December 1, 2020

The "Story-Telling" Part of the Writing Life

Over the past few weeks I've had the amazing experience of having a custom song written and recorded by one of my favorite bands, Fox and Bones

Image Source: Fox and Bones Website

It all started when I won a contest. I typically don't enter contests, so it's a major big deal that I entered and then WON such a cool opportunity. Fox and Bones recently started a new enterprise called Our Custom Song, and the contest was one of their launch "events." The band posted the contest info to their Instagram account, indicating that interested followers could enter by commenting on the post. Just before the contest closed, the band posted a reminder on their Instagram story, and I decided to add my name. The next day I received a message that I HAD WON! 

Soon after, Sarah and Scott (aka Fox and Bones) got in touch with me to share how the process would work: First, I was to select a topic or person of my choice that I wanted the song to be about. Next, I would complete a brief questionnaire about the subject, then we would set up a Zoom meeting so I could be interviewed about the subject. 

My first thought was to ask Fox and Bones to arrange and record their version of Travel in This Life with Me, the song I wrote the lyrics for and gifted to my husband, Sam, for our 30th wedding anniversary. I also thought it would be grand for them set one of my yet-to-be-published picture book manuscripts to music. I have collaborated with different musicians to create songs for three of my published picture books (Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?and the forthcoming Lucy's Blooms), and I thought it might be fun to change things up and create a song first. I sent an email with these ideas, and Sarah got right back to me indicating that they would love to put their own spin on Travel in This Life with Me

Then, I went on a long walk. Sam and I were in Sunriver, in Central Oregon, at the time, and the fresh air was all I needed for another idea to rush in. It was so obvious when it hit me, I was almost embarrassed that I didn't immediately think of it before: what I most wanted was a song about my late father-in-law, Henry Prochovnic, aka "Pop." His life story is tragic and beautiful and full of everything good stories are made of, and I could not imagine a better subject for a custom song. I wrote an updated email to Sarah and Scott, including a link to a blog post I had written about Henry a few years back, shortly after his memorial service. The post included a link to his obituary and the remarks I made at his service, to give them a sense of this wonderful man and his life story.  

Scott and Sarah agreed, and they sent me their "getting started" questionnaire and coordinated a time to meet by Zoom. We covered a lot of ground during the recorded Zoom meeting, which lasted just over an hour. Sarah took the lead in interviewing me, using the questions in the questionnaire to guide our conversation...and I told family stories. I found myself wondering what elements of Pop's story would make it into the song. Scott, who was the primary note-taker during our conversation, offered some hint of which of the morsels I shared were particularly "song-worthy," as he periodically and enthusiastically scribbled in his notebook. Throughout the conversation, I found myself both participating as an interviewee, and also taking mental notes as a fellow story-teller.

After our meeting ended, I sent Sarah and Scott an album of photos of Henry and Teena, and of our family, including these gems: 










as well as a copy of the handout from Pop's memorial service that included some of his well-known quotes and his full obituary. I also sent the responses I had jotted down for the questionnaire, in preparation for our meeting. The questions, and some excerpts of my responses included:

Q. Why did you want to do a custom song for this person?

A. Because Henry (aka "Pop" and "Grandpa") was such an important role model...the example he set for what pure, unequivocal love looks like and what it means to be a family will continue to live on in our family...and the families we grow.

Q. What occasion is the custom song for?

A. I plan to gift this to my husband, our kids, and my mother-in-law for the holidays--most likely around the time of Thanksgiving.

Q. What emotional impact do you hope to have on the recipient? 

A. I want this song to simultaneously break their hearts and fill them up.

Q. In one sentence, what do you want the song to be about? 

A. The cosmic nature of the circle of life. 

More than one sentence: The life we know and share exists because Henry/Pop/Grandpa somehow endured and survived the atrocities he witnessed and was subjected to AND because he fell in love with Tatiana/Teena... Reflecting on the Holocaust he often said: "On one shoulder I could hear a little voice saying, 'I want to die.' On the other shoulder I could hear a little voice saying, 'I want to live.'" He often followed that by saying he didn't know how or why he survived. I always replied, "so that I could have this beautiful life with your son and your grandchildren."

Q. What genre or musical artist would you like this song to resemble?

A. Acoustic folk. 

Q. What do you want the feel or the essence of the song to be? (ex. ballad, funny, romantic, upbeat and fun, thoughtful...)

A. Thoughtful. 

Q. Tell us about your subject: 

What were your favorite things about them? 

A. That he told me to call him “Pop” the first time we met. That he lived and survived so that I could be so lucky to live the life that I do with his son and our two children.  

Q. What words would you use to describe them?

A. Hard-working. Strong. Stubborn. Enduring adoration for his wife, Teena and the family they created and nurtured. 

Q. What do they love to do? What is their life purpose?

A. Henry was most proud of providing for his family. He worked at a cannery all of his career. 

Q. Do you have any anecdotes our stories about this person that help explain who they are and what your relationship is like? 

A. He asked his citizenship teacher if there were any pretty girls in town, and he was told where Tatiana/Teena lived. He knocked on the door and asked to meet her...he got a glimpse of her, and he was determined. He loved to say, "I had a nice car, a full head of hair, some money in my pocket..." Henry and Teena dated briefly and were married soon after. They had their first child before they spoke the same language and before they even knew they were different religions. 

