Reinventing Your Writing Life
Guest post by Francine Puckly
A little over a year ago I made the very difficult but necessary decision to retire from 24 Carrot Writing after five wonderful years. I have missed the camaraderie with my friends and co-founders, and I’m excited to be invited back this week to talk about what I hold near and dear — reimagining creative visions, establishing long-term plans, and setting tangible, immediate goals.
Each new year I take several hours (or sometimes a luxurious whole day!) to celebrate the concluding year’s accomplishments and reassess my goals for the year ahead. In the summer of 2019, I saw a large gap in my September calendar approaching — my kids would both be departing for college while at the same time my husband was heading out of town on business. Rather than pack the days and evenings with hikes and dinners with friends (oh, so tempting!), I trusted my gut to take that time for some extensive reflection. I spent four solid days at home — all to myself — to reexamine my writing vision. What I realized during that block of time was that I had become a little too comfortable with my routine and wasn’t exactly thrilled with how I was spending my writing time.
I gathered the nerve to make several pronounced changes to my commitments. While it was scary to be unmoored from what was comfortable and familiar, I created an avenue for new opportunities to seep in. And seep they did! I had additional novel-writing time and took on a freelance editing gig in June that led to a full-time writer/editor position in December, but the biggest shift was that I found myself hired by a publisher to write and submit an entire manuscript in seventeen days!
The work-for-hire pursuit would not have come about if I hadn’t cleared ample space for it. I was e-introduced to the editor in May, and after an initial video interview, she asked me to submit several writing samples for a couple of different book ideas. We went back and forth several times, during which time I submitted additional samples, incorporated editorial feedback and provided revisions. The editor pitched the project to the editorial team, they authorized it, and we set off on our own version of Operation Warp Speed. (For more details of that process and my takeaways, see Lessons from a Seventeen-Day Book Sprint.) Because I redirected my efforts and reset my long-term goals, The Word-a-Day Vocabulary Workbook, not even a thought seven months ago, hits bookstores today!
The poet, Wendell Berry, said it best. “The life we want is not merely the one we have chosen and made. It is the one we must be choosing and making.” What life will you be choosing and making in 2021?
Here’s what I wish for all creatives this year (beyond health and well-being): Before you set your goals, may you have plenty of time for self-reflection. May you have the courage to make the necessary changes in your life that will bring joy, surprise, and authenticity to your creative endeavors. And may you trust yourself — always — because, deep down, you know what’s best for you.
Warmest best wishes for a joyful writing year!
Francine Puckly’s debut book, The Word-a-Day Vocabulary Workbook (Adams Media), is an entertaining nonfiction blend of 365 obscure words, amusing word trivia, and thought-provoking daily writing prompts, perfect for writers who need to get their creative juices flowing each day. It hits stores near you Tuesday, January 12, 2021.
You can find Francine online at francinepuckly.com, on Facebook at Francine Puckly, Author, and on Twitter and Instagram @francinepuckly.
Hosted by Francine Puckly
I so enjoyed meeting and chatting with Christy Ewers and Chris Tugeau, the mother and daughter team behind The CAT Agency, at the 2019 New England SCBWI Spring Conference. 24 Carrot Writing is thrilled to host this interview with Christy as Illustrator Month comes to a close.
Hello! And thank you for including me!!
For a lot of authors and illustrators starting out in the children’s literature publishing world, the big question on their minds is, “What are my chances?” So what arethe chances with The CAT Agency? How many submissions do you and Chris receive each week/month/year and how many new clients do you sign?
Oh boy – lots and lots. We receive a consistent flow of submissions a day. I’d say 20 on a slow day. It can be a challenge to get back to everyone, but we try to. As far as chances? We are always open to submission – always. But right now, we are not actively looking to add to our list. We are a boutique agency, so we need to be careful that we have the bandwidth to give our attention to those we currently represent before we consider taking on more talent. That said, if there is someone whose work has blown us away, we huddle about it!
When there is bandwidth for more, we consider adding to the group. However, there are lots of submissions that have impressed us that we have had to pass on! That’s the one crux of being a small agency!
Have you ever received a submission from an artist you’ve declined and then a year or a few years later receive a second query from the same artist who you feel has grown and developed and then decided to represent the artist? What would be the changes in the submission materials that would lead you to change your mind?
Absolutely!! We have several illustrators in our agency now that have that exact story. For instance, one of our illustrators submitted to us in 2015…and after seeing her work grow stronger and stronger over the course of 3 years, I signed her in 2018. She landed a two-book deal almost immediately. I’m so grateful that she stayed in touch, evolved, grew so much as an illustrator, and had the patience that it sometimes takes!
As far as changes in the submission goes, usually when we see promise in someone’s work, we will give a brief critique, things to work on, things to add, etc. and then we ask the artist to be in touch with new artwork. Obvious progress, pushing oneself, listening to critique, and being motivated to draw every day…those things are game-changers!
Illustrators are encouraged to be fresh and original with their art. When you and Chris review potential clients, what are the factors that make you feel an illustrator’s voice is unique and authentic?
I completely agree in encouragement for illustrators to find themselves in their style and work. We can tell if they have been heavily influenced by a certain style or trend, and it makes their work less appealing to us. That said, paying attention to what is selling and what is happening in the market is of utmost importance, too!
