Your First Book

giant dance party coverIf you read (and breathe) children’s books, chances are you’ve considered writing one yourself. But writing can be tough, and publishing can be diabolically elusive. In the hopes of shedding a little light on the process, I decided to interview an author about her experiences in both writing and publishing her first picture book.

Some of you will immediately recognize the name Betsy Bird. In addition to being a Youth Collections Specialist at the New York Public Library, she has served on various literary projects and panels (including the Newbery Award committee), written for Horn Book, Kirkus, the New York Times, and has a popular School Library Journal blog, A Fuse #8 Production. This fall, in collaboration with Julie Danielson and Peter Sieruta, she released an adult non-fiction book titled Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature (Candlewick, 2014).

Betsy’s also published a picture book, Giant Dance Party, which is illustrated by Brandon Dorman (Greenwillow Books, 2013). The book is about a little girl named Lexy who decides (after a few bad experiences with stage fright) to quit the stage and become a dance instructor instead. Her only pupils, however, are five furry (but highly enthusiastic) blue giants. We had a fabulous time reading this book at our story time (you can see the project here). But what was it like to write and publish it?

magic tree bookstore

Betsy (center) stops by Magic Tree Bookstore on her book tour

So, one morning, did you wake up and decide you were going to write a children’s book?

Not exactly. It was more a gentle thought in the back of my brain that sat there percolating for a while. Honestly, the only reason Giant Dance Party even happened was that illustrator Brandon Dorman wrote me an email one day that essentially said, “Let’s do a book together! I’ll illustrate it, you write it, and I only have one idea: Giant leaping.” I mean, how do you turn that kind of thing down? I fully credit him with getting me off of my tuchis and writing.

How did you proceed from “Giant leaping?”

Well, I pretty much just came up with three different ideas, all of which involved giants launching themselves in the air in some way. After I hammered them out and Brandon approved them we approached his editor. We presented three ideas and the publisher purchased two. Easy peasy!

After the idea was purchased, did you write the story?

No, before! It was complete and they bought it that way. Then came the copious edits.  We actually went through two different editors with two very different styles in the course of the book. Lots of changes were made but honestly I think it was for the best in the end. The book’s much stronger now than it was when we first turned it in.

Giant-Dance-Party-InsideHow long did it take to write the story? Did you involved anyone else, or was it just you, the keyboard, and your favorite caffeinated beverage?

Honestly this was actually a kind of rare occurrence. You see, I worked with Brandon on the stories before we submitted them and he gave me feedback. Under normal circumstances authors and illustrators are given wide berth of one another and are not allowed to communicate all that much when collaborating. But since we already had a friendship and it was Brandon’s idea in the first place (plus the fact that he’s a New York Times Bestseller rockstar) we decided to bounce ideas off of one another while we developed the book. It was a LOT of fun. And I think it just took a couple months to hammer everything out in the end.

Did you give Brandon any feedback on the illustrations?

I did but not until much later in the process. The illustrations went through a LOT of changes. In the end there wasn’t much to really suggest. The man’s a pro. But I did suggest a darker color to some hand painted letters in one scene and more diversity in the characters in another scene. Aside from that, no changes necessary!

You mentioned copious edits. Can you tell us more about what it was like to work with editors?

Sure! My first editor was pretty easy going. I came into his office and we did a lot of line edits, sitting down and going over every single sentence. Then he left the company and I found myself with another editor entirely! She had a different vision for the book, having inherited it rather than purchasing it herself. Honestly, we’re very lucky she liked it enough to proceed with it. It was because of her vision that the giants changed from gross, disgusting, big warty guys into furry blue piles of adorableness. She was also very rigorous with the text and the ending and a lot of changes were made to the storyline. In the end, I think it ended up a much stronger book and I was happy to take most (though admittedly not all) of her suggestions.

giants bowHow long did it take from idea percolating to the final, finished book?

You mean for it to reach bookstore and library shelves? I believe we started the process in 2009 and it came out in 2013. That’s partly because of the switch in editors and partly because books take FOREVER to be published. Ask any author and they will tell you that this is true. It may even explain the rise in self-publishing, honestly.

What was it like to hold your finished book in your hands? Or watch children read it?

The finished book was lovely and surreal all at once. Not quite as surreal as watching perfect strangers pick it up and read it on their own, but surreal just the same. I really got a kick out of hearing folks discuss it without knowing I was nearby. Eventually, I’m going to have to experience that universal moment so many authors have had to face where you see your book in a secondhand store or Goodwill, but until then I’m loving it.

