I'm so pleased to bring you another Birth Stories for Books post. Today's guest is Moni Ritchie Hadley, author of THE STAR FESTIVAL (illustrated by Mizuho Fujisawa, Albert Whitman & Company, April 2021). Moni's forthcoming book is beautiful, and I'm so glad to share how it came to be with you.
So let's get right to it!
Dawn Prochovnic: Thank you for stopping by the blog, Moni. I’m very intrigued by your forthcoming book, THE STAR FESTIVAL The cover art and the description are very compelling.
Moni Ritchie Hadley: Thank you for having me, Dawn. What a year it has been, kicking off my writing career during the pandemic. Focusing on this book has been a real blessing during this time.
DP: I couldn't agree more! Focusing on book-related work has been a big help to me during this time, too!
Speaking of book-related work, I see that you moderated a panel entitled “Fiction from Life” on Picture Book Palooza this past December, so I’m betting that this story draws on personal experience. I’d love to hear more about that.
MRH: Yes! The story stems from my experiences in more ways than one. The initial idea took hold when my elderly mother came to live with me; an intergenerational story was born. My daughter is a teen now but caring for a toddler, and my mother in her 80s aired similarities, preparations before leaving the house, doctor appointments, rules, naps, etc. The story took on a deeper meaning when I changed the setting to the Japanese Tanabata Festival (The Star Festival). I celebrated many festivals in Japan as a child, but it wasn’t until I wrote this story that I asked myself questions about its origins and meanings. The research opened up a whole new world of ideas, and that is when the story blossomed.
DP: Thank you for sharing this. I love hearing these kinds of background details of how a story came to be.
I’d also like to hear about the process and timeframe between your initial idea and the story that was formulated fully enough to submit to an editor.
MRH: From the first draft to submission took five months. I was stuck in a concept book format for a good portion of those five months. I took a class at the Children’s Book Academy that focused on character-driven stories and characters driving plot. This helped me to see my manuscript in a new light. Critiques helped me a great deal, and when I allowed myself the freedom to try something new, it grew from a 150-word manuscript to 500 plus and became the story it is today.
DP: It's great that you tapped into outside resources and allowed yourself the creative freedom to try new approaches!
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?
MRH: Aside from changing the story's setting, I focused on the main character’s POV. Because the initial idea was based on a mother’s introspection, I had to shake that off and make sure that I was writing this story for kids and not moms! 😉
Oba (grandma) getting lost, the main plot point, survived the revision. Also, a detail, Oba and Keiko sharing a toothless giggle. The rest of the story changed quite a bit.
DP: You've officially hooked me with this idea of a shared toothless giggle!
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?
MRH: Yes. The pitch caught the editor's attention through the course I took, The Craft and Business of Writing Picture Books, offered by The Children’s Book Academy.
DP: It's great that you had a compelling pitch ready to go! Nicely done!
One of my favorite parts of being an author is connecting with young readers at school, library, and bookstore visits, and I’m always looking for new pro tips. Your bio indicates you are a longtime educator, and you also do author visits, so you have experience on both sides of the equation! Based on this experience, what professional advice or suggestions do you have for fellow author/presenters in terms of planning successful (in-person and/or remote) events?
MRH: As a teacher, getting to know my students and sharing a bit about me were always my first goals when meeting students. This strategy sets up trust, and kids usually open up when they feel safe. My book debuts April 1, 2021, so I have not done any author visits yet. But I will employ the same ideas digitally. I am gearing up to be actively involved with schools, so I have a plan on my website. Kids are at the heart of why I write books, and I know I can teach and get kids excited to learn. Therefore my visits will include three parts, reading/discussion/questions, a mini writing lesson, and a book-related craft/art activity. Schools will be able to choose their topics and activities of interest from my site. My biggest challenge will be learning the nuances and the prep involved via the digital formats.
DP: It sounds like you have all the right foundational elements in place for excellent school visits, Moni. (And I think we're all trying learn and re-learn the various nuances and preparations involved with the digital formats!)
Looking at your website, you have a lot of projects competing for your attention (i.e. a tutoring service, a short film, articles in magazines for kids and adults). How do you balance the time between your different projects and the different aspects of the publishing business?
