Start at the Beginning

Notes from the Writing Life

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Login
    Login Login form
Recent blog posts

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog
How to Make A Bathtub Friendly Antlered Ship

Yesterday, at the launch party for my new picture book, The Antlered Ship, I taught folks how to make their very own bathtub-friendly antlered ship. It's the perfect bookstore, library or classroom craft -- no glue, no tools, no paint, no mess. All the materials are easy to find, around-the-house things -- perfect for upcyclers. Want to make your own? Watch the video demo or scroll down for written instructions. (I'll have a PDF of these instructions available for download soon. -- visit the Speaking section of this site and look under Resources and Learning Materials.)

Materials You'll Need:

·       1 or more pipe cleaners

·       2 rubber bands

·       3 corks

·       1 bamboo skewer trimmed to roughly 6 inches, or 6 inch knitting needle, or sharpened chop stick, or similar item to use as a mast

·       scrap card stock or acetate for sails (old folders or binder dividers work well)

·       clear or colored tape

·       scissors

·       hole punch 

Screen Shot 2017 09 24 at 5.58.09 PM

Step One: Make Your Antlered Figure Head

·      Cut one pipe cleaner in half

·      Take one half, make a loop, and shape the ends into antler shapes. The loop is your deer head – you can twist into a solid shape or keep it as a loop – your choice.

·      Twist the other half around the antlers to create more antler branches.

·      If you want, you can continue to add more pipe cleaners.

 Screen Shot 2017 09 24 at 5.40.14 PM

Step Two: Make A Ship and Attach Your Figurehead

·      Loop a rubber band around each end of the antlers.

·      Gather three corks. Make sure the center one is made of actual cork so that it’s easily pierced. If you have plastic corks, you will need to make a hole in the side of the center one with a nail or other implement. (Grown-ups should do this for small kids; older kids can do it themselves with supervision.)

·      Wrap the rubber bands around three corks so that the corks are held together like a raft and the figure head is at the bow.

 Screen Shot 2017 09 24 at 5.53.19 PM

Step Three: Add Sails

·      Cut sails out of card stock or acetate. I find that two rectangle shapes work well, with one smaller than the other.

·      Fold the smaller sail in half and pierce down the center line with whatever you’re using as a mast. (You can use a hole punch to make holes, or just poke it through)

·      Slide the sail towards the top and do the same with the larger sail.

·      Add a pennant to the top of your mast. You might use a piece of colored tape folded over the top and trimmed into a penant shape. Or you might cut a pennant shape from colored paper or acetate and tape it to the top of the mast with clear tape.

·      When all your sails are on the mast, poke the mast into the center cork.

Screen Shot 2017 09 24 at 5.45.50 PM

Step Four: Sail Away in Search of Answers . . . or More Questions




In Which The Author Sets Up A Google Alert and Learns Many Marvelous Things About Snails

Just before Escargot was released, a thought occurred to me. Having written a book about a very beautiful French snail, it seemed to me that I should stay up-to-date on snail news. I'm not sure, at this point, what I expected to learn -- perhaps I just thought I'd find out if people were talking about my book. But whatever my reasoning, I set up a Google alert to send snail news my way. This has turned out to be a quite wonderful blessing. Snails, it seems, are the source of many remarkable stories. Of course, you do have to skim over all the headlines noting that something or other is "moving at a snail's pace," which, when viewed in aggregate, quickly reveals itself to be the world's most irritating cliche. But the rest is pure, random, gold.

Of all the snail news, the best -- and also the most tragic -- was the saga of Jeremy, the snail whose shell spirals left instead of right. As one article explained:

Snails mate face-to-face, sliding past each other on the right hand side so that their genitalia can meet. To copulate Jeremy must beat one in million odds to find another snail which also has left-handed sex organs which are compatible with his own.

An English snail researcher hoped to match Jeremy with another left-coiling snail in order to see if the trait was hereditary, and so he put out a call for possible mates. Two other left-coiling snails were found, and all was rejoicing and salacious speculation -- until the two potential mates, Lefty and Tomeu, hooked up with each other. In the latest news:

Researchers announced earlier this month that the pair has produced three clutches of eggs, and more than 170 baby snails. The first batch of eggs was ‘fathered’ by Lefty and laid by Tomeu; because snails are hermaphrodites, they can fulfill the role of either mother or father.

But there were other, happier research stories, too. The Brits, it seems, are fascinated by snails. This week researchers at the marvelously titled BBC television show The British Garden: Life and Death On Your Lawn announced that snails have a homing instinct and will -- at their own leisurely pace -- creep back to their own territory if moved. Professor Dave Hodgson apparently gathered 65 snails from four corners of a garden in Hertfordshire and painted their shells with a fluorescent color corresponding to the home corner. I'll let the article tell the rest:

A  fifth group of snails, brought up from Cornwall was also added to the mix as a control group, and painted bright green . 

 Once the snails were glowing brightly, they were videoed overnight to find out if they would travel back to their home flower-beds during their nocturnal meanderings. Snails can travel just over one mph and so can get 25 metres in the 24 hours. 

"Interestingly, the Cornish ones headed due west, extraordinarily in the right direction to get home," said Prof Hodgson.

"In the blue corner, almost all of the snails I found were blue snails. In the red corner, almost all of the red snails found their way back. In the orange corner almost all of them were orange, and of the pinks almost all of them were back in the pink corner.

 Think how much richer your life is now that you know that a British researcher has been color-coding the snails in his garden.

Yesterday's alert informed me that researchers were able to selectively remove memories from a snail's brain, which makes you wonder what kinds of things snails remember. (Where home is, apparently) This research might some day help people rid themselves of traumatic memories, the article claims. Meanwhile, the venom of another kind of snail looks like a promising painkiller, potentially helping us fight opioid addiction. And the slime from yet another kind of snail is reportedly useful for treating acne. Snails: the answer to every question.

