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I am so absolutely thrilled that BOY + BOT releases today because I’ve been waiting for it for a long, long time.

It’s the debut picture book by my good friend, Ame Dyckman—and get this—it’s illustrated by the hugely talented Dan Yaccarino! I mean, this has got to be the best picture book EVER with an author-illustrator team just as lovable as Boy and Bot themselves.

And for this very special day, I’ve got prizes to give away! One AFFIRMATIVELY AWESOME prize pack including BOY + BOT, stickers, bookmarks, and an *exclusive* BOT keychain clip made by author-zoologist-educator-sculptor Jess Keating!

So let’s get on with the fun!

TL: Ame, you and I have been friends for a few years now, after meeting at NJ-SCBWI first page sessions. (I knew I had to get to know you, with your spiky pink hair and Lego bracelet.) Is that how you began your kidlit career, attending SCBWI events?

AD: *laughing* Was my hair pink back then? I don’t remember my hair color at the time (it’s blue, now), but I remember thinking, “Wow! This Tara person is funny and nice and she really knows her kidlit! I like her!” BAM! Friends!

And yes, attending SCBWI events–YAY, NJ-SCBWI!–started everything for me! When I first joined, I knew I wanted to write picture books, but I didn’t know how. My first manuscripts were REALLY bad, but nobody made fun of me. Everybody was helpful. (YOU taught me how to page a PB, remember? I still have your diagram!) I went to as many events as I could—First Page Sessions, Mentoring Workshops, Networking Dinners, Annual Conferences, etc. I learned tons—still do!—and met lots of amazing industry professionals and made lots of wonderful friends. At the 2009 NJ SCBWI Annual Conference, I pitched BOY + BOT to Super Agent Scott Treimel, and he said, “I love it! Let’s work together!”

TL: I distinctly remember the 2009 conference and a certain editor making goo-goo eyes at you during lunch…but he had read your manuscript and was bonkers over BOY + BOT. I thought to myself, GO AME! You could feel the buzz about that manuscript at the event. You were in deep conversation with several agents.

So we want to know—how did this beep-worthy book idea come about?

AD: The short answer: I love robots! (I used to doodle robots instead of doing my math homework. Even in college!) The long answer: I love robots and unusual friendship stories and mirror stories always make me laugh, so I hoped mine would make other people laugh, too.

TL: So BOY + BOT is your debut and it has something like 347 starred industry reviews! Are you thrilled or what?

AD: I’m SO happy, and really grateful for all the reviewer love. Here’s hoping the little Boys (and Girls!) and Bots that Dan and I made the book for love it, too!

TL: We’re chatting on the eve of your book’s release. Will you be able to sleep tonight? It’s a little like Christmas Eve, isn’t it?

AD: It feels like Christmas Eve and Birthday Eve and Leaving-for-Disney-World-Tomorrow Eve all smooshed together! I was up until 3:45 this morning because I was so excited already! (But, I think I’d better try to nap later today—I just searched the fridge and then the entire house looking for the bag of baby carrots, only to find I’d put them in the clothes dryer!)

TL: How awesome was it to see Dan Yaccarino’s vision of your characters? Were they anything like you imagined?

AD: Seeing Dan’s first sketches was the greatest! My family gathered around, we clicked “Open,” and then we all shouted, “Look! Bot’s… BIG! That’s BRILLIANT!” (Up until then, we’d envisioned Boy and Bot being the same small size! I dunno why!) But a small Boy and a big Bot is GENIUS! We could already see all the wonderful humor and affection Dan was putting into the characters, and knew his final artwork would be amazing. When it came in, I loved it SO MUCH, I hugged my computer!

TL: *insert clever segue to Dan here*

Howdy Dan, Mr. Keeno Yaccarino! Tell me, when you read Ame’s manuscript, it was love at first sight, right? Kind of like BOY + BOT themselves, right? RIGHT?! (Say “affirmative,” Dan.)


TL: Ame said said when the illustrations came in, she was surprised to see BOT was a big bot and not a small one, like Boy. Why did you make the friends different sizes?

DY: Hmmm. I’m not sure. I guess it was the vision that formed in my mind when I read the manuscript.

There is rarely a logical reason why I do things visually. I listen to my impulse and trust my vision. If it feels right and is right for the book, then I do it.

Then perhaps I’ll rationalize it later.

TL: OK, would you care to rationalize why the inventor is bald?

DY: All inventors should be bald!

TL: *spittake* You’ve got a point there. Plus he reminds me of a lightbulb, so that’s very clever.

