Friday, August 21, 2020

Ask the Editor with Katherine Gibson

Welcome to our quarterly Ask the Editor feature! Katherine Gibson is an editor at Zonderkidz and was previously at Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. She's collecting questions from SCBWI-MI members and sharing her answers with our community. Did you miss her other Q&As? See the links at the end of this post.

Here's Katherine:

Hi everyone! Thank you to all of you who sent me your questions! I hope you find this post helpful and informative.

As with my previous Ask the Editor posts, I humbly ask that you take my comments in the spirit in which they’re intended. The advice here is meant to be friendly and helpful; I don’t want anyone to finish this post feeling vulnerable or discouraged.

Also, a general disclaimer that my thoughts are my own; I do not speak on behalf of all publishing. I would not be surprised at all to learn that you’ve heard an editor or agent say something that directly conflicts with my perspective. Everyone in publishing has their own views and preferences, and I can only be honest about my own.

If you have any questions about writing, editing, or publishing that aren’t addressed here, please reach out to me. I’m always happy to gather questions for my next post!

Thank you, and happy reading!

Does a picture book have to have a takeaway to be marketable in this day and age? If you simply write a funny read aloud or a silly text, is it less likely to be acquired? Does adding layers help? And what are several examples of good layers? Is it possible that the takeaway is something the reader/editor/publisher reads into it, rather than having it be explicit?

I don’t think a picture book necessarily has to have a takeaway — I think you can find an exception to every book-related “rule” there is! That being said, children aren’t the only audience you have to consider when writing a picture book; there are parents and teachers and librarians too, and in my experience, readers of all ages tend to appreciate (and are more likely to reread) books with some substance. To be clear, when I talk about a book’s takeaway, I’m not saying it has to have a moral or lesson, just that there should be a deeper meaning to the book.

Adding layers to the story is a wonderful way to give your picture book some extra staying-power without sacrificing the fun or the whimsy. Look at Nothing Rhymes with Orange by Adam Rex. It’s a hilarious, zany read-aloud, AND an introduction to different kinds of fruit, AND a book about feeling left out and wanting to belong. My guess is that whatever you’re writing about could lend itself pretty easily to a couple different layers. Maybe it already has them!

In fact, I think you could pick up just about any funny picture book and find something to take away from it. This Is Not My Hat? The bad things we do have a way of catching up to us. Shh! We Have a Plan? If you can’t solve a problem, try looking at it a different way. The Octopuppy? What makes you weird makes you awesome. None of these things are said explicitly, so don’t feel like you have to shoehorn in a message when you’re writing your book. I think both publishers and readers prefer when the takeaway isn’t explicitly stated, but something they find on their own.

What’s the best market fit for free verse novels, in terms of age category and genre?

I think you tend to see novels in verse more often in the YA sphere, but they can work well in the middle grade market too. As far as genre goes, I think the poetry format is very vers-atile (sorry, couldn’t resist), but it’s particularly effective for novels that are focused on tough topics. Poetry is great for evoking an emotional response in a reader, and a story that might be too graphic and gritty in prose can be softened in free verse without sacrificing the emotional impact. Ellen Hopkins’s books and Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds are great examples of this.

That being said, I think something a little more unexpected, like a funny middle grade novel in verse, could make a nice splash in the market too. Everybody still loves Moo, right? I’d say if a story just works better in free verse than it does in prose, then it will naturally find its readership.

My current novel-in-progress was started before the pandemic, but now that our lives have been so altered by the coronavirus, I feel like I need to incorporate it into my story, even though I’d rather not. Should this contemporary story just remain set in pre-pandemic times, or should I try to at least reference the pandemic, knowing that this book won't actually be published for at least a few more years? 

This is the million-dollar question these days! Honestly, at this point it’s still really tough to predict how heavily we’ll reference the pandemic in our books, movies, TV shows, etc. in the coming years. Right now it seems like books either don’t acknowledge it at all or are completely centered around it; I don’t think we know what the gray area looks like yet. 

All that to say, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to handle it in your novel. If you’d rather not incorporate it into your novel, then I think it’s perfectly fine to set the story in pre-pandemic times. Or, if you feel compelled to incorporate it, maybe the story can start shortly after things return to “normal” so it doesn’t change the plot too much. 