And there's so much more -- so many odd, marvelous tidbits. Customs agents in Philadelphia discovering 7 lbs. of Italian snails in a box labelled "Shoes and Honey."

Tiny snails the size of a seed stopping a freeway bypass in England.

Different tiny snails showing up in driveways and footpaths in New Zealand, where residents whimsically speculate that they're being eaten by leprechauns.

Photos of snails in the rain.

Video of giant snails "slurping earthworms like spaghetti." (These both come from the Daily Mail -- what is it about the Brits and snails?) 

In Maine, a little girl coaxes snails out of their shells by humming to them. In Israel, a veterinarian saved the life of a snail by mending its broken shell with glue. In Utah, elementary school teachers rewarded students for improved reading abilities by eating snails. Imagine the scene:

The entire student body gathered in the lunchroom for the end-of-year assembly. After handing out various awards, Literacy Coach Kimberly Panter announced 85 percent of students had improved their reading scores, and as a reward, various teachers would have to eat snails.

Names were drawn out of a hat to see which teachers would have to eat the snails, to the roar of the students. The snails were donated by local restaurant La Caille. Alex Hill, a representative of La Caille, demonstrated how to eat the snails by clasping the snail shell using tongs and pulling out the meat with a special fork. After a quick countdown, the teachers gulped down the snails, a few pulling faces and squirming. One teacher quickly began drinking a Diet Coke as soon as she could.

(Escargot, naturally, was horrified by this development. "They couldn't eat a nice salad with a few croutons and a light vinaigrette?")

And then there were the discoveries. At an ancient settlement inside a cave in Iraq, British (!) researchers found a decorated snail shell apparently made as an ornament by Upper Palaeolithic people. A mucous-shooting worm snail -- also called 'a spiderman snail' in other news articles -- was discovered in a shipwreck in the Florida Keys. Three new species of tiny, fragile, and colorless land snails were found in Georgia, Panama, and Belize. Certain species of bellicose snails were found to wield their shells like clubs to knock out predators. To quote the report:

They found that two snail species -- Karaftohelix (Ezohelix) gainesi in Hokkaido, Japan and Karaftohelix selskii in the Far East region of Russia -- swing their shells to hit the carabid beetles, demonstrating a very unique, active defence strategy; while other closely related snail species withdraw their soft bodies into their shells and wait until the opponent stops attacking.

The world of snails is one miracle after another. And so, the alerts that come to me each day, brimming with updates from the gastropodic world, seem somehow to be a reminder of the wonder of everyday life -- of the revelations lurking underfoot, just waiting to be noticed.

Tips for Using ESCARGOT In Your Classroom Or Library

It’s been a crazy, fun, and exhausting month for me and Escargot. Over the past three weeks, the gallic gastropod and I have visited more than a dozen schools. Talking with teachers and librarians gives me the opportunity to hear some of the creative ways school professionals are using Escargot to teach everything from science to persuasive writing.

Here are some classroom and library tips and tricks I’ve picked up in my travels. You’ll find more ideas and tools in my downloadable Escargot Story Hour Kit.


purple bubble raft snail copy

Share the Wonder of Snails!

My presentations for preK to 2nd grade students include a slide show of amazing snails and snail facts (some of which can be found in the Story Hour Kit.) I teach kids about snail radulas and tentacles and operculums, as well as some of the crazy and beautiful snail varieties found on land and sea (the one above is the Purple Bubble Raft Snail). Kids are fascinated by these familiar-yet-exotic creatures and always have dozens of amazing and perceptive questions.

Teachers and librarians tell me they are pairing Escargot with non-fiction books for science-based snail units and story times. One mom even brought some snails to school that she had collected in her backyard. You can emphasize the book's healthy-eating theme by feeding backyard snails delicious vegetables and fruits (cucumber, watermelon, and strawberries are beloved by kids and snails alike).


Teach Persuasive Writing

Sheila Murphy, a first and second grade teacher in Maplewood, New Jersey, shared this lesson idea. 

She teaches her students that persuasive writing relies on a thesis statement followed by reasons and evidence. (She doesn't necessarily use these terms though.)

In Escargot, the thesis statement is, Escargot should be your favorite animal. 

Then she asks kids to come up with reasons and evidence to support this statement. For example:

- He is beautiful

- He is fashionable

- He is charming

- He is affectionate

- He is fierce

- He knows how to relax

And so on. (Kids will come up with many more.)

Then she asks her students to write a letter (to Escargot, to their teacher, etc.) making the case for their own favorite animal using the same format: a statement (________ should be your favorite animal) followed by reasons.

“It worked well for me," she reported. "All the children were engaged!”

asking questions lees class 2

3.     Use Escargot to Write Odes

I do group writing exercises with children as part of nearly every presentation – even in assemblies with hundreds of kids. Often we write a story together, but sometimes we write a kind of poem called an Ode. Escargot provides a natural introduction to odes because he gives so many reasons why he himself should be loved.

When talking about odes, I explain that they are poems of praise used show how much you like something and why. We then choose something that we all like and jointly write an ode to it. Sometimes we write odes to ice cream, books, teachers, or shoes. But lately kids have wanted to write odes to snails! 

Here is an ode written at an assembly this month. We had just talked about many amazing kinds of snails, so the kids were primed! While many odes are addressed to the object itself, I often don’t bother with this aspect when working with young kids.


Ode to Snails

by the PreK-2nd Graders at Lead Elementary School


We love your shell color,

your tentacles like bunny ears.

We love your bubbles

and your slime because

you can pass through sharp things.

We love your shimmery trail.

We love your eyes because

you can look at the dark.

We love your colorful shell.

You live under the sea

and can walk on the bottom of water.

We love how you eat,

how you share your food.

We love how you tickle us

when we hold you.


Note that the natural language of children makes it poetic. I didn’t have to ask them to be poetic -- they are poetic. Simply asking kids what they like about something generally elicits wonderful resultsWhen responses begin sounding too much alike, I ask a few leading questions. How do snails make you feel? What do they sound like? What colors are their shells? If they could talk, what would they say?

