Finally, we have arrived at my very first Paper People interview. In the spirit of learning and building community, I’ve reached out to debut picture book authors about one year after their books release. I’m sure it’s safe to say that most of us who are writers consider ourselves a ‘paper person’. More than a common personality trait, however, the name of the series is celebratory in nature. Paper is the traditional gift for a first anniversary. It’s my hope that I can repay these authors for the advice they’ve shared, by starting another conversation about these incredible books. (Disclaimer: this is a longer post than normal, but that’s only because it’s packed to the brim with greatness!)
This month I had the pleasure of visiting with Emma Bland Smith, author of the award-winning Journey: Based on the True Story of OR7 The Most Famous Wolf in the West. The book is simply captivating. Thanks so much, Emma, for taking the time to visit with us!
I’ll start with an icebreaker in honor of my southern roots: Can I get you something to drink? I’ve decided that in this imaginary meet-up, it’s about 7 pm on a Friday, so I’ll take a nice glass of red wine, please!
Ah, a woman after my own heart. The only slight change is that I’ll take a glass of white, chilled of course… it’s the only way to survive summer in the south. For starters, would you mind telling us a little about how you started writing for children?
I’ve always gravitated toward writing, but after my kids were born, I fell in love with kids’ books and decided I wanted to be part of that world. I had already written a book for adults (a nonfiction photographic history of San Francisco), but breaking into children’s book writing turned out to be way, way harder than I had expected. (Surprise!) I continued taking classes, going to conferences, and meeting with my critique group. It took me nine years (nine!) from the time I wrote my first manuscript to the day I signed with my agent.
Nine years! Talk about tenacity! What’s even more impressive is that you continue to wear many hats. I often daydream about being a librarian and spending my day surrounded by books. You ARE a librarian, so I’m a little envious. How is it that you keep yourself balanced, juggling work at the library, writing and raising a family? Where do you find time for it all?
I tend to thrive on pressure and get depressed when I have nothing to do, so somehow, on pure adrenaline, I managed to get that my master’s degree, write, and take care of my very young kids, all at the same time. (It’s crazy how much you can accomplish during nap time or two episodes of Caillou if you move at superhero speed!)
Today, I’m a substitute librarian and tend to work only about twice a week. The rest of the time, I do all the other things that it takes to keep a household running—shopping, cooking, cleaning, schlepping, home improvement, taking care of the neighbors’ cats, despairing over my son’s middle school math homework, etc. Writing isn’t always a priority, but I love it so much that I manage to fit it in. I fully admit to being a multitasker (for better or for worse) so I frequently read emails while I wash dishes and critique friends’ manuscripts or check kidlit411 in between conversations with my kids.
Oh man, so much of what you said is so true in my life too! My kids are still young, so naptime is my favorite. But you aren’t here to talk about toddlers, are you? Let’s get to the good stuff… Was Journey the first picture book manuscript you wrote?
Journey was not my first manuscript. When I signed with my agent, I probably had about eight polished manuscripts. In fact, I didn’t send my agent Journey until I had been with her for several months because it was different from my other work and I wasn’t confident about it. Luckily, she immediately saw the potential, sent it off to a few publishers, and to my surprise, it was acquired very quickly.
How wonderful that your agent could see the life-changing potential in it! In a Will Write for Cookies Interview from 2016, you encouraged authors to start with an agent, as opposed to submitting directly to publishing houses. How did you to land this agent with an eye for success?
I submitted for years, to both agents and editors! Then one day in early 2015 I heard about the Twitter hashtag #MSWL (“manuscript wish list”) and was perusing it. I saw a post from an agency looking for picture books and sent a bunch of my manuscripts. She contacted me shortly after that and we clicked! My agent was fairly new, so she was building her client list and actively seeking new clients. I encourage writers to read the SCBWI magazine to find out about new agencies and agents.
I’m also curious about your experience working with an illustrator. The illustrations in Journey are stunning. I wanted to reach out and pet the wolf as I was reading! What was it like watching your story come to life in color?
Thank you! Or rather, thank you on behalf of Robin James, the illustrator! I didn’t have any input on choosing the illustrator, but I’m thrilled with her work. I was curious more than nervous waiting to see the sketches because I knew my editor and illustrator were pros and would do a great job. And then the sketches came in and I was utterly charmed and delighted, the cover just blew me away; I never get tired of gazing at it.
Do you remember the first time you saw Journey on a bookstore shelf?
To be honest, the whole launch period is a bit of a blur now! (Sasquatch has a fabulous publicist!) I do remember when my husband found my two advance copies of Journey in the mail and brought them to me. And I remember the surreal feeling right before I read Journey and showed a slideshow, the night of my launch party. I’ll also never forget the moments when I learned that Journey had won two national awards! (And to go back in time a bit, I’ll really never forget learning that Sasquatch wanted to publish Journey. I cried.) I do surreptitiously visit my local bookstore about once a week to see if they’re still stocking the book. I always give the stack a little affectionate pat
If nothing else that sure sounds like good book karma. It must be incredible to see the fruits of your labor so close to home.
