tonightbabyI had the pleasure of meeting author Jeannine Norris at a recent NJ-SCBWI mentoring workshop. One of the organizers, Kathy Temean, held up a copy of Tonight You Are My Baby and pointed to Jeannine, the author, sitting right behind me. Kathy told us that Jeannine had met her editor at a previous NJ-SCBWI event. Amazing! I immediately knew I had to talk to Jeannine about her path to publication.

Jeannine, how long have you been writing?

I have been writing for about four years. I dabbled in writing when our children were babies, as I missed the creative stimulation of my former job. I really started to write when our youngest went to pre-K.

Where did the inspiration for Tonight You Are My Baby come from?

The inspiration came when our daughter, Quinn, who was four years old at the time, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. As a mother, I needed the strength to help our daughter get through this difficult journey. I started to think about Mary, as the mother of Jesus, and her incredible strength. I decided to write about the Nativity, from a mother’s perspective, and, if the book was published, donate part of the proceeds to helping kids with brain tumors. Quinn’s tumor was benign, and next year will be her five-year celebration! We started a foundation, At Least Kids, that contributes to pediatric brain tumor research at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and supports families struggling financially. A portion of each book sold is donated directly to At Least Kids.

What a scary time for you as a parent, but what a blessed outcome—a healthy child, a beautiful book and a charitable foundation.

You met your editor at a writer’s event here in New Jersey. Can you tell us how the deal transpired?

I met my lovely editor, Catherine Onder, at a NJ-SCBWI mentoring workshop. Catherine heard Tonight You Are My Baby during the first page session. Another editor asked to see the rest of the manuscript, but it was eventually declined. Several months later, I met Catherine at another NJ-SCBWI workshop (with another manuscript) and she remembered the first page of Tonight You Are My Baby. She asked to see the rest of the manuscript and several months later it was acquired. I couldn’t have been happier! The right time, the right place, a great editor. I’m a huge cheerleader for SCBWI events. Opportunities abound!

I love NJ-SCBWI, too!

After your book was acquired, what was the editing process like?

The editing process was fascinating! I needed to add a few stanzas, when Tim Ladwig, the illustrator, started working on the book. Catherine helped me with the revisions as well. I have to say, I love revising, as my book became so much better! Revisions and rhyme are always a challenge—often it means changing the entire line, instead of just a word. Catherine pointed out that I had used the word “quiet” several times in my manuscript. Not a good idea when you are only dealing with 400-500 words! I hadn’t even noticed. When I do my school visits, I always tell the students about my revisions. A good editor is like a good teacher—encouraging, has a vision, and wants your work to be its best. Kids are always surprised that even authors make many revisions.

Interesting–how many times had you repeated “quiet”?

I think I had repeated “quiet” three times!

I suspect that many writers have a “crutch” word or phrase in a manuscript that we just don’t notice. Yours was “quiet.” Mine is “just.” (See?) It takes a good editor to point that out!

Why the need to add the stanzas? Was it because of the illustration spread count? Or did Tim add a drawing you hadn’t envisioned?

We added three stanzas because when Tim started to draw the story arc, we wanted Mary first traveling to Bethlehem and meeting Jesus several pages in. Naturally, the book is about a mother and her baby, but we needed additional stanzas to add other images: the angels trumpeting, the sheep/cows/donkey in the stable, the wise men bringing gifts. All those stanzas were added during revisions. As it happens, the angels trumpeting is my favorite illustration! It’s not what I imagined, and I love it! Tim was so creative. The rest of the illustrations are what I saw in my mind’s eye when I was writing. Tim really “got it”—Mary is very young, completely accessible and a joyous mother.

What has surprised you most about being a published author?

jnorris1My big surprise was—I didn’t really have any big suprises! The tremendous benefit of using the SCBWI and Verla Kay discussion boards is using the experiences of other authors to make the path easier. I am hugely indebted to those who have traveled this literary path before me! Through the discussion boards and workshops, I felt really well-prepared. Any of my questions were answered: simple questions such as “How do I make postcards?” to more complicated questions dealing with contracts. One pleasant surprise was that all of my school visits were wonderful. Each one was gracious, organized, prepared AND I sold a lot of books! Again, I learned how to prepare pre-order forms, write school contracts and even develop a PowerPoint presentation through the experiences of others. There is much to be learned, but a wealth of information is readily available.

What other advice do you have for aspiring children’s authors?

I would urge writers to join a critique group—or start one of their own! I belong to an online group and a local group. I met both of these groups through SCBWI conferences. Critique groups have so much to add! My groups provide me with valuable, honest comments and help prepare my manuscript for an editor’s eyes. I would also suggest aspiring authors gain writing credits through magazine articles, local publications and online sites. The extra income is nice, too! Attend every SCBWI workshop/conference you can afford. I’ve had an SCBWI workshop on my birthday list for the past several years! If your manuscript is acquired, be prepared to market yourself–heavily. The debut author MUST knock on doors, visit schools, call the bookstores, have a website, ask for interviews. This is your opportunity! Finally, have fun. Write what will bring you to your desk each day with a smile on your face.

That’s excellent advice, thank you, Jeannine.

Although Tonight You Are My Baby is about the birth of baby Jesus, a celebration of Christmas, what makes it a relevant read throughout the entire year?

Tonight You Are My Baby is really a celebration of a mother’s love. It’s about the boundless joy that every new mom experiences. The knowledge that a baby’s birth is truly a miracle—a gift unto itself. Tonight You Are My Baby is a celebration of Christmas, but it’s also a celebration of a mother’s heart. The book is certainly most popular at Christmas, but I find many people buying it for other occasions: new baby presents, baby showers, birthdays, etc. Mothers and little ones snuggle as they read of the love story that took place long ago.

Extra cuddle time: a wonderful reason for everyone to pick up this glorious book. Congratulations and thank you for sharing your journey to publication with us!

tonightbaby1Tonight You Are My Baby
Story by Jeannine Norris
Illustrations by Tim Ladwig
HarperCollins, September 2008
Check it out!