Essentially, I wouldn’t advise doing massive rewrites to a manuscript or setting a project aside until a vaccine is found, unless of course you want to. None of us can predict what the future is going to look like (goodness knows we didn’t predict this!), but that shouldn’t stop us from telling the stories we want to tell. 

If you submit to a publishing house without an agent and they like your manuscript, what should an author know or do to make the best of the situation? What questions should a new author ask? Are there red flags to look out for? If there isn't an agent in the picture, are there other professionals that could look over an agreement to make sure it's sound?

If a publisher likes your manuscript and has made you an offer, step one is do a happy dance! Step two is to reach out to anyone else you sent that manuscript to and let them know you’ve received an offer. Typically, you give them a time frame in which to counteroffer — I’d personally suggest no more than a week or two. (If a publisher has expressed interest but has yet to make an official offer, I’d still reach out to everyone else and let them know, but you don’t need to give them a deadline in that case.)

Once you’ve accepted an offer, the publisher will send over a contract for you to look over. Book contracts aren’t terribly complicated, but it’s a big enough deal that you’ll want to have someone with experience look it over before you sign. If you’re interested in having an agent, try reaching out to a few. Agents are usually a LOT more willing to sign someone who’s already received an offer from a publisher. If you don’t want an agent, then I’d suggest bringing the contract draft to a lawyer to look over, or at the very least someone who has worked in publishing and encountered book contracts before. 

The editor and/or contract itself should be able to answer any questions you have: what the payment schedule will be, what rights you’ll retain, the proposed schedule for the book, etc. If you have a reasonable question that the editor can’t answer, that could be a red flag. Another (obvious) red flag: the publisher asking you to pay — in part or in whole — for the production of the book, or an agent requiring a signing fee or some other unexpected cost. 

Basically, whether you’re negotiating the terms of the contract yourself or having someone else (an agent or lawyer) do it on your behalf, you should be crystal clear on what you’ll be getting and what will be expected of you. If you’re not, then talk to your agent/editor and ask questions until you do feel certain of the terms. That’s what we’re there for! 

Katherine Gibson is an editor for Zonderkidz, having previously worked for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. She graduated from the University of Denver Publishing Institute in 2013 and has spent the last five years editing and publishing award-winning children’s books, including Sibert Medal and Caldecott Honor book The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus and Plume, which was a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book.

Thank you, Katherine!

To submit a publishing question, email Mitten blog editor Kristin Lenz with "Ask the Editor" in the subject line, and she'll forward your question to Katherine. Or, stay tuned on the SCBWI-MI MichKids listserv – Katherine will ask for questions a few weeks before her next post.

To read Katherine's previous Ask the Editor posts, click on these links:

Our quiet summer is wrapping up, and the Mitten Blog editors are planning for a fall season full of blog posts. Here's a peek ahead, but we're still looking for more content. We want to celebrate with you and share information and experiences. We'd love to hear from you! Please see our submission guidelines.

Coming up on the Mitten Blog:

Book birthdays, a New Member Spotlight, Diversity Dialogue, Hugs and Hurrahs, and a new Featured Illustrator.

See you in September!

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Book Birthday Blog with Rachel Anderson

Welcome to SCBWI-MI's Book Birthday Blog! 
Where we celebrate new books by Michigan's children's book authors and illustrators

Congratulations to Rachel Anderson on the release of her new book, The Puppy Predicament!

Congratulations on the release of your debut novel, The Puppy Predicament! What inspired you to write this book?

Thank you, Lauren. I’m on Cloud 900! When our girls were growing up, we had a dog named Falon. They loved her. I saw so much joy in their faces when playing with Falon. I started thinking about what would happen if a girl wanted a dog and couldn’t have one. What would be the reasons she couldn’t have one? What lengths would she go through to get her own dog? And then I wrote a sweet story about Emily Hanover, a girl who wanted a dog. And she found a way to get a dog and lived happily ever after. The End! Well, it was the end of that version. I had a lot of work to do to make it a novel vs. a story.

I had the manuscript critiqued many times over the years always hearing that it was sweet story but needed more depth. And since I wrote the story as historical fiction, being set in the mid-1960’s, I had to ground it in that era. I decided Emily’s brother was serving in the Vietnam War, and they would write letters to each other. 

What would you say was the most successful and most challenging part of the writing and publishing process?

