I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s BIG MAGIC when it was a new release in fall of 2015. I connected with her mystical concept of creativity - that ideas exist outside of ourselves, and we just act as doorways for them to enter the world. That is often how the creative process feels. I also loved Gilbert’s vision for a sustainable, happy, creative life, focused on the work itself rather than external rewards or criticism.
Inspired by the book, I set out to notice the creative nudges of Big Magic in my own life. At the time, I had been participating in several online critique groups, but I was feeling a need for a deeper critique of both words and images. I felt I needed not just any group, but a group of people who were all at about the same point in their writing/illustrating journey as I was. I wrote down “find or create a critique group” as a to-do item in my journal.
One day I saw a post on a national illustration group from someone who was re-entering illustration after a few years away, and who looking for a critique group. I realized I had met her in a class, and that she lived near me. I sent her an email. I sent an email to another former classmate who I sometimes swapped critiques with.
Suddenly, there were three of us. We were a critique group! We met a few times, and we all started to create more work than we had been. We all tried out new techniques and ideas. I felt that each time we met, my work got better.
One day I woke up with the thought: “Doesn’t that school fundraising sale happen around this time of year?” I looked it up, and the sale was that day. I dropped my kid off at preschool and drove 45 minutes out of my way with this burning sense of urgency that I needed to be at the sale when the doors opened. I waited in a line that stretched around the block, wondering why I was there. I hate shopping, why was I in this crowd of intense shoppers?
Once inside the school gym, I picked up a pair of kid’s rain boots and a couple of dresses, but I really didn’t see anything that would have compelled this feeling of needing to be in that particular place. Then I bumped into someone straightening the racks - a parent volunteer who turned out to be another illustrator I had taken classes with. She was looking for a critique group… and suddenly I knew why I was there.
Over the last couple of years, our group has produced a lot of new work. Two of us have debut books coming out in 2018. One has a book on submission, and is selling a line of greeting cards. Another won a prestigious award and has started showing her fine art. All of that external success, though, grew out of each of us having a commitment to our own creative practice, and to supporting each other’s creative lives.
I have an agent and an editor that I feel incredibly lucky to be working with. I think Big Magic played a role in connecting me with just the right people for my book to shine, although the story of how I met them is not nearly as dramatic. (I queried.)
I leave you with my doodle musings on external success vs. maintaining a creative practice. Work is its own reward, and so is connecting with other creatives.
Around this time of year, we’re often thinking about the many things in our lives we are thankful for. In my case, this year, I’m especially thankful for a particular decision I made early on in my career- the thing that led me to meeting my editor, Jonathan Eaton of Tilbury House Publishers, and becoming the illustrator for MOTH AND WASP, SOIL AND OCEAN: REMEMBERING CHINESE SCIENTIST PU ZHELONG.
It is well known in the children’s book industry that being a member of the SCBWI definitely has its perks and rewards. So when I began my journey to publication, back in 2009, starting a membership and putting together an artist profile was at the very top of my priority list. At first, I was very involved in keeping up with all the news and going to the conferences. But then over time, life got a bit busy, and I had all but forgotten about it.
A few years ago, I received a surprising email from an acquisitions editor at Tilbury House Publishing. She had asked whether I was interested in illustrating a picture book for them. I was in absolute shock. I hadn’t sent anything to Tilbury House prior to receiving this email, of which I could recall. We arranged a telephone interview. I was SO nervous! It turned out that she was very easy to talk to, and I felt more comfortable by the time our conversation had ended. It was then that I learned how she found me- through my SCBWI Illustrator Profile! She had been browsing the site and came across my art and felt that it would make a great match for a book they were publishing.
She asked me to read their current manuscript and that I should send some sketches and sample spreads, and she also asked for any other projects I’d like to submit for their consideration. I was thrilled! Their story was Non Fiction, and there were many topics I needed to do a bit of research on before I could even consider doing proper sample art. Hours of research, thoughtful planning, and sketching ensued.
And then I was told the project was to be put on hold! The story needed additional research and editing to make the story truly shine.
Although I was bummed, I figured it was for the best. I believe that every story deserves every bit of hard work and research to make it the best it can be. So I worked on other projects, traveled, planned to start a family and started shopping around for our first home. Two years later, I was in the middle of doing all of those very things when I received a phone call from a mysterious number. My husband answered the phone, and his eyes were round as saucers when he handed it to me. “It’s a PUBLISHER. A REAL PUBLISHER!” he whisper-screamed.
I answered, and it was Jonathan Eaton from Tilbury House! He explained that their story about the Chinese entomologist was finally ready to be illustrated. He asked if I would be interested in taking on the job!
