I’ve always wanted to chat with picture book author Linda Ashman. She’s written a big stack of well-crafted picture books I’ve enjoyed over the years with my own children, as well as the students with which I worked as a school librarian.
Now’s my chance, I decided, at the recent release of two new books she’s written. In Rain!, illustrated by newcomer Christian Robinson, Linda—as Kirkus’ starred review notes—chooses just the right words to tell an exuberant tale of kindness. And in Peace, Baby!, illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, she offers children a gentle and wise guide to dealing with intense emotions.
While I had this opportunity to ask Linda about her new titles and given that she consistently pens such engaging and entertaining tales, I thought I’d also chat with her a bit about her experience in the field of children’s literature.
Tell me about your two newest picture books. And how long did it take to whittle Rain! down to its 78 words. How many drafts were there?
The idea for Rain! came from thinking about how our “energy” affects others—sometimes positively, often negatively—and wondering which force field would win out in a direct face-off. From the start, I imagined it as a wordless book, so it was really a matter of adding words rather than whittling them down. The manuscript consists almost entirely of scene descriptions and is about 1,100 words, but the text (the stuff you actually read in the book) was initially just 45 words.
My Houghton Mifflin Harcourt editor, Kate O’Sullivan, suggested I add a few more words to make it easier for readers to follow and had me trim some of the art direction to give an illustrator more flexibility. Then she signed up Christian Robinson to illustrate it. He’s fabulous.
As for number of drafts, there were a lot (maybe 50?). Plus, for the first time ever, I tried making a storyboard, which I revised multiple times, to figure out the pacing.
I wrote Peace, Baby! shortly after Rain!. The phrase kind of got stuck in my head, and I kept imagining various conflict situations and little kids repeating it as a refrain. As I wrote the manuscript, I tried to keep the tone light—as opposed to preachy—and show situations that preschoolers, in particular, would find familiar. My agent, Jennifer Mattson, sent the story to Kelli Chipponeri at Chronicle, who happened to be teaching her niece to say the phrase. Perfect. Kelli signed up Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, a wonderful illustrator based in Amsterdam (I love that), who really captures the wildly fluctuating emotions of young children.
You've been writing picture books since 2002, yes? I'm curious: What are ways you think the picture book market has changed for the better in the past decade? And what have been some of the challenges?
My first picture books were published in 2001, but I actually started writing in 1995, which seems like centuries ago. In thinking about how the market has changed, let me just say one thing: In 1995, Mark Zuckerberg was 11 years old.
So, not only was there no Facebook back then, there was no blogging, tweeting, or Googling. And no fancy websites. Compared to today, information was hard to come by. What little I knew about the publishing world came from printed books, a few magazines, and SCBWI.
These days, of course, you can read blog interviews with agents, follow an editor's tweets, join multiple writing communities, and get submission guidelines from websites and advice from all sorts of experts. The industry feels much more open and accessible. What I love most is all the art available online. Back in the dark ages, when I wanted to check out particular illustrators, I'd need to go to a library or bookstore and hope they had some of their books available. Now I can see whole portfolios online and get introduced to fabulous new illustrators.
It's a wonderful thing to have so much information at your fingertips. It's also a terrible thing. It makes my brain hurt. And all that computer time makes my soul tired. It makes me want to log out permanently and go work in the garden. I haven't figured out how to balance it. Have you?
Heavens, no. It’s challenging, isn’t it?
Back to when you first began writing: I hear so often from picture book authors how long they write before first publication. That makes me want to ask, though I know it’s terribly cliché: What advice would you give to first-time authors today—particularly given the hyper-spastic online world?
Hmm. I grew up reading Dr. Seuss, so my first attempt at writing a picture book was in rhyme (bad rhyme) and over 2,000 words long. Needless to say, I was a little out of touch. So my first piece of advice? Read lots and lots of picture books, especially fairly current ones. Maybe start with the "Best of the Year" lists of the last five years and read them all (and more).
Beyond that, what helped me most was figuring out the basic structure of a picture book. Most are 32 pages, and the text doesn't start till page 4 or 5. So we've got maybe 28 pages and a few hundred words (usually less than 700) to tell our stories. I find that really liberating. We can't waste words (no long, poetic descriptions, as lovely as they may be); everything we write needs to move the story forward. We also need to think visually and make sure we're giving an artist something interesting to illustrate on every page.
And beyond that, be willing to do the quiet, solitary, sometimes-tedious work of writing. Stay focused (tune out all the distractions, electronic and otherwise), be patient and revise, revise, revise.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.