The Craft of Kid Lit: Author Interviews
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. Every other week, check this space to gain insight and perspective on the craft of writing for kids.
Author of I Will Be Fierce! (illustrated by Nidhi Chanani), How to Spot a Best Friend (illustrated by Lucy Fleming), the forthcoming Boop! (illustrated by Linzie Hunter), and more
1. What initially inspired you to write for kids, and what motivates you to continue to write for that audience?
The books we read as children are the ones that help us feel seen and heard. They help us know we matter—that we have a place and a purpose in the world—and they help us grow into the best versions of ourselves. That’s why I write for children and why I continue to try to do my best for them with every story. Childhood is not easy. Even a child with the best possible circumstances can feel powerless, and so many children do not have the best possible circumstances. I hope my books will help readers navigate the difficulties in their lives—whether that’s through a message of empowerment or comfort, a connection to the world, or a realization of who they are and what they are capable of doing.
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?
Ideas come from everywhere. They may be inspired by a memory of my childhood or my son’s childhood, something in the news, a song or poem, a new experience or a new way of looking at a common experience, and so many other things. I often get ideas when I’m not working—walking my dog, washing dishes, taking a shower—and I remind myself of that whenever I feel guilty that I’m not sitting at my desk putting words on the page. Ideas for picture books are fairly easy to test out. I give myself 20-30 minutes to type up a story. If I can’t come up with a first draft in that time, the idea isn’t going to work for me. It might work for another writer, but it isn’t right for me. I start to get excited about an idea after I’ve written that first draft. If I can’t write a first draft in my allotted time, it’s easy to let the idea go, knowing there will be many more coming my way.
3. How much is your chosen idea for a story influenced by what is "marketable"?
In the writing stage, my stories are not influenced by what’s marketable. After a story is written, I send it to my agent, Melissa Edwards, and she considers whether it’s marketable. So, marketability doesn’t play a role in the creation of my stories, but it is often the deciding factor in which stories are sent out on submission to editors.
4. How detailed does your outline get? Do you leave space for changes, or are plot points written in stone?
For picture books, I don’t use an outline. For longer works, I like to have an outline, so I know where I’m going, but I leave a lot of space for changes. One of my writing groups hosts plot parties several times a year. During a plot party, we take turns brainstorming each other’s stories and use the best ideas to fill in a plot chart. The chart we use is one we learned during a writing workshop with Rebecca Petruck who is a wonderful middle-grade author and writing coach. (You can learn more about Rebecca here: rebeccapetruck.com)
5. What's your personal technique for connecting to the younger person inside you and writing from that place?
I like to think about specific moments from my childhood. The situation I’m remembering isn’t as important as how I felt in that moment. Childhood is a time of big emotions. Kids have a lot of fears and worries, but they also have enormous amounts of love, hope, curiosity, and wonder. I think about the emotion I experienced, and then I think about a character experiencing that same emotion. What’s happening in the character’s life? How will the character react to the situation? How will the character drive the story? These are all questions I consider as I attempt to create a connection between my characters and my readers by speaking to a universal emotion in the context of a specific story.
6. What are three or four books you would tell any writer to read who wanted to write for picture books? Why?
If you want to write picture books, I recommend starting with these classics:
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, written by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Ray Cruz
The Monster at the End of This Book, written by Jon Stone and illustrated by Michael Smollin
Where the Wild Things Are, written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak
Each of these books was groundbreaking when it was published and each has continued to be popular with readers ever since. Studying these books and understanding why we are still reading them today can help writers realize what they are trying to do with their own stories. What do you want readers to get from your books? The answer to that question should be the foundation of your career. Of course, once you’ve read these books, I recommend reading hundreds of recently published picture books. The more you read, the more you will internalize the rhythm of picture books. You’ll learn the rules, so that when you break them, it will be with intention.
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?
My husband and son are my first readers. After they’ve read a story, I will either send it to my agent or, if I feel it needs more work, to my critique partners. Sometimes, I will share a manuscript or idea with my nieces and nephews to get a young reader’s take on it too. I’m lucky that all of my readers offer helpful feedback and are very supportive of my career. This is a difficult business, and it’s really important to surround yourself with people who will remind you to keep going.
8. Do you start with character or plot, or do you see them as indistinguishable? Why?
I always start with a character. The plot comes from who the character is and what the character wants. Almost always, as soon as I’ve thought of a character, the title of that character’s story pops into my head. This helps show me the direction of the story—the part of the character’s life I’m going to write about. So, once I have the main character and the title, the story is mostly there too.
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?
I don’t know if I would call it a roadblock, but the thing that intimidates me the most about writing for children is that kids are the world’s toughest critics. It isn’t enough for them to like a book. They want to fall in love with it. They want to bring the book to the dinner table because they cannot bear to leave it in another room. They want to whisper the words of the story as they fall asleep and look at the pictures as soon as they wake up. They want to be friends with the character and dress like the character and BE the character. They want to tell everyone they know about this book that somehow knows exactly how they feel. And that’s a lot of pressure for an author. Every time I sit down to write I’m attempting to create something that will become someone’s favorite thing in the world. Sometimes, that pressure can keep me from moving forward. But then I remember the book signings and school visits when small readers whispered their love into my ear, and I get back to work.
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’m always writing new picture books. The one I just finished writing has a little bit more of me in it than most of my stories. All of my books have something of me, of course, but this one has specific details from my life. I’ll have to wait and see how well it is received. I’m also working on a longer project that I have already written or partially written in several different forms. I’m hoping this is the one that’s going to get it to publication.
Bea Birdsong is the author of I Will Be Fierce! (illustrated by Nidhi Chanani), Sam’s First Word (illustrated by Holly Hatam), How to Spot a Best Friend (illustrated by Lucy Fleming), and the forthcoming Boop! (illustrated by Linzie Hunter) and Goat Is the Goat (illustrated by Kelly Murphy).
Bea is also a former teacher who believes in the awesome power of books to educate, entertain, and empower. She is represented by Melissa Edwards of Stonesong. Bea invites you to follow her on Twitter @BeaBirdsong and to visit her online at beabirdsong.com.