Picture Books, Uncategorized

Interview with Alayne Kay Christian


Everyone’s creative spark can be lit at different times and places. For example, Alayne Kay Christian was a writer all of her life, but it wasn’t until the birth of her granddaughter that she was inspired to create a picture book. Recently Alayne took time out of her busy schedule to chat with me about her creative process, the ins and outs of publishing and also her amazing agent (and mine!) Erzsi Deak.

How did you decide to become a writer and a publisher?

I have written most of my life. When my long-distance granddaughter was born, I wanted her to always feel close to Grandma and Grandpa even across the miles. So, for her second birthday, I wrote and illustrated a book for her. The book was titled CLOSE TO YOU. Each person at the birthday party who read the book, ended up with tears welling in their eyes and saying, “You have to publish this.”
Their reactions and comments were wonderful compliments. An even bigger compliment was my husband pushing me to try to get the book published. My husband was really the one who decided to become a publisher – that’s just the kind of guy he is. After a year of pushing me to try to get my book published, I told him that I didn’t know the first thing about getting a picture book published. He said, “I’ll publish it.” He up and started a publishing company because that’s the kind of guy he is 😉 Last year, he did a guest post on my blog titled WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE A PUBLISHER? He didn’t cover everything, but he painted a pretty good picture of what it took for him to achieve this challenge.
By the time the editors, illustrator, and book designer were done, my book was quite different from my original handmade book, and the title had changed to BUTTERFLY KISSES FOR GRANDMA AND GRANDPA.
As for me, once the book arrived and the impressive reviews and awards starting pouring in, I was hooked. I had to learn more about the kid lit industry, and I was driven to write, and write, and write some more.

Where did you grow up and how did where you grew up shape your writing?

I grew up in the city of Chicago, Illinois. Although, I have some stories in the back of my mind that are inspired by where and how I grew up, I don’t think, so far, that the actual place has shaped my writing. I do think growing up in the city shaped me as a person, and my writing comes from me, so there is that. However, I believe that spending time in the country as a child shaped me equally. Each summer, as a child, my family went to stay on my grandparents’ farm in Minnesota. I tend to think that my experiences in the country shape my writing most. Exploring the countryside, fishing the lakes, playing in the river, smelling the barn . . . I could go on for days. These experiences filled me with a love for nature and a sense of freedom that remains with me. I think the last line of the bio on my book jacket sums it up pretty well. “Alayne’s writing shares the creative spirit and kinship with nature that organically resides in her heart.” I think I was born with that creative spirit and kinship with nature, but I believe my days in the country as a child brought them to life. They organically reside in my heart. As an adult, being in the country or having any opportunity to be with nature or in wide-open spaces feeds my soul and renews my creative spirit.
What has changed in your life since your picture book Butterfly Kisses for Grandma and Grandpa was published?
Because my book has been quite successful, by independently published standards, I am much more confident in my knowledge and ability to write, submit, and publish. Also the experience lead me down a path of taking classes, reading books, and learning from other’s in the writing/publishing industry. I now know how to go about submitting my work to agents and editors. I also know how to publish a high quality book, market a book, and work with distributors. I know what it feels like to read my words to a group of children and see their excitement and joy. I know what it feels like to have my mother call and tell me that my book is in her library system. I know what it feels like when my book shows up in my own library system, and my granddaughter thinks I’m famous because of it. I know what it’s like to hear an excited granddaughter tell me her library now has her grandma’s book on the shelf, and BUTTERFLY KISSES FOR GRANDMA AND GRANDPA will be featured in her neighborhood’s bookmobile. I’ll step away from the hearts and flowers and move on to some other ways things have changed for me. I now have an agent. I signed with the fabulous Erzsi Deak, Hen&ink Literary Studio, late last year. I belong to a huge and supportive writing community, which includes SCBWI and 12 x 12. I belong to critique groups. I’m branching out from picture books into early chapter books. I have a blog, and I have founded groups to support other writers. I do everything I can to help other writers, so that they never have to say, “I don’t know the first thing about getting a picture book published.”

