Monday, September 23, 2013

Interview with Stephanie Shaw, author of Bedtime in the Meadow

Well, the fall is officially here! That means bright outdoor vistas, pumpkin spice lattes, and the special joy of crunchy leaves underfoot. It also means new children's books hot off the press, like Bedtime in the Meadow by debut author Stephanie Shaw. This summer, I had the good fortune of meeting Stephanie Shaw at a Highlights Foundation's children's writing workshop. We've kept in touch and I'm very happy that we did; as it turns out, Stephanie is not only a genuinely lovely person, she also gives great advice.

This interview with Stephanie is part of my ongoing Publishing Perspectives series in which I interview people on both sides of the publishing fence―the folks who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication. A big thanks to Stephanie for kindly agreeing to this interview.

When we met over the summer, you were demurely calling Bedtime in the Meadow your "little book" and David (children's author David Martin) half-jokingly chided you about that particular way of describing it. Do you think he made a valid point?

I still think of it as a 'little book' but not in a demeaning way. It's a padded board book and has lovely illustrations by London artist Laura Watkins. I see it as something very special for a nursery and bedtime. Some books are just 'huge'― their sheer size, their spunky characters, their exploding volcanoes etc. BEDTIME IN THE MEADOW is quiet, lyrical and meant for the tiniest members of the audience.

Two of your children's short stories were recently published in High Five Magazine and Highlights Magazine. When I got your email I couldn't help but chuckle remembering our scurry to get our manuscripts in at Highlights offices that day! What does it take to get your work accepted by a magazine like Highlights?

Patience. Lots of patience. No, really I started submitting to Highlights a few years ago. It started with one of their contests. I didn't win, but they contacted me and asked me to re-write my entry as a non-fiction story. I did a lot of research and completed the assignment, but ultimately it was not acquired. But, I started reading Highlights and developed a better sense of what is appropriate for the magazine. When I wrote OVER IN THE MANSION (October 2013, issue) it was originally for a blogger's online Halloween poetry contest. The blogger said, "Why aren't you sending this out to be published?". So, I submitted it to Highlights. It was my very first sale. After that, I ended up communicating quite a bit with one of the editors at Highlights (Kathleen Hayes).

Since then I've sold three other stories, an action rhyme and four mini books to them. But, it really is about knowing what works for the magazine and what doesn't. Kathleen and I do a lot of back and forth. I think the most important part is to know what a publisher needs― and that goes for books as well.

You have two more books coming out soon, A Cookie for Santa (Sleeping Bear Press) and Owlet Falls Asleep (Tiger Tales Press). All of your books feature animal characters; even in A Cookie for Santa it's all about the puppies. Do you have any advice for creating animal characters?

And, I have a fourth book THE LEGEND OF BEAVER'S TAIL coming out in 2015 again with Sleeping Bear. I love animal characters. I know some publishers' guidelines will say, "No talking animals, please" but I can't seem to get away from them. And, I think we have a huge literary history of using animals to tell stories (Aesop's Fables, Rudyard Kipling's 'Just So' stories, The Three Little Pigs etc.)

My advice is to first have characters that are full of personality― presenting them as animals only adds another dimension to the story. And, sometimes animals characters can provide a tiny bit of distance so kids can look at behavior and not feel squirmy about it. For instance, I have a story about a crocodile and kangaroo arguing over a plate of brownies. The crocodile wants to wrestle to solve the problem. The kangaroo wants to box. I don't think it would be as funny with two characters who are children doing this type of behavior (even though that probably happens).

How long did it take you to write Bedtime in the Meadow and what was the process like?

Oh golly. BEDTIME IN THE MEADOW started as a very short poem. I wrote it for fun and then made a little photo album for a baby gift. That was probably five years ago. Then about two years ago, I read it in my critique group. One of our members (author Brenda Huante, CREATURE COUNT, 2012 FS&G), suggested I expand the poem into book length. I worked on it for about a month and the critique group was hugely helpful. The afternoon I read the final version to them we were in my living room in front of the fire eating banana bread. I saw their eyes start to close as I whisper-read it to them. I knew it was 'done'. I sent it out to five publishers including Tiger Tales on March 3, 2012 and publisher (now retired) Elisabeth Prial contacted me on March 7th with an offer! There were a few revisions after that― the text actually had to be cut down to fit the board book format― but then it was just sitting back and watching Laura Watkins bring it to life with the illustrations.

As a newbie children's author, what has been the biggest surprise, either good or not so good, so far?

The biggest surprise is how long everything takes. Months can go by with a manuscript sitting unread on an editor's desk. Then more months while the editor takes the story to an acquisition meeting. More time passes during the illustrator search and the revision process and the art work completion. Every step seems to take forever. And, each step can feel like changing seats in the waiting room. It's hard to sit back and understand that my project is one of many the publisher is working with. When we visited the offices at Highlights Magazine and I saw that huge stack of submissions on one of the editor's desks, I was humbled.

