January 19, 2019


I'm excited to LAUNCH a new blog series today: Have Swag, Will Travel: Tips for Planning Book events. Like my other recent series, Birth Stories for Books, this will be a collection of guest posts from other authors and illustrators, in this case sharing their experiences planning and implementing book events (versus sharing their paths to publication).

Today's guest is author, B. J. Lee, sharing her experiences as she prepares for the February 1, 2019 launch of her debut picture book, THERE WAS AN OLD GATOR WHO SWALLOWED A MOTH, illustrated by David Opie.

Have SWAG, Will Travel
by B. J. Lee

Image provided by Author
It's only recently, with the publication of my first picture book, that I’ve come to appreciate book swag. THERE WAS AN OLD GATOR WHO SWALLOWED A MOTH, illustrated by the fabulous David Opie, releases February 1, 2019 from Pelican Publishing. Needless to say, I’m in book promotion mode and a big part of book promo is SWAG. Have SWAG will travel!

I've gone to lots of author book events over the years and picked up much swag along the way, especially buttons and bookmarks. Thinking about my own launch, I did a lot of reading about swag and here's what I ended up doing:

Because  I read it was important to get your cover in front of as many people as possible, most of the swag I made has the book cover on it, including business cards. I was also sure to include information about myself as an author, my website, and some social media contacts on the back. And then I put my book cover on my website with links to retailers, including my favorite local indie, Tombolo Books.

Image provided by Author
The information I include on the back has been adjusted. My first batch of cards were, apparently, difficult to understand, as I got asked:

1. Did you self-publish?
2. What is your name?
3. Are you the illustrator?
4. Did you draw this picture?

So on the second batch, I tried to be very clear!

I hand out cards everywhere I go, to young kids in Trader Joe’s and their moms, to my doctor’s receptionist, to my doctor, to people I meet in the park. I figure everybody that I hand a card to will have information about my book and will have the book cover image in their mind. They may be interested in buying the book, they may not, they may put it on the refrigerator, they may pass it along to someone else. It’s all good! The image is out there in the world. The information on how to order it is on the back.

Then I made some bookmarks. I included an elongated cover photo on the front, but not the title. I put the title and the other information on the back, thinking that bookmarks might be more appealing to people without being so “selling.” I give these to librarians, along with my business card, and I leave bookmarks at the circulation desk and in the children’s section, if permitted, so folks can just grab them.

Then I experimented with postcards. Since my husband has some printing experience, he said that people are not going to want a postcard with the title on it so, as with the bookmarks, I made postcards with images on the front and wording on the back. I chose three scenes from my book and in subsequent printings, reprinted the two most popular. I was sure to leave plenty of room for people to write on and address. The idea behind postcards is that people will think it's a cute image and send it to someone, thereby spreading my cover image and information to others.

I also got an ingenious idea from bookseller Stefani Beddingfield at Inkwood Books in Tampa. I was showing her images from my book and we were chatting about note cards, as I was interested in maybe making some. She said that unless an image was tied to a holiday or a theme that is typically seen in note cards, they won’t sell. For example, the image of my cover would not sell as a note card. Then she saw the following image, and she said, “These would make adorable get well cards.” And so the gator get well card was born.

Swag was also instrumental in helping me navigate my book launch. I took my images around to booksellers to see if they would be interested in doing a launch with me. I also took them to Boyd’s Hill Nature Preserve because: gators. They loved the gator character and, when I showed them the paperback version of my book that I printed from the e-galley, they really embraced it. They suggested having a Gator Day in conjunction with their already-existing alligator walk event, which would include a book launch, education about alligators and even a live juvenile alligator. Local bookseller Alsace Wallentine of Tombolo Books has agreed to partner with me for this event. And all of this came together because of – SWAG! You can order a signed copy of my book from Tombolo.

I'll be having additional swag at my book launch including signed posters as door prizes, bookplates, coloring books which the illustrator, David Opie, provided black-and-white images for, and I’ve ordered a gator doll/character from a local crafter.

I’m currently having a preorder swag giveaway party on Facebook and Twitter.  You can enter to win fabulous swag, now through January 31st! Find details on my website.

If you will be in the Tampa Bay area of Florida on March 10, 2019, stop by Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, to hear me read, possibly sing, and pick up a signed book. The gator festivities start at 10 AM.