And here’s something else that’s clever—our contest to win the AFFIRMATIVELY AWESOME prize pack (book, Bot clip, stickers & bookmarks) PLUS there’s also TWO MORE copies of BOY + BOT to give away!


Enter by telling us what you think Boy’s real name is. Ame says she’s always wondered about it. So let her know!

You get one entry for commenting and then one entry for every share on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. Just mention it when you comment!

Have fun and good luck! Comments will close the end of April 20 and winners will be announced on April 21.

In 2008, I had the most nerve-wracking 20-minute drive of my life. My knuckles paled, my stomach gurgled, and my thoughts raced faster than the 35 MPH I could manage to clock on the highway. I was on my way to my first kidlit conference ever: the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Conference. AHHHH! Somebody help me!

Thanks, Ryan. I know you would have, honey. But I digress…

I knew practically nada about writing for kids, but I had the start to a middle grade novel that had gotten good feedback from my critique group. So I slipped the first three pages into an envelope earlier that summer and waited patiently for the response. Thankfully, I was on vacation for the final two weeks of the countdown. It made my vacation go by much more slowly. I recommend this tactic to anyone who must wait—go to a beach and plop a lounge chair in the sand, facing the ocean. Or facing Ryan Gosling in surfing trunks. You’ll come to love the waiting.

But when the vacation was over and the car hit our driveway, I jumped out and dashed to the post office. Awaiting me was a thick envelope, and remembering the drill from college admissions, I knew this meant a “yes”!

So off I went. I was so green. (Although I wore a cute purple blouse.) But when the event was done, I blogged all about it. It helped me absorb the information like a SCBWI sponge. Hopefully my notes help prepare you for this year’s conference. You can review them all here: RUCCL 2008.

But Tara, what does this all mean?

It means that the RUCCL 2012 Application is now available!

And guess who’s your morning “Success Story” speaker?

As Miss Piggy would say, “MOI!”

Yeah, I was pretty floored they asked me. Trinka Hakes Noble sent me an email saying, “I hope you don’t mind, but I put your name forward as our Inspiration Speaker for the mentee breakfast.  Would you be interested?”

Would I be interested? Are you kidding? Of course I am! Wow! Whoopee! Holy macaroni! Keeno Yaccarino!

Wait a second, what did I just agree to…? Pale knuckles and gurgling stomach again?

Well, I am hoping many of my blog readers will be accepted to the conference this year. Because not only do I want to see you succeed, I’ll need your help during my presentation. (Details to come. No, you won’t need to hold a barf bucket. Well, maybe. OK, don’t hold me to that promise.)

So polish up those manuscripts! You’ve got until July 2 to postmark them.

And if you have any questions about the conference, please ask away in the comments!

Kids love when they think they’re smarter than adults, don’t they? Try putting your shirt on as pants or wearing your shoe as a hat and they’ll double-over with laughter at your stupidity.

Similarly, in writing, having a clueless narrator produces sure-fire giggles. Knowing more than the protagonist is like being in on a secret joke with the author. It’s one of the keys to writing humor for children.

But one of the biggest mistakes in writing humor, according to Executive Editor Steve Meltzer, is random humor—humor that doesn’t serve to drive the story forward but exists merely as a gag. “Even the absurd needs to make sense and be believable,” said Meltzer. He then read BETTY BUNNY LOVES CHOCOLATE CAKE as an example of humor that feels effortless and works within the context of the story. When Betty Bunny’s parents tell her she’s a “handful” so often, she thinks it’s a term of endearment and tells her mommy she’s a “handful” right back. (Of course, I’m rushing out to buy the book right now! I know, I’m a handful!)

Remember when writing picture books for kids, your audience includes parents, too. Some humor should be for their benefit. Think of the old Bugs Bunny cartoons—watch them now and there are jokes that certainly went over your head as a child. Pixar films also have a unique way of delivering entertainment that parents enjoy. (Like in “Finding Nemo” when Nemo is waiting to sabotage the filter. The dentist goes to the bathroom and Peach says, “Potty break! He grabbed the Reader’s Digest! You’ve got 4.2 minutes!”)

Mr. Meltzer also reminded us to take advantage of page turns because “they’re the writer’s rimshot.” Page turns should be surprising and fun. They create suspense: “And then…” [page turn] “BAM!” Hit them with your best [rim]shot.