Another surprise is that it doesn't become easier. I mean in some ways, it seems harder to think of a story because I know so many of the pitfalls and I am afraid to take that first step! I think the words came easier when I didn't know any better! That is why those exercises of just free writing without thinking about it are good for people like me (and, of course, I resist doing them because I think, 'Oh, that will be so wrong. What's the story arc? Where's the Rule of Three? Am I using too many adverbs?'). Knowing rules can be so darn paralyzing! So, to everyone, I say, "Forget the rules. Just write!"

Most authors I've spoken to admit that the journey from the moment you decide you want to write children's books to the day your book enters the world as a finished product is a long one indeed. Please describe your journey.

I think like all writers, I have always loved books. I was raised in a family that valued reading. I was read to as a child. I had a library card from the age of five that was used every single Saturday at our small public library. So, I think the journey begins there. Authors who go before us 'invite' us to come along. Then when I took my teacher training courses at college, my favorite class was Children's Literature. I fantasized about owning a chidren's bookstore (I wanted to call it "The Little Prints" as a word play on the great Antoine de Saint-Exupery story, The Little Prince). But, there was this thing called 'life' and making ends meet, so I went on with my career in teaching.

I never lost my love of children's books though. The school library where I was principal was my absolute favorite place to be. I took an early retirement to care for my mom. When I was putting her to bed one night, she said to me, "I need a new clock." For some reason, I just had to sit down a write a story called GRANNY'S CLOCK. And, that is when my writing really started. It was something I could do in-between times of caring for her. She passed away two years later and I feel like she left me this wonderful way to spend the time I now have. And, in a way, it was 'full-circle'― here was a woman who introduced me to books at the beginning of my life and then, at the end of hers, inspired me to write.

Publishing a children's book is a team effort. Tell us a little about your team and what you learned from them.

There are so many people on a writing team. First, my friends and family are important because they do all the nurturing and listening and hand-holding and encouraging (and there is a ton of that). SCBWI and the Verla Kay Blue Boards have been critically important. I've made connections there about everything from what to wear to a conference to what to look for in a contract. My critique group really was instrumental― we had to disband when members moved and some others developed interests in other types of writing, but I'll be starting another one next month.

I have to say, the friendships I have developed with writers online have been the most valuable. I correspond and share manuscripts (not as a group, but individually) with at least eight different writers in eight different states. They are all willing to read and honestly comment on my work. Honesty is so important. Yes, we cheer each other on (celebrate and cry depending on what's going on) but at the end of the day, I count on them to tell me if a story is working or not.

You've become a children's author later on in life. Do you think that adds a certain advantage? Any words of advice for late bloomer children's writers?

Well, I wish I had started earlier. I wish I had taken more classes, read more books, immersed myself in the kidlit world...but, the advantage of writing now is that my livelihood doesn't depend on it. Writing (in general) just isn't profitable. So, I have the advantage of time during the day to devote to writing. Or not. Also, it is an expensive investment. The time is the biggest expense, but things like workshops, conferences, computers, books, postage― it all adds up. So, being able to afford to write is the biggest advantage of writing at this particular time in my life.

I would encourage other late bloomers to just get started and also to get involved with kids and current kidlit. Now and again I see pieces up on the boards by obviously older writers...they might write something about their grandchild or their cat, but it is more of a family anecdote and doesn't translate well into a story for a broader audience. So, really the best advice I can give is to read lots and lots of current kid literature.

Now that your first book is popping up in bookstores, what are you looking forward to the most?

I am super excited about A COOKIE FOR SANTA coming out next fall! It will be my first 32-page picture book. Sleeping Bear sent me a sneak peek at some preliminary sketches by artist Bruno Robert (Plum Pudding Illustration). The drawings are so lively and detailed. It is just a thrill to see a story really become a picture book with beautifully executed illustrations.

And, I am also excited about the unknown! It seems in the world of picture book creation there is no end to the joyful surprises. I know an idea for a story will come to me at the most unlikely time (there's a fair amount of faith involved in this writing stuff). And, I also know my learning will continue, my friendships will increase and the love I have always had for books will be with me forever.

Stephanie Shaw is the author of the recently released board book, Bedtime in the Meadow (Tiger Tales Press, 2013), and the upcoming releases, A Cookie for Santa (Sleeping Bear Press, 2014), Owlet Falls Asleep (Tiger Tales Press, 2014), and The Legend of Beaver's Tail (Sleeping Bear Press, 2015). Her children's stories and action rhymes have been published in Old Farmer's Almanac for Kids, Highlights Magazine and High Five Magazine. An Oregon native, she completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Education at Oregon State University and her Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology at Lewis and Clark College. Her career has included being a teacher of children with severe emotional disabilities, school counseling and school administration. Living in Oregon provides her with lots of weather-related excuses to stay inside reading or writing. She lives in McMinnville with her husband Brad and fox terrier Jiggs. She is a member of the SCBWI. You can visit her on the Web at

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Children's Book Genres: Concept Books

Last month, I was at a workshop where I heard children's author David Martin talk about concept books. Since then, I've been inspired to look more closely at these books. If you're curious about concept books, or thinking about writing or illustrating one, this blog is for you.

