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BONJOUR, ESCARGOT!

My new picture book, Escargot, will be released on April 11 and it is already getting a wonderful response. 

That's no surprise to Escargot, of course. He already knew he was the world's most beautiful French snail!

His opinion was confirmed today when Escargot received his first starred review, from the March issue of the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Naturally he feels humbled, if "humbled" is what you are when you make people read the review to you over and over and then you say, "Moi? Parfait? Engaging? Jaunty? Do you think so? Let's read it again." 

Not only that, but he's on the Top Ten Indie Next List for Spring, which means you can find him at all your favorite independent bookstores.

 

In fact, you can find both of us -- as we have an action packed schedule of Spring appearances. Check out the calendar and this space for details!

Here's the BCCB review in full:

 

★    ESCARGOT

Author: Dashka Slater

Illustrator: Sydney Hanson

 

Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux

Pages: 40

Price (Hardcover): $16.99

Publication Date: April 2017

ISBN (Hardcover): 9780374302818

 

R*

 

Our self-assured narrator may have no shortage of ego (“I am such a beautiful French snail that everybody stares at me”), but one thing makes him very sad: “Nobody ever says their favorite animal is the snail.” Escargot hasn’t given up hope, though, trying to convince the listener of his suitability for favorite via flattery, unexpected ferocity, and a swift race to the salad at the end of the book. Escargot’s voice is parfait, an airy blend of ego and need masterfully balanced in witty and well-turned sentences that leave plenty of room for audiences to get the joke. Cues for interaction (“Can you also make a fierce face to scare away the carrot? Maybe we should roar at it, too?”) are unexpected yet playful, with additional humor in the snail’s engaging responses. Trim, controlled pencil and watercolor art gives Escargot the inevitable French sailor’s shirt, neckerchief, and teeny beret, but the jaunty guy’s wide, sincere eyes reveal the depth of his yearning snail soul—and make for some great comic faces. The neat regularity of the art mirrors the tonal control of the text while adding some clever touches, such as the snail’s loving gaze at himself in a glass tumbler or his casual recline upon a wine cork. Haul out your best Pepe Le Pew cartoon French for this gastropod confectionery. DS

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Advanced Picture Book Writing Class, Coming in March!

The next session of my Advanced Picture Book Class, better known as  PB2, starts in March and I am accepting a limited number of students. Perhaps you’ve been working on your picture book manuscript for a long time, and you’re wondering whether it’s ready to send it out.  Or maybe you’ve written a picture book before and you’re getting ready to try a new project.  In either case, you’ve got the basics down and you’re looking for some expert help and a community of readers to work with as you polish your material. Developed especially for graduates of my beginning picture book writing class with mediabistro, this class is open to aspiring picture book writers who are ready for a more advanced workshop structure.

This intensive 8-week online class will help you shape and hone your picture book manuscript through targeted readings, live online discussion, and expert critique. Submit full manuscripts or fragments of ideas -- we'll take whatever you have and work to make it stronger.

In this class, you will learn how to:

  • Construct and fine-tune your plot
  • Develop characters that will appeal to your readers
  • Enliven your book's language so it's fun to read aloud
  • Use page turns, pictures and pacing to your advantage
  • Identify and eliminate common picture book weaknesses
  • Refine a rough draft into a polished manuscript
  • Develop your career as a picture book writer

Testimonials:

"The perfect next step after PB1, this class offers the same thoughtful edits, close readings and guidance but with more freedom, allowing you to explore a single manuscript, multiple works, or just bits and pieces. It takes the pressure off while you focus on your work, but still provides handy deadlines to keep you moving. I can't say enough for Dashka's unique blend of honest critique, mentorship and overall support. A wonderful way to hone your craft and fall more in love with writing as a process." -- Kristen Giang

"Dashka is the most thoughtful and insightful teacher. She handled each member of the group with total sensitivity, gently guiding us, motivating us, encouraging us and helping us to unravel our characters and plot and find our individual voices as writers. This was a wonderful class. I really feel I have learned an enormous amount which I can apply to my storytelling, and I feel a new sense of confidence and hope as a writer. Thank you, Dashka!" -- Emily Bailey

"Dashka is a born teacher--encouraging, compassionate, incisive, and knowledgeable. If you're a newbie, she'll make you feel like a pro. If you're a pro, she'll surprise you with her insights and perspective." -- Mary Bolster

"Dashka Slater's kindness, generosity and creative talent totally exceeded my expectations for an online writing class. I was blown away by her attention to each student, her depth of knowledge and insight into our work. Her own creativity is a joy to witness and her dedication to her craft, an inspiration. I am blessed to have had the pleasure." -- Maureen Phillips

Nuts and Bolts:

  • Class begins on March 17, 2015 and runs for 8 Tuesdays (no class on April 7), ending on May 12.
  • Video Chats (via Google Hangout) are at 8 pm Eastern Time and run 1.5 hours.
  • Cost: $499 

 

To register, please contact me directly.

 

 

The Many Paths to Publication Part 6: An Interview with Tim McCanna

I first met Tim McCanna at an SCBWI conference in 2011. Back then he was an aspiring children's book author and a heck of a nice guy. Now he's still a heck of a nice guy but he's graduated from aspiring to published children's book author. How'd he do it? I was about to say "not in the usual way" but if you've been following these posts, you've probably gathered that there isn't a usual way. What I like about Tim's story is that he took pointers, tips and tidbits he gathered at conferences and combined them with some publicly-available tools and a few personal connections to forge a unique path to publication. It doesn't hurt that he, like Tim Myers from our last Paths to Publication Interview, is a multi-talented guy who writes songs, does voice-overs, and writes stories. Read on to learn about his just-released new book, Teeny Tiny Trucks, and how it developed from an idea to an app and a book.

Dashka: Tell me about Teeny Tiny Trucks! What was the inspiration?
Tim: Well, in late 2010 I attended an event hosted by SCBWI's San Francisco/South chapter. One of the speakers was Christy Ottaviano and she talked about how much her kids loved trucks and how she had unexpectedly ended up publishing a handful of "truck books." I had never really thought about it before, but there are a LOT of truck books out there. It's a whole category of its own. On the way home, I started brainstorming truck book ideas. Of course, most truck books celebrate how big and tough and loud they are. I knew right away I wanted to take it in a different direction and explore a world where trucks were super small. I also tapped into my childhood love of little truck toys, like Micro Machines and Tiny Mighty Mos.

