June 26, 2019

Birth Stories for Books, CAN YOU SEE ME NOW?, by Estela Bernal

Can You See Me Now? by Estela Bernal
One of the things I most love about the Birth Stories for Books series on my blog is getting to know members of my writing community a little more deeply. I met Estela Bernal several years ago. We’ve signed books together, shared meals at book-related events, and exchanged friendly conversation at these opportunities, but we’ve not really gotten to know each other beyond these settings.

I really enjoyed getting to know Estela a little bit better as we prepared for this blog post, and I look forward to the next in-person opportunity to connect with her.

Friends, meet Estela Bernal: Air Force veteran, former teacher and social worker, SCBWI and Willamette Writers member, CASA volunteer, foster parent, and author of CAN YOU SEE ME NOW? (PiƱata Books, 2014).

My Writing Secret
by Estela Bernal

Born and raised in a small Texas town, my love of books and reading began in first grade. Like most Hispanic kids at that time, I didn’t have books at home and there were no libraries anywhere near the town, much less in the neighborhood. When I started learning English and suddenly had access to books and other written material, I was hooked. I read everything I could get my hands on, as if trying to make up for lost time.

To this day, I can’t remember how or where I found a copy of The Good Earth. I read and re-read it, losing myself in that world—strange and exotic, yet familiar in so many ways. Since my father was a farmer, perhaps it was my own family’s connection to the land that drew me in and held my interest.

Although I did my share of writing in college, my writing was limited to reports, essays, and such. Unlike most writers, though, it never occurred to me to write my own stories until many years later. It came about in a unique and unexpected way. I was at a Tish Hinojosa concert in a small and intimate venue in Davis, California. Tish sang folk songs, traditional Mexican songs, and some of her own compositions (many of them about social injustice). That very evening, I decided I wanted to write. Rather than songs, though, I immediately decided I’d like to write for children.

My writing journey started with reading books on craft and many more children’s books. Along the way, I took writing classes here and there. I found the whole process fascinating and, although I was working full time and had a part-time job, I spent most of my spare time reading and trying to write.

After I’d been writing for a while, I attempted a YA novel and entered it in a UC Irvine writing contest. I was surprised and elated when, a few months later, I got a $500 check and a letter informing me my entry had won 2nd place. At the ceremony held to celebrate the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prize winners, one of the staff said, “Your friends and family must be very proud of you.” She was shocked when I confessed that no one even knew I wrote.  “Well, now you’ll have to come out of the closet, won’t you?”

But even with that validation of my work, I remained in my little writing closet for a while longer. It wasn’t until I retired from my jobs that I finally shared my “secret” with family and co-workers who were just as surprised as the UC Irvine staff member.

My retirement wasn’t really official until three months after I moved to Portland where I had much more time to indulge my reading and writing passions. I somehow found out about an organization called The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). It so happened that the regional group was having a picnic. I couldn’t believe my luck at finding such a resource and the local group of amazing fellow writers. It was there that I met the lovely Dawn and learned about an upcoming Silver Falls retreat. At the retreat I met Kim Kasch. We were both looking for a critique group and, after several short-lived attempts we ended up forming the Rose City Writers group which meets every other week.

I’ve lost count of how many conferences, workshops, and retreats I’ve attended since. I always come away totally energized and motivated to keep going.

Oregon Reads Aloud
My MG novel Can You See Me Now? was published in 2014. A couple of years later, thanks to another lovely lady, Amber Keyser, I was asked if I’d be interested in writing a story for the collection (Oregon Reads Aloud) which celebrates Start Making a Reader Today (SMART’s) 25th anniversary. I was not only honored to join a very talented group of local writers and illustrators, but it was especially meaningful to be part of a project that does so much for schools and children who may otherwise not have the beautiful experience of having a reading mentor. As a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) for children in foster care, I knew many CASAs are also SMART readers, so that made it even more special.

Although my free time has again shrunk quite drastically (since I became a foster parent myself to a very active nine-year-old), I continue to attend as many writing events as I can fit in and write a little whenever I can. Some recent SCBWI events (a Novel Idea in April and a Picture Book Intensive in May) were a special treat because, not only did I have the opportunity to absorb great information, I also got to connect with fellow writers and meet new writers and illustrators.

I continue to draw inspiration from others’ creative journeys. I’m currently reading (mostly during the few quiet moments before my own bedtime) A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, a collection of letters by authors, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, and philosophers about the impact reading has had on their lives. Each letter is accompanied by an illustration. As I read these letters, the young reader still curled up inside my heart, keeps nodding, smiling and being reminded that, despite the different creative paths we each may follow, there is one common thread that binds us all—our love of books and reading.