What was one thing that surprised you about writing a children’s picture book?

I was definitely surprised by how long the whole publication process takes. I expected a year or two, but more than that? Crazytalk! So that was new to me. There’s also the fact that in many ways the author is in the dark when it comes to knowing how a book is doing.  That might be a good thing, though. Knowing too much leads to insanity.

Do you have any advice for people who might be developing a story of their own?

The best thing you can do is read as many books as you can that are similar to your own.  Know what’s out there. The last thing you want to be is derivative and the nice thing about consuming vast quantities of children’s literature is that after a while you can parse the good from the bad. So visit your local children’s library and check out, check out, check out!

If you’d like to learn more about Betsy, her books, and her literary adventures, visit her website, Betsy Bird Books. And if you know juuuust where to look in her website’s “Media” section, you can see footage of her dancing in fuzzy blue legwarmers. I really do need a pair.


Book images used with permission of the author, and author photo used with permission of Magic Tree Bookstore.

Breakfast with Bosch

breakfast with boschLast weekend, in an undisclosed location on the East Coast, I managed to track down the elusive Pseudonymous Bosch as he received his morning coffee and oatmeal. Mr. Bosch, who concluded his bestselling Secret Series in 2011, has a new book. It’s called Bad Magic.

bad magicYears have passed since Max-Ernest, Cass, and Yo-Yoji finally triumphed over the Masters of the Midnight Sun. But for Max-Ernest’s little brother Clay, things are getting bad. First, Max-Ernest disappears. Second, a graffiti mural bearing the words “Magic Sucks” appears on the wall at school – with Clay’s name on it. Clay didn’t do it. He did, however, write the words “Magic Sucks” in a worn leather book his language arts teacher gave him. But how did the words get from the book to the wall?

Clay is suspended from school, threatened with repeating sixth grade, and sent to Earth Ranch, a summer camp for struggling youth that happens to be on an isolated volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean. The story unfolds in the bizarre, unconventional, hilarious, and highly enjoyable manner that only Pseudonymous Bosch can deliver (and aptly footnote as well).

25It’s been approximately 3 years since you finished the Secret Series. When you were finishing it, did you know that you were going to continue the adventure with Max-Ernest’s little brother Clay?
No…as far as I was concerned, the series was done. I’d gone through all 5 senses, and it seemed senseless to continue. That’s the first time I’ve made that joke [laughter]. But I kept hearing from readers wanting to hear more because of course, the last book in the Secret Series, You Have to Stop This, was so complete and answered all questions and left nothing dangling and was such a perfect book in every way that all the readers were totally unsatisfied and wanted to hear more [laughter]. So a few of them asked me “Well, if you’re not going to continue the Secret Series, what about a new series with Max-Ernest’s little brother Clay?” And I said “No way, I never take ideas from readers. I have my artistic integrity.” Anyway…I decided to write a series about Clay.

Did you go to an isolated volcanic island to research this book?
In truth, I did go to a volcanic island to research the book. However, it isn’t all that isolated. Some people know it as “Hawaii.”

Did you go on a hike with a llama?
I went on a llama walk. Not a hike, a walk. There’s a llama ranch in California that offers llama walks. Which is much like, it turns out, walking a dog. The llamas are on leashes and you don’t ride the llama. You walk the llama. [laughter] It was an eye-opening llama experience.

13Did you spend time at a camp for juvenile delinquents?
Ah…I’ll take the fifth.

The Secret Series ended up being 5 books and took you over 4 years to write. What’s it like to stand on the edge of another writing project?
Even more intimidating because I know how hard it is. For me, writing never gets easier. It just changes.
 
How have you changed as a writer since you finished the first series?
I’m a much more self-conscious writer in every way now. That’s good and bad I guess. The Secret Series was very spontaneous. As you might remember, I wrote it as part of a volunteer program at an elementary school and I wrote it in installments through the mail with no particular plan or idea that the book was even going to get finished.

And there was a certain kind of wacky zaniness that lasted throughout the Secret Series. Once, in an interview, someone noted that it didn’t seem like I had any rules in my universe [laughs]. I didn’t know quite what to say to that because it’s a truism in fantasy fiction that your universe is supposed to have a very strict set of rules, and that’s what gives it believability. I guess the “rule of rules” is the rule that I’ve broken.