Dashka: It sounds like you did some market research before you even started writing. Were there other things you learned from SCBWI or other sources that helped you hone your strategy?
Tim: As it turned out, the next regional SCBWI event I attended was the 2011 Golden Gate Conference at Asilomar near Monterey. One of the speakers was Rick Richter of Ruckus Media Group. Rick gave a great talk on apps and digital media and where the industry was headed. He assured us that apps and ebooks and printed books could all live together in harmony. But he also really encouraged us to jump on the app bandwagon. I had no idea how to do that, but I was excited to try. While considering ideas, I thought, "Hey, that Teeny Tiny Trucks picture book manuscript I wrote would make a cool app."

TTTrucks Cover

Dashka: How did you go about making an app proposal? How did you even know where to begin?
Tim: It's intimidating, right? For the first couple submissions, I just winged it. Cover letter, the manuscript, and very rough storyboard sketches with little notes on potential interactive elements. Uh, nothing came of those. Then last year, Julie Hedlund, who's a writer and creator of the 12x12 challenge, published an App Proposal Template based on the submission that landed her first story app contract. I would recommend it to anyone wanting to break into story apps. The template helped me create a much more robust and organized proposal with marketing strategies, a detailed app brief, and curriculum tie-ins.

Dashka: As an old-school, words-on-paper person, I sometimes find it hard to embrace the digital side of publishing. Were you pro-technology before you started? Anti-technology? Neutral?
Tim: Ah, well. I love a nice solid printed picture book as much as the next person. My wife and I read tons of traditional picture books with our kids and we have pretty strict "screen time" rules. But I've never shied from technology. If anything, my iPad has made me a reader again. I love the ease of downloading samples from the iBooks store to find new purchases, and being able to quickly look up big words I don't know! I read novels almost exclusively on my iPad. As far as the publishing industry goes, I can only hope that the future will bring lots of quality story apps for people to enjoy and lots of beautiful hardbound books, too.

Dashka: OK, so you've told us how you got the idea for Teeny Tiny Trucks. How did the book get its big break?
Tim: Gosh, everything is intertwined. So, I had my Trucks story and my first shabby proposal sitting in my Dropbox going nowhere. As I was participating in the 2011 Picture Book Idea Month, I heard about Julie Hedlund who was launching her 12x12 writing challenge, which I joined. I wrote this silly song for the mid-year celebration of 12x12 and had also written the opening show theme for Katie Davis' kidlit podcast, Brain Burps About Books. Meanwhile, Julie's publisher at Little Bahalia was considering adding a sing-a-long song version for the app they were developing for her book A Troop is a Group of Monkeys. My name came up and I ended up writing the song and narrating the app! Totally fun. Building that working relationship with Stacey at Little Bahalia gave me the confidence to revive my Trucks app proposal using Julie's template. I submitted it and had a contract in two weeks.

Dashka: Talk to me a bit about how personal relationships helped you along the way. You and I met at a conference for the first time and you've clearly met lots of other, more helpful, people too. Do you think writers need to get out more?
Tim: Oh yeah. Every bit of momentum I've gained since starting out four and a half years ago can be directly attributed to the people I've met by attending SCBWI events and participating in online writing challenges. My number one bit of advice to anyone--especially newcomers to the industry--wanting to make kidlit friends and expand their network is to volunteer at their local SCBWI chapter.

Dashka: Another thing that strikes me about you is that you bring some extra talents to the table. How has being a songwriter helped you as a writer? And now it seems you can add voice actor to your resume.
Tim: Oddly enough, it took me a long time to figure out how to integrate my music and performance backgrounds into children's book publishing. I've recently done some book trailers, and I write goofy little jingles for my kidlit video series. And yes, I've gotten to narrate a handful of story apps, too. All these things I've done in my little home studio with a laptop, a keyboard and a microphone. When I decided to take Trucks in the app direction, I set my stanzas to a tune and added a catchy chorus. And considering the subject matter, I took another cue from my childhood and gave it a 1970's trucker song kind of vibe (i.e. Willy Nelson's "On the Road Again"). I included an mp3 of the Teeny Tiny Trucks song along with my app proposal and I'm told it pushed my submission over the top.

TTT Spread Weight

Dashka: TTT was originally going to be an app only, but now it's been released as a book too. How did that come about?
Tim: I'm so excited about that. The original plan was: app first, then maybe a book. I'm not a publisher, and I don't know all the numbers, but I think between having such a great looking product thanks to Keith Frawley's illustrations, plus the timing of publishing before the holidays, it just kinda made sense for Little Bahalia, our publisher. And we're making history in the process! A title releasing simultaneously in print and interactive app form. Gives consumers some fun choices.

Dashka: Did you ever think your first book would come via an app?
Tim: Nope. Never. I just followed the opportunities and my instincts. In my case, I wrote the story first, not even thinking of it as an app. I would recommend that process! Teeny Tiny Trucks was just one of many manuscripts in my portfolio, but due to its style and subject, it naturally lent itself to an interactive format.

Dashka: What are the advantages of entering the publishing world via an app?
Tim: Traditional publishing can be a notoriously slow process. My app, on the other hand is coming out roughly eight months after I sold the manuscript. And, in theory, an app will never go out of print! Plus, the interactive elements, when done well, can be amazing. The sky's the limit, really. An app format offers all kinds of special features like puzzles, music, and animation.

Dashka: Are there disadvantages?
Tim: Well, if someone doesn't have access to an iPad or an iPhone, then they ain't gettin' the app. That's a bummer. New apps are also at the mercy of "discoverability." Meaning, unless you're Angry Birds, you have to claw your way through the glut of apps flooding the market to reach the top charts. We're all competing against very sophisticated video game apps, many of which are free.

Dashka: What have you learned along the way that you wish you knew at the beginning?
Tim: There is no single path to publication, you have to be the driving force behind your success, and it will all play out quite differently than how you imagined.