It’s been a wonderful journey so far and SCBWI continues to play a very important role in my life.

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading about your path to publication, Estela, and about some of the other aspects of your life. I'm so glad your secret is out!

Estela Bernal is an Air Force veteran, former teacher and social worker, as well as a member of SCBWI and Willamette Writers. Her MG novel (CAN YOU SEE ME NOW?) was a finalist in the 2016 International Latino Book Awards. Her PB story Mount Tabor: Home of Ardi the Squirrel was published by Graphic Arts Books as part of an anthology of stories by Oregon authors (OREGON READS ALOUD). Learn more at her website,

“I believe reading plays a key role in a child’s education and am a big supporter of diversity in children’s books. Because I support diversity in children's lit, I help sponsor a writing contest for children through Skipping Stones, a multicultural literary magazine for children based in Eugene, OR, which promotes diversity in children's books. Through my readings, workshops, and classroom presentations, I hope to instill a love of reading, writing, and learning among children, particularly underprivileged children. I’m currently revising two YA novels (one historic and one contemporary), one MG novel, and several PB stories—all in various stages of completion.”


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

June 12, 2019

Birth Stories for Books, YOU KNOW WHAT? by Carol Gordon Ekster

You Know What? by Carol Gordon Ekster and Nynke Talsma
You Know What? It’s time for another Birth Stories for Books post. Today’s guest is Carol Gordon Ekster, author of the picture book, YOU KNOW WHAT? (illustrated by Nynke Talsma, Clavis Books, 2017).

I've long enjoyed Writers' Rumpus, a blog community Carol belongs to. I mentioned the blog in my introduction to Laura Sassi's recent Birth Stories post, and Laura was kind enough to introduce me to Carol. Next thing you know, I'm lucky enough to get the opportunity to feature Carol's work here!

So let's turn it over to Carol to learn about:

The Book That Was Born On the Way To Meet My Grandson
by Carol Gordon Ekster

My life before writing for children was filled with daily bells ringing and piles of papers to grade. I taught 4th grade for 35 years. Teaching was my passion. And though my Masters’ degree was in reading and language and I had writers’ workshops with my students a few times a week, I honestly never chose to write for myself. Writing was hard! But I was doing the prep work for writing picture books. I read a few picture books a day to support my curriculum. The school librarian delivered requested stacks of books weekly. My local librarians got to know my name and after my first book was published, requested me to speak at a library conference on a panel of authors who were avid library users themselves.

I can’t say I always believed other artists who talked about the way they received stories from the universe, but that is what happened to me. I didn’t come to writing, writing came to me…and not until I was 50 years old! Story ideas, sentences, and titles continue to come to me in dreams, during spin class, and at other unexpected times. I welcome each like a gift and am grateful this is a new way for me to continue communicating with children.

The first story that took me by surprise and was written on a beach with post-its and a pencil never sold. But stories kept coming. I got a few positive responses in the first few years and sold a magazine article. Then I got my first book deal for the twentieth manuscript I wrote. That took four years. And when I retired, writing for children took over as my new full-time passion. I recently submitted my 95th manuscript.

In order to tell you about my most recently published picture book, I have to tell you that I do some of my best writing on planes. Perhaps it’s the tight space or the lack of distraction….but I find focus in the cramped quarters. Usually, I use flight time to revise….work on each sentence to tighten, refine, improve. But in August of 2014, my grandson was born. We were flying out from Boston to New Mexico to meet him for the first time. I was hyped, psyched, emotional. I was surprised I could get any writing done at all! And then in the seat in front of me, I heard a little boy say to his parents, “You know what?” I immediately opened a new Word document and my fingers began typing as if they had a mind of their own. I brainstormed a list of actions and their consequences. My husband saw what I was doing and we had some fun with this. (Though I couldn’t use most of those ideas.)

I did not have time to plan or think about that story much while I diapered and cuddled this incredible new love in my life. But my process has always been that my work takes place at the keyboard and my fingers do the talking, which is odd compared to my teaching when I would plan weeks ahead. So on the plane trip home I was surprised by the story that developed. It became a little boy procrastinating his bedtime by asking his mom repeatedly, “You know what?”

