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.

The BiblioFiles Presents: Philip Pullman

philip pullmanJust posted! An interview with esteemed author, Philip Pullman.

Pullman’s writing career began with the publication of the hilarious Count Karlstein in 1982. That was followed by The Ruby in the Smoke, the first in a quartet of mystery and intrigue novels that feature Victorian adventurer, Sally Lockhart. His best-known work, however, is the epic and genre-transcending book, The Golden Compass (called Northern Lights in the UK) and its sequels, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

Pullman has won numerous awards, including the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Children’s Book Award, the Whitbread Book of the Year Award (now known as the Costa Award), and the Astrid Lindgren Award. He also won the “Carnegie of Carnegies,” for The Golden Compass, which was chosen as the winning book of all the Carnegie winners from the past 70 years.

Pullman creates and animates his characters and their worlds with exceptional imagination, humanity, depth, and confidence. You are not reading his books. You are living his books, experiencing the fear, joy, pain, and revelation as the characters do. It’s absolutely extraordinary.

Follow this link to the BiblioFiles interview


Author photo by K.T. Bruce