Above is a general definition of 'concept book' from the University of California Cooperative Extension's website that I really like. To be more specific, you can recognize a concept book by these signs:

1) The book helps children learn age-appropriate concepts (like colors, patterns, shapes, counting, time, the alphabet, opposites, seasons, butterfly life-cycle etc.) and usually does so in a clever or creative way. Concept books are typically the first informational books a child will read. Some people include picturebooks that convey abstract concepts, such as change or fairness, in this category, but scholars like Ann D. Carlson (1991) limit the genre to books that teach tangible, concrete concepts.

Need an example? Emily Gravett's Orange Pear Apple Bear is a classic concept book that addresses the concepts of colors, shapes, and fruits:

2)  The book may or may not have a plot. You will hear some people saying that concept books are nonfiction, purely informational books that do not have a plot, characters, or dialogue. This is actually a generalization and therefore false. It is true that many concept books don't have plots. These are your so-called "list books" books that read like a loosely structured catalog. Alphabears: An ABC Book by Kathleen Hague is a good example of a plot-less concept book. This book introduces a bear for each letter of the alphabet and describes its special qualities in rhyme.

Pomelo’s Opposites by Ramona Badescu is another plot-less concept book.

On the other hand, some concept books, like Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh (spoiler alert), do have a plot; they tell a story that has a beginning, middle, and end, while conveying the concept or concepts (some concept books address more than one concept).

In Mouse Paint, three white mice hide from a cat by camouflaging themselves against a white sheet of paper. Then the mice discover three jars of paint: red, blue, and yellow. Each mouse climbs into a jar of paint and as they emerge, they leave puddles of paint on the paper. As they crawl through the puddles, they accidentally discover that they can mix colors to produce new ones and have fun mixing the colors. Finally, they wash themselves clean (in the cat's water bowl) and paint the paper with all the available colors― except for a section of white where they can hide from the cat. This concept book tells a story about three mice while addressing the concept of primary and secondary colors.

3) The book relies on pictures. Concept books are a type of picturebook because they use illustrations to convey the concepts and to tell the story if there is one. Concepts books are illustrated in a range of media, including photography.

Last words on concept books

• Because concept books are useful for introducing basic ideas, patterns, object sets and words, they are marketed for preschool and kindergarten audiences.

• Concept books are not only greatly enjoyed by children, they have often been favorites with award committees; concept books like Donald Crews' Freight Train and Lois Ehlert's Color Zoo have snagged Caldecott medals in recent years. So don't be fooled, concept books aren't easy to write; a lot of thought goes into them and if done well, you can come up with something distinctive with a lot of cleverness packed into it. Lois Ehlert is one author-illustrator who has made a career out of creating concept books.

    So if you see a publisher stating "no concept books" in their submission guidelines, you know what they're talking about. Please don't hesitate to leave a comment if you have any questions or thoughts about concept books.


      Check out these rather brilliant concept books!

      • Press Here by Hervé Tullet

      • Alphabet Under Construction by Denise Fleming

    Tuesday, July 23, 2013

    Client Book: The Shark and the Parrotfish, and Other Caribbean Fables

    I'm very happy about the upcoming release of The Shark and the Parrotfish, and Other Caribbean Fables written by a client of mine, Mario Picayo. As a lover and student of the Aesopica, I enjoyed editing this book which borrows from the Aesopic tradition.

    Mario is a strong writer and was very easy to work with, taking all my suggestions into careful consideration. He had to revise the manuscript several times and took it all in stride— mark of a pro!

    The book is beautifully illustrated by Barbadian artist Cherise Ward whom we featured in the May 2013 issue of Anansesem. Published by Campanita Books/Little Bell Caribbean, the book will be released later this year, but they've just revealed the cover. Check it out!

    Monday, July 22, 2013

    Interview with R. Gregory Christie

    Publishing Perspectives is an interview series I run here on the blog that's all about seeking insights from people on both sides of the publishing fence ―the folks who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication.

    I recently reached out to author-illustrator, R. Gregory Christie, who despite being neck-deep in projects, took some time out to provide some really thoughtful answers. I met Gregory a few years ago at the African American Children's Book Fair in Philly. Then, he signed my beautifully-illustrated copy of Open the Door to Liberty!: A Biography of Toussaint L'Ouverture, a book that I now feel like re-reading. I'm honored to welcome Gregory to the series!

    R. Gregory Christie
    Your style of illustrating is very distinctive. You abstract the proportions of your figures and favor loose brush strokes. It's quite painterly I would say. What are your influences and how did you develop your style?

    I began painting from PBS shows when I was around 8 years old. It did two things for me, primarily to get over the fear of using color (a common fear among young aspiring artists along with breaking away from realism) and secondly exposed me to professional grade pigments. I asked for paints and star wars figures as a little boy.

    I just knew Picasso for a long time but as I got to art school I held a job at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum. My idea and world of art expanded greatly during those years. When it comes to children's books, the first one with Lee and Low Books was influenced by Ernie Barnes, Pablo Picasso and Egyptian art.

