The Write Stuff at APLS

Hey everybody (but mostly people who live in Arlington, TX)!

Looks like I'll be presenting "What to Expect when You're Expecting to Get Published" as part of the Arlington Public Library Write Stuff program. Saturday, September 7, at 10:30 AM.

I just realized that means I need to get up before 10 on Saturday.

Who came up with this terrible idea? :P

If you'd like to learn a little bit about what goes on behind the scenes in the writing biz, we'd love to see you there.

If you already know everything about what goes on behind the scenes in the writing biz, we'd love to see you, too. You can correct all my mistakes. :)

New Ginny Goblin Review (and a darned nifty blog)

Glass of Wine, Glass of Milk is a neat book review blog where a mother reviews children’s books with her son (currently 4 years old). Recently, they reviewed Ginny Goblin Cannot Have a Monster for a Pet.
My favorite bit:
On friendship with Ginny:
"Yes [I would befriend her]. I would wear sunglasses all the time, but herding goats – a goat might bonk me on the head with its horns, so I should wear wear a helmet and also armor."

I’m going to try to keep track of this blog. Watching the son’s taste evolve is likely to be really cool.

Ginny Goblin Launch Party II

Hey, Ginny Fans. Yesterday was pretty awesome.

First, we had a launch party for GINNY GOBLIN CANNOT HAVE A MONSTER FOR A PET.. The Arlington Public Library hosted us again, so big thanks to them. Fifty or so people came to celebrate with me, including my family, lots of my fellow writers, and a lot of kids.

I love reading Ginny Goblin stories to kids.

HMH Kids gave us my favorite coloring sheet ever. The Friends and Foundation of the Arlington Public Library handled book sales for the book signing and they did an amazing job.

Then I got to have dinner with my family at Olive Garden, and something really fun happened.

Someone was having a birthday at the next table over, and a gang of waiters came to sing Happy Birthday. (That was not the fun part.) The birthday girl was a cute little girl named Annie.

I actually had my comp copies of MONSTER PET out in the car, so I ran out to get one and offered Annie an autographed copy for her birthday.

I see kids all the time who I’d love to share Ginny with, but I hardly ever get the chance.

Happy Birthday again, Annie, and I hope you enjoy the book.

And then I went home and slept for 10 hours. And my cat let me.

All in all, a pretty awesome day.

Publisher's Weekly Review!!!

Kondo and Kezumi Visit Giant Island has been delayed for a year so all three books can come out closer together. (This also means I need to hurry up and write the third one…) But that hasn’t stopped it from racking up reviews, including a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly!

I have two starred reviews now, since Ginny Goblin Cannot Have a Monster for a Pet got one from Kirkus.

Three more and I get a free donut. (If I go somewhere that has free donuts)

Journey to the Center of the Kids' Section

Here’s my notes from the class I taught at DFWcon 19.
Since I’m always terrified that I’ll forget everything the moment I try to start talking, my notes are pretty much the entire class.


About me


My Picture Book Adventure


Categories (Bring examples)


Board Books

Books for babies to chew on.  I don’t actually know anyone who writes them.  They’re VERY picture driven, so I suspect illustrators drive these projects.  There are a bunch that are abridgements of picture books, or media tie-ins of one sort or another.  A lot of those are probably written by some publishing assistant as work for hire.


Board Books run from 0 to 100 words +/-


Picture Books

Books for kids who can’t read, or are just learning to read.  There are two distinct styles: the library I work for breaks them down as “Birth through P-K” and “Kindergarten +.”  As you might imagine, B-PK means books for really young children.  Usually they have very simple language, and often no story.  For example, a book of colors and shapes.  K+ is the more advanced end of the pool.  The picture books you loved from childhood are probably what we’d call K+.


The standard is 32 pages.  Word count can vary from 32 up to around 1000. 700 or so is average.  I’ve seen longer ones, but to get them published it helps to be famous.  Non-Fiction picture books can be more like 2000 words.