Swag is a wonderful thing!

1. It can show people what your book is all about.
2. If your picture book is character driven, it can communicate your character to people.
3. It can make people rally around you and your book.
4. It can bring disparate groups together to work for a common goal.

In short, it can create community. SWAG is the bomb, and for this debut picture book author, this saying is true: “Have Swag will travel.”

Thank you for having me on your blog, Dawn. It’s been a pleasure.

Thank YOU, B. J., for a really informative post! I've learned so much. I especially love the idea of the Get Well cards, and it's fabulous to SEE so many great examples of the materials that you've put together to get the word out about your book. Let us know how Gator Day goes! 

And now, dear readers, head on over to B. J.'s website to get in on the SWAG giveaway before it ends, January 31, 2019! And...if YOU have tips to share about planning book events, please get in touch via the comments or the "contact" link to the left so we can hear YOUR Have Swag, Will Travel story! 


B.J. Lee is a former college music librarian turned full-time writer and poet. Her debut picture book, There Was an Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth, is releasing on February 1, 2019 with Pelican Publishing. Additionally, she is an award-winning children’s poet with over 100 poems and stories published/forthcoming in major anthologies and magazines. Anthology credits include Construction People (Wordsong, 2019), I Am a Jigsaw (BloomsburyUK, 2019), National Geographic’s Poetry of US (2018), National Geographic’s Book of Nature Poetry (2015), One Minute Till Bedtime (Little, Brown, 2016), Moonstruck (Otter-Barry, 2019), Spaced Out (BloomsburyUK, 2019), and many others. Magazine credits include Spider, Highlights, and The School Magazine. B. J. blogs at Today’s Little Ditty, where she is an authority on poetic forms. Connect with B. J. on Facebook and Twitter, or find out more at http://www.childrensauthorbjlee.com/. 

January 16, 2019

Birth Stories for Books: ONE SNOWY DAY by Diana Murray

I'm so happy to share the latest Birth Story for Books: ONE SNOWY DAY written by Diana Murray and illustrated by Diana Toledano. I first became familiar with Diana's work when I read NED THE KNITTING PIRATE, back when I was doing market research in preparation for submitting my own pirate story to publishers. I soon learned that she has MANY fun picture books. Today we'll hear from Diana about: 

How One Concept Book Became Three

ONE SNOWY DAY (Sourcebooks, 2018) had a long, long journey beginning with the first draft of CITY SHAPES (Little, Brown, 2016) which I wrote around 2009. You see, CITY SHAPES sold in a two-book deal after I got my agent in 2012. There were some publication delays and it didn’t get released until 2016. Because it was a two-book deal, I began sending some options for a second book to the publisher around 2013. When you have a multi-book deal with a publisher, things move a little more slowly since you can’t send new work to other publishers until they’ve chosen your second contracted book. I found the wait frustrating since I’m very prolific. 

Anyway, the editor chose a manuscript that the team was interested in around 2014. It was a manuscript about the four seasons. But when I spoke to her in detail about her thoughts on it, it turned out, she wanted a major rewrite. It would basically be a different manuscript entirely and I’d have to start from scratch. I was so nervous I wouldn’t be able to pull it off, but I finally garnered my strength and plowed forward. After discussing with my editor, I felt I knew what they were looking for. They wanted something similar to CITY SHAPES, a kind of companion book, even though the illustrator would be different. They wanted something lyrical, poetic, descriptive, and a bit more on the literary side.

So I sat on my patio (listening to the pitter-patter of a passing shower) and began to write SUMMER COLOR! (which was originally called “Summer Rain”). I deliberately set it in the country to contrast with the urban setting of CITY SHAPES. Going with colors as the concept seemed like a natural choice. I ended up loving the final result and felt fortunate that the collaborative process led me to a manuscript that I wouldn’t have written otherwise. Thankfully, the publisher loved it, too, and accepted it as their second book.

Now that my contract was fulfilled, I could do whatever I wanted. I thought, what the heck, maybe I should try a third concept book. I already had a city setting and a country setting, so this time I tried a small town setting with the concept of counting. Although all three books were concept books (not character-driven books with your typical problem/solution-based plot) they still needed to have a kind of story arc. For ONE SNOWY DAY, I used a day to night transition. In addition, the climax of the book involved a playful puppy stealing the carrot nose from the snowman. At that point, the numbers went from counting up to counting back down to one.