As far as illustrators go, we really don’t recommend that they attempt to follow trends, even if their style is not one that we think would be super successful in the industry right now. Artists should stay true to themselves and create art in a way that makes them happy. We encourage practice and experimentation and growth, but only if it’s an organic process of evolving as an illustrator. I think that when people overthink being unique and authentic, it either makes them too much so— that their work becomes too niche—or it changes who they are as an artist, and it stops being fun!
If you are a talented illustrator, you will find work somewhere. It may not be in picture books, but maybe it’s in scientific illustration! Maybe it’s in educational books! Maybe it’s in children’s magazines! And then maybe there’s that one picture book that’s perfect for you and only you! My point is, everyone is unique. Do YOU!
What’s the most common mistake (or mistakes) an artist makes when seeking representation from The CAT Agency?
Beginning an email with “Dear Sirs.” Ha! (For real.) But other than that, really it’s just treating us as you would like to be treated. Spelling our names right, reading the submission guidelines, and then being human in terms of connection and correspondence.
A lot of people send out obvious group submissions, and the salutation is “Hello” and there is nothing personal in the body that gives us any idea that they care about our particular agency at all. When we respond to submissions, we do so on a personal level. Sometimes giving really thought-out critiques and guidance! When someone doesn’t give us the few minutes it takes to be a little personal, we aren’t compelled to do the same. And then everyone loses!
When you sign an illustrator or author/illustrator, do you engage in a revision process with their work? If so, what does that process look like?
Yes! Illustrations-wise, if there’s anything that we see that needs to be added to make their portfolio more robust and appealing to publishers, then we work with them to get it to that point.
If it’s an author/illustrator working on a dummy, then I am happy to help along every step of the process. Sometimes it’s so early in the process that I help in brainstorming ideas and characters, and I’m here to help with overall story-crafting. Often, our author/illustrators either write a manuscript or sketch out a dummy before sharing it with me, and then I edit, make notes and suggestions about how to get it to the point of being submission-ready.
It’s part of my job to make sure that everyone’s work—whether it be their portfolios or their dummies, or manuscripts—is as strong as it can be, and as marketable as can be when I present it. It’s also part of my job to help as our artists grow and evolve and move forward. So it’s an on-going thing; not just something that happens at the beginning of our working relationship.
Of your represented clients, what do you consider to be a “good year” for The CAT Agency and your clients with respect to the number of contracted projects? And how many projects would an illustrator typically juggle at one time?
Oh boy, is this a loaded question! The answer is that it’s different for everyone. We have some artists who can quadruple up on projects, and they have the speed and ability to complete dozens of projects a year. Of course, they’re not all picture books—but with a combination of picture books, chapter books, magazine work, educational work, and cover art, it’s possible. We represent some artists who only work on picture books and only work on one at a time. So a good year for them would be two picture books. We have some artists who have a very niche style or appeal, and perhaps one major project a year would be a good year for them and their particular genre. If someone is working on a graphic novel, that eats up a whole year – and so in that case, a good year is one graphic novel.
When I take on clients, I ask what their goals are in children’s literature/illustration, what their ideal life/work balance would be, and what their financial needs are. And then I can set goals for myself on how I can help them to make it a “good year” for them. Of course, I’m not a wizard, and this business is still freelance – and there are no guarantees in freelance! – but together we can work to hit the mark of a GREAT year! ☺
How do you work with editors to match your illustrators to specific manuscripts? How do you determine if an illustrator is a good match for a project?
Many of our projects are commissioned by editors or art directors who come to us. If our promotional efforts have worked, they’ll know about our illustrators, and they’ll come to me checking the interest and availability of an artist for a particular job.
Whenever I’m visiting a publisher, showing portfolios and dummies, etc., I’ll start by asking if there’s anything in particular they are looking for. Oftentimes, they’ll say “Yes, we have just signed up a manuscript about a penguin who thinks he can fly and we are looking for an illustrator who has a fresh, painterly style, and who can create endearing, but not saccharine-sweet penguins. Got anyone who fits that bill?” And I think for a moment, and say, “As a matter of fact, I have a few!”—and we go from there. If they have interest in any of our illustrators, then it might lead to that person getting that book!
Sometimes, an editor or art director will come to me, and say (for instance) “I am looking for an illustrator for such-and-such graphic novel. Any suggestions?” or “I am looking for someone who is willing to work on a tight budget, and who can turn a book around in 4 months. Got anyone?” Things like that. So, depending on the criteria, I will make suggestions—but then the art has to speak for itself from that point on!
Based on your website, you and Chris represent roughly twice the number of illustrators as author/illustrators. Do editors prefer author work to be separate from illustrator work? Is it an easier sell to align an illustrator with an existing manuscript or do you find that it is a case-by-case basis?
Well, when my Mom started the agency in 1994, she was one of the only strictly illustrator agencies in the business. Over time, many of her illustrators either were, or became, authors as well. When I joined, I opened us up a little more to the ‘author’ end of things, as writing is my background, and it excites me just as much as the illustrating does!
As far as editors go, I think that a one-stop-shop of an author/illustrator is great, but I don’t think that it makes a huge difference. It’s not always a guarantee that they are going to love both the story and the illustrations, so there’s always that risk in submitting author/illustrated dummies. It often happens that they like the manuscript, but not the art, or the art, but not the story. Which is why just authors should generally submit only their manuscripts, and not try to assign an illustrator to their stories, or have an illustrator do artwork for them. If they like one and not the other, it may be a pass for both.
