Q & A with Ann Marie Stephens, Plus a Giveaway
By Chana Stiefel
Welcome back to Takeaway Tuesday! Have you ever noticed that many children's authors are ALSO teachers? With a love of kids and a passion for literacy, the two careers seem to go hand-in-hand. Today we're sharing an interview with teacher-author/author-teacher Ann Marie Stephens, including LOTS of takeaways about juggling two careers, finding time to write (at stoplights!), being famous (among first graders), and much more! PLUS, Ann Marie is generously offering a giveaway of her book, CY MAKES A FRIEND. See details below!
Which came first—teaching or writing? (Are you a teacher who writes or a writer who teaches?)
Hey, wait a minute. This is just like the chicken and the egg question, which means it’s debatable. I started playing teacher and writing stories when I was very young. I created characters out of construction paper and would hang curtains made from towels so my stories could be told on a stage, in true dramatic fashion. When I was in elementary school I decided I would become a writer one day, and a teacher, and maybe a pediatrician, while touring the country playing my flute. After narrowing down my options I ended up becoming a flute-playing teacher who writes whenever she can. I’m also a teacher who teaches her students to write.
What grade do you teach?
I teach first grade at George C. Round Elementary in Virginia. It’s exhausting yet exhilarating. I’ve always loved teaching younger kids. They are magic, and fire, and love all bundled up in little bodies.
Describe your background in teaching...
My background in teaching came from pure, natural instinct. I LOVED school. I used to beg my teachers for their old teacher’s editions or extra worksheets so I could play school at home. I taught neighborhood kids and one of my sisters. I never let anyone else be the teacher. My sister claims that’s why she became a teacher too, so she could finally have a turn to teach! I graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in Early Childhood Education - Family and Child Development.
...and in writing?
My writing background really started in 5th grade. Mrs. Ripol asked us to write a story and I wrote an ode to my dog that had just died. I read it aloud and got choked up. Mrs. Ripol got teary-eyed and the class was silent. I could tell my words had made an impact and that was such a cool feeling. I continued to write letters and poems to my parents and friends, and as you probably predicted, I had a diary. I wrote a ton of love poems to boys I crushed on. I kept those to myself, thank goodness.
How does your teaching influence your writing (and vice versa)?
People always want to know if I have a constant stream of ideas because I work with kids. It doesn’t actually happen that way for me. They also think that I read all of my manuscripts to my easily accessible audience. My first year of teaching, I tried. Then I realized my students were never going to have helpful critiques for me. They loved every book I wrote. There were claps and whistles, and woo-hoos after each manuscript reading. So now we just talk a lot about the process of writing because they are writers too. They get to watch my paper manuscripts become real books! Mostly, I think working in an elementary school keeps my mind in the world of kids’ books. We read about 15 or more picture books a week. Reading makes us better writers and thanks to authors, we have a constant supply of books to read. My students are proficient writers by the end of our year together. They “publish” their own books and poems. We even keep their manuscripts in a WIP (Work in Progress) basket like real authors. The writer in me reminds the teacher in me, to let my students think outside the box. That’s where the magic happens. I encourage weird, funny, offbeat, unique, and diverse writing. My students never disappoint.
How did you come up with the ideas for your books CY MAKES A FRIEND and SCUBA DOG?
CY MAKES A FRIEND came from my long-time interest in Greek Mythology. As a young girl, I didn’t find myself wanting to learn more about the pretty and powerful goddesses. The evil monsters and the creepy underworld were what fascinated me. I thought it would be great to write a story about a Cyclops, but not a mean one who ate people. I wanted to create a one-eyed guy that would be so sweet he might even be irresistible. I wanted him to make a friend because that would be totally unexpected. It was also exciting to work with the theme of bravery. Putting yourself out into the world can be the hardest part about making new friends. If Cy with his one eye, swoopy bangs, and awkward tendencies can do it, anyone can.
The story behind SCUBA DOG is a simple one. A long time ago I saw a cartoon picture of a dog in scuba gear. I thought to myself, “What would a dog do underwater if he could stay down there long enough?” I jotted the thought in one of my journals and didn’t revisit it until years later. As a scuba diver, I find myself extremely comfortable underwater. Much more than I am on land! When I’m down there I meet all kinds of animals. I’m curious about them; they are curious about me. We have many ways of communicating. I stare; they stare. I float; they snap their claws. I blow bubbles; they squirt ink. I even have videos of fish and sea turtles following me. I pretend they actually want to be my friend. Silly, I know. See why I write for kids? But all dives must come to an end so I never really get the chance to form friendships. SCUBA DOG was my outlet for this.
Describe the submission process for your books.
The submission process for my stories is way easier than it used to be. Now, when I finish a manuscript, I send it to my agent. Sometimes she asks for edits, sometimes she doesn’t like what I send, and other times she snatches up a story immediately. After she accepts a manuscript, she does the rest of the work, choosing editors and publishers just right for the story. When I started in this business back in the late 90’s it was much different, though not at first. I landed an agent right away but we weren’t a good fit so we parted. After that I had to put in the hard work researching publishers, editors, and agents. I attended SCBWI conferences (still do) and local SCBWI chapter workshops. It’s super important to understand the market before wasting your time and energy sending to the wrong people. I always had a current copy of THE CHILDREN’S WRITER’S AND ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET book. It was dog-eared, written in, highlighted, and sticky noted to death. It was impossible to live without it.
