Ten Steps to Publishing Success
By Chana Stiefel
You’ve written a children’s book and you’d love to get it published. Now what?
First, congratulations! You’ve taken a huge first step—getting your story on paper. No small feat! And the world needs to hear your story. But patience is key: The road to publishing is long and twisty and there’s a lot to learn along the way.
My picture book career began more than 10 years ago when I wrote the first draft of my debut picture book, Daddy Depot. That book took eight years—and more than 50 drafts—until it hit bookshelves. Daddy Depot taught me the ropes of children’s publishing, and I’m still learning.
Other kidlit authors will tell you that this is common. On average, it takes two to four years to publish a picture book with a traditional publisher. If you are determined, if you love children and books, if you believe that kids need to hear your story, buckle your seatbelt and read my tips below. (BTW Everything I’m sharing is from the perspective of a traditionally published author. I have never self published. There are many other resources if that’s a route you’re considering.)
I’m posting helpful links beneath this post so you can read through the entire post without distraction. I also encourage other authors and publishing professionals to add their advice in the comments. One thing I know for certain is that there is no other community more supportive and uplifting than the kidlit community. If you believe in yourself, if you treat publishing like a job, if you do the hard work, you too can become a published children’s author.
1. Join SCBWI. Joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is the place to start. SCBWI membership benefits include professional webinars, regional and national conferences, ways to connect with other authors around the world, and so much more! SCBWI’s online publication for members, The Book: The Essential Guide to Publishing for Children, is packed with everything you need to know from preparing your manuscript for publication to publicizing your published book.
2. Learn picture book basics. What is a picture book? How many words does it have? Should it rhyme? How many pages are there in a picture book? Do I have to hire my own illustrator? Learn the nuts and bolts. I highly recommend posts by authors Tara Lazar and Josh Funk to get you started. See below!
3. Find a critique group. While your family and friends may love your story, it’s essential to have other authors read it and give helpful and constructive feedback. Organizations like SCBWI can help you connect with other authors who meet online or in person and share manuscripts on a regular basis. Many highly acclaimed authors offer critique services for a fee. (Check qualifications and references first.) At the very least, find another author willing to swap manuscripts for critiques.
4. Write & revise. Every manuscript needs revision. That’s the hard work of writing. The original draft of Daddy Depot had too many characters, it rhymed (badly), and was 1,500 words. (The standard is 400.) Two great resources on writing picture books are:
5. Read books in your genre. I can’t stress this enough. Read, read, read. Know what’s being published for kids right now. Learn the trends and try to stay ahead of the curve. (If unicorns are trending, you may have missed your moment.) Read reviews. Collect your favorite picture books and delve into why you love them (and kids do too). Learn from them. Connect with librarians and indie booksellers and see what books they’re promoting and why.
6. Attend writing conferences and workshops. While the pandemic has kept us home, many professional writers organizations have gone online. Check out webinars from SCBWI, the Highlights Foundation, the Writing Barn, the Writers’ Loft, the Picture Book Summit, and many others. See below!
7. Join kidlit author groups, blogs, and podcasts: Children’s writing is all about community—learning and growing together. Follow groups like Kidlit411 and We Need Diverse Books on Facebook. You’ll find groups within groups. For example, I belong to Jewish children’s authors groups, like Jewish Kidlit Mavens and The Book Meshuggenahs. Some groups provide challenges and motivation to keep writing. Two groups that I find invaluable are:
If you prefer to listen and learn, some popular kidlit podcasts include:
8. Research agents: Do you need an agent to publish a picture book? My short answer is: yes. Agents open doors for authors, support & build our careers, help manage the business side of publishing, dry our tears, celebrate our success, and so much more. Research agents online and read The Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market 2020. Also follow Manuscript Wishlists from Agents and Editors #mswl. Kidlit411 spotlights agents as well. Learn about submission guidelines and make sure to follow them. Most agents will want to see more than one manuscript so be prepared.
9. Query: How do you submit a manuscript to an agent? With a query letter. Writing queries is an art in itself. I’ve included some resources below but the basic recipe to follow is: The Hook, the Book, and the Cook. Capture an agent’s attention with a great hook (something that leaves them wanting more), describe your book in a few short sentences, and tell a bit about yourself (the cook) and your writing history.