Signing up just a manuscript adds that extra step in finding the right illustrator to illustrate it, but that’s the fun part!
What do you feel The CAT Agency offers its clients that is unique or different in the industry?
I’m not totally sure how other agencies operate, but I think that what makes us different is the family aspect of our group. My Mom and I are obviously mother/daughter, but even long before I joined her, she always cultivated an environment of “family” within the agency. She has always really cared about the people she has represented over the years; knowing and involved in their work and family life – and they were always a part of ours!
Since I joined, we have expanded a bit, but it’s still really important to us to maintain the family feel. We encourage everyone we represent to get to know one another, support one other, lean on one another, and to feel like they are part of an extended family of artists. We also want to make sure that everyone feels comfortable coming to us for any reason; in the way that you would a friend.
Of course, the agency is a business, and we respect that aspect of it, too. Sometimes caring for someone means parting ways, if - for whatever reason - we are unable to do our job as agents, or an artist is unable to do theirs. But even if we have to take different paths, we still support and care for everyone as they continue their journey – like a family does!
When an illustrator is not working on an assignment, what do you advise your illustrators do to grow their craft/art?
Draw every day! Every day. Always create and play and experiment. If you find yourself with free time, create a dummy! Or give yourself an assignment, like a mock cover, or experimenting with graphic novel illustration, or creating any number of new portfolio pieces. Try a new medium, or a new process. One thing I definitely recommend is to do a figure drawing class, or sketch from real life, or plein-air paint, or even collage. Challenging yourself or simply just practicing every day will keep you loose and creative, but you also may discover (or uncover) something spectacular in doing so. And that may just be the ticket to your next project!
Christy T. Ewers is one half of the agenting team at The CAT Agency, where she represents illustrators and author/illustrators in the children’s industry, along with her mother and partner, Chris Tugeau, who founded the agency in 1994. The CAT Agency is a boutique agency that believes in the hands-on approach in representing a diverse group of talent from all over the world. Christy works closely with the entire "family" of artists, spearheading promotion and deals for CAT Agency illustrators, as well as working closely with the authors in the group to help craft their stories and hone their writing for young readers.
Hosted by Francine Puckly
As Illustrator Month continues, 24 Carrot Writing is excited to host New England-based author/illustrator Deborah Freedman, creator of several picture books for young readers. Her books have received many starred and enthusiastic reviews, honors, and awards — including SCBWI’s Crystal Kite Award and a Parent's Choice Gold Award. Welcome, Deborah!
You’re recently back from Nerd Camp in Parma, Michigan. Can you tell us a little bit about this event, how long have you been doing it, and what’s your favorite part of this outing?
I love Nerd Camps! I could talk books all day if you let me, and for the past four years visiting Parma has been a highlight of my summer. It’s a place where passionate, progressive educators are sharing their most creative ideas about raising readers, in a relaxed atmosphere, perfect for spontaneous, informal conversations and getting to know people. I’ve met so many I truly respect and admire — and they give me hope for the world. I’m incredibly grateful for all teachers do.
Let’s talk about CARL AND THE MEANING OF LIFE. What was the process for bringing Carl into the world, from inspiration to completion?
Carl, as a character, first popped up in one of many revisions I did for my book SHY. But no one at Viking understood what this funny earthworm was doing in that book, so my darling was deleted. But not killed! Late in 2016, I was sitting at my desk, questioning my purpose in life, when this small character with big questions came back to me… and this time, he had his own story.
You’ve worked with Kendra Levin at Viking Children’s Books on a few of your projects. Have you and Kendra discussed or applied any of the exercises from her book, THE HERO IS YOU?
I’ve worked with Kendra on four books and have learned so much from her. We do talk about the creative process a lot, and she is as insightful about that in person as she is in HERO. The real Kendra, like the author Kendra, is a wonderful creativity therapist; when she helps steer me through some particular problem, she’s also giving me the tools and confidence to deal with it myself the next time.
Tell us a little bit about the process of working with your editors. How long does it take, from start to finish, once one of your manuscripts is acquired?
With Kendra, each book has started with a fairly clear concept, characters, theme… but I’m plot-challenged, so that’s where a lot of our work together happens. Even once I hope I’ve got it, she will push me to clarify my intentions and go deeper. With some projects, I chase an idea in a bunch of different directions before finding the right path, and other stories slowly evolve — but all of our manuscripts have taken a long time, up to nine months of back and forth with text and thumbnails before I start doing tight sketches. Once everything is approved for final art, Kendra hands me off to Jim Hoover, who has art directed all of my five books at Viking.
With any of my publishing teams, a lot gets done by email, though of course I love those long phone conversations or occasional in-person meetings where we can really hash things out.
How did you manage the leap from pre-published to successfully published with multiple books out over the last 12 years? Was there a learning curve when it came to marketing your books and crafting author visits? And did you ever feel you made any marketing mistakes or that there was anything you would avoid in future?