I couldn’t believe my luck! I wanted to say yes right away! But now I was an expectant mother, and in the middle of moving into our new home. Would the timing be right? How often does the very same opportunity arise more than once in one’s life? And where on earth was I supposed to DO all of this painting? My studio was packed away in boxes!
Needless to say, I did say yes. And I am ever so thankful I did so! Furthermore, my editor was absolutely amazing and very understanding of my changing circumstances regarding my home life and pregnancy. I somehow managed to move into a new home, have a baby, and illustrate a picture book all in a year’s time.
I couldn’t have pulled it off without the help from my editor Jonathan, my supportive family and friends, and my awesome critique group! (Tune in to Jeanette Bradley's post on the 23rd to hear that magical story!)
Oh... and let’s not forget SCBWI!
Melanie Linden Chan
MOTH AND WASP, SOIL AND OCEAN: REMEMBERING CHINESE SCIENTIST PU ZHELONG by Sigrid Schmalzer, illustrated by Melanie Linden Chan
Tilbury House Publishers. February 6, 2018.
Available for Pre-order now!
Once you have a manuscript that you’ve poured your heart into, exposed to critique group scrutiny, and reworked until you think it’s ready…then what?
After reading up on the industry, I weighed the pros and cons and decided to pursue representation by an agent rather than submit directly to editors. I researched agents, started a spreadsheet, and, in 2014, began to submit manuscripts, one by one, to several agents at a time. I kept on, trying out different manuscripts, expanding my list of potential agents. Rejections dribbled in—the standard “not for me,” black holes of “no response,” and an occasional “no” laced with encouragement. In January 2016, as I was sending out a new manuscript, I saw an announcement for a new agent at Red Fox Literary. By that time, I knew that was a primo agency. There was very little information available on Stephanie Fretwell-Hill, but I liked what I found. I had no idea if she liked nonfiction or historical fiction, but sent her my manuscript anyway.
A week later, I heard back. She liked it! After emailing back and forth, lots of questions, and a phone conversation, I signed with Stephanie! Submissions to publishing houses began. And of course, more rejections, but now I had a knowledgeable partner in the process and an agent who could submit to all those houses closed to non-agented writers.
Preparing for the WOW Writing Retreat in July, I chose three manuscripts for paid critiques from editors, and Stephanie advised which manuscript to submit to whom. There, I met Sylvie Frank from Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster and discussed AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET. With her feedback in hand, I dug back into the research and revised for a month. Finally, in September, Stephanie sent it off to Sylvie. She loved it! In mid-October, we had an offer. AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET was on its way to becoming a real book! I know it’s rare that a critique leads to a book contract, but I’m proof it can happen.
Stephanie and Sylvie have both contributed super posts to my blog series “Mining for Heart.” If you’re interested in what agents and editors look for in a manuscript, please check out their posts.
Mining for Heart: An Agent’s Point of View
Mining for Heart: An Editor’s Point of View
AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET, BEN FRANKLIN & NOAH WEBSTER’S SPELLING REVOLUTION by Beth Anderson, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley
Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Fall 2018
About two-and-a-half years ago, while still tirelessly querying my middle grade novel, I wrote THE REMEMBER BALLOONS. I sent this manuscript out slowly and selectively (roughly a dozen agents from first query to signing). After receiving a personal rejection that had me wondering Maybe this is just a story for me, I was tempted to put it aside. Fortunately, my friend and critique partner, Myrna Foster (of Storyteller Academy), talked me out of it.
Fast forward about five months, and I had the chance to pitch my picture book in a Twitter contest. I'd done my share of these contests before. They were fun, and I'd had some mild success with requests. I went ahead and entered #pitchmas the Friday before Christmas 2015. I pitched a few times and did pretty well staying busy outside of Twitter that day. (As seasoned contesters know, it's tempting watch for "likes"—but can drive the best of us crazy.)
When I checked my account toward the end of the day, I saw I had a "like," and it wasn't from a Twitter friend. (Bless everyone's Twitter heart, but sometimes well-meaning friends will "like" a pitch, not knowing they're reserved for agents and editors.) I did my research and discovered my "like"—Mike Hoogland—had been an agent for a few years at Dystel, Goderich, and Bourret. The next day, Saturday, I sent him my query and manuscript.
I mentally put it aside because who gets immediate responses to queries? It was a happy surprise when Mike emailed me Monday to say he loved the idea and do I happen to have any illustrations? I told Mike I didn't illustrate but let him know about my other work. Then I tried not to get my hopes up. He must be looking for an author/illustrator, I thought. (Writers are so good at talking themselves down from the precipice of hope.)
