1. How did you come to write a children's book?
I wrote it on the occasion of a birth. Close friends were having their first child. I had intended to give it to them as a gift, but I never did. Around that time, I had a friend who was studying entomology and had also gone to art school. I asked her to draw up some ideas of what the main character would look like. But then, as things go, the story languished untouched for over a decade.
I kept writing poetry and other things. As the years passed, I had my own family, and had read hundreds of children's books to my two kids. A few years ago as I was reading a bedtime story to my youngest, I had an epiphany: I could do this. I can write a children's book. I have a creative writing degree and I am a writer. Then I remembered the ant story. So, I dug it up and brushed it off. I read it to my kids and got their feedback, and I read it to some friends and got their feedback. I also connected with some local children's authors, Margaret J. Anderson and Tom Birdseye, who both gave me a wealth of knowledge for which I am still grateful. It's kind of funny, too, because the things that I learned from them, and the feedback that got from my friends, is very similar to the kinds of practical information that I've learned as a poet, but I had to shift my understanding of audience. I had to take the things I learned as a poet and writer, and realign them to address the issues of writing for children. Things like image, structure, and function are approached similarly but with different intentions. After assimilating all the feedback and soul searching, I started researching publishers.
I had found a few publishers that I thought would be interested, Sterling, and Scholastic, or course. As I kept researching, I learned that I should pursue publishers who specialize in science literacy. The book explores entomology and coastal and ocean topics for young people. I found Dog-Eared Publications, and had started drafting a query letter. Around that same time, I had caught up with an old friend who had just finished working for a new, independent children's book publisher in Portland, Oregon: Craigmore Creations, which specializes in science literacy and children's books. I reviewed their catalog and checked out a few of their books from the library. I noticed that they didn't have any books for three-to-eight year old readers. So, I decided to query them first. I used my hook for expanding their offerings, my connection to my friend who had worked there, I focused on my story and its potential, and I sent the query letter. And wouldn't you know it, they said, "Yes!" It's unusual to get an acceptance right off the bat. Usually, book inquiries for new writers get rejected a dozen times or more. I was elated, to say the least.
2. Being a father surely helped. Did being a poet help?
Absolutely. The language and word choices in children's books, as in poetry, need precision. There can be no room for misinterpretation. I labored over each sentence, the phrasing, each word, if not each letter in the story. What's more interesting is that I had to leave room in the text for the imagination. In the case of poetry, we leave room in the text for the imagination of the reader. While this is true for children's books, we also have to leave room in the text for the illustrator. The text and the illustrations work together.
3. What did you learn about children's publishing?
I learned that writers should only submit texts to publishers. This is not always true, of course, but for new writers it is true for several reasons. Children's book publishers have their own cadre of illustrators that they keep on staff or on contract. This helps them develop a consistent brand identity. For example, Scholastic books generally look like Scholastic Books. Each publisher has a their own aesthetic, their own certain appeal, and a specific look that helps them establish their markets. So, submitting a text to a publisher will allow their illustrators to imagine what the story will look like. If you submit a text with illustrations, the illustrations will influence the way the publisher sees the book. Or, as Tom Birdseye put it, "You don’t want to give a publisher two reasons to reject your work." Just submit the text, and only give them one reason.
Oddly enough, this advice is useful to poets, too. When writing and formatting a poem, don't give your readers too many reasons to reject your poems. Authenticity in poetry easily couples with accessibility. Poets can be nurturing and kind, as well as difficult and thought provoking as long as their voice is authentic.
Another thing I learned about children's publishing that readers find surprising is that I have never met the illustrator. While I did have input on early drafts of drawings, the illustrator was fairly autonomous. And I now see why that is absolutely necessary. Illustrators need their own license to express their art; working too closely with an author would alter and slow the outcome.
4. What are you reading?
Whenever there is a poetry competition list of finalists announced, I always get the listed books for poetry. Whether it's the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle Award, or the National Book Award, I binge read all the finalists. I am currently reading the finalists in poetry for the National Book Award for poetry. The one I am on now is Spencer Reece's The Clerk's Tale. I have to say, it is the real deal. I also have Brian Blanchfield's A Several World in the queue.
The fiction I am currently reading is Peter Matthiessen's Shadow Country. That one is a long haul and will take me a while to finish. I am also reading Censoring Translation by Michelle Woods. I have an unpublished translation that nobody wants to publish, and am trying to figure out how I should proceed.
5. What's next? What are you working on now?
I submitted a sequel to the publisher for Alex the Ant. In this second installment, Alex the Ant Builds a Bridge, Alex pursues engineering and the book explores issues of climate change. I have a third installment in mind where Alex will explore social identity and atmospheric science and astronomy. It is very exciting being a new children's author. It's a completely new identity for me, and it’s been a lot of fun. I just hope that this first book, Alex the Ant Goes to the Beach, sells well enough to justify a second book. With good sales, the publisher may also consider a Spanish translation, too. So, I hope your readers will consider supporting the effort and buy the book. It's a really fun story with lots of fun words to say.
As for children's stories, I am researching other books as I am developing a couple new storylines. One on diaspora for tween girls, and another on homelessness for young children. P.D. Eastman's The Best Nest is a fascinating account of homelessness that captures the sense of hopelessness and urgency displaced family feels.
As for poetry, I am also working on a series of poems called The Book of James about the sudden passing of my only sibling. It's a book-length elegy that takes famous people and places named James and addresses them as if they were my brother, James River for example, or Jesse James. I really want to finish this collection. It is coalescing for me, and I am beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Of course, if the light goes off, then I'm just in a hole in the ground. I have this idea that the collection should be forty-two poems, and I think I am getting close to thirty.
I am also starting to work on my next poetry project and have already written a few poems, which, in my mind, I call, The Crazy Poems. One of them, "Train 19," is forthcoming from a new zine being produced by Lars Palm called Swirl.
I have outlines to some fiction pieces I would really like to dive into. I imagine them as a series of stories about surviving in a post-apocalyptic world. I can guarantee they will not have any zombies.
It's difficult for writers to keep writing, with all the other obligations we have: work, family, house, health, etc. I find that having a variety of reading and writing projects helps keep the momentum moving forward. I write for my day job, too; I'm a grant writer. I help develop and write grants for researchers, and I am working on a couple of really exciting projects that also use a little of my creativity. For me, it's the journey and not the destination. I have to keep reminding myself of that because otherwise, I get too caught up on acceptance and products and success. Editing and seeking publication are fun, but I'd rather be writing.