Children who can write independently can also write their own odes. I like this ode-writing lesson plan.

If you are using Escargot in the classroom, I’d love to hear from you!


Posted by on in Dashka's Blog
The Amazing Escargot Story Hour Kit

The Official Not-To-Be-Missed Escargot launch party will be held at 3pm on April 9, 2017 at Mrs. Dalloway's Books in Berkeley, California. But what if you can't make it? No need to cry, scream, and gnash your teeth. We have many Escargot events planned this spring. I've listed some of them below, but check the calendar to see them all as we're adding new ones all the time. 

"But," you say. "But what if I want to hold my very own Escargot storytime at my very own library or bookstore or even just with my very own children? What if I want to have an Escargot-themed birthday party, complete with games and prizes? What if I want to dress up as Escargot for Halloween, or just to go to work? What THEN?"

Relax, honey-bunch. Escargot and I have got you covered. 

Story Hour Kit cover

You can now download, straight from the MacMillan website, a gorgeous, fun-filled, action-packed Escargot Story Hour Kit and host your own Escargot party whenever you like! The kit features everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, you might possibly need to have the snailiest, Frenchiest, funnest event of your ever-loving life. The only other things you'll need are the book and some children. However, if you think you'd also like a snail costume and some snail cookies, well, I'll be adding information about those very soon.

What's in this storyhour kit, you ask?

- A poster for advertising your event

- A list of everything you'll need to have on hand

- A super fun finger-play that I wrote just for this book

- A snail tentacle template for making snail headbands

- A snail racing game with adorable snail standees to use

- A list of fascinating snail facts with which to amuse and impress your friends

Now, I know what your next question will be. "Are there enough snail facts to completely fill my mind with all the snail-based trivia I need?" The answer, sadly, is no. And that's not because the story hour kit is in any way faulty. It is simply that the world of the gastropod is so incredibly full of wonder and marvel that no single fact sheet can possibly satisfy the yawning curiosity most of us feel about all things Snail. Thus, I promise that this blog will continue to be filled with fascinating snail tidbits for weeks to come. Stay tuned. 

In the meantime, the Escargot Story Time Kit awaits you. Please email me through the Contact form on this website to share photos of your fabulous Escargot events! And check out the events below and on the calendar to find one near you!

Upcoming Events:


Sunday, April 9, 3:00 PM

Escargot Launch Party

Mrs. Dalloway's Bookstore

2904 College Ave, Berkeley, CA


Wednesday, April 12, 11:00 AM

The Reading Bug

785 Laurel Street, San Carlos, CA


Tuesday, April 18, 4 PM

Copperfield’s Books

140 Kentucky Street, Petaluma, CA


Saturday, April 24, 11:00 AM

Green Bean Books

1600 NE Alberta St, Portland, OR


Saturday, May 6

Turn the Page Festival

Children's Fairyland

Oakland, CA


Sunday, May 7 11:00 AM

Books Inc, Burlingame

1375 Burlingame Ave, Burlingame, CA


Saturday, May 13, 12:00 PM

Napa Bookmine, Oxbow Public Market

610 First Street, Shop 4, Napa, California


Sunday, May 21

Oakland Book Festival

1 Frank H Ogawa Plaza, Oakland, California


Friday, June 2

BookExpo America

Javits Center, New York, NY


Sunday, June 4

Bay Area Book Festival

Berkeley, CA

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog

As a journalist, I'm constantly juggling deadlines, scanning social media for updates, and trying to find a few quiet minutes to write. So when 24Life asked me to write about busyness, I found myself deeply intrigued by the topic. You can read what I learned about getting out of the busyness trap here:

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog
The Uncomfortable Truth About Children's Books

Mostly my career as a journalist and my career as a children's book writer are pretty separate. But recently I wrote a Mother Jones magazine piece about the attempts to diversify children's literature. I found it tough to wear both hats -- writer and reporter -- simultaneously, and found it occasionally uncomfortable to be covering territory so close to home. But I'm pleased with the piece, which has generated lots of conversation. You can find it here.

Can you help find studio space for the Dangerously Ever After Stop Motion Film?

Things are moving along with the The Dangerously Ever After stop-motion film -- the voice actors have recorded their parts, the props and sets are under construction, and the animators have been innovating some new and wonderful techniques for bringing Princess Amanita and Prince Florian to life.

Check out this test animation.

But there's a hitch. As the film has gotten more ambitious, the sets have gotten too big for Alba Garcia Rivas's current studio. She desperately needs a new space large enough to fit all the sets during the year that she is animating.

And, as you know if you followed the crowd-funding campaign -- the budget's limited. Can you help her find an affordable space? She's offering credits on the film plus other goodies.

Please spread the word to anyone you know who might have an unused space in the Bronx area.
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Photo shared by on in Dashka's Blog
Video shared by on in Dashka's Blog

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog
Announcing: 57 Bus, The Book

I'm thrilled to share the news that appeared today in the Publisher's Weekly Rights Report:

Joy Peskin at Farrar, Straus and Giroux has preempted world rights to a YA project based on Dashka Slater's New York Times Magazine piece, "The Fire on the 57 Bus in Oakland" about two teenagers – one African-American, one agender – on both sides of an alleged hate crime. The book, entitled The 57 Bus, is slated for fall 2017. Erin Murphy at Erin Murphy Literary Agency negotiated the deal.

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog

Lots and lots of exciting news to share!


Posted by on in Dashka's Blog
The Fire on the 57 Bus

In November 2013, I read about a crime that took place near my house in Oakland, California -- a teenager who identifies as agender (neither male nor female) had been set on fire on a bus by another teenager. I began reporting the story a few days later and ended up spending the next 14 months learning about the lives of both teenagers and their families. It's a complex, heartbreaking story, one that may challenge your thinking on some tough topics: gender, race, justice, crime. It's also, in some ways, an inspiring story, because most of the people in it tried to behave well under extremely difficult circumstances. 