MRH: Thank you for noticing! 😆 Being creative fuels me, so I stay busy. When I worked full time, creative projects gave me the balance I needed to feel whole. Now that I write full time, the challenge is to learn the business end of being a published author. I write every day for a few hours in the morning (and whenever else I get the urge). Then I usually decide what I want to work on for the second half of the day, art, website, book promo, agent submissions, reading, critiquing, exercise, or some new project that has piqued my interest. Deadlines definitely influence my decisions. But almost everything is written in my calendar. And that is what I reference when I make a plan.
DP: Hooray for calendars!
You have great resources for parents, students, educators, and writers on your website, which I’m sure also takes a fair amount of time to keep up with. For those of us who might be pondering if it’s worthwhile to create these types of supplementary materials for our readers, what are the pluses and minuses of creating and maintaining these types of resources, from your perspective?
MRH: The resources do take some time to create, but in doing so, I learn new skills. So, I feel it’s a win-win. Many of the resources, especially the Monster Sheetz I created, came from painting experimentations. So no time was wasted there! I created monsters from paint splotches, similar to finding shapes in the clouds, and I thought they would make great character and story starters, so I created worksheets for teachers and parents. They are free to print or download in a digital format. The worksheets are meant to get kids to tap into their creative side and write without fear of getting it wrong. Children need the time to be creative, even in a structured school day. The process of combining traditional and digital elements has also challenged me technologically! But, I am studying illustration, so learning the skills has been frustrating but useful as well! From a business perspective, I feel that by offering teachers and parents services, I am connecting as not only an author but also an educator.
DP: Your Monster Sheetz seem like an excellent tool for giving kids the opportunity to be creative without judgement, and I agree that it's really helpful to connect with teachers and parents as a fellow educator.
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?
MRH: Picture book writing is difficult no matter where you are in the process. It doesn’t get easier once you get a contract or get published. Trying to unlock the pieces to make my stories work consumes me night and day. I don’t think that will ever change!
DP: I couldn't have said that better myself. It is hard work, but I'm so glad we have the opportunity to do this kind of work and that the work we do makes a genuine difference in children's lives.
Is there something you wish someone would ask you about your path to publication for THE STAR FESTIVAL that you haven’t had the opportunity to share yet?
MRH: I want to credit Mizuho Fujisawa for an amazing job on the illustrations. It’s an incredible feeling to see your characters realized. And her depictions of Japan fill me with a sense of nostalgia and comfort.
I’d also like to credit my editor, Christina Pulles. She has a really gentle way of pulling ideas out of me, suggesting ideas, and communicating in general. And—she found Mizuho!
DP: How wonderful that your editor found the just-right illustrator for your story, and how lovely that the illustrations fill you with a sense of nostalgia and comfort.
Do you have anything you’d like to tell us about what you’re currently working on?
MRH: I am writing a picture book about a boy who hopes to see his Papa’s spirit during the Japanese Obon Festival (similar to the day of the Dead celebration).
I also have a PB about a girl who wears a samurai persona on her first day at a new school inspired by the dread I felt as a child, always being uprooted and starting anew due to my dad’s job in the military.
DP: Those sound like excellent books, Moni. I look forward to hearing news about those, too.
And thank you so much for sharing your Birth Story for THE STAR FESTIVAL with us!
MRH: I appreciate your personalized and thoughtful questions. Thank you for this opportunity, Dawn!
DP: It was absolutely my pleasure.
Friends, if you enjoyed this time learning about Moni and her new book as I did, please consider adding her book to your collection. THE STAR FESTIVAL is available everywhere books are sold!
Moni Ritchie Hadley grew up in a military family and bounced back and forth from the USA to Japan. Daydreaming was a favorite pastime. She received a BA in Psychology at UCLA and later became a home/hospital teacher for the LAUSD, where she taught students with medical needs. Today she lives in Los Angeles, where she turns her sky-gazing daydreams into stories for children. Also published in Highlights Magazine, THE STAR FESTIVAL is her picture book debut.
Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including, Lucy's Blooms (Spring '21), Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to the award-winning book, 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.