I sent it to the same publisher. My editor loved it, but it turned out, the publisher pretty much wanted an entire rewrite again. I adored my editor (and the whole team at Little, Brown), but after much thought, I decided not to accept the revision request. I felt that the story was solid, and although it didn’t fit with their particular list, I thought it might fit with the list of another publisher. After several years of writing, I had become more confident about knowing when something was generally working or not. This was a tough choice, but I’m glad I made the choice I did (and that my agent was supportive) because I ended up getting another offer from Sourcebooks and they had the same vision for the book that I did. Huzzah! It all worked out.

My journey with ONE SNOWY DAY was a good lesson in patience, hard work, self-reliance and tenacity.

Thank you, Dawn, for the opportunity to share my experience.

THANK YOU, Diana, for taking the time to share your experience. Your stories are so much fun to read. Thanks for providing a little insight about how they came to be! You've shown us the value of having a vision for your story and the importance of having confidence in your vision. 

Diana Murray is the author of over a dozen books for children, including CITY SHAPES (Little, Brown, 2016), GRIMELDA THE VERY MESSY WITCH (Tegen Books/HarperCollins, 2016), NED THE KNITTING PIRATE (Roaring Brook/Macmillan, 2016), PIZZA PIG (Step-into-Reading/Random House, 2018), and UNICORN DAY (Sourcebooks, 2019). Her award-winning poems have appeared in magazines such as Highlights, High Five and Spider. Diana grew up in NYC and still lives nearby with her husband, two very messy children, and a goldfish named Pickle. Find out more at http://www.dianamurray.com .


January 11, 2019

2018 Year-End Post (Albeit Belated)

As I've mentioned before, although fewer and fewer people send annual holiday greetings, I continue to treasure this tradition--both the receiving of cards, letters, and photos from friends and family near and far, and the preparation of my own annual update.

Each year I try to provide a relevant update embedded in some creative format. In most cases, I've also published a year-end blog post that incorporates the holiday greeting for that year. Here is a link to a summary of past years' greetings.

This year I gave some thought to why it is that I hold onto this tradition. It turns out there are many reasons:

-I like good old fashioned hard-copy versions of things. Case in point: I still use an old-style calendar/planner. (I am a little horrified to see the finger prints smeared all over my 2018 edition, but look at how fat that one is as compared to the fresh and new one for 2019. Isn't that just marvelous?)  My calendars serve the joint purpose of being a planner and a historical record of life events. This is important, given that I'm not a regular journaler (I know this is akin to admitting my other dark secret ... shhhh... I'm the only children's author I know who is not a huge fan of the Harry Potter books. Sadly, this admission may flub any chance I had of realizing my dream of working with Arthur Levine on at least one book at some point in my career. Sigh).

Anyhow, even though I don't journal in the traditional sense, I do write a variety of things down in my calendar, and I keep them year after year. I'm actually very particular about my calendars. I can only use one with this specific layout (MTW on the left, TH/FRI on right, Sat/Sun on bottom right). I've tried using other formats before, and I feel completely out of sorts (not to mention risking all types of scheduling mistakes). Wednesday absolutely must be on the lower left and Thursday absolutely must be on the upper right... Nothing else will do for me.

I should also note that my planner doesn't really take the place of a journal. My planner is mainly filled with appointments and to-dos, not "memories" or feelings. I do occasionally use a monthly calendar to write down memories. I kept a calendar of this nature for both of my pregnancies and for the first year of both of my kids' lives. (This was at the suggestion of a dear friend of mine who isn't a writer, and who I regularly encourage to journal. Go figure!)

I'm a blogger of course, and also a letter writer. I've written long letters to friends in Australia (though admittedly those have slowed down over the years), and I'm still old fashioned when it comes to hand-written thank you notes. When my kids were little, I wrote them letters on the eve of their birthdays (guilty confession: I petered out on this when they got a bit older, mainly because the energy it gook to parent them, sapped me of the energy I needed to reflect on their current ages and stages and write about it...do you see a pattern here?) Since my daughter has headed off to college, I've started the practice of writing her letters about her childhood. This has been therapeutic for me, and enjoyable for her. I've also written to my son, who is still in high school, a few times, and I aim to step up my letter writing to him this year (no need to wait until he goes off to college to connect with him in this way).