Audrey Vernick and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich also examined humor in picture books and suggested “take something we all know and insert something absurd that doesn’t belong…the unfamiliar in the familiar.” Audrey did just this in her debut IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN?. The humor in the book happens when the buffalo goes to school, helping to ease readers’ fears about the first day of Kindergarten.

Other ways to add humor to your stories include having a funny sidekick, inserting a running gag, and taking the joke beyond the typical expectation of three. When the joke happens a fourth time, it’s hilarious because we already thought it was over after the third instance.

Misunderstandings, like those literal translations in Amelia Bedelia are also humor winners. Comic wordplay is another technique to try. Combine words, create new words, use funny sounds (onomatopoeia). My debut picture book is THE MONSTORE—a store where you buy monsters. The mashed-up title signals that this will be a funny book. (At least I hope you’ll think it’s hilarious!)

So, are there other humorous devices you like to use in your writing?

Photo Credit: Alexandre Ferron

Did you know that author/illustrator Grace Lin was Chinese? Well, she didn’t.

As a child, she was the only Asian in her elementary school, so she saw herself as an ordinary white, middle-class kid living in upstate New York. She pretended she wasn’t Asian. None of the books she read had characters that looked like her. It wasn’t until her school librarian pulled out “The Five Chinese Brothers”, the sole ethnic title, that Grace was reminded she was different.

At the NJ-SCBWI conference in Princeton this past weekend, Grace Lin gave the keynote presentation and told us about her identity crisis as an illustrator. In art school she imitated styles and she made art to impress other people. She wanted to hear, “You’re such a great artist, Grace! How do you draw so well?”

But she soon realized she was copying others, wanting to be like Michaelangelo, and making art for the wrong reasons. “Be an artist because you have something to share with the world,” she told us. So Grace began to draw things that made her happy.

She found that Chinese folk art, with its bright colors, patterns and lack of perspective appealed to her. Every inch of the illustration was utilized–there were no blank spaces. This folk art resembled Matisse, and she began to see an East-West commonality in the art she preferred, which became an East-West identity that she embraced.

If Grace was to make art that was important to her, she had to think of what was most important in her life: her family. So she created a family portrait that was uniquely her own–colorful, vibrant and in a style that was not seeking to impress, but merely being who she was.

Grace explained to us that our art should have a personal connection. “If it’s not important to me, why do it?” Her first book was very personal, reflecting on the time she spent with her mother in the garden, tending to Chinese vegetables. She used to be embarrassed by the strange plants that grew outside her home, but she now realized the importance of her heritage. She remembered how she never saw herself in books, and she wanted to give other Asian children the chance to see themselves represented.

Instead of being pigeon-holed as an ethnic author, Grace Lin has seen her books melt away race and culture and appeal to every child. “Pre-conceived notions of the market don’t really matter,” she said. She reminded us that if we create what we love, what’s important, our passion will always shine through and find an audience.

Up Next from the Conference: Humor in Picture Books

‘Twas the night before Conference and all through the hotel,
Authors were dreaming of merchandise deals with Mattel.

The manuscripts were printed with name and website,
In the hopes that an agent would find love at first sight.

The editors were snoring tucked into their rooms,
Knowing before them a day of pitching looms.

And while I am too warm, and Corey Rosen Schwartz too cold,
We share a king bed because the queen rooms are all sold.

Out in the hallway, there arose such a noise,
Wouldn’t you know it, it’s the conference’s only two boys.

The place is packed with slinky stiletto-heel wearers,
‘Cause style in books means style in fashion is fairer.

A kidlit conference is full of women who are hot,
Who sell tons of stories while you just want one shot.

But we authors are friendly, we certainly don’t bite,
We’re not filled with envy, we’re not filled with spite.

We will welcome you to our world that’s so crazy,
So will editors and film agents who’ve worked with Scorcese.

Get out there and network! Polish your pitch to a shine!
Relax in the lounge with a smooth glass of wine.

A kidlit conference is the place to make a friend,
It’s where deals happen ’cause deal-makers attend!

But don’t drone for hours about your book’s premise,
Talk about your life, your hobbies. Do you play tennis?

And don’t just stand there, go mix and go mingle.
Don’t stare at the editors like they’re all Kris Kringle.

Be yourself and you’ll find that you’ll be an attraction,
Don’t croon like Jagger about not gettin’ no satisfaction.

Be happy, be cheerful, take crits with salt if need be,
Remember we’re here to help you succeed, see?

(Excuse the bad meter, I’m not really a poet.
Ask Corey the rhyme genius, she really does know it.)

And with that I bid you a hearty good luck.
Break a leg, do your best, get that writer’s block unstuck.

