How I Came to Write Language Arts Picture Books

22 Jun

When I was in eighth grade, the English teacher of a friend of mine established a class contest. The winner of the contest would have lunch with BYU basketball star Kresimir Cosic. (After turning down offers from the NBA, he returned to his native Yugoslavia where he coached their Olymipc basketball team, and later became U.S. ambassador from Croatia.) The contest–to come up with as many compound words as possible.

I was a big BYU basketball fan. I made a deal with my friend. I would help him with the contest if he would get Cosic’s autograph.

I began searching for compound words. When my list was done, I had 1,500 of them, written out by hand, on a stack of paper.

It was an easy deal for me. I loved words. I loved playing with words. I loved reading words, and writing words, and studying words, and finding out interesting facts about words.

For example, I discovered that not only is the word “tang” spelled backwards “gnat”, but if you move all of the leaders of either word thirteen letters down the alphabet, you get the other word. That is not very practical information, but it fascinates me.

Some of the facts I’ve learned about words, however, have been practical and have made me an advocate of learning about words. When I was in junior high I took beginning Spanish. That was my first of dozens of Spanish classes. In high school I added French and German. In college I took French, Latin, Italian, and Portuguese. And when I finally walked away with a B.A., it was with a Spanish major and a Portuguese minor.

And it was in these classes that I learned what I had been unable to learn in my English classes–grammatical and linguistic facts about words. I learned the parts of speech. I learned the structure of sentences. I learned latin roots, suffixes and prefixes that helped my English vocabulary grow. I learned phonetics. All the way through I was learning facts about words, and loving it. And as I studied other languages, my understanding of my own language improved.

As my love of words had been developing, my love of writing with those words had also been growing, so that by the time I received my B.A. I was seriously thinking about writing as a career.

I dabbled, I tested, I explored, and after many false starts and sidetracks, I finally discovered that I could indeed make a living doing what I loved so much to do, play with words.

My first publication was an odd one–a quote in the book Murphy’s Law: Book Three –“A fool and his money are soon elected.” I was paid in kind, with books and calendars (where my quote appeared on election day), and was delighted to rationalize that, given the value of the goods I’d received, I had made more per word than Hemingway in his prime. Rationalizations like this have helped me through the trials of freelance writing.

I went a couple of years before I had any more success. I had been writing anything I could think of, much of it silly stuff involving playing with words. I knew little about breaking into the market, and had been almost randomly scattering manuscripts among the world’s publishers. Finally, after compiling a tall stack of rejections, in frustration I described in a one page query letter eight of what I considered to be my most promising manuscripts. I submitted this query to over a hundred publishers. (This is not, by the way, the best way to query. But I didn’t know any better at the time.) I soon began receiving my rejections. I was not happy, but I was not surprised.

And then came some positive news. One publisher wanted to see one of the described manuscripts. Then another publisher wanted the same. Then another, and another. Four of the publishers I’d shotgunned my queries to were at least interested in seeing what I’d written.

I sent out the requested manuscripts right away. Two of the publishers bowed out. The other two took their time. I waited, and waited. Finally, impatient, I called one of the publishers, Lerner Publications, to see if there had been any progress yet. The editor said that they were still considering my manuscript, which played on the names of dinosaurs, but asked if I would be interesting in writing riddle books.

At the time I would have been interested in writing car repair manuals, or phone books, anything to get published. I told her I would love to. We agreed on a two book contract.

My career had begun. And so easily. All I’d have to do was gather riddles from other sources and compile them into riddle books for Lerner.

And then Lerner sent me some sample books in the series. I read the riddles. They didn’t seem familiar, and they should have if they were collected, because I’d read a lot of riddle books. The thought occurred to me that maybe collecting wasn’t what Lerner had in mind.

I called my editor and asked her if she wanted the riddles to be original. She said that was what she preferred.

So I taught myself to write riddles. And all the language training helped. Because I knew about sentence structure, and about parts of speech, and about phonetics, I quickly discovered that there were formulas and rules for riddle writing. And with the help of these discovered rules, I quickly wrote two books of original riddles. I then did six more books for that series, Lerner’s Make Me Laugh series, and then wrote eight more books for a second Lerner joke book series.

I was paid a low flat fee for the riddle books, but they did help launch my writing career. Eight of the books were Reading Rainbow books and five were 1990 IRA Children’s Choice books.