    Double-page spread from It Jes' Happened

    You are a three-time recipient of the Coretta Scott King Honor Award in Illustration. I've heard it said that the types of books chosen for the Coretta Scott King awards are the "liver and brussel sprouts" of children's books, meaning books that are educational and inspirational but not fun for kids to read. Do you think this is a fair assessment?

    No, its a shame how the accomplishments of people with pigment often fall through the cracks. In my opinion a "dream deferred" type of thing where the curriculum and value for 'brown books" are unbalanced against "non brown books". This seems to be remnants from the past, we are smarter than that now, I know it! I'm not just speaking about African American stories it's simply brown folks accomplishments in relation to children's stories and I'm not just speaking about whites, saying specifically that there's some evil plan to mess up black and brown people by ignoring black books.

    Cover of Brothers in Hope,
    Coretta Scott Honor Award winner
    Also, speaking about my own interests and actions. I doubt that I could name several Native American children's books, Latino classics or Oceanic stories without going to a search engine. It's just that people want to see themselves I guess, but I think we all need to be careful not to be so stuck in hegemony, especially when dealing with foundational imagery and should be careful about negativity when it comes to cultural understanding.

    In specific regard to your question, in my opinion a there are a lot of fun books, playful and insightful in terms of cultural understanding with the Coretta Scott King book award choices. Such talk is dangerously close to the line of devaluing of the award and could possibly kill a great or enthusiastic sentiment before we even start to build it in children. Isn't the bottom line to touch the world of a child by opening the door to other worlds?

    You've earned a lot of recognition, winning major awards like the Ezra Jack Keats Award and The Boston Globe’s Horn Book Award. For many illustrators, illustrating children's books is a sort of backstage business. Do you think children's illustrators should strive for recognition and eminence, or is there a general understanding that illustrators are sort of the underlings of the bookmaking business?

    I disagree. In my opinion it's like arguing who really makes a marriage work, man or woman? I imagine it's both and it's within varying degrees. But I am certain that an author illustrator union is as strongly complex and fragile as a marriage. Sometimes the words are on such a higher level than the art and visa versa. But a great editor, and belief in the project by all parties including the marketing department, makes for a good union and can prevent an imbalance.

    Last year you launched a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter to raise money to open up your own bookstore. What got you interested in the book-selling business?

    Sagging pants and text talk... babies playing with cursing on the subway and the media, corporations and government rewarding ignorance and systematic memorization over thinking. I'm not a bleeding heart; I've seen so many people give their lives up for a cause..only to see them homeless and sick without support.

    In truth and in my opinion, the elephant in the room is that people learn at different paces. We, or at least a majority of people I speak to all have a 'tribe' and cause..but at the end of the day idealistic thinking about a utopian society leads to heartbreak. It's hard to get adults to change.. I think that they can manage, get really great at that, but really can not change. On the other hand kids can, and you have a good 20-year window to expose them to their own possibilities of greatness.

    Additionally I think we are moving in a foolish direction to make everything computerized. It's a tower of Babel in my own personal opinion. I got tired of seeing these things so this is my own way to deal with it. The "book business" as stated is so much more; it's more of a "possibilities business" because I have knowledge and sincere belief to offer. My heart is in the right place and the people who get it (what I'm doing) get it. But I do admit it is a commitment and I do miss my freelance life of vacations to Stockholm and Amsterdam. I can really go on and on about this decision but what's most important is for me to take the time to say thank you to the people who believed in me.

    Your bookstore, GAS ART GIFTS, also houses an art studio. It sounds like a neat idea. What is the art studio used for?

    GAS-ART GIFTS (interiror)―no ordinary bookstore!
    To keep some fun along with the discipline. An 11-hour day has cost me relationships, sleep, lots of commuter and gas money but I know it's right and keeps me balanced. In truth, the location makes this idea a long shot. A majority of the people are not ready for this idea and again in honesty it can get discouraging that I own a job rather than a business. However, the brighter side is that I LOVE to paint and have quite a few assignments to do. I can do both, I can go in to another world and also open possibilities I would never have sitting alone in a studio.

    You know? This is a unique idea; it will take time for a lot of people to "get" and support it. But I feel that in these times (in the information age), we cant shrug our shoulders and say newspapers, books and magazines, even libraries and cursive writing are on their way out. We (the adults that I think can't change) have an obligation to preserve traditions and use innovation to inspire the people after us.

    I've known junkies that proudly say they can sew. Thugs who tell me they can or used to do art, and the point is that somebody showed them something, and even though they made poor life choices, that particular skill seemed to be one thing they were proud of and I got inspired by that. Such a situation makes me think that it's not enough to just also must build confidence and bring forth exposure as you give assignments and tasks. If you can get all those things in a high degree then chances are the students will stick with it and character will grow.

    But people get bored and used to a good (and sometimes even a bad) thing, that's where the innovation from our generation comes in and the obligation to make the world a better place through individual relationships, unique thoughts and actions is needed.

    You've illustrated over 20 children's books. Be honest you have a favorite?

    I like the rawness of The Palm of My they say it's never as good as the first time.

