Write About the Changes You Want to See: Joy Talks Picture Books

Today I am fortunate to get to talk about picture books and how they are created with authors Hannah Barnaby and Bethany Hegedus and editors Alessandra Balzer and Kristin Daly Rens. Hannah is the author of many books, including the picture book BAD GUY, which is currently on our shelves and one of my absolute favorites of the season. You may know Bethany—who also runs The Writing Barn in Austin— from her award-winning GRANDFATHER GANDHI series, co-written with Arun Gandhi. Alessandra Balzer is co-publisher, along with Donna Bray, of the Balzer and Bray imprint at Harper Collins, and Kristin Daly Rens is executive editor at the same imprint.

Joy: Hannah and Bethany, how do you come up with ideas for your picture books? What makes you think, Yes, this will work?

Hannah: Picture books are slippery things. Some ideas sound amazing in my head and then fall flat when I try to build a story on top of them. But almost all of the ideas I start with come from something I see or hear or read, something that sparks a "what if" question in my mind. BAD GUY came from a rule at my son's preschool ("No bad guys on our playground!"), and GARCIA & COLETTE GO EXPLORING came from an academic dinner at the University of Virginia where I was seated between an astronomer and a marine biologist.

Bethany: When I am out in schools, I tell kids that one of the steps to becoming an author is to write about what you love, write about what you care about, and write about the changes you want to see made in the world. So that's where I get all my ideas--not from writing what I "know." One friend of mine told me I write about unlikely heroes, and I think that may well be true. My subjects from Gandhi to Arun Gandhi to Harper Lee have all been heroes of mine.

Joy: What happens next? Can you de-mystify the basic writing process for our readers? How does a picture book idea become a picture book manuscript?

Hannah: I start every picture book manuscript sitting in my big living room chair with a pen and a notebook. Writing longhand is like sketching for me -- it helps me get all of the possible sequences and outcomes down on paper. Once I have all of those story bits in one place, I can see which ones are stronger or brighter than the others, and I start to put them in order. I only start typing when I have a pretty good sense of how the story will turn out.

Bethany: Picture book non-fiction is all about finding the narrative thread or through line and deciding how much of one person's life the project will share with the readers. You are looking to actively impart the moments of greatest impact on your subject's life to have the greatest amount of impact on the reader. Since non-fiction is factual, and you don't make anything up, you'd think it would be easy--but it's not. There are a thousand choices you have to make about what to leave in and what to take out.

Joy: Now that we’ve heard from the author side of things, Kristin and Alessandra, how do you know when a picture book manuscript is the right one for you and for Balzer and Bray?

Kristin: B+B is all about publishing bold, creative, groundbreaking picture books with fresh voices—so that’s always the first thing I’m looking for in a project. And even if a story is about a universal theme that’s been written about before, we want to make sure that the project is adding to the conversation in a new way. For example, when I first read LITTLE PENGUIN GETS THE HICCUPS, the debut picture book by author/illustrator Tadgh Bentley, I was struck by Tadgh’s fresh, fun voice and by the fact that it was a really appealing character-based story featuring an adorable protagonist, but also by the story’s interactivity, as we didn’t have many interactive stories on the list at the time. I’m also a big fan of nonfiction, so I tend to edit many of the imprint’s nonfiction picture books, such as HILLARY CLINTON: SOME GIRLS ARE BORN TO LEAD by Michelle Markel and LeUyen Pham, as well as two upcoming titles I’m really excited about, ALABAMA SPITFIRE: THE STORY OF HARPER LEE AND TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Bethany Hegedus and Erin McGuire, and FREE AS A BIRD: THE STORY OF MALALA by debut author/illustrator Lina Maslo.

Alessandra: Kristin has summed up our mission beautifully. A story that has a fresh outlook is definitely key for me. I also love to be surprised by a manuscript. And I think I can speak for most editors when I say that if a book can move you, especially in this short form—you know you have something special. Joy: What do you consider as you match illustrator with author?

Kristin: There are a lot of factors we consider, from whether the tone and style of an artist’s work suits those of the text, to whether the artist has illustrated a similar story before (which can be a positive or negative, depending). Sometimes I’ll spend entire afternoons scouring my bookshelves and artist or agent websites looking for the perfect illustrator—and of course our art directors at Harper are incredibly thoughtful and well-versed in what’s out there, so the illustrator selection process is always a collaboration with design.

