Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Is Your Picture Book Exhibit-Worthy?

Those of us who create picture books are probably just as excited as the lucky kids who get to visit The Rabbit Hole, a new museum in North Kansas City, Missouri that “brings countless works of children’s literature to life.” —That's from their website, which goes on to explain:

Visitors become explorers in an immersive, multi-sensory, narrative landscape... you can catch a ride with Nana and CJ on the bus to the Last Stop on Market Street; whisper “Goodnight Moon” in the quiet dark of the great green room; outshine Mr. Sun with Sam and the Tigers; feed jum-jills to The Funny Thing, or find yourself scaling the cliffs of My Father’s Dragon.

My favorite of the museum profiles I've seen so far is this video tour by the amazing librarian, blogger, and children's book author herself, Betsy Bird (a.k.a. A Fuse #8 Production) which you can watch here on Betsy's Instagram.

France's house welcomes visitors to view the wonders inside...  Frances series written by Russell Hoban and illustrated by Lillian Hoban. Photo from this The Rabbit Hole Instagram post.

As someone who writes picture books myself, I found myself daydreaming... what would it be like to see one of the worlds of MY picture books brought to 3-dimensional, tactile life in this way? 

The 1990s Montana town celebrating both Christmas and Chanukah so shimmeringly created by Paul O. Zelinsky for Red and Green and Blue and White. Or the pre-unification China of 500 B.C.E. where Yuan, Duke Ling of Wei fell in love with Mi Zi Xia, so lovingly fashioned by Jieting Chen for Love of the Half-Eaten Peach.

And I thought about how that's a pretty great exercise for all of us. Is the idea we're working on worthy of our time? The page? Does it have enough whimsy, or gravitas, or special sauce to make it a world of characters readers love so much they'd want to walk around inside that world and explore?

Maybe it's a litmus test for our passion. 

Is your current work in progress something you'd want to see built into a museum exhibit?

Hopefully this is both motivating and inspiring. If nothing else, it's a beautiful daydream...

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,

Thursday, April 25, 2024

When You’re Thinking About Self or Hybrid Publishing

In my last post here on the SCBWI blog, I shared quotes from some incredible creators, including Author and Illustrator Todd Parr. He passed along some amazing advice and touched on self-publishing, noting that it wouldn’t be easy but “the option to really be creative has never been more within reach.” That statement sparks joy, doesn’t it?!

When researching publishing options, I found that there was much more information available on traditional publishing. So I decided to talk to some authors who have self-published or used a hybrid publisher to better understand their experiences and share them with you.

Author Christina Williamson has published five books with hybrid publishers. Her first book debuted in 2017 with a company she had full trust in. They were an imprint of Reader's Digest. However, because she was so disappointed with how her book turned out, she didn’t end up marketing or promoting it at all. 

“The quality of the end product was poor, and there was a typo even after editing,” she explained.

This would be a nightmare for any author, but she didn’t give up. She conducted more research when looking to publish her next book and worked through the Alliance of Independent Authors. 

“At the time, they had a catalog that ranked the various independent publishing houses. That is where I found Gatekeeper Press,” she said. “The alliance gave them an approval (green light) rating. They offered a variety of packages. I could pick and choose what services I wanted (needed).”

She went on to tell me that she was assigned an author manager to help her through the various stages of the process and that the manager was easy to contact and communicate with. She found an illustrator through the press and was very happy with her book in the end.  

Christina has now published 4 books with Gatekeeper, including Can Little John Find A Way, and they are available on Amazon. She learned from her mistakes and her persistence paid off. The icing on the cake? She's made a return on her investment.

If you are considering working with a hybrid publisher, you'll want to make sure ticking all of the boxes on this checklist from the IBPA is part of your research process. 

Author Blair Northen Williamson self published her first book Island Girls: Free the Sea of Plastic and has a traditional book deal in the works. She told me that she “battled with the decision regarding Indie publishing for a very long time.”