10. Keep writing! This information is a lot to take in at once. Think of it as a journey—or an endlessly loopy, scary, but thrilling roller coaster ride. Take it one step at a time. I am often juggling several manuscripts at a time and for every book that I publish, I have a dozen more that may never see the light of day. Why do I do this? Because I love to write. Because I care about children and literacy. Because I have stories to share. If that describes you too, then keep writing!
Wishing you the best of luck on your journey.
Kidlit authors! What tips would you include for budding authors?
Resources: Where to Start
The Society of Children’s Book Authors & Illustrators https://www.scbwi.org/
Picture Book Basics
Tara Lazar’s Blog: Writing for Children While Raising Them: https://taralazar.com/
Picture Book Layout Dummies:
Josh Funk’s Guide to Writing Picture Books: https://www.joshfunkbooks.com/resources-for-writers
The Highlights Foundation https://www.highlightsfoundation.org/
The Writing Barn https://www.thewritingbarn.com/
The Writers’ Loft https://www.thewritersloft.org/
The Picture Book Summit https://picturebooksummit.com/
Writing for Children with Katie Davis http://writingforchildren.com/
Children’s Book Podcast with Matthew Winner https://www.matthewcwinner.com/
Picturebooking with Nick Patton https://picturebooking.libsyn.com/
The Yarn with Travis Jonker and Colby Sharp https://www.mrcolbysharp.com/
We Need Diverse Books https://diversebooks.org/
The Brown Bookshelf https://thebrownbookshelf.com/
The Book Meshuggenahs https://www.facebook.com/TheBookMeshuggenahs/
12 x 12 Challenge https://www.12x12challenge.com/
Reading for Research Month (ReFoReMo) http://www.reforemo.com/
Manuscript Wish Lists from Agents and Editors
How to write a query letter:
Chana Stiefel is the author of more than 25 books for kids and co-blogger of KidLitTakeaways with Donna Cangelosi. Chana’s next picture book, LET LIBERTY RISE (illustrated by Chuck Groenink, Scholastic, 3-2-21), is the true story of how children helped build the Statue of Liberty. Other picture books include MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH!, illustrated by Mary Sullivan (HMH, 2019) and DADDY DEPOT, illustrated by Andy Snair (Feiwel & Friends, 2017). Recent non-fiction titles include ANIMAL ZOMBIES…& OTHER REAL-LIFE MONSTERS (National Geographic Kids, 2018), which was selected as a Top Ten YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant YA Readers in 2019. Chana loves visiting schools and libraries and sharing her passion for reading and writing with children. She earned a Master’s degree in Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting from New York University. Chana is represented by Miranda Paul at Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Follow her @chanastiefel on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
By Chana Stiefel
Once in a while, a picture book grabs you by the collar and makes you sit up and take notice. THE IMPORTANT THING ABOUT MARGARET WISE BROWN by Mac Barnett and Sarah Jacoby (Balzer & Bray, 2019) is one of those books. Each time I read it, I continue to be blown away by its cleverness and beauty. Here are five important things about the style and content of this book that contain essential takeaways for picture book writers:
Important Thing #1: Voice. Aside from Jacoby’s stunning illustrations, the first important thing you will notice about this book is its unique voice. It begins:
Margaret Wise Brown lived for 42 years.
This book is 42 pages long.
You can’t fit somebody’s life into 42 pages,
so I am just going to tell you some important things.
The tone throughout is direct, smart, and a bit snarky. It’s filled with hard truths and is dripping with sarcasm and irony. Yet in just 42 pages we are drawn to the strangeness and beauty of Margaret Wise Brown’s short life. The voice reminds me of Lemony Snicket in A Series of Unfortunate Events (particularly the TV version, portrayed by the actor Patrick Warbuton when he says something like “Someone will be dead by the end of this episode”). Barnett’s original voice calls to mind some of my other favorite picture book biographies, each with its own unique voice such as Me, Jane by Patrick McDonnell, On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne & Vladimir Radunsky, and The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse by Patricia MacLachlan & Hadley Hooper.