Dashka: Yes! That's exactly what I've hoped to communicate with this series of blog posts. Do you have words of advice for somebody interested in following a similar path?
Tim: Anyone who is writing for children strives for strong characters, unique voice, interesting conflicts, and readability. Whether aiming for story apps or printed books, put your writing craft first. Have a great story be the foundation for whatever medium you want to work in. Bells and buttons come later.

Dashka: Last month I did some critique group matchmaking on my blog. Do you think it's important for writers to have critique partners?
Tim: Oh gosh, don't get me started on critique groups. To me, they are as essential as pen and paper. Seriously. I've had two groups and found both by meeting people at regional SCBWI conferences. My current group meets once a month. Writing is such a solitary art. Being in a critique group gives you a community to check in with, get support, and test material. If you can find folks that give quality feedback and not just "This is cute!" or "This isn't working for me." grab on to them and never let go. Being in a crit group can keep you motivated, but it also means you're ready and willing to hear the hard truth about your work and be open to cutting material and rewriting.

Dashka: What else do you have in the works? More apps? More books? More songs?
Tim: Yes, yes, and yes. I'd love an excuse to follow up Teeny Tiny Trucks with some other teeny tiny modes of transportation! We'll see... I switched gears this summer and started writing my first middle grade novel, which has been a fun new challenge.

Dashka: Thanks for coming by the blog, Tim! I hope you'll come back to tell us about it when it's done! In the meantime, Tim has graciously offered to send a signed copy of Teeny Tiny Trucks to one lucky commenter. He'll do the signing. I'll be responsible for picking a lucky winner. To enter the contest, make sure to leave a comment telling us why you need your own teeny tiny truck. I'll pick a winner on November 7. And for all you tiny truck fans, the book is available through Amazon or can be ordered through your local bookstore. The app will be out soon as well. 

The Many Paths to Publication Part 5: An Interview with Tim Myers

Tim Myers is a terrific writer, teacher and storyteller. I was a huge fan of his best-selling book Basho and the Fox for many years before I met him in person. When I did, I discovered we had much in common, including the fact that we both write in multiple genres, and I became as much a fan of the person as I am of the writer (when you read this interview, you'll understand why). In addition to being an award-winning short story writer, songwriter and poet, Tim is the author of eleven picture books, including If You Give a T-Rex a Bone, Looking for Luna, Basho and the River Stones, The Out-Foxed Fox, and Dark-Sparkle Tea, and he has another four picture books in the works. He has recently published a new book of poetry, a new picture book, and a non-fiction e-book, Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood, which won the inaugural Ben Franklin Digital Award from the Independent Book Publishers Association. He graciously agreed to visit the blog this month to talk about his many paths to publication.

 

Dashka: Tell me a little about your latest picture book.

Tim With River Stones new version

Tim: My latest children's book is Down at the Dino Wash Deluxe, from Sterling. My children and I played endlessly with dinosaur figures. But my sons also especially loved vehicles--I sometimes wonder if the young mind makes any meaningful distinction between dinosaurs and large trucks or construction equipment. So I wanted to combine the two, and got the rather shrewd idea of a giant car wash that caters to city dinosaurs. (If dinos still existed, I might be a billionaire).
And how awesome is this? I just found a "Three Boys and a Dog" blog post where the wonderful mom-blogger not only read the book to her kids but baked chocolaty dirt onto their dino-figures so they could play Dino Wash Deluxe in the yard!

Dino Wash cover

Dashka: I love how creative mom-bloggers are. And now you've entered the parenting blog world yourself, while also publishing a book of poetry.


Tim: I recently published Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood which made #5 on Amazon's "Hot New Releases in Fatherhood" list, was featured on the Parents Magazine site, quoted on Disney's BabyZone site, won the Ben Franklin Digital Award, and has gotten excellent reviews. One of the chapters is appearing in "Motherlode," The New York Times parenting blog. I also recently published Dear Beast Loveliness: Poems of the Body which got a great review from the nationally-known poet Grace Cavalieri.

 

Dashka: You made different publication choices with each book – Glad to Be Dad is an e-book, Down at the Dino Wash Deluxe came from Sterling Children's, which is a subsidiary of Barnes and Noble, and Dear Beast Loveliness comes from BlazeVOX which calls itself "an independent publisher of weird little books." Why did you go the route you went for each?


Tim: I wish I was in the position to pick and choose which publishers I work with. I don't mean that I ignore such choices, but I've found that my work is too varied to be submitted to only certain publishers. So I do a good amount of research and submit work to all kinds of different houses. (And get rejected all the time). My primary goal is to make good books and connect with readers. And a writer really can't predict whether a book will be a commercial success or not, or whether a particular publisher can make that happen. Again, I'm not crazy--I'm delighted if a big, high-status publisher will take on a book of mine! But my heart pretty much burns 24 hours a day for art, so I follow any route that will ease that wonderful, joyous burning.

Glad Dad cover image high res

Dashka: And you haven't been afraid to plunge into the digital deep end. Has publishing changed a lot in the course of your career?

 

Tim: Anyone can see what an absolute tsunami the digital revolution has been for human culture. And of course huge particular changes have come to the book industry too. Years ago, before I'd even published anything, I'd get long, thoughtful letters back from publishers at major houses about the manuscript they were passing on. That doesn't happen now (though my experience with editors at major houses has made me tremendously impressed with them). And the push to self-promote has also changed the landscape almost beyond recognition. People say it all the time: new opportunities, new challenges. Part of my response to that has been--I'll put this in Wall Street terms, so it'll sound intelligent instead of desperate--to diversify.


Dashka: It's great to diversify -- and you're a pretty diversely-talented guy anyway. Even so, it can be hard to keep all the balls in the air. Do you find it challenging to write and publish in multiple genres?


Tim: I find it beyond exhilarating to write in different genres, and since I'm also a storyteller and a song-writer, this kind of variety is mother's milk to me. In fact, I know I could never specialize; I'm a generalist in a specialist's world. And there are real disadvantages, career disadvantages, to being a generalist. But as I always say--What's life for? To satisfy my soul with art--that's what I'm after. Holy cats--if I wanted money and fame, there are a lot smarter ways to go about it!


Dashka: I sometimes hear people say that writing in multiple genres dilutes your "brand" as an author – an accusation I'm sensitive to, since I also write fiction, non-fiction, poetry and children's books. What do you think about the idea that we need to brand ourselves as writers?


