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Photo credit: Richard Trenner

Margery Cuyler, editor extraordinaire, was the featured professional at a NJ-SCBWI first page session nine years ago. That evening I listened to everything this sharp kidlit veteran had to say and left with a notebook full of invaluable tips. Her comments about my writing gave me the confidence to keep working toward my dream of becoming published.

Although she no longer edits books, Margery Cuyler has continued to write them—and this fall she’s releasing three new titles, including her 50th, the humorous monster tale BONAPARTE FALLS APART, illustrated by Will Terry.

     

I was eager to talk to Margery about her career because she has ridden all the ups and downs and twists and turns of the children’s book market…and come out with her name ABOVE the title.

Margery, you have been successful in this business for more than forty years as an author and editor. What is different in children’s publishing now that you are launching your 50th book as opposed to when you were releasing your first book?

When I applied for my first publishing job in 1970, publishing was mainly a cottage industry; children’s books depended largely on library sales. Most publishers, for example Charles Scribner’s Sons and Harper & Row, focused on acquiring excellent books, not necessarily books that would elicit strong sales. The editors, such as Ursula Nordstrom at Harper, had a powerful voice in deciding what should be acquired, not necessarily consulting with the sales/marketing divisions.

All that changed when independent houses were sold to publicly traded corporations whose eye was mainly on sales growth. In addition, the chains—Borders and Barnes & Noble—became a significant vehicle for selling books as library funding contracted due to governmental budget cuts. Sales and marketing became increasingly involved in editorial decisions, thinking about the consumer as well as the librarian as their end customer.

Today, of course, publishers are selling books through many venues, maximizing exposure through online marketing. In addition, authors are expected to do more of their own marketing, utilizing social media as a tool by which to communicate. It’s really a whole different ballgame, although I firmly believe that editorial, design, marketing, and sales teams continue to work toward publishing excellent books, but excellent books that will sell. That’s the difference between now and 47 years ago.

I have heard recently that the market is saturated with picture books…but with good reason. What makes them more relevant than ever? What makes them the bright spot in publishing today?

I hear the same thing—that the picture-book market is robust. I think it’s for several reasons: parents/grandparents seem to prefer to introduce their children to literature by offering them books that allow for a cozy, intimate reading experience. In addition, a finely produced picture book might be a child’s only exposure to high culture. Stunning artwork, a well-written text, and high quality paper and packaging could contribute to a child’s ability later to discriminate between good quality and poor quality books. I guess I sound like an elitist, which isn’t quite accurate because truthfully I’m happy if kids are exposed to any kind of book rather than no books at all. Still, I am partial to picture books that are works of art. I firmly believe they help build the interior architecture of a child and I think many adult buyers and librarians know this.

Finally, publishers have their eye on China, as China has woken up to the importance of picture books and has been active in acquiring the rights to English-language books to translate and sell in the Chinese marketplace. And last, a beautiful picture book is the perfect antidote to the hatred and tension in the larger world. Picture books are a great escape, and I’ve noticed that recently more have been published on the themes of kindness and peace.

What theme most often recurs in your work and why do you keep coming back to it?

biggestbestsnowmanI tend to write about friendship, perhaps because I remember how important my friends were when I was a child. I think all children value good friends, but as with adults, friendships can be challenged when trust is violated or circumstances, such as a friend moving to another community, destroys the relationship. Conflicting loyalties, shyness, lack of confidence are other psychological barriers to forming strong friendships. I strive for psychological verisimilitude and happy endings, which I hope helps give children the courage to overcome obstacles that impinge on their positive feelings about a friend. And then, too, I like to write humorous stories, since I think children—and the adults reading to them—need a pleasant way to escape some of the raw realities surrounding them in the larger world.

skeletonhiccupsOften my humorous stories (i.e., SKELETON HICCUPS or BONAPARTE FALLS APART) are populated with ghosts, monsters, skeletons, etc., perhaps because I grew up in a house that was built in 1685 and was allegedly haunted. I came from a family of storytellers and artists who loved to make the most of scary characters when we played, and some of those characters have popped up in my books.

Next time you will have to come back and tell us all about that haunted house!

But for now, let’s give away a copy of the punny BONAPARTE FALLS APART, which is now available from Random House/Crown.

bonaparteint

This is the tale of friends who try to help BONAPARTE from falling apart, leading up to the first day of school. It combines Margery’s love of friendship stories with her monstrous sensibilities.

Leave one comment below to enter (US only)...and a winner will be randomly selected before the end of the month! Good luck!