The takeaway: If you’re tackling a picture book biography, think outside the box. Find a fresh, new voice to tell your tale.
Important Thing #2: Betta' with meta. Several times throughout the book, the text and illustrations display a certain meta-fictive awareness of being a book. This isn’t the core theme of the book. It’s more of a tool to pique our interest and move the story forward. For example, the text refers to the number of pages remaining, pulling us forward with suspense. If we know that the book is 42 pages long, and we’re up to page 38, we know something will happen soon that will sadly shorten Margaret’s life.
The takeaway: Don’t be afraid to try something experimental to add a layer to your text.
Important Thing #3: Heighten the conflict. In this biography, we meet a villain named Anne Carroll Moore...and she’s a librarian at the New York Public Library! Let that sit with you for a moment. Moore wields a lot of power with a big rubber stamp that she slams down on books with the message, “NOT RECOMMENDED FOR PURCHASE BY EXPERT.” Margaret Wise Brown’s books were rejected again and again by this power-wielding, evil librarian. Of course, this important thing has the desired effect of making us appreciate Margaret and her books even more.
The takeaway: Face your fears! Don’t shy away from conflict. Build it up big time. When writing picture books (biographies in particular), dig through primary and secondary sources to find those precious (and sometimes painful) nuggets that will make your story stronger. Conflict moves the storyline forward and makes us root for our hero even more.
Important Thing #4: Tackle hard topics. In just 42 pages, Barnett and Jacoby tackle several hard topics head on. These include: death, rejection, book banning, and even skinned rabbits! (Gah! Spoiler alert! This is why so many bunnies show up in Goodnight, Moon, The Runaway Bunny, and more!)
The takeaway: Let’s not sugarcoat life for kids. They’re growing up in tough times. They need to know that life isn't all soft bunnies whispering hush. Life can be filled with challenges but children can learn to overcome them...just like Margaret Wise Brown did.
Important Thing #5: Celebrate strangeness. I learned many important things about Margaret Wise Brown in this book, but the biggest takeaway was that she was a strange woman who wrote strange books that we still adore today. She celebrated her own quirkiness and never let other people’s opinions stop her. What could be more empowering than that?
The takeaway: Don’t let naysayers--or even your own inner evil librarian--hold you back. Write the stories that you want to write. Write with passion, humor and beauty. And hopefully others will love your stories too.
What other Important Things did you find in this picture book and others that you're reading? What Important Things will you be incorporating into your manuscripts?
Important Things About Chana Stiefel: Chana has written more than 25 books for children about stinky castles, exploding volcanoes, and creepy critters. Her upcoming picture book, MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH! illustrated by Mary Sullivan, (HMH)--about a spirited cave girl who wants to change her hard-to-pronounce name--will hit shelves on August 27! Great for back-to-school! Chana co-blogs at Kidlittakeaways.com with author Donna Cangelosi. Visit her at chanastiefel.com and @chanastiefel on Twitter, FB, and Instagram.
By Chana Stiefel
Hello, listeners in radio land! For the release of my new book ANIMAL ZOMBIES!...AND OTHER REAL-LIFE MONSTERS, my publicist from National Geographic Kids arranged a 16-city radio media tour in cities including Bend, OR, Fargo, ND, Los Angeles, Dallas, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. It didn’t matter that some of these were small towns. I was petrified. I’d never been on the radio before and public speaking makes me sweat. But I decided to face my fears and give it a try. NatGeoKids also provided some media training, which was extremely helpful. Here’s what I learned from the experience and some tips that I hope are helpful not only for radio interviews but also for any type of book promo:
Listen to some of my radio interviews here, here, and here!
AND FOR ALL YOU RADIO LISTENERS, WE HAVE A GIVEAWAY!
How’d I do? Comment below and share this post for a chance to win a signed copy of ANIMAL ZOMBIES! (U.S. only). Drawing at the stroke of midnight on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018.
Learn more about me at www.chanastiefel.com. Follow me @chanastiefel on FB, Twitter, and Instagram. Let's end with a little Donna Summer, "On the Radio!"