I've also been fairly diligent in about writing (journaling, actually) during family trips to faraway places, and I typically write debriefing notes to myself after major trips and/or major life experiences or events. This  brings me closer to the reason that I value the ritual of creating my annual holiday greeting. This tradition provides me with the opportunity to reflect and remember, and then share. When it comes to powerful or emotional topics, I'm one that needs to ponder and mull on things before I can write about them. I admire people who can write about "today" today, but that's not me. The more intense the emotion or situation, the longer it will take for me to get it down on paper (I particularly admire the people who can reflect on and poignantly write about the current events/state of affairs in our country and our world. I'm still thinking about and pondering the injustices of last week or last month, while these speedier processors are writing about events from today or yesterday.)

But, once a year, I sit down with my calendar, and I gather up the events of the life I share with my family, and I make sure to get it down on paper. I take into consideration what is going on in in terms of world or local events (or familial themes), and I try to share our family's story in a format that is reflective of those world events or familial themes. Past greeting formats have included trail maps, graphs, trading cards, and game boards.

This year, hashtags were a big part of our national conversation ... and so hashtags factored heavily in my #2018 #Holiday #Greeting. #HappyNewYear #Friends. Here it is:

January 5, 2019

Birth Stories for Books: NO MORE NOISY NIGHTS (and other books) by Holly L. Niner

I can't think of a better way to kick off a new year for my blog than to resume the Birth Stories for Books series: Posts about paths to publication from published authors and illustrators.

Today's post rings especially true for me, because, like Holly L. Niner, I love words, and books have always been a part of my life. I can also relate to Holly's experience of pushing past rejection. So, what does Holly have to say?

Rejections Be Damned! The Words Are Calling…
If a word cloud hung over my head it would include these words: 

Daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother, aunt, friend, speech therapist, writer, author, cook, baker, reader, good listener, left-handed, happy, strong-willed, smart, baby boomer, Caucasian of mixed heritage, cat lover… I’ll stop there.  You get the point. This word cloud would be in the shape of a heart because-
I LOVE WORDS! I always have.
Books have always been a part of my life.  In our home there are books in every room, even the bathroom.  I have memories of my parents reading to me.  Saturdays meant a trip to the library.  In elementary school we could check out 3 books each week.  That was not enough! So the librarian suggested a friend and I pick our books out together and trade during the week!  Books were such a part of my life that my mother even made me books for a birthday cake. 
And yet, by education I am not a writer, but a speech language pathologist.  I’ve spent my career working in the adult population. While that is not writing, it does involve words and the power and importance of communication.
But what about writing?  How did that happen?
When I had children I stayed home for a number of years and I was immersed in the glorious world of picture books and chapter books.  I watched my children pour over pictures, fall in love with books and ask amazing questions as we read books. The desire to write something children would love bubbled to the surface when my mother suggested a correspondence writing course.
I enjoyed the course, learned a lot about writing and a little about the business of writing.  Upon graduating, I was sure I would soon be published.  I was wrong!  In those days, the 1990s, there were many publishers open to submissions.  You would send your manuscript with a self-addressed stamped envelope.  And then you would wait…usually many months, for the form letter rejection.  I wasn’t prepared for the rejections. 
Some big life changes happened and I stopped writing.  But years later I returned to it because I missed weaving words into stories.  This time I learned more about the business of publishing. With that understanding, the rejections did not hurt quite as much.  I learned the difference between stories that are right for a magazine vs a picture book. I joined a critique group and worked on the craft of writing.  The rejections continued to pour in, but now they might have a word of encouragement written in the margin.
My first success was in the magazine market.  Then in 2004 Albert Whitman published Mr. Worry: A story About OCD.  My son has OCD and, at the time, I could not find a picture book to explain it to him or his sister. That manuscript found a home fairly quickly because Albert Whitman publishes books about children's issues. I Can't Stop: A Story About Tourette Syndrome (2005) came about because I had a relationship with Albert Whitman and they were looking for a book on the subject.
And yet the rejections continued to pile up.
In 2008 I’d been working on two manuscripts. The Day I Ran Away, grew from an America’s Funniest Home Video clip where a little boy, standing in his yard, asked,  how can I run away, when I’m not allowed to cross the street. Like all ideas, it tumbled around in my mind until it became a story.  This one all in dialogue, where my heroine recounts the day’s adventures while Dad tucks her in at night.  After critique group edits, it began the lonely unsuccessful trips back and forth to editors.
At the same time No More Noisy Nights was also making the rounds. The idea came from a 1st-3rd grade writing prompt book.  The prompt: write a letter to the monster under your bed.  Jackson, a genteel mole, appeared and he moved into a house that already had a ghost in the attic, a boogey monster in the basement and a pixie in the piano.  Their nighttime activities kept Jackson awake, but he found a way to help them occupy their nighttime hours and in the process made some new friends.
Unfortunately, even with two picture books published by a well-known publisher, these manuscripts weren’t finding a home. 
Discouraged, I asked a published writing friend for advice. She suggested I contact Shari Dash Greenspan at Flashlight Press.  And so in September of 2008 a dialogue with Shari began.  A different manuscript was sent and rejected.  Sigh.  But in October of 2009 she requested a story I mentioned in 2008. We tweaked and discussed it in emails and finally it was under contract in 2012!!  That story, No More Noisy Nights, was released in the fall of 2017.  During our emails about it, The Day I Ran Away was mentioned. Shari asked to see it in 2012. It was under contract in 2014 and released in April of 2017.
Since then? Well, the rejections continue…
At school visits I show students a LONG scroll listing the 101 (and counting) finished stories; the four book and 20 magazine titles are highlighted. I show them a folder of well over 100 rejection letters. I tell them that’s ok. Each story I write makes me a better writer and the rejections show I’m still pursuing my dream!
While there are the instant success stories, most writers work hard at their craft for years before publication. That was how it was with me. Full of ups and downs, starts and stops, rejections and acceptances. That is still how the writing life goes.
But I continue. For me, the words call. They ask me to collect them and connect them. Together they are more. Just like each of us is more than our collection of words and more still, when we connect with others.