Wouldn’t it be great if there were one place authors could go to learn everything we need to know about having a book out in the world? My main mistake has been worrying too much about what other people are doing. In the end, experience has turned out to be the best teacher, helping me to slowly trust my own instincts and simply do what I enjoy and do best—for author visits, marketing, all of it. I think that figuring out how to present our public selves to the world is a lot like finding and honing a writing voice. Which can take a while!
You and I met years ago at the SCBWI Summer Conference in LA standing in line at a coffee bar, just after your debut picture book was released. You evolved from SCBWI member seeking publication to debut author/illustrator to multi-published author/illustrator who now presents at conferences. How important has the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators been to your writing career?
Yes, I remember that! I’d sold my first book, Scribble, after being “discovered” at the NYSCBWI conference, and it had recently come out. Travelling to LA that year turned out to be important for my career too, because it helped me connect with my first agent. But honestly, I mostly value SCBWI for helping me find a wonderful writing community of people like you — who are supportive, inspiring, and dear to me. We never stop needing each other.
When you are taking a break from working on an assignment, what do you do to grow your craft/art?
A break? What’s that? ;)
I should take more long breaks. But there always seem to be things on my desk, in various stages, because I’m very, very slow at developing ideas and am afraid to turn the incubator off! I have also discovered that valuable cross-fertilization seems to happen between projects when more than one is going at a time.
But every day I do make time for reading from a wide range of both kid’s and adult fiction, nonfiction, essays, poetry… and my husband and I take frequent advantage of our fortunate, easy access to amazing theater, music, and museums. Other art forms give me a break from my own brain for a while and then later expand it.
At 24 Carrot Writing, we pay a lot of attention to goal setting and planning. Do you set illustrating/ art goals? If so, what do they look like?
I do my best to stay loose and open for as long as I can, and have figured out that I need to schedule in enough space for experimentation and play, and also time to overcome my inevitable inertia, fear, self-consciousness…
My main goal is simply to grow with every book; I just want to feel like I’m always pushing forward.
My biggest dream is that someday the final product will be as good as what was in my head. :)
Deborah’s most recent releases are CARL AND THE MEANING OF LIFE released by Viking Children’s Books on April 2, 2019, as well as SHY (Viking Children’s Books, 2016) and THIS HOUSE, ONCE (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017). To find out more about Deborah, visit her at https://www.deborahfreedman.net, @DeborahFreedman on Twitter, and @freedmanillustrates on Instagram.
by Francine Puckly
As the Summer Solstice approaches, my mind is churning with a multitude of thoughts and emotions about growth, new beginnings, and the constructive criticism that can derail or redirect our endeavors. I’m excited about the idea that in ancient times the Summer Solstice was once considered the New Year and was both an opportunity to break out of one’s normal routine and a time of merriment and celebration. In present time, the Solstice is roughly the halfway point of the year. A marking of time. A marking of our goals. And for a few of my colleagues, it’s a marking of delayed projects as a result of rejection or requested revisions by industry professionals and critique partners. How we deal with these requests and setbacks will determine how well we stay on track to meet our goals this year.
A few years ago, my daughter ran for office in a student organization she had been part of for several years. In the days leading up to the election results, she had convinced herself that she had lost the election and mentally prepared for the deep and complete humiliation that would inevitably come when her loss was revealed. The morning the election results were to be announced, I asked her how she was feeling. She shrugged. “You know? I’m gonna be okay.” As it turned out, she didn’t lose the election for that particular officer position. But another classmate lost in a different race. This classmate was not prepared to lose and was ill-equipped to gracefully handle the results. Lifelong friendships ended that day. The student resigned from the organization. What had once been a source of great joy for the student quickly turned to poison. Someone needed to tell her, "You know? It's gonna be okay."
Which brings us to publishing and the art of critique and rejection, dear writers. How many times have we received hurtful, soul-wrenching rejections of our work or unanticipated requests for manuscript changes and were tempted to throw it all away? Or we hear of another artist’s success and fume at the injustice? In some cases, if we can be objective, we can see that the artist’s manuscript or project had more potential than what we had offered. Sometimes the other person’s idea is more unique, more fully developed, more polished. Other times we feel cheated. We can burn bridges and claim the world is out to get us. Or if we’re smart, we learn what to do differently so that next time we can win. Sometimes, for whatever reason, it just isn’t our time.
With all this summering and raining and shining, the growing season is upon us. And all gardeners know that momentous growth springs forth after a significant pruning. And we can respond by pruning words and tightening our manuscripts and possibly even pruning our egos as we realize we have more to learn. At this time of great light and idleness, try to approach your projects with enlightenment and consciousness with respect to what needs to be done to move forward. If you’re reeling from the pain of rejection or harsh criticism, look for ways to celebrate the joys of the creative life. Hone your craft with the help of how-to books while you dig your toes in the freshly mown lawn. Attend workshops and free lectures. Stop by book launches to support your fellow artists and learn how authors and illustrators interact with their audiences. Read blog posts and memoirs written by authors who were “elected” this year and try to figure out how to apply their successes to your own words and journey.
Regardless of the origination of Summer Solstice celebrations, a plethora of fire and sun rituals across ancient cultures celebrated light. And in noting lightness, we will be able to release burdens, doubts, and fears. Oh, and rejection.
Now go. Be happy. Bask and grow in the warmth of the sun.
by Francine Puckly
My fellow 24 Carrot Writing bloggers and I just returned once again from the SCBWI New England spring conference. At Kelly’s suggestion a few years ago, we sit down together to list our top takeaways once we return from workshops and conferences. It’s a powerful practice!