This was the 60th story that I had written in these past 17 years that I have been writing. And I have collected 1600 plus rejections. Each of my previous manuscripts that were contracted by publishers have received no less than 13 rejections. But this one? It all happened pretty quickly…that is for the world of publishing. I shared it with only two critique groups (I’m in five). I revised a bit, sent it out and got a fast turn around with a lovely rejection. I used what that editor said about the story to send it out to the next submission, the international publisher, Clavis Books. I heard about them when they were holding a picture book contest. I entered with a different manuscript, and though I didn’t win, I became familiar with their beautiful books and sweet mission. So I submitted this new manuscript, You Know What? and in only about six weeks, I got that wonderful jump-for-joy acceptance e-mail. (I’ve waited two years to hear back about other manuscripts from other publishers.)

I won’t give the details of the time it took to actually get the contract in the mail or to learn who would be illustrating…because as much as I’m aware of the slow publishing process…I am tainted by my life as a teacher where everything felt immediate. Let’s just say that my grandson was almost two and a half before I held the Dutch version (Mama, Wist Je Dat?) in my hands.

He was three when the English version, You Know What?, hit the shelves, September 2017.

He was four when I held the Korean language edition in my hands, 2019.

(Arabic and Chinese language editions are in process.) I was so honored and beyond thrilled that it became a finalist for the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award in the New England region, 2018 and that it was a CLEL Bell Picture Book Awards Nominee for Talk, 2018.

This was a new type of picture book for me. Transitioning from a long-time teacher to an author has been a melding of skills for me. Most of the books I have written have messages…to have hope after divorce, to be organized, to be grateful. Most of my books could serve as mentor texts for a myriad of literary terms and writing tips. But this one? This mostly brings the joy of a shared reading with it…and maybe a few other things. And when the art director wanted me to think about changing the final page to the previous spread, I couldn’t do it. I knew that last page invited readers to imagine what the open ended “You know what?” might mean, what Oliver, the main character, might say next. I had already designed the sheet to go with it so that children could write and draw their own final page as a follow-up activity. I will forever be a teacher at heart.

And my next book, the 84th manuscript I submitted, will be out in 2021 with Beaming Books. I continue to want to touch lives with my books. This one, Some Daddies, celebrates the diversity of what it can look like to be a dad…a joyful book with a serious message. I look forward to going through the process of finding out the illustrator, seeing those first sketches, and holding the book in my hands…and perhaps sharing that book’s birth story here when it’s time. Writing for children continues to be an amazing journey!

Carol, this is such a wonderful birth story. I absolutely love how you have kept count of your manuscripts and submissions and rejections. I have a general sense of this sort of thing, but I couldn't say with certainty how many times each of my published manuscripts has been rejected, or how many manuscripts I've written over the years. It really puts some perspective on the commitment required to participate in the publishing world when you track stats as you do. 

I also love how you've tracked the progress and different translations of your book by the age of your grandson. I track my manuscripts by the ages and stages of my children (...this is the story I used to sing to my daughter when she was a baby ... this is the story that came to me when I was on my way to the informational meeting for the local arts school ... this is the manuscript I wrote when my son was in bed with the flu ... One of my upcoming books was inspired by something my son said when he was in diapers... he'll be a senior in high school when the book is released next fall!)

I'm so grateful you've shared your birth story for YOU KNOW WHAT?  You've inspired us all to keep writing, keep submitting, and keep being grateful that we get to do this rewarding work! (P.S. How lucky that 35 years of children had you as their teacher. Did you start teaching when you were five?!)

Carol Gordon Ekster is the author of Where Am I Sleeping Tonight?(A Story of Divorce) Ruth the Sleuth and the Messy Room, which received the Children's Literary Classics Seal of Approval, and Before I Sleep: I Say Thank You which won 3rd place in the children’s category of the Catholic Press Association Book Awards and was also a finalist for the ACP Excellence in Publishing Awards 2016. Her first e-book, Hip Hopping Books, came out spring 2015 as part of a digital library with Schoolwide, Inc. Her newest picture book, You Know What?, came out first in Dutch (Mama, Wist Je Dat?), December 2016 with Clavis Books. The English language edition released September 2017 and was a CLEL Bell Picture Book Awards Nominee for Talk, 2018, and a finalist for the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award 2018.  The Korean language edition released 2019 and Arabic and Chinese editions are in process.