Early Readers

The next step up.  This actually means a step down in language.  Many picture books are written for parents to read to their children.  Readers are written for kids to read themselves.  They tend to have a controlled vocabulary and very simple sentence structure.


This is probably not a category you’re going to break into.  The vast majority of readers are in-house, work for hire projects.  But there are stand-outs.  Mo Willems does Readers.


Most of the publishing houses have a level system, with level 1 being hyper simple and level 5 or 6 being pretty close to the kind of prose we’re used to reading.


Word count runs from 200 to 3500 or so.


Chapter Books

These are really simple children’s novels.  They’re still heavily illustrated, but not to the degree that the previous categories are.  Instead of art dominating every page, the text takes up equal or more space.


Word count is usually from 4000 to 10,000, but I sold a three-book series to Disney-Hyperion that’s only about 3000 words per book, so there’s wiggle room.  If you’re going over 10k, you’re probably writing a Middle Grade novel.



Hi-Lo Books

I learned about Hi-Lo while preparing for this class.  Hi-Lo stands for High Interest-Low Readability.  They’re books for teens and tweens with low reading level, designed for high engagement and easy reading.  Now that I know the category exists, I’ve seen a few at my day job.  They sort of look like grown up picture books.  Lots of white space, heavily designed layout, illustrations.  Short-ish word count and controlled vocabulary.


500 to 20,000 words.


Middle Grade:

These are your kid’s novels.  The first half of the Harry Potter series is Middle Grade.  It shifts to YA somewhere along the way, even though it’s probably still shelved in the Kids’ section.  Many, but not all, Middle Grade books are illustrated with about one or two pictures per chapter.


Word count can be all over the place.  The standard runs 25,000 to 45,000.  Genre books can be longer.  Technically, The Hobbit was a children’s book.


And here I end.  You can follow the trail up to YA, New Adult, and then you’re back to grown-up books.






I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.


Publishing contracts are pretty much the same for kids books as for adult books.  One thing to note is that you’ll probably be splitting your royalties with your illustrator.  Another important thing to look at is how the rights revert and when.  Who owns the art?  Who owns the words?  If your book goes out of print with one publisher, it might be tricky to sell it to another publisher later depending on who ends up owning what.


Working With an Illustrator

The biggest bummer for me is that I didn’t get to collaborate with my illustrator on my first book.  Some publishers would kind of like it if the two of you never met.  It’s understandable, of course.  The publisher has a lot of money sunk into this, and if you and the illustrator get into some kind of hideous feud, that could wreck the book deal.  I talk to the illustrator all the time on my chapter book series, though, so nothing is universal.


As a beginning picture book author, you probably have about as much control as you would over the cover of your book—just spread out over every single page.  (No stress there, right?)


My personal experience the first time out was that I got to have input on who the illustrator was.  I did not have input on the initial designs.  As far as I know, my illustrator, Louis Tomas, just drew whatever he wanted inspired by my text.  Then I DID have input on the revision notes.  My editor, Kate O’Sullivan, wanted me to be happy with the art and was open to reasonable input.  I also got to have some input about the typeface and design, mostly in multiple choice form.  (“We could do A, B, or C.  Do you have a strong preference?”)



It’s not totally out of your hands.  I’ve also gotten to see proofs from some other writers, and they’re not afraid to make notes about when the art isn’t right.  I’ve had a little myself.  There’s a page in Ginny Goblin Is Not Allowed To Open This Box where she’s not allowed to climb up a shelf to reach the box on top.  My artist drew a chest of drawers instead.  Kate told him to change the picture, not me to change the words.


The second time, my agent hooked me up with the illustrator, Andrea Tsurumi.  I had a little more input, but still left the actual design choices up to her.


My pretty early impression is that you should expect to have input on where the art intersects with the story—the important details-- but the artist and the publisher are mostly going to be in control of the flavor of the art and stylistic choices.