Tim: I understand the point about branding, but I think the idea is often over-applied, and if not fully understood it can actually be dangerous if you're committed to art. I have a piece coming out in the SCBWI Bulletin that goes into detail on my thoughts about branding.


Dashka: Oh, I'm looking forward to reading that! Hopefully you'll reassure me. Now tell me what it's been like to publish and promote a digital book? What did you know or think you knew about digital publishing beforehand? Did the experience change your feelings about e-books?


Tim: I really didn't know much at all, though of course I kept my head up and paid attention. But I got very lucky when Christopher Robbins, the publisher at a new and digitally-savvy niche publisher called Familius, took my Glad to Be Dad. Christopher is a veteran, and he taught me so much, and encouraged me as I learned on my own. I'm very grateful to him. I'd known for a long time that I had to get more involved in marketing and promotion, and he gave me the opportunity to do that in a big way. It was a watershed moment for me. Of course this also has its costs; time spent on promo is time not spent writing. But my hope is that some careful, constantly-tweaked combination of the two can help writers both write their best and connect with others as much as possible.


Dashka: Many people say that it's a great time to be a writer, because there are so many publishing options. But it can be overwhelming, too. Any advice for writers who are trying to figure out how best to publish their books? Anything you wish someone had told you along the way?


Tim: Overwhelming--yes! It's like when you go to the store to buy mustard, look at the 900 varieties on the shelves, and realize you'll need a graduate seminar in order to make a choice. The thing is, though--well, I find a couple of principles very helpful here. First--it looks worse than it is. I don't mean to minimize it; the world of creative production is in something like an uproar right now--look at the music industry. I find myself thinking a lot these days about the Oklahoma Land Rush. My point, though, is that it looks more intimidating from a distance. Have faith in your ability to learn and adjust, then get in there and do it. And besides--some of the fundamental realities will never change; the basic relationships between writers, gate-keepers, editors, and readers tend to stay the same. To make my point even more specific: Don't freak out. Don't get me wrong; I've done my share of worrying about all the change. But that anxiety was mostly just wasted energy.


Second--and this is closely related--it's like when you're playing basketball. Say you steal a pass and break for the basket, and you've got a couple of people to go around before you can lay it in. The thing is, you've got to give it all you've got--but you've also got to stay relaxed. This is a paradox, but a true one. Staying relaxed means you can keep your head and react as conditions change. And that's really important in the shifting world we find ourselves in today. But the main thing is--it's ALWAYS a great time to be a writer, whatever's going on in the world! It gets harder, it gets easier, you get a door slammed here, you get a break there. But you get to write!


Dashka: Thanks for that reminder. Sometimes we all get so caught up in the push to publish and promote that we forget why it is we do what we do in the first place! And thanks for stopping by Start at the Beginning!

Need a Picture Book Critique Group? September is Matchmaking Month!

Periodically I hear from former students who are wondering how to find critique partners. Often, they've tried SCBWI but found there's a long waiting list. Or they were in a critique group that formed out of one of my classes but it faded over time or never got off the ground. And so they're all alone.

"I remember you well talking about the need as a writer for connection with other writers," a former student wrote me recently. "I just don't have it, and have been discouraged enough to consider giving up altogether."

If you've taken one of my classes, you've heard me say it: a critique group is the single most important thing you can do for your career as a writer. In addition to the feedback you'll get on your work, a critique group gives you a community, helps you stay motivated, and provides you with deadlines and expectations.I myself am in three different critique groups, each of which is focused on a different genre. These groups both kick my butt and soothe my soul and I would be a much poorer -- not to mention lonelier -- writer without them. Critique groups don't need to be big -- even a single critique partner can do the trick. 

But how do you find them?

I've pondered the way to match people up for some time and in the end decided to borrow an idea from Maggie Stiefvater, who matchmakes critique groups for YA writers once a year. The method is simple. If you are interested in forming a critique partnership, post your Want Ad in the comment section below. Here's the information you should include:

  • A one sentence description of who you are and what you're working on.
  • A geographic location (because your online critique group could be an in-person critique group).
  • Three picture books that you love or that have influenced you as a writer.
  • A way for an interested critique partner to get in touch with you.

If you see someone who seems like a good match, contact them. If the interest is mutual, then you should each send the other a picture book manuscript to be critiqued. That is your trial run. If you're happy with how it went, you've got a partner. If anything about the exchange didn't work for you, then the trial period is over and you can simply thank your partner and walk away.

Oh, and make sure to check out my information about How To Form An Online Critique Group.

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog
How To Form An Online Critique Group

I believe that a great critique group is the sum of all its parts. It’s the level of dedication that’s given to the group, by the group as a whole. I don’t mean that each person in the group must constantly be posting new manuscripts and critiques (although that would be nice). Dedication means that each member supports the others in every way possible, like providing the group with important information, passing along helpful URL addresses, or alerting the group to a publisher submission deadline, etc. It means understanding when a group member needs time off for personal or business reasons. It means celebrating together when one member achieves the success that we are all seeking.

                      nLISA J. MICHAELS, writing in the SCBWI Bulletin, March/April 2011
In the next few days, I'll be launching my September Picture Book Critique Group Matchmaking Extravaganza. In preparation, I thought I'd post a few words of wisdom about how to form an onine critique group. Originally written for my picture book writing students, these are a few simple guidelines to get you started. if you have other suggestions, please post them in the comments section.
1. Get everyone’s email addresses and form an email list. If you have more than four or five people, I recommend using Google groups, which also allows you to set up a web page and a calendar. You can also use Yahoo groups. Or create a circle through Google+, which allows you to schedule video meetings through Google Hangouts.

2. Decide what the ground rules are. How many manuscripts or drafts of a manuscript can one person submit per month? How many must they submit? Will you have a schedule for submitting, or just allow people to circulate manuscripts as they finish them?

Rachel Rodriguez, author of two wonderful picture book biographies, says that when she was in an online critique group it was structured like this: “Anyone could send a picture book manuscript or perhaps a chapter from a longer work around the start of the month. Then people had the month to respond. If someone had an additional piece they wanted seen, they could send it out with the caveat that others might not have time to respond.”