By Chana Stiefel
For a recent author visit, I was asked to talk to kids about advocacy, which is funny, because I mostly write silly fiction, as well as non-fiction books about weird science & history. But a quick glance at my library … and I was ready for action. I decided to show the students how to be good advocates using examples from recent picture books. I also explained that advocacy begins with:
One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of Gambia
By Miranda Paul, Illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
Advocacy lesson: Environmentalism
When Isatou discovers that plastic bags are polluting her village, killing goats, and giving mosquitoes a place to breed in dirty pools of water, she decides to take action. She and her friends cut the bags into strips and roll them into spools of plastic thread. Then they use the recycled thread to weave purses, which they sell. Soon Isatou has earned enough to buy a new goat. The pile of plastic bags grows smaller and the village returns to its original beauty.
The takeaway: Sometimes problems seem insurmountable, but one person’s creativity and actions can make a big difference.
Malala’s Magic Pencil
By Malala Yousafzai, Illustrated by Kerascoet
Advocacy lesson: Girls’ education, literacy
This beautiful picture book makes Malala’s incredible story tangible for children. Written in first person, Malala describes how she wished for a magic pencil to erase the smell of the trash dump near her house and improve her childhood in Pakistan. One day, she sees children collecting metal scraps on the trash heap and she asks her father why the girls aren’t in school. He explains that not everyone educates their daughters and many children need to work to feed their families. More than ever, Malala wants the magic pencil to erase poverty, war, and hunger. When “powerful and dangerous men declared that girls were forbidden from attending school,” Malala becomes an advocate for girls’ education. In a subtle and poetic way, she tells about the terrible shooting that could have killed her: “My voice became so powerful that the dangerous men tried to silence me. But they failed.” She explains how she found the magic she was looking for in her words and her work. In Malala’s words, “One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.”
The takeaway: Every child can make a difference in the world! Don’t let others hold you back, no matter what.
The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Right Activist
By Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton
Advocacy lesson: Civil Rights
How best to teach kids about the Civil Rights movement than through the eyes of a brave young girl, Audrey Faye Hendricks, who not only lived through painful segregation laws in Alabama but also joined the Children’s March as the youngest marcher and spent a week in jail to help change the lives of so many? Readers will relate to Audrey Faye’s determination to not only speak up but to act in body and soul.
The takeaway: Never underestimate the voices and actions of children.
I realized that I am an author/advocate too! I showed the students pages from my upcoming book ANIMAL ZOMBIES! AND OTHER BLOODSUCKING BEASTS, CREEPY CREATURES, & REAL-LIFE MONSTERS (NatGeoKids, August 28, 2018). Even books about monsters in nature can inspire advocacy. Each chapter in my book includes a scientist who studies these spooky critters and dedicates his or her life to protect creatures like wolves, bats, sharks, and all kinds of creepy crawlies.
The takeaway: As children’s writers, we have the opportunity, responsibility, and power to encourage activism among children. Ask yourself what’s most important to you (if creepy creatures are your thing, write about them & encourage others to protect them as well!). Tell stories that will heighten awareness about the issues that are close to your heart and use them to raise awareness and inspire kids to take action.
What are your favorite picture books that teach advocacy? How can you apply these lessons to your own writing?
By Donna Cangelosi
I recently attended a Disney and Pixar short films festival featuring two Pixar shorts Feast (2014), showing the culinary adventures of a Boston Terrier and Piper (2016), a baby sandpiper's quest to overcome her fear of the ocean. Both character-driven movies, like all Pixar shorts, serve as excellent reminders of good storytelling, demonstrate perfect story arcs, and have instructive qualities for picture book writers.
Get to the point...and quick!
In the opening scenes, Pixar shorts introduce charming characters facing big challenges. In Feast, a small Boston Terrier, Winston, searches the streets for something to eat. In Piper, the baby sandpaper approaches the ocean to find food for the first time. Both are simple introductions with big impact. They pull viewers in and have them rooting for the main character right from the start. Director of Piper, Alan Barillaro said, "You're trying to tell a story visually, as quickly as possible, something that's easy for the audience to get but also humorous and character-based."
The Takeaway: Use opening lines that introduce the character, identify the problem and pull the reader in.