Margery Cuyler has had a distinguished career in the children’s book field. In addition to being the author of 50 children’s books, including the newly released Bonaparte Falls Apart, The Little Fire Truck, and Best Friends (a Step Into Reading title), she has held executive positions at Holiday House, Henry Holt and Company, Golden Books Family Entertainment, Marshall Cavendish, and Amazon Publishing. Although she retired from full time work in 2014, she continues to write and also consults for a variety of companies, including digital llc and PJ Library, a division of The Harold Grinspoon Foundation. Visit her online at MargeryCuyler.com.

willterryWow—what an honor to be included in this group, but let’s clear the air straight out: I ain’t no author. I’d like to be…could tell you all the close calls…but all of us have war stories.

I was the kid who did horribly in school. I was always doodling in the back of the class. My parents even had me tested to see what the heck was wrong with me. So I’m probably the least likely to succeed as an author. Writing is definitely a second language—but I’m working on it.

But perhaps I can help the illustrators in the room by sharing how I approach a picture book project—and maybe give authors an idea of the considerations illustrators make on their manuscripts.

I remember watching one of my favorite flicks years ago—Glengarry Glen Ross—starring the amazing lineup: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, and Kevin Spacey. It mostly takes place on one set, in one room, with no special effects and I was amazed that these actors owned their parts enough to carry the story. I tried to imagine what it would be like to play the part of a fictional character. I remember listening to an interview with Morgan Freeman (one of my all-time favorites) and he talked about getting into character and preparing to become another person with motivations that were foreign to him. It stuck with me.

It was about this time that I started illustrating some of my first picture books and I realized that the characters I would be illustrating had a life before and after the few pages I was going to be illustrating. They had a story…and if I was going to be able to capture them I was going to have to figure out who they were before page 1. What were they proud of? What were they afraid of? What did they want? What did they need? …etc…

mountains

I’ve tried concepting at home in my studio but there are usually too many distractions (three boys), so when I get a new manuscript I take it to my “board room”—what I’ve named the mountains that surround me out here in Utah. I’ve been an avid hiker/ backpacker for many years and if you’re a Facebook friend, you’re probably sick of all the photos I post from my walks. But it really is the place I go to be alone with my thoughts. If you really want a good laugh, hide behind a tree as I’m passing by and you’ll sometimes here me speaking in the voice of a character I’m working on. At first I felt like a freak but now I know I am, so I just go with it. You really can accomplish a lot if you’re willing to get up out of your chair, change your environment, and act out scenes in your book. Narration is about gesture and it’s hard to get good gestures sitting at the computer.

rattlesnake

Like the rattlesnake from SENORITA GORDITA by Helen Ketteman—he was especially fun to imagine—the trick was to make him a little scary but not too scary. My theory on kids is that they like to be scared a little—just not frightened. You see it all the time. You’re in line at the bank and a two year old is hiding behind mom’s legs peeking out at you. I always make a little face. The kid hides again—but not for long—he/she wants that little uncertainty. Capturing little scary expressions in my characters has been a goal. How much can I get away with?

Lizard

The lizard in SENORITA was another really fun character to concept. I figured he had to be opportunistic and subsequently lazy, resting under his bush and not wanting to become to easily roused. He’s not the type to act to hastily but would prefer to talk his prey into coming closer and doing most of the work.

macky

Then there’s Macky the blue bird from ARMADILLY CHILI by Helen Ketteman. I thought Macky had to be somewhat sophisticated because he wasn’t that good at flying, so I dressed him up in a vest, bolo tie, and hat.

BigBottomedBoar

And the big-bottomed boar from THE THREE LITTLE GATORS by Helen Ketteman was a big bully. He was really easy because I had done my time in middle school. I knew the big-bottomed boar right off and couldn’t wait to illustrate those grill stripes in his butt at the end when he sears his back side going down the chimney! I had to edit from a very long list of bully smirks provided by my public school education. Butt again (pun intended) I had to make sure he didn’t cross over in to the “horrifying” realm. I didn’t want my audience to identify with him but I also wanted to keep him on the comical hillbilly, the “I don’t know any better” side of bullies.

So there you have it—not too complicated, but I do enjoy putting a little thought behind the characters I draw and paint. And speaking of painting, I’ve been illustrating in acrylics for the first 18 years of my career but switched over to Photoshop 2 years ago. I was so excited about working digitally because of control and speed that I made a video tutorial on my process! It’s available at folioacademy.com.

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Will Terry has been illustrating for 20 years. He grew up just outside the beltway of Washington, D.C. wondering why the hell there were so many cars?! So he moved to Utah and the rocky mountains where he and his boys snowboard & hike. His work has appeared in publications such as: Time, Money, Wall Street Journal and ads for Sprint, Pizza Hut, M&M Mars, Fed Ex, and Master Card. He has illustrated over 25 children’s books for Random House, Simon Schuster, Scholastic, Dial, and Albert Whitman, plus 3 ebooks, 1 app, & co-founded a video tutorial company called folioacademy.com. He’s an avid blogger and currently teaches illustration at UVU.

As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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