How has being a mother and grandmother changed you as a writer?

As I mentioned above, my writing career really started with the birth of my long-distance granddaughter. The same week we agreed to leave Chicago and move to North Carolina, we also learned our daughter was pregnant. The emotions I felt lead me to writing my first picture book. I’ve carried numerous picture book ideas with me for many years, but I’m not sure that I would have ever written a picture book if not for my granddaughter. I’m pretty excited about writing chapter books that she can read now that she’s older. It is a perfect next step.
On my website for BUTTERFLY KISSES FOR GRANDMA AND GRANDPA, I offer my story MAKING PEACE WITH BEING A LONG-DISTANCE GRANDPARENT. I share my experience and the thought process that inspired the book.
What is a normal “writing” workday like for you?
One of my favorite parts of my writing workday is to lie in bed in the morning and think. I get story ideas. I solve story problems. I fill in story plots. I believe that is when I’m most connected to my creative spirit. After fifteen to thirty minutes of connecting time, I am ready to go. I spend several hours writing, revising, reading, studying, or whatever is on my agenda for that day. I take a break to exercise, run errands, and have lunch. I write a couple more hours in the afternoon and take a break to do a little around the house. If there is time, I do writing related tasks for a few more hours before dinner.

Describe some of the books and authors who have influenced you as a writer.

Tammi Sauer has influenced me because of her rapid success. I’m sure it doesn’t feel rapid to her, but in my eyes, it’s like boom, boom, boom – book, book, book. Tammi first caught my attention at the 2011 SCBWI North Texas conference where I heard her speak. I took her breakout sessions, and I sat with her at lunch. She never failed to impress. I believe three of her picture books were released that year. Since the conference, another seven Tammi Sauer picture books have been released. She reads and speaks to massive crowds of children year round. It is just plain fun to watch her career. She inspires me, and I think there is much to be learned from her and her works.
I am also impressed with Kathryn Otoshi and her successful, independent published books: ONE; ZERO; and soon to be released TWO. She and her books are proof that quality independent published books and their authors and illustrators warrant respect and recognition.
Up and coming picture book authors that influence me are:
Corey Rosen Schwartz –
Soon to be released NINJA RED RIDING HOOD.
Tara Lazar – THE MONSTORE and her upcoming book (2015) I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK.
Studying the books and the journeys of each of the above authors offer a different learning experience. They are all great inspirations to me.
Believe me, there are many other authors who inspire or influence me than those I mentioned above. And there are far too many books to even begin trying to mention them all. I limited my answer to the first several authors or books that popped into my mind.
I wanted to talk about chapter books and books on writing, but I think I already took up too much space with the above. Maybe another day.

What are you working on now?

My top priority is to convert some picture books to early chapter books. In addition, I have a goal to get some sellable picture book manuscripts in Erzsi’s hands, so she can start getting some of my work out there. I am also brewing new picture books and polishing old manuscripts. I’m working on taking advantage of a couple unused rooms in my home and making one room my writing space and the other my brainstorming, thinking, and meditating space. And just to shake up my creativity, I’m also planning on doing a few character sketches and going back to some old-fashioned handwritten manuscripts.

You can learn more about Alayne Kay Christian on her website
http://www.alaynekaychristian.com and purchase her wonderful picture book online or at your favorite local bookstore

butterfly kisses cover


Interview with Kate Banks



Summer is over and everyone is home from their travels. But not Kate Banks, prolific and award-winning author for children and young adults. An expat for most of her adult life, Ms. Banks now lives near the Italian border in southern France. A few weeks ago, Ms. Banks and I had the opportunity to chat about her writing life and how her environment, be it Menton, France or Maine, USA, influences and impacts her writing. 


Where did you grow up and where do you live now?


I grew up in Maine and graduated from Wellesley College and Columbia University.  I worked in the children’s book department of Alfred A. Knopf, and at the National Geographic Society before moving to Rome in 1988 where I lived for 9 years.  Home is now in Menton, a small city close to the Italian border in southern France.



How has where you live and have lived influenced your writing?