Create endearing characters
Pixar is known for its adorable characters. In creating them, the animators rely on facial expressions, body language, and fine details to show emotions. For instance, the pacing of Winston's movements, tilting of his head and body positions portray his satisfaction with various foods. The use of personified facial expressions gives the audience a glimpse into Piper's internal experience of shock and fear when she is drenched by a huge wave. Her quick retreat, ruffled feathers, and quivering elicit empathy and a strong emotional tug.
The Takeaway: Use strong verbs and to show your character's expressions, body language and emotions.
String together strong plots with satisfying endings
Pixar animators rely on movement to tell the story. One scene quickly follows the next. Without dialogue, the audience must infer what's going on. This means that every scene must drive the story forward. There are no unnecessary details or detours--just a clear story format where the main character is faced with challenges that must be overcome to reach a goal. The end result...a beautiful story with a satisfying ending. And Pixar never fails to deliver heart-warming films, which make the audience walk away feeling touched, inspired, and looking forward to the next masterpiece!
The Takeaway: Don't be afraid to cut characters or scenes that don't drive your story.
Try watching more Pixar shorts with fresh eyes--as a writer on a quest to learn more about storytelling!
By Donna Cangelosi
Happy Takeaway Tuesday! We're delighted to welcome Alayne Kay Christian, creator and teacher of ART OF ARC, an online picture book writing class that addresses the elements of a traditional story arc. Back in 2015, I was a beta reader for the course and found it invaluable. Here's an inside look.
Welcome Alayne! How did you come up with the idea for Art of Arc?
After critiquing hundreds of picture book manuscripts, I saw the same issues repeatedly. As my professional critiques include mini lessons, I found myself recreating the same lessons but customizing them for each story I critiqued. There had to be an easier, more efficient way to do this. And a course was born. The reason I created a course that focuses on the classic arc is because 90% of the stories I critique are built around that structure. It is the number one structure in picture books.
Describe how the class is taught.
Art of Arc is a self-study course. Students work at their own pace. It includes 217 pages with ten lessons, seventeen supplements, and eighteen worksheets. Plus, bonus materials and resources. The course materials are delivered all at one time via email in PDF and MS Word formats. Students have access to a private Facebook group where they can ask questions and get support.
Please give examples of picture books with good story arcs.
The main plot points of the story arc usually include the exposition, ordinary world, inciting incident, rising action, climax, and falling action that slips into resolution.
Tammi Sauer's picture books tend to be perfect examples of arc so I have to include one here:
by Tammi Sauer and Scott Magoon
Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2010
Ordinary World: Bernadette is a monster who is also sweet.
Inciting Incident: "When it came time to go to school with the other monsters, Bernadette felt a teensy bit nervous..."
Rising Action: Bernadette tries and fails several times to fit in with the other monsters.
Darkest Moment: Bernadette is left alone inside, watching monsters be monsters outside.
Inner Climax: Bernadette gets an idea that might allow her to be herself and still win over the other monsters.
Outer Climax: Bernadette puts the idea into action.
What Do You Do With a Problem?
by Kobi Yamada Illustrated by Mae Besom
Compendium, Inc. 2016
Ordinary World: Some books don't show the ordinary world, and this is one. It jumps right into the inciting incident.
Inciting Incident: A problem appears. Boy has no idea how it happened but it is there.
Rising Action: Boy tries and fails several times to hide from and avoid his problem, but the problem just keeps getting bigger.
Darkest Moment: The problem grows until the boy can't take it anymore.
Inner Climax: The boy contemplates his problem, has a change of thinking, and comes up with a plan.
Outer Climax: The boy puts his plan into action.
Resolution: The boy learns something about himself and his problem.
The Most Magnificent Thing
by Ashley Spires
Kids Can Press 2014
Ordinary World: Girl and dog do all kinds of things together--race, eat, relax. Girl makes things. Dog unmakes things.
Inciting Incident: Girl has an idea. She will make the most MAGNIFICENT thing.
Rising Action: She tries and fails to make the most magnificent thing several times. She attracts some admirers of her failures. But people don't understand. They can't see the magnificent thing she has in her mind.
Darkest Moment: The girl gets mad from frustration and takes her frustration out on her attempts at the most magnificent thing until she smashes her finger and her temper EXPLODES and then she gives up. "I'm no good at this. I QUIT."