*****

The next steps would be that Fox and Bones would compose a song and share draft recordings with me for a couple of rounds of feedback before they professionally recorded the song. I anticipated that weeks might pass before I heard back from them. Two days later, I had a draft song in my inbox. It was beautiful and moving and took my breath away. I did not know how I would keep it a secret from Sam and the kids until Thanksgiving. True confession: I shared the song with my sister, because I simply could not keep it to myself. She, too, was in disbelief that a song written by strangers could so perfectly capture Henry's story. 

After receiving the first recording and lyrics, I had to get busy and do some fact checking with Sam, and my mother-in-law, Teena. There were a few stories that I had shared during the interview that I needed to double check were completely accurate. That fact-checking led to my needing to make a few clarifications with Sarah and Scott. Once again, they quickly turned around a second draft recording. That version was even better than the first. There were just a few small, outstanding details that needed to be fine-tuned. I noted those requests, made a few suggestions, and in a matter of another few short days, I had a beautiful studio recorded version in hand. Then I had to wait to share it. 

Turns out I did not have the self-discipline to wait. I shared the song with Sam while we were still in Sunriver. He was speechless and deeply moved. Together, we shared the song with our two kids during our Thanksgiving dinner. We printed out the lyrics and rolled them into a scroll and wrapped a ribbon around them. It made for curious questions leading up to the song share--and soon the meal was seasoned with tears. A few days later, Sam and I shared the song with Teena and were met with more tears. 

As the tender memories of this man who is so dear to me are nudged so specifically, the feelings of grief and loss resurface. I suspect we will each cry a little bit each time we listen. But even though it indeed hurts to listen, it also feels good to hear this man's life conveyed through music, played back with truth and authenticity. The tears are in large part because Fox and Bones wrote and recorded a song that so beautifully and eloquently captures the life and times of Henry Prochovnic. 

I think one of the greatest compliments that could be given to Fox and Bones is that family members and friends who have now heard this song have asked if I wrote the lyrics. I did not. But I did learn quite a bit about story-telling by participating in this custom song writing experience. 

Henry and Teena have rich and compelling life stories, and Sam and I have been diligent about asking them to share their stories with us and with the wider community. As a result, Henry's story has been recorded through formal projects with organizations such as the Shoah Foundation, and through informal projects of our own, such as long ago setting up a video camera over many shared meals, and thus recording their answers to the questions we asked about their lives. 

On several occasions I've dabbled at writing down some of these stories, but I've never gotten past the dabbling stage. I've had difficulty sorting out the details and finding the through-lines. What I realized through this experience with Fox and Bones is that there are many, many stories about Henry and Teena (and others in my family tree) floating around in my head. The raw matter is there. I just need to commit to working with it. I was also reminded of the importance of narrowing in on significant details. I shared a variety of family stories with Sarah and Scott during their hour-long interview, and they created something magical and true by asking good questions, listening carefully to the answers, and by having good instincts for choosing the details to amplify and the details to resist getting distracted by. Going forward, I will seek to replicate that skillful crafting of story in my own work--be that stories that chronicle my family's rich history, or stories that I invent from my rich imagination.   

And now I imagine, dear readers, that you would like to hear this song. It is entitled, The Love Your Life Begins

You can find it on YouTube and SoundCloud (and maybe someday, on one of Fox and Bones' albums.) I've shared the beautiful lyrics below. And if you would like the opportunity for Fox and Bones to create your very own custom song, I encourage you to get in touch with them directly. You can find out more here

*****

The Love Your Life Begins

Lyrics and music by Sarah Vitort and Scott Gilmore. Recorded and mixed by Matt Greco at The Rye Room in Portland, Oregon. (c) 2020 Our Custom Song, a subsidiary of Fox and Bones LLC Lyrics Poland 1925, the beginning of a life Memories are few and far between pulled from this time Had 2 brothers and a sister, life was simple looking back Only 14 years of youth, before adulthood took all that Just 14 years, your youth went by so fast 1939 a prisoner, separated from your blood Transported in cattle cars and ground into the mud potato peels as sustenance, crushed stones with your bare hands One step out of line, and there your life would end A hallowed voice asks why continue on? With so much pain and suffering, just take that step and all this will be gone A second voice chimes in Your life’s more than your own, it belongs to the love your life begins The love your life begins 1952 in Portland, a 26year ride, you catch a glimpse of pure beauty, you’re convinced that she’d one day be your bride one look, is all it takes, it’s all you’d ever need, you married Teena shortly after for 65 years of harmony still the prettiest you’ve ever seen Working hard and saving up, providing for your family To insure they never wanted, you spent overtime at the cannery In 62, a joyful call came by surprise Your sister, who’d been presumed dead, was very much alive The first voice asks, how could you live on? I had you marching straight towards death, you were defeated I thought that I had won The voice responds within Your life’s more than your own it belongs to the love your life begins Fatherhood comes naturally to strong and steady types The nightmares of your youth became the dreams you made for your children’s lives They flourished, free from persecution in the states Henry, your family called you Pop and burned for you each one of your steaks It was the only way to make them safe You passed more peacefully than any could have guessed Upon the day that heaven opens up its gates to each and every guest You worked relentlessly to keep your family fed you lived your life to honor all the souls who would come next The first voice asked how do I become So strong a man, with so much love, is there still time for me to turn to one? The next voice draws you in Your life’s more than your own it belongs to the love your life begins

*****

Thank you, Sarah and Scott, aka Fox and Bones, for knowing just the right questions to ask, and just the right details to capture from my answers, and for creating something so tender and true. It is quite possible I will never be able to fully convey my gratitude for this special tribute to Henry Prochovnic that our family will treasure for the rest of our lives. 

