March 1, 2019

Birth Stories for Books: QUEENIE QUAIL CAN'T KEEP UP, by Jane Whittingham

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing author (and librarian) Jane Whittingham about the birth story for her upcoming picture book QUEENIE QUAIL CAN'T KEEP UP, illustrated by Emma Pedersen (Pajama Press, Mar 2019).

Dawn Prochovnic: Thank you for stopping by to talk with us, Jane. It’s my understanding that your path to publication has been a bit winding. Can you tell us a little bit more about this?

Jane Whittingham: Hi Dawn! Thanks so much for having me here! I've been telling stories since I was just a wee little thing, and was an avid writer during my elementary and high school years, but as I grew older I started to lose confidence in my abilities and in my self. I started to feel like everyone was so much more talented than me, and I could never imagine someone actually wanting to read my writing, let alone pay me for it! So, for many years I simply stopped writing - I was busy with work and life, and writing just felt like something I'd grown out of. When I'd finally had enough of my corporate life and went back to school to study library science, I happened upon a summer class called “Writing, Publishing and the Book Trade for Children.” I needed some credits, and it sounded like it would be fun, so I signed up. I’m so glad I did! The course walked us through the entire publishing process, from outlining a book, to workshopping, to editing and submitting. It was so eye-opening, and it really helped remind me why I used to love writing so much all those years ago. It was never about being published back then, it was about the joy of being creative! Inspired by the class, I decided to try my hand and writing my own picture books, and though I was still very nervous about the prospect of submitting, with the encouragement of my very enthusiastic partner I decided to start researching publishing houses that were accepting manuscripts. Pajama Press was actually the first publisher I contacted, and they came back with a resounding YES to my submission! Without that class, which I really just signed up for as an easy way to earn some credits, I don’t know when, if ever, I would have rediscovered that passion for creating that I’d lost so many years before.

DP: That's really remarkable, Jane. It's not often that an author's work is accepted for publication on first submission! Can you talk a little bit more about the process and timeframe between your initial idea for your story and the story that was formulated fully enough to submit to your editor?

JW: I am a very speedy writer, and I tend to write from the heart rather than the head, so I can churn out an entire picture book manuscript in a matter of minutes. The editing and refining process….can take a little bit longer! My first two picture books, Wild One and A Good Day for Ducks, were written and edited and ready for submission in a matter of days. Queenie Quail Can’t Keep Up, however, went through numerous rewrites over many, many months before I was ready to submit it - it took me a lot longer to figure out what exactly I was trying to say through the story, and how I wanted events to play out. So, it can really vary depending on the complexity of the story and the length of the text.

DP: I can barely READ a picture book in a matter of minutes, let alone write one! Let's shift to a topic I'm more familiar with: revision! When you compare one of your earliest drafts of this story to the version in the soon-to-be 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?

JW: Queenie Quail is my first prose picture book, which has been a very different experience for me, as I typically write in rhyme. When I first submitted the text to my editor, she responded with something along the lines of “we love it - now cut it in half!” The text I’d submitted was much too long for a picture book, and I was tasked with keeping all the characters and the basic story, without about half the words. I felt pretty daunted!! One of the first things I had to do was cut out a lot of the descriptions - a picture book is illustrated, after all, so I didn’t need to be describing scenes and characters that would be illustrated in the final book. I’d also forgotten that quail families typically include a mama and a papa - I had a mama quail in my story, but not papa! So I had to find a way to add him in. It was definitely a challenge to cut and hack apart a story I loved, but the result was so much cleaner, tighter, and better for having been so ruthlessly edited.

DP: I'm always amazed at how much a "good story" can improve with editing! As you reflect on the journey from idea to published book, is there any one moment along the way that you credit with opening the door for QUEENIE QUAIL to find its way to publication?

JW: I think the success of my first book, Wild One, really helped open the door for future books with Pajama Press. They were willing to take a chance on an unknown, unpublished writer, and the fact that the book turned out to be quite popular I think helped reassure them that I wasn’t a terrible investment. :)

DP: Yes, it's great that Pajama Press was willing to take a chance on you and that WILD ONE was such a wild success. Seeing that all three of your books were published by Pajama Press (or soon will be), how is it that you connected with them and/or your editor there? 

JW: I first chose to submit to Pajama Press because I’d enjoyed some of their previous books, and they were open to submissions from writers without agents, which many publishers aren’t. I really enjoyed working with my editor - she pushed me as a writer, but also respected and fought for my vision, so I was thrilled to work with her again and again.

DP: Were there notable differences in the path to publication for your earlier books as compared to your latest book?

JW: The biggest difference has been the speed of the publication process - my first book took two years to publish, as we spent a lot of time editing the text and seeking the right illustrator for the project. The second two books were published much more quickly, much to my delight, since I’m a terribly impatient person!