THANK YOU so much, Holly, for inspiring us with your words about your path to publication. I've enjoyed connecting with you and learning about you and your books ... and all because of our shared love of words!


Holly Niner is a speech therapist, book lover and children’s author. Her books include, No More Noisy Nights (Flashlight Press) & The Day I Ran Away (Flashlight Press).  Both received a Gold Mom’s Choice award and were nominated for Mississippi Magnolia Children’s Choice award 2019. No More Noisy Nights was a scholastic Book Club selection and featured on Storyline Online.  Mr. Worry: A Story about OCD (Albert Whitman) received the 2005 IBBY Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities Award, and I Can’t Stop: A Story about Tourette Syndrome (Albert Whitman) which was the winner of the 2006 Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Award and a 2005 Bank Street College of Education Best Book. She lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana with her husband, in a home with books on bookshelves, on tables, in boxes, even in the bathroom! Her now grown children, were always able to talk her into buying them a book.  Find her at hollyniner.com. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter. 

December 24, 2018

Year-End Greetings and Holiday Letters, Summary Post

Although it seems fewer and fewer people send annual holiday greetings, I treasure this tradition each year--both the receiving of cards, letters, and photos from friends and family near and far, and the preparation of my own annual update.
Katia, Nikko, Dawn, & Sam, 2018

Each year I try to provide a relevant update embedded in some creative format. In most cases, I've also published a year-end blog post that incorporates the holiday greeting for that year. Here is a summary of those posts:


2017 (I prepared and sent a holiday greeting, but I did not write a 2017 reflection post, as my focus was on the care and company of beloved family members in their last days of life.)





2012 (This post continues to be one of my most widely-read posts, with over 23,000 views.)

As I reflect on each of these posts I see a mixture of blessings and heartbreak. I'm reminded of the importance of working for a better world in big ways and small. I'm warmed by memories of family travels, book launches, enduring friendships, and ordinary happenings. But mostly, I'm filled with gratitude for life, good health, and love.

May you experience peace, love, and joy in the coming year.

November 26, 2018

Birth Stories for Books: WHAT DO THEY DO WITH ALL THAT POO? by Jane Kurtz

Welcome back to Birth Stories for Books: Posts About Paths to Publication from Published Authors and Illustrators. My current guest is Jane Kurtz author of WHAT DO THEY DO WITH ALL THAT POO? (illustrated by Allison Black and published by Beach Lane Books, June, 2018).

