about your injury to your drawing arm. You taught yourself to use the other hand. Are you all healed now and, because you can now use both hands, are you alternating?

MELISSA: Thankfully, I am 98% back to normal. I still do my physical therapy exercises daily to avoid a relapse, and I’ve really changed my diet to reduce inflammation. When I was drawing and painting a lot with my left hand, I started to have a flare up in my left shoulder from an old rotator cuff injury, so I quit. Now that I am stronger and healthier, I should try and do that again! I often switch sides using the mouse on the computer, and occasionally force myself to eat with my left hand, though.

You have a DIY birthday activity book coming out in 2020. Are you a big DIYer and what inspired you to make this book?

MELISSA: I am a big crafty and cooking person. This book was born out of discussions I had with my editor, Christy Ottaviano, at Henry Holt/Macmillan. When Jamie was little I would always do theme parties for him, complete with a themed cake, foods, décor, games, etc. Denis and he and I would brainstorm together. Sometimes they were kind of random —Jamie was really into Jeopardy one year, so we did a whole party revolving around that. One year it was Greek Mythology. Christy had the brilliant idea of doing a collection of twelve themed parties – one for every month. In it, I’ll be sharing ideas for décor and crafts to do at the party, as well as recipes for cakes and party foods. I’ll be designing and photographing and illustrating it, so it’s going to be quite a huge project!

What is the most important thing you would you tell artists interested in getting into children’s books to do?

MELISSA: Read a lot of picture books! Read them out loud. Read them to kids, if you can. Figure out what you like. What works. If you are more focused on the art side of things instead of writing them yourself, do the same—look at a lot of picture books. I can’t emphasize that enough. Even if you are not writing the text, you are telling a story with your images. Familiarize yourself with the language and the visual language of children’s books.

Did anyone specifically mentor you or help you when you were starting?

MELISSA: Yes! I was fortunate to have Marla Frazee as my Children’s Book Illustration instructor at Art Center College of Design where I studied in the mid-90s. She also helped me to find my agent, Chris Tugeau, when I moved to NYC after graduating. Many years later, when I wanted to start writing stories I took a wonderful class at the School of Visual Arts taught by Monica Wellington. Soon after I took her class, I sold SOUP DAY.

You have been doing this illustrating gig for a while now. Is there anything you still find challenging about illustrating picture books?

MELISSA: Seriously, each book has its own unique challenges. I just finished completing one that was totally out of my comfort zone (non-fiction, 40 pages, different style). It actually required tons of research and even accurately painting actual military aircraft and submarines.  There were days when I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it—that I was going to fail miserably. Thankfully I had Denis and Chris to talk me off the ledge! But there were many days when I felt like I didn’t know how to draw or paint. So, yes, I think the uncertainty and doubt never completely goes away. Each story has its particular needs and spirit, and so the job of caring for it and giving it what it wants is kind of a minefield of uncertainty, I think! The good thing is that it never gets old—it never gets boring!

And now questions for Denis:

My son read and loved your novel, CLICK HERE TO START. We are looking forward to your new one, THE GAME MASTERS OF GARDEN PLACE (July 2018). The pitch of “Dungeons and Dragons inspired adventure that will appeal to gamers” sounds so nerdy (in a really good way).  Can you tell us a bit about it, and what inspired it?

DENIS: Sure! It’s actually based on the real D&D group my son was in for years. I took some of the attributes of the real kids (who are all amazing, by the way) and changed a lot of the details, but the basic thrust of the story stems from kids creating an adventure together. I started to learn more and more about RPGs (Role Playing Games like Dungeons and Dragons) and how they are unlike any other gaming experience in that the players not only work together as a team to solve the puzzles and counter adversaries, but also are essential in helping the person leading the game (the Dungeon Master in D&D and the Game Master in other RPGs) create a unique story. And then when Jamie had played for a year, he said to me, “Wouldn’t it be neat if our characters came to life?” and well…that was all I needed to hear to get the idea for the book!

Are you a big gamer in real life?

DENIS: I’m actually not that big a gamer myself, more of an observer as my son spends many hours playing various games and going so far as to build his own gaming PC! I do love escape the room games, and still play them when I need a break. And I do appreciate the skills game playing can give to kids, especially when it comes to problem solving. You learn that just because you can’t figure something out right away, with practice or another approach, you might just find the answer!

