Monday, February 24, 2014

Exploring Picture Books with Susanna Leonard Hill

Today, I am happy to host my very first writer friend, Susanna Leonard Hill, to talk about picture books.  Susanna is the award winning author of nearly a dozen books for children, including Punxsutawney Phyllis (A Book List Children's Pick and Amelia Bloomer Project choice), No Sword Fighting In The House (a Junior Library Guild selection), Can't Sleep Without Sheep (a Children's Book of The Month), and Not Yet, Rose (a Gold Mom's Choice Award Winner.)  Her books have been translated into French, Dutch, German, and Japanese, with one hopefully forthcoming in Korean.  Her newest book, Alphabedtime!, is forthcoming from Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Books, in Fall 2015.  

Debby:  Susanna, you were my very first writer friend more than twelve years ago.  And I feel like you have shared the journey with me.  I have been blogging lately about the importance of writer friends.  Thank you for being such a good friend.  I am so happy you are here today!

Susanna:  Thank you so much for having me, Debby!  I am honored to be your friend and to have had the chance to share our writing journeys.

Debby:  Speaking of writing journeys, I wanted to talk about picture books.  For so long, this has been a club that only admits a select few authors who are celebrities or politician’s wives.  You have 7 published picture books with one coming in 2015.  What is your secret?

Susanna:  I have been so fortunate to have published 1 pop-up book, 1 board book, 2 lift-the-flap books, 4 picture books in English and 1 in Dutch, 1 early reader, and 1 e-book, with another picture book forthcoming in 2015.  I wish I had a secret!  If I did, maybe I’d be able to produce saleable picture book manuscripts a little more often!  But I think if I have anything to share it’s that perseverance is the name of the game.  You have to show up every day and write.  You have to polish stories until they’re ready to submit to your agent or editor.  If they get turned down, you have to send them out again, or reevaluate them to see where they went wrong.  You have to keep writing new stories while your finished stories are out on submission.  I think the secret, such as it is, may be simply that often the difference between published and unpublished is whether or not you keep trying.

Debby:  That is a really important message for all writers, not to give up.  What about the notion of rhyming or not rhyming?  Are there rules?

Susanna:  It is said by many that editors do not want rhyming picture books.  This is patently untrue.  Two minutes in the library or bookstore will show you that editors buy rhyming picture books all the time.  BUT.  Rhyme is very hard to do well.  If you’re going to submit it to an editor it must be perfect.  If your rhyme and/or meter is off, you risk having a story rejected because of that, not because of the quality of the story.  So unless you’re very good at rhyme, you are often better off writing in prose.

Debby:  Picture books depend so much on the artwork to bring your vision to life.  How hard is it to wait for the unveiling of the artwork?  Do you have any advice for other authors who have to wait to see the artwork for their books?

Susanna:  It is VERY hard to wait for art!  Although in this day and age you can easily google your artist and see samples of their work, that gives you only a general feel for their style.  You still have no idea how they’re going to conceptualize and develop your story.  And since most editors do not allow sneak peeks, you just have to wait and see and trust that the editor, the art director, and the illustrator will bring your story to life in a way that works for you.  That said, I have been very fortunate in this department.  With one exception, my books have come out even more beautifully than I could have imagined.  Advice on how to wait? There’s nothing you can do.  You can’t make the artist work faster.  You can’t make the time fly by.  So get to work on something new and try not to think about it too much J

Debby:  Of course we all want to know which was the one exception that didn’t come out the way you imagined.  But I know you won’t tell us.  So I will move on and ask you about ebooks.  So many kids use tablets now, how is the market for epicture books?

Susanna:  I think there’s a strong market for epicture books.  They’re convenient.  They’re beautiful.  They have features that regular picture books don’t have (like read-to-me.)  And they’re extremely portable – you can carry a whole library in your purse or backpack, which is great when going anywhere with kids.  I don’t think they will replace physical picture books (at least I hope they won’t!)  I think there’s still a lot to be enjoyed about reading a physical picture book together from the smell of the ink to the actual turning of pages to the joy of reading to your child (not just relying on the recorded voice of an ebook) and the discussion that can ensue.

Debby:  I love the smell of a new book and the feel of the pages.  My daughters and I found our favorite picture books by browsing in children’s book stores, but with so many of them closing, how do you promote picture books?

Susanna:  That’s tough.  I am firmly in the group that likes to pick up books and look through them.  Many online bookstores offer “look inside” features, and that helps somewhat, but I don’t think the experience is the same.  And whereas writers of MG, YA or adult books can share excerpts on their blogs to give readers a taste, that is a lot harder with picture books.  The text is so short that an excerpt isn’t particularly helpful, and since picture books rely on illustration, the text is often not entirely clear without the pictures.  I make book trailers for my books.  It’s not quite the same as being able to pick them up and leaf through them, but it does give a glimpse of both the text and the art.  I also do as many school and library visits as I can so that I can share my books with kids.

Debby:  I know you also teach a class in writing picture books.  Can you tell us about your class and where authors can sign up?

Susanna:  My class is called Making Picture Book Magic.  It is a one month course.  Participants receive one lesson each weekday via email for 21 days (no lessons on weekends.)  The course covers all the essential elements of writing picture books from character development to story structure to how to leave room for the illustrator.  We have a private FB group where the class can share assignments with each other if they choose (no one has to share if they’re not comfortable) and get feedback from me and the other members of the class.  The cost is currently $99 but it will probably go up in July.  For full details please see

Debby:  That sounds like such a wonderful opportunity for writers to work with you.  Any hints about your work in progress you can share?

Susanna: I always have multiple works-in-progress at home in my computer – too many to choose from J  But I can tell you that my next book will be released from Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Books, in Fall 2015.  It is being illustrated as we speak by the talented Betsy Snyder, and the title is ALPHABEDTIME! (so you can probably guess what it’s about J)

Debby:  The title is so much fun!  I can’t wait to read it.  Thank you so much, Susanna, for being here today.  

Susanna:   Thank you so much for having me, Debby!  It’s been a delight to visit your blog and meet your readers!

Debby:  To learn more about Susanna and her wonderful books, here are some links to her website, blog, FB author page, Twitter, Making Picture Book Magic (online writing course).