Q: How do you find your illustrator?
A: I don't have anything to do with that. After an editor decides to publish a story, the editor and art director search for an illustrator whose style will work well for this particular book. They look for an illustrator whose art will enhance the words and make the story more than it was before.
Q: What if you don't like the illustrations?
A: That's out of my control. I have rarely been disappointed. When a talented artist illustrates my words, I'm delighted. It's like getting an amazing present.
Q: How did you first get published?
A: My first publications were in magazines. Short stories for Cricket and others, and articles for Ranger Rick and Highlights. When I wrote Mrs. Toggle's Zipper, I thought I was writing a magazine story. But then I realized it had some of the ingredients of a good picture book: changing scenes, humor, action, colorful characters. It was rejected twice before being accepted out of the slush pile at Four Winds Press, Macmillan Co. (a publishing house which no longer exists!)
Q: Any suggestions for a somebody who wants to get a children's book published?
A: In most cases the road to publication is long. But don't concentrate on getting published. Concentrate on writing the best work you are capable of. Expect rejection. Welcome revision. When you send a manuscript out, begin something new:
- Join a writers' group. Listen to others' reactions to your writing. Grow as a writer, even as you pursue publication.
- Read, read, read. Immerse yourself in good writing to learn what makes it distinguished. Read bad writing too, and then you'll learn to recognize the difference.
- Write, write, write. Often, the best ideas come while writing. (Although they sometimes come in the shower or while walking or driving. ) Many authors find it helpful to write at a certain time every day.
- Revise, revise, revise. I think of writing my first draft as creating a big lump of clay. Revising is whittling away at the lump, shaping it, shaving off the excess, re-shaping, finding the beauty.
- Listen (yes, eavesdrop!), notice, use your senses. Get in touch with the deep parts of yourself.
- Begin. Keep going. Finish. Then, find an editor who wants to publish your manuscript.
Q: How do I find that editor?
A: Not easy! Look for books you like in libraries and bookstores. Find out who published them and who edited them. Study the Children's Writers and Illustrators' Market (at your library or bookstore.) Join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Go to conferences to acquaint yourself with editors. (But don't force manuscripts on them.) Join a writers' email list. Check out publishers' web sites. And don't get so bogged down in all that, that you forget to write.
Q: What children's books and writers influenced you?
A: Here are a few but there are many others.
- E.B. White's Charlotte's Web: This is the first "long" book I ever read (age 8). At the end, I remember realizing as I finished reading that you can be crying your eyes out and totally enjoying yourself at the same time. Years later, reading this book with my children, I admired the clarity, humanity, and humor of the writing and the immense charm of the characters.
- Maurice Sendak. As a young adult, I wrote a term paper about Where the Wild Things Are for a graphic arts course in journalism, even though I had no idea I'd ever write for children. The book continues to astound me with its simplicity and its strong case for the power of the child's subconscious, as well as a parent's unconditional love. Max can get mad at his mom, go off and subdue the wild things, then come back and find his dinner--still hot!--waiting for him.
- Rosemary Wells. All her books are great, but the one that influenced me profoundly is Good Night, Fred, about a boy who can't stop bouncing. One night, after talking to his grandma on the telephone, he knocks over the telephone table. The telephone breaks to pieces."But Grandma's in there!" cries Fred. "I just talked to her!" My son, David, struggles with mental retardation and autism. Mothering him has been a struggle too, especially in his early years. Every night for two of those years, David asked me to read Good Night, Fred at bedtime. After an emotionally draining day, Fred always brought us together, snuggling and laughing. That book packed more power than any toy.
- William Steig . I discovered his book Amos and Boris about a mouse and a whale who become friends, as a young adult, before I had kids. I've been a fan of Steig ever since. I admire the deep emotion in his books, as well as the gorgeous language. Steig shows immense respect for his readers.
- Astrid Lindgren. I love Pippi Longstocking! Everything about her. Her humor, her guts, her storytelling.
- Irene Hunt. Her mid-grade novel, The Everlasting Hills, about a boy with disabilities, struck a deep chord and led me to her other books. I wrote her a fan letter, she wrote back, and meaningful correspondence ensued. During a vacation to Florida we visited her. She showed my daughter the Newbery Medal she'd won for Up a Road Slowly. My favorite book of hers is Across Five Aprils.
- Natalie Babbitt. Her Tuck Everlasting, about a family cursed with eternal life, is one of my all-time favorite books, and Searching for Delicious is my daughter Nina's favorite. Great stories, great writing.
- Finally, I can't say enough about the influence and inspiration from these authors with whom I've been privileged to share membership in writers' groups: Tedd Arnold, Mary Jane Auch, Patience Brewster, Bruce Coville, Cynthia DeFelice, Alice DeLaCroix, Barbara Erdle, Molly Giles, Marsha Hayles, Jennifer Meagher, Mary Stanton (aka Claudia Bishop), Ellen Stoll Walsh, Vivian VandeVelde, and Elizabeth Wild.
Q: What's the best writing advice you ever received?
A: From a speech by William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, at Syracuse University: "Humanity and warmth belong in all good writing. So does humor. Make words dance for you." Finally, I'll always be grateful for this advice from a fellow student in an early writing workshop: "Think playfully." I was in the middle of writing a serious story for adults. I took a break, thought playfully, and wrote Mrs. Toggle's Zipper, my first children's book.