Initially, she had a traditional publishing deal with her manuscript Island Girls. After receiving the first rounds of illustrations from her publisher, she learned that they planned to use computer-generated graphics that were far from the vision they communicated prior to signing the contract. 

“There are many other manuscripts I have that I won’t feel as passionate about the exact style when it comes to what the illustrations will look like. I know the importance of an illustrator having creative freedom, but in this particular manuscript – ISLAND GIRLS – this story was about my children, my family, and a very specific setting that I wanted to bring to life,” she explained.

Since her vision for the book didn’t match the publisher’s, Blair got a reversion of rights and began her self-publishing journey. She had upcoming plans to speak at a conference, a golden opportunity to introduce her book to educators and librarians, so she began interviewing self-publishing houses and illustrators. 

When asked what the process was like, Blair said it was “A LOT- and it still IS a lot.”

She explained that she spent time looking into everything from the size of the book to the placement of the words on the page to the paper weight. She controlled the entire process.

“Marketing, networking, financial, distribution, having books physically in bookstores… The legwork is all on YOU, the author, with self-publishing,” she explained. “Luckily, I have a big network of people who are excited to help, and I’m a very outgoing person who’s not afraid to ask for help and put myself out there. I think part of that is because I have a book where people really believe in the message.” 

Her book does have a great message, still, Blair told me that she had a hard time getting stores to carry it.  

“I have flown across the country to pitch in person to APG Book Distributors, and I have a lead where I might decide to distribute Island Girls through that person one day. But right now, stores have to order Island Girls from INGRAM at a huge discount,” she explained. 

She’s still working on figuring out distribution.  

When asked what part of the process was most difficult, Blair said it was financial. “The financial piece was the hardest to figure out—I had to raise the money upfront and pay for it myself to do it right. I hired Gatekeeper Press to help me. I’m not a graphic designer, but they have a great team there, so I hired them to produce the book.” 

She also hired an illustrator, Svitlana Holovchenko, who she said was “absolutely incredible.”

Here’s an amazing part of her story that you’ll be happy to hear. I asked if she made a return on her investment, and she said yes! “Fairly quickly actually.”

And the good news keeps coming. What Blair said next surprised and excited me. 

“No one cared that I self-published this book. In fact, there was a level of respect that I received from other authors for having self-published so well.”

I asked Blair what advice she would offer to someone looking to self-publish and she said it all starts with research.

”If you want to indie publish, do research on who you want to go with, the timetable, and what you expect. Interview them and ask them questions. Make sure that you know what you’re getting into before you do it and invest in it. Know that it’s not an overnight situation,” she shared. “Do your work, do your research, there’s so much to learn about the publishing industry, and I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface.”

She added that it’s important to understand marketing, PR, social media, the Amazon author dashboard, royalties, and more. She noted the importance of immersing yourself in the writing community, supporting other writers, and asking for help when you need it.

I spoke to a few other writers who opted for a non-traditional road to publishing and they all shared similar sentiments. If you want to self publish or use a hybrid publisher, it’s completely viable if you’re willing to invest upfront and work very, very hard.

Hugs and happy writing to you!

Ashley's debut picture book The Balloonimals will be published in 2025. She is a former journalist and marketing executive with an MFA in Writing. Ashley has written for various magazines and newspapers, along with a top 10 market television station. She lives in the Boston area with her husband, daughter, and fur baby.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Pro Tip: Bring a Copy of Your Book With You When You Do an Author Appearance/Speaking Event

Generally, it's very helpful to bring along a copy of your book if you're going to be on a panel, or speaking about your author journey. Why?

#1 It's helpful to be able to hold up the book when you introduce yourself, and then set it by you (standing up) so the audience sees it the whole time you're presenting. If you have a paperback, consider bringing a simple stand so it doesn't slump over.

#2 When you meet other industry folks and introduce yourself, it's nice to have a copy of your book (kind of like show and tell). A good backup is to have a copy of your book cover image on your phone.