Here’s the life-stages of my book so far:  (Bring print-outs of each stage)

·       Manuscript – We all know what these look like. 

·       Sketches – The illustrator gets the text and draws a rough draft of the book.  The layout artist puts in the text in a preliminary layout.  Later, it’ll be edited for flow and integration with the art.

·       Rough revisions – the layout artist laid out the sketches in Photoshop or InDesign or whatever to demonstrate how some of the illustrations should be altered, and made notes of changes to the content of the artwork.  For instance, Kate, Stephen, and I (and several other people) all thought Ginny looked too much like a rabbit.  We asked that her ears be changed a little, and maybe her face tweaked.  And there’s a place where Louis drew a chest of drawers, when the text says a shelf.

·       Final art – or at least semi-final.

·       Proofs/Galleys – I got full-sized print-outs for the Ginny Goblin books. I love them and will keep them forever. I only got PDFs for Kondo and Kezumi, but then I got full ARCs, which they don’t really do for picture books.



Writing for Children’s Books

Here’s what I’ve learned from reading a bunch, writing a few, and taking one children’s literature class in college.  This applies mostly to picture books, because that’s what I do.


Don’t write a picture book about an anthropomorphic animal with an alliterative name who learns a moral lesson.  The Barensteins used all those up.  And seriously, do better.  Getting into Kid Lit isn’t any easier than adult writing.  Your work has to stand out.  (My personal goal was to write children’s books that weren’t as crappy as half the stuff my niece and nephews wanted me to read to them.)


Young children like repetition.  If you have kids, you probably know this because they ask you to read the same bedtime story night after night.  Child psychologists say that knowing what’s going to happen gives the child a sense of control—which is a big deal when you live in a world where you barely know anything and other people tell you what to do all the time.  Verbal motifs, repeated wordplay, and steady cadence can be powerful tools.  BUT…


If you’re going to write a rhyming story, your rhyme has to be perfect.  When I was starting out, one of the first agents I pitched to said “the first problem with this is that it rhymes.”  Rhyme is one of those things everybody seems to think is easy (me included), that turns out to be really hard to do well.


You have to write simply, but don’t think of it as dumbing down.  Kids are smart.  Brilliant.  They can figure stuff out.


Unless you have a restricted vocabulary, you can write almost as advanced as you would for adults.  Maybe don’t use medical terms in Latin or exotic, esoteric words most people don’t know, but you can stretch a little.  Kids can figure things out from context, especially when that context includes pictures of what you’re describing.


You DO have to be succinct.  You have less than 1000 words.  (More in other categories, but still not the 80,000 you can get away with in a novel.)  You have to really focus, and make every word count.  Word counts are really stringent. 


You don’t have to shy away from difficult concepts.  Kids can handle it, and the world already has enough empty pap. 


You do have to keep content age appropriate, but treat that as a line you want to run right up to the edge of.  A really good book that needs violence or sexual content dialed back is still a really good book.  Editors and agents will be interested.  A book you write while artificially hobbling yourself is not going to be as good as it can be.


BUT… Don’t write an after-school special where everyone learns a valuable lesson.  Just don’t, okay. 


Children like to read about characters their own age or a little older.  This is a pretty hard and fast thing.  I’ve seen it myself.  Eight-year-olds don’t care about the adventures of a seven-year-old.  They identify with ten-year-olds. 


In picture books, you can often get away without mentioning the character’s age at all.  A cartoon drawing can be any age from four to ten, depending on the style and what the character is doing.  In the older-audience forms, just realize that whatever age your MC is that’s the top age of your audience.


One of the weird quirks of publishing—Age 14 is a hard sell.  You’re a little too old for Middle School, which puts you on the upper edge of MG, but you’re also right at the bottom of High School, which puts you at the very bottom of the range for YA.  This creates problems for people trying to figure out where your book goes.  Don’t sacrifice your artistic integrity, but if your MC will work as a 13- or 15-year old instead, consider it.  (Also, publishing is weird, yo)


The biggest lesson I’ve learned—Writing for kids isn’t any easier than writing for adults… except when it is.