Carol Gordon Ekster was a passionate elementary school teacher for thirty-five years. Now retired, Carol is grateful that her writing allows her to continue communicating with children. When not working on her writing, Carol does yoga and biking. She lives in Andover, MA with her husband Mark. Find out more about her and her other books 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

June 4, 2019

Birth Stories for Books, YOUR FIRST DAY OF CIRCUS SCHOOL, by Tara Lazar

by Tara Lazar and Melissa Crowton
I'm so excited to be able to share today's Birth Stories for Books interview. My guest is Tara Lazar, founder of Storystorm and author of many beloved books for children, including a new book that lands on bookshelves today: YOUR FIRST DAY OF CIRCUS SCHOOL (illustrated by Melissa Crowton, Tundra Books,  June 2019).

Dawn Prochovnic: Thank you for stopping by to talk with us, Tara. You have been such a good friend to the KidLit community. Through your blog and through Storystorm, you’ve amplified the work of so many other authors and illustrators, and you’ve been instrumental in helping other authors and illustrators "find their stories.” It's wonderful to see your career flourish, and it's a privilege to have an opportunity to shine a light on YOUR work. 

Tara Lazar: Thank you! You are so kind!

DP: Your latest book, YOUR FIRST DAY OF CIRCUS SCHOOL, comes out today. Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publication for this particular story? For example, I’d love to hear 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.

TL: Honestly, it was so long ago, I barely remember! What I do recall is wanting to write a story that relied on visual puns and gags—to showcase the picture book format. Writing it helped me better understand the relationship between words and illustrations in a picture book.

I wrote it rather quickly, but there was a sticky problem. The copious art notes made it impossible to read coherently! After a few rejections, my agent Ammi-Joan Paquette suggested we format the manuscript in a grid. Her own agent, Erin Murphy, had recently done the same for one of Joan’s note-dependent manuscripts. It was such a brilliant solution, I blogged about it to help other authors:

DP: What a great, helpful idea, Tara! Thanks for sharing it!

TL: You’ll note that post was written in fall 2012, almost seven years ago!

As you know, the manuscript centers on a circus, and many editors we submitted to confessed to being afraid of clowns. I had no idea!

Librarians have always remarked to me that kids love circuses, yet there are hardly any circus-themed books! Now we know why!

Well, it took a few years to sell that manuscript. Frankly, I had let it go. (Cue the music.) But my agent loved it so much, she would not give up. Every few months she would send me an email saying she sent it out to more readers. And I would reply, “Oh, silly Joan!”

But she was persistent and it paid off. Tundra loved it immediately and once it was in their hands, it speeded through acquisitions.

DP: I'm so glad Joan persisted! (Side note: this book would be a great companion to the work that Clowns Without Borders does. They do a fundraising show in my hometown each year, and the families that attend are giddy with laughter and joy).  

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?

TL: The big brother was a lot meaner to his little brother in my drafts, but Melissa Crowton came in to illustrate and softened him, making him kind and kidding at the same time. It’s a smart and lovely interpretation.

Illustrations by Melissa Crowton 

DP: Oh! The artwork is spectacular! 

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? 

TL: I give all the credit to Joan. She put it into the grid and made the whole dynamic of the story understandable. And she never gave up on it, even when I did! (I dedicated the book to her!)

DP: Yay, Joan! 

When you look back to your first published book as compared to this book, what were some of the key similarities and differences in terms of the publication journeys for each?

TL: The relatable sibling relationship (say that 10 times fast) is similar in THE MONSTORE and YOUR FIRST DAY OF CIRCUS SCHOOL. They are different because editors weren’t afraid of monsters! (By the way, there are no scary clowns in the book, just a couple adorable ones!)

Illustrations by Melissa Crowton

DP: The characters are SO ADORABLE!!

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

TL: Again, all the credit goes to Joan. She understands which editors like which kind of stories. She knows how to match manuscripts. This is why I recommend agents for picture book authors.

The process for each book has been relatively similar. I receive an editorial letter and I typically make two revision rounds. I’m consulted on illustrator decisions (I never make the decision, but I make style suggestions). I see various illustration passes of the manuscript, to comment on them. It’s so exciting to see the characters and action come to life!

DP: Seeing the characters and action come to life through the illustrations is one of my favorite parts, too! 

Another one of my favorite aspects of being an author is connecting with young readers at schools, libraries, and bookstore visits, and I’m always looking for new pro tips. You seem to maintain an active schedule of book-related events. What advice or suggestions do you have for fellow author/presenters in terms of planning successful events?

TL: Be yourself! I love school visits and meeting kids because they allow me to be my goofy self, launching into fake accents and cracking corny jokes. I love to make them laugh! When I do that around adults, they just think I’m a weirdo. They’re right. (Le sigh.)