I attended many informative workshops this year, but the key takeaway for me was from Ekua Holmes’ keynote address—and specifically the wise words of her mother. Her mother encouraged her not to become overwhelmed by the future and all of the tasks in front of her, but rather just “do the next thing.” This advice has centered me more than I could have imagined, and it fits with Kelly’s idea of the “do-it-today takeaways”—using the conference energy to take quick actions that will give you a boost toward your goals.
I have three big and messy projects in front of me this year, and I’ve been slow to make progress on them. But instead of racing too far ahead on my to-do lists or getting overwhelmed by the magnitude of my projects, this idea of doing the next small action item is simple yet profound.
My three “do the next thing” conference takeaways:
Have you recently attended a conference, a long workshop, or a webinar geared toward your writing and illustrating life? If so, reread your notes. Think about how you can incorporate your newly acquired knowledge by doing the next thing in each of your goal areas.
Don’t wait to take small actions that will propel you toward your goals. As we approach the midpoint of the calendar year, what’s your next thing?
As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches and our last-minute preparation lists grow from one or two quickly scribbled Post-its into full-fledged Gantt charts, 24 Carrot Writing would like to take this opportunity to thank all of you for joining us on the creative journey—for sharing the twists and turns of the creative life on a road scattered with goals and carrots! This week, may you claim snatched moments of solitude amidst family, friends and feasts in order to pamper yourself, write or sketch a little something just for fun, or maybe just have a quiet chat with a family member you see all too infrequently (and who might have an interesting story to tell if asked the right questions!).
We are thankful to have such warm, supportive individuals who cheer us on and share the highs and lows of the writing and illustrating journey. Thank you!
Happy Thanksgiving from all of us!
Francine, Annie, Kelly and Amanda
A 24 Carrot Celebration
24 Carrot Writing is beyond excited to announce that our blogging partner and co-founder, Annie Cronin Romano, will launch her debut picture book, Before You Sleep: A Bedtime Book of Gratitude, this Sunday, October 14, 2018 at 2:00 p.m. at the Silver Unicorn in Acton, MA.
We’ve been on the writing and publishing journey with Annie for over six years—none of us really knows when we came together, but it was long before 24 Carrot Writing was a thing. Since we convened as a writing support and goal-setting group, we have revised numerous drafts of picture books, magazine articles and MG and YA novels. We’ve deleted a few labors of love along the way, killed off a handful of darlings, and critiqued each other’s many drafts that appeared to us in rough or polished form—and everything in between. The four of us have amassed dozens of rejections individually and hundreds collectively.
Through all of this, Annie has been the model of persistence. Even though writing is the job of her heart, it is her second job. Despite a demanding day-job and juggling three teenagers’ schedules, Annie never stops writing. Her focus is laser-like when we have writing retreat days, and she continues to crank out at least one picture book manuscript a month. Her commitment to writing speaks of true passion.
Annie is also the Goddess of Boomeranging—that noble art of sending out a query quickly on the heels of rejection. On the rare occasion when Annie would be wounded by rejection and we worried she would cash in her chips, push back from the poker table and declare loudly and publicly that she had bet enough of her life’s time and energy on snagging the elusive publishing contract, she would find a ray of hope, cling to a hint of encouragement, tackle another revision, and fling another query out into the universe. Annie’s querying is relentless, and she does not wallow in despair. She painstakingly researches appropriate agents and editors and steadily sends out queries each month. And you won’t find a more organized submitter. Her tracking spreadsheets and detail of publisher data would put Sheldon Cooper’s string theory notes to shame.
If you were to take the time to go through the thread of Annie’s blogs on our website, you’ll find her journey…slogging through the emotionally-draining query trenches; balancing writing with social media when she was trying to establish her web presence; turning harsh critique into positive feedback; being happy and joyful about other people’s successes, but still wondering when her break might come; taking control of her goals, but then giving herself the gift of compassion when she couldn’t hit all the pedals from the demands of life, day-job , and writing.
It is because of all of those qualities that we find ourselves where we are today—announcing Annie’s debut picture book! (Before You Sleep is this week’s Book Pick.)
But over and above those wonderful attributes, Annie is our friend. So, yes—Yes!—we celebrate her publishing success and debut book, but we also raise a glass to honor what we love most about Annie—her bravery, her perseverance, her compassion, her kindness, her sense of humor, and her pluck.
From all of us at 24 Carrot Writing –
Francine, Kelly and Amanda
Choice Additions: Tracking Publishing Trends and Choosing Books for a Smaller Library
24 Carrot Writing is pleased to host Andrew Jenrich, Director of the Taft Public Library in Mendon, MA. All four of us have benefited from Andrew's comprehensive knowledge of the publishing industry, as well as his ability to place "just the right book" into our hands (as well as the many library patrons' hands!). We hope you'll find his perspective on what he's acquiring, and what he hopes to acquire in the future, helpful in your writing process.
Guest Post by Andrew Jenrich
As Director at the Taft Public Library one of the most rewarding tasks I have is developing the library’s book collection for children and young adults. That’s not to say it isn’t a daunting job, especially since so many new titles release weekly. If there is any frustration in the collection development work I do, it stems from the nagging feeling that I’ll forever be chasing the publishing game and will never quite catch up.