    Your artwork has been featured on HBO Kids and the PBS children's show, Between the Lions. What would you say is the biggest difference between working on picture-books and working on a television project?

    I couldn't tell you...I am very careful to stay in my lane and do the things that interest me. So when it came to those jobs I found my joy in being a painter and in honesty wasn't too interested in the phase of the projects beyond that. The animators seemed to enjoy their segment of job as well and most certainly took what I did to an interesting level.

    You've illustrated many children's books that can be described as socially conscious or social justice books. I'm thinking of books like Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth, and Keep Climbing, Girls. Are you selective and deliberate about the types of projects you take on?

    Yes. It comes down to doing the books that I wish I had as a kid. But eventually after doing so many historical books I wanted something for baby showers and for very little ones to see, so books like Jazz Baby and Black Magic came in to play. The store gives me an opportunity to see the spectrum of my choices in one place. It also lets me see how my personal preferences and choices directly effect fans of my work. That type of feedback is invaluable and rewarding.

    Double-page spread from Jazz Baby by R. Gregory Christie

    You've also worked on many illustrated biographies of African-American historical figures like Muhammad Ali, Sojourner Truth, Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong and Richard Wright. Is there something about biographies that appeals to you?

    For me, I hope that it just helps to bring out balance that may be lost to the Christopher Columbus and George Washington lesson plans. Even though I may be answering my own question with the word "obscure"...where are the obscure women/Native American/Asian/paraplegic stories? So I guess it's up to myself and other artists to get these stories out there. It's one of the reasons I was proud to do When Thunder Comes with Patrick J Lewis and Chronicle books. That project has a mix of cultures and some powerful poems.

    Double-page spread from The Champ: The Story of Muhammad Ali

    Can you tell us a little bit about your next project or projects?

    These days its about building GAS-ART GIFTS in North DeKalb Mall. I have art students interested in weekly classes and eventually hope to have guest illustrators and their books sold on a 30-day basis. The foundation of the store will be my own books but I'd love to see famous authors and illustrators flown in to sign-sell their books and run a workshop. I want to see local aspiring artists use the space to teach classes in everything from calligraphy to sewing. I also have something HUGE coming out by the end of the much so that I'm not allowed to tell by social media, so stay tuned in to my own blog to see what it is.

    In terms of books there are quite a few, and I'm superstitious about promoting a book before I wrap it up, so stay tuned in on the blog for that as well.

    What advice would you give to someone considering children's book illustration as a full-time profession?

    It is not a "one-book-wonder" type of profession. "I wrote a book" may not be as wise as I've written some stories". It's the same as telling an album producer that you are a singer and you wrote "a" song.

    Also it's not wise to cut yourself short by putting the whole package together, meaning that you've written a story and now feel that you need an illustrator so that you can shop it around. It would be like getting your script green-lighted for a huge blockbuster but insisting that your close family and friends play the lead roles. It would be pretty rough to market a film like that and a shame considering that the studio has connections to established actors.

    So check out out the many blogs and internet information on the children's book industry and you are halfway there due to the knowledge just waiting for you to learn out there. Also, create. Whether you have a deal or not, find the joy in creating and don't let them kill it with contracts and demands.

    Consider that once a manuscript is sold to a publishing company, unless you are very famous, chances are you will not have a say where the illustrator takes the visuals. So if you have a really special story you may want to have so many good ones that you get those out first and save the special story as a mid-career book. Chances are you will be able to truly collaborate to a little bit more of a degree at that point.

    Don't give up and find a way to live your dream.

    R. Gregory Christie has been working as an illustrator for over 17 years. He has illustrated over forty books, and collaborated with clients such as The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Vibe, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Kennedy Center, Pete Seeger, Queen Latifah, and Karyn Parsons on a variety of projects. He is a two time recipient of the New York Times’ 10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of the year Award, The Boston Globe’s Horn Book Award, The NAACP’s Image Award, Once Upon a World Children’s Book Award from the Museum of Tolerance, and a three time winner of the Coretta Scott King Honor Award in Illustration. His artwork has been featured on HBO Kids, PBS’ Between the Lions, The New Orleans Jazz Festival’s Congo Square poster, and for one year on the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s subway system in New York City.

    He currently works as an illustrator and owns and operates a bookstore and art studio called GAS ART GIFTS in Decatur, Georgia. He enjoys teaching young people about art and literacy, and is available for school and library visits as well as other community events. You can follow him on Titter at @GasArtGifts and on Facebook at

    Thursday, April 18, 2013

    Interview with Nancy Viau

    It's a slow Thursday. I work from home and I relish the quiet, but right now I'm battling an infection. It's so hard to be productive when your brain is in a fog. I'm taking it as a sign to slow down, let things slide for a bit. I've given myself permission to just curl up in bed and finish reading Water for Elephants.

    Publishing Perspectives is a blog series I started that's all about seeking insights from people on both sides of the publishing fence ―the folks who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication.

