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