Given my own interest in potty-related topics, I was particularly pleased to be able to feature this book in this series of posts!

Jane shares with us where the idea for this book originated, and how it materialized into a book. Welcome, Jane!

Ideas Are Often the Easy Part
by Jane Kurtz

The question most authors probably get asked more than any other?

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Ideas are often the easy part, especially once you train your brain to pay attention to innovative flashes. I sometimes show young writers examples from my published books of times I’ve gotten ideas from memories, from things happening around me, and from things I’ve been reading. (As someone wisely said about writing a novel, something may initially trigger the initial idea for that particular novel, but a writer actually needs a good idea for every single scene.)

And sometimes, the idea for a book isn’t even yours.

That’s how it was for my new picture book, What Do They Do With All That Poo?

I was at an author retreat with buddies, and we were sitting around in the living room discussing (okay, complaining about) how picture books have changed. We started to make each other laugh with titles of books we would never write…and one of my friends said, “Zoo poo.”

“Hang on,” I said. “That’s actually a great idea for a book.”

My friend has written a nonfiction picture book about an urban farmer. She’s read us many drafts of a book celebrating tomatoes. She is as serious as I am about compost and the beauty of the soil under our feet. So, I knew she was as interested as I was in whether zoos were doing creative and responsible things with all that poo.

But she insisted the idea was mine if I wanted it.

Vermont College of Fine Arts Residency
I admit that I sat on the idea for several years. When I was teaching the Picture Book Intensive in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Children’s and YA Literature, I really discovered and delved into all the new nonfiction being published.

Inspired, I started to write nonfiction, and I actually sold another nonfiction picture book first.  When I was talking with that editor, I mentioned how I wanted to write about zoo poo but wasn’t sure what approach to take. She asked me if I wanted to brainstorm with her, and I said, “Sure.”

Interactive Exhibit at the Oregon Zoo
By then, I’d been turning a lot of different approaches over in my mind. I told her I wasn’t sure whether to focus on one zoo or many. I had visited the zoo right here in Portland with my grandkids, for example. Should I focus the book right here in my own backyard? 

Somehow during the conversation, the idea came up that for young readers, I should probably start with the animals themselves. As I was trying to think about what very young readers needed to know about poo, it occurred to me that I should set the stage with the concept of different types of poo that come from different animal diets.

It’s always mysterious exactly where the voice for my various books comes from. I can’t even say how these lines popped into my head. But this is what I sent to the editor as part of a very loose first draft:

Welcome to the zoo and the peaceful sound of chewing.

Everybody eats, all around the zoo.

Different mouths.  Different teeth. Welcome to the view.

Munch munch the herbivores eat fruit and leaves and trees.

Crunch crunch the carnivores devour meat with glee.

Oh, oh the omnivores nibble spiders and seeds.

And then…





Welcome to the zoo with the funny sounds of poo-ing.

I didn’t know if she would respond favorably at all to the rhyme. After all, a lot of editors say they don’t want to see any rhyming manuscripts (although I’ve published rhyming books previously and know that many editors mostly mean they don’t want to see flat, predictable, forced rhymes).

The irony of those clever lines is that they didn’t survive. But she liked what I was doing. She asked me to write more about the various animals, and I started with hippos, an animal I often saw growing up in Ethiopia that has pretty dramatic poo habits. 

Some of my favorite bits of this book were left on the cutting room floor. Like this:

Some zoos have cubs that were born in a litter.

Zookeepers sprinkle the cubs’ food with glitter.

The poo comes in blue, gold, and silvery hues,

which helps them keep track of whose poo is whose.

When I discovered that many bats have poo that sparkles because of the insects they devour, it was a little bit of a consolation prize. I love it that I learn so many things every time I write a book.

In my experience, publishing a picture book means being willing to play endlessly with words and rhythms and hold possibilities loosely until the result (in this case) is a book that a reader describes as “that rare combination: hilarious and good science.”

Hilarious and good science, indeed. Thank you, Jane, for sharing the back story of WHAT DO THEY DO WITH ALL THAT POO? All laughs aside, we sure did learn a heap from you! 