You can read it online here, or in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine.

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog
Dangerously Ever After -- The MOVIE!!!

This summer, stop motion film-maker Alba Garcia messaged me on Facebook. Her 7 year old daughter was a fan of my picture book DANGEROUSLY EVER AFTER and had even memorized the whole thing. What did I think about turning the book into a stop-motion film?

Here's the thing -- I'm nuts about stop-motion animation. (If you're not sure what that is, think FANTASTIC MR. FOX, CORALINE, PARANORMAN, NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS). I love how textured, human and intricate it is -- especially in the era of so much slick, computer-generated animation. And I'd always wanted to see certain scenes come alive -- the exploding grenapes, for example.

Not long afterwards, I met with Alba at her studio in New York and we hit it off immediately. She's warm, funny, creative, and yet also very down-to-earth. The more we talked, the more clear it was that we should do this project. We wrote a script. Alba began hiring a crew and building props. Valeria Docampo, the book's illustrator, came to New York, met Alba, and signed on to help.

Now all we need is funding. On February 2nd, we launched an IndieGoGo campaign to raise the $42,000 needed to make the film a reality. Donate early to have your pick of amazing perks like dangerous princess swag, school visits, signed books, copies of the film, props, puppets and more. Tell your friends!

Advanced Picture Book Writing Class, Coming in March!

The next session of my Advanced Picture Book Class, better known as  PB2, starts in March and I am accepting a limited number of students. Perhaps you’ve been working on your picture book manuscript for a long time, and you’re wondering whether it’s ready to send it out.  Or maybe you’ve written a picture book before and you’re getting ready to try a new project.  In either case, you’ve got the basics down and you’re looking for some expert help and a community of readers to work with as you polish your material. Developed especially for graduates of my beginning picture book writing class with mediabistro, this class is open to aspiring picture book writers who are ready for a more advanced workshop structure.

This intensive 8-week online class will help you shape and hone your picture book manuscript through targeted readings, live online discussion, and expert critique. Submit full manuscripts or fragments of ideas -- we'll take whatever you have and work to make it stronger.

In this class, you will learn how to:

  • Construct and fine-tune your plot
  • Develop characters that will appeal to your readers
  • Enliven your book's language so it's fun to read aloud
  • Use page turns, pictures and pacing to your advantage
  • Identify and eliminate common picture book weaknesses
  • Refine a rough draft into a polished manuscript
  • Develop your career as a picture book writer


"The perfect next step after PB1, this class offers the same thoughtful edits, close readings and guidance but with more freedom, allowing you to explore a single manuscript, multiple works, or just bits and pieces. It takes the pressure off while you focus on your work, but still provides handy deadlines to keep you moving. I can't say enough for Dashka's unique blend of honest critique, mentorship and overall support. A wonderful way to hone your craft and fall more in love with writing as a process." -- Kristen Giang

"Dashka is the most thoughtful and insightful teacher. She handled each member of the group with total sensitivity, gently guiding us, motivating us, encouraging us and helping us to unravel our characters and plot and find our individual voices as writers. This was a wonderful class. I really feel I have learned an enormous amount which I can apply to my storytelling, and I feel a new sense of confidence and hope as a writer. Thank you, Dashka!" -- Emily Bailey

"Dashka is a born teacher--encouraging, compassionate, incisive, and knowledgeable. If you're a newbie, she'll make you feel like a pro. If you're a pro, she'll surprise you with her insights and perspective." -- Mary Bolster

"Dashka Slater's kindness, generosity and creative talent totally exceeded my expectations for an online writing class. I was blown away by her attention to each student, her depth of knowledge and insight into our work. Her own creativity is a joy to witness and her dedication to her craft, an inspiration. I am blessed to have had the pleasure." -- Maureen Phillips

Nuts and Bolts:

  • Class begins on March 17, 2015 and runs for 8 Tuesdays (no class on April 7), ending on May 12.
  • Video Chats (via Google Hangout) are at 8 pm Eastern Time and run 1.5 hours.
  • Cost: $499 


To register, please contact me directly.



The Many Paths to Publication Part 7: An Interview with Susan Hood

It is my great pleasure to post an interview with former student and accomplished picture book writer, Susan Hood. Susan took my mediabistro picture book class in 2009, when she was already well-established in children's publishing, having worked as an editor and writer for Scholastic, Sesame Workshop, and Nick Jr. Magazine. Her mission was to get the hang of the picture book form, and while I'd like to take credit for what happened next, it's pretty clear that she was already well-equipped to take the picture book world by storm. And she has, with four gorgeous picture books since 2012: The Tooth Mouse; Spike, The Mixed-Up Monster; Just Say Boo!; and her latest, Rooting For You. She graciously agreed to talk to me about her own path to publication. What struck me about her story is that even though she started out with talent, connections, and experience to spare, she still had to deal with plenty of rejection at the start. It's a good reminder that in this tough field, your single greatest asset is perserverence. 

Dashka: When you took my class in 2009, you were still an aspiring picture book writer. If you can remember back that far, tell us a little a bit about how you approached picture books back then.

Susan: I had been an editor at Scholastic and Sesame Street and had published many baby board books and beginning readers, but I had a healthy respect for how difficult picture books can be.  I had absorbed a lot about them by “osmosis,” but your class really brought everything into focus. I still have your lectures and enjoy referring back to them.

Dashka: What happened to the manuscript you worked on in class? I think it was called Tip Tap Rumble Roar. It was terrific!

Susan: Many editors complimented me on the story, but it was deemed not commercial enough at that time. Remember this was back in 2009 when picture books had taken a hit and everyone wanted YA. I hope that pendulum is swinging back and still hope to publish that story some day!

Dashka: What manuscript was your break-through picture book manuscript? 

