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: https://taralazar.com/2012/10/03/art-notes-in-picture-book-manuscripts/.

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 TaraLazar.com.

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 www.dawnprochovnic.com.

No comments:

Post a Comment