Jane Kurtz is an award-winning author of almost 40 fiction and nonfiction books for young readers—picture books, ready-to-reads, and middle grade novels. Lately, her books focus on “green” themes such as compost, earthworms, and saving pollinators. She lives in Portland, Oregon; teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in YA and Children’s Literature, and heads up a volunteer team that creates colorful, fun, local language books for families in Ethiopia (where she spent most of her childhood). You can find her on Twitter and at her website: Janekurtz.com .

November 8, 2018

Birth Stories for Books: THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY, by Hannah Holt

Welcome back to Birth Stories for Books: Posts About Paths to Publication from Published Authors and Illustrators. My current guest is Hannah Holt, author of THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY (illustrated by Jay Fleck and published by Balzer + Bray, October, 2018). I had so much fun learning about this book and getting to know Hannah along the way.

Dawn Prochovnic: Thanks for allowing me to interview you, Hannah, and congratulations on your recent publication of THE DIAMOND AND THE BOYI’ve read in some earlier interviews that you wrote over 80 drafts of this manuscript over a number of years, eventually landing on the dual telling / parallel structure that you use for this story. How did that structure eventually emerge for you? Is there a particular ah-ha moment that you recall?

Hannah Holt: First, thanks so much for interviewing me. My parallel version of this story came as a result of responding to failure. My first agent and I did not part ways on happy terms. She wrote a long and hurtful note when we separated, and after that I wasn’t sure if I could or should go on writing. For the next month, I didn’t write a thing. Instead, I did a lot of soul searching. In the end, I came to the following conclusions:

-I liked writing and missed it.
-I couldn’t control whether or not anyone else liked my writing.
-I could improve my craft.
-I could become smarter about how and where I submitted my work.

This story, THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY, was one of the first stories I revised after this writing break. Previously, I had tried writing the story about Tracy’s cleverness or rocks that sparkle, but those ideas no longer seemed important.

Instead, I saw the need for resilience.

Graphite needed to become resilient…Tracy had to become resilient…

And I needed to get over myself, too, if I wanted to write this story well. So I threw out all my old drafts and started from scratch. Writing a story in parallel about change and resilience seemed natural because it was the journey I was on myself.

This story went on to attract interest from multiple houses.

Lasting success takes hard work and resilience. I’m really glad I didn’t give up!

DP: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that after you signed with a new agent, you spent another three months polishing and revising the manuscript before it went out on submission. After so many revisions over so many years, how did you know the story was finally done

HHI don't think stories are every really finished. I think they just arrive at interesting stopping places. Publishing a book is a great way to stop working on it! :) My agent, Laura, helped me draw out more of the heart of this story. Through our revisions my story became less perfectly parallel but more compelling. Revision means giving up something good for (hopefully) something even better. Looking back at my old drafts, I'm glad we took this direction. It brought out more of the soul of the story.

DP: I understand that The Diamond and the Boy is about your grandfather. Do you remember the moment that you decided you needed to tell his story? 

HH: My cousin, Erin Bylund, told me I needed to get started on this book. She was very supportive in helping me get started and read several of my earliest drafts. Sometimes it takes a push from the outside to get the ball rolling.

DP: Beyond the familial connection, was there anything that motivated you to keep working on this particular story for so many years? 

HHI have a degree in civil engineering and I loved the scientific elements of the story, too. This project was the perfect blend of heart and science. It was an irresistible mix of all the things that interest me most.

DP: Reflecting on THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY's long 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?

HHI "met" my agent through an online query letter contest called PbParty. Without this event, I don't know that I would have connected with my agent. I'm stubborn enough that I probably would have found a different path to publication some other way; however, that was a pivotal moment in the development of this story. 

DP: As you labored over this story over the years, was there a moment or situation along the way that was so painful or demotivating, that you nearly quit?

HHBreaking up with my first agent was the hardest moment for me before this story was published. However, even after signing with agent #2 and selling two books, it hasn't been all rainbows and kittens. 

My second agent, Laura Biagi, left agenting to pursue her own writing. Another agent at the agency took over my work for a while. However, this agent represented many clients in many genres. After a while, it became clear that if I wanted my work pushed, I would need to seek new representation. I really liked agent #3, so it was a tough call to make. However, even though I'm currently in agent limbo, I still think it was for the best.

I'm slowly gathering research in quest of agent #4. I'm taking my time because I really, really, really want agent #4 to be my last. 