Tuesday, he emailed me and told me he'd love to offer representation. It was pretty surreal to open and read that email. That night my husband took our kids out while I had The Call. Mike really believed in my manuscript and liked the sound of my other work. We had another call about a week later before I officially signed. It was amazing how quickly it all happened! And speaking of speed—Mike sold my picture book relatively fast. We were on sub for less than a month before we had an offer. (To spice up the offer deal even more, it happened a week after we closed on a house and a day after I brought my fourth baby home from the hospital. Things like to happen all at once around here!)
The takeaway: Don't give up too early on your manuscript. Be patient and just keep writing.
Thanks for reading!
THE REMEMBER BALLOONS, illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte
Coming Fall 2018 from Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Some say there are only three, or six, or seven basic story plots. So when you think about the thousands of picture books that have already been published, coming up with a fresh picture book idea can feel like finding a fairy rock in a forest.
Thank goodness for Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo (now Storystorm), a month-long brainstorming event when she posts daily articles designed to inspire fresh ideas. While the concept of MAXIMILLIAN VILLAINOUS didn’t come during PiBoIdMo, it is the result of one of its inspirational posts. In 2012, Diana Murray’s post espoused the idea of mashing up two perhaps familiar concepts into one fresh new one. I thought it was so brilliant that it’s become part of my brainstorming M.O. (modus operandi).
Fast-forward to 2013 and my kids were seriously into “Despicable Me.” Not only did they love everything about the movies, but I did too—the colorful characters, their ridiculously ambitious goals, and their fun tools (freeze rays, fart guns, ha!). At the time, I couldn’t recall any picture books set in the villain world.
The idea of a kid rebelling against a strong family tradition of villainy really resonated with me—my parents also held strong (admittedly non-villainous) expectations for their children. This sense of discord was perfect for fostering that immediate sense of conflict that Diana Murray mentioned in her post.
Then with the idea of mashing up concepts, I brainstormed universal themes. One in particular leaped out at me—wanting a pet. I had fun thinking about the unique pets a villain could want—a Komodo dragon, scorpion, piranha, poison dart frog, etc. But with conflict in mind, I began to think about what kind of pet a villain would not want—specifically a villainous family at odds with their kid who, to their dismay, has a heart of gold. Hint: It goes hop, hop.
And so the story of Maximillian Villainous was born. “Maximillian Villainous” comes out August 2018 from Running Press Kids.
Thanks so much for reading!
Margaret Chiu Greanias
MAXIMILLIAN VILLAINOUS by Margaret Chiu Greanias illustrated by Lesley Breen Withrow
Running Press Kids, August 28, 2018
My inspiration for writing the book stemmed from finding few modern portrayals of my tribe, the Cherokee Nation, among children’s books to share with my son. I read Joanne Rocklin’s fictional I SAY SHEHECHIYANU, illustrated by Monika Filipina (Kar-Ben, 2015) and found a great mentor text with the structure and concept I liked. It follows a child’s first experiences through the four seasons as a new sister, going to school, etc., with her saying the Jewish blessing “Shehechiyanu” each time something new is experienced.
While there is not an equivalent blessing in Cherokee that is said each time something new is experienced, there is a culture of expressing gratitude daily and throughout the seasons. So I wrote a nonfiction picture book that starts in fall when the Cherokee New Year occurs, similar to many other cultures and some religions like Judaism. It shows contemporary Cherokee people – families, children and elders - expressing gratitude for the blessings but also the challenges they encounter.
Otsaliheliga [oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah] is the English phonetics for “we are grateful” in Cherokee. While the book is in English, it will feature some Cherokee words written in the syllabary developed by Sequoyah to accompany the oral language. I am happy to have the language included in the book so any child can compare it to how words are presented in English or other languages.
One of the things I am most grateful for about this book is that it exemplifies that it takes a community to create a book. While I may have had the initial idea and written that down, the story and artwork has been reviewed and vetted by fellow Cherokee citizens because no one person is the sole voice for a culture. I cannot wait to share this book with children everywhere next fall.
My debut book is titled TEACH YOUR GIRAFFE TO SKI. A cautious little boy and a thrill-seeking giraffe hit the ski slopes. Whoa - better TEACH YOUR GIRAFFE TO SKI! A little boy attempts to distract his giraffe from the big scary slope by teaching her ski basics on the safe bunny hill.
I got the idea for a ski story during my family’s very first ski trip, which coincided with the 2014 Winter Olympics. My kindergartner and preschooler helped pack, so a menagerie of stuffed animals joined us on the trip.