But now as a more experienced, as it were, writer…there’s more of a sense of the marketplace, more of a sense of my readership, more of a sense of how stories work, there are a lot more conversations running through my head as I’m writing. In some ways, it makes me more confident, but it other ways, it can be stifling to creativity.

Is it difficult to write as the narrator and the character? Do you ever struggle with the balance between the two?
Bad Magic is, I would say, a little bit more character-driven than the Secret Series – certainly it’s more inside one character’s head. Actually, the first draft was written almost entirely through Clay’s perspective. It was a different way of storytelling – because the voice of Pseudonymous Bosch is so strong in the other books. I wanted to try my hand at writing more of a conventional novel. Then, as I revised the book, I found myself adding more of the wacky Pseudonymous voice until I ultimately had to dial it back again.

17Do you still love chocolate?
I still love chocolate.

Do you still hate mayonnaise?
I still hate mayonnaise.

In five words, describe the next book.
Is it really about dragons?

If, by the way, you’d like to hear Mr. Bosch chat about his Secret Series (including admirably holding his own in a flurry of free association) you can find the interview here. He doesn’t have a website or blog. This site was obviously made by an imposter.


Cover art and illustrations by Gilbert Ford are used with permission of Little, Brown and Company.

Magical Miniatures

kitchen_exteriorRecognize this famous abode? No? Perhaps the blue car parked on the roof will jog your memory. I also hear there are some pesky gnomes in the garden. Yes, this is an elaborate and fully decorated dollhouse of the Weasley’s Burrow!

exterior_open_secondAnd near the attic? The room of a certain Quidditch crazy Hogwarts student.

ron1This magical miniature was created by Sally Wallace, a retired medical professional. Initially, she did miniatures as a hobby, but 35 years ago, Sally got serious. Very serious.

greenhouse1Behold this enormous, beautiful, intricate, and astounding Hogwarts. It’s full of classrooms, offices, a common room, a dining hall, a library, a rotating Room of Requirement, and more! The rooms are filled with amazing details. Fawkes the phoenix perches in Dumbledore’s office, Winky works in the kitchen, Moaning Myrtle haunts the bathroom, the Whomping Willow stuns a few owls, and mandrakes await re-potting in the greenhouse.

greenhouse3In addition to the Burrow and Hogwarts, Sally has created the Ministry of Magic, Ollivanders, Honeydukes, Hagrid’s hut, and a separate miniature of Hogwarts’ stairs (it consists of 20 staircases, including several that move).

stairsOnce I picked my jaw off the floor, I got in touch with Sally (who lives in Des Moines, Iowa) to learn more about how she works her miniature magic.

These structures are incredibly beautiful and intricate. When did you first encounter the world of Harry Potter, and what inspired you to embark on replicating it in miniature?

My brother was the Chaplain at the boys school at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. He kept telling me to read Harry Potter…I kept thinking “Right…he works with kids, now why would I want to do that?”

Then my own priest, an academic with a strong liturgical theological background told me to ready the series…so I did…50 pages into book 1, I was hooked! No doubt the series is for children, but it’s monumentally a series for adults. It’s about doing the right thing, the magic in life, the strength of fellowship…never mind that I love Dumbledore!

But it took a few years for the castle to emerge. I was hunting for a project and a friend suggested the castle. I thought it couldn’t be done, but then…you see the results.

greenman

Exterior detail of Hogwarts’ greenhouse

Do you collaborate with anyone while building these structures and designing the interiors?

Rik Pierce did a lot of structural work on all the Harry Potter pieces except the small roomboxes and the stairs. I did the interiors. First in my head, then on paper, then of course in “real.” I buy, create, or do a mix of many of the interior pieces. There are fine artisans in the miniature world who create furniture, dolls, etc. I plan it and then utilize their help or I find things at miniature shows.

Are the houses, boxes, and roomboxes modified kits? Original structures? A mixture of the two?

All of the Harry Potter creations are one of a kind, no kits. The castle shell was created by Rik Pierce who had all the skill and right equipment to do it. The exterior of many of the structures is a product called PaperClay. I took classes (and have since taught classes) in PaperClay.

Do you create your Harry Potter houses from descriptions in the books? Or do you also take visual cues from the movies?

Both. The Burrow really came from a movie shot of it (on the outside). The inside was all mine. The castle from the books, the shops from my head, the moving stairs from my head. Hagrid’s hut from both. Ministry of Magic from my head.

phonebooth

The visitor’s entrance to the Ministry of Magic.