Susan: The very first picture book I sold was The Tooth Mouse.  The inspiration was a young Parisian girl I interviewed for a column in Nick Jr. Magazine called “Kids Like You.” Since Sophie was six, I asked her what happened when you lose a tooth in France. She said, “I give it to the Tooth Mouse, of course!” Turns out that a great many other countries share the same tooth tradition, including Argentina, Algeria, Croatia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Greece, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Spain and on and on. I knew I had to write about it!

ToothMouseThe 2113 cv 13

Dashka: I love that! Did you already have an agent? 

Susan: I didn’t have an agent and I was overwhelmed at the prospect of trying to find one. The answer? Homework! Here’s my biggest tip: go to This is a free site that has additional information available for a monthly subscription fee. For $20 a month (and you can pay for just one month) you can access the Dealmakers page. There you can track agents and see what manuscripts they are selling to specific editors. You can find out who specializes in children’s books and who has had the most success selling manuscripts in your genre. It’s a fantastic source to help you narrow the field! From there, I zeroed in on about five agents who interested me and read their blogs, websites, etc. Best advice? If possible, try to attend conferences and see the agents in action. See if you like them. Having a good rapport with your agent is crucial. And follow their submission guidelines exactly. Don’t give them an easy excuse for pushing the delete button!

Dashka: That's such good advice. I like to say that everyone is looking for an excuse to say no -- so you have to make sure not to give it to them! Now you had three picture books come out in close succession. Did you sell them all at once? Tell us a little about the publication paths for each of them.

Susan: I sold The Tooth Mouse in the spring of 2009 before I had an agent. That summer my agent took Spike, The Mixed-Up Monster to BEA and came back with so much interest the book went to auction! I was astonished and over the moon when three publishers bid on it! Just Say Boo! was sold in January 2010, the result of an SCBWI-sponsored critique with a HarperCollins editor.However, the illustrators we wanted were booked for several years so we made the tough decision to wait for them. It was purely by chance that all three books came out in the fall of 2012.

Dashka: Do you feel like you've mastered the art of writing picture books? Is it getting easier? 

Susan: I’ve certainly learned a lot, but I wonder if anyone ever feels they’ve “mastered” the form.  I have the most respect for authors and illustrators who keep pushing the envelope, breaking the rules and attempting new ways of engaging young children.  

How are picture books different? Obviously in language. Early readers use simpler words and fewer of them. Picture books can use more lush, fresh, sophisticated language for two reasons: they are read aloud by adults and a child can understand many more words than he can read.

The way the art works with the text is another important difference. For early readers, the art should match what’s in the text.  Kids refer to the pictures and use them to understand the words.

In the best picture books, the art works to inform and expand on the text and it often works in counterpoint. The text might talk of a monster, but you see from the art that he’s two inches tall.  The text may say “pet,” but the art might show a dragon!

Often the trick to writing a good picture book is to know when to stop writing. This was an AHA! moment for me when I was working on The Tooth Mouse. Originally, I had written out all of the action on this spread. Suddenly it dawned on me that I didn’t have to. I wrote two lines and let the art take over the story.

Kids love this because they can look at the picture and tell what’s happening in their own words. The text tells part of the story and the art tells the rest.  And this is what makes picture books so difficult. You have to supply enough of a story to inspire an illustrator and then step back and allow his or her creativity to take your story to new heights. And don’t assume you and your illustrator will work closely together. You may never meet!

Dashka: It's a strange kind of collaboration, isn't it? Yet when it's done well, the text and the art are so seamless, you can't imagine that they were done separately! What have you learned about the picture book writing and publishing process that you wish you knew at the beginning? What words of advice do you have for aspiring picture book writers ?

Susan: Publishing a picture book takes time. A LOT of time. And there’s a lot of rejection along the way. The Tooth Mouse was seven years in the making. The first manuscript was rejected and it sat in a drawer for years. I completely rewrote it and revised, revised, revised. After it was accepted we waited for illustrator Janice Nadeau and it was finally published three years later! So patience and a tough skin will serve you well.

Advice? Read a lot of picture books. I mean thousands. Read the classics, but read new ones, too, to see how the genre is evolving.

My best advice is to join SCBWI—the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, take a class, join a critique group.

Children’s writers and illustrators are some of the most generous, inspiring, mischievous, jovial people I’ve ever met. They’ll celebrate your highs, pick you up when you’re low and grouse with you when you’re tired of waiting, waiting, waiting. When my books were published, my critique group turned into a pop-up marketing task force, writing my press releases, cooking food for my launch party, setting up school visits and hounding (yes, literally hounding!) teachers and librarians to buy my books.  I feel blessed to have this community of people in my life.

Dashka: I agree wholeheartedly! Children's book people are the best. So, what's coming next?

Susan: I have a new baby board book called Tickly Toes, illustrated by Barroux. Four more picture books are on the way from Random House, Hyperion and Candlewick after that! Here's a sneak preview of the cover of  Mission: New Baby which will be released by Random House in February 2015. 


Dashka: Oooh, it has illustrations by the wonderful Mary Lundquist! Congratulations on all your success and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on the blog!

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog
A Prize For Dangerously Ever After

I like blue ribbons. I can't help it; they look cool, especially when pinned to the jacket of a book. So I'm pretty excited that Dangerously Ever After has been given the 2014 Surrey Schools Picture Book of the Year Award. The coolest thing about this prize? It's judged by kids. 12,700 kids in the Surrey School District read ten picture books chosen by a team of crackerjack librarians and then voted for their favorite. It's a pretty amazing group of books by an incredible collection of authors. It was pretty fun just to have my book mentioned in the same breath, frankly. But here's the thing I like best of all. Dangerously Ever After is a book about a princess -- an unconventional one, but a princess all the same. To win this award, the book had to get a lot of votes from boys. There's a story going around that boys won't read books with girl characters. I'd like to think this award is proof that that ain't so. 

Posted by on in Dashka's Blog
Who Made That?