    Today I'm happy to welcome picturebook and middle grade author Nancy Viau to the series, and to the blog. Last October when I attended the Philadelphia Stories Push to Publish conference at Rosemont College, I heard Nancy speak on a Writing for Children and Young Adults panel. I remember nodding along vigorously and thinking, "This lady really knows what she's talking about." I recently reached out to Nancy and she generously agreed to this interview. Thanks Nancy!

    Your debut middle grade book, Samantha Hansen Has Rocks in Her Head, was noted by reviewers for its humor. How did you go about writing such a spunky, funny, chatty heroine?

    I took the experiences of my four kids, mixed them in with those of kids I observed in stores, schools, and on playgrounds, added in a little of young Nancy Viau (my brother will tell you I was loud), and tweaked everything together to create Samantha. A lot of Sam’s spunk comes from the fact that she’s a work-in-progress, and readers connect with that.

    I read somewhere that you were initially dead set on writing picture books until a critique partner suggested you write for an older audience (This is the story of my life by the way). You've said that you "dabbled" in writing a chapter book and Samantha Hansen was born. What would you say to children's writers who are trying to figure out where they fit?

    I would ask, “What kind of writing do you enjoy the most?” In order to answer that, you may have to experiment. Try writing poetry and prose—everything from adult mystery to teen romance, picture books to chapter books. Send submissions out and get feedback from editors. They’ll tell you if your writing sounds too old for middle grade, too young for YA, etc.

    You glean inspiration from nature and it's a theme that runs through your work. Did you have a conscious moment when you realized you wanted to write stories with nature themes, or did it just sort of happen?

    Sort of both. Take cookies, for example. They are in the pantry and since I (consciously) love them, I’ll eat a bunch. It just happens. Nature is all around, and since I’m an outdoorsy person who loves science and the natural world, I can’t help but write about it.

    Look What I Can Do!, released earlier this year, is your first picture book. What new or surprising skills has writing in this genre/format added to your repertoire?

    I’m surprised that I can write a story that makes sense using less than 200 words!

    And your second picture book, Storm Song, was released just this Tuesday. Congrats! I haven't read it yet, but I already love it since I love anything to do with rain. Can you tell us what the book is about? Also how long did it take you to write the first draft?

    Storm Song is filled with onomatopoeia that describes the beginning, middle, and end of a thunderstorm. The underlying theme is that storms are really very musical, and I thought that if I could get kids to see this, maybe they wouldn’t be frightened when a big storm looms over the hill. In the story, the family spends quality time together and even the dog relaxes a bit. The first draft took six months to a year. I’d work on it, put it aside, and then go back to it.

    You managed to get an offer for Look What I Can Do! from Abrams while you were still unagented. Many writers wouldn't dare venture into that territory. What's your advice? 

    The one proactive thing writers can do is to go to conferences and meet editors. Pick editors’ brains; find out what’s on their Wish List.

    I was browsing the Where's Nancy? page on your website. You make a lot of appearances! What's the secret to a great author event, be it a book launch, meet and greet, book signing, or author visit?

    1. Be prepared. Practice what you will do or say. 2. Stay in touch with the organizer of the event so there are no surprises on either end. 3. Be on time. 4. Show up with a smile and an energetic attitude (even if the traffic was horrendous, your kid got sick at the last minute, the hotel had bedbugs, or the parking garage was full). 5. Put the audience first and be grateful they have come to listen to you.

    You're represented by Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary. What would you say is the most important thing you've learned about working with an agent?

    It’s really hard to find the right fit—someone who is your business partner and advocate; someone who understands and respects your passion and the fact that you are not perfect; someone who sees value in your writing and your ambition. What I’ve learned is that you don’t settle for an agent who offers anything less.

    You started the KidLit Authors Club which brings together published children's book authors from from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and surrounding states. What, for you, has been the most rewarding aspect of running this group?

    Oooh, where to begin…? There are so many rewards! The best part is that, given any moment of the day, I am surrounded by people who have a common goal—getting the word out about our books. We share info and opportunities without hesitation, and it’s that team spirit that has led to our success.

    And lastly, what's the most fun or rewarding thing (or both) about being a children's author?

    I can act like a kid and no one can say it’s not part of my job.

    Nancy Viau is the author of Look What I Can Do! (Picture Book/Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2013), Storm Song (Picture Book/Amazon Children’s Publishing/formerly Marshall Cavendish Children’s, 2013), and Samantha Hansen Has Rocks In Her Head (Middle-Grade Novel/Amulet Books, 2008). Her stories, poems, and activities appear in Highlights, Highlights High Five, Ladybug, Babybug, and many other magazines. She is a member of The Authors Guild, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and The KidLit Authors Club—a regional marketing group she started that consists of published authors who bring interactive book parties to bookstores, libraries, festivals, and conferences. You can follow her on Twitter at @NancyViau1.

    Thursday, April 11, 2013

    Types of Books for Children and Teens- Formats Explained

    I recently had a client who was confused about the different children's book formats. This is not unusual. I remember when I first started out to learn about children's publishing, I was confused by all the jargon myself. Early readers? Chapter books? Picturebooks? Isn't a children's book just a children's book? Well, hopefully this post will clear up all the confusion.