What sort of materials do you work with to create exteriors? I mean Hogwarts. Wow. The stones!  The tiled roof! The Gothic doorways!

Ah…the magic of PaperClay. Exteriors are all PaperClay, a product you roll with a rolling pin, glue on and then sculpt. You paint and faux paint after it is dry. Just takes lots of practice. But it ends up light, repairable and creates a fabulous effect! Even the roof is PaperClay over various foam boards. Now, just so you know, many of my structures are wood and gilded, but the ones we are talking about are not! Everything is lighted and works, by the way. That is true of all the structures. The Ministry of Magic has a planetary room that is rotating, an infinity room, and in the time room a movie of the egg hatching.

fountain

Illuminated Fountain of Magical Brethren at the Ministry of Magic

I can imagine it takes a long time to build a house or box. How long, for example, did it take to create the Weasley’s Burrow?

The Burrow was a joint effort between Rik Pierce and me. The exterior took about 2 years. The interior about another year. The castle of course took several years. The box with the movable stairs took about a year. I had a carpenter create the exterior. The “room” is actually a box which slides into the wooden frame. The Ministry of Magic is framed in wood (by my carpenter), but each room is actually a small, light, roombox. Each roombox was relatively easy to create. The details took a long time!

How did you get the rubber gloves to stand up by themselves in the Weasley’s kitchen sink? Is that hot glue?

No. Acrylic again! The acrylic is turned so it looks like water. The illusion hides the fact that the gloves are held up with dried acrylic. That took a little longer and several attempts. Glad you noticed it!

kitchen-view-6

Detail of magical dishwasher in Burrow kitchen

How much of the furniture and accessories did you have to fabricate yourself?

Hum…different for every piece. For example, I bought all the furniture in Snape’s dungeon, but I created all of the detail pieces – filled caldrons, test tubes, etc. For the moving staircase, I bought the dolls and desks but created all of the clutter, mess, fountains, etc. I created everything in the library and bought a few filler books.

library

The library at Hogwarts

Tell us a little about fabricating a filled caldron, a potions tube, or wizard clutter!

Excellent question – I am asked those things all the time. That is what I do. I see it in my head and it becomes life. I see it as how I live (although I have no mess at home). I find “stuff” or make “stuff” – using clay or other things and then use apoxy to fill it.

Best I give you an example. I bought a lot of potions, sundries and  “herbs” at a show. I put 4 caldrons in front of me and figured out what I would like. I created an epoxy, poured it into the caldron, and then waited til it hardened slightly and added stuff so it would float. For the brain tank in the Ministry, I had an acrylic tank made to my liking, created brains and had a friend create brains. Then I poked a hole in the brain, inserted a fishing line and used a drop of super glue to hold them, attached them to a board  and placed them hanging down in the tank. I poured acrylic in to the tank. When it was all said and done, no “wires.” Just brains floating at different heights.

Much of what I stack on tables I buy from people who make them better than I can make them. By now I have a whole list of resources who are all as crazy as me! Then they come together in life somehow!

potions

Dumbledore at work

Do you also design the dolls?

No. There are some fabulous doll makers who are really artists. Philip Beglan, who has been a friend for years, moved on to animation and created Wallace and Grommet – but he still makes a few dolls (for me). I have made dolls but my skills are poor and there is an entire doll maker’s room at the International Show!

ghost

A school ghost haunts the stairs

What’s the most difficult thing about working with miniatures?

Making the plan.

If you had to live in one of the rooms of your Harry Potter miniatures, which room would you pick?

Dumbledore’s office! I love the stuff and the pensive and the orreries and the magic!

Are you planning to create any more Harry Potter miniatures? Madam Puddifoot’s Tea Shop could be mighty fun…or ooo! Gringotts!

Dana, I have the interior of Gringotts in a roombox. Here’s a picture. Right now I am creating a Russian fantasy, so when that is done, I may look at smaller Diagon Alley shops…

gringottsYou won’t be surprised to learn that Sally’s work has been featured in miniaturist publications, including several in Europe. You can see pictures of her work (including some equally amazing non-Harry Potter items) at her website, Magical Miniatures.

Just for the record, if I had to pick a room to live in, I’m totally going for Hagrid’s hut. Stoat sandwiches and all!

hut-exterior-1024x663hut-interior3


All images used with permission of the artist.

If you’re interested in all things Potter, definitely check out this post on Cotsen’s curatorial blog. At the very least, jump over to see the early versions of the book from our special collections vault!