Monday Meet-Up for Monday, March 28, 2016
Picture book author, Nancy Shaw
Visit her webpage: www.nancyshawbooks.com
1. Please tell us a little about yourself, and how you became an author?
My family didn’t get a TV until I was 10 years old, and I think that was a great blessing. Without TV we had become avid readers and big library users, and that background helped me have, at some level, a feeling for how stories work. We played word games, which were great training for rhymes. I was also interested in the look of books from an early age. My father was in printing and design, and my grandfather was a printmaker, painter, and printing-firm art director. When I got a part-time library job in college shelving children’s books, my interest was rekindled, and I started trying to write my own. It took a long time for that to lead to publication, though.
Sometimes circumstances come together to pull something out of you. A trip to Dayton, Ohio, on an uninspiring stretch of expressway did it for me. I was reading picture books to my kids in the back seat, and one of the books was full of animal rhymes. We finished the books, and I tried making up some rhymes of my own. Watching the miles go by is conducive to playing with ideas. When I put together the phrase “sheep in a jeep,” a lot of rhymes clustered around it, and I tried to arrange them as a story. I was primed to experiment, partly by games my family had played, like charades and hinky pinky–if one thing doesn’t work, try another. My kids loved silly books; foolishness was a worthy topic to them. When I came home, I tinkered with my rhyme; and after seven tries, I found the editor who knew how to make it work and was tactful enough to get me to tinker some more. Sheep in a Jeep will celebrate its 30th birthday this fall. There are now eight sheep books.
Some of the etiquette is counter-intuitive, so you need to study up on it. Fortunately, there are many good resources, like Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, Harold Underdown’s book and website, and SCBWI.org. There’s a lot of generosity among children’s-book people.
I really enjoyed going back to my sheep after they had been resting for a while. It happened, again, from things coming together. I was asked to write about my indie bookstore, Nicola’s, for an anthology called My Bookstore–and Nicola hoped for a sheep story. It was fun! The sheep found a smartphone and fumbled around on it, ordering some books at random. When they went to ship the unsatisfactory purchases back, they happened upon the bookstore and discovered customer service. When I told my Houghton editor about the project, she wondered if I would do a bedtime story with the sheep. Sheep Go to Sleep came out last year, and is now out in board-book form.
Elena’s Story is dear to my heart. We visited Guatemala when our daughter was in the Peace Corps, and I was struck by what it must be like for kids to learn to read when their parents never had the chance to go to school. We happened to visit a school on report-card day, and the story came together with help from my daughter and her Guatemalan friends. My Sleeping Bear Press editor was a pleasure to work with.
I have spent most of my career without an agent, but access to major publishers has become much more limited over the time I’ve been in the business. I would advise new writers to research getting an agent, especially if they write longer books. There are still good publishers who will read unsolicited work. If you don’t have an agent, you will need to research publishers carefully to figure out what suits them and how to approach them.
Self-publishing is more doable than it was in the past, because online bookselling makes it easier to reach an audience, but it can be hard to find respect from the arbiters of the book trade. There are some impressive successes in self-publishing, and they’re likely to involve a creator who knows how to run a business and creates a sophisticated-looking product. A self-publisher has to take on roles that I wouldn’t want to do. My books have benefited enormously from the editing, illustration, and production resources of trade publishers, and their ability to get books reviewed and into stores. An astute editor saw promise in my work. If she hadn’t, who knows if I would have broken into print?
A prospective self-publishing author needs to research the process thoroughly and know when to use professional services–whether editing, illustration, legal, accounting, publicity, or other. The author also needs to be wary of subsidy publishers and other enterprises that try to make money from writers’ aspirations.
If you have something you want to say, work on it until it resonates with you and with readers. Read lots of books and notice which ones speak to you, how they work, and who publishes them. Persistence is key.
Thank you, Nancy! I look forward to reading more of your fabulous books!