November 18, 2020

The "Raising Awareness" Part of the Writing Life

This time last year I was awash with excitement about book-launch activities and events related to my (then) newly released books, Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty? and Where Does a Pirate Go Potty? 

Cowgirl Dawn at PNBA, 2019

Given the humorous nature of these books, laughter and potty-puns were flowing freely. However, despite my active sense of humor, I did find myself wondering aloud about the appropriateness of creating silly books during such a serious time in our world. I confessed about my worry that maybe I should use my gifts for more serious subjects.

In the end, I came to the conclusion that it is not an either-or situation. That there is in fact value in light-hearted books, and also, that there are ways to connect silly topics to more serious issues. So, I do try to laugh and have fun, but I also do my best to use my platform to raise awareness about topics of import. 

One of those topics is the importance of clean water and sanitation, and one way to connect that topic to my silly books, is to raise awareness about World Toilet Day, a serious observance that occurs each year on November 19th. The intent of World Toilet Day is to inspire "action to tackle the global sanitation crisis and help achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, which promises sanitation for all by 2030. Established by the World Toilet Organization in 2001, World Toilet Day was made an official UN day in 2013." (Source: World Toilet Day Website).

The 2020 theme of World Toilet Day is, "Sustainable Sanitation and Climate Change," with the idea being that everyone should have access to sustainable sanitation systems "that can withstand climate change and keep communities healthy and functioning." The World Toilet Day website has great resources to support those who want to take action to bring about positive change. There are toolkits with resources to help you learn moresocial media resources to help draw attention to the issue, and calls to action that can be undertaken even during times of restrictions due to COVID-19. 

Another organization that works to address global water sanitation issues is Water1st International. They support sustainable clean water projects and toilets for the world's poorest communities. They also provide helpful curriculum guides and information about clubs and other youth leadership opportunities related to this issue on their website.

Other organizations that support clean water initiatives may also offer curriculum support (or in some cases, program offerings in your local area). One such example is the Northeast Ohio Sewer District, which offers in-person programming and has made their programming available in a seven-part series that can be accessed via YouTube.

Similarly, The Illinois River Watershed Partnership in Arkansas has detailed lesson plans for educators on their website, including a comprehensive program called Clean Water Raingers, complete with downloadable resources including a Watershed Adventure WorkbookWatershed Songs, and Watershed Videos. (Incidentally, the Watershed Songs and Videos are written and performed by Marshall Mitchell, the same artist who co-wrote and performed the song that accompanies the book trailer for Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty? and who regularly performs for children and families (quite often in libraries) in Arkansas and surrounding areas--and I'm sure Marshall can't wait to return to live performance venues sometime soon).

Another great resource for climate-related music and curriculum support is Annie Lynn, of AnnieBirdd Music, LLC. Annie is a vocal advocate for our planet, and she writes and produces a variety of music for use in educational settings, and she regularly shares a variety of educational resources via Twitter. Here is one example of a song that Annie has developed with interactive elements to engage students in conversations and advocacy around climate issues. (Incidentally, Annie Lynn / AnnieBirdd Music, LLC is the artist behind the song that accompanies the book trailer for Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?)

I've also come to realize that silly books can set a foundation for deeper learning when paired with meaningful learning extensions. Case in point, the Educators' Guides for Where Does a Pirate Go Potty? and Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty? go well beyond the silly potty humor portrayed in the books. The guides provide pre and post-reading discussion questions along with learning extensions that support science, math, and language arts, as well as interactive activities such as word searches and Reader's Theatre scripts.  

Lastly, I'm bolstered by my firm belief that igniting a child's desire to read is serious business, and I'm hopeful that my silly books (and the many fun resources I've developed and curated to support these silly books) will bring laughter into lap time and snickers into story time, setting a joyful foundation for a lifetime of reading. (And, if you ever need a little toilet flushing sound loop to flood you with laughter, you'll find one here. Enjoy!)

September 21, 2020

Birth Stories for Books: COOKIE & MILK, by Michele McAvoy

The kidlit community is filled with wonderful people, and as I've said many times before, one of the best things about writing children's books is the opportunity to get to know others who write and/or illustrate books for kids. 

Today's guest is Michele McAvoy, and we'll be talking about her book, COOKIE & MILK (illustrated by Jessica Gibson, Cardinal Rule Press, 2019). I was introduced to Michele by our mutual friend, Annie Lynn, who produced the marvelous song for Where Does a Pirate Go Potty? as well as a super catchy song for Cookie & Milk.  

So let's get to know Michele, and her work: 

Dawn Prochovnic: Thank you for stopping by to talk with us, Michele. After listening to several of your My Messy Muse podcast interviews and watching several of the informative features in your related Facebook group, I'm really excited to get to know you and your books a little bit better. 

Your most recent book, Cookie & Milk: A Scientifically Stunt-Tastic Sisterhood, hit bookstore shelves last October (2019). What a great title! Kirkus said the book is, “Smart, sassy, supportive girl power to the max!” in their marvelous review, and the Midwest Book Review described the book as, "A thoroughly charming picture book story with a valuable underlying message about friendship,” saying, "Cookie & Milk will prove to be an enduringly popular and appreciated addition to family, elementary school, and community library collections for young readers. Congratulations on the rave reviews! 

Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publication for this story? For example, I’d love to hear a little bit about the process and timeframe between your initial idea for this story and the story that was formulated fully enough to submit to an editor.

