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…

Splat

Splosh

Plop

Dink

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! 

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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! 

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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.   

Birth Stories for Books: Posts About Paths to Publication, Summary Post

In 2018, I wrote a guest post on Tara Lazar's blog that described my path to publication for my forthcoming books, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty? and Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty? That post inspired me to start asking other authors to share their path to publication stories with me. So began a new series of guest blog posts I'll be publishing periodically between now and when my two new books come out in October, 2019.

"Birth Stories for Books: Posts About Paths to Publication from Published Authors and Illustrators" is a great series to bookmark and follow.  I will add links to this page as new posts go up. (Note: I've also added a link to the path to publication stories for my first books below. Although that post is not officially part of this series, it aligns with the "Path to Publication" topic/theme.)

Here goes:

Coming Soon: Vivian Kirkfield, Several New Releases (2019)

Coming Soon: Aimee Reid, You Are My Friend: The Story of Mister Rogers and His Neighborhood (Abrams Books, 2019)

Coming Soon: Jackie AzĂșa Kramer, Several New Releases (2019)

Jodi Moore, I Love My Dragon (Flashlight Press, 2019)

Estela Bernal, Can You See ME Now? (Pinata Books, 2014)

Carol Gordon Ekster, You Know What? (Clavis, 2017)

Tara Lazar, Your First Day of Circus School (Tundra Books, June 2019)

Rosanne Parry, Last of the Name (Carolrhoda Books, 2019)

Emma Bland Smith, To Live on An Island (Little Bigfoot, May 2019)

Laura Sassi, Diva Delores and the Opera House Mouse (Sterling, 2018)

Amy Losak, discussing Sydell Rosenberg's H is For Haiku (Penny Candy Books, 2018)

Robin Koontz, Bug (Sterling, April 2019)

Stephanie Shaw, Piece by Piece (Sleeping Bear Press, 2017)

Jane Whittingham, Queenie Quail Can't Keep Up (Pajama Press, March 2019)

Dale Basye, Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go (Random House, 2008)

Caroline Nastro, The Bear Who Couldn't Sleep (NorthSouth Books, 2016)

Linda Elovitz Marshall, Good Night, Wind (Holiday House, Feb 2019)

Matthew Lasley, Pedro's Pan (Graphic Arts Books, Feb 2019)

Diana Murray, One Snowy Day (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2018)

Holly L. Niner, No More Noisy Nights (Flashlight Press, 2017)

Jane Kurtz, What Do They Do With All That Poo? (Beach Lane Books, June 2018)

Hannah Holt, The Diamond and the Boy (Balzer + Bray, October 2018)

Sarah Darer Littman, Anything But Okay (Scholastic, October 2018)

Jody J. Little, Mostly The Honest Truth (Harper, March 2019)

Dawn Prochovnic, Story Time with Signs & Rhymes (Abdo, 2009-2012)


If you like these posts, you might also be interested in posts about The Writing Life.

If you like these inspiring Birth Stories for Books, I encourage you to bookmark and follow this page. I will add links to this page as new posts go up! (And, please get in touch if you'd like to share your birth story).

November 6, 2018

I'm So Grateful I Live in a Country Where I Can Speak My Voice

Dear America. Today is Election Day.  I've always considered it a privilege to vote, but this is an election in which I've felt an urgency to vote and an urgency to help get out the vote.
Image Credit


I live in a vote-by-mail state. I completed my ballot and hand-delivered it to the election office within the first week of voting. I spent time working on local campaigns I care most about, and I spent the last several days working to engage other voters to cast their vote and to help other voters who were experiencing complications voting. With the help of like-minded friends, I created a progressive voters' guide for my college-aged daughter and her friends, first-time voters, and I encouraged friends and friends-of friends to volunteer for election-related work. I attended fund-raising gatherings and I hosted my first fund-raising gathering.

Not only do I appreciate my right to vote, I'm also extremely grateful that I live in a country where I can safely and freely give voice to issues of importance to me. I consider it an extension of my civic duty to contribute my voice to local and national issues. I care deeply about my country. Our country. And, I care deeply about my community. Our community.