All the things you already care about: character, conflict, setting, flavor… are every bit as important as they are in adult literature.  But you only get 1000 words to express them.


On the other hand, you only have to do 1000 words.  I can write a manuscript in a single day.  I can edit it in just a few more.  I can hold the entire story in my head, the same way I would a short story.


Word-craft is king.  Every single word has to count, and most of them have to do double or triple duty: telling the story, painting the character, and establishing the mood.  It’s a little like poetry in that way.


You also have to learn new ways to write.  You’re sharing the duty of telling the story with an illustrator.  Leave them some room to play.  We tend to have an instinct to nail everything down because our critique groups tell us that if we’re vague about where the characters are going or what they see that we have “no sense of place.” 


The visual part of the setting is the illustrator’s job (at least in a picture book). Also, the illustrator is a storyteller, too. They like to have some of the fun, and if your illustrator is enjoying the job, the work will be better.

DFWCon 2019 retrospective

This year’s DFW Writers’ Conference was so awesome I couldn’t handle the whole thing. I skipped the Saturday reception and left after lunch on Sunday because I was tired.

PRO TIP: Don’t sell your house a month before the conference and buy a new one the day before if you can avoid it.

I taught a class and was in three So Here’s My Problem workshops. That was cool, but I was a little baffled that people would sign up and not come to the workshop. You’ve got the total attention of four smart literary professionals (or three and me, and at least I mean well). You signed up for it. You paid hundreds of dollars for the privilege. (Well, okay, really you paid so you could watch the Gong Show. We all understand). So GO TO THE WORKSHOP!

But seriously, I loved it. After the first one, someone (I think it was Liara Tamani, but my brain is mush right now, so I could be wrong) said “I think I learned more than I taught.” I totally agree.

My Journey to the Center of the Kids’ Section class was really well received. I’ve taught it twice now, and I think maybe I’ll actually do powerpoint slides and stuff to make it a bit more polished in the future. And only partly because if I did that, I could take pictures of the books in various categories and not have to lug a 25 lb. backpack full of children’s books to the conference with me on class day.

I sold some books and made some friends (including Chuck Wendig, who is officially my best friend now)
(Not really. But he is a cool dude).

Awesome things happened for some of my friends, like Dannie Olguin Morris coming in second in Write Club and snagging a full manuscript request on her pitch. That’s a big deal. A full means the agent is interested enough to want to read the whole thing rather than just try a few sample chapters first.

So anyway, good conference. Even when the vending machine ran out of Coke Zero. See all you crazy kids next year.

TLA 2019 Retrospective

Hi Y’all!
Last week was the Texas Library Association annual conference in Austin, TX. I was invited to sit on a panel and do a book signing.
First was lunch with Kate O’Sullivan, my editor at HMH. She’s far more lovely, friendly, and engaging in person than in email. And I already really loved her. And now I have more of an inkling of how cool she is, too.

(It’s a lot)

Then was my panel:

Children’s Authors Tackle Big Emotions in Picture Books
Location: Room 17 AB, Level 4
Learning about big emotions and how to deal with them is one of the most challenging tasks of childhood. Authors delve into the minds of children with humor, grace, and uncanny accuracy. They speak to the importance of picture books helping children deal with their emotions.

Authors: Galia Bernstein, David Goodner, Jorge & Megan Lacera, Todd Parr, and Jonathan Stutzman

That was a lot of fun. Todd Parr looked completely different than I’d imagined him, because I used to know a guy named Tom Parr, and every time I read Todd Parr’s name, I think of Tom even though they’re totally different people.

Once again, I’m sorry I was late to the panel. Fortunately, it was only a few minutes.