Alessandra: I would add that sometimes you’ve had your eye on an artist you’ve been dying to work with and then when the right manuscript comes along, you pounce! This happened to me with the artist Mike Curato and WORM LOVES WORM by JJ Austrian, which definitely fits in with the criteria of publishing something that feels totally fresh. It was the first picture book I’d seen about gay marriage that approaches the issue in such an organic, subtle way for kids that just works on every level. Mike loved the text immediately and it was the perfect collaboration.

Joy: Okay. Back to our authors! Once your editor has done the ‘matchmaking,’ tell us a little about working with an illustrator. Do you actually have contact? Or does all this go through your editor? What do you as the author have to consider about the text? How much input, if any, do you have about illustrations?

Hannah: I didn't have any direct contact with either of my illustrators before the book was finished -- all of our communication was handled via my editor and the art director. But there was a lot of communication! I got to see sketches and draft illustrations, and both editors were very open to hearing my thoughts about whether we were headed in the right direction. Having worked as a children's book editor before I was a writer, I was very well-prepared for this part of the process, and I knew that some of my ideas might not make it into the final book. I was very open to seeing how Mike Yamada and Andrew Joyner would add their own visual story to my textual one, and I could not be more thrilled with the results.

Bethany: With the GRANDFATHER GANDHI books, Evan Turk and I have developed a strong friendship. We've presented together, shared long car drives, been guests in each others homes but during the creative process we don't discuss the work. All of that goes through the editors and art directors...but when I was writing BE THE CHANGE: A GRANDFATHER GANDHI STORY, Evan and I talked about some of the themes in the project and once he saw the final manuscript he said to me on a school visit trip that he was going to use embroidery. The raw cotton thread is a major symbol in the first book, about turning anger into positive action, and he wanted to show that BE THE CHANGE contained a more complex, deeper lesson, about personal responsibility and waste. He thought embroidering the thread amid the various collage and textual techniques he was using would show this symbolically. (The man is brilliant.) And I ooohed and said, "do you embroider? What does S&S think?" And he laughed and said, "I don't. Not yet, which is why I haven't told them yet." There is nothing visually artistic Evan can't do and so the embroidered threads throughout more than worked and is one of my favorite parts, visually, of the second book.

Joy: Well, now that we know the author’s perspective, Alessandra and Kristin, what's the editorial process like for a picture book?

Kristin: After a manuscript has been acquired and scheduled, I’ll generally spend a couple of weeks with it, reading it once or twice a day for a week or two, jotting down notes and thoughts. Then, once I feel like I’ve considered the manuscript fully from all angles, I’ll begin to put together more cohesive notes. For a first draft, I’ll write up a (usually brief) editorial letter along with a marked-up copy of the manuscript in which I add notes on specific scenes or lines in the margins via track changes. Once I send the notes to the author, we’ll usually hop on the phone to chat about the notes in more depth, and then the author usually takes several weeks to implement the changes. We usually take a manuscript through a few round of edits with the author, with the edits going in order from large (character, plot, pacing, voice) to small (word choice, fixing grammar, etc) before we're ready to send the ms to copy editing.

Alessandra: For picture books, my edits tend to be mostly on the manuscript itself, though I do also write a general letter that encapsulates my thoughts. Picture books are such a visual medium that I find myself continually editing little things throughout the process, even after art comes in.

Joy: I’d imagine that not everyone realizes what a comprehensive process this is! Speaking of which, let’s go back to our authors again. Tell us about your perspective on the editorial process. What things are you asked to fix/consider/tweak? Has any book been harder than the rest to get just right?

Hannah: For GARCIA & COLETTE, my editor Susan Kochan and I went back and forth several times on individual word choices ("Does 'strange' have a negative connotation? Should we change it to 'exotic'? How many French and Spanish phrases should we include?"). For BAD GUY, there were very few changes, but there were omissions -- once the incredibly dynamic illustrations were in place, there was less work for the text to do, so we pared it down even more. In the end, GARCIA & COLETTE is 620 words, and BAD GUY is 213. A willingness to let things go is essential for a picture book writer! And getting it *perfectly* right . . . I'll let you know when I do.

Bethany: With nonfiction, word count is important but not as make or break it as it is in fiction where texts usually are under 500 words. Still, once the work is illustrated I like to go back in and see if there are any lines that now are unnecessary and ax them if need be. Other things, we look at before illustration is really honing that narrative thread and making sure it rises and falls just as tension in a novel does. Joy: I hope everyone reading this now understands the enormous complexity of creating a smart, cleverly crafted picture book with universal appeal!

Joy: And now, can all of you chat a bit about some of your favorite picture books? Editors first! I know they’re all your favorites, but can you give us a sense of the Balzer and Bray picture book sensibility?