#3 You never know when it will be helpful. This past weekend at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, when I was asked to have my photo taken by their staff photographer (the amazing Myung Chun) I had my books with me. And then, the photo of me with my books was one of ten photos shared on the LA Times Entertainment Instagram account!

My photo from the LA Times Instagram Post, holding my nonfiction for readers age 11 and up No Way, They Were Gay? and my new YA novel, A Different Kind of Brave.

As a backup, if you forget to bring a copy of your book, you can always approach the bookseller working your event and ask to borrow a copy just for the time of your presentation.

I hope that's helpful!

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Words to Help Keep Your Writing Heart Full

A lot of people think that writing is the hardest part of a KidLit creator's job. For some, they may be right. But for others, it’s the rejection. Agent rejections, losing a contest, editor passes, the list goes on. They are called the querying trenches for a reason…this is not a dramatic name. It’s descriptive and honest.

The amount of rejection has always been tough for me and my mental health, and I know I’m not alone. How do you keep yourself happy and thriving through all of this? I reached out to several successful authors that I look up to, and asked for their advice. 

Here’s a roundup of what they had to say:

Sy Montgomery

Like all writers I know, there are times--even now, after writing 38 books, including five national bestsellers--when I look at the blank page and freeze: I am not worthy. I can't believe in myself enough to write this book. I can't trust myself to do this story justice. It happens to all of us. But that's OK. When I can't believe in myself, I can believe in my teachers: in the animals and places and people who allowed me to watch their lives, listen to their stories, and receive their wisdom. I can believe in the story THEY have to tell. And that gives me the strength to go on with the audacious task of writing a book. The book is not about me, even though I may be in it. Even if the book is a memoir, the book is not about me--but the generous, beautiful, and even sometimes scary lives and forces that shaped me. And the story's strength will not come from me.  It comes from them--and I can believe in them when I can no longer believe in me. They are the stronger force, and it's their story, their lessons, their dramas, that will carry the day!

Todd Parr

I get asked all the time, “How do you get a book published?” And every time, it takes me back to when I was starting with my art.

I’ve never forgotten the struggles I went through, the rejection, the defeat, and how I wanted to give up. So no matter how many times I get asked, I wish I had the perfect answer for everyone. But we all know that’s not possible, so here are a few tips that I hope might help and guide you based on my own experience. I will say that after years of “being a struggling artist,” I got my lucky break when an editor approached me after seeing some of my original art and licensed products at a trade show in NYC. I was lucky I hadn’t quit all those times earlier because there is no doubt I wanted to. (hint, hint)

The best advice I can give is no matter what idea you have for a book, think about what makes your book different. Keep asking yourself, “Why would someone want to read it or share it with others?” If I were starting now, I would pursue all fronts. It’s no doubt the internet has opened many doors if you have enough time and patience. Whether it’s sending manuscripts to publishers that accept them or discovering an excellent source to hone your skills, get feedback, or get the advice of others on publishing and sharing your material.

I would also explore a literary agent, not just anyone, but someone who connects with your ideas. With social media channels and your immediate network of contacts, you might just be surprised who you (or your friends) might already know who can connect you to someone in this field, beyond just emailing.

There is always self-publishing. I know it might not always be the easiest, but with more resources becoming available online, the option to really be creative has never been more within reach.

It doesn’t matter how you go about it as long as you always believe in yourself, and it only takes one yes.

Adam Wallace

As writers we face rejection in so many ways, so why let publishers get all the glory? Rejection from publishers, people listening to or reading our stories, children, magazines, and, often most of all...ourselves! So if everyone else is going to reject us, we have to be our biggest cheer squad. Our biggest believer. And write for joy. Have a goal of enjoying your writing, of giving it everything you have, of writing the best story you possibly can, so even if it is rejected, you have succeeded. And if you keep succeeding like that, it won't be long before someone in publishing will sit up and take notice.  

Jane Yolen

I consider a rejection merely an invitation to move on, not a full stop. It's the length of time it takes to say a simple NO I find annoying.