Enjoy yourself for three days and two nights.
Happy Conference to all, and to all a good write!

Joyce Wan, talented author/illustrator of “Greetings from Kiwi and Pear,” stops by the blog today to recap the recent NJ-SCBWI annual conference. I couldn’t attend this year so Joyce offered to share the juicy details. (Get it? Kiwi and pear…juicy? Ugh, stick to humor in picture books, Tara.)

Take it away, Joyce!

It was my first time attending the New Jersey SCBWI Annual Conference and it was such a blast! There were intensives, workshops, lunches with editors/agents/art directors, a book fair, a juried art show, a raffle, auctions, one-on-one critiques, agent pitch sessions and portfolio reviews galore. A whopping 22 publishing houses/agents were represented. A round of applause to Kathy Temean (NJ-SCBWI RA), Laurie Wallmark (Assistant RA) and all the volunteers for coordinating such an amazing and well-organized event. The conference was informational yet inspiring and I left Princeton feeling excited and energized!

Highlights from two of the workshops I attended which stood out in my mind:

Sure it’s Cute, But Will it Sell?
Steve Meltzer
Associate Publisher/Executive Managing Editor
Dial, Dutton, & Celebra

He provided us with information on the business side of the industry and a snapshot of the current picture book market. The market is made up of four types of buyers:

  1. Independent Retailers
  2. Mass Market Retailers
  3. Institutional (Libraries and Schools)
  4. Book Clubs/Fairs

You want to write a book that hits ALL markets. Examples of current books that are hitting all markets:

  • Skippyjon Jones
  • Fancy Nancy
  • Ladybug Girl
  • Llama Llama Red Pajama

As mentioned in the recent #pblitchat on Twitter, Meltzer is looking for character-driven stories: stories with quirky characters that are unusual and original but realistic. Character stories invite sequels, branding, and licensing opportunities.

Finally, he suggested that writers should be able to pitch their story in one sentence. Compare it to something successful but then tell him how it’s different (ex. Like Skippyjon Jones but with whales).

Picture Books – What Works
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen
Author of 13 picture books and seven non-fiction books

Picture books should be 650 words or less. Story should consist of a character that has a conflict and makes three failed attempts to solve the problem and then has a successful attempt on the fourth try. The end of the book must surprise the reader (a twist), extending the story beyond the story, which makes the book re-readable. Although she did mention that there are no hard and fast rules to picture book writing–and that these are just what, in her experience, has worked for her–I do think it’s a handy little formula to follow for those of us beginning our journey in the world of picture books! Another little trick that can help add tension to any story is to add a ticking clock of some sort: the character has to reach the goal by a certain time (ex. by bedtime, by sundown, etc.).

In addition to the workshops, there were two really inspiring keynote presentations at the lunches given on the first day by David L. Harrison, author of 80 children’s books, and on the second day by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, author of Dairy Queen and other books. David Harrison reminded us all why we do what we do, which is to create literature for young people. Catherine Gilbert Murdock charmed us all with her self-deprecating humor and shared with us how her journey to becoming a successful author started in a not-so-successful career in screenwriting.

There was also a juried art show organized by Leeza Hernandez, which was a first for the NJ SCBWI conference. You can read about the winners of the art show and view some of their beautiful artwork on Kathy Temean’s blog.

I submitted this piece for the art show which is a scene from my picture book that came out last year called Greetings from Kiwi and Pear.

I had fun being part of such a visual part of the conference and even had a fellow attendee email me after the show saying how much she loved my work and what a bummer it was that we didn’t get to chat during the conference.

One of the best parts of the conference was the one-on-one critique with the editor/agent. I thought the one-on-ones alone were worth the price of the conference. The editor I had my critique with gave me very insightful feedback and ideas. I showed her the picture book dummy that went with the manuscript I submitted for the critique along with my picture book that came out last year and even my Wanart catalog so that she could get a better sense of my illustration style. She liked my picture book dummy so much she actually asked to keep it along with my catalog–how exciting!

One fun side note is that there was a High School prom at the hotel the first night of the conference. I got quite nostalgic at dinner watching all the kids in their tuxedos and glittering gowns make their grand appearances in the hotel lobby–it was quite a spectacle and felt like dinner theater!

Overall, the conference was fantastic in every way from the top notch venue (there were koi ponds in the atrium!) to the high calibur faculty. I’m already looking forward to next year!

Illustration by Leeza Hernandez

Whistle while you write? You might not want to put your lips together and blow, but maybe a little music could lighten your mood…and your mind.