    If you want to succeed in this field, it's important to know the standard genres and formats associated with books for children and young people. This is crucial information both for the purposes of writing your story, and for submitting your manuscript to agents and publishers. When you query a literary agent for example, you need to include the book genre and format in your query letter. The last thing you want to do is come across as an amateur who doesn't know their stuff. Below is everything you need to know to use children's-book-format-speak with ease. Feel free to leave a comment and let me know if you have any questions.

    Board books

    Board books are the "baby" of the children's book family. Board books are often marketed as infant, toddler, or baby books. They are meant to be read (and played with) by infants ages 0 to 3 and are designed as such. Infants tend to chew, dribble on, and throw down objects, so the pages of board books are made of thick paperboard with a glossy finish to withstand the wear and tear.

    Board books are also small in size and typically (although not always) square-shaped– the standard size being 6×6 inches – making them easy for the small hands of very young children to handle. The length varies, but 12 pages is typical and 300 words or less is usually what publishers require (in terms of your manuscript, think one-half to one page). Board books can have a single word on each page, or a few very simple sentences.

    Since these books are for pre-emergent readers (babies and toddlers who are just beginning to grasp the basic concepts of books, letters, and print) and early emergent readers, they have very simple subject matter and basic plots. Many of them teach early learning concepts, like the alphabet, numbers, or colors. Lullabies, nursery rhymes, fingerplays, or wordless books are typical for this format. The illustrations in board books emphasize bright, colorful imagery to engage tots.

    The pages of board books often have die-cut rounded corners, or may be shape trimmed with a special die cut. Board books can also have special/novelty features to engage very young children, e.g. lift-the flaps, "touch and feel", finger tabs, pop-ups, or books that make sounds. The vast majority of board books are printed and produced in China and Mexico.


    Picturebooks are written for children ages 4 to 8 (or 3 to 8). At this time, children typically enter the emergent reader and early reader stages. Also, their attention spans are longer and they can sit still for a longer time. They are now ready to leave board books behind and read longer books, i.e., picturebooks. Recommended word lengths vary slightly from publisher to publisher, but fall into the 400 to 900 word range. In terms of your manuscript, that means 2 to 3 pages.

    The number of pages in a picturebook is always a multiple of 8. So 16, 24, 32, 40, or 48 pages; however the standard picturebook length is 32 pages. Why multiples of 8? Well, it has to do with a technical aspect of book bindery, namely, the fact that the pages of books are printed as signatures. This means the picturebook is actually printed on a single, large sheet of paper which is then folded and gathered to create the pages of the book. In terms of size, 8x10 inches (vertical book) is the most popular pictureook size. Other standard sizes used by traditional publishers include 8x8 inches (square book) and 10x8 inches (horizontal book).

    Picturebooks are so called because the illustrations dominate the text or are as important. In fact, the hallmark of a good picturebook is that the illustrations and the text accompany and complement each other to the extent that the text would be incomplete without the illustrations, i.e. the pictures play an equally important role as the text in telling the story. It is not uncommon for every single page of a pictureook to be illustrated. Picturebooks are illustrated using a wide rage of media, from water color, acrylic, and color pencils to collage, photography, and digital illustration.

    Picturebooks cover an almost endless array of topics and are written in different styles. They require simple, linear plots, i.e. no sub plots or complicated narrative twists. They also require one main character who embodies the child's feelings, concerns and point of view (usually a child or animal character; however, an adult protagonist that children can sympathize with can work as well. An example of a child-friendly adult protagonist is Amos McGee in the picturebook, A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead). There are many types of picturebooks such as rhyming, rebus, multicultural, wordless, concept, and post-modern picturebooks (the categories can overlap of course). Another type of picturebook is the picture storybook which I describe next.

    Picture storybooks

    A picture storybook (also called a "story picturebook") is a type of picturebook. The term "picture storybook" is used by some publishers to specify a longer picturebook for older children (more than 900 words is the ballpark). Picture storybooks have more plot development and higher vocabulary level compared to picturebooks. There will also be more text on the page; in fact, in picture storybooks, there may be long chunks of text that take up an entire page.

    Another main difference between picturebooks and picture storybooks is the way they are illustrated. Above I explained that picturebooks rely heavily on the illustrations to tell the story. With picture storybooks, the illustrations aren't really integral to the story, but rather, serve the purpose of holding the child's attention. Often, with picture storybooks, the illustrations appear on every other page.

    Some publishers use the term "picturebook" to refer to both picturebooks and picture storybooks. This is where people can get confused because they may have read on one publisher's website that picturebooks should be no more than 500, 600 or 900 words, while other publishers state that they accept picturebooks up to 1,000, 1,500 or even 2,000 words. Just remember that publishers who say they accept "picturebooks" longer than 900 words are using the term "picturebook" broadly or interchangeably to include both picturebooks and picture storybooks. Your picture storybook manuscript should be around 6 pages long, and certainly keep it under 9 pages. Shorter is better than longer.