Join SCBWI. Find an agent if you can. And, prepare for the long haul... nothing happens quickly in publishing. And remember, rejection is about the writing--no one is criticizing how you look or how you walk across the stage, nor your weight, or your way of dressing. Sing! (Think what actors trying out for a part in a production go through!).

I have read these answers over and over and they will never stop inspiring me. I am grateful, from the bottom of my heart, for these words. I felt so lucky to get such thoughtful responses from these amazing authors, and I’m honored to be able to share their words with you. They have brought me so much joy and hope. I feel more invigorated than ever! I hope that you will take as much from them as I have. 

And I want to hear from you too! Please connect with me on social media and share, what do you do to stay positive on this journey? How do you keep your writing heart full?

Hugs and happy writing to you!

Ashley's debut picture book The Balloonimals will be published in 2025. She is a former journalist and marketing executive with an MFA in Writing. Ashley has written for various magazines and newspapers, along with a top 10 market television station. She lives in the Boston area with her husband, daughter, and fur baby.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The "Top 10" Most Challenged Books of 2023

Book Banning continues to impact young readers, their adult allies, and all of us who create books for kids and teens.

The American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom tracks challenges to books, and once again has released their "top 10" list of the most challenged books of the previous year. Here's the link to read up about the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2023.

screenshot of the ALA's article "Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2023"

They write:

ALA documented 4,240 unique book titles targeted for censorship in 2023—a 65% surge over 2022 numbers—as well as 1,247 demands to censor library books, materials, and resources. Pressure groups focused on public libraries in addition to targeting school libraries. The number of titles targeted for censorship at public libraries increased by 92% over the previous year, accounting for about 46% of all book challenges in 2023.

Seven of the ten titles were challenged for including LGBTQIA2+ content, which is particularly painful.

What's important to keep in mind is that the authors, publishers, and teams involved in these ten books are not the only ones impacted. The chilling effect of book bans impacts so many more of us, and prevents so many more titles from being included in library collections, and from landing in the hands of readers who need that representation.

I share not to bum you out, but to remind you of the importance of the work we do, and how we need to recognize that a fight against some books is a fight we all have a stake in.

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,

Thursday, April 11, 2024

When Writer's Block Hits

Whether you are a new writer or a seasoned expert, it’s likely that you have experienced or will soon endure the dreaded writer’s block. Writer’s block is, according to Author Anne Lamott, not a block at all. If you are having trouble writing, she believes it’s because you are empty, not blocked. 

Maybe it can be both? 

The thing is, writing is hard. It’s not math, where 1+1=2 and there aren’t any other answers. Writing can be debated, unlike a simple math problem. And when you write something, someone somewhere is going to love it. And someone, somewhere is going to…not love it. 

That’s a lot of pressure. And that pressure can really add up and make it hard to create. I wish we would all give ourselves a break from that. If you put your writing into the world with gratitude and trust that it will reach whoever needs it, you will feel a lot of weight slowly melt off your shoulders. 

Easier written than done. I am still a basket case when it comes to my writing. But I’m working on it. Will you join me?

In the meantime, if you are having a hard time putting words on the page, here are some things that have worked for me in the past. Whether you are blocked or empty or feeling any kind of way that is making it hard for you to write, here are five suggestions.

1. Expose yourself to another form of art. Paint, sculpt clay (or dough or Play-doh, you know, whatever is around), draw, play or listen to music…do something creative that makes you feel joyful. And it’s important that you are doing this activity just for fun! The point is to clear your mind and open your heart.  

My stick figures are barely recognizable, but doodling and drawing makes me feel free. It allows me to step away from writing, but still exercise my creative muscles.  

2. Nature. Spending some time with nature is so powerful. Take a walk. Sit by a body of water. Hike a mountain trail and create endorphins. Stand barefoot in your backyard. Take mindful breaths while you are doing these things and feel your heartbeat. 

3. Ice bath. Eek! I know, I can’t believe I am suggesting this. I only recently tried jumping into a freezing cold tub, but I was impressed by how well it worked. It was a real reset for me and I felt rejuvenated after. Sure, it was horrible during. But the end result was worth the plunge.