Michele McAvoy: I thought of the story right after the Trump election. There was so much tension in our country across race lines, and I thought about myself and my best friend, Wose, who is black, and how easy our friendship is. It's more like a sisterhood, really. And, I remember thinking that it's so much easier to love than to hate. I wanted to write a story about two girls that look nothing alike but are best friends, like Wose and I.  And Cookie & Milk was born! Cookie & Milk look nothing alike and act nothing alike, as well.  I really wanted to portray girls in non-traditional lights, because I think it's important for girls to see and know that they can and should do anything they want to do. There is no more sitting neat and pretty. In truth, Wose and I are more similar in our likes than different. We are both pretty studious and not very athletic. lol. 

DP: Reflecting on the journey from idea to published book, is there any one moment along the way that you credit with opening the door for this particular story to find its way to publication? 

MM: I can't help myself but research stuff all the time.  It's like my mind has to always be busy. So, in my spare time I was researching smaller independent publishers and came across a new (at the time) independent publisher, Cardinal Rule Press.  I told my agent, Stephanie Hansen of Metamorphosis about it and asked to submit to them.  A few months later we had an offer of publication.  It was fairly quick.  I truly believe that some things are meant to be. My publisher, Maria, is fantastic and she and I are super similar.  I am lucky to have her as my publisher and friend. And she made a beautiful book. I was insistent on having a black woman author illustrate because it was necessary for the book to truly be genuine.  Maria listened and found the amazing Jessica Gibson.  I couldn't be happier with COOKIE & MILK. 

DP: What a great back story! Thanks for sharing. When you compare one of your earliest drafts of this story to the version in the published book, what stands out for you in terms of what is most different? Likewise, is there anything in particular that stands out that was included in your earliest drafts and survived the revision process?

MM: I was lucky to win a critique from the publishers of Just Us Books.  The earlier version had Milk doing most of the talking, she was a real motor mouth, and Cookie running behind her with her pencils and sketch books, being more the silent/smart type. The important critique from Just Us Books said that Cookie needs to be as active and dynamic on the page as Milk. That black children need to be just as front and center. It was never my intention to give Milk the spotlight and Cookie a supporting role, but that was how it was portrayed. Their advice was spot on, and when Cookie started to have more dialogue, her sassy, smart personality came through. I am grateful for having that critique. 

What came out in the story at the very end was the twist at the end of the story- that is that they are actually sisters. That came in the very final revision with Maria. When it came to me to put that in, I got chills. My girlfriend Wose is truly more like a sister to me. And, I just love throwing kids a curve ball. 

DP: It's so great when a critique can help you find the missing link to a story that is close, but not quite there. And what fun about the twist at the end! When you look back to your earlier published books, THE GORILLA PICKED ME, and MY SUPERHERO GRANDPA as compared to this book, what were some of the key similarities and differences in terms of the publication journeys for each?

MM: THE GORILLA PICKED ME! was my first traditionally published book. I was absolutely over the moon for the opportunity. THE GORILLA PICKED ME! is a book that is the closest to my heart (and maybe the book baby that I like the most.)  I revised that story a gazillion times based upon a million critiques from publishers, agents, other authors. Plus, it's a rhyming book, switched to prose, then rhyming again. A gazillion revisions.  I wanted to get that story just right, and I truly believe I did. So, the revision journey is much longer for GORILLA than it was for COOKIE & MILK.  But, for sure, I revise my stories, a lot. 

MY SUPERHERO GRANDPA was self-published. The publishing journey and revision journey was not as arduous. This title and journey was my intro into children's writing and publishing and started me off on this amazing career. 

All of my stories are influenced by my late father, who encourages me always, to follow my dreams and never underestimate my capabilities and what gifts God has given me. When I double myself, I hear him say, "pick your chin up, Pish (his nickname for me) and I continue to try to make him proud. 

DP: Oh, that's wonderful, Michele. I'm sure he is very proud of you!

I’ve noticed that all three of your books are published by different publishers. Are you able to share more details of how you came to connect with these different publishing houses, and also, if there were notable differences in the publication processes for each of the different books/publishers?

MM: The Little Press published MY SUPERHERO GRANDPA. That is my publishing imprint, and we have expanded and will be publishing other authors, too!  We have signed two author/Illustrators for PBs out in 2021!

DP: What excellent news. Hooray!

MM: My agent found Native Ink Press who published THE GORILLA PICKED ME! (which was re-released in fall 2019 with THE LITTLE PRESS) and I found CARDINAL RULE PRESS and was submitted by my agent, for COOKIE & MILK. I have a 4th picture book coming out with Pigman Books (another indie press) in Spring 2021 called BUCKINGHAM GETS A NEW SHELL, illustrated by Pauline Reeves, whose illustrations are amazing! Every time I see an amazing artist illustrate one of my stories, I feel so incredibly lucky. It's insane to see your imagination come to life. 

DP. Yes, yes! That's one of my favorite parts of being an author! Another favorite part is connecting with young readers at schools, libraries, and bookstore visits, (back when we could do that!), and I'm always looking for new pro tips. You have some fabulous activities that align with your books on your website. Do you also offer author visits, and if so, what advice or suggestions do you have for fellow author/presenters in terms of planning successful book readings/ book events? (I remain hopeful this aspect of our lives as author will eventually resume!) 

MM: I do author events and school visits and I'm missing doing them during the pandemic!  Since I've been doing them for a few years now, I have a good handful of presentations put together that I can offer to schools. For me, I recommend using a Powerpoint visual, but also, giving the kids time to get creative themselves. The most fun is at the end, when the kids draw or write from their wacky imaginations. 

DP: Yes, I love seeing kids take an idea and run with it! 