DP: I'll bet kids LOVE your school visits

Likewise, it seems that you are experiencing success (to use a word you recently featured on your blog!) as a sought after faculty member for various writing conferences and other professional development opportunities. What advice to you have for fellow authors/illustrators who are interested in arranging opportunities to present at these types of professional events?

TL: I share what I know because I wanted to know it all when I began in this business! So now I can give back and inform, to help others make more great literature for kids. I want every child to find their “most favoritest” book, so if I can help more stories find their way into the world, I’m thrilled.

If you want to present, submit proposals to your local SCBWI conference or event. Do an educator’s evening at your local bookstore. Make friends with local booksellers and librarians. I have gotten more presentation gigs by word-of-mouth than anything else. I have a passion for picture books and I suppose it shines through.

DP: Your passion for picture books DEFINITELY shines through, Tara! 

You coordinate Storystorm, which is how I initially learned about you and your books. What have been the most positive (and not-so-positive) aspects of facilitating such a major online event? Based on your experiences hosting Storystorm, what advice or suggestions do you have for fellow author/illustrators who have an interest in setting up some type of a web-based, community “event” or resource? 

TL: I am NOT a natural planner, and I am NOT an organized person, so putting the event together is a struggle for me. But I love how everyone loves it, so that carries me along.

I would suggest that you NOT host something like this unless your writing is already strong, you have an agent, you have a book deal. Because it’s a lot of work and it takes you away from the most important thing: developing your craft. Running an event won’t get you a book deal, it will just make you an event planner. Think about what you want to be. If it’s an author, write books!

DP. That's really sound advice, Tara. Thanks. 

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?

TL: I don’t necessarily wish that I had known this, but it is something I have learned: it never gets easier. And I don’t think it should. You are writing books for the most important audience—children! You’d better sweat and struggle to create the best story possible!

DP: That is SO TRUE (and I agree, it's probably something folks starting out in this business don't really want to know). 

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

TL: I just finished a new crop of picture books—sometimes they come in spurts—so I am currently in waiting mode. I hope that one of the stories will soon become a new Hanukkah classic!

DP: Sounds fun! I can't wait to hear more!

One more question: What’s the backstory on the flower you are holding in your mouth on the landing page to your website (and next to your bio, below)?

TL: It’s a fake flower I found and always kept in my car (thinking my huge minivan was a cute little VW Beetle).  At book festivals, many authors decorate their space invitingly and I had nuthin’ besides that flower! At that book festival, I put it in a small vase on my table. When a friend asked to take a photo of me, I grabbed it and chomped down for a funny picture.

DP: Fun! And Silly! And a perfect ending to an interview with an author that has helped so many authors grow tiny seeds of story ideas into full-blossoming books!  

Thanks so much for sharing your Birth Story for YOUR FIRST DAY OF CIRCUS SCHOOL, Tara! It's been a pleasure to get to know you a little better through our shared love of picture books. 

Friends: The best way you can say, "Thanks" to authors who have helped you along the way is to support their work. Tara's books are available everywhere books are sold. (And, if YOUR FIRST DAY OF CIRCUS SCHOOL is not yet available in your local library, most libraries have a simple procedure where you can request a book be added to their collection). 

Street magic performer. Hog-calling champion. Award-winning ice sculptor. These are all things Tara Lazar has never been. Instead, she writes quirky, humorous picture books.

Tara's book 7 ATE 9: THE UNTOLD STORY was honored with the 2018 Irma S. & James H. Black Award for Excellence in Children's Literature from Bank Street College of Education, as chosen by thousands of children across the US. Her other titles include THE MONSTORE (2013), I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK (2015), LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD (2015), NORMAL NORMAN (2016), WAY PAST BEDTIME (2017) and YOUR FIRST DAY OF CIRCUS SCHOOL (2019). Many more will be released in the coming years, including THE UPPER CASE: TROUBLE IN CAPITAL CITY, the sequel to 7 ATE 9.

Discover original stories, book reviews and giveaways at her award-winning blog "Writing for Kids (While Raising Them)" at

Tara was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2010. She speaks professionally about overcoming disability to achieve your goals and dreams. Tara teaches writing workshops for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), Highlights Foundation, and schools across America. She's Co-Chair of the Rutgers University Council on Children's Literature conference and a former picture book mentor for We Need Diverse Books (WNDB).

Tara lives in New Jersey with her husband, two daughters, and a skateboarding hamster named Ozzie.

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