4. Read. For me, reading always leads to more writing. I read picture books, craft books, parenting books, blog posts, newsletters, magazines, and so much more. It’s inspiration at its finest. 

5. BIC. When I was studying writing in graduate school and feeling blocked, my professors would always say, “Get your butt in the chair.” They may have used another word for butt. But it worked! It’s a great way to get yourself writing again. Just write. It doesn’t have to be good, but the act of writing may break whatever cycle you’re in.  

If none of these tips work for you, and you are still feeling blocked or empty, please consider these moving words from Author Lee Wind:

"We drive ourselves to produce (write every day!), ignoring the wisdom of the seasons: you cannot only harvest. You need to let crops lay dormant (winter), germinate (spring), grow (summer), and only then can you harvest (fall.) Plants and trees don't skip the resting time of winter, and we skip rest at our peril. That's also called 'burnout.'"

As Lee goes on to say, allow yourself the grace of seasons for your creativity. And while you are doing that, I challenge you to be kind to yourself. Fill yourself up, unblock all the things, enjoy the sunshine, and you’ll get back to your writing when it’s time. 

Hugs and happy writing to you!

Ashley's debut picture book The Balloonimals will be published in 2025. She is a former journalist and marketing executive with an MFA in Writing. Ashley has written for various magazines and newspapers, along with a top 10 market television station. She lives in the Boston area with her husband, daughter, and fur baby.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

The Differences Between Middle Grade and Young Adult


logo for "Middle Grade vs. YA: What's the Difference" session at the San Diego Writers Festival 2024, with Chris Baron (showing a photo of Chris and the cover of his middle grade book "The Gray" and Lee Wind (showing a photo of Lee and his young adult novel "A Different Kind of Brave")

This past weekend I had the opportunity to be in dialog with middle grade author Chris Baron at the San Diego Writers Festival, in a session sponsored by Anatasia Zadeik called "Middle Grade vs. YA, What's the Difference?"

Using Chris's most recent middle grade novel The Gray, and my own recently published young adult novel A Different Kind of Brave we covered so many things that come into play, and that are different, between the two age categories, including:

  • Character age
  • Inner journey
  • Outer journey
  • Voice (for your characters, as well as the voice of the novel's narration/POV)
  • Role of family
  • Intensity of opposition your main character faces
  • To kiss (or not) – how far do your characters go?
  • To curse (or not)
  • Reader age/maturity
  • Who you're promoting the book to once it's published (parents, teachers, librarians, and in the case of YA teens themselves.)

Some resonating takeaways for me included:

Middle grade are books you might imagine a young person reading with their family.
Young Adult might be more a book a teen would read on their own, so it's more personally theirs. Not that they need to hide it from their family, but books better enjoyed independently.

We also had a fun exercise, challenging attendees to do one-sentence pitch for their middle grade or young adult current manuscript and then do it again but this time for the other age category.

The one-liner pitch for Chris's middle grade The Gray (from the copyright page) is:

Sasha has been bullied at his middle school and his anxiety, which he called the Gray, is growing, so his parents and therapist suggest a summer in the country with his aunt might help him.

Chris's new pitch to make The Gray young adult raised the stakes and the drama, and there was talk about aging the characters up as well.

The one-liner pitch for my young adult A Different Kind of Brave is:

My Gay teen love letter to James Bond movies has two main characters: Nico, living a life of adventure that's pretty terrible, and Sam, who lives a life of privilege and wants to be just like James Bond–when they meet and fall in love, everything changes.

What I learned when I tried to make the pitch for A Different Kind of Brave middle grade was that the whole premise of the book didn't work younger. The opposition was too intense, the whole opening sequence of Nico escaping from a gay reprogramming center and then fleeing on his own down to Peru and then Mexico--none of that felt middle grade. It's a book that had to be young adult.