Whatever method you choose, I suggest setting up some kind of schedule or routine rather than having people just circulate manuscripts “as needed.” Too many submissions can be overwhelming, but too few often means that the group fades away. Also, deadlines help – if you know it’s your turn to give the group something to read and critique on May 1, you might actually finish that draft! You can use the Google Calendar function to set up regular deadlines with email reminders.

3. Decide how long people have to respond to new manuscripts and what the format will be for discussion. It’s nice to see what other people are saying so you can chime in – agree, disagree, take the thought a step further. If you want that to happen, you need to make sure people reply to the whole list, rather than just to the individual.

One writer, Beth Hull, told me her online critique group had its members upload their submissions to Google Drive, so that members could type notes directly on the manuscript and respond to other peoples' comments all on one document. “When we wrote on the google docs, we each adopted a specific color,” she explained. “I was blue, someone else used purple text, green, etc. That way you don't have to sign every comment you make, and it's easier for people to scroll through and find comments.”

4. Get in the habit of sending out news, thoughts, queries, and other chatter in addition to manuscripts. It’s fun to stay in touch and it keeps the online community alive. A critique group needs nurturing, but if you nurture it, it will most certainly nurture you.

The Many Paths to Publication Part 4: An Interview with Marsha Diane Arnold

Like many in the picture book world, I’ve been watching the children’s book app market with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. I’m a book person at heart – I love the smell and feel of paper and the sensation of curling up with a book in my hands and a kid on my lap. When people talk about apps supplanting traditional books, I can feel my Luddite dander rising. Yet I can also see the creative possibilities embodied in this interactive medium. I’m thus delighted to have had a chance to discuss app publishing with my friend and critique partner Marsha Diane Arnold, who has just published her first one, Prancing Dancing Lily with a publisher called FatRedCouch.

Marsha published her first picture book, Heart of a Tiger, in 1995; it was a Junior Library Guild Selection and an IRA Distinguished Book. Her books have been racking up awards ever since, including a Smithsonian Notable Book for The Pumpkin Runner and a Family Choice Award for Hugs on the Wind. Her picture book Roar of a Snore has been selected for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library three times and her early reader Quick, Quack, Quick has sold over half a million copies. 

 small marsha

Dashka: Lots of children's book writers have expressed interest in doing apps, but you're one of the first I know who has actually done it. Tell me about how that came about.

Marsha: I was lucky. Nicole Lundeen, the CEO of FatRedCouch lives in the neighboring county. She happens to get all car-related issues handled at my husband’s Firestone store; my husband often displays my books there. Nicole saw them, read them, and fell in love with them. When Prancing Dancing Lily went out-of-print, the time was right to let Lily dance into the digital world.

Dashka: Tell me about Prancing Dancing Lily the book and Prancing Dancing Lily the App.

MarshaPrancing Dancing Lily was originally published as a picture book by Dial Books for Young Readers and illustrated by the brilliant John Manders. The text and illustrations are the same for picture book and storybook app, but the interactivity, voices, and sounds make digital Lily “ a whole new story.”

Prancing Dancing Lily tells the tale of a cow who doesn’t fit in with the herd. Lily would rather kick up her heels than walk sedately from pasture to barn.  So she travels the world in search of her perfect dance.  It’s a dancing adventure where readers can learn some geography, make new friends, and do the conga at the end. 

What made the picture book perfect for a digital app were all the possibilities for movement, dancing, and music. What’s different in the app are fun sound and movement surprises, the read to me option, four puzzles, and lots more. When readers touch the screen, they watch Lily twirl, whirl, slurp her drink, and beat the conga drum. They hear her moo and tap her hooves. It’s been fun to see Lily come to life this way. You can get a preview here.

Screen shot 2013-01-28 at 1.36.23 PM

 

Dashka: How did you learn about the app world? I know you're as much an old-school book person as I am -- was it a steep learning curve? Did you have to play with a lot of children's book apps to get the feel of it?

Marsha: I try to keep up with changes in the publishing world, so even though I didn’t know a lot about apps or how to make one, I was aware of them and I felt they were becoming an important element in publishing. Many people are exploring apps as a different art form and discovering the different ways to use them to tell stories and allow children to interact more with story characters. I wanted to be part of that exploration.

It’s not a steep learning curve to understand a kids’ app. I downloaded some and watched and played. 

Dashka: What did you discover about the differences between a book and an app?

Marsha: A picture book can take 2 to 3 years or more from manuscript purchase to book publication. A digital app takes much less time, but it still took longer than I thought it would.

FatRedCouch is the expert when it comes to knowing how to make a book or app interactive. I am not a tech wizard. I did enjoy going into the FatRedCouch offices and working with the team, giving input as to what I’d like to see as an interaction. There’s so much you can do with touch screens. Discovering all the surprises that a touch of the finger can bring is not only fun, it helps children learn and to look for the details.

Dashka: How do you feel about apps now that you've made one? Do you want to do another?

Marsha: I absolutely want to create another digital app. I have a number of manuscripts that haven’t been picked up by a traditional publisher, but I can see they would work very well as a digital app. And yes, also, to writing new material for an app. There are a few ideas swirling in my head right now.

Dashka: Once your app is out on the market, how do you get it noticed among all the apps that are out there for children?

Marsha: That's the question to beat all questions, Dashka. Everyone in the app business, the publishing business and really, any business, is struggling with discoverability. How do we get readers’ attention when there are thousands of apps to choose from?

First, I think it’s good to have a team.  FatRedCouch is doing a lot of promoting. Frank Colin does the marketing and so much more. He has “held my hand” as I learned Mailchimp to send out my first newsletter, taped interviews for me, and introduced me to dairy farmers across the nation. He’s helped Lily get wonderful reviews from diverse groups: dairy farmers, moms who love apps, educators. Right now we’re celebrating that Prancing Dancing Lily was named CoronaLabs March app of the month.

Personally, I’ve blogged about Lily, tweeted about her, shared about her on Facebook, posted pictures related to her on Pinterest, and told all my friends and family. It’s easy to do because when you meet Lily, you can’t help but fall in love with her. Some of the best help spreading the word has come from educators. Tina Riley at Walton Elementary/Middle School arranged for the viewing of Lily’s app with fourth graders, then guided small groups to present their ideas. They wrote a short review, a long review, and learned a lot along the way. They gave Lily five stars, of course.

