Interview by Jenny Desmond Walters for SCBWI Bologna 2010
As an author/illustrator of over 35 award-winning children’s books that have been published around the globe, what advice do you have for writers who are just starting out?
Write about something that you’re passionate about. It shows in the words and art. Enthusiasm is contagious. If you have it, a perceptive editor will catch it and eventually your readers will relive that original passion.
Be active with your SCBWI membership. It’s the best way to keep your finger on the book publishing pulse. You’ll make firm friends and meet SCBWI members from across the world and enjoy the generous support of a global network.
You grew up in New Jersey, but your life has taken you all over the world. What was it that inspired you to want to share your many cultural experiences with children?
After studying Ethnographic Film at UCLA, I moved to the idyllic island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. Landing on the tarmac for the very first time, I felt an affinity to the people and landscape. My first book, My Little Island, was a result of my years on Montserrat.
I’m passionate about travel and feel compelled to share stories from around the world. I want to create books that all children can identify with and enjoy. Children have a natural curiosity about books. My hope is that they can travel vicariously to other countries through my books and develop a worldview that appreciates the richness of other cultures.
How do you find inspiration for a story, and in the case of your books about life in other countries, how do you choose which aspects of a culture you want to share?
Children often ask me what’s my favorite place in the world and why. I’ve traveled to over forty countries, and each has a unique story to share. Children are children everywhere, and they all love a good story. They’re all curious about the world.
I try and view the world through a child’s eye: What intrigues me? What amazes me? What stories would I take home and share? There are some stories that just have to be told. I try and connect children to rich and varied cultures so they can appreciate their own uniqueness. Creation tales from around the world help make that connection.
As someone who both writes and illustrates, do the illustration ideas come at the same time as the words or is there a certain order to the process for you? What is your creative process like?
Story always comes first—whether one tells it in illustrations or words, or the collaboration of both in a children’s picture book. The initial spark to write or illustrate a story might be generated by a character or a setting.
Seeing a statue of a wounded soldier on back of a small donkey was the catalyst for The Donkey of Gallipoli: A True Story of Courage in World War I, a story set in Turkey.
Hearing of an elephant that saved children from the Tsunami in Thailand was the inspiration for The Day of the Elephant.
Accurate details in illustrations and text create an overall sense of cultural authenticity. I’m tenacious about researching.
When I’m asked to illustrate a book, I try and visit the country and immerse myself in that culture. I talk to as many people as possible. I visit museums and libraries. I watch films and documentaries. I read books, and most importantly respect cultural protocols.
Your husband, Mark Greenwood, is also a writer, and you’re listed as the illustrator for several of his books. Do you collaborate with one another on a book from its inception?
Working with Mark is always a pleasure. He intuitively knows how I’d paint a particular scene, so he keeps me in mind when he composes the language. We constantly talk about ideas — right from the beginning. We visualize an initial concept together and then see it through to the finished book.
I take the text quite literally and paint so much detail from the text that Mark will look at the artwork or sketches and give the text one final edit. Taking a loss on the words and letting the art tell certain parts of the story always improves a picture book. It makes the collaboration of text and art stronger.
What do you love best about your job as children’s writer and illustrator?
Every project is exciting because I learn so much about the people and setting of where my books take place. I’m humbled to meet so many wonderful creative people from all over the world.
I’m fortunate that I’m invited to conduct author visits in some truly amazing places that one can only visit by invitation. I travel extensively to remote communities in Central Australia, creating books with the adults and children.
Indigenous Australians have some of the world's oldest stories, passed down for thousands of years. I consult with the elders to find a significant local story that the children can retell and create in book form. My greatest ambition is to instill pride and self-esteem in children about their unique heritage and their own ability to capture it in pictures and words.
Your website says that while working to find a publisher for your first book, My Little Island, in 1983, you moved to London from Montserrat to be closer to publishers. How did that influence your work and lead to the eventual success of publication?
I went to visit friends in London and stayed seven years. At that time, I didn’t know anything about getting a book published. I thought I should live near the publisher.
In reality, having a face-to-face meeting with the publisher was helpful, and I was able to plead my case when they hummed and hawed whether they’d print my first book. I promised if they published the book, my mom would buy every copy. I was paid £100. advance, and it’s still in print 27 years on.