A question I always like to ask in these interviews is if you could go back in time, what would you tell your pre-published self? Or, said another way, what do you know now, that you wished you would have known a bit earlier?

MM: I wish I was less hard on myself. When I set a goal I sort of get obsessed with reaching it. I'm a lawyer by profession (as well as a writer) and when you're a lawyer, you go to school, get good grades, pass the bar and get a job. Being a writer is so subjective, and it's not easy to find a publisher that wants to invest in your work. I am still hard on myself and, I'm from the East Coast, so I want things quickly. I need to just allow myself space and to occupy myself writing more and doing more in the community while I wait on submissions. It's not easy. I'm waiting now. Fingers crossed, People!

DP: I know what you mean, Michele. I have a background in business, and I run a training consulting company in addition to writing books for kids. I remember when I began my quest to get my first books published (back before self-publishing was a viable option). I attended a writing conference, and approached it as a business person, setting out to find an illustrator and publisher to hire--pronto. Ha! I quickly learned that traditional publishing doesn't work that way at all! 

Shifting gears a bit, I mentioned in the opening that you worked with Annie Lynn, AnnieBirdd Music, LLC to produce a theme song for Cookie & Milk. As you know, I had a marvelous experience working with Annie for the theme song for my book, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty? Can you tell us a little bit about your experience working with Annie Lynn and her team, including the experience of writing lyrics for your book’s theme song? I recall you were a little bit apprehensive about that part of the process at first, and I’d love to hear how it all turned out.  

MM: Annie Lynn is a dear friend of mine. And she is nutso potato in all the most fantastic ways you can be.  I love her energy, her vibe, her heart. Annie Lynn came up with that song all her own. It is special and so much fun! Her son, Alex, is hysterical. They are both truly talented. I would recommend her to anyone in the industry that is looking for music for their stories.  

DP: I couldn't describe the experience of working with Annie Lynn any better myself. I highly recommend her as well!

Is there something you wish someone would ask you about COOKIE & MILK, and/or your path to publication for one of your books that you haven’t had the opportunity to share yet? 

MM: I think sometimes we focus so much on getting that big deal that we overlook the amazing opportunities with small independent presses. I am grateful for the opportunities that I have had, and Cardinal Rule Press, has helped me in so many ways to build my author platform. I would recommend to look at smaller presses as an opportunity and not a back-up plan. When your book is out in the world, kids don't care who published it. All they care about is the story and the book. A good book is a good book. 

DP: Well said, Michele. Thanks! 

Do you have anything you’d like to tell us about what you’re currently working on? 

MM: Right now I am so very busy with my own publishing company which we launched in March of this year. Blue Bronco Books is the Middle Grade imprint, and our first release BONE TREE with Jenna Lehne comes out April 1, 2021. We also signed two picture book authors for release in 2021 as well, under our Little Press imprint. 

DP: Wow! That is SO EXCITING. Congratulations! 

One more question: You've mentioned that in addition to being an author, podcast host, and publisher that you're also an attorney. How do you fit it all in? And how do these different roles and interests interweave and inform each other? (Ha! Guess that’s two more questions ;)

MM: I am an attorney. I have been writing, professionally, as an attorney for 20 years. It really allowed me to develop my writing skills as well as my writing stamina. Nothing prepares you better (well, maybe medical school) for academic and intellectual stamina like being a lawyer. I can write through complete exhaustion. Law taught me to do that (I don't know if that's a good thing or not!)

DP: Thank you so much for sharing your Birth Story for Books, Michele! I've learned so much from you! 

MM: Thank you so very much, for having me!

Friends, the best way you can say thank you to Michele for spending some time with us today, is to support her work. Michele's books are available everywhere books are sold

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Michele McAvoy is an inspirational speaker & award-winning children’s book author from New Jersey. As a child, she read Judy Blume and drew Garfield comics. For her 10th birthday, she asked for a pink typewriter. Michele always loved the smell of new books. Now all grown-up (typewriters near obsolete) she loves bringing joy to children through her own stories. Michele’s books are uplifting and colorful and are meant to help children navigate through the natural bumps and curves of life. Her next picture book, Cookie & Milk with Cardinal Rule Press, releases October 1. Cookie & Milk was selected as a Top Shelf Title with IPG and was touted as “Smart, sassy, supportive girl power to the max!" by Kirkus. Michele’s books are sold at bookstores across the country as well as online. Pick up a copy! You can find Michele on social media @michele_mcavoy on Twitter and @michelemcavoy on Instagram. 


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Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including, Lucy's Blooms (Spring '21), Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to the award-winning book, Oregon Reads Aloud, and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at www.dawnprochovnic.com

August 26, 2020

Birth Stories for Books, TAILS FROM THE ANIMAL SHELTER, by Stephanie Shaw

Sophie the Shelter Rescue Dog
Today, I'm so happy to share with you a guest post featuring the birth story for a new book by one of my first friends and favorite people in the kidlit community, author Stephanie Shaw. I featured one of Stephanie's earlier books last year, and I'm so happy she was willing to share more of her perspective and experience with us here today.

Stephanie's new book, TAILS FROM THE ANIMAL SHELTER (illustrated by Liza WoodruffSleeping Bear Press) is worth every woof--and if you don't believe me, take it from my shelter rescue pup, Sophie!

Take it away, Stephanie!

Tails From the Animal Shelter
by Stephanie Shaw

Today is August 15, 2020. It is the ‘book birthday’ of my most recent picture book Tails From the Animal Shelter with illustrations by Liza Woodruff, published by Sleeping Bear Press.