During the day, the kids were learning to ski, and in the evening, we would watch the Olympics. The kids thought it would be awesome to join the Olympics. The stuffed animals were also highly interested in winter sports - they wanted to be “jumping ski champions” and were sliding down pillows and leaping through the air. My husband and I started making lot of jokes about the skiing giraffe, which made our kids laugh.
After we came home from that trip, I wrote (and revised) several different stories featuring a skiing giraffe. I took the story I liked best to an SCBWI conference critique session and shared it with a fabulous editor, Annie Nybo. She encouraged me to submit the story to her.
I hope you will enjoy this tale about a little boy and his giraffe’s first adventure together on the ski slopes. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to try a new adventure of your own.
Thank you for reading this post!
TEACH YOUR GIRAFFE TO SKI by Viviane Elbee
Albert Whitman & Company, Fall 2018
I am in the serendipitous position of having two debut picture books. I also am a bit unusual in that I co-write with my sister, Becky Cattie. I owned a children’s toy and book boutique in my previous life so I read and bought a lot of picture books. Because I was trying to merchandise books alongside toys and certain themes, I would see holes in the offerings. I always said I would try to write them myself someday, but three kids, a store, and a husband traveling for work, kept me too busy to do so. When my family relocated to the Charlotte area for my husband’s job, I no longer had the store and decided to try my hand at writing picture books. I sent my first story to my sister, who returned it half-changed. So, I realized I had a co-author on my hands.
Our first book is I Am Famous, illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, which will have a sequel, I Used to Be Famous, releasing in spring of 2019. It is about a young starlet, Kiely, who is convinced she is famous. The paparazzi (her parents) follow her every move, documenting it all on cameras. It’s exhausting being famous, but someone has to do it. Then she gets her big break, performing at her grandfather’s birthday. When she flubs her performance, Kiely’s worried she’s lost her audience forever. But it turns out that her loyal fans still love her.
I am going to publicly concede my nerdiness here and admit that the idea spark for this book came from a Weird Al song, TMZ. It’s about the paparazzi harassing stars set to the tune of Taylor Swift’s You Belong to Me. There is a line about flashing your underwear and it made me think of today’s parents, constantly sharing pictures of their kids on social media. Becky was a drama major and has worked in casting in Hollywood so this story came naturally to us.
Our next book, is Shark Nate-O, illustrated by Daniel Duncan. Shark Nate-O is about a shark- obsessed boy, Nate. He reads shark books every day, watches sharks on TV, and talks about them nonstop. He even likes to pretend he’s a shark wherever he goes! However, there is one small problem …. Nate can’t swim.
When his older brother makes fun of him, Nate works hard to overcome his fears and learns to swim, finally making the swim team—the Sharks.
I had been considering writing a book about a shark-obsessed boy that I remembered from second-grade. He used to try to eat us as recess. I didn’t have the whole story, however, so the idea just hung out there for a while. Then my own son, Nate, really got into sharks and I found myself reading tons of non-fiction shark books to him every night. We had a shark-themed Christmas that year and my brother called my son “Shark Nate-O.” That was the spark I needed—a great title. And, combined with the fact my son was also in swimming lessons at the time, it all came together.
Thank you for reading!
I Am Famous written by Tara Luebbe and Becky Cattie. Illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vreithoff
Albert Whitman March 1, 2018
Shark Nate-O written by Tara Luebbe and Becky Cattie. Illustrated by Daniel Duncan.
little bee, April 4, 2018.
Several years ago, I came home to find a box in a puddle in my driveway. It was wrapped in plastic, marked with tire tracks, and was postmarked from China. It looked – and smelled - like it had been on an epic journey. As I unwrapped it, an image came into my mind of this tiny package aboard a huge container ship, sailing across the ocean with the sky full of stars. That image was the spark of inspiration for what would eventually become LOVE, MAMA, although it did not end up in the book.
I started writing a nonfiction story about a book being written, printed, and eventually shipped to a little boy. It had interesting technical details, and it had a great image of a huge container ship sailing through a starry night, carrying a tiny package with a heart drawn on it. But the story was lacking something, so I set it aside.*
Around that time, I had a preschooler who lived every moment as the eternal now. When I dropped her off at preschool in the morning, she would cry like I was leaving for the other end of the world and she might never see me again. Trying to give her sense of connection while I was gone, I made a little photo book with pictures of our family that she could look at during the day. I tucked little heart shaped rocks into her pockets and put heart-shaped notes in her lunch box.
