May 8, 2019

Birth Stories for Books, TO LIVE ON AN ISLAND, by Emma Bland Smith

by Emma Bland Smith and Elizabeth Person
There are times when I read a Birth Stories for Books submission, and I think to myself, I want a book birth story just like this one! Today's birth story, from Emma Bland Smith, about her new book, To Live on an Island, (illustrated by Elizabeth Person, Little Bigfoot, May 2019), is one of those times.

Not only that, here is a fun fact about Emma that I didn't know until we connected for this post: We are double publishing house siblings. Like me, Emma has books published by ABDO and something forthcoming from West Margin Press. Maybe I'll have to inquire with Little Bigfoot to see if we can keep this theme going!

But for now, let's hear from Emma about her latest book:

To Live on an Island
by Emma Bland Smith

There’s an industry standard for getting a picture book acquired by a publisher. You write the manuscript. You revise it a gazillion times based on feedback from your critique partners. You send it to your agent. More revising ensues. At last, the manuscript goes out on submission to multiple editors. You hope and pray that one of them will fall in love with it and acquire it. (After which happy event even more revising will take place.)

I veered from the script for my second picture book, which comes out on May 14. After Little Bigfoot (the children’s imprint of Sasquatch Books) published my first picture book, Journey, in 2016, I hoped I could work with them again. I’d really clicked with my wonderful editor and was impressed with the quality and professionalism of everything about the publishing house, from editing to marketing.

Happily, my editor also wanted to work with me again. But because Little Bigfoot is a regional publisher, their titles generally focus on the Pacific Northwest. Most of my other manuscripts just wouldn’t work.

My editor suggested I send her some ideas first, rather than spending months researching and writing something that was all wrong to begin with. My agent gave me the green light, too.

What an opportunity! I perused guide books, scoured maps, and read tourist websites. I immersed myself in everything PNW (shorthand for Pacific Northwest, as I learned). Although I was open to many topics, I still had to feel passionate about my subject. If it worked out, I’d be living with this for the next several years, or longer.

It was while staring at a map of the Seattle area that I had my inspiration. Look at all those islands! I remember thinking. The area reminded me of the New England coast—rocky and varied, with islands big and small dotting the waters just off the coast. How was it that I’d barely even heard of the San Juan Islands before?

I’d always thought living on an island would be incredibly romantic. Their isolation—the fact that they are accessible only by boat or plane. The symbolism of leaving your troubles behind as you step off the ferry dock. The way they often seem to be frozen in a previous era, like something from, well, a book.

But what exactly would it be like to grow up on one? Right there, the seed of the book was planted in my mind. I started to think out the structure and voice. I decided my story would be in second person (I’d always thought second person was so lyrical!) and that it would follow a child across one full day living on one of these lovely San Juan Islands. I wanted the main text to be sweet and spare, but I’d give each spread some layered text or a sidebar with additional nonfiction information about the islands. It would be a book that residents could enjoy, and that tourists would buy to bring home.

I pitched the idea to my editor. She liked it—tentatively. There was actually no other picture book out there about the San Juans, so book sellers would be enthusiastic, in theory. But she and her team were a little worried about how locals would respond to a non-local writing about their lifestyle.

She had a point. I’d never even set foot there! But ultimately, she gave me the benefit of the doubt. I pledged that I would visit the islands to get the authentic feel of the lifestyle, I would connect with and interview residents, and I would do my utmost to capture the magic of island life without overly romanticizing it.

Author Emma Bland Smith Visiting the San Juan Islands

Writing To Live on an Island was a pleasure from start to finish—from my blissful week exploring them with my family, to seeing the beautiful illustrations by Elizabeth Person.

Illustrations by Elizabeth Person

Since then, I have signed several more picture book contracts with other publishers, which all came about in the regular way: write, revise, submit-- although each of these birth stories has its own particular quirks and twists. I guess no picture book beginning is the same!

I threw my whole heart into To Live on an Island, and will always be grateful for the opportunity to get to know this truly special corner of the world. I can’t wait to share the book!

What a fabulous birth story, Emma. Thank you for sharing it with us. Having grown up and raised a family in the Pacific NW, I have many fond memories of the San Juan Islands. My husband and I have traveled to many places together (last summer we celebrated our 30th anniversary, and I wrote him a song about our lifetime of shared travels). Traveling to the San Juan Islands was one of the first trips we took together, back when I was 19. It was the first time I saw whales breaching, and it is something I will never forget. Sweet memories indeed. I can't wait to read your book. 

Emma Bland Smith is a children’s librarian and professional writer. Her first picture book, Journey: Based on the True Story of OR7, the Most Famous Wolf in the West, won Bank Street College’s Cook Prize and Northland College’s SONWA award. She is also the author of To Live on an Island and the Maddy McGuire, CEO, chapter book series, as well as several more forthcoming nonfiction picture books. Many of her books feature real-life animals—wolves, dogs, pigs, even alligators. She lives with her husband, their two kids, one cat, and one dog in San Francisco, California. Visit her at


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. Dawn 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

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