We are a smaller library and, since the shelf space in our library is limited, I realized long ago that I would need to be particularly selective about what winds up on our shelves. So, what determines the choices I ultimately make for our library? What catches my eye and peaks my interest enough to convince me to part with the library’s dollar? Those are interesting questions. I do know the criteria I use for evaluating a board book vs. a chapter book vs. upper-level juvenile fiction for purchase are different. There is no one method I employ. And there probably shouldn’t be. Audiences for each format vary and publishers have become very savvy about what appeals to different age groups. The challenge for me is in anticipating what our patrons will want of what does get published.
Some of the selection process is straightforward – series books for characters like Fancy Nancy, Pinkalicious, Pete the Cat, and Dog Man always circulate and they, along with series like Wimpy Kid, I Survived, and Spirit Animals take up a fair bit of space on the shelves. Add in books by renowned authors – your Rick Riordans, Mo Willemses, J.K. Rowlings, and Kate DiCamillos – and that’s a significant portion of the collection. But having those titles does not mean every interest of our library patrons has been met. There is still plenty of room for diversifying, for growing the collection beyond the core popular titles. Below is a synopsis of what I look for when selecting titles for the Children’s and Young Adult collections at our library. I’ve broken it down roughly by age group and, within each entry, I’ve tried to highlight some of the current trends I’m seeing and, where possible, pointed out the genres, subject matter, and storylines that seem too prevalent in some of these categories.
Board Books and Picture Books
I’m a fairly visual person so I admit that the first thing that draws me to a board or picture book are the illustrations. They don’t need to be a certain style. In fact the good news in publishing for the very young is that there are many styles illustrators can employ that work effectively. Sure there’s a bit of mimicry here and there, but there are plenty of illustrators whose style is unique and distinct. So, yes, I’m drawn to the illustrations. That said, there’s nothing more disappointing than a picture book which delivers on the illustrations but is weak on storyline and content. The words do matter. When I was a Children’s Librarian and hosted storytimes I have to say I gravitated to titles with less text (kids can only sit still for so long). The books I liked most in those situations were the ones that “brought the silly.” Mo Willems, Jules Feiffer, Jon Agee, and Jan Thomas were always a hit. If a book could bring the silly and convey a lesson, well, all the better. Some books with more text did work during storytimes (Tomie DePaolo’s Strega Nona and Michelle Knudsen’s Library Lion worked far better than I imagined, Marla Frazee’s books were great too), but those instances were rare.
What have I seen too much of in storybooks the last few years? Dragons, dinosaurs, princesses, penguins, mice, and bears. Don’t get me wrong, we still purchase titles with all of the above precisely because they circulate, but there’s entirely too much of it. And I do like anthropomorphism (Valeri Gorbachev and Peter Brown’s humanized animals are favorites of mine), but give me characters, animal or otherwise, I don’t normally see. Give me Lady Pancake, Sir French Toast, and Crayons that quit. I’ll likely take notice.
Easy Readers and Early Chapter Books
Some authors like Jan Thomas and Mo Willems have successfully moved into easy reader territory and we carry their titles. What’s nice is they continue to do work that isn’t text-heavy. I’ve found that text-heavy easy readers have a very limited appeal. If a child is looking for more text often they just move up to early chapter books like Nick Bruel’s Bad Kitty series or Doreen Cronin’s Chicken Squad books. Illustrations still matter in easy readers and early chapter books. In fact more and more books from both these categories seem to be taking a cue from graphic novels incorporating full page panel layouts, word and thought bubbles and other comic book devices. Scholastics’ line of early chapter books called Branches does this very well. They’re intended as a bridge between leveled readers and regular chapter books. Kung Pow Chicken, Monkey and Me, and Owl Diaries are all Branches titles that kids gravitate to here at the library. There’s plenty of text, it’s just that it’s often presented in comic book format with splashy engaging illustrations.
What would I like to see more of in easy readers and early chapter books? I’d like to see more nonfiction easy readers and rebus readers where pictures occasionally take the place of common nouns throughout the story. Based on patron requests there’s a demand for both. I’d also like to see early chapter books with a bit more heft and content to them. The great thing about series like J.C Greenburg’s Andrew Lost or Osborne’s Magic Tree House is that you learn something in the process.
With Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, and the Dork Diaries series you’re seeing hand-drawn diary and graphic novel techniques infiltrating juvenile (chapter book) fiction too. It’s clear publishers think kid culture is much more visual now and, based on readership of those series and others, it’s hard to argue they’re not right. We purchase all of the above and countless other series. Realistic fiction titles (school stories, family stories) seem to be on the increase due to the popularity of the Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries books. Most juvenile fiction series (and, believe me, publishers are obsessed with making everything into a series now) fall into the fantasy and adventure categories though. I loved the Harry Potter series but so many publishers started to roll out fantasy series during and after Harry hoping to “catch lightning in a bottle” that the result was a fair bit of forgettable fiction, though authors like Rick Riordan, Brandon Mull, and Pseudonymous Bosch capitalized. Bosch’s Secret series and Mull’s Fablehaven books are both very worthy and most everyone knows what a hit Percy Jackson has been with younger readers.