How did you find your agent?
I am agented by the funny, patient, and diligent Emily Mitchell, at Wernick and Pratt Agency. I used to send my manuscripts to her, starting back in 2002, when she was an editor at Charlesbridge. Even as she rejected me she saw my potential. Over the years, she requested revisions and most importantly she kept asking to see more of my work. We even had a story that came close to a contract, but it didn’t make it past acquisitions. In 2012, she left the kid lit business and I was sad. Then in 2014, I was visiting her book blog and saw that she had reentered the publishing world as an agent. I queried her, sent her a handful of manuscripts, and she signed me. So how did I find my agent? I was persistent, positive, faithful, and did some good old-fashioned online reconnaissance.
How do you manage juggling two careers? How do you find time to write?
I will admit it can wear me out, but because I love both careers I keep plugging away. I think it’s the nature of both jobs. When I’m at school I must be tuned in 100%. That’s a lot of brainpower. Then when I write, I must be awake, thinking, plotting, and creating. However, above everything I do, being the best teacher to my students is most important to me. An editor can wait on a manuscript. Not being there for my students is not an option. My grade level and I work closely on the paperwork and planning. I’d be a mess without them. My principal and assistant principal are beyond supportive of my writing career which helps make the juggling possible. Weekends, vacations, and summers are prime writing time. I write in the car on my 40 minute commute each day too. I call it Stoplight Writing. Don’t worry. It’s not dangerous. Rather than thinking about how long my commute is taking or how annoying the driver in front of me is, I think about my latest story, finding the right word, revising a line, or changing a plot point. When I get to a red light (there are some doozies on my drive) I jot my thoughts down. I recently finished a story that’s out on submission now and I wrote 90% of it in my Jeep! I used to be hard on myself because I couldn’t spend hours writing each day like my full-time author friends could. I felt less authorly because I wrote for a shorter amount of time. There was nothing I could do to change that reality aside from quitting my job so I changed my internal dialogue. If you want to write, you will find the time. Every little minute can take you closer to finishing your story.
Writers often have to market their own books. Do you feel that you have certain advantages as a teacher in marketing your book? (e.g, a daily audience, connections with teachers and professional organizations, expertise in writing lesson plans, access to librarians, etc.)
When you are a teacher-writer you definitely have insider knowledge to kid trends, their dislikes, their obsessions, and the kind of books they fight over. We read a ton of books and you better believe I’m paying attention to their reactions, which keep me aware of what works. My years of teaching experience does make it quite easy to generate ideas for my books and my friends’ books. I have activity packets for CY MAKES A FRIEND and SCUBA DOG. You can see them on my blog: http://2happyteachers.blogspot.com. Authors meet a lot of librarians. They welcome us into their libraries and we approach them whenever we can. It’s always reassuring to meet a librarian because you know without a doubt, that they love books as much as you do, and sometimes even more.
How do you come up with book ideas?
I am the queen of random. Like most writers I pay attention to details around me. I eavesdrop, spy, observe, explore, and allow my thoughts to go off on tangents. Any object can come to life at any moment, and animals always have the option of talking. I record all ideas no matter how embarrassing or seemingly ordinary because one day they could become a story. Unfortunately, some of my most creative ideas come around 3 a.m., which is not good when you get up at 5 a.m. for work. Still, I embrace them, yawning all the way.
How do your students react to having a celebrity author as a teacher?
Funny you should ask because when I’m in my classroom is the only time I feel like a celebrity! When I’m in the real world I’m just another starving artist trying to get my work out there. My students think it’s awesome that I have published books and they love that I know other authors. Some of my author friends even come visit for free which makes my class feel pretty special. They think I know the authors of every book we read. Not yet I tell them, not yet.
What’s coming up next?
I have upcoming books with Boyds Mills Press called ARITHMECHICKS ADD UP (2019) and ARITHMECHICKS TAKE AWAY (2020). They are books about fuzzy little chicks that like to do math. I am also doing some educational writing for a book by Kwame Alexander. Stay tuned! As usual, I have manuscripts out on submission that I’m hoping will turn into book contracts in the near future. Until then, you will find me eavesdropping on your conversations, writing at stoplights, and pretending to be the celebrity I’m not for a bunch of energetic, book-happy first graders.
CONGRATULATIONS & THANK YOU for the terrific interview Ann Marie! Enter the giveaway for CY MAKES A FRIEND in the Rafflecopter below!
Ann Marie Stephens is the author of several picture books including Scuba Dog, Cy Makes a Friend, and forthcoming titles, Arithmechicks Add Up and Arithmechicks Take Away. She has been an elementary teacher for over 26 years. She was a contributing writer for Kwame Alexander’s Page-to-Stage Writing Workshop, a co-writer for Trait Crate Plus for grades 3 and 5, and has had dozens of original ideas published in Instructor and The Mailbox magazines. Represented by Emily Mitchell at Wernick and Pratt Agency, Ann Marie is a seasoned presenter for both children and adults. She co-blogs for teachers at http://2happyteachers.blogspot.com. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she’s off scuba diving somewhere tropical. You can find her on Facebook, Ann Marie Stephens (AMStephensAuthor), and on Instagram and Twitter @AMStephens_.
Donna Cangelosi and Chana Stiefel are picture book critique partners & friends who are passionate about kids' books & are eager to share tidbits from their writing journey with other aspiring writers.