RCS-Elem-School-March-2013-Newsletter-2

Dashka: What was the process of getting the rights to be able to do this?

Marsha: I always ask for rights to be reverted when one of my books goes out of print.

Dashka: Is this the future of children's publishing? Do we all need to learn how to write apps?

Marsha: Storybook apps and games are a big part of the future of children’s publishing. Apps allow kids to interact directly with the characters in a story and can engage the imagination, in a slightly different way than a traditional book does.

Some have suggested that it’s helpful for anyone in business to have an app. I think that’s true because it shows you’re open to new ideas and new technologies.  However, there are far too few kids’ apps that are well-crafted and have an engaging story and wonderful artwork. So if you want to write an app, make it a good one, and find a publisher like FatRedCouch to bring your characters to “life.”

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Dashka: What words of advice would you give somebody interested in following a similar path?

Marsha: As with all creative endeavors you must do your homework and work at your craft and art. But there’s lots of help out there for you. Last October FatRedCouch hosted a workshop in San Francisco, “How to Create and Market a Children’s Book App,” presented by Karen Robertson. Watch for opportunities like this in your area. Karen has several eBooks on writing apps and finding the right developer on her site.

Remember to check out some apps as you think about this path. There are lots of sites with suggestions. Two to try are here and here. Prancing Dancing Lily is a great app to start with. All links to download Lily are here.

And if you’re writing a story, know that kids’ favorites are character-driven. Prancing Dancing Lily definitely fits in this category. If you’re interested in learning more, please check out my e-course, Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books, which works for digital apps as well as picture books.

Don’t be afraid to dance into the digital realm, right alongside Lily. Have fun!

Dashka: Great advice, and I know your e-course has lots more wisdom to offer. Thanks so much for stopping by!

 

The Many Paths to Publication Part 1: An Interview With Writer Nicole Lataif

I’ve been teaching an online Children’s Picture Book Writing class through media bistro for six years years and recently launched an advanced class for graduates of the introductory class (I call the two classes PB1 and PB2). In the course of teaching these classes I’ve had a chance to work with hundreds of aspiring picture book writers and help their first books transform from a vague idea to a fully-realized manuscript. 

Late last year, when I began developing my advanced picture book class, it occurred to me that my students might want to know more about the many paths to publication that beginning writers have taken. All my students start in the same place – with the desire to write for children but not much of a road map. But after their six weeks with me, they have gone in many different directions. Some have found agents. Some have submitted to editors directly. Some have worked with large mainstream publishers. Some have worked with smaller or niche houses. Some have self-published.

Curious to know what paths people have taken, I've begun tracking down former students to hear their stories. Below is the first in what I hope will be a regular series of interviews with writers who have found different ways to get their work into the world in this very competitive publishing sector. I chose Nicole Lataif as my first interview because she took a path I knew almost nothing about. Her first book, Forever You, was published through a Catholic publishing house called Pauline. I think her story will be instructive not only for people writing for any kind of religious readership, but for anyone who is writing for a particular niche or a specialized audience.

 

Dashka: Thanks for stopping in at Start At The Beginning. Tell us about Forever You.

Nicole: At the most basic level, this resource for Christian faith formation introduces children ages 4-8 to what being human is all about. Whether you are a parent, grandparent, or catechist, you will find this resource to be helpful in explaining the concept of a "soul" to your children.

Forever You

Dashka: Who is publishing it?

Nicole: Pauline Books and Media a Christian, traditional publishing house of the Daughters of Saint Paul, an international congregation of women religious dedicated to serving the Church through the media of social communication. They have 13 stores around the US and in English speaking Canada. 

Dashka: Why did you decide to go this route? Did you consider a mainstream publisher?

Nicole: My route to publication was unique. I was given an opportunity to have lunch with my [now] editor, after an introduction from a friend brought us together. At that luncheon, I explicitly asked what she was looking to publish. It just so happened that I had extensive experience in the subject matter for which she needed a writer. I had also wanted to write about this topic for a while. So, it was a perfect match. I encourage anyone who is able to meet with an editor to be sure to have questions ready and know what you can and cannot do. Originally, I submitted a proposal for 3 books (A PB, a novel and a chapter book!). That was crazy on my part. I retracted the novel and chapter book ideas and worked exclusively on the PB, which is what eventually got published. Thank God for my editor was patient! In sum, ask direct questions and don’t bite off more than you can chew!  

Dashka:What are the advantages of publishing with a Christian or any kind of niche press?

Nicole: The advantages of publishing with a Christian house are (1) to work with a niche market and (2) identify with my audience to create a more effective product. Firstly, by choosing a niche market, I am able to stay focused on what one group of people wants/needs, instead of trying to be everything to everyone. I am able to become an “expert” on one group of buyers. Secondly, I am living the lifestyle of my audience. I AM my market. The people who buy my book are just like me in their interests and passions. The topics I cover in my book are messages that I know are needed from experience. Write what you know.

Dashka: Are there disadvantages?

Nicole: The disadvantage is that I do not have a large marketing budget from my publisher. I do have a wonderful publicist provided by Pauline Books and Media, but her time is limited. Should you sign with a smaller house, and now sometimes even if you sign with a larger house, be prepared to market your book heavily.

Dashka: In my experience, that's true even when you do work with large mainstream publishers! Writers have to learn how to promote, whether they want to or not. So how are you marketing and promoting your book?

Nicole: My marketing plan is extensive! I have a few years of professional experience in marketing, which helps a lot, so I developed a 3-year plan. I also hired a book-marketing professional for a few hours to fill me in on what I didn’t already know. In the first month, I sold 46% of what the publisher hoped I’d sell in the first year. To reach this, I did heavy social media promotion, blog interviews, cross-promotion with other websites, and asked my friends and family to help spread the word. Those numbers don’t mean much--the true test will be: where am I in a year?! Two years? Etc? My publisher does help me in many ways, especially with brainstorming, making contacts and advising me when I have questions. However, they have limited resources.

Dashka: What have you learned about the publishing process that you wish you knew at the beginning?

