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