It is my great pleasure to post an interview with former student and accomplished picture book writer, Susan Hood. Susan took my mediabistro picture book class in 2009, when she was already well-established in children's publishing, having worked as an editor and writer for Scholastic, Sesame Workshop, and Nick Jr. Magazine. Her mission was to get the hang of the picture book form, and while I'd like to take credit for what happened next, it's pretty clear that she was already well-equipped to take the picture book world by storm. And she has, with four gorgeous picture books since 2012: The Tooth Mouse; Spike, The Mixed-Up Monster; Just Say Boo!; and her latest, Rooting For You. She graciously agreed to talk to me about her own path to publication. What struck me about her story is that even though she started out with talent, connections, and experience to spare, she still had to deal with plenty of rejection at the start. It's a good reminder that in this tough field, your single greatest asset is perserverence.
Dashka: When you took my class in 2009, you were still an aspiring picture book writer. If you can remember back that far, tell us a little a bit about how you approached picture books back then.
Susan: I had been an editor at Scholastic and Sesame Street and had published many baby board books and beginning readers, but I had a healthy respect for how difficult picture books can be. I had absorbed a lot about them by “osmosis,” but your class really brought everything into focus. I still have your lectures and enjoy referring back to them.
Dashka: What happened to the manuscript you worked on in class? I think it was called Tip Tap Rumble Roar. It was terrific!
Susan: Many editors complimented me on the story, but it was deemed not commercial enough at that time. Remember this was back in 2009 when picture books had taken a hit and everyone wanted YA. I hope that pendulum is swinging back and still hope to publish that story some day!
Dashka: What manuscript was your break-through picture book manuscript?
Susan: The very first picture book I sold was The Tooth Mouse. The inspiration was a young Parisian girl I interviewed for a column in Nick Jr. Magazine called “Kids Like You.” Since Sophie was six, I asked her what happened when you lose a tooth in France. She said, “I give it to the Tooth Mouse, of course!” Turns out that a great many other countries share the same tooth tradition, including Argentina, Algeria, Croatia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Greece, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Spain and on and on. I knew I had to write about it!
Dashka: I love that! Did you already have an agent?
Susan: I didn’t have an agent and I was overwhelmed at the prospect of trying to find one. The answer? Homework! Here’s my biggest tip: go to publishersmarketplace.com. This is a free site that has additional information available for a monthly subscription fee. For $20 a month (and you can pay for just one month) you can access the Dealmakers page. There you can track agents and see what manuscripts they are selling to specific editors. You can find out who specializes in children’s books and who has had the most success selling manuscripts in your genre. It’s a fantastic source to help you narrow the field! From there, I zeroed in on about five agents who interested me and read their blogs, websites, etc. Best advice? If possible, try to attend conferences and see the agents in action. See if you like them. Having a good rapport with your agent is crucial. And follow their submission guidelines exactly. Don’t give them an easy excuse for pushing the delete button!
Dashka: That's such good advice. I like to say that everyone is looking for an excuse to say no -- so you have to make sure not to give it to them! Now you had three picture books come out in close succession. Did you sell them all at once? Tell us a little about the publication paths for each of them.
Susan: I sold The Tooth Mouse in the spring of 2009 before I had an agent. That summer my agent took Spike, The Mixed-Up Monster to BEA and came back with so much interest the book went to auction! I was astonished and over the moon when three publishers bid on it! Just Say Boo! was sold in January 2010, the result of an SCBWI-sponsored critique with a HarperCollins editor.However, the illustrators we wanted were booked for several years so we made the tough decision to wait for them. It was purely by chance that all three books came out in the fall of 2012.
Dashka: Do you feel like you've mastered the art of writing picture books? Is it getting easier?
Susan: I’ve certainly learned a lot, but I wonder if anyone ever feels they’ve “mastered” the form. I have the most respect for authors and illustrators who keep pushing the envelope, breaking the rules and attempting new ways of engaging young children.
How are picture books different? Obviously in language. Early readers use simpler words and fewer of them. Picture books can use more lush, fresh, sophisticated language for two reasons: they are read aloud by adults and a child can understand many more words than he can read.
The way the art works with the text is another important difference. For early readers, the art should match what’s in the text. Kids refer to the pictures and use them to understand the words.
In the best picture books, the art works to inform and expand on the text and it often works in counterpoint. The text might talk of a monster, but you see from the art that he’s two inches tall. The text may say “pet,” but the art might show a dragon!
Often the trick to writing a good picture book is to know when to stop writing. This was an AHA! moment for me when I was working on The Tooth Mouse. Originally, I had written out all of the action on this spread. Suddenly it dawned on me that I didn’t have to. I wrote two lines and let the art take over the story.
Kids love this because they can look at the picture and tell what’s happening in their own words. The text tells part of the story and the art tells the rest. And this is what makes picture books so difficult. You have to supply enough of a story to inspire an illustrator and then step back and allow his or her creativity to take your story to new heights. And don’t assume you and your illustrator will work closely together. You may never meet!
Dashka: It's a strange kind of collaboration, isn't it? Yet when it's done well, the text and the art are so seamless, you can't imagine that they were done separately! What have you learned about the picture book writing and publishing process that you wish you knew at the beginning? What words of advice do you have for aspiring picture book writers ?
Susan: Publishing a picture book takes time. A LOT of time. And there’s a lot of rejection along the way. The Tooth Mouse was seven years in the making. The first manuscript was rejected and it sat in a drawer for years. I completely rewrote it and revised, revised, revised. After it was accepted we waited for illustrator Janice Nadeau and it was finally published three years later! So patience and a tough skin will serve you well.
Advice? Read a lot of picture books. I mean thousands. Read the classics, but read new ones, too, to see how the genre is evolving.
My best advice is to join SCBWI—the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, take a class, join a critique group.
Children’s writers and illustrators are some of the most generous, inspiring, mischievous, jovial people I’ve ever met. They’ll celebrate your highs, pick you up when you’re low and grouse with you when you’re tired of waiting, waiting, waiting. When my books were published, my critique group turned into a pop-up marketing task force, writing my press releases, cooking food for my launch party, setting up school visits and hounding (yes, literally hounding!) teachers and librarians to buy my books. I feel blessed to have this community of people in my life.
Dashka: I agree wholeheartedly! Children's book people are the best. So, what's coming next?
Susan: I have a new baby board book called Tickly Toes, illustrated by Barroux. Four more picture books are on the way from Random House, Hyperion and Candlewick after that! Here's a sneak preview of the cover of Mission: New Baby which will be released by Random House in February 2015.
Dashka: Oooh, it has illustrations by the wonderful Mary Lundquist! Congratulations on all your success and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on the blog!