Welcome back to my conversation with five amazing authors about their “firsts” in children’s publishing.
Just to catch you up: Naseem Hrab is pleased to have her first picture book published; Suzanne Del Rizzo is thrilled to be first-time illustrator and author of a published picture book, Mary Beth Leatherdale, long-time editor, is celebrating being an author of a nonfiction children’s book for the first time, Vivek Shraya, poet, essayist, and film-maker, is proud to add children’s book author to the list, and Robin Stevenson has, for the first time, co-written a YA novel (with co-author Sarah Harvey).
What did you learn about the creative process from working on this particular project?
I can certainly tell you what was most exciting about this project, Ira Crumb Makes a Pretty Good Friend: Seeing how Josh’s illustrations bring everything to life! I’m sure this comparison has been made before, but it felt like the difference between reading a play in my head and then going to see the live performance. Sure, you can still enjoy the play by reading it, but once you see the actors, the costumes and the set design — Wow!!! Josh did such a fantastic job!!!
Bringing an author’s text to life visually is always exciting for me but conceiving my very own story idea, writing it, revising it, and illustrating it was truly an awesome experience. It’s crazy how when inspiration hits, sometimes the story chooses you and you are completely, emotionally invested. I was also surprised at how incredibly nervous I was once My Beautiful Birds was “out there” in the world in the hands of readers and reviewers. I guess in a way it’s a big piece your heart on display.
Although I’ve spent fifteen plus years writing magazine copy, often very quickly, writing for this project, Stormy Seas, was a very different process. The confidence I have in writing more “anonymous” copy often failed me. I learned that for me a lot of the heavy lifting has to happen before my fingers hit the keyboard. I need to do a lot of research and consider different approaches. Once I know what I want to say and why, the words will flow.
This project, The Boy & the Bindi, really reminded me of the importance of centering joy in my creative practice. I also really fell in love with the genre and am excited about potentially writing more children’s books in the future.
I was surprised by how easy—and how much fun-- it was to work with another author. Sarah wrote alternate chapters (Sarah wrote from Caleb’s point of view and I wrote from Alice’s), and we sent the manuscript back and forth, taking turns to adding to it. What I learned was that I enjoy this kind of collaboration—and in fact, I am now working on a new YA novel with another friend.
How did your book come to be published?
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Initially, I worked with Karen Li on the manuscript over the span of about six months after the manuscript was accepted. Karen and I work really well together and I would find it especially fun when we got to meet in person to talk about the manuscript — I love riffing and brainstorming with her. Every idea is perfect in your head until you share it with your editor and you have to be really open to acknowledging when something isn’t working. Listen to your editor!
Around the time that Josh started working on the book, Karen Li went on mat-leave, so Karen Boersma, publisher at Owlkids Books, worked with us on the book. Karen B. is a joy to work with as well. So, while my manuscript was completed by the time Karen B. started on Ira Crumb Makes a Pretty Good Friend, I still got to work with her when she’d send over Josh’s artwork for me to see and, as I said before, that was the MOST EXCITING/COOLEST part of this whole process!
My Beautiful Birds was acquired by Pajama Press in early 2016. I had the pleasure of working with editor Ann Featherstone and art director-designer, Rebecca Bender. As well, publisher Gail Winskill and managing editor Erin Alladin were very generous with their feedback and guidance. Ann and I went back and forth with edits a few times to tweak and clarify a few areas which really helped make the story shine. Ann was wonderfully open and receptive to bounce ideas around and trouble shoot “niggly” areas. My first manuscript editing experience was very positive and informative.
Rick Wilks at Annick Press was considering publishing a book on boat refugees and asked me if I would be interested in the project. Katie Hearn, Annick’s editorial director, worked with me on the manuscript. She was wonderful. She gently guided me to turn my interviews with the refugees into compelling stories. Katie also came up with the brilliant suggestion to have Eleanor Shakespeare illustrate the book. Eleanor’s beautiful digital collage illustrations express what was swirling in my heart — a writer’s dream.
Blood on the Beach is published by Orca Book Publishers and just came out in March 2017. Our editor was Barbara Pulling, and she was fantastic: extremely thoughtful and extremely thorough! She made us work very hard indeed, and she improved the book tremendously. I learned a lot from working with her—as I have from every editor I have worked with—and I was very grateful for her astute, insightful and careful reading of our novel.
Can you share with us two of your favourite sentences in your book?
I’m going to share my favorite sentence and one of my favorite illustrations with you: The sentence and illustration are from a scene where Ira’s trying to be super helpful by pointing out that his friend has something in his nose. Ira says, “You’ve got a booger in your nose cave, pal!” and there’s an illustration of a smiley booger coming out of the aforementioned nose cave. What a happy booger!
That’s a tough one. But I guess I’d have to pick when Sami meets the wild birds and, for the first time since fleeing his home, he has hope again. That is a powerful moment.
“A canary, a dove, a rose finch, and a pigeon. Like feathered brushes they paint the sky with promise and the hope of peace.”