Kristin: This is simultaneously the easiest and the hardest question here! But here are some of my favorites: DOG RULES by Jef Czekaj, an adorably funny story about two dogs trying to teach their new puppy how to be a good dog…which is all well and good, except their puppy is actually a baby bird—it’s smart, and funny, and really strikes a chord for an editor who treats her own dog like a child. HEART AND SOUL: THE STORY OF AMERICA AND AFRICAN AMERICANS by Kadir Nelson, which is one of the most stunningly gorgeous books I’ve ever seen—and one of the most important. SHARK DETECTIVE by Jessica Olien, which is about exactly what it sounds like—a shark who wants to be a detective!—but also features a lovely story of unexpected friendship. And WORM LOVES WORM by J. J. Austrian and Mike Curato—because love is love is love is love is love.

Alessandra: As far as favorite upcoming titles, it’s very hard to pick just a few! Joseph Kuefler’s new book RULERS OF THE PLAYGROUND is gorgeous and tells a funny, very relevant cautionary tale of playground politics. MARLO by Chris Browne is a mostly wordless epic underwater adventure featuring a soulful pitbull. RAISIN by Miriam Busch and Larry Day is a charming new sibling story featuring adorable cows. And PLACES TO BE by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Renata Liwska, is an irreverent ode to friendship and exploring our different emotions.

Joy: And beyond your imprint?

Kristin: A HOLE IS TO DIG by Ruth Krauss is a perennial favorite. ARNIE THE DONUT by Laurie Keller has been a favorite of mine ever since I first read it years ago—the line, "I'm soaking in boiling grease, but I LOVE IT!" never fails to make me snort out loud. And I enthusiastically shove DON’T LET THE PIGEON DRIVE THE BUS into the hands of every kid I know (and a lot of adults, too), for all the reasons I mentioned earlier.

Alessandra: JULIUS, BABY OF THE WORLD by Kevin Henkes might be one of the best new sibling book ever. I’m also a fan of OLIVIA by Ian Falconer, since the story and the art are so spare and subtle and work together perfectly.

Joy: And our authors? Hannah and Bethany, what are some of your favorites?

Hannah: I love a picture with a strong story structure and an unexpected but satisfying ending. THE SEVEN SILLY EATERS by Maryanne Hoberman is an all-time favorite, because she accomplishes both of those things and does it in absolutely perfect rhyming text. And it's illustrated by Marla Frazee, which makes it even better. The picture books that stand the test of time, for me, are the ones that manage to marry something universal (friendship, family, growing up) with something totally fresh and surprising.

Bethany: SWAN: THE LIFE AND DACNE OF ANNA PAVLOVA Swan by Laurel Snyder and illustrated by Julie Morstad has the best pb nonfiction opening I have ever read: Anna looking out at the snow as it falls on the night she is to attend her first ballet. "The city is big. Anna is small. The snow is everywhere and all around." Gorgeous! Simple! A way in. And I am in awe of the newly released THE YOUNGEST MARCHER: THE STORY OF AUDREY FAY HENDRICKS, A YOUNG CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST, by Cynthia Levinson and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton. It's a timely read that school kids will love and embrace.

Joy: Finally, for our authors, tell us a little about your forthcoming picture books. Get us excited! (Okay, we already are, but we want to hear it from you!)

Hannah: Well, GARCIA & COLETTE GO EXPLORING just got a starred review from Kirkus, so that's pretty exciting! Truly, I love that book for its sweetness (which Andrew Joyner's illustrations bring to life so brilliantly) and the near-perfect symmetry of Garcia's journey to space and Colette's journey to the deep ocean. And BAD GUY . . . well, that book is just pure, wicked fun. It may look like a "boy book," but it's got a girl-power twist that is a huge crowd-pleaser. And Mike Yamada's illustrations are *amazing.* He's a Disney animator, after all.

Bethany: In early 2018, ALABAMA SPITFIRE: THE STORY OF HARPER LEE AND TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD releases. I am so excited about this book--the first pb bio of Harper Lee, my favorite writer, which I began before the release of her discovered second novel and then seven months later her death. The illustrator is Erin McGuire and though Harper Collins/Balzer + Bray is keeping the cover underwraps until June of this year, I will share the opening lines with you here. An exclusive...

The red soil of Monroeville, Alabama, is as rocky as the state’s past. But born in that same soil are the roots of the girl who grew up to write “the book of the twentieth century.” Nelle Harper Lee entered this world on April 28, 1926. From the get-go she was a spitfire.

Joy: What a great way to end this conversation! Thank you all!

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