I have a new gig, and it's a pretty sweet one! Since June, I have been alternating writing the New York Times Magazine's weekly "Who Made That?" Innovations column with the wise and witty Melanie Rehak. Each week, one of us tells the origin story of a familiar object or concept. My recent topics include:

And yes, I'm always happy to hear suggestions of topics you'd like to see. Post them, below!


Posted by on in Dashka's Blog
The Wishing Box is on sale!

My novel for adults, The Wishing Box, has had two lives. It got great reviews when it came out in 2000, including being named as one of the best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times. But sales were never outstanding, and eventually it went into hibernation. Then, last year, it was reissued as an e-book. To my delight and surprise, the book took off, climbing up the Kindle best-seller list. Now Amazon is offering it at the low, low price of $1.99 for the month of November, and it's your chance to see what the fuss is about. If you want to read it for your book group, you can find a reader' s guide on my website, as well as interviews with me about the book. You can even send a request to have the e-book signed through Authorgraph.


As an e-book skeptic, I've been wowed by the power this new distribution channel has to reach new readers. And as an author, I'm very grateful that a book that I still feel proud of has had a chance to live a second life.

The Many Paths to Publication Part 6: An Interview with Tim McCanna

I first met Tim McCanna at an SCBWI conference in 2011. Back then he was an aspiring children's book author and a heck of a nice guy. Now he's still a heck of a nice guy but he's graduated from aspiring to published children's book author. How'd he do it? I was about to say "not in the usual way" but if you've been following these posts, you've probably gathered that there isn't a usual way. What I like about Tim's story is that he took pointers, tips and tidbits he gathered at conferences and combined them with some publicly-available tools and a few personal connections to forge a unique path to publication. It doesn't hurt that he, like Tim Myers from our last Paths to Publication Interview, is a multi-talented guy who writes songs, does voice-overs, and writes stories. Read on to learn about his just-released new book, Teeny Tiny Trucks, and how it developed from an idea to an app and a book.

Dashka: Tell me about Teeny Tiny Trucks! What was the inspiration?
Tim: Well, in late 2010 I attended an event hosted by SCBWI's San Francisco/South chapter. One of the speakers was Christy Ottaviano and she talked about how much her kids loved trucks and how she had unexpectedly ended up publishing a handful of "truck books." I had never really thought about it before, but there are a LOT of truck books out there. It's a whole category of its own. On the way home, I started brainstorming truck book ideas. Of course, most truck books celebrate how big and tough and loud they are. I knew right away I wanted to take it in a different direction and explore a world where trucks were super small. I also tapped into my childhood love of little truck toys, like Micro Machines and Tiny Mighty Mos.

Dashka: It sounds like you did some market research before you even started writing. Were there other things you learned from SCBWI or other sources that helped you hone your strategy?
Tim: As it turned out, the next regional SCBWI event I attended was the 2011 Golden Gate Conference at Asilomar near Monterey. One of the speakers was Rick Richter of Ruckus Media Group. Rick gave a great talk on apps and digital media and where the industry was headed. He assured us that apps and ebooks and printed books could all live together in harmony. But he also really encouraged us to jump on the app bandwagon. I had no idea how to do that, but I was excited to try. While considering ideas, I thought, "Hey, that Teeny Tiny Trucks picture book manuscript I wrote would make a cool app."

TTTrucks Cover

Dashka: How did you go about making an app proposal? How did you even know where to begin?
Tim: It's intimidating, right? For the first couple submissions, I just winged it. Cover letter, the manuscript, and very rough storyboard sketches with little notes on potential interactive elements. Uh, nothing came of those. Then last year, Julie Hedlund, who's a writer and creator of the 12x12 challenge, published an App Proposal Template based on the submission that landed her first story app contract. I would recommend it to anyone wanting to break into story apps. The template helped me create a much more robust and organized proposal with marketing strategies, a detailed app brief, and curriculum tie-ins.

Dashka: As an old-school, words-on-paper person, I sometimes find it hard to embrace the digital side of publishing. Were you pro-technology before you started? Anti-technology? Neutral?
Tim: Ah, well. I love a nice solid printed picture book as much as the next person. My wife and I read tons of traditional picture books with our kids and we have pretty strict "screen time" rules. But I've never shied from technology. If anything, my iPad has made me a reader again. I love the ease of downloading samples from the iBooks store to find new purchases, and being able to quickly look up big words I don't know! I read novels almost exclusively on my iPad. As far as the publishing industry goes, I can only hope that the future will bring lots of quality story apps for people to enjoy and lots of beautiful hardbound books, too.

Dashka: OK, so you've told us how you got the idea for Teeny Tiny Trucks. How did the book get its big break?
Tim: Gosh, everything is intertwined. So, I had my Trucks story and my first shabby proposal sitting in my Dropbox going nowhere. As I was participating in the 2011 Picture Book Idea Month, I heard about Julie Hedlund who was launching her 12x12 writing challenge, which I joined. I wrote this silly song for the mid-year celebration of 12x12 and had also written the opening show theme for Katie Davis' kidlit podcast, Brain Burps About Books. Meanwhile, Julie's publisher at Little Bahalia was considering adding a sing-a-long song version for the app they were developing for her book A Troop is a Group of Monkeys. My name came up and I ended up writing the song and narrating the app! Totally fun. Building that working relationship with Stacey at Little Bahalia gave me the confidence to revive my Trucks app proposal using Julie's template. I submitted it and had a contract in two weeks.

Dashka: Talk to me a bit about how personal relationships helped you along the way. You and I met at a conference for the first time and you've clearly met lots of other, more helpful, people too. Do you think writers need to get out more?
Tim: Oh yeah. Every bit of momentum I've gained since starting out four and a half years ago can be directly attributed to the people I've met by attending SCBWI events and participating in online writing challenges. My number one bit of advice to anyone--especially newcomers to the industry--wanting to make kidlit friends and expand their network is to volunteer at their local SCBWI chapter.

