Before launching a full-time writing career, Susan was the Children’s Content Director of Nick Jr. Magazine and an editor at Sesame Workshop, Scholastic Book Clubs and Instructor Magazine. As a freelance writer, Susan has published board books, beginning readers and nonfiction books with Disney, Fisher Price, Penguin Putnam, Scholastic, and Simon & Schuster, as well as articles for parents and educators in The New York Times, Working Mother and more. Just Say Boo, The Tooth Mouse, and Spike, The Mixed Up Monster are her first picture books. For more about Susan, visit her website.
When did you realize getting published was really going to happen?
When did you realize getting published was really going to happen?
As a former editor and staff writer at Scholastic, Sesame Street and Nick Jr., I’ve published a lot of baby board books and beginning readers over the years, but it took me years to attempt an original picture book. I knew enough to know how hard this genre can be! When I finally (finally!) finished a manuscript, then there were a lot of little moments when I thought, “Wow, this is really happening!”
- when a librarian read my manuscript and wrote “LOVE, LOVE, LOVE!”
- when my writers’ group applauded after I read it aloud
- when an agent agreed to represent me
- when the book went to auction
- when my first choice in illustrators said she was “over the moon” and agreed to collaborate
Was there ever a point when you thought about giving up?
No. Not yet, anyway! I’ve wanted to do this for so long and I can’t imagine doing anything else that would give me as much joy. That doesn’t mean there aren’t frustrations. Children’s books take a long time to get published and I can get impatient. But when you first have an editor say “You’ve made my day,” or first see the illustrations light up your words, or open that first box of bound books, or have a librarian tell you, “I’ve been looking for a book like this for years,” or have a kid who’s memorized your book mouth the words as you read aloud, well! What could be better?
You had three books come out in a very short period of time (AMAZING!). What was that process like?
Well, they all came out at once, but each one was a long time in the making. THE TOOTH MOUSE took about seven years! I sold SPIKE, THE MIXED-UP MONSTER in 2009 and JUST SAY BOO in 2010. The work came in different stages. I might be writing revisions for one book while looking at sketches for another. The only tricky part is promoting all three this fall. I’ve had back-to-back–to-back readings, signings, and school visits. Around Halloween, I had one every day!
I've heard that picture authors don't get to approve their illustrator and some don't even see the pictures until the book releases. What was that process like for you? Did anything surprise you when you saw the illustrations?
That can be true, especially for a first-time author. I was lucky. By contract I was given input on the illustrators for all three of my books. I had worked with a lot of wonderful children’s book illustrators at Nick Jr. Magazine so my editors and I shared a frame of reference. We’d each recommend people and discuss different possibilities. It’s a good way to explore each other’s tastes, sensibilities and visions for the book. There are practical considerations as well. Sometimes, your first choice is booked up for years. (In my case, we waited!) I’d recommend trusting your editor. He or she has the book’s best interests in mind and wants you to be happy and successful.
I also saw sketches for two of the three books and color proofs for all three. Did anything surprise me? Everything! The lighting, the perspectives, the humor, and all the quirky little details were a thrill and a delight. When I opened one package of art, I started crying because it was everything I wanted my book to be. True story.
Does anything surprise you about being a published author?
The astonishing generosity of other children’s book authors, illustrators, editors, agents, teachers and librarians. I am humbled and grateful for the love and support of this very special community . There’s so much I didn’t know, especially about promotion, publicity and marketing. I found that all I had to do was ask.
What advise would you give someone trying to write and publish picture books?
1. Read as many picture books as you can, the classics as well as the latest releases. Stay on top of the way picture books have changed and evolved.
2. After you read them, reread them. Study the way the pictures work in counterpoint to the words. When looking at your manuscript, cross out all the words that simply repeat what could be in the pictures. Substitute words that add new information. So instead of saying “the little red-headed girl in the blue polka-dotted dress,” tell us something the pictures can’t convey. I think Mo Willems said it best in his Zena Sutherland Lecture: (link--http://www.hbook.com/2011/10/authors-illustrators/why-books-the-zena-sutherland-lecture/)
“…if I re-read one of my manuscripts and I understand exactly what is happening, then the manuscript has too many words. And if I look at the images without the words and I can fully understand the story, there are too many drawings. It is only right when both words and image need each other to make any sense. They need to be as close to incomprehensible, separately, as possible.”
This may be one of the biggest challenges for writers because we love words, but sometimes the trick is to stop talking. Leave enough room for the illustrator to add 50%!
3. Many picture books these days are under 500 words. With so few words, make sure they are the best they can be. Use fresh, rich, lively language with rhythm and repetition.
4. Encourage interaction. What can you do to invite kids to participate in the storytelling?
5. Think hard about page turns. Here’s where the drama lies. What will surprise your readers and/or make them smile? One of the reasons I love THE MONSTER AT THE END OF THIS BOOK is that that simple act of turning pages is so empowering to kids. That said, be flexible. Your illustrator, editor, and art director may have even better ideas about how to pace the book.
6. Think especially hard about your very last page turn. What kind of ending will make your readers laugh, cry, think? What will move them, satisfy them and stay with them without knocking them over the noggin.
7. Read aloud to kids. They’ll show you things you never saw in a book. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t really get the genius of BROWN BEAR, BROWN BEAR, WHAT DO YOU SEE? until I read it to my three-year-old.
Oh, yes. And be patient!
Thanks for the interview, Susan.
And readers, make sure to go to the New York Times Book Review page to read their review of The Tooth Mouse. I won't share with you the whole thing so you can read it yourself, but check out the last lines,
"Mice, it seems, are pretty crafty. One mouse even comes up with a nice way to repurpose the collected teeth. I believe, après tout, these mice could even teach the tooth fairy a thing or two."