You are the author of two picture books, HUSH LITTLE MONSTER and THE GREAT STROLLER ADVENTURE (both illustrated by Melissa). Do you have plans for more picture books in the future? 

DENIS: I would love to write more picture books. They’re not my priority right now, but so many of my best friends in the kidlit world are picture book writers and illustrators (I’m even married to one!) it makes me want to get back to it. But I need to find the right story, one I can tell in a way no one else could.

What was the hardest scene you ever had to write?

DENIS: Wow! I’ve never been asked that one before! Hmm….let’s see…I’ll change it to scenes. There are scenes in the new book which take place in the fantasy realm, and that’s a genre I really haven’t written before. I loved writing them, but it was hard to not to fall into the trap of just imitating Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. The readers will have to decide if these scenes ring true or not. I hope so!

Besides kidlit, what other types of things do you write?

DENIS: I started out writing for theatre with a partner, who moved on to become massively successful writing for politicians and corporate events. He brings me in occasionally to write these sorts of things, which are fun and pay pretty well. Also, we have worked and continue to work with certain celebrities to give them material for talk shows and interviews. And I hate to say it, but most of the writing I’ve been doing when I’m not writing books is tweeting, which is both very addictive, and not exactly profitable!

What is your favorite under-appreciated novel? Picture book?

DENIS: Hmmm. Is James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks under-appreciated? It’s my favorite novel for kids and has been ever since it was read to me as a little one. Can a novel sell a zillion copies and still be under-appreciated? I think Tom Angleberger’s Origami Yoda books are the best Middle Grade series, bar none. Sadly, most adults (including many librarians and teachers) have only read the first one, if any at all. I could go on and on about how many big topics these books tackle while staying light and fun. They’re really masterful.

As for picture books, I don’t think Marc Boutavant is not nearly well-known enough in this country (he’s beloved in France). He has a book called Around the World with Mouk, which our whole family adores. He’s better known for his Ariol series of graphic novels he’s done with Emmanuel Guibert, which are about a little donkey and his school friends.

How do you structure your writing time every day?

DENIS: That depends on where I am in the process. If I’m drafting a book (I’m about to do my third Middle Grade next month), I am very disciplined and try to write between 1,850 and 3,000 words a day, averaging in at 2,000. If possible I do this every morning, which works out when our son is at school, harder when he’s hanging around.

If I’m revising or outlining, I’m more flexible and grab time during the day where I can. I don’t write in coffee shops or libraries (too self-conscious), and like to have no distractions other than music. Revising is a little easier. As is rewriting. But getting it all down on paper, even in the messy, badly written first draft, is for me a solitary activity, and I don’t show it to anyone at this stage. Then I hand it off to my editor (unless it hasn’t been sold, in which case I’ll give it to my agent) and wait for the verdict!

Do you think living with another creative is a big plus? Are there any negatives?

DENIS: I like to think we inspire one another, and it is essential for me to be with someone like Melissa who is also creative and who I think is gifted and good (okay, brilliant) at what she does. The only negatives are when your partner has something happen in their career that is disappointing (a rejection, a bad review, a book going out of print) and you really can’t do anything but be there and be supportive. But with us, when the other person gets good news, it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world.

And I need to correct the question: Is living with two creatives a plus? Our thirteen-year old son is a fantastic writer and artist (when he wants to be, ahem) and also a very astute critic of my work. He doesn’t pull any punches. Considering he’s my target audience right now, it’s been hugely valuable!

MELISSA:

I love it and am so grateful I can always talk to Denis about what I’m working on, what’s going on in kidlit, a problem I’m trying to solve, etc. We both work at home, so we see each other constantly, and it’s a blessing that we don’t get sick of each other! We are also aware of each other’s space as well. I really can’t think of any negatives!

(NOTE FROM DENIS: It’s a good thing you asked about creative stuff. Melissa LOVES to cook all sorts of food, and I am a famously picky eater, so if you asked her about that there would be a whole lot of negatives!)

Thank you, Melissa and Denis for participating in Writing with the Stars! Please remember to support the author mentors by buying their books, leaving online reviews and telling your librarians.  

  

inside spread of PIZZA DAY