DP: I’ve read in earlier interviews that you like to travel (me too!) and you take photos of cats wherever you go (Note: If you haven’t been to Greece, it's a cat-photo-op paradise!). How do your travel experiences and your eye for photography weave their way into your picture books?

JW: I was bitten with the travel bug as a child, and I think that my adventurous spirit has infused itself into all of my characters. The children in Wild One and A Good Day for Ducks love to be outside exploring, and Queenie Quail is always stopping to look and see and hear everything around her, much like me! As much as I love to see the big tourist sites in any place I visit, it’s the quiet back streets that really fascinate me, the everyday moments, the hidden gems and treasures. So, although I hadn’t really thought about it before, my love for exploring and my passion for seeking out new things to see and experience really has been woven into my writing!

DP: That's exactly the way my family and I like to travel, too, Jane! 

Now let's talk about the artwork in your books. Since you obviously have an eye for visual art, what was it like to hand over the reins of the visual story to the illustrators you’ve been paired with?

JW: Having taken that writing course in university, I knew that picture book writers rarely have much say in how their books are illustrated, but it was still a bit of a surreal feeling to know that someone else was taking my words and turning them into art! I’ve heard stories of writers who were deeply disappointed in their art, but fortunately I’ve been very happy with my illustrators and their work. In Queenie Quail in particular I was able to weigh in on a few artistic decisions that could have impacted the story, and I’m thrilled with how the final illustrations turned out!

Queenie Quail Can't Keep Up
by Jane Whittingham and Emma Pedersen

DP: They are lovely, indeed! 

I understand that you are a librarian and you regularly deliver story time programs. Although I’m not a librarian, I, too, regularly deliver story time programs, and I’m always looking for new pro tips! What advice would you give to picture book authors from your perspective as a regular story time presenter?

JW: The number one tip would be to avoid rhyme unless you are a seasoned professional - poorly paced rhyme can really destroy any book, and make for a terrible read aloud experience. Honestly, nothing makes me chuck a book faster than poorly written rhyme. Another piece of advice would be to keep it short and snappy. Children are made to move, not sit still for long periods of time, so keep your story short and sweet, and both kids and their grownups will thank you. Read a lot of picture books, as many and as often as you can, so you can get inspiration, find out what the industry trends and standards are, and discover what books do and don’t appeal to you as a reader and a writer. Finally, read your manuscript aloud so you can get an idea of what it will actually sound like when read by parents to their children. Flow and pacing really matter, so make sure you read your story aloud, and do so after every revision, so you know just how smooth and wonderful it’s going to sound when read at storytime!

DP: These are great tips (and happily, they echo the tips I routinely give to others!) What about tips and tricks that you can share from your toolbox for story time presenters in general?

JW: S L O W  D O W N.  This is my number one tip for any presenter. Children are still learning language, so you need to make sure that you’re speaking, singing and reading at a pace that allows them ample time to process what they’re hearing. It might feel silly to read a book so slowly, and with so much emphasis, but really it does wonders for language acquisition. Keep your energy level up and smile - if kids see that reading make you happy, they’re going to want to give it a try too! And make sure you’re reading with your audience, not to your audience. Ask the children open-ended questions to get them involved in the story, and to keep them engaged - what do they think might happen next? Why do they think the characters did what they did? How might a character be feeling right now, and why do they think that? And of course, above all else, have fun!

DP: These are FABULOUS TIPS, Jane. What about for parents who are reading one-on-one with their children? What tips do you have for them?

JW: I like to refer to the “4 C’s” of raising readers - Choice, Consistency, Cuddles and Conversation. Let your children help pick out the books you read together - they are more likely to be engaged in the reading experience if the books match their interests, plus it gives them a feeling of independence and involvement. Make reading a regular part of your everyday routines, to help children understand that reading is important and worth making time for. Cuddle with your child while reading, to help them associate reading with warm, happy memories and emotions. And finally, talk with your child while you read - ask them open-ended questions that get them thinking about the story and the characters.

DP. These are great tips, and you've made them easy to remember--thanks! One last question before we wrap up: 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?

JW: I would tell myself to be patient - with publishing, everything takes time. I’m a very impatient person who likes to get things done right away, and that’s just not how publishing works! So, relax, and just go with the flow!

DP: You speak truth, sister! Thanks for the important reminder...and thanks so much for sharing your Birth Story for Books. 

Best wishes for the successful launch of QUEENIE QUAIL CAN’T KEEP UP! I can't wait to read it! 

Jane Whittingham is a Canadian children’s librarian and picture book author with a passion for books, tea and travel. She is the author is three picture books - Wild One (2017), A Good Day for Ducks (2018) and Queenie Quail Can’t Keep Up (2019). You can connect with Jane on her website, or follow her on Facebook or Instagram

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? (forthcoming, 2019), and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. She is a contributing author to 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


  1. Thank you so much for having me on the blog, what a fun interview!!

    1. I enjoyed the interview, too, Jane! (And I've enjoyed following you on Instagram!)