Nicole: I knew this at the beginning, but I think it is important to mention: no matter what your marketing background, no matter how much support you have at home, no matter what, what, what—you probably won’t make enough money to survive exclusively as a writer. You need to be fully prepared for that reality. I also wish I knew how much marketing would be involved in the process. People think getting published is “making it,” but it’s just the beginning. Set aside time each week to promote your book. Lastly, come up with a website to build a relationship with your customers. It could be a blog, an interactive site, anything, but you need something. I did this here: www.kidsfaithgarden.com.

Dashka: Your website offers tons of resources to keep readers coming back to your site -- it's a great model for writers of all kinds! Do you think you'll use the same publishing path for your next book?

Nicole: It all depends. If this year renders positive results, I will absolutely consider it! As a support system, my publisher goes above and beyond to support me. If we work together again, I would be so pleased.

Dashka: Tell me about the process of finding an illustrator. Did Pauline involve you at all in the process?

Nicole: I have never met or spoken to my illustrator. I submitted my manuscript and saw the final product a year later. The publishing house had complete control over the illustrations and the illustrator is totally uninvolved in the marketing of the book. 

Dashka: Do you have any final words of advice for people interested in following a similar path to publication?

Nicole: Check your motives. If you are writing to be famous, you won’t be. If you are writing to be rich, you won’t be. If you are writing to get out a message that you feel is important, go for it! Also, plan for the process to take years (and I’m talking double-digits). Writing is arduous and long, so be sure to enjoy the journey! Write to simply enjoy the process, not to reach some kind of destination of publication (because, most people don’t get published).

Dashka: Excellent advice, Nicole. Creating good work has to be its own reward, because the monetary rewards can be elusive. Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed for the blog!

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog

I'm developing a variety of crafts related to Dangerously Ever After. Some are just for fun and some are ones I'm doing at book store events and other appearances. I'm still trying to figure out which one to do at the East Bay Mini Maker Faire on October 14 -- I'll be posting some different options and if you have an opinion, please weigh in.

If you're not nervous about a big vat of hot wax, these Amanita muscaria are easy to make, with just white crepe paper twisted into the mushroom shape and then dipped in wax. Afterwards I painted them with alcohol based ink. They have a nice botanical look to them and they reminded me of this poem by Emily Dickinson:

The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants —

At Evening, it is not —
At Morning, in a Truffled Hut
It stop upon a Spot

As if it tarried always
And yet its whole Career
Is shorter than a Snake’s Delay
And fleeter than a Tare —

‘Tis Vegetation’s Juggler —
The Germ of Alibi —
Doth like a Bubble antedate
And like a Bubble, hie —

I feel as if the Grass was pleased
To have it intermit —
This surreptitious scion
Of Summer’s circumspect.

Had Nature any supple Face
Or could she one contemn —
Had Nature an Apostate —
That Mushroom — it is Him!

 

 

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog

I was looking forward to the Independent’s round-up of bloodiest children’s bedtime stories but it turned out to be a disappointment. Nine of the ten are fairytales, but really, the observation that fairytales are bloody is hardly newsworthy. Kind of like noticing that football players get injured a lot.

The article made me thirst for something more startling -- a list of beloved children’s books that turn out to be downright creepy when you read them as an adult. (While I didn’t find one, I did find this wonderful list of odd contemporary picture books.) I’m not talking about books like The Hunger Games, which is in many ways less creepy than one might expect, but the old chestnuts you settle down to read with your small ones and then discover, with increasing discomfort, are unexpectedly sadistic or disturbing or just plain weird. Here are four that come to mind.

1. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein 

Sometimes called “the co-dependent’s handbook,” this is a story about a loving, mother-like tree who gets hacked to pieces by the boy she loves. In the end, the boy – now an old man – rests on her lifeless stump. Kind of like Boxing Helena for preschoolers.

2. Thomas the Tank Engine by the Reverend W. Awdry

Maybe you’ve read the modern version, which had some of its more disturbing parts removed by marketing genius Britt Allcroft. But if you read the original you’ll discover that the Island of Sodor, where Thomas and the other train engines live, is a brutal and hierarchical place reminiscent of a turn-of-the-century English boarding school. The engines taunt and play tricks on one another and suck up to the Fat Controller (called Sir Topham Hatt in later versions) by roughing up the lowest members of the pecking order, the ill-natured freight cars. In a typical story, Henry, Gordon and James, the three top-tier engines, refuse to fetch their coaches which they say is “beneath them.” The Fat Controller responds by locking them in the engine shed, where they remain for the duration of the story.

"Henry, Gordon and James stayed shut in the Shed, and were cold, lonely and miserable," the story concludes. "They wished now they hadn't been so silly."

Goodnight children, pleasant dreams! 

3. Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban

I love the Frances books with their wonderful Lillian Hoban illustrations and their homey, childlike mood, but this is one of those books that feels pretty weird to a modern reader. Frances keeps getting out of bed because she’s creeped out by nighttime noises like the wind blowing the curtains. Finally, her irritated father tells her to stick a sock in it or she’ll get a spanking.

Father said, “I have not finished. If the wind does not blow the curtains, he will be out of a job. If I do not go to the office, I will be out of a job. And if you do not go to sleep now, do you know what will happen to you?” 

“I will be out of a job?” said Frances. 

“No,” said Father. 

“I will get a spanking?” said Frances. 

“Right!” said Father.

Once Father’s gone back to bed, Frances hears a moth knocking against the window.

 

His wings smacked the glass.

Whack and smack!

Whack and smack made Frances think of a spanking.

And all of a sudden she was tired.

Nothing like fear of a beating to put your worries about moths in perspective, I guess. 

4. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig

Here’s the plot. Sylvester finds a magic rock that grants wishes. One day he gets menaced by a lion and wishes he was a rock. Poof, he’s a rock, and the magic pebble is now on the ground beside him. He can’t reach it because he’s a rock. He can’t call for help, because he’s a rock. His parents conclude he’s dead. "They were miserable. Life had no meaning for them any more.” 
Years go by. Eventually Sylvester’s mother and father picnic right by the rock that was Sylvester and talk about how much they miss him. 

How he wanted to shout, ‘Mother! Father! It’s me, Sylvester, I’m right here!’ But he couldn’t talk. He had no voice.

The fact that all ends happily does little to blunt the extreme creepiness of this scenario, which is the stuff childhood nightmares are made of. 

What are your nominations for surprisingly creepy kids books?