DP: 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 many revisions?

HH: The thing that lasted the longest was the title. From almost my very first draft, I had titled this story DIAMOND MAN. That title lasted up through the offer from my editor. However, a year before publication marketing requested a title change and now we have The Diamond & the Boy.

My earliest drafts were so different that nothing remained the same. I completely rewrote this story at least ten times. I have a version in rhyme, another from the point of view of his mother, and yet another as a series of fictional letters between Tracy Hall and Thomas Edison. I tried just about EVERYTHING before I came to this final version.

DP: Is there anything that you had to cut out of the story that was especially near and dear to your heart, but that didn’t work in the confines of a picture book? 

HH: No but there was something my editor asked me to add that was painful. My editor asked me to address conflict diamonds in the end note. I spent a month immersed in this research, trying to approach it in a way that was both representative and kid-appropriate. The diamond fueled wars were cruel and gruesome. While doing this research, I frequently cried myself to sleep at night. I stopped wearing my wedding ring because looking at diamonds became disturbing. What people have done to each other because of diamond greed is absolutely horrifying. 

DP: Yes, the diamond conflicts are a very troubling topic. For for what it's worth, I learned a lot about the issue from the end note in your book. I'm really glad you included that information. Let's shift gears to something less painful. Can you talk a little bit about the experience of seeing your words and your story being joined with illustrations?  

HHI feel like a need more of a break to transition from that last question. Whew, talk about one extreme kind of emotion to the other. Seeing this story illustrated was an amazing experience. Jay’s work is stunning. In addition to the beauty of the work, I was delighted to see he had illustrated some of Tracy’s childhood inventions and made them scientifically accurate. I'm so thrilled he said yes to this project.

DP: 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?

HHThis is going to sound a bit cheesy, but chase your own dreams. If you are keyed into the writing community on social media, you'll likely see lots of other people posting success stories (like what I'm doing today). There are almost as many different success paths as there are writers. Do your homework, decide what you want, and don't become distracted by what other people are doing. Aim high and shoot for your own stars.

DP: Oh, yes, I couldn't agree more! One last question before we wrap up: Is there something you wish someone would ask you about THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY and/or your path to publication that you haven’t had the opportunity to share yet? 

I wish someone had asked me who helped me get this story ready for submission. In addition to my amazing editor Kristin Rens and agent Laura Biagi, many others helped. My amazing family assisted with research and development, special thanks to Erin Bylund, Charlotte Weight, David Hall, John Catron, Josh Holt, and others.

Many talented critique partners read this story along the way, including Carrie Finison, Diane Tulloch, Dana Carey, Vivian Kirkfield, Alayne Christian, Julie Segal Walters, Carrie Tilotson, Tonya Lippert, Casey Robinson, many members of the Poet's Garage, and others.

SCBWI provided opportunities to have this work critique by professional children's editor. Julie Hedlund's 12x12 challenge provided me with support and motivation to keep writing and revising. I probably found out about the query letter pitch contest in the Sub It Club group on Facebook. Sites like Kidlit 411 helped provide education and resources. The debut group Epic 18 was a tremendous resource for navigating my debut year.

There are dozens of others who offered kind words or support along the way. Each made a difference. And the help continues forward! Thank you readers! Thank you reviewers! Thank you to everyone requesting The Diamond and the Boy at your local library! Writing may be a solitary experience but publishing is a team effort.

Just in case this feels overwhelming to anyone at the beginning of their publishing journey...ten years ago, I didn't know anyone in publishing. I started with a desire and reaching out to another local writer online: Elizabeth Glann.

I wasn't working on The Diamond and the Boy yet when I sent this message, but joining my first critique group was the real birth of my writing career.

DP: Wow, Hannah. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and share THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY's birth story. I'm inspired and encouraged by your story and by your tenacity and resilience. It's not a wonder you are Tracy Hall's granddaughter! 


Hannah Holt is a children’s author with an engineering degree. Her books, The Diamond & The Boy (2018, Balzer+Bray) and A Father’s Love (2019, Philomel) weave together her love of language and science. She lives in Oregon with her husband, four children, and a very patient cat named Zephyr. She and her family enjoy reading, hiking, and eating chocolate chip cookies. You can find her on Twitter and at her website: HannahHolt.com.