What’s lacking in juvenile fiction? I don’t think there are enough mystery and compelling historical fiction titles written for preteens. Every so often a series like I Survived stokes the imagination of young readers, but it doesn’t happen enough. More sports novels for girls would be helpful too. Mike Lupica, Tim Green, and John Feinstein write excellent sports novels, but they feature boy protagonists in male-dominated sports.
Young Adult Fiction
In my twelve years at the library no one area has grown so much as young adult fiction. The number of titles has grown and the category itself has matured. I think YA fiction suffered under the assumption that much of it was bleak and focused on hyper-dysfunctional families and relationships. There is a percentage of it that still does (and dysfunction provides drama), but I see authors taking more chances with genre now. Yes, YA literature had its vampire and werewolf phase (thanks Twilight) and it still clings desperately to its Hunger Games-inspired dystopias. Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, Alexandra Bracken’s The Darkest Minds, and Neal Shusterman’s Arc of the Scythe series all mine this territory and do it fairly well. But I like when an author takes an even bigger chance like Ryan Graudin does in Wolf by Wolf and its sequel Blood for Blood, novels that take place in Nazi Germany and feature a girl protagonist who is also a shape-shifter intent on assassinating Hitler. It sounds like a lot to swallow, and it is, but Graudin pulls it off beautifully. If an author is going to imagine an alternate world I like it when they go all in. Thankfully more of that is happening.
There is still plenty of room, of course, for realistic and topical teen fiction. I’ve been happy to see more teen mystery and suspense titles recently and it’s nice when historical fiction series like Laurie Halse Anderson Seeds of America books receive recognition and a devoted readership. I’ve also been particularly pleased that recent multicultural titles like Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone have found a wider audience.
In truth there is so much good stuff out there now for children and teens to enjoy. Some of the best work being done right now across the juvenile and teen book landscape is in graphic novels. Shaun Tan, Gene Luen Yang, Raina Telgemeier, Noelle Stevenson – I could go on ad nauseum about the brilliant work they’re doing. Perhaps another time.
Right now I have orders to place, so if I could kindly ask that publishers sit back and take a short break? I really need to catch up!
The Taft Public Library is located at 29 North Avenue in Mendon, MA.
by Francine Puckly
In the past two or three weeks, I’ve come in contact with nearly a dozen writers and illustrators who are struggling. So this post is part blog, part book pick and suggested reading, and part battle cry for all of my creative friends who have hit the wall and are questioning the pursuit of publishing books.
We are living and operating as artists during a time when we are expected to project a lot of energy outwardly—connecting, marketing, networking. Through the conversations I’ve had with writers in the last month, several of them said they had lost their way, and in all of the cases their energy had been depleted by social media, conferences, and the revolving door of submissions and rejections. As another friend told me today, “I have become a professional student, chasing after classes to inspire me to write. I just need to sit down and write.” We featured Melissa Sweet for our illustrator month, and she spoke of the lessons she learned from E. B. White while writing and illustrating the exquisite book, Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White. While E. B. White might have been eccentric in his need for nature, he can teach us about pulling back, sitting with an idea, and letting nature nurture us as our ideas are developed. Any man who spends a year studying spiders has something to teach me about pacing myself. We owe ourselves a break from the fast lane in order to reconnect to our writing. We can only spin like a top for so long before we lose steam, wobble, and topple over.
Instead I say, let’s embrace and find inspiration in life. If I stop and look around, I can find inspiration in all of my day-to-day surroundings. For starters, I am inspired by my daughter’s 99-year-old dance teacher, Georgia Deane, who continues to teach, dance and sing every day. (Here she is performing in Arizona last month.) And then there’s my critique group member who has spent years pulling together a family tome of photos, family trees and stories, poetry, and Ancestry.com details to pass along to her nieces and nephews. When she shared the book Monday night, we were speechless. The detail and care that had gone into creating it could rival any book written. Big publishing house project? Nope. But what a gift. Another friend faces a recurrence of cancer but remains upbeat and continues to draft her most riveting YA fantasy yet, and I can’t wait to read it! I’ve been on all sorts of adventures this summer with my son as he searches for a new home next year—at a university that will embrace all of his loves. It’s taking over a great deal of my “writing time” but I wouldn’t miss this journey for anything. The writing will have to wait.
This is life. We live it. We embrace it. We feel it. We will eventually create from it.
My friend and 24 Carrot co-founder Annie Cronin Romano said in one of our goals meetings last month that she was going to “throw it at the page.” Her wisdom hit me like a slap across the face. I have been struggling with a complete rewrite of a novel, but I was spending an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to control the direction of the writing. I had lost the love of sitting down with a cuppa, my favorite pens, and a pad and writing for the sheer joy of seeing something new—something never written before—on paper. It had been a long time since I had experienced that oneness with a snippet of a thought or story. Long overdue. So despite the fact that I have a meaningful and immediate deadline ahead, I am reeling myself in. I am going to dip in, splash it, mix it, repeat. I will trust that this is the only viable process if I’m going to deliver something fresh and engaging. I will probably miss my deadline but I'm determined to enjoy this process.