    Rebus books

    Rebus books aren't usually included in the round-ups of children's book formats I've seen online which is why I'm including them here. Rebus books are a type of picturebook where pictures are used to represent certain phrases, words or parts of words (syllables). These word substitution books are great for getting children engaged in reading. Rebus books also allow children to "read" and understand a story that might have been beyond their reading level if text alone was used. Furthermore, rebus books are valuable for helping children understand a key reading principle, i.e., that words represent concepts.

    If you are submitting a rebus story manuscript to a publisher, you can underline or highlight the words you think would make good pictures. Or you can simply send the full text of the story and the editor will pick which words to illustrate. Check to see what the publisher requires.

    Easy readers

    Easy readers, also called "beginning reader" and "easy-to-read" books, are books for children aged 6 to 8 who are just beginning to read on their own. They have 2 to 5 sentences per page and if they have chapters, the chapters are short (1 to 2 pages). Easy readers have very simple and somewhat predictable storylines, controlled vocabulary, and are grammatically simple. The story is told mainly through dialogue and action with very little description of characters or the setting. In terms of subject matter, easy readers cover themes and topics that children can easily relate to such as family, friends, pets, school, holidays, sports, being left out, first day of school etc.

    Much in the same fashion as picture storybooks, easy readers have color illustrations on every page or double page that are included merely to hold the child's interest (i.e., the illustrations are not crucial to the story.) Easy readers are meant to be a stepping stone to longer chapter books; as such, they have a small trim size compared to picturebooks or picture storybooks making the format more "grown up", and they are usually soft cover.

    Easy readers have different lengths depending on the publisher. They can be as short as 200 words or as long as 3,500 words (although most easy readers are in the 1,000 to 2,000 word range). That means anywhere from 32 to 64 book pages. Easy readers are commonly used in Kindergarten through 3rd grade classrooms for reading instruction. Many publishing houses have their own brand of easy readers with numbers or letters to indicate different reading levels.

    Chapter books

    Chapter books are for children aged 7 to 10 who are reading independently. Children can feel a great sense of pride when they begin reading chapter books because they see it as entering the privileged realm of "grown up" books. You'll often find that children who reach this stage start referring to the books they used to read before as "baby books" or "little kid books".

    Compared to easy readers, chapter books are meatier, with more complex sentences and plot development, however paragraphs are still short (2 to 4 sentences). They also tend to be character-driven stories. Many chapter books use hooks at the end of the chapter that compel the reader to keep reading. In terms of length, again, this varies from publisher to publisher, however the average range is 4,000 to 12,000 words. Your chapter book manuscript should be 40 to 60 pages. Chapter books may or may not be illustrated; when they are illustrated the illustrations are black and white.

    Early chapter books (sometimes called "transition books") have bigger print and slightly shorter chapters on average (2 to 3 pages) compared to more advanced chapter books which have chapters that are 3 to 4 pages long. They are also shorter- about 30 manuscript pages. Chapter books are sometimes written as a series, in fact, some of the most popular and commercially successful chapter books are series.

    Middle Grade and YA Books

    Novels for young people fall into two categories: middle grade novels and young adult (YA) novels. Both middle grade and young adult novels cover a wide range of genres from speculative fiction and fantasy, to historical fiction, science fiction and more.

    Middle grade novels (also known as "children's novels") are novels for children's ages 8 to 12. These books are also sometimes marketed as "tween" or "pre-teen" books. They can be anywhere from 25,000 to 45,000 words long. The vast majority of published middle grade fiction novels have 35,000 to 45,000 words, however you'll see longer word counts for fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction middle grade novels (think Harry Potter). When writing a middle grade novel, aim for 100 to 150 manuscript pages. With non-fiction middle grade books on the other hand, word counts vary a lot (from as short as 5,000 words to as long as 100,000 words) depending on what different publishers are looking for.

    Compared to chapter books, middle grade novels have longer chapters, more sophisticated themes, and more complex plots (i.e., sub plots, secondary characters etc.) Middle grade novels typically aren't illustrated; however, some stylistic middle grade novels have illustrations every few pages (These are known as "illustrated books", an example being The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman). Some of the most popular middle grade novels are published as a series with each book featuring the same cast of recurring characters.

    Young adult novels are books for teens ages 12 and up. These novels can be anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000 words long, although YA novels in the paranormal, fantasy, sci-fi or historical genres can be longer, sometimes as long as 120,000 words. The safest bet is to stay below 100,000 words. That's 130 to 200 manuscript pages. By definition, in YA novels the main characters, and usually most of the secondary characters, have to be teenagers. The content and plots of young adult novels can be quite sophisticated, however these books always address themes and issues that are relevant to contemporary teens (self-discovery, dating and sexuality, coming-of-age, mental health issues, substance abuse, school violence, etc.)

    Short story collection/Anthology

    Generally speaking, publishers are not interested in short story collections or anthologies for children and teens unless they are written by already established authors. The short stories may be by one author (a collection) or by different authors (an anthology). All the stories in a collection or anthology are at roughly the same reading level and target a particular audience/age group. Often, the stories will share a common setting or theme, e.g. bullying.