Last Sunday at the NJ-SCBWI picture book intensive, illustrator Leeza Hernandez led writers in a creativity exercise by playing random musical selections. The idea was to help us generate ideas. (Sound familiar?)

Leeza played two-minute tunes, and during each piece, she asked us to think of a single story element and write whatever came to mind.

So let’s try Leeza’s exercise today!

Go to

Enter an artist or song. A new music station will be created for you, with songs similar in style to what you submitted. (Aim for instrumental, although music with lyrics will likely pop up. I entered “Vivaldi.”)

Alternatively, you can choose a genre station: classical, blues, dance and a dozen others.

Set your timer for two minutes. As the first song plays, focus on element #1 and write. Don’t stop until the timer goes off.

Next, click the [ |>> ] button on the Pandora player to switch to the next song. Now focus on #2 for two minutes.

New song, #3…and so on…

1. Character
2. Scene
3. Supporting Cast
4. Conflict
5. Emotion
6. Resolution

Leeza’s sixth instrumental did not conjure up a resolution for me. Instead, I envisioned a boy on a farm at sunset, herding all the rowdy animals into the barn for the night, only to have them escape again.

However, the boy in the musical mayhem was the character I created during the first piece—and I didn’t even realize it until I was done writing. I subconsciously felt a connection between the two songs.

Do I have a story? Maybe. Maybe not. But I do have some ideas that floated out of thin air. (Truth be told, I had just received an advance prototype of Michael Sussman’s IdeaCatcher.)

Being an illustrator, Leeza sketched her ideas as the music played. For #6, she drew herself jumping up and down, holding her published book.

Keep working on your ideas, PiBoIdMo’ers, and that image may be you, too!

So, how’s it going today? Care to share your musical thoughts?

SudiptaEver have one of those light-bulb moments when your manuscript finally gels? Your plot falls into place and you wonder why you didn’t think of something so simple and perfect before.

Sitting in on Sudipta Bardhan Quallen’s picture book workshop last month, I had a dozen lightbulb moments. She dissected picture book structure like a biology teacher dissecting a frog–she split it wide open and showed us its heart. (OK, maybe that analogy wasn’t good for the squeamish, but she has a science background, so I think it works.)

For example, she suggested inserting a “ticking clock” into our manuscript. A deadline makes the story urgent and exciting. (Eureka!) If you’ve never heard her speak, you’re missing out on one of the finest picture book tutorials anywhere.

Besides being wicked sharp, Sudipta has a nervous energy that’s endearing. Get her engaged in conversation, and she’ll talk non-stop about her love of children’s literature. (And high heels and shopping on Bluefly. Yes, she’s a girly-girl like me.)

Surprisingly, she never dreamed of becoming a kidlit writer. She’d thought of being a doctor (but she’s afraid of blood), a model (but she likes to eat), and the President (but she had a dissolute youth). So much for childhood dreams.

belvaBut now she’s the author of 11 picture books and 16 non-fiction books for children including The Hog Prince (Dutton), Ballots for Belva (Abrams) and Tightrope Poppy the High-Wire Pig (Sterling).

So Sudipta, if you didn’t want to be a writer, how did you get into the kidlit business?

I got pregnant twice in the span of 15 months and had to move from California (where I’d been going to grad school) to New Jersey (where a little piece of me dies every day). Like every other new mom in the world, I decided I had stories that I just had to tell my kids and so I started writing. I also had this idea that writing was totally a job I could do with two babies in the house, which was just stupid because you can’t do anything with two babies in the house.

Amen to that! I can’t do anything with two babies out of the house, either. (And by the way, I’ll let that NJ crack slide.)

When I started writing, everything was really bad. Some day, when I am super-famous, I will pull out my Alphabet book, and my going-to-the-zoo book, and all the other requisite bad stories we all write when we start. But eventually, I figured out to go to conferences and read up on the craft of writing, and I started to get things published.

How did you get your first big break?

About two months after I started writing, I wrote up a short story for Highlights. It was something that had actually happened to a friend of mine, with a bit of fictional dramatization. Highlights bought it and it was the first $200 I made writing.

poppyI also randomly got a foot in the door of children’s publishing by mentioning my science background in a cover letter. I’d sent a picture book manuscript to Sterling, which they rejected, but in the rejection the editor asked if I’d consider writing a science experiment book for them. That became Championship Science Fair Projects, which still sells really well for me, and a few years later, my first picture book, Tightrope Poppy, was published by the same editor.