One day, as I was rushing to get us out of the house, my daughter noticed her lunchbox was missing a note and said “But how will I know that you love me if I don’t have something from you to hold?” And I realized that, as a pre-reader, she didn’t care what the note said. She cared that I had held that particular piece of paper, and when she opened her lunch box after the longest three hours of her life, that piece of paper still had a magical connection to my touch.
Driving her to school, that image of the container ship came back to my mind, but now I knew that whatever was inside that little package with a heart wasn’t important, it was the tangible connection between two people that mattered – the ability to hold onto the same object, even when separated by time and space.
I rewrote the story as fiction, trying to keep the sense of awe that I felt about the journey of my small package across an impossibly huge distance. I tried to convey the magic of my daughter’s paper heart and connect to the universal experience of missing someone who isn’t with you. Every child is separated from their mother sometimes, whether for a daily drop off at child care, an evening with grandma, or a longer separation.
My children love to pretend to be penguin chicks and sit on my feet, and at some point in my revision I thought about how penguin mothers leave their eggs to go out to sea and catch fish, and then return and sing to find their chicks. I changed my human characters to penguins and created the watery, magical world that Kipling inhabits. The container ship was replaced by a whale and her baby swimming under the stars.
Because there are all kinds of families, and children have all kinds of caregivers in the real world, I chose to make Kipling’s caregiver a blank slate. He or she can be a babysitter, a grandparent, a father, another mom, or whomever the child reading the book imagines that penguin to be.
My hope is that LOVE, MAMA can help reassure children of their mother’s love in her absence, and perhaps inspire some comforting family rituals. My editor, Connie Hsu, tells me that the book is being printed at this moment, and soon it will be loaded onto a huge container ship, which will make its way across the ocean. I imagine it sailing through a night full of stars, bringing this story from my heart to yours.
May it arrive at your bookstore, or your home, in a dry box.
LOVE, MAMA written and illustrated by Jeanette Bradley
Coming January 2, 2018 from Roaring Brook Press.
Available for preorder on IndieBound and wherever books are sold
*Luckily I did not decide it was missing a tiger, since it turned out someone else was writing that book.
As a writer, I am always looking for stories. Stories that get lost in the margins, or that are being forgotten, or mis-remembered. Stories that deserve to be told, over and over. Attention must be paid.
In 2012, I first heard the story of the historic event that my debut picture book, LET THE CHILDREN MARCH, describes through the eyes of a young girl. I was sitting in church, in my Unitarian Universalist congregation in Little Rock. It was the “story for all ages” time, when the children come down front and an adult church leader shares something the kids could relate to. The story of the Children’s Crusade March in Birmingham, Alabama, which took place in May of 1963, is taught to the elementary kids as part of our religious education curriculum. It’s a story of social justice and working for racial equality—topics close to my heart.
I was stunned by what I heard. Children marched? Children were jailed? Dogs and high-pressured water hoses were used against them? Why do I not know this story? I polled the members of the congregation around me. None of us had ever heard the story before, nor were we aware of the seismic difference it had made in the civil rights movement.
The little writer in my brain, which always has one eye open (even when sleeping), sat up straight and immediately Googled the topic. The story was stunning and heart-breaking and inspiring. Check! Another Google search found no children’s picture books about the topic. Check! (Incidentally, a wonderful one has since been published—Cynthia Levinson’s THE YOUNGEST MARCHER.) The story also had relevance to what was happening in the world around me—the Black Lives Matter movement was beginning, and my heart was breaking every day for the stories I read about the injustice people of color face just by existing. Maybe, I thought, this story from our shared history can help with the challenges of today.
I had the old familiar feeling of being on fire with the need to share a story. It happens mostly with stories from our history, but it can also be a fictional character that speaks to me. We writers never really know when it will hit. On the bus, in our dreams, at a day job, or, like me, at church. Years later, and many, many drafts later, I sold the book to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It's five and a half years later now, and it will be available “everywhere books are sold” in just a few months. It’s been an amazing journey.
I took a research trip to Birmingham while working on revisions with my editor. I talked with the children who marched that week in May. They are grandparents now. I talked with a teacher who turned her face to the chalkboard as the children and teens left class in droves. I pored over the newspapers and sermons and pictures for hours. I am hopeful that with the publication of my book, and others like it, this story will be remembered again and always. Attention must be paid.
Thanks for reading! Remember: our stories are the threads that connect us!
LET THE CHILDREN MARCH, by Monica Clark-Robinson, illustrated by Frank Morrison
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH for Kids), January 2, 2018
Available for Pre-order now online!