Autumn is here. Nature beckons, as do our creative souls. Go back to the basics. Do whatever you need to truly live and retrieve the joy you once knew when you sat down to draw or write. If you live in a place with seasons, take a hike, play in a pile of leaves, drink warm cider. If you live in a place without seasons, go to the beach or bask in the warmth in other ways! If rain drives you inside, buy a box of crayons or a set of watercolor paints (the kind with only eight colors and one brush). And listen to E. B. White’s wisdom. Explore The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic by Michael Sims and The Essays of E. B. White by E. B. White. And definitely don’t miss out on Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet!
Guest Post by Melissa Sweet
There is no separation between art and life in my book. I’m always seeing the world through the eyes of what I’m working on. In writing my biography Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White, I had the pleasure and privilege of reading everything he wrote, as well as listening to his three children’s books in my car for the better part of three years. It was an education, and an inspiration. There is much to admire about White and his writings. In the end, the essence of White to my mind was his sense of freedom, and the conviction for living life on his own terms. He personified what President Kennedy wrote in a speech celebrating the role of the artist: “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”
When Francine invited me to create a blog post I suggested: “10 things I learned from E.B. White” (even though there were scores of things I learned from him). Then I remembered towards the end of Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte had laid 514 eggs, and since 5+1+4=10, hence the organization for this piece.
Here is just a handful of White’s many words of wisdom:
1. “I think the best writing is often done by persons who are snatching the time from something else…”
Sometimes taking a walk, deadheading the flowers, or jotting down something that comes to me in a flash is still part of “working.” It’s all another form of thinking.
2. “Work from a suitable design”
Finding the design not just the writing, but the merging of words and pictures, is the best part of designing a book. Once I discover and decide on the “scaffolding,” the elements begin to fall into place. In Some Writer!, the hierarchy was first my text, then White’s quotes with illustrations, and finally the merging of archival photos, manuscript pages, and White’s ephemera. Creating the book was akin to inventing a three–dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
3. “I would really rather feel bad in Maine than feel good anywhere else.”
White left New York City and the The New Yorker, as well as fame and notoriety, to live in Maine, a place that had inspired him since childhood. While living on his farm, he wrote essays for Harper’s Magazine that became a collection of some his finest writings: One Man’s Meat.He also penned Charlotte’s Web and Trumpet of the Swan, to name a few. Just as important as loving where we live is carving out a space and time to work. John Updike wrote, “Try to develop actual work habits, and even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour, say -- or more -- a day to write." Even an hour a day adds up.
4. “I like to read books on dog training….to me a book on dog discipline becomes a volume of inspired humor. Every sentence is a riot.”
Why throw a wrench in the middle of deadlines when everything is going pretty well? In a fit of madness, or just to keep things interesting, we got a purebred shepherd puppy– I wasn’t looking for either. We named her Ruby. She continues to remind me not to take myself so seriously and that I need fresh air and exercise. For Ruby, life is a ball, and it might as well be the same for me, too. As White once wrote, “A really companionable and indispensable dog is an accident of nature.” Ruby is both. (With apologies to White’s famous line regarding Charlotte).
5. “The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”
This says it all. Could crafting a book with this advice be that simple? Yes, along with the other bit of advice.
When I wrote my first book, Carmine: A Little More Red, I had Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style on my desk and referred to it constantly. By the time I began writing Some Writer!, I realized I had about seven copies of that book between my home and studio. It was the book that helped me understand White’s process.
1. A nod to another great writer…
Author John McPhee, a New Yorker contributor, is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. In his book, DRAFT #4, McPhee’s essays are a collection of writing advice that is fun and informative to read, as are all his books. Writing a biography of E. B. White was a gigantic undertaking, not just because he is one of our most beloved writers but the sheer volume of research that had to be read, sifted through, and organized. The following quote by McPhee is sage advice for choosing the content of a biography (and writing in general):
“What is creative about nonfiction?…here are a few points: The creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece…the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material…. Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.” –– John McPhee
1. “Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.”
Dr. Dorian said this in Charlotte’s Web. White once watched a spider spinning an egg sac in the doorway of his barn, and the rest is history. It could be, as Mary Oliver writes, that “paying attention is the beginning of devotion.” Indeed.
2. “Omit needless words.”
This rule from the Elements of Style is a favorite. By editing and rewriting, we find clarity and simplicity. White goes on to write: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” And in conclusion: “There you have a short valuable essay on the nature and beauty of brevity– sixty-three words that could change the world.”
3. “Every writer, by the way he uses the language, reveals something of his spirit, his habits, his capacities, his bias. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication.”
All art is a form of communication. White wrote tens of thousands of letters in his lifetime. An invaluable exercise that lots of writers have used as a way of limbering up (myself included), is writing a letter, a postcard, or a thank you note. Try writing by hand or on an old typewriter. Why not email? Because doing something by hand slows us down, helps our mind become in synch with our hand, not to mention the recipient will receive a memorable gift in the mail. Also, a book titled, The Collected Emails of (insert name here) may not capture our imagination.
4. “A person who is looking for something doesn’t travel very fast.”
Stuart Little knew this. His quest was more important than the destination. You’re going artistically, and otherwise, write on!You are no doubt heading in the right direction.
Melissa Sweet has written and illustrated many award–winning books including, Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade, and two Caldecott Honor winning books, The Right Word, and A River of Words, both by Jen Bryant. Her most recent book, How To Read A Book by Kwame Alexander, will be published in June, 2019. You can find out more about Melissa at melissasweet.net and https://www.facebook.com/melissa.sweet.35.
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