Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Elizabeth Bird. You might already know Betsy Bird from her popular and influential blog, A Fuse#8Production. She is also New York Public Library’s Youth Materials Collections Specialist. But there is more—Betsy has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has also written a picture book entitled Giant Dance Party, illustrated by Brandon Dorman.
Debby: Betsy, thank you for taking the time to be here today. And congratulations on the release of Giant Dance Party! I wanted to ask you a little bit about trends in children’s book publishing. You read and review so many new books, I am sure you have a sense of the direction the industry is moving in picture books, middle grade and young adult fiction. Where do you see changes on the horizon?
Betsy: Ah! The million dollar question! Well, let’s see what I can say with certainty. It seems that there’s lots of room for ebooks for children and teens to expand. Libraries are providing them, but won’t see a serious uptick in sales until they do a better job of advertising these formats. Fortunately, kids like print books perfectly well. While adults gasp and go gaga over the latest shiny gadget, children and teens effortlessly move between the print and electronic versions of their favorite stories with ease. So don’t start expecting print to go away. Until they make a juice proof gigantic thing e-reader, picture books are here to stay.
The merger of Random House with Penguin means will be seeing more of the big houses merging in kind. The result? More gaps in the marketplace for the little publishers to swoop in. And with the rise of Common Core State Standards, expect a serious uptick in nonfiction in the next few years (both good and bad).
Debby: I also wanted to ask you about what you think makes a picture book successful with children? What makes them read something over and over again?
Betsy: Your query about future trends was the easier question. Boy, if I could just bottle what it is that makes picture books successful you can bet I’d be a rich woman. To a certain extent, I have a complete and utter inability to predict the next big picture book thing. Look at the picture books that appear on the New York Times bestseller list or the Publishers Weekly children’s fiction list. There you’ll see picture books like “Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site” and the latest Fancy Nancy, but how have they become ubiquitous? No one really knows.
Honestly, if you want to write a picture book and make it successful with your readership, there are a couple things you need to do first. Go out and read ALL the picture books you can. Get a sense of the cadences and rhythms. What kids love are books that sound good to their ears. The perfect melding of text and art is important, naturally, but to my mind the words are going to make or break the book. But what is it that makes them want to read a book over and over again? That’s deeply personal. For example, right now my own 2-year-old is obsessed with Melanie Hope Greenberg’s Mermaids on Parade. Why? Well she loves the words and the art, but for her the real kicker is the fact that it’s about a little girl who wins a trophy. It all comes down to individual tastes.
Debby: What about middle grade and young adult books?
Betsy: Well certainly at that point kids have established their own preferred genres. Here’s a secret behind the biggest blockbusters, though. If you want to make the next Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid, then you need to do one particular thing: Attain a readership of both boys and girls. That’s what separates the top seller from the blockbusters. Kids love books that appeal to everyone. Look at the covers of these books sometime. They’re all going for a kind of gender neutrality. Someone asked me the other day if the new Lunar Chronicles series by Melissa Meyer will be the next Hunger Games. I told them it could have been (the writing in books like Cinder and Scarlet is addictive in the same way) but they sunk their chances for blockbuster status when they put a pretty little red shoe on the cover of the first book. No boy in the world is going to pick that up. So there goes 50% of your potential readership.
Debby: For those of us that are parents or teachers, can you recommend some new quiet books that might not have made a giant splash, but are worth reading with our children?
On the picture book side (for kids 4-7)
Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle – Mine is not the only dance-related picture book this year. A wordless tale told with flaps, this initially reluctant pairing of a little plump girl in a bathing suit and a snobby flamingo, rapidly becomes a transcendent dance between two new friends.
Take Me Out to the Yakyu by Aaron Meshon – Incredibly cool. A boy spends some of his baseball games in the U.S. and some in Japan. The similarities and the differences make this the #1 best contemporary Japan-related picture book out there today.
Nino Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales – I adore this book. A little boy imagines himself to be a professional Mexican wrestler, taking on a host of extraordinary and otherworldly contenders. The only foes he can’t beat? His baby sisters.
Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by Bob Shea – Consider this a unicorn book for boys (though girls will get a kick out of it too). Goat is mighty jealous of sparkly Unicorn. However, it appears that when it comes to cool talents, Unicorn is pretty jealous of Goat too.
On the chapter books side (for kids 9-12)
The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore – A small quiet smart book, part mystery, part historical fiction, and part science fiction. A boy and his family move into a hitherto unknown ancestral home, only to find that it has some kind of connection to a town of geniuses and maybe even the fabled Fountain of Youth.
Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle – So much fun. Nate’s an overweight, Broadway-loving middle schooler with big dreams. So big, in fact, that he hops a bus to New York City to audition for the lead role in E.T.: The Musical!
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein – Imagine what would happen if instead of candy, Willy Wonka had become obsessed with games. A puzzle filled romp through what is undoubtedly the world’s coolest fictional library.
Mister Orange by Truus Matti – A quiet gem of a historical novel. Set during WWII, Linus Muller meets a strange but fun old man on his grocery delivery route. He calls him “Mister Orange” for his love of the fruit, little suspecting his friend is actually the great painter Mondrian.
A Girl Called Problem by Katie Quirk – Not your typical mystery novel. Set in 1969 Tanzania, Shida and her village are part of a bold new experiment that is merging several villages together. But when someone starts wrecking havoc, it’s up to Shida to unveil the culprit.
Debby: Thank you—what a great list! Here’s another question for you—if you could wave a magic wand and have certain types of books appear on your shelves at the library, what would they be? What do you wish you saw more often?
Betsy: Oh, that’s an easy on. More races, ethnicities, religions, and alternate lifestyles, please! Particularly anything starring African-American boys. Then again, early chapter books starring Latino characters are also few and far between. I understand the desire to write white characters, but I’m sick of them. There are WAY too many. We need more fun and funny books with characters from a variety of backgrounds. PLEASE!
Debby: I hope writers are taking note of your suggestions! I want to turn to your own writing career. What lessons have you learned from your work on the blog and at the NY Library that have helped you in your writing?
Betsy: The importance of writing something you can read aloud over and over is pretty key. Having done enough storytimes for antsy toddlers and preschoolers, I knew what elements I had to add to hold the attention of your average everyday four-year-old. The blog helped me in terms of knowing how to market myself online (having seen what does and does not work for authors in the past). Together, the lessons I’ve learned have proved invaluable.
Debby: Giant Dance Party is your debut book. Can you tell us a little bit about the story—and why you wanted to tell it? I’m wondering if you ever took dance classes and performed in recitals?
Betsy: Sure! I most certainly did take many many dance classes as a child. But unlike my heroine, Lexy, I didn’t suffer stage fright to the same degree. In this book a young girl decides that while she loves to dance, she just cannot take recitals any longer. The solution? She’ll become a dance teacher instead. Trouble is, nobody wants to learn from a very small girl. No one, that is, except for maybe five hulking, furry, blue giants. Lexy’s game and teaches them, but it turns out she shares more in common with her new students than she ever suspected.
I was inspired to write the book by my illustrator. Brandon Dorman was an artist I admired for years and years. Then, one day, out of the blue he informs me that he’d love to do a book with me. His one stipulation? He wanted to draw “giants leaping”. And what involves more leaping than dance, I ask you? The rest was history.
Debby: Brandon Dorman’s illustrations are charming and really add to your story. Illustrations can make or break a picture book so I wanted to know what that part of the process was like for you. Did you see sketches periodically, or just the finished product?
Betsy: Under normal circumstances an author is paired with an illustrator and the two never communicate. Brandon and I were a bit odd since we knew each other beforehand, paired with one another, and our publisher was nice enough to take us on. Brandon showed me early sketches and then I saw some later ones when we were trying to get the look of the book just right. In the early days the giants were big, warty, typical types. Your average awful ogres. In time, however, they become a little more furry and blue. Now they’re positively friendly and I couldn’t be more pleased.
I was also allowed to make suggestions about the art. This is primarily because Brandon is a digital artist and could make changes if needed. He did change some small things here and there for me. I was lucky to have both an editor who was open to this process and to have an illustrator willing to make the changes.
Debby: It sounds like you had a wonderful experience both with your editor and illustrator. So I have to ask this question, because everyone reading this interview will want to know—what can we expect from you next? Will there be a sequel to Giant Dance Party?
Betsy: Probably not, though I’d never entirely rule it out. I can tell you that I’ve sold a second picture book to Harper Collins and that my editor and I will be working on it soon. But mum’s the word on that one. All I can say is that there isn’t a furry giant in sight.
Debby: How exciting! I can’t wait to read it. Betsy, thank you again for sharing your insights today. You’ve given me a lot to think about. You can visit Betsy at her blog http://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production and you can follow her on Twitter @FuseEight.