Inner Climax: She takes a walk and discovers a new approach.
Outer Climax: She goes back to work on the magnificent thing using her new approach.
Resolution: She creates THE MOST MAGNIFICENT THING.
Thank you for a wonderful interview, Alayne!
Alayne is offering a 25% discount on her Art of Arc course through April 15, 2018 if you mention KidLitTakeaways.
Alayne Kay Christian is the author of the Sienna, the Cowgirl Fairy chapter book series and the award-winning picture book, Butterfly Kisses for Grandma and Grandpa. She is a critique ninja for Julie Hedlund's 12 x 12. Alayne is a graduate of the Institute for Children's Literature and has spent the last ten years studying under some of the top names in children's literature.
Art of Arc info: http://www.alaynekaychristian.compage05.html
By Chana Stiefel
This month, I attended JudyBlumesDay, an event at Symphony Space in NYC celebrating the 80th birthday of beloved author Judy Blume. Four well-known children’s authors--Jacqueline Woodson (the new National Ambassador for Young People's Literature!), Rachel Vail, Debbie Ridpath Ohi (who illustrated Blume’s new book covers), & Soman Chainani--held a panel discussion about the influence of Judy Blume’s 30+ books on their writing and their lives.
Then Judy Blume herself addressed the audience of kids and their nostalgic parents. She answered questions, such as which book is her favorite (“It’s like asking ‘who’s your favorite child?"); what inspired her to write (“It was my need. There were so many stories inside me, I had to let them out”); and her age when she started writing (“From the time I was 9 I had stories in my head, but I didn’t start writing until I was in my late 20’s. I had two babies and I was going cuckoo so writing saved me!”).
As a children’s writer, I’ve also been taking Judy Blume’s online Master Class. Many of the key takeaways in the class resonated at Blume’s birthday bash, including what I’ll call Three R’s of Writing:
#1 Real Life
What is it about Judy Blume’s books that have struck a chord for two generations? Her books speak to real kids about real-kid problems. And the source of all that tween angst was Blume herself. Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, she says, includes all of her childhood fears exaggerated. (At the birthday event, Broadway actress Colbie Minifie read a dramatic passage in which Sheila overcomes her fears and swims across the pool.) In Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, Blume relates her own experiences of what it was like to be a 6th grade girl obsessed with puberty. When writing the book, she took notes on her own life and her childhood fantasies of what it would be like to be a grown up. The part about choosing a religion was fictional, though she says the book is more about finding your place and what you believe in. She calls Starring Sally J. Friedman As Herself her most autobiographical book. Blubber came from stories that her daughter in fifth grade shared about bullying at school.
In her Master Class, Blume quotes Maurice Sendak saying, “I’ve never had children, but I was a child.” She advises writers to “be in touch with the child we were!” Remember the smells and all the details. “Go back into your childhood and put yourself in the classroom with your teacher. Who’s around you? What are you doing?” she asks. While writing, authors need to see and feel and react to the details around them to make their books real and relatable.
Two of the biggest challenges for writers is finding time to write and sticking to a routine. Each author at the event spoke about his or her writing rituals that keep them in their chair. For example, Jackie Woodson lights a candle, wears headphones, and listens to a favorite playlist. Soman Chainani exercises before and after writing. Judy Blume famously wears a silver bracelet that reminds her that it’s time to write (although she shared with the audience that the bracelet gets really annoying and she takes it off while writing!). Kids at the event were given elastic bracelets, white paper, and a writing prompt. They had an opportunity to share their writing with the audience--and Judy Blume!
Often as authors, we feel pressure to be writing all of the time. But Blume says she often takes a breather between books. “It’s not fun to write,” she says. "It’s hard work." And if the inspiration isn’t there it’s doubly hard. “Once the inspiration comes, hold on to it,” says Blume. Then write like crazy.
Happy birthday Judy Blume! We wish you many more happy, healthy years of writing!
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_.
By Donna Cangelosi
I recently had the opportunity to see Springsteen on Broadway, a one-man show and intimate look at the experiences that shaped Bruce's life and fueled his artistic expression. A perfect mix of heart-felt stories, humor, and musical genius. I laughed. I cried. I was so inspired!