New writers are often told not to mention irrelevant information in queries, but your science background landed you a contract. What exactly is your science background?

I graduated Caltech in 1998 with a BS in Biology (by the way, with the passage of years and my gradual failure to remember even the most basic biology concepts, BS is becoming more and more appropriate). I spent a year at Harvard, but it really wasn’t for me, and then headed back to Caltech as a PhD candidate in developmental neurobiology. But those plans went off the rails when I had two babies. I had this crazy idea that I could write with two kids in the house—which you totally cannot do—but that’s how I got into the writing-for-kids business.

Normally, I recommend that you don’t mention anything other than kidlit in your cover/query letters, but if you keep it short and sweet, you can throw some things in there. I think the line I wrote was something like: “I have a Master’s degree in Biology from the California Institute of Technology and have published several scientific articles.” That doesn’t take up so much space that it is annoying.

What has surprised you most about being a published author?

So many things have surprised me about being a published author. Hard to pick just one. So I wrote a Top Ten list. I love Top Ten Lists. Except after I start writing and realize that I only have six interesting things to say. But who’s ever heard of a Top Six list?

Top Ten surprising things about being a published author:

  1. That the advances are so small that after everyone has had their cut and you’ve paid all your expenses (whether it’s permissions, or research costs, or just the cost of babysitting that allowed you to write the book) you have just enough money left over to take your family out to dinner. But only if they agree to go Dutch.
  2. That you can’t just show up at a book store and expect them to have your book. Or believe that you are a real author.
  3. That there’s a 50-50 chance that the number of kids that are biologically related to you who show up for a book signing will outnumber the number of kids that are NOT biologically related to you.
  4. That no matter how much market research you’ve done, there’s a good possibility that there is a really similar book out there that no one has ever heard of – except the person writing the review.
  5. That even though the publisher picks up the tab for producing the book, all of the marketing responsibility is on you. So if you want anyone beyond your mother and your best friend to know about it, you need to get your butt in gear.
  6. That you know no more about writing or publishing after the contract than you did before. Even though everyone expects that you do.
  7. That the more successful you get and the more books you publish, the less of your writing time will actually be devoted to writing.
  8. That when you and a group of writing colleagues meet certain editors (who may now be agents…), no matter how many books you’ve done, the first comment he will make is, “So… you all are *moms*, huh?”
  9. That it is a long time before you move “real author” into the list of things you consider yourself. I still haven’t really gotten there.
  10. That going to a school for an author visit is as close to being Angelina Jolie as you will ever get. And it’s a pretty cool feeling.

How did you begin to bill yourself as a speaker?

I started to volunteer to speak at conferences because I wanted to teach what I had learned about the craft of writing picture books to other aspiring writers. I got a lot out of SCBWI events in New Jersey, and I wanted to give back. Also, teaching helps you learn in ways that doing does not. For example, at this year’s NJ-SCBWI annual conference, I gave a workshop about rhythm, rhyme, and repetition. I talked about using a refrain in your picture book manuscript to give it narrative structure—and it was the first time I had consciously realized that that was something I do a lot in my own writing. Having to teach it, however, was what made me conscious of it.

hogprinceSome authors say they learn something about themselves with each new book. What did writing The Hog Prince teach you?

In my workshops, I emphasize the importance of the market over and over again. I’m constantly saying that I only write what I know I can sell. But as I review my own body of work, which has finally grown large enough that I feel comfortable calling it a body of work, I notice that, within the confines of what I feel the market can bear, there are themes that I subconsciously explore time and again. And these are the themes that resonate most strongly for me.

In The Hog Prince, Eldon dreams of being something he is not. He believes that if he were to change by magic, his life would be better, that everything would be shiny and pretty and luxurious and grand. And while I run the risk of coming off as having no self-esteem at all (which is not true, I have an itty-bitty bit), I can say that there have been plenty of times in my life that I have felt this way. In fact, I don’t think it is just a childhood thing–I’m not sure that we ever completely grow out of feeling like everything about our lives would be improved if only we could change ONE little thing. Except that it is never a little thing, nor is it one thing, nor will your life actually get better.

What’s nice about the story is that Eldon figures out that he is worthy and precious just the way he is, and that the folks who really matter (in his case, Petunia) don’t want him to change one muddy little thing. I struggle with this lesson, and I think a lot of kids do, too. Hopefully, that’s what makes the story timeless.

So, here is what I learned about myself:

  • I sometimes wish I could change into royalty;
  • I use my books to sort out emotional issues;
  • I think that every story is better is you replace the main character with a pig.

