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Month: January 2017

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- https://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 https://beckytarabooks.com/contest/