Successful: Receiving critiques where the reader gets the story, loves the plot, loves the characters, and only has minor revisions for me to consider. Yes, that is success! And finding an editor who loves my story as much as I do = success. My editor, Janice Broyles, of Late November Literary, loved my story so much she’s waiting for a sequel. (No pressure!) She made the publishing part easy, smooth, and rewarding.

Challenging: The years when I kept getting rejected. Many times, I had received the same comment from an agent or editor: “We like your story. It has good bones, but I don’t know where it fits on the bookshelf or library shelf. The Vietnam War isn’t taught as part of school curriculum, and it isn’t on the summer reading programs.” Talk about a gut-punch. I had this great story that I wanted to share with the world, and I couldn’t even get someone to give it a chance. That was challenging; that was heartbreaking. That caused my novel to go into a drawer and stay there for a year or more. On the bright side, I had a well-known editor tell me to write the best story I could no matter the era, no matter the negative comments, and it would find a home. Yay! At the same time, Emily whispered in my ear that she was still waiting for me to tell her story, and ideas began to percolate. I pulled out the novel, read it, and decided I still loved Emily and her family and her story. And then I got back to writing and revising.

Who are some writers that inspire you?

There are many children’s writers whom I could mention, but then I’d accidentally leave someone out and I’d be sad about that. So, to the SCBWI-MI writers, you ALL inspire me! And to all PB authors, I wanna be you. 
Some authors of other genres: Charles Martin, Suzanne Redfern, and Suzanne Collins. I’ve always been a fan of Cinda Williams Chima.

Why did you decide to set your story in the mid-1960’s?

I’m giving away my age, but I was 10 years old back in 1965. I wanted Emily to be 10 or 11 (turns out she’s 11). It’s a great age to still be a kid at heart yet learning that with more “wants” comes more responsibilities. I could relate to a country-raised girl wanting a dog of her own, and not being able to have one. While I was only bullied once, I know from other kids what that felt like. And I know what it’s like to want something so bad, you’ll lie to get it (thinking you’re just doing what’s best).

Do you have any tips for authors also looking to write a story set in a historical time period?

Research, research, research. I studied how much things cost back in that time, what kids wore, what slang words were used, favorite foods and television shows, even what school subjects were taught. I couldn’t just go by memory, as I was always second guessing myself. When it was time to add elements of the Vietnam War, I wrote out what I wanted to know about the war and the troops and researched those questions. Once I had a good idea of what might have happened in some particular circumstances, I created a questionnaire and sent it to a couple of veterans who agreed to fill it out based on their time in the war. After that, when I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to put into my novel, I sent the questions and answers from the veterans to one more veteran, who helped me put it all into perspective. Whew! 

If your readers could take away one thing from your book, what do you hope it would be?

Remember to never give up. The task, or goal or wish, may seem insurmountable, but if you give up, it is. Instead, keep on trying, keep on reaching, keep on learning. Emily wanted a puppy of her own…I wanted to publish her story. I did. You’ll have to read the book to find out if Emily gets her puppy. Sorry!

Is there anything coming up for you? Any new ideas in the works? Where can readers find out more about you and your work?

I am pulling together ideas for the next MG book, tentatively titled: A Doggie Dilemma. I’m having fun with my grandson, who is helping with the plot line and challenging scenarios. I’m also finalizing a YA fantasy adventure. I’ve been rejuvenated since the publication of The Puppy Predicament.

You can find me at:



A little bit about the book:

Eleven year old Emily Hanover learns that her neighbor’s golden retriever had a litter of pups...mutt pups. When she finds out the neighbor doesn't want them, Emily is determined to rescue them and keep it a secret. She soon discovers that the puppies are loud, always hungry, and a whole lot of work. How is she going to keep them fed and keep them hidden? Emily takes on the challenge. And maybe, just maybe, if she does a good job, she can convince her parents to let her keep a pup for herself. Set in a small Michigan town in the mid-1960s, Emily learns how to stand up for herself, to be true to her commitments, and to never, ever give up.

A little bit about the author:

Rachel Anderson grew up on a farm in rural Michigan. On the farm they had cows, horses, pigs, chickens, a dog named Queenie, and many cats and kittens. And that is one reason she loves to include animals in her stories (even mutt puppies). Rachel likes to volunteer in the community with a local pregnancy resource center, and her church. She has been a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for many years. She is married to Craig, and they have 2 daughters and one grandson. She writes picture books, middle-grade, and YA. This is her first published novel.