Dashka: Another thing that strikes me about you is that you bring some extra talents to the table. How has being a songwriter helped you as a writer? And now it seems you can add voice actor to your resume.
Tim: Oddly enough, it took me a long time to figure out how to integrate my music and performance backgrounds into children's book publishing. I've recently done some book trailers, and I write goofy little jingles for my kidlit video series. And yes, I've gotten to narrate a handful of story apps, too. All these things I've done in my little home studio with a laptop, a keyboard and a microphone. When I decided to take Trucks in the app direction, I set my stanzas to a tune and added a catchy chorus. And considering the subject matter, I took another cue from my childhood and gave it a 1970's trucker song kind of vibe (i.e. Willy Nelson's "On the Road Again"). I included an mp3 of the Teeny Tiny Trucks song along with my app proposal and I'm told it pushed my submission over the top.

TTT Spread Weight

Dashka: TTT was originally going to be an app only, but now it's been released as a book too. How did that come about?
Tim: I'm so excited about that. The original plan was: app first, then maybe a book. I'm not a publisher, and I don't know all the numbers, but I think between having such a great looking product thanks to Keith Frawley's illustrations, plus the timing of publishing before the holidays, it just kinda made sense for Little Bahalia, our publisher. And we're making history in the process! A title releasing simultaneously in print and interactive app form. Gives consumers some fun choices.

Dashka: Did you ever think your first book would come via an app?
Tim: Nope. Never. I just followed the opportunities and my instincts. In my case, I wrote the story first, not even thinking of it as an app. I would recommend that process! Teeny Tiny Trucks was just one of many manuscripts in my portfolio, but due to its style and subject, it naturally lent itself to an interactive format.

Dashka: What are the advantages of entering the publishing world via an app?
Tim: Traditional publishing can be a notoriously slow process. My app, on the other hand is coming out roughly eight months after I sold the manuscript. And, in theory, an app will never go out of print! Plus, the interactive elements, when done well, can be amazing. The sky's the limit, really. An app format offers all kinds of special features like puzzles, music, and animation.

Dashka: Are there disadvantages?
Tim: Well, if someone doesn't have access to an iPad or an iPhone, then they ain't gettin' the app. That's a bummer. New apps are also at the mercy of "discoverability." Meaning, unless you're Angry Birds, you have to claw your way through the glut of apps flooding the market to reach the top charts. We're all competing against very sophisticated video game apps, many of which are free.

Dashka: What have you learned along the way that you wish you knew at the beginning?
Tim: There is no single path to publication, you have to be the driving force behind your success, and it will all play out quite differently than how you imagined.

Dashka: Yes! That's exactly what I've hoped to communicate with this series of blog posts. Do you have words of advice for somebody interested in following a similar path?
Tim: Anyone who is writing for children strives for strong characters, unique voice, interesting conflicts, and readability. Whether aiming for story apps or printed books, put your writing craft first. Have a great story be the foundation for whatever medium you want to work in. Bells and buttons come later.

Dashka: Last month I did some critique group matchmaking on my blog. Do you think it's important for writers to have critique partners?
Tim: Oh gosh, don't get me started on critique groups. To me, they are as essential as pen and paper. Seriously. I've had two groups and found both by meeting people at regional SCBWI conferences. My current group meets once a month. Writing is such a solitary art. Being in a critique group gives you a community to check in with, get support, and test material. If you can find folks that give quality feedback and not just "This is cute!" or "This isn't working for me." grab on to them and never let go. Being in a crit group can keep you motivated, but it also means you're ready and willing to hear the hard truth about your work and be open to cutting material and rewriting.

Dashka: What else do you have in the works? More apps? More books? More songs?
Tim: Yes, yes, and yes. I'd love an excuse to follow up Teeny Tiny Trucks with some other teeny tiny modes of transportation! We'll see... I switched gears this summer and started writing my first middle grade novel, which has been a fun new challenge.

Dashka: Thanks for coming by the blog, Tim! I hope you'll come back to tell us about it when it's done! In the meantime, Tim has graciously offered to send a signed copy of Teeny Tiny Trucks to one lucky commenter. He'll do the signing. I'll be responsible for picking a lucky winner. To enter the contest, make sure to leave a comment telling us why you need your own teeny tiny truck. I'll pick a winner on November 7. And for all you tiny truck fans, the book is available through Amazon or can be ordered through your local bookstore. The app will be out soon as well. 

The Many Paths to Publication Part 5: An Interview with Tim Myers

Tim Myers is a terrific writer, teacher and storyteller. I was a huge fan of his best-selling book Basho and the Fox for many years before I met him in person. When I did, I discovered we had much in common, including the fact that we both write in multiple genres, and I became as much a fan of the person as I am of the writer (when you read this interview, you'll understand why). In addition to being an award-winning short story writer, songwriter and poet, Tim is the author of eleven picture books, including If You Give a T-Rex a Bone, Looking for Luna, Basho and the River Stones, The Out-Foxed Fox, and Dark-Sparkle Tea, and he has another four picture books in the works. He has recently published a new book of poetry, a new picture book, and a non-fiction e-book, Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood, which won the inaugural Ben Franklin Digital Award from the Independent Book Publishers Association. He graciously agreed to visit the blog this month to talk about his many paths to publication.


Dashka: Tell me a little about your latest picture book.

Tim With River Stones new version

Tim: My latest children's book is Down at the Dino Wash Deluxe, from Sterling. My children and I played endlessly with dinosaur figures. But my sons also especially loved vehicles--I sometimes wonder if the young mind makes any meaningful distinction between dinosaurs and large trucks or construction equipment. So I wanted to combine the two, and got the rather shrewd idea of a giant car wash that caters to city dinosaurs. (If dinos still existed, I might be a billionaire).
And how awesome is this? I just found a "Three Boys and a Dog" blog post where the wonderful mom-blogger not only read the book to her kids but baked chocolaty dirt onto their dino-figures so they could play Dino Wash Deluxe in the yard!