Finally, we offered some tips to get published, both speaking about working on your craft, finding your community, and Chris spoke eloquently about writing your best book (not someone else's) with these words:

"Be your own breakthrough." —Chris Baron

It was a great discussion, and hopefully these notes can help you with your own middle grade or young adult work in progress.

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,

Thursday, April 4, 2024

5 Things to Do If You're New to KidLit

As a new KidLit writer, do you ever feel like you're alone on an island with your laptop? It doesn't have to be that way! There are so many writers to connect with, critique groups to join, and reputable resources to dig into. 

One problem is, the amount of information can feel overwhelming. There are so many things to do and learn, it's hard to know where to begin. Here are five things to try when you're just starting out. 

1. Connect on social media. Consider signing up for some social media platforms. There are so many to choose from! BlueSky launched just last year. Author and Illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s Starter Thread really helped me get comfortable with the platform. You may also want to consider Instagram, X (Twitter), and TikTok (have you heard about BookTok?).  

Some popular hashtags to follow are #kidlit, #writingcommunity, and #childrensbooks. Follow agents you're interested in and other writers you want to get to know. This will immerse you in the community quickly. I'll see you there!

2. Find Critique Groups. Joining a critique group is invaluable. Whether it's in person in your community or virtual, these groups will be so beneficial to your writing journey. You can find critique partners right here within SCBWI. The 12x12 writing community connects critique partners along with KidLit411’s Manuscript Swap Facebook group, and so many more.  

3. Join SCBWI. The amount of resources, networking opportunities, and other gems that can be uncovered here when you’re a member are worth the small fee to join. Find events to attend, network, take advantage of free webinars, and read about scholarships and grants available for creatives. 

4. Industry blogs and podcasts. Get your information right from the source. Find agents and agencies that have blogs or podcasts, and follow along with the ones that resonate with you. Most will tell you exactly what they are looking for, and some even share query letters that have hooked them or turned them off.  

You'll also want to read or listen to some content from other writers. You'll find so many interesting and fun options.

5. Tools for submitting. Even if you’re not ready to query, familiarize yourself with QueryManager and QueryTracker. It can only be helpful to understand these tools and know how to use them so you’re prepared when you are ready to submit your work.

Some agents allow queries via email, but some only accept through QueryManager. 

QueryTracker can be utilized to track submissions and search for agents that are open to queries in your genre. It's still a great idea to keep a spreadsheet with all of your submissions so you can make notes and organize it in a way that works for you.

Hugs and happy writing!

Ashley's debut picture book The Balloonimals will be published in 2025. She is a former journalist and marketing executive with an MFA in Writing. Ashley has written for various magazines and newspapers, along with a top 10 market television station. She lives in the Boston area with her husband, daughter, and fur baby.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Check out Authors Against Book Bans (Important for Illustrators and Translators as well!)

screenshot of the home page for Authors Against Book Bans

Authors Against Book Bans was featured last month in an article by Emma Kantor in Publishers Weekly. Their mission:

We are Authors Against Book Bans. 

We stand united against the deeply unconstitutional movement to limit the freedom to read. We unequivocally support the availability of diverse voices on our library shelves, in our schools, and in our culture. We pledge to band together against the oppression of literature, to speak when our voices are silenced, to go where our bodies are needed, and to fight as one to ensure this freedom. Together, we shall be fearless.

Our concern is not only for the books themselves, but for the children, families, educators, librarians, and communities that suffer when the freedom to read is challenged and taken away. We abhor the bias of the current organized attempt to censor books in schools and libraries across our nation, particularly because of these efforts’ insidious targeting of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ stories, erasure of history, and silencing of voices that speak truthfully about essential human experiences. The great power of literature is its ability to create empathy, foster self-empowerment, imbue knowledge, and enhance diversity of thought. We will defend this power from those who seek to subvert it.

As authors and as members of our local and national communities, we pledge to protect the rights of all young people to access the books they need and deserve.

If this is something you care about, consider signing up at the Authors Against Book Bans website. As they explain:

We need ALL authors on board, whether your books have been banned or not, because the fight for the freedom to read is every author’s fight.

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,