Guest contributor Kate Schwarz is something of an expert on children’s books. She has three kids and reviews what they read together on her blog, Kate’s Bookery: Raising Kids with Books. It’s a treasure trove of beloved classics, modern picture books and Caldecott winners. If you have kids who love to read, bookmark this blog! I promise you’ll return to it over and over again.
Kate recently sat down with local author Sherryn Craig, who has just released the beautifully illustrated basketball picture book, Midnight Madness at the Zoo (Arbordale, 2016). Below, Craig discusses her inspiration for the book, the book publishing process, and how she squeezes in writing while still having a full-time job and spending heaps of quality time with her husband and two boys.
Congratulations on your first picture book! What does it feel like to hold your very own book in your hands?
It’s exciting! I still pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming! I was so happy when Arbordale purchased my manuscript. They took a risk on a first-time author and I will forever be grateful.
Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for the story? How did you come up with the idea?
My son and I were talking about what he wanted to be when he grew up. At that time, it was a fireman and he wanted to know if I thought it was possible. I assured him it was—that if he worked hard, he could do anything he set his mind to. I was not prepared when he turned that answer back on me. The truth is I like what I do from 9-5. But if I think back to what I wanted to be when I was my son’s age, it was a writer. I wanted to write books just like my favorite authors, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Roald Dahl, Donald Sobol.
So given my research skills, I started reading how to get started. There are tons of books and blogs out there—frankly, it was a bit overwhelming. So I shifted gears and decided the only way to get started was to sit down and write something. Since I’m Type A and a planner by profession, I used the month of February to structure my writing. A month with 28 days seemed like a great way to write an alphabet book, leaving me two extra days for an introduction and a conclusion. I found a tool for each letter of the alphabet, then wrote an eight-line poem to explain what each tool looked like and what job it did. By month’s end, I had completed my first manuscript, and in the drawer it’s stayed.
Midnight Madness at the Zoo would become my second. By then, I had found the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and attended a conference or two. I also enrolled in a children’s book writing class offered by the Fairfax County Public Schools’ Adult Education Program. Midnight Madness was inspired by a small moment—a 30 second conversation with my son after visiting a local zoo. The animals were sleeping and he asked why. I told him it was the heat. He said it was because they played basketball all night long.
It was such a great answer! Kids are a million times more creative than adults, probably because they think in a less constrained way. I took my son’s idea and played with it, gave it form and the rhyme really flowed easily right from the start.
So…basketball? Did you play?
No (shaking her head – laughing), no I never played basketball. In fact, I don’t think anyone considered me athletic growing up. I was in the band, debate team, French club, yearbook—those sorts of things. But my high school sweetheart, now my husband, played, and of course I watched those games. He’s also the head coach at W.T. Woodson High School, which demands a lot of his time. For three or four months out of the year, my friends and family call me a “basketball widow” since I hold down the home front while he coaches and travels.
But even with his coaching commitments, Doug has always supported my writing. We’re two busy people—partners and parents—with a genuine respect for each other. We recognize that we can’t always be in the starting line up; one of us in going to be on the bench sometimes. It’s compromise and communication. It’s not always perfect. It’s certainly not equal. But it’s what works for our family.
What do you do in your non-writing life?
I’m a Health Planner for Fairfax County. My primary responsibility is to identify community health needs, so work with a lot of numbers—collecting and analyzing data, researching programs and policies, and evaluating overall performance. I also monitor legislation and develop grants.
You definitely have that proverbial “full plate!” When do you write?
Most of the time I write at night, when my boys go to bed. That was easier to do a few years ago when their bedtime was around 7:30 PM, but now that they are older and their bedtimes are later—pushing 9 PM—it’s getting more difficult. I haven’t quite figured out how to work writing into my schedule on a daily basis, but it’s important to me so I know that I will fit it in whenever I can until I come up with a system or schedule that works for me.
Tell me a little bit about the publishing process. Was it what you expected? I think a lot of people believe you have to illustrate as well as write… did you collaborate on the illustrations at all?