You included a few pages of back matter which was a nice surprise. I enjoyed learning more about OR7’s real journey and seeing the actual photos. This book strikes a great balance of factual and fiction, did it ever feel like you were writing two stories?
Not exactly. I tried to maintain a similar tone, and it always felt like two parts of the same book to me. But yes, there are absolutely two distinct voices. The story alternates between the point of view of OR7, and a girl named Abby. (Abby, although fictional, is based on two real kids who really did, like her, submit the name Journey to a contest and win.) I wove a lot of informational material into the Abby parts. And when I wrote from the wolf’s POV, I worked hard to avoid anthropomorphism. Almost everything in the wolf’s sections is documented, including him playing with coyotes, meeting a female, and having pups.
I think you wove the wolf’s story in with Abby’s seamlessly, helping to highlight the power that kids have to make a big impact on their little world. It made it very tangible for my kids. As a mom, I think that’s what I appreciate most from your book.
Yay, and thank you! I do think having a child main character, as well as the wolf main character, makes the book more relatable for kids.
The children’s publishing industry is unique in that authors and illustrators have to create something that will sell to both parents and children. To top it off, authors are often responsible for a majority of their own marketing. How did you approach the release of your debut picture book? What worked well for you?
Leading up to the release, there were a few blog posts and events. A new wolf exhibit opened at the SF Zoo one month before my book release. The zoo was able to order books early, and I did two story times there before the book even came out. I decided to have a launch party on the day my book released at my local indie bookstore. We had the party at night, and I provided wine and cookies. We sold out that night, so it was a good thing for the bookstore, too. Right after the release, I had a number of events and interviews, all arranged by my publisher’s publicist. After a little while, I started to do things on my own. I’ve arranged other bookstore and school visits, contacted a local newspaper, called a national park, etc. I’ve been on a few SCBWI panels, and of course, I try to stay active on social media. I’m not the greatest publicist or marketer, and I certainly prefer writing to pushing my book, but I’m trying to make an effort.
Continuing the spirit of celebration, Journey’s release date was October 11, 2016. Your one year anniversary as a published author is quickly approaching! If a release date is considered a book birthday, seems fitting to celebrate a book-iversary! How do you plan to celebrate in a couple of months?
I hadn’t thought of a book-iversary! What a fantastic idea! I’m going to think up something wonderful. Maybe I’ll donate some money to the Sierra Club (for their work protecting habitat), buy something at my local bookstore, then treat my husband, kids, and myself to a dinner out. Oh, and I’ll be sure to send something to my editor and agent! They are so much a part of this.
What’s been the most surprising thing about dropping the pre- from pre-published and making it to the published side of the industry?
I thought that after I signed that first contract, more contracts would come rolling in immediately. As it happened, it took about 18 months. In the Kid Lit world, each manuscript is considered individually and must stand on its own merits, regardless of the author’s credentials. You can have ten published books out, and still, experience rejection.
Is there anything you’ve learned in the past year that you wished you had known in advance?
This is always such a tricky question! I think all the mistakes I made were part of my process. My biggest recommendation to pre-published authors is to immerse yourself in the Kid Lit world, even if just for a while. Take some online classes, check out kidlit411, go to conferences, pay for the critiques. It will give you context and perspective, and make you feel like this is something real you’re diving into, not just a cute hobby.
That’s wonderful advice. I appreciate your honesty and persistence. Journey was a story that needed to be told. You have some upcoming books, including What Is It Like to Live on an Island (Little Big Foot April 2019). Where can we find, and follow you on Social Media?
Besides What Is It Like to Live on an Island? I have a nonfiction picture book called The Pig War, from Boyds Mill Press, hopefully for 2019, and a series of chapter books called Zadie Jacobs, CEO, from the educational publisher ABDO, coming in fall 2018. You can learn more at my website, http://www.emmabsmith.com, and follow me on Twitter (@emmablandsmith).
Thanks for taking the time to visit with me and becoming the first of the Paper People!
This was so fun! Answering interview questions actually teaches me so much about myself! And I can’t wait to read about your future books, Jennifer!
Well, that’s a sweet way to end a wonderful conversation. If you haven’t read Journey: Based on the True Story of Or7, the Most Famous Wolf in the West, you should absolutely treat yourself. It would make a wonderful addition to any public, home or classroom library.
Join me next week as I continue down my own (hopeful) path to publication, and next month when I’ll share my conversation with Jason Kirschner, author/illustrator of the adorably funny Mr. Particular.
Thanks for reading, come back anytime!