You may be right there. Who doesn’t love pigs? I mean pigs in literature. Real pigs, not so much.

Thanks for the interview, Sudipta! I think I know what the blog market can bear, and although I’d love to talk to you for another thousand words, something’s telling me to wrap it up here.

More of Sudipta’s serious-yet-sassy picture book philosophies can be found on her new blog, including a picture book writer’s Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not submit a manuscript before its time…

Want to be a fly on the wall in an agent’s office? If you were at the NJ-SCBWI conference last week, you got that kind of insider buzz. Some top agents in children’s publishing revealed what’s been sitting on their desks, and more importantly, what hasn’t been submitted.

The agent panel featured:

After brief introductions, the agents welcomed questions. The first attendee (OK, me) wanted to know: “What trends are you seeing in your submissions? Specifically, what are you seeing too often? And what aren’t you seeing?”

The agents were quick to say that vampires were overdone. They’re seeing a lot of fantasy, especially with werewolves and zombies–on their own but also vampire/werewolf/zombie hybrids.

Jill Corcoran added, “I’m seeing a lot of plot-driven manuscripts, but where the character isn’t fully developed.”

The agents thought that paranormal hadn’t yet peaked, while historicals were down. That’s not to say a fantastic historical couldn’t come along and raise the whole genre, but as of now, they weren’t selling well.

They also added, “please don’t send anything about bullies. We’re sick of bullies.” Seems there was a bully article in a prominent parenting magazine (or perhaps it was an Oprah episode?) which began an unwelcomed trend.

Turning their attention to what wasn’t being submitted, Marietta Zacker said, “We’re not seeing a true depiction and representation of our diverse population. Kids aren’t seeing themselves in books and that’s a problem.”

Rachel Orr said, “And please realize there should be other Chinese stories than those about Chinese New Year. And stories featuring African-Americans that are about something other than slavery.”

Scott Treimel added, “Don’t send a story about three characters from three different races that have adventures.” He said such stories tended to be stereotypical and poorly conceived.

Ms. Zacker emphasized, “Certainly, be true to your voice. But write outside of yourself. Look beyond yourself to the world around you.”

Rachel Orr commented that she sees stories about a kid who moves to a new house far too often.

Scott Treimel wondered, “Where are the stories about the boys who feel weird about their sexuality? What if the girl is aggressive for a change?”

The agents agreed that in regards to sex in YA novels, the sky’s the limit, but it must be organic to the story. Don’t be shocking just for shock’s sake.

An attendee asked if she had been rejected by an agent, but spent several months polishing the manuscript, is it acceptable to submit again?

The agents said that the writer should first look to the agent for a response. Typically, they’ll note if they want to see a revision. And a writer must put the work in before coming back a second time. Marietta Zacker said, “This sounds like common sense, but don’t forget that we remember you. We really do read submissions. Don’t make us feel like we don’t know you. Please say, ‘I sent this to you six months ago but I’ve revised it…'”

Emily van Beek chimed in with: “Remember that the world owes you nothing. You owe the world your best work.”

In regards to working with an agent, the agents said that their business is all about relationships and trust. “We’re partners in your career. We’re architects for your career. We have a design for you.”

Also remember that an agent has their favorite editors so they’re tuned to the tastes of a few dozen editors, but not all of them. It pays to shop your work around to find the best match.

And one of the agents commented that if something isn’t selling, move on. “I wonder about those people who try to sell the same story year after year. You’re a writer! Write something else.” 

When the agents were asked what they’re currently working on, books they’re excited about, Marietta Zacker said they are asked this question frequently, “but we always shoot ourselves in the foot when we answer. We don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves. You shouldn’t necessarily send to us just because we liked something in particular. And we don’t want you to write to that preference, either.” Agents have a wide range of tastes. “We don’t know we want it until we read it.”

Emily van Beek talked about the importance of falling in love with a manuscript in order to represent it because they do all work on spec. “We don’t get paid until we sell it.” So her mantra tends to be, “If you can resist it, do. I know that sounds [harsh], but it’s true.” She finds projects she can’t live without. Then she has the passion to sell it.

Interestingly, she told us that Kathi Appelt’s Newbery honor The Underneath took two years and underwent eight major revisions.

Scott Treimel added, “Writing and revising are equally important skills.”

Some agents will help edit your manuscript for submission, others may not be that involved. It depends upon the agent. But remember that your agent is not a critique group. Be sure that you have reliable crit partners and that your manuscript is “polished to within an inch of its life” prior to submission.