My signing was fun, too. I’m going to be sad if I ever get to the point where signing my books for fans isn’t fun. Librarians are particularly awesome fans. I got to sign GINNY GOBLIN IS NOT ALLOWED TO OPEN THIS BOX, and Disney*Hyperion also brought some of the ARCs for KONDO AND KEZUMI VISIT GIANT ISLAND., which comes out in September. That was totally cool.

A few of you guys asked me if I’d do school visits. I didn’t have enough time to give really good answers. So the new thing I learned from this experience is that when I do professional events I need to make sure I’ve got business cards with me, and I probably need to update my business cards.

To answer that question: Yes, I love school visits. I have a day job, so I don’t have unlimited time, but my boss is pretty flexible so unless I get a lot more popular, I can probably accommodate anyone in the D/FW metroplex. Further away might be a little trickier.

For the rest of this school year, I’ll still do them for free or really cheap because I’m just learning. If I have to travel far, I’ll have to ask for gas money and a hotel room/food if necessary.

Starting in the fall, I’m probably going to have to start charging, but I’m still thinking about how much.

Then I left, except it’s actually impossible to leave Austin at 5 PM, so it was almost 7 before I got out of the city. I’ve faced worse traffic, but only in Houston.

Tucson Festival of Books Retrospective

This past weekend, I was invited to my first big book festival: the Tucson Festival of Books.

TL;DR: it was amazing.

I flew in on Thursday. (That was not amazing, but that’s just flying in modern America.) The TFOB had a driver to meet me at the airport and take me to my hotel. She’d emailed me beforehand to trade descriptions and phone numbers so there’d be no trouble finding each other. This set the tone for how well TFOB takes care of visiting authors.

Friday, I visited the Borton Magnet School to read GINNY GOBLIN IS NOT ALLOWED TO OPEN THIS BOX. That was lots of fun, and they bought me pizza. I also got to sign autographs for some of the kids, which is one of my favorite things. I think school visits in general are one of my favorite perks of being a picture book author.

Saturday was my busy day at the festival. I read GINNY GOBLIN on the Story Blanket, then I had a class on how to find an agent, and then a panel on “decisions in children’s books beyond right and wrong.” TFOB’s amazing organization made it work like a well-oiled machine. They provide every author with a volunteer guide who knows how to find their way around the giant festival. There are two (possibly more) author lounges where you can grab a snack and sit and chat with other authors. Brilliantly, your name tent has your schedule listed on the back so you know which event you’re doing, how long it’s supposed to last, and where you’re supposed to go next.

The only event I’ve done that was this organized was the DFW Writers Conference, and I know the organizers of that. They’re hyper-dedicated to producing the best event possible. High praise, TFOB.

The reading went great. I’ve probably read GINNY GOBLIN aloud to around 500 kids by now, so I’m almost ready to admit it’s pretty good. But just let me tell you, nothing will hit a newbie author with a cold l dose of perspective like being scheduled to read right after Pete the Cat.

I was blown away by the class on finding an agent. The room was packed, and everyone was interested and receptive. TFOB clearly inspires writers as well as readers.

Then I got to be on a panel with James Howe (of Bunnicula fame… and lots of other fame) and Mikela Prevost (whose new book, Let’s Have a Dog Party, could be about me if I were a dog). Our moderator was Desiree Cueto. She was awesome, and neither far more successful author realized my ruse and pulled my mask off like Fred at the end of a Scooby-Doo episode.

I was pleasantly surprised that people showed up for my autograph at the autograph tent. I need to up my autograph game, though. I watched some of the other authors and they do neat stuff I may copy. In particular, I’d like to figure out something really cheap that I could keep at the table with me to autograph for anyone who would like an autograph but can’t afford a book. If you come out to see me, I want to do something nice for you, because I appreciate you. Writers, even more than some other professionals, don’t get to see the results of their labors. We don’t get to take bows or make curtain calls. We don’t get to smooze at gallery openings. Most of us don’t even get a lot of reviews. So someone taking the time to come see me is really special.

Next up is the Texas Library Association conference in April. I’m pretty excited about that, too.