In the middle of doing the books for the second series, my picture book writing career got a big boost. I had been trying to sell my picture book manuscripts to publishers for some time, with no success. Finally I decided to take another approach. I decided I needed an agent.

After shopping around, I finally found an agent who was interested in me. She very quickly sold two of my manuscripts, Noah’s Square Dance and How Many How Many How Many . And at the same time I sold Will You Still Love Me to Deseret Book. I was on my way.

While I’d been working on the riddle books I had taken a two-year detour as an elementary school teacher. This detour proved to have a huge impact on my writing career because it’s there that I became aware of the use of children’s books in the curriculum, the need for these books, and of teaching techniques that would later show up in some of my manuscripts. It was also there that I became aware of E.D. Hirsch’s book Cultural Literacy . That book was in my mind when I wrote and sold How Many How Many How Many .

How Many How Many How Many was my first clearly successful picture book. It began selling well immediately, and is still being sold in several editions today. And it reinforced in my mind my beliefs that 1) curriculum subjects can be taught through children’s books, and that 2) fun children’s books that teach curriculum topics sell well.

Will You Still Love Me came out in 1992. How Many How Many How Many , my second picture book, came out in 1993. My third picture book, What to Do When a Bug climbs in Your Mouth and Other Poems to Drive You Buggy , came out in the spring of 1995. It’s use in the science curriculum has helped to keep it in print.

In the fall of 1995 I had two picture books come out. Noah’s Square Dance , four and a half years in production, was finally released. At the same time Once There Was a Bull…frog was published by Gibbs Smith press. I was introduced to Gibbs Smith press through Dave Wolverton, a science fiction writer who was soliciting children’s manuscripts for them. I gave him a stack of manuscripts, and after the Gibbs Smith editor shuffled through them all, we settled on Bull…frog for publication. Bull…frog was not originally meant to be a compound word book. Most of the words that I used for the page-turn surprises were compound words, but I used other types of words and phrases too in the first draft. As I worked on editing the manuscript, however, the teacher in me came out, and I realized that Bull…frog was more than just a fun story. It was also a book for introducing compound words. The book was published, and very quickly teachers discovered it as a fun way of introducing compound words.

In 1996 my next book for Gibbs Smith was published, You Don’t Always Get What You Hope For . A fitting title, because in spite of a positive response, we didn’t get the sales we hoped for, and I soon realized why. It didn’t present any clear curriculum topic as Bull…frog had done.

The following year we returned to language arts concepts with Pig Pigger Piggest , which introduced adjectives, comparatives and superlatives. In 1998 came why the Banana Split , a book about synonyms and idioms. In 1999 we published Bullfrog Pops! , a book about transitive and intransitive verbs, and direct objects. Gibbs Smith and I have decided that we have a formula that works, fun picture books introducing language arts concepts, and we shouldn’t stray far from it. Current plans are to publish one such picture book every fall.

Picture books with curriculum topics have been good to me, and I’ve expanded beyond How Many and Gibbs Smith. In 1998 Lothrop published my book So Many Bunnies: A Bedtime, ABC and Counting Book . The book has been selling very well and was a 1999 IRA Children’s Choice book. A sequel, One More Bunny came out in 2000. It introduces simple addition. And it looks like the bunnies will be a series. Two more bunny books, Bunny Day, which will introduce time, and Bunnies On the Go , which will be about travel and geography, will come out in 2002 and 2003. After that we hope to have a new bunny book every year.

My first books with Putnam came out in 2000. Putnam has noticed my success with the Gibbs Smith books, and they and I have expanded on it. They had purchased the paperback rights to Once There Was a Bull…frog , and have published, so far, six of my picture book manuscripts. All of these manuscripts deal with language arts concepts. My Two Hands/My Two Feet and How Can You Dance introduce similes. That’s My Dog deals with adjectives. Little Dogs Say Rough is about animal sounds. The Bear Came Over to My House is about irregular verbs. And Cars At Play introduces metaphors.

And so my love of words and my love of writing have come together in what for me is a delightful and fun career.

And oh, I never did get Kresimir Cosic’s autograph. I’m not sure why. Maybe the teacher promised more than she could deliver. But it doesn’t matter. The delight of playing with words was the real reward.


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