My favourite sentences in Stormy Seas are not ones that I wrote but rather words spoken by the people I interviewed. One from Mohamed encapsulates the tragedy of boat refugees’ circumstances and their courage in facing them. Mohamed was thirteen when his parents were killed by a bomb in their village in the Ivory Coast. For four years he travelled across Northern Africa, imprisoned, robbed, beaten, to get to the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe. Mohamed says, “I thought I was going to spend my whole life in my village with my parents. But this is my life and I cannot fight my destiny.”
But if a bindi can be more than a spot
And bring beauty where there was not
Maybe I can too...
How about the opening lines that Sarah wrote, since that’s where it all began?
“Let me guess,” I yelled. “First time on a Zodiac?”
The girl hanging over the side of the boat looked up at me and grimaced, her face as gray-green as the waves.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering engaging in this same type of venture for the “first” time?
1) Learn how to craft a story – whether that’s from studying your favorite books, plays and movies, or taking an improv class.
2) Read a ton of picture books because you love picture books and, also, because you have a keen interest in seeing what’s already been done.
3) Think about the picture books you like and dislike. What changes would you make to the books you aren’t fond of?
4) Write a manuscript you love and believe in, but know that if it gets accepted by a publisher it’s going to evolve significantly.
5) Submit the manuscript to a publisher, hone your waiting skills (you’ll be doing a lot of that), and immediately start working on something new.
I’d say “GO FOR IT”! Yes, it is going to be new and possibly scary, but it will also be exhilarating and so, SO rewarding. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, do your research and push yourself to try new things and grow as an artist or writer. If you are new to writing join a critique group and soak up all you can from more seasoned writers. Also, when writing your first draft, just write. Get the story down on paper. Once your draft is complete you can go back and rework it. Above all, enjoy the process.
Do it! It will definitely make you a better writer. And it will also make you a better editor.
If you are interested in writing children’s books, I would recommend reading a lot of children’s books, and asking parents and school teachers for feedback on your manuscript.
Pick your co-author carefully—then go for it! I have heard some less-than-happy stories about writing collaborations, but with the right partner, co-writing a novel can be a fantastic, energizing and thoroughly enjoyable experience. I loved it… and am already deep into another collaboration.
What other books of yours can we look forward to reading in the future?
A sequel to the first Ira book is coming out in fall 2018. It’s tentatively titled Ira Crumb Feels the Feelings. I’m super excited to see what Josh comes up with for it! I’m hoping it’ll be the funniest book about sadness you’ll ever read. And in spring 2019, Groundwood Books is publishing a picture book I wrote called Weekend Dad. It’s a story about a boy who visits his dad’s new apartment for the first time after his parents get divorced. As you can probably tell, Weekend Dad is a more serious book, so it’s technically another “first” for me — I almost always gravitate towards comedy.
I have a few exciting picture book projects on the horizon but as these are still in their early stages, I can’t share any details just yet.
In fall 2017, #NotYourPrinces: Stories of Native American Women, the third anthology I’ve co-edited with Lisa Charleyboy, will be published by Annick Press. Soon after, I hope you’ll be reading many more books authored by me.
In February 2017, I released a new short film that explores my history of contemplating suicide. It is called “I want to kill myself.” Here’s a link: https://vimeo.com/198124732.
I currently have four books in the works (which is three too many…but starting new books is so much fun!) One is contemporary YA fiction, one is middle grade speculative fiction, one is a co-authored YA novel, and one is middle-grade non-fiction. So I am a little scattered right now -- but busy and happy. And I am vowing to finish all four before I even consider starting another!
Thank you all so much for answering my questions about your “firsts”!
Naseem Hrab is the author of Ira Crumb Makes a Pretty Good Friend and her comedy writing has appeared on McSweeney's Internet Tendency and The Rumpus. Naseem worked as a librarian and now works in children's publishing. She lives in Toronto, Ontario. Visit her online at www.naseemhrab.com
Suzanne Del Rizzo has always loved getting her hands messy. She traded her job in scientific research for a career in children’s illustration. Known for her dimensional illustrations that use Plasticine, polymer clay, and other mixed media to bring rich texture and imagination to her books, Suzanne is adding “author” to her resumé with My Beautiful Birds. She lives in Oakville, Ontario with her husband and 4 children.
Mary Beth Leatherdale writes, edits, and consults on books, magazines, and digital resources for children and youth. She lives in Toronto with her family and her dog Champ. Visit her at www.marybethleatherdale.com.
Vivek Shraya is a Toronto-based artist whose body of work includes several albums, films, and books. Website? vivekshraya.com.
Robin Stevenson is an award-winning Canadian author of more than 20 books for kids and teens. She lives with her family in Victoria BC. You can find her online at www.robinstevenson.com
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Susan Hughes is an award-winning author of children's books — both fiction and non-fiction — including The Island Horse, Off to Class, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed and Earth to Audrey. She is also an editor, journalist and manuscript evaluator. Susan lives in Toronto. Visit her website, www.susanhughes.ca.