Tell us a little bit about the evolution of your idea for How Martha Saved Her Parents from Green Beans. What was your inspiration?
I began the book so long ago (nearly eight years ago) that it’s difficult to remember exactly how the story started. I’m sure it was partly inspired by the fact that I was a very picky eater myself as a child. Unlike Martha, I didn’t detest green beans, but it was ham that I wouldn’t touch (along with a lengthy list of other foods). I spent some long evenings alone at the dinner table before I’d finally eat the few tiny pieces of ham my mother insisted I try.
This story sat with one editor for several years before he turned it down. Next I sent it to my editor at Dutton, who initially lost the first copy of the manuscript I sent. Even after resending the story, I had to wait almost two more years before she said she wanted to buy it. That was in 2009, and it wasn’t until 2013 that the book was finally published.
Creating children’s books is not a career for the impatient!
Were you able to communicate with Mark Fearing, the illustrator of your book, during the editing stages?
I had very little communication with Mark during the book. As your readers may know, editors try very hard to keep the author and illustrator separate, in fear that the author will get in the way of the illustrator’s creative process. I was sent Mark’s nearly finished sketches, and given the chance to share my comments with my editor. There were only a few minor changes I requested (in one scene a green bean was pointing a pencil at a teacher in a way that resembled a gun; I know how sensitive schools are to the use of weapons so I asked for the sketch to be altered, which Mark willingly did). Mark also asked for a few changes in my text (I had described one scene as being in a cave, but Mark felt it would be too dark so I rewrote the scene so that it happened outside the cave).
In the end I was thrilled with Mark’s final art. His hilariously villainous green beans are the best part of the book, in my opinion. He came up with so many creative details that are not mentioned in the text, such as the green bean hieroglyphics on the cave wall and the comical antics of Martha’s dog. This is what you hope happens; the illustrator enhances the book with his or her own creativity, which can’t happen if the author is dictating how each scene should be drawn.
Do you typically use illustration notes in your picture book submissions? And if so, is there a particular way you use them that has worked to your advantage?
Usually I do not use illustration notes. I hope that my text will be clear enough so that the storyline will be evident. For Martha, I included one note: at the very end of the story the supposedly “safe” leafy salad is looking at Martha with shifty eyes. I included this description in parentheses at the end of the scene. It was not mentioned in my text, but was crucial for the final joke.
For some books I have sent my editor illustrated b&w dummies to accompany the text, in hopes of being both the illustrator and author. Usually the response has been, “We like the text, but we want a different illustrator.” They’ve chosen such good illustrators for my books that I can’t complain!
Tell us a little bit about the first picture book you published. How long had you actively been submitting work as a children’s writer before your first acceptance?
The story of how my first book was published is a lesson in what NOT to do. While I was an elementary classroom teacher I was sending stories, puzzles, and illustrations to several local children’s magazines. A colleague of mine saw one of my children’s stories and tried to convince me to send it to a book publisher. I refused, telling her I was going to wait till I wrote something more worthy before sending it out. Unbeknownst to me, my friend called up an editor and read my story to her over the phone. Most editors would hang up after three words, but this editor told her that I should send in my story, and that became my first book, A Christmas Guest, back in 1988. This is a strategy I would never suggest to anyone, as more often than not it would only annoy an editor. You don’t want to develop a reputation as an annoying author!
The road to the publication of my first book was relatively smooth (although the story required nine rounds of revisions before the editor was satisfied), but since then I’ve received my fair share of rejection letters: 198 and still counting. I still regularly receive rejection letters from editors I’ve successfully published with in the past. Rejection is part of this business, and persistence and determination are as important as talent for anyone who wants to succeed.
As someone with many books published, what has been the most challenging part of the publication process?
The waiting. As I mentioned, it can sometimes be years before an editor makes up his or her mind about a particular story, and this is with editors I’ve already published. I’ve learned that the best way to handle this is to keep producing more stories, and not pin my hopes on just one manuscript. I can’t control how long an editor will take to make a decision, but I do have control over producing more work, and getting it sent out to editors. That ‘s one of the reasons that I have books published with so many different publishers; while one story is sitting with one editor, I’ve got another story (or stories) sent to several other editors.
As writers, we are always looking for great resources that can help us improve our craft. Have you taken any helpful courses, either online or other?
One of the smartest things I ever did was take a children’s writing class through a local literary center in Minneapolis called The Loft. That writing class led to one of my critique groups, which I’ve been a member of for close to fifteen years. Because it takes so long to hear back from an editor, my critique groups are crucial sources of immediate feedback.
I’ve also received great inspiration and practical advice through my local chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, as well as at their national conferences.
As a teacher myself, I understand the attachment to children’s books and the desire to incorporate your creativity into a full-time writing career. When did you feel it was the right time to leave your teaching position and focus on writing and illustrating full time?
I had been teaching for four years when I received my contract for my first book. Because I had tenure, I was able to take a two-year leave of absence to pursue my dream of writing and illustrating. If things didn’t work out, I knew I would have a job waiting for me. This safety net gave me the courage to take this risk, which I’m glad that I did. I will also be forever grateful for my teaching colleague who had more confidence in my work than I had. Without her, I might still be telling myself, “Someday I’ll submit my story to an editor, once I write something really, really good.” Someday never comes.
Are you a self-taught artist, or did you incorporate this into your education, as well?
When I was at college, I majored in art and English, spending a semester as an exchange student at the Kansas City Art Institute where I focused on illustration. My initial plan was to work for Hallmark Cards, but when that fell through (I was told I couldn’t draw well enough), I went on to a fifth year of college where I earned my elementary teaching license.
Tell us about your upcoming projects:
2013 is a very good year for me. I have three new picture books being published, the most I’ve ever had in one year.
Along with having Martha published this spring, the first book where I get to be both author and illustrator will be published in August. It’s called Arlo’s ARTrageous Adventure! It’s the story of a boy who gets dragged to an art museum against his will and has a much better time than expected. The paintings and sculptures in the museum come to life and feature over 50 flaps to lift as they interact with each other and the boy. The process of creating the illustrations required a lot of precise measuring to make sure that all the flaps would line up perfectly. The publisher did a marvelous job with the herculean task of printing this tricky book.
In October my one-word picture book MOO! will be published. It’s another first for me in that it’s the first time I knew the illustrator ahead of time. Mike Wohnoutka is a member of my critique group and we approached his publisher, Walker, with this joint project. Usually this would be a big no-no, as publishers want to select the illustrator themselves. In this case, however, they agreed to take us both on as a team. Even so, when Mike was working on his illustrations, they requested that he not show me any of his sketches directly, even though we were in the same critique group. The publisher wanted to see the artwork first, and then decide when it was ready to run past me. I am thrilled with what Mike did with my storyline, and I’m very excited for this book to hit the shelves in the fall.
Congratulations on your accomplishments, David! I am glued to your words! Thank you for taking the time to share your journey with us!
Thank you, Carrie, for allowing me to be your Mystery Author! Good luck to you and your readers with your own writing careers.