The book is made up of page after page of various (fictional) animals seeking adoption. There’s Lucky the three-legged, one-eyed dog; Pooter the skunk, Hamlet a pot-bellied pig and many more. It’s also packed with non-fiction information about various rescue organizations. There are guidelines to consider before adopting and ways to support shelters if adopting is not possible.

Who should buy this book?

Photo Credit: Katia Prochovnic


Families who have family members clamoring for a pet!
Teachers who are looking for persuasive writing exercises.
Shelter and rescue organizations looking for a great fund-raising product.
Writers!

Why writers? Because (aside from the fact that this is just a darn good book and beautifully illustrated and you need one for your kid lit collection) it is a testimony to my theory that writing is not a straight path. It is a maze. The ‘birth story’ of Tails From The Animal Shelter is just that.

About four years ago, my husband and I decided it was time to downsize and try living in another state (away from my beloved native Oregon). I could write anywhere, right? But it turned out I could not. And days and weeks and then months began to pass without any writing.

One healthy writing habit I managed to hold onto was a daily walk. I would trudge up a long hill and back down --- usually berating myself for not coming up with a new story.

Then one day it occurred to me to go back to what I did in the very beginning of my years in writing:  small poems. I didn’t have to write long paragraphs. Just little snippets. I could do that. And I did. I gave myself the task of writing a tiny poem each day. Each turned out to be about animals. And each one was searching for a home.

This led me to research how Humane Societies began. I tucked that information in with the poem collection and sent it to my editor at Sleeping Bear Press where I had four other picture books in publication.

It was my good fortune that Sleeping Bear loved it but they saw it as the basis of a non-fiction story and wanted the text expanded considerably. This was new territory for me. It was time to back up again and try this new route.

I learned so much. I read and read and read. I developed relationships with animal shelter workers. I picked the brain of a newspaper columnist who writes about dogs.  More than anything I developed a huge respect for non-fiction writers. This non-fiction writing was no walk in the dog park!

When I was stuck and thought I’d never have an idea (let alone a whole book), I went back. Since that time, I also completed three concept books for Read Your Story and a picture book (Sylvia’s Way, West Margin Press, 2021). I’ve asked for help. I’ve taken classes, attended workshops, connected with a great agent. Oh, and we moved back to my beloved Oregon.

I’m looking at a copy as I write this. It will forever be a reminder that writing is a labyrinth; a route under construction with lots of detours. 

But I love what it led to.

Thank you, Dawn, for allowing me to share this birth story.

Thank YOU for sharing your insights and inspiration with us, Stephanie!

Friends, the best way you can say thank you to Stephanie for spending some time with us today, is to support her work. Stephanie's books are available everywhere books are sold

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Image Supplied by Stephanie Shaw
An Oregon native, Stephanie completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Education at Oregon State University and her Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology at Lewis and Clark College. Her professional life includes teaching children with severe behavioral challenges, school counseling and school administration. But now her love is working with illustrators and editors to create stories that range from quiet to quirky, poetry to prose. When she isn’t assisting door-to-door vacuum cleaner vampire salesmen, taking cows on shopping trips for muumuus, or helping garden slugs with their calligraphy, she can be found at home with her husband Brad and her labradoodle Milo. 

Stephanie is a member of SCBWI and has served on the faculty of Oregon SCBWI at annual conferences and as a mentor to aspiring writers at Oregon Great Critiques many times. She is a three-time award winner for her contributions to Highlights for Kids and High Five Magazine. 

Stephanie’s books in publication include multiple picture books and board books published in the US and UK. Her work has been translated to Dutch, Portuguese and Turkish.
BEDTIME IN THE MEADOW, Tiger Tales, 2013
A COOKIE FOR SANTA, Sleeping Bear Press, 2014 
UNDER THE SLEEPY STARS, Tiger Tales/Little Tiger, 2015 
THE LEGEND OF THE BEAVER’S TAIL, Sleeping Bear Press, 2015
BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON, Tiger Tales/Little Tiger 2016
SCHNITZEL: A Retell of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Sleeping Bear Press, 2016
LULLABY FARM, Little Tiger, 2016
MOO LA LA! Simon and Schuster UK, 2017
PIECE BY PIECE, Sleeping Bear Press, 2017
TAILS FROM THE ANIMAL SHELTER, 2020
SYLVIA’S WAY,  West Margin Press, 2021 


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Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, Lucy's Blooms (Spring '21), and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to the award-winning book, Oregon Reads Aloud, and a frequent presenter (and e-presenter!) at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at www.dawnprochovnic.com.

July 22, 2020

Birth Stories for Books: LET'S DANCE!, by Valerie Bolling

by Valerie Bolling and Maine Diaz
One of the things I love most about being an author is discovering new books and meeting fellow creatives. I get to sit with a pile of new (or new to me) children's books and call the time spent "working." It's the best kind of work!

Valerie Bolling's debut picture book, LET'S DANCE!, (illustrated by Maine Diaz, Boyds Mills & Kane, 2020) is so much fun. The language is playful and rhythmic, the characters are diverse, and the invitation to join in and dance is irresistible!

I was introduced to Valerie by a mutual friend, Susan Uhlig, after I put out a call for contributors for my Birth Stories for Books and Have Swag Will Travel blog features. Valerie was kind enough to share her path to publication for LET'S DANCE! with me, and I'm so delighted to be able to share it with you here, today.

Take it away, Valerie!