Dino Wash cover

Dashka: I love how creative mom-bloggers are. And now you've entered the parenting blog world yourself, while also publishing a book of poetry.

Tim: I recently published Glad to Be Dad: A Call to Fatherhood which made #5 on Amazon's "Hot New Releases in Fatherhood" list, was featured on the Parents Magazine site, quoted on Disney's BabyZone site, won the Ben Franklin Digital Award, and has gotten excellent reviews. One of the chapters is appearing in "Motherlode," The New York Times parenting blog. I also recently published Dear Beast Loveliness: Poems of the Body which got a great review from the nationally-known poet Grace Cavalieri.


Dashka: You made different publication choices with each book – Glad to Be Dad is an e-book, Down at the Dino Wash Deluxe came from Sterling Children's, which is a subsidiary of Barnes and Noble, and Dear Beast Loveliness comes from BlazeVOX which calls itself "an independent publisher of weird little books." Why did you go the route you went for each?

Tim: I wish I was in the position to pick and choose which publishers I work with. I don't mean that I ignore such choices, but I've found that my work is too varied to be submitted to only certain publishers. So I do a good amount of research and submit work to all kinds of different houses. (And get rejected all the time). My primary goal is to make good books and connect with readers. And a writer really can't predict whether a book will be a commercial success or not, or whether a particular publisher can make that happen. Again, I'm not crazy--I'm delighted if a big, high-status publisher will take on a book of mine! But my heart pretty much burns 24 hours a day for art, so I follow any route that will ease that wonderful, joyous burning.

Glad Dad cover image high res

Dashka: And you haven't been afraid to plunge into the digital deep end. Has publishing changed a lot in the course of your career?


Tim: Anyone can see what an absolute tsunami the digital revolution has been for human culture. And of course huge particular changes have come to the book industry too. Years ago, before I'd even published anything, I'd get long, thoughtful letters back from publishers at major houses about the manuscript they were passing on. That doesn't happen now (though my experience with editors at major houses has made me tremendously impressed with them). And the push to self-promote has also changed the landscape almost beyond recognition. People say it all the time: new opportunities, new challenges. Part of my response to that has been--I'll put this in Wall Street terms, so it'll sound intelligent instead of desperate--to diversify.

Dashka: It's great to diversify -- and you're a pretty diversely-talented guy anyway. Even so, it can be hard to keep all the balls in the air. Do you find it challenging to write and publish in multiple genres?

Tim: I find it beyond exhilarating to write in different genres, and since I'm also a storyteller and a song-writer, this kind of variety is mother's milk to me. In fact, I know I could never specialize; I'm a generalist in a specialist's world. And there are real disadvantages, career disadvantages, to being a generalist. But as I always say--What's life for? To satisfy my soul with art--that's what I'm after. Holy cats--if I wanted money and fame, there are a lot smarter ways to go about it!

Dashka: I sometimes hear people say that writing in multiple genres dilutes your "brand" as an author – an accusation I'm sensitive to, since I also write fiction, non-fiction, poetry and children's books. What do you think about the idea that we need to brand ourselves as writers?

Tim: I understand the point about branding, but I think the idea is often over-applied, and if not fully understood it can actually be dangerous if you're committed to art. I have a piece coming out in the SCBWI Bulletin that goes into detail on my thoughts about branding.

Dashka: Oh, I'm looking forward to reading that! Hopefully you'll reassure me. Now tell me what it's been like to publish and promote a digital book? What did you know or think you knew about digital publishing beforehand? Did the experience change your feelings about e-books?

Tim: I really didn't know much at all, though of course I kept my head up and paid attention. But I got very lucky when Christopher Robbins, the publisher at a new and digitally-savvy niche publisher called Familius, took my Glad to Be Dad. Christopher is a veteran, and he taught me so much, and encouraged me as I learned on my own. I'm very grateful to him. I'd known for a long time that I had to get more involved in marketing and promotion, and he gave me the opportunity to do that in a big way. It was a watershed moment for me. Of course this also has its costs; time spent on promo is time not spent writing. But my hope is that some careful, constantly-tweaked combination of the two can help writers both write their best and connect with others as much as possible.

Dashka: Many people say that it's a great time to be a writer, because there are so many publishing options. But it can be overwhelming, too. Any advice for writers who are trying to figure out how best to publish their books? Anything you wish someone had told you along the way?

Tim: Overwhelming--yes! It's like when you go to the store to buy mustard, look at the 900 varieties on the shelves, and realize you'll need a graduate seminar in order to make a choice. The thing is, though--well, I find a couple of principles very helpful here. First--it looks worse than it is. I don't mean to minimize it; the world of creative production is in something like an uproar right now--look at the music industry. I find myself thinking a lot these days about the Oklahoma Land Rush. My point, though, is that it looks more intimidating from a distance. Have faith in your ability to learn and adjust, then get in there and do it. And besides--some of the fundamental realities will never change; the basic relationships between writers, gate-keepers, editors, and readers tend to stay the same. To make my point even more specific: Don't freak out. Don't get me wrong; I've done my share of worrying about all the change. But that anxiety was mostly just wasted energy.

Second--and this is closely related--it's like when you're playing basketball. Say you steal a pass and break for the basket, and you've got a couple of people to go around before you can lay it in. The thing is, you've got to give it all you've got--but you've also got to stay relaxed. This is a paradox, but a true one. Staying relaxed means you can keep your head and react as conditions change. And that's really important in the shifting world we find ourselves in today. But the main thing is--it's ALWAYS a great time to be a writer, whatever's going on in the world! It gets harder, it gets easier, you get a door slammed here, you get a break there. But you get to write!

Dashka: Thanks for that reminder. Sometimes we all get so caught up in the push to publish and promote that we forget why it is we do what we do in the first place! And thanks for stopping by Start at the Beginning!

Sign Up For My Newsletter
Find me on Facebook
Follow Me