Do you know Mira Reisberg? You should! She’s the brainchild behind The Picture Book Academy, teaching kidlit writers the finer points of the craft. And now, Mira’s got exciting news. She’s launching Hummingbird Literary next week!
Mira, why did you decide to become a children’s book agent?
Well Tara, it’s kind of a wild story. I started off on the creative production end—illustrating and writing picture books—and had some success. Then I started teaching children’s book illustrating and writing at UC Berkeley Extension and San Francisco City College Extension. Some of my students ended up becoming very successful and my own books continued to sell well. I was invited to Washington State University to give some presentations and school visits and then got talked into moving there to do a PhD. It was truly the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it prepared me for everything that has come since. After teaching children’s literature, writing and illustrating, and art education in universities for 7 years, I realized I hated the grading and how confining institutions can be and left. I decided to start my own school, The Picture Book Academy, which has turned out to be very successful with 11 students receiving 15 contracts so far just in the last 10 months. It’s been pretty amazing.
Wow, 15 contracts in under a year is pretty amazing! That success cannot be ignored. What happened next?
The beautiful Karen Grencik from Red Fox Literary and I got talking and she told me that she thought I’d make a great agent and offered to mentor me. Her agency is closed to submissions except through referrals and conferences etc., so she decided to invest in me so that more people could have a shot at getting quality work out to publishers and into children’s hands. I feel like a series of doors have opened for me that I’ve walked through. Karen has been an incredibly generous door opener for me and as this is most likely the only time that she will put this much time and effort into training someone, I want to make her proud. It helps that I also see myself as a door opener too. I also see you as a huge door opener with PiBoIdMo. Tara, can you talk about how you came to start your own journey as a children’s book author leading up to the publication of your wonderful book, THE MONSTORE, and how you came to launch Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo)?
Being a children’s book author is what I always wanted to do, but I didn’t have the timing right until my second daughter was born. There were other things dominating my time before then—competing in figure skating on the National level, establishing a career in high-tech—but once I had my girls and I was staying home, I was immersed in children’s literature and my old feelings bubbled to the surface. I read to my kids constantly! And I finally made the time to write seriously. So I started by joining a critique group. I read hundreds of books, attended SCBWI events, studied craft guides, and began this blog in late 2007.
So when November 2008 rolled around, I read blogs of writer friends and got all jealous over NaNoWriMo. I didn’t write novels! Where was the inspirational event for picture book writers?
Well, there were none in November. So I created one. Honestly I thought only a handful of people would participate, but I suppose other PB writers were as eager as I was to have our own month-long event, because by 2012, PiBoIdMo had 750 participants! There’s also been more than a dozen contracts signed from participants’ PiBoIdMo ideas, and I’m so happy to have played a role in getting great books for kids into the world.
So Mira, what is the name of your new literary agency, and, speaking of doors, when do yours swing open? And what specifically are you seeking in submissions?
First off, Tara, yay to PiBoIdMo, where you host a month of inspiration and support for people to write a month’s worth of picture book ideas! It’s a wonderful group on Facebook and via your website and one that I love being a part of. Thank you.
The agency is called Hummingbird Literary. After wrestling with myself about doing this, I came up with a whole bunch of names including this one but didn’t want to use it because it’s a long name and I wanted something short. At the same time, an exquisite hummingbird kept coming right up to my window over and over, being extremely insistent, so it pretty much named itself. I also love the symbolism of hummingbirds as bringers of joy and good news and as small miracles able to travel great distances very fast, despite their tiny size. I’m also very small in size. Right now, I am particularly interested in author/illustrators, stunning illustrators, and non-fiction that hooks me in and keeps me there. Doors are opening July 28th on Beatrix Potter’s birthday (please read the submissions policy). Beatrix Potter was not only a wonderful children’s book author and illustrator, but she was also an early environmentalist, which is reflected in her books. I have a sweet spot for books that help make a better world in playful ways.
Tara, I recently did a video review of The Monstore where I spoke about how well you’ve done at keeping the text smart, fun, and succinct and let the illustrations convey a lot of information. How was this process for you and did you have any illustrator notes for James or have a say in who illustrated your book? Also another thing that I wanted to talk with you about is how your book is doing given Barnes and Nobles political situation and how it affects your book. I wanted to find out because a) I’m curious and b) I thought it might be helpful to give your peeps a peek at what can happen even after you get a contract.
There were exactly two illustration notes, both in the very beginning, describing the eat-your-food-under-the-table monster and the glow-in-the-dark monster. Never a note about what they looked like, just about what they did. You’ve got to trust the illustrator because their visual interpretations are far more perfect that we can ever imagine.
I did have a say in who illustrated the book. And the say was, “OMG, YES! HIRE JAMES BURKS!” after my editor and art director showed me his online portfolio.
The Barnes & Noble thing is a real sore spot. Like a bruise. If I don’t touch it, I don’t notice it’s there. But when I press it, I feel all OUCHIE.
When I signed the contract with Aladdin—the “commercial” imprint at Simon & Schuster—there was never a doubt in my mind that B&N and Borders would carry THE MONSTORE. Of course, Borders is now gone, and the B&N/S&S dispute is extremely unfortunate timing. I know sales must be suffering, despite my best efforts to promote the book online and off.
Lots of strange things happen once a book is out. You’re so happy when you sign the contract, you don’t think about this post-release stuff. Professional reviewers don’t review your book for unknown reasons, some pan it, and those pubs who give positive reviews write them like plot summaries.
I realize I should be grateful for any reviews, but I’m beginning to believe the professional reviews don’t matter as much as general public opinion. And the feedback for the book has been tremendous. Readers really love it. That’s all I ever hoped for. I’ve already received fan mail! When I hear a kid is asking their parents to read it over and over (and the parent obliges without being annoyed), I get all warm and fuzzy inside, like being tucked into a down blanket on a snow day. Knowing a book I created is welcomed in someone’s home is a pretty cool feeling.
Hopefully word of mouth will negate any damage from the B&N situation. Maybe B&N will realize they NEED this book for the Halloween and end-of-year gift-giving season. There’s still hope, right?
Mira, I promised my blog readers an exclusive offer from you. What did you have in mind?
I’d love to Tara but our conversation is so juicy—can we continue it tomorrow?
Oh, what a cliffhanger! OK, I’ll just sit here and wait. Good thing I’ve got Cookie Monster here to keep me company.