So when does an agent know that the manuscript is ready to be submitted to editors? When do they let go? Jill Corcoran said, “When I think it’s phenomenal.”

And to end the panel, Jill Corcoran talked about endings. “I love endings that are expected, but unexpected; surprising but logical.”

And I suppose this is a logical place to end this post. Be sure to check back for more from the conference throughout this week!

Lewis“For all those who thought E.B. White was coming. Sorry, I’m the black one. As you can see, I’m not white and I’m not dead.”

Talented artist and illustrator E.B. Lewis discussed process versus product for his NJ-SCBWI keynote. He opened with some humor but then got to serious business.

He has a strong work ethic and told the audience that a person was only an artist if they spent each day producing art. It takes no less than 10,000 hours to become an expert in your craft. If you’re counting, that’s nearly 5 years straight of 40-hour work weeks, no breaks, no vacation.

Work is just that–work. It shouldn’t be easy. But you should love the work. If you don’t, then maybe you’re just fooling yourself into believing you’re something you’re not. Some people say they don’t have the inspiration. “I don’t understand that. I can’t step out of my bed without falling over a juicy piece of inspiration.” (Note to Mr. Lewis: I’m the one who tripped over your portfolio case. How’s that for falling over juicy inspiration?)

Mr. Lewis claims that once he finishes a painting, he admires it. He loves it–for about two hours. Then he hates it. For him, it’s all about the process of creating. He isn’t happy until he is creating once again, improving upon his last accomplishment, trying something new. “As soon as an artist knows their style, they’re dead in the water,” he said. Because your style is something that should be evolving. You’ve got to work hard, you’ve got to better yourself. If you’re satisfied, perhaps you aren’t a true artist.

homesoonHe gave us some background on his childhood. “When I visit schools, I tell the kids that I failed 3rd grade. It levels the playing field. ‘Wow, E.B. Lewis failed!’ the kids say.” The children immediately understand that if Mr. Lewis was able to become an artist, they, too, can reach their goals.

Mr. Lewis attended a small, old school with fireplaces in every classroom. One day during math class, he crawled up the fireplace. Remember how the girl in A Christmas Story pointed shyly toward Flick, outside, tongue frozen to the flagpole? Well, the whole class pointed shyly up the fireplace when the teacher asked where Earl had gone.

Then on career day, a classmate said he wanted to become a doctor. That boy received a lot of attention. E.B. wanted that same kind of attention, so he raised his hand. His teacher pushed it down. He raised it again. Finally, he was able to answer. “I want to be a lawyer,” he said, not because he really wanted to, but because he thought everyone would admire his aspirations. Instead, they all laughed, including the teachers. No one thought E.B. Lewis would amount to anything.

So E.B.’s uncle decided to take a special interest in his nephew. Every Saturday afternoon for years, his uncle drove him to art class because he knew E.B. loved to draw. His uncle told him that artists were the critical thinkers of society, and very well read, so he gave E.B. a new book to read every week. This man connected E.B. Lewis to his passion.

E.B. began his career as a fine artist. He would take photographs of his subjects, but from far away, hidden, with a telephoto lens, because as soon as someone knows their picture is being taken, they no longer act naturally. They’re no longer in the moment.

His work appeared on the cover of a magazine and a few days later he got a call from someone in the children’s book industry, asking if he’d like to illustrate a book. He said no. Why not? “Because I’m a fine artist, not an illustrator.”

What’s the difference? A fine artist solves their own philosophical problem. An illustrator solves someone else’s problem.

However, that art director was persistent and encouraged E.B. to go to the children’s section of the library. Mr. Lewis soon realized that some of the most ground-breaking artistic work was being published in children’s books. He called back and agreed to illustrate.

batboyOver the past 14 years, Mr. Lewis has illustrated 47 books at the rate of about 3/4 books a year. He has won the Coretta Scott King illustrator award four times. He won a Caldecott honor for Coming on Home Soon. He works with 14 different publishers and is currently booked through 2014. (That’s right, five years in advance. But I’m taking special note of the lucky number 14.)

He is one of the few illustrators who travels to meet with his editor and art department to discuss a book at the early stages. He likes to create a brain trust in the beginning. He starts with thumbnail sketches and this begins the dialogue. Then he enlarges the sketches to a dummy and adds the words. He researches photos in the library and uses a model, often combining both photographic guides to create the end result.

“I have a love of the process, the doing. For me, that’s all there is.”

How lucky for us. We get to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

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