One of my favorite things about writing for From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors is that I get to talk to so many great writers.
The following post is especially fun for me because I got to do an interview with Janet Sumner Johnson, who successfully writes both Middle Grade and Picture Books.
You started your career as an author writing Middle Grade (THE LAST GREAT ADVENTURES OF THE PB&J SOCIETY). What got you interested in writing Picture Books? And, how long did it take you to write a manuscript you were happy with?
I have always loved picture books. The idea of telling a story in so few words fascinated me! When I had three young kids at home, we had just moved to a new city, and we spent a lot of time at the library and reading picture books. Kids can be pretty inspiring (lol!), and that’s when I first attempted to write a picture book.
Granted, I was busy writing middle grade during this time, but it took eight years from the moment I wrote that first picture book, to when I finally dared show a manuscript to my agent.
Where do you get your ideas? And, once you have an idea, how do you know if it is best suited for a Picture Book or a Middle Grade book? Do you start out with the form specifically in mind or does it sometimes take you by surprise?
I got a little ahead of the new year by starting my resolution process early. I used December to sort out my goals, implement some new strategies, and try out some new writing tools.
So far so good.
Somehow, not having the New Year New You pressure made trying new things and discarding those that didn’t work so much easier. And it made the entrance into 2020 a little less desperate, a little less all or nothing.
“It’s the end of the year. For most people, the changing of the calendar is a time to take stock of where you’ve been and to figure out where you want to go. Successes are counted; vision boards are created; goals are written; and a shiny new year of possibility is just waiting for the clock to strike midnight.
It’s a hopeful time.
This year, I decided not to wait for the new year to revamp my writing life. I dove in early – not with the stock-taking or the goal-setting components though. I’m already pretty clear about where I’ve been and where I’d like to get. Instead, I focused on the regular sit-down-and-write parts of the job. What’s working? What’s not? And are there some writing tools I can use to make all of it easier?
For the last few weeks, I’ve been trying things out. I’ve created some rituals to help make the transition to writing quicker and easier and I’ve gotten rid of some tools/habits that just aren’t working. I’ve also played with some new tools to see what might make me more efficient and more organized. I thought I’d share my current writing tool box with you all as a little New Year’s gift, with the hope that you might find something on my list that will make writing a little easier for you too.”
I’ve been a little MIA here at the blog the last two months. Between work, revising my novel, and dealing with an illness it’s been a little chaotic in my world. But things are finally moving out of stuck mode, which means, I should be back to blogging – and writing – regularly again.
Today I’m shining the Author Spotlight on Elissa Brent Weissman and her memoir/anthology OUR STORY BEGINS: YOUR FAVORITE AUTHORS AND ILLUSTRATORS SHARE FUN, INSPIRING, AND OCCASIONALLY RIDICULOUS THINGS THEY WROTE AND DREW AS KIDS.
Title: Our Story Begins: Your Favorite Authors and Illustrators Share Fun, Inspiring, and Occasionally Ridiculous Things They Wrote and Drew as Kids
Genre: Memoir, anthology
Age range: 8+
Launch date: July 4, 2017
Please tell us a little bit about your book?
Everyone’s story begins somewhere.
For Linda Sue Park, it was a trip to the ocean, a brand-new typewriter, and a little creative license. For Jarrett J. Krosoczka, it was a third-grade writing assignment that ignited a creative fire in a kid who liked to draw. For Kwame Alexander, it was a loving poem composed for Mother’s Day–and perfected through draft after discarded draft. For others, it was a teacher, a parent, a beloved book, or a word of encouragement. It was trying, and failing, and trying again. It was a love of word and pictures and stories.
Our Story Begins presents some of today’s foremost children’s authors and illustrators as their quirky, smart, vulnerable, youthful selves, revealing young talent, the storytellers they would someday become, and the creativity they inspire today in kids everywhere.
What inspired you to write this story and/or these characters?
Our story begins with a box in a basement. In my parents’ basement, I found a box filled with stories that I wrote when I was a kid. Some were genuinely funny, others were so bad they were funny. The box even had the first three chapters of the novel I wrote and tried, unsuccessfully, to get published when I was in elementary school. When I go into schools as an author, I tell kids about that novel, and many of them ask if they can read it. Here it was! It struck me that I couldn’t be the only one with a box like this in a basement somewhere. How cool would it be to see what other children’s authors were writing when they were their readers’ age? Illustrators too. What were they drawing? When I realized a collection like this did not exist, I knew I’d have to be the one to put it together.
Everyone says writing is a process. Could you share a little about your writing and/or research process?
This was my first time editing an anthology, so I had a big learning curve. I started by talking to authors I know about my idea, to see what they thought and if they had any childhood writing or art saved that they could contribute. Once the book was under contract (with a few authors on board), my editor and I worked together to build the list of contributors. I reached out to potential contributors directly, which was intimidating but also exciting—I admire them all tremendously, and I’ve been a fan of some since I was a kid myself! Once contributors were on board, it was a matter of collecting their materials, suggesting revisions on the memoirs that accompany their childhood work (which appears in the book as scans of the handwritten originals!), figuring out the order, writing the introduction, and dealing with all sorts of administrative responsibilities. Even figuring out the title was a process (you can read about it here: http://rivetedlit.com/2017/07/07/enter-title-here-how-a-book-gets-a-title/)! The main thing I learned is that putting together an anthology is a lot of work. But in this case, it was absolutely worth it.
We know no writer is created in a vacuum. Could you tell the readers about a teacher or a librarian who had an effect on your writing life?
I’ve had so many wonderful teachers who encouraged me to write. One of the best was Mrs. Berman, who ran the gifted program at my elementary school years. In her class, I chose writing and publishing as a year-long independent study project, and she had me read aloud chapters of my book as I wrote them. I cringe now to think of my poor classmates having to sit through my read-alouds! (I recently apologized to my friend Dan, who was in the captive audience back then.) But Mrs. Berman clearly believed in me, and that kind of encouragement makes all the difference. (Fun fact: My friend Dan also ended up in the field that he studied in Mrs. Berman’s class: architecture!
What makes your book a good pick for use in a classroom? Is there any particular way you’d like to see teachers use it with young readers/teens?
This book has so much classroom potential! The memoirs by the authors and illustrators show a range of styles, experiences, and points of view—great for comparing and contrasting. The childhood work is hilarious and moving and ridiculous—rich material for endless creative writing prompts. There’s a list of tips for young writers and artists at the back of the book, and a Common Core-aligned curriculum guide is in the works. But the most valuable thing of all that I hope teachers and their students take from this book is the idea that there’s no right or wrong way to become an author or an artist, and that hard work and passion matter more than natural talent.
I’m a little dog obsessed here at www.patriciabaileyauthor.com. Would you tell the readers about your favorite dog (real or imaginary)?
My son and daughter, ages 4 and 6, like to play dog. One of them will be the dog—crawling, barking, and panting—and the other will be the owner, taking care of the “dog” and making it do tricks. A little weird? Probably. But it’s still completely adorable.
Elissa Brent Weissman is an award-winning author of novels for 8-to-12-year olds. Her most recent books, Nerd Camp 2.0 and Nikhil and the Geek Retreat, are follow-ups to the popular Nerd Camp, which was named a best summer read for middle graders in The Washington Post. The Short Seller, about a seventh grade stock-trading whiz, was a Girls’ Life must-read and featured on NPR’s “Here and Now.” Named one of CBS Baltimore’s Best Authors in Maryland, Elissa lives in Baltimore, where she teaches creative writing to children, college students, and adults.