The Craft of KidLit: Author Interview
In this series of posts, I aim to shed light on the creative process of KidLit by asking a wide variety of authors the same set of ten questions. Check this space to gain insight and perspective on the craft of writing for kids.
Author of Little Thoughts, Stories & Poems; Editor of Little Thoughts Press, a print literary magazine of writing by and for kids; Poet and Writer of the Chapbooks A History of Rats and Mother Nature
1. What initially inspired you to write for kids, and what motivates you to continue to write for that audience?
The first kid lit story I wrote I came up with on the fly while trying to get my son to fall asleep. It was in his early infant days and one of those particularly long, difficult nights where I finally ran out of songs I could remember the lyrics to, so I made up a little story about a fox living in a forest and enjoying the delights of all the different seasons. I went on to tell him that story at bedtime pretty much every night for the next year. That repeated act got me into a routine and rhythm of picture book storytelling and I started writing more and more of them. When the pandemic began in the spring of 2020, I decided to start a monthly newsletter for kids as a way to give families something extra to turn to while schools and daycares were closed. I had all these stories just waiting to be shared. I loved the thought that kids would get to read my stories each month and have a moment where things felt maybe a little more normal and enjoyable at a time that was otherwise pretty anxious and chaotic. I was an anxious kid growing up and always found reading to be a calming experience. I like the thought of providing that sense of calm and enjoyment for kids.
2. Give us a peek into your brain before you've settled on a project. How do ideas come to you, and how do you begin once you’ve got a great one?
I work as a massage therapist so I frequently find myself with 60-90 minutes of uninterrupted silence when I am in a session and my mind starts to wander. When I keep drifting back to a particular line or idea during a session, I know I’ve got the beginning of something good. On longer work days, I can often build an entire first draft in my head and then it’s just a mad dash after my sessions are over to write it down before I forget.
3. How much is your chosen idea for a story influenced by what is "marketable"?
Very little. I don’t have a very good sense of what is marketable, apart from that obviously if you can turn it into a toy and/or a series, that’s probably helpful. I don’t think my writing style really fits with that, though. There are so many different styles of picture books. There are picture books that my kid loves that drive me absolutely bonkers to read over and over again, and some that I think are just gorgeous, but that don’t resonate as strongly for him. Picture books are tough - I think because they have two different markets, really. Obviously there are the kids for whom they are written, but there are also the parents who are the ones doing most of the picture book reading. If I find a picture book too irritating, I won’t buy it no matter how much it appeals to my kid because I don’t want to get stuck reading it over and over. We save those ones for library loans.
4. How detailed does your outline get? Do you leave space for changes, or are plot points written in stone?
I don’t outline my picture books. They’re formed more from a specific line or image and I just see where the language of the book takes me as I write it. I have a YA novel that I’ve been slowly writing for the past few years and that has a loose outline—there’s a clear beginning, middle, end for the story arc, but the path between those points was not set when I started writing it and has changed a lot as the characters have become more complex. I am now working on my first MG novel and that is still in the outline stage and will have a much more detailed outline. It bounces back and forth between two time periods and two different stories that will overlap in a very specific way. I feel like I need the structure of this book more clearly defined before I get into actually writing it otherwise I’ll end up lost and very frustrated.
5. What's your personal technique for connecting to the younger person inside you and writing from that place?
It helps to have a young child around to draw from. A lot of my ideas have come from observing my son, carefully watching the way he interacts with the world and the sense of wonder he brings to even the smallest, most ordinary experiences. I will often steal lines directly from him. He’ll say something really cute or clever and I’ll use that as a jumping off point for a story. I try to tap into his spirit and curiosity and write from a place of unknowing and discovery. What would you think of this world if you were seeing it for the very first time? How would you manage this emotion if you didn’t have years of knowledge and experience to draw from? What would delight and inspire you if you stripped away all your anxiety and cynicism about the world?
6. What are three or four books you would tell any writer to read who wanted to write for picture books/MG/YA (your particular age group)? Why?
This is a very hard question! Part of me says go out and read all the most popular picture books, the ones that have become a series of books and have been turned into TV shows and movies, because clearly those writers know the way to success. But instead here are three I don’t see mentioned that often, but I absolutely love and would read again and again:
I Am a Cat by Galia Bernstein — I love this book where a sweet little house cat named Simon wants to fit in with the big cats of the wild, but none of them believe he is a cat because he can’t jump high, or run fast, or act mighty. It’s a great example of filling a book with information (you learn a lot about cats of all kinds!) in a way that doesn’t weigh it down. It’s light and funny, and so cute.
Florette by Anna Walker. This book has the most beautiful illustrations and I love how quiet the story is while still imparting a big message about resilience and adaptation and an appreciation for the natural world. It’s a lovely example of how a picture book doesn’t need to be loud and over-the-top to be effective.
The Koala Who Could by Rachel Bright. I love this one as an example of effective rhyme and a way to teach a lesson without being didactic. It’s fun and bright and a really good read aloud, which is important for picture books.
7. How do you involve outside readers in your process? Do you keep your work to yourself? Do you share it with any kids to get their take?
I tend to read my stories to my son to get his reaction. I will also often have a few friends read through early drafts to see what stands out to them or what doesn’t work. Because kids can be so different from each other, it’s nice to have some feedback from other parents about aspects of the story that they think wouldn’t work for their kids or would be confusing, boring, etc.
8. Do you start with character or plot, or do you see them as indistinguishable? Why?
I pretty much always start with a single line or a scene and build from there. In general, I operate from the question of “what do I want a child to experience/learn/overcome?” I have a few stories that started from a specific plot (the world flipping upside down, for example), but usually I’m looking at what emotion or experience I want to explore and then both character and plot develop from there.
9. What about writing KidLit frustrates you? To put it another way... What are some of the roadblocks you encounter that are specific to writing for kids?
There are fewer outlets for kidlit writing. The list of agents who are open to picture book queries, especially if you’re not an author-illustrator, is not very big. There are fewer journals/magazines both in print or online that are designed for kid lit writing, and many that exist require writers to forfeit the rights to their work. That’s part of why I decided to create Little Thoughts Press, to be able to offer another space for publishing kid lit work. So much of the kid lit world seems to focus solely on books, but not everything you write needs to be a book. Not everything should be. We need more ways for kid lit writers to share their work and build an audience.
10. What are you working on now? If you’re at a point where you feel comfortable sharing the information, what inspired the project?
I just self published an illustrated collection of stories and poetry for kids and I am excited to have that done so I can move on to a few other projects I’ve been thinking about for a while. My next big project is a novel about the mysterious career of a young girl ball player from the early days of baseball and barnstormer leagues. It is inspired by my husband’s collection of baseball cards from the late 1800s/early 1900s. It is very helpful to have a source of extensive knowledge and insight on the history of baseball right in my house!