Ever since I wrote about the Rainforest Action Network report linking children's books with rainforest destruction, I've been having interesting conversations with children's book writers and children's booksellers about what to make of it. The collective feeling has simply been, "Oh no." 

Children's Book Author and Editor Amy Novesky commented on my Facebook page:

"Oh, this makes me sad, but not surprised. one of the questions I often ask writers of their stories/future books is: Is it worth cutting down trees? Everyone thinks *their* book is worth it of course. But is it ever? Only, perhaps, if printed in a truly sustainable way, which, it sounds like, is far from the norm.

In my environmental blog, I spent some time trying to figure out if e-readers, particularly the I-Pad, might be a more sustainable option. The answer isn't clear, but I was beginning to feel that I should at least allow for the possibility that electronic readers may eventually be a better choice, despite my own preference for the printed page.

Then, today, I read an astonishing article from Bloomberg News about a wave of suicides at a Chinese factory that makes I-Pads. Apparently, there have been sixteen suicide attempts this year at the factory in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, twelve of them successful. Suicide among the factory's 300,000 workers is so rampant that the parent company, Foxconn Technology Group, has begun covering the outside stairwells with nets to keep people from jumping off. So why is this happening? Because life on the electronics production line is, in the words of one worker, "meaningless."

“Life is meaningless,” said Ah Wei, his fingernails stained black with the dust from the hundreds of mobile phones he has burnished over the course of a 12-hour overnight shift. “Everyday, I repeat the same thing I did yesterday. We get yelled at all the time. It’s very tough around here.”

Conversation on the production line is forbidden, bathroom breaks are kept to 10 minutes every two hours and constant noise from the factory washes past his ear plugs, damaging his hearing, Ah Wei said. The company has rejected three requests for a transfer and his monthly salary of 900 yuan ($132) is too meager to send money home to his family, said the 21-year-old, who asked that his real name not be used because he is afraid of his managers.

The factory complex is apparently tree-lined and boasts a swimming pool and a hospital. But, to everyone's astonishment, that's not enough to compensate for having been reduced to a cog in the vast machine that feeds the global appetite for electronic toys.

The workers, 86 percent of whom are under 25 years old, live in white dormitories with eight to ten people sleeping in a room. . . Inside the compound, at a factory devoted to computer motherboards, rows of young men and women stand at assembly lines, their feet shod in blue slippers and white caps on their heads. The smell of solvent hangs in the air. About 80 percent of the front-line production employees work standing up, some for 12 hours a day for six days a week, according to Liu Bin, a 24-year-old employee.

What's particularly creepy about the entire creepy story, is the confusion Foxconn Technology Group chairman Terry Gou claims to feel about why his workers are offing themselves.

“From a logical, scientific standpoint, I don’t have a grasp on that. No matter how you force me, I don’t know.”

So are I-Pads and e-readers a more sustainable alternative to books? Not if their production requires people to say, as one worker does, "I've become a machine."

 

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I write for a living. I write about the environment and I write books for children, and I’ve always figured I worked in a pretty green industry. I don’t drill for oil or mine for coal, and since I work at home I barely even drive a car.

But yesterday I got a copy of a new report by the Rainforest Action Network called Turning the Page on Rainforest Destruction: Children’s books and the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests. Turns out, my industry isn’t as green as I thought.

RAN chose three children’s books that were printed in China from each of the top ten children’s book publishers and had their pages tested by an independent laboratory for fiber associated with deforestation in Indonesia. The result: sixty percent of the books (18 out of 30) contained fiber linked to Indonesian rainforest destruction. Books with rainforest paper came from nine of the ten publishers -- despite the fact that half of those publishers have policies committing them to the use of sustainable paper sources.

AS RAN explains:

Unchecked by government or industry, pulp and paper companies are razing natural rainforests on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra and replacing them with acacia pulp wood plantations. This expansion of the pulp sector directly threatens endangered species like tigers, elephants and orangutans with extinction in Sumatra. It is causing ongoing conflicts with local communities whose lands, livelihoods and rights are being usurped, and it is causing massive greenhouse gas emissions from rainforest loss and drainage of carbon-rich peatlands. Driven by global demand for pulp and paper that favors “low-cost” producers, the enormous emissions from the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests and peatlands have vaulted the country into the rank of the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the U.S. Moreover, at least half of the logging in Indonesia takes place illegally.

It turns out that half of the American children’s picture books printed on coated paper are printed to China and China is the top importer of Indonesian pulp and paper.

With the rapid growth of book printing and manufacturing being outsourced to China, the U.S. book industry has become increasingly vulnerable to controversial paper sources entering its supply chain. . . . .From 2000-2008, Chinese sales of children’s picture books to the U.S. ballooned by more than 290 percent, averaging an increase of more than 35 percent per year.

Uh-oh.

At this point in my reading of the report, I nervously walked over to the shelf where I keep copies of my own books. Firefighters in the Dark? Printed in China. Baby Shoes? Printed in China. The Sea Serpent and Me? Printed in Singapore. Phew. Or at least I hope so. The truth is, I really don’t know whether Singapore is any better, although I just called RAN to ask.

So what am I to make of all this? The first thing that struck me was how little most of us know about where the objects in our lives come from. I doubt any children’s book writer would be happy to learn that her books were contributing to the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforest, but how many of us would have thought to ask?

And, now that I know, what’s the responsible thing to do with this knowledge? The first thing I did was to sign RAN’s “I Love Books and Rainforests” petition. But I also have new books coming out, and it will be up to me to raise these concerns with my publishers and see what they can tell me about paper sourcing. In fact, all of us who love children’s literature should be asking questions and demanding answers. Chinese printing is cheap, as is Indonesian paper, and the current crisis in publishing has meant that publishers are looking to save money anywhere they can. But while I am a staunch defender of the printed page, I still want that page to come from sustainable sources – even if that means my books cost a little more.

Which brings me to the final piece of this puzzle. When we as consumers demand that everything be cheap, we do so at a high price for artists, small business owners, and the environment Readers – that’s you and me -- must be willing to pay full price for books. Paying full price means buying them at independent bookstores, which – unlike Amazon and the chains -- don’t force publishers to sell books at unsustainable discounts. After all, publishers who outsource to China are responding to market forces. And market forces? That would be us.

 

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