As a lifelong reader and a consumer of children’s books, I had no idea what it took to write a book, let alone get it published. What you see on bookstore shelves was decided on two years before! That’s about the same gestation period as an elephant! Seeing a manuscript through submission, acquisition, editing, illustration, marketing, and distribution—Before Midnight Madness, I only had ideas of what publishing my own book would be like. Therefore I learned a lot about the publishing process in the past two and a half years. And, honestly, I still am learning a lot about the publishing process.
After I write a manuscript, I share it with my critique group. They tell it like it is—there’s no sugar coating. It’s important to get that feedback from fellow writers. You only get one chance to make a first impression with an editor or agent, and a good critique group will help you present your best work.
Then it’s time to query. I identify editors (at publishing houses) who generally support the type of book I’m submitting. For example, some editors don’t want rhyme. Some won’t accept counting or alphabet books. Others frown on anthropomorphism. There are a lot of do’s and don’ts in children’s fiction. I was warned about committing all three. But if it’s a good story that’s well written, it will find a home. It’s easy to get discouraged by all the no’s, but it only takes one yes. Arbordale was that yes. I submitted at the end of May. The story was being “kicked around” in September. In March I was offered a contract. So about ten months total.
Editors will often request changes to a manuscript—from minor edits to structural changes, like a new ending or character. I worked with my editor to make the text as clear and concise as it could be. In writing, but especially picture books, every words counts. If it a “but” does not propel an action or a character, then it has to go.
As for illustrations, I’m a writer—you don’t want me drawing pictures! Arbordale reviewed art portfolios to select an illustrator. My editor shared Karen Jones name with me and a link to her online gallery. But further communication was prohibited. I didn’t have input to say what the illustrations should or should not look like. And, really, that’s okay with me. I tell a story using words. That’s my medium. Karen uses pictures. We’re both artists and just as she did not have a say in my words, neither should I with her pictures. A good illustrator can catapult a story to a whole other level. I love Karen’s drawings, and I appreciated that my editor trusted me enough to share a sneak peak during the writer-illustrator moratorium.
And now that the book is published, it’s time to promote it, I can hold it in my hands, see it on a bookshelf, and read it to my boys. I’m learning a whole lot about this part of publishing, too. I’ve created my own events to generate enthusiasm and interest in the book, to sell and sign them and share my own excitement about Midnight Madness.
Are you working on anything new? What was the last thing you wrote?
Yes, besides promoting Midnight Madness, I just finished a new manuscript—a follow up to Midnight Madness—called the The Chase for the Polar Cup, set in the Arctic, about a bunch of animals who play ice hockey. Specifically, two teams of five players are competing during a nocturnal game of hockey for the Polar Cup. Unlike Midnight Madness, where animals are added to the game, these mischievous critters get sent to the penalty box thrown out for fighting, high-sticking, cross checking—you get the idea. I’ve just begun the submissions process, so keep your fingers crossed for me.
I will! If I could switch gears a little bit, I’m curious about your relationship with books and reading. What were some of your favorite picture books when you were your readers’ age?
Oh…it’s fun to think back. Babar comes to mind. Loved that elephant! And the Madeline series. I loved The Velveteen Rabbit and Charlotte’s Web. The Giving Tree. Harold and the Purple Crayon. I realize I’m listing classics…but they’re timeless for a reason.
I also read a lot of adult fiction—historical, contemporary, mystery—with a book on the craft of writing thrown in every now and then. I just finished The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. Haunting—those characters will stay with me forever. Another of my favorites, also set in World War II, was All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
What picture books do you read now?
(Laughing) Lots and lost of nonfiction books about sports, monster trucks, superheroes and things like that. With two boys in the house, I really don’t get a chance to reread Madeline or enjoy The Velveteen Rabbit. Sometimes my youngest will indulge me with Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama books, but it’s becoming increasingly rare. He’s on a Marvel/Justice League kick right now.
Thank you for sitting down with us to chat about your book and your experience with the processes of writing and publishing. Modern Reston wishes you the best of luck with Midnight Madness at the Zoo and all the other books you’re sure to publish in the future.
If you are interested in scheduling an event with the author, visit her site here.