Let's Dance!
by Valerie Bolling

At the start of each year, my husband and I set goals for ourselves. Having been inspired by a visit from our nieces in December of 2016, I decided that one of my goals for 2017 would be to explore the possibility of getting a picture book published. With this in mind, that January I had written two stories in which each of my nieces was the protagonist (The Greatest Gift for Zorah and I Do for Anyah). I also found and revised two stories I wrote many years ago (Play Date and Come In! Come In!).

Thus, began my pursuit to become a published writer. I spoke to people who I believed could be helpful – and they were – and I wrote and wrote and wrote ... and revised even more. I enrolled in a course at Westport Writers Workshop and revised I Do and The Greatest Gift. I continued writing after the course ended.

In June of 2017 I wrote my first draft of Let’s Dance! Since most children enjoy dancing, like Zorah and Anyah (and adults do, too, including me!), I decided to write a fun, rhyming story celebrating the universality of dance. My goal was to showcase dance as a language we all speak, even though we have different “accents.”

Let’s Dance! was originally titled I Love to Dance, as this line was repeated throughout the book. Marianne McShane, a friend who is an author, storyteller, and librarian, suggested I read Watersong by Tim McCanna as a mentor text and that I start my story with a line that appeared later in my manuscript: “Tappity-tap/Fingers snap.” She said that would immediately encourage readers to dance along from the beginning of the book. Her recommendations helped significantly in revising the book and inspired me to change its title. Since the “I love to dance” lines were deleted from the manuscript, I decided upon Let’s Dance!

Revision is an ongoing part of the writing process and perhaps the most necessary. That’s why I share the story about Marianne. No writer achieves success on her/his own. We each have friends, writing partners, critique group members, and a large supportive writing community that encourages us to forge ahead amidst all of the rejection. I am fortunate to have an amazing critique circle: critique partner, critique group, debut group that offers critique, WNDB mentor, and, most recently, an agent! At the time I wrote Let’s Dance!, however, Marianne was the only person who offered feedback because I hadn’t formed my circle.

I continued to revise Let’s Dance! until the end of 2017 and felt ready to start querying on January 1, 2018. What a way to start the year, huh?! I sent more queries on February 25, 2018, and an agent was interested in the story! She requested I send her two more manuscripts, but when I did, she wasn’t as interested in those stories, saying, “I foresee a harder sell for the other projects.” Thus, she decided to pass.

All in all, I submitted Let’s Dance! to 26 agents, editors, or small presses. Of the 26, I received eight “not interested” responses, and 16 people didn’t bother to respond, which is not uncommon. If there’s no interest in a manuscript, there may not be a response. I received two yeses: the first from the agent I recently referred to, and the second from the editor who wanted to publish the book. (That story is coming soon!)

In addition to direct queries, I participated in two Twitter pitches in June. I received a “like” in #PitMad that was turned down when I sent the manuscript, and I received another “like” later in the month during #PBPitch. That was the “like” from Jes Negrón, an editor at Boyds Mills & Kane, that led to Let’s Dance! being published!

When I sent the manuscript to Jes on June 18, 2018, she emailed me two weeks later on July 2, requesting to have a conversation. During that phone call, I learned that she was interested in acquiring the story! I shared with her my desire for the book’s illustrations to display an inclusive representation of children: gender, race, ability. I specifically said, “I want a lot of brown kids in this book!” Jes assured me there would be. I also said I wanted children of differing abilities and from diverse backgrounds. I said I wanted the ballet spread to include a boy in a tutu, and Jes agreed. (In the end, I got something even better: a child in a blue tutu whose gender is indiscernible.)

Jes asked me to write illustrator notes next to each stanza in the manuscript to signify the type of dance my words described. I hadn’t connected all of my words to particular dances, so this was an interesting exercise. When I completed that task in July, Jes said what I had written was fine but suggested deleting two stanzas; one dance was too similar to another, and she didn’t necessarily connect a specific dance with the other stanza. Besides those deletions, Jes changed not ONE word of my manuscript.

In October 2018, Jes expanded upon my desired vision for diversity by sharing that she thought we were missing out on an opportunity to make the story more global. She recognized that some of my words could describe cultural dances. For instance, where I saw “Tappity-tap/Fingers snap” as tap dance, Jes imagined flamenco from Spain. I envisioned the electric slide for “Glide and slide/Side to side,” but Jes suggested long sleeve dancing from China. I am thrilled to have this added layer of cultural representation in my book! It was at that time that Jes requested that I write backmatter: two-sentence descriptions for each dance featured in the book.

It’s ironic that my first published book is written in rhyme because I started out writing “poetry.” In first grade, I had a black and white marble composition book that I used to capture my poetic musings. I loved creating simple rhymes, using the most recent phonics lesson I had learned in school. I created “masterpieces” like: “There is a cat. It sat on a mat. It caught a rat.” How interesting that my writing has come full circle, that my first published book features rhyme. I continue to be grateful that this book, illustrator, editor, and publisher are what propelled me on my path to becoming a published author.

I want anyone who reads Let’s Dance! to know that not only are people connected through dance, but we’re also connected simply because we’re human. Regardless of how we dance or how we look, we are worthy, valuable members of society. I will continue to write books that make all children feel seen and heard and valued and validated. I want to do my part to promote a world of equity and inclusion, of peace and joy.

Thank you for sharing your beautiful and inspiring birth story for LET'S DANCE!, Valerie. Your book is sure to bring so much joy into the lives of children and families that read it together, and dance together.  

Friends, the best way you can say thank you to Valerie for spending some time with us today, is to support her work. LET'S DANCE! is available everywhere books are sold. 