Also on your website, you mention that 30 publishers turned down your first book idea until the right one finally accepted it. What was the process like? Did the book change over the course of this process?
When I first started approaching publishers, all I had was an idea and a series of paintings of Montserrat. A hard sell when you’ve never been published.
I hadn’t done my homework, so I wasted a lot of time approaching the wrong publishing houses. In the process of many publishers passing on my idea, I gained invaluable knowledge. By the 30th publisher, I had a solid proposal.
When you submit your manuscripts, how do you identify potential publishers for your work? Is it mainly through networking that you’ve had the most success, or do you also send books to the infamous “slush pile?”
Fortunately, I have a dynamic literary agent who knows what I’m looking for and what manuscripts will suit my style. I live over 16,000 miles from most of my publishers, so it’s good to have someone batting for me in the big smoke. I have a fantastic rapport with my editors and know what’s appropriate for their lists. I’m constantly meeting new publishers and have a healthy back list. All this hopefully keeps me out of the “slush pile.”
When you pitched your first book, and even for subsequent books, do you have any hints or tips you can share that you believe helped your manuscripts stand out and get the attention of publishers?
The children’s book publishing industry has changed over the years. The art has become quirkier. The shelf life of books shorter. The market competition is greater, and with eBooks, many changes are happening that will alter the way we interact with books in the technological future. Keep up with these changes.
Publishers invited to speak at SCBWI conferences often offer attendees the opportunity to submit one manuscript or portfolio for consideration. This is one way out of the infamous "slush pile."
• Short, sharp and sweet cover letters.
• Don’t be a closet author or illustrator—share your ideas.
• One needs preparation, patience, determination, dedication and luck to break into the industry.
• Try and build a relationship with an editor or publisher.
• Authors: Practice the “elevator pitch.” In less than two minutes, explain what your book is about in preparation for that opportune moment when you meet a publisher.
• Illustrators: Have a portfolio that shows a diversity of work. It should include animals, children, and anything else you love to draw. Send out samples to art directors.
Have you ever scrapped a story because of too many rejections, or in your experience, does every good story eventually find a publisher?
Good stories eventually find their way. I have a couple of stories on the back burner that have been there for a while. Every now and then, I take them out, dust them off, and try to find them a new home. Rejection letters are like badges of courage.
Once, I received three rejections in the same day. One company designed their rejection slips as drinks coasters, which I promptly used.
And finally, do you have a new project on which you are currently working? If so, can you tell us a little about it?
I’m currently working on the preliminary art, or as I call them, sloppy copies for The Drummer Boy of John John. The book is inspired by Winston "Spree" Simon; at the age of seven, he was a drummer in a steelpan group called the John John band. He made "noise" by playing melodies on empty biscuit containers during Carnival celebrations. The proud villagers of John John, Trinidad, believe that he was the first person to play the steel drum.
Next book release--Ned Kelly and the Green Sash, written by Mark Greenwood (Walker, May 2010). Ned Kelly and the Green Sash is a window into the character of a poor boy, once honored for his bravery, who grew up to become Australia’s most famous outlaw.
Frané Lessac is an author and illustrator of international renown, having over 35 award winning children's books published throughout the world. She has exhibited her work in London, Paris, Sydney, Perth, New York, Los Angeles, and the Caribbean. Frané is on the Executive Committee of the Australian Society of Authors and the Illustrator Liaison for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators in West Australia. Her greatest ambition is to instill pride and self-esteem in children about their own unique heritage and their ability to capture it in pictures and words. Learn more about Frané Lessac.
Jenny Desmond Walters is the founding regional advisor of the SCBWI Korea chapter. She is an experienced education professional with a love of learning and literature. She has worked in public television developing curriculum and promoting instructional programs, as well as worked extensively with educational publishers and learning materials companies. For the last several years, Jenny has lived in east Asia where she has become an avid writer and observer of life in Japan and Korea. Her articles have been published in national children's magazines and writing journals, and she has been a member of SCBWI for more than 10 years. Jenny currently resides in Seoul with her husband and three daughters, and she rarely runs out of interesting stories to write.
The SCBWI Bologna 2010 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations. To register, visit the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2010. Note: Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.