Most of the experiences Bruce shared during the performance appear in his beautiful memoir, BORN TO RUN, a story about growing up, hardship, dreams, friendship, rock-n-roll, letting go, and heart, heart, heart. Bruce also shares wonderful tips about the creative process that relate to the craft of writing picture books.
Find What You do Best
"I needed to travel light and be able to blow somebody away with just my voice, my guitar and my song. Voice...guitar...song...three tools. My voice was never going to win any prizes. My guitar accompanied on acoustic was rudimentary, so that left the songs. The songs would have to be fireworks. I decided the world was filled with plenty of good guitar players, many of them my match or better, but how many good songwriters were there? Songwriters with their own voice, their own story to tell, who could draw you into a world they created and sustain your interest in the things that obsessed them. Not many, a handful at best."
The Takeaway: Find your own unique style and create the story only you can write.
Write with Purpose
"These were issues that had previously been relegated to the margins of American life. Dread--the sense that things might not work out, that the moral high ground had been swept out from underneath us, that the dream we had of ourselves had somehow been tainted and the future would forever be uninsured--was in the air. This was the new lay of the land, and if I was going to put my characters out on that highway, I was going to have to put all these things in the car with them."
The Takeaway: Write stories with universal, relevant and relatable themes.
Know your Process
"I started with the guitar riff. Get yourself a great riff and you're on your way. Then I'd chug along chording randomly while I'd mumble, mumble, mumble...then, tramps like us, baby we were born to run...That was all I had..."
It wasn't an easy piece to write. I started my title song that afternoon but I didn't finish it until six months of trial and tribulations, images, the road, the car, the girl...what else is there?"
The Takeaway: It takes a long time to create a masterpiece, even for a rock star!
Get to Know your Characters
"When you get the music and lyrics right, your voice disappears into the voices you've chosen to write about. Basically, with these songs, I find the characters and listen to them. That always leads to a series of questions about their behavior. What would they do? What would they never do? You need to locate the rhythm of their speech and the nature of their expression. By pulling these elements together as well as you can, you shed light on their lives and honor their experiences."
The Takeaway: Imagine what t's like to be your characters and write from their perspective
Write with Meaning
"Most of my writing is emotionally autobiographical. I've learned you've got to pull up the things that mean something to you in order for them to mean anything to your audience. That's where the proof is. That's how they know you're not kidding."
The Takeaway: Write about subjects that have personal meaning to you. The best stories are the ones that come from the heart.
Work at It...Over and Over and Over
"Some of our mixes remained on the board for three, four days, a week, as we fussed, mussed and murdered one another in a vain attempt to capture all worlds. We had mixes with three-digit take numbers. We were violently frustrated and puzzled."
The Takeaway; Collaborate and revise, revise, revise.
Write for the Sake of Creating
"I'm glad I've been handsomely paid for my efforts but I truly would've done it for free. Because I had to. It was the only way I found momentary release and the purpose I was looking for. So for me, there weren't going to be any shortcuts."
The Takeaway: Enjoy the process. Write because you love to write, not for fame or fortune.
Find your Tribe
"If we didn't play together, The E Street Band would probably not know one another. We wouldn't be in a room together. But we do...we do play together and every night at eight we walk out onstage together, and that, my friends, is a place where miracles occur...old and new miracles. And those you are with in the presence of miracles, you never forget."
The Takeaway: Don't go it alone. Join a critique group, go to conferences, and build friendships. Magic will happen!
By Chana Stiefel
Sunni Herman, a dear friend of mine, recently completed the Atlantic City Half Ironman IM70.3 triathlon. She swam 1.2 miles, biked 56 miles, and then ran a half marathon. After this monumental achievement, she wrote an inspiring article about her “aha” moments and lessons learned. While Sunni’s article added a pep to my step and a fews laps to my swim, it also brought tears to my eyes. Sunni is a mom of three terrific kids and is Executive Vice President of a nursing home. She is power personified. I asked if I could adapt her lessons to our writing community. And in her sunny way, Sunni said, “Of course!”
For those of you who want to run an Ironman, read Sunni’s article here. For the rest of us, here are five takeaways for authors from an Ironwoman:
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.