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Let’s Dance! (Boyds Mills & Kane) is Valerie Bolling’s debut picture book. In addition to being an author, Valerie has been an educator for over 25 years. When she taught elementary students, it was difficult to find diverse literature for them. Thus, she is passionate about creating stories in which all children can see themselves and feel valued and heard.

A graduate of Tufts University and Columbia University, Teachers College, Valerie currently works as an Instructional Coach with middle and high school teachers.

Besides writing picture books, Valerie writes a Monthly Memo for teachers that she publishes on Twitter, and she has been published in The National Writing Project’s Quarterly (“The Family Writing Project Builds a Learning Community in Connecticut”) and NESCBWI News (“Microaggressions Don’t Feel ‘Micro’”). Recently, she had a poem accepted for publication by Cricket Media.

Valerie is represented by James McGowan of BookEnds Literary Agency, and she is a member of NCTE, SCBWI, the NESCBWI Equity and Inclusion Committee, the Authors Guild, the WNDB Mentorship Program, #12X12PB, 2020 Diverse Debuts, 20/20 Vision Picture Books, and a picture book critique group.

Valerie and her husband live in Connecticut and enjoy traveling, hiking, reading, going to the theater, and dancing. You can visit her website at http://valeriebolling.com/index.html.

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Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, Lucy's Blooms (Spring '21), and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to the award-winning book, Oregon Reads Aloud, and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at www.dawnprochovnic.com.

June 18, 2020

Seeking Diverse Contributors for "Birth Stories for Books" and "Have Swag Will Travel" Blog Series

The blog has been quiet for awhile. I've been quiet for awhile. I'm doing my best to listen. To learn. To reflect on how I personally contribute to and benefit from systemic racism. To make changes in my own behaviors. To become a better ally.

I first started my blog as way to provide free, accessible activities and learning extensions related to my books and my training and consulting company, SmallTalk Learning. Many of the teachers, librarians and families that I serve via my infant/toddler sign language workshops and early literacy training and consulting business hungered for more resources than I could effectively and affordably supply in person. Many of my workshop participants are from communities of color, and the educational resource aspect of my blog continues to be something I'm proud of and that I feel confident makes a positive difference in my community and in our world.

As my blog evolved over time, I started creating different collections of posts, for example, Quick Ideas for Getting Started with SigningStart to Finish Story Time, (as well as the expanded version of that series, Start to Finish Story Time, Expanded), and Birth Stories for Books.

I'm especially proud of my Birth Stories for Books series, and my Have Swag Will Travel series, as these posts help me (and my readers) meet and learn from a variety of different authors, and they allow me the opportunity to amplify the voices and works of other authors. The first posts in these series started with a general outreach to my personal/ professional social network seeking contributors for guest posts and/or interviews. Since then, contributors for each series has evolved through word of mouth.

What I am not proud of is that as of this writing, I have only hosted one guest of color on my blog. This is not due to a lack of interest, but it is due to a lack of intentional outreach. This must change. As I pay closer attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, and as I reflect on and learn about my own contributions to racism and the systemic inequities in our society, I understand that I personally must do better. Going forward I will intentionally seek out a wider range of voices to amplify. I will seek opportunities to discover and reach out to writers and illustrators of color that are outside of my current personal/professional circles. I will work to establish a more diverse network of contributors.

If you are a person of color, or a person from another underrepresented community, and you have an interest in your work being featured on this blog, please reach out via the contact form on the left, or through a DM on my Twitter account. I want to learn about your unique path to publication. I want to hear about the unique obstacles you faced in finding a publishing home for your book(s). I want to learn your professional tips and tricks for book events and other book promotions. I want to shine a light on you and on your work.

Please feel encouraged to share this post widely so that I can begin to expand and widen my outreach to a more diverse cast of book creators.

And ... if I've made a mistake on how I've worded something, or characterized something in this outreach, call me out. I want to be made of aware of my mistakes so that I can learn, and so that I can do better.

June 17, 2020

Have Swag Will Travel: Tips for Planning Book Events, Summary Post

Over the past couple of years, I've developed several different collections or series of blog posts, for example, Quick Ideas for Getting Started with SigningStart to Finish Story Time, (as well as the expanded version of that series, Start to Finish Story Time, Expanded), and the Birth Stories for Books series. Once there's a critical mass of posts in a particular series, I create a summary post that provides an updated list of the posts for the series.

Last year I started a series of posts called "Have Swag Will Travel: Tips for Planning Book Events." At long last, I've now created a summary of posts for this series. Keep in mind that the first several posts in the series were created by authors in a pre-pandemic frame of mind, but many of the ideas in these posts can be incorporated (in some cases with modifications to align with current circumstances, ) into the promotional events and plans for your own book(s).

This will be a good post to bookmark and follow, as I will add links to this page as new posts are added to the series.

Here goes:

Interview with Anna Monders about her Booktalk Blog (pro tips for creating your own booktalks)

Chicken Break! by Cate Berry (EGGcellent ideas including author collaborations, playful reviews, karaoke songs and videos, and themed refreshments)

untitled, by Timothy Young (school visits, sculptures, and other art-infused give-aways)

My Quiet Ship, by Hallee Adleman (interactive school visit and classroom activity plans)

There Was An Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth, by B. J. Lee (business cards, note cards, & posters)

If you like these posts, you might also be interested in Start to Finish Story Time, Expanded.

If you've found these posts helpful, I encourage you to bookmark and follow this page. I will add new links to this page as more posts go up. (And, please get in touch if you'd like to share YOUR tips for planning book events).