As a child I was a keen observer of nature and wildlife, and growing up in Maine I had plenty of opportunity to spend time in the woods, at the seashore, in the mountains.  This dialogue with nature has accompanied me through adulthood and it’s an important theme running through many of my books.  THAT’S PAPA’S WAY, THE GREAT BLUE HOUSE, A GIFT FROM THE SEA all hearken back to experiences I had as a child.  I think that getting children to explore and engage in their natural habitat can help them to understand their place in the world, not only as residents, but as part of a big beautiful whole.


I’ve spent most of my adult life in Europe and meeting new people and seeing new things has been both challenging and inspiring.  The challenges have helped me grow as a person and that, in turn, has nurtured and instructed my writing.  Most of the settings for my stories come from places where I’ve lived or visited.  DILLON DILLON was my summer house in Camden Maine and FRIENDS OF THE HEART takes place in and outside of Rome.  THE CAT THAT WALKED ACROSS FRANCE details the journey of a cat from the Riviera north to Normandy.  And CITY CAT which is due out in November chronicles the journey of another cat—a stray– who follows a family on a European holiday. 



What is a normal writing workday like for you?


I have a loose routine in that I write for a few hours every morning.  Afternoons are devoted to my work as a therapist and healer.  I am a nomad and move from room to room in my house.  Sometimes I’ll go out and work at a coffee bar.  I always have notebooks in my bag and am ready to take down an idea or a thought wherever I am.  Oftentimes this happens at night and I’ll wake up and flick on the light just long enough to take a few notes.  My husband has long grown accustomed to this.  I write wherever I go—in airports, while on holiday.  New places and movement seem to keep the flow going. I usually have several projects in the works at any one time. I like to wake up and know that I don’t have to return to the same thing I was doing the day or days before.  I tend to get bored laboring over a single story week after week, month after month.  So I jump around a lot.  That enables me to distance myself from each project and go back to it again and again with a fresh eye.  And if I’m stuck on one project I put it aside and move on to something else.  If nothing works, then I play the piano, or try a new recipe.  I’m always planning future books and I have many ideas in the cupboard.  Some I put aside for months, even years.  Some may never be realized but that’s okay.  It’s all part of what I do.



As a successful writer of picture books, what do you think of the increasingly shorter word counts in picture books?


I remember about ten years back there was a push for longer picture books.  It didn’t last long.  I expect it will be the same with this trend.  I’ve written picture books with few words and with many words and I wouldn’t generalize about suitable length.  A story can be told in a few words or in many, but in a picture book there needs to be the right balance among illustrations, words, and the reader’s imagination.  I personally pay no attention to word count until a story is written.  And my experience is that a story usually finds its own length.  I also pay no attention to word count when I buy a book. 



Who are your favorite writers and why?


I grew up with Robert McCloskey’s books.  TIME OF WONDER took place near my summer house in Maine where we had blueberry fields just like Sal (BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL).  I loved Margaret Wise Brown’s THE RUNAWAY BUNNY and GOODNIGHT MOON.  Virginia Burton’ THE LITTLE HOUSE was a favorite as was MIKE MULLIGAN’S STEAM SHOVEL.  When I was able to read by myself I devoured the Mother West Wind Stories and THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS.  I love Thoreau and Wordsworth and Tolstoy and Chekov.   And I read a lot of science and medical literature for my work as a therapist.  

There are too many favorites to mention them all.  But what I respond to are books that demonstrate a sensibility to place and character and manage to convey a quiet wisdom.  Often beneath their words are the greater truths of our being—much bigger ideas than appear on the surface.  I find it almost magical when a book is able to speak to me beyond its boundaries of page and length. 


What advice would you give aspiring writers?


Aspiring writers should be readers.  Reading nurtures a sensibility to the tools of the trade—words and language–in the same way that a painter needs to be familiar with his palette and brushes.  Writers should also be familiar with their audience and have something to say to them.   Workshops and formal instruction can convey and refine technique. That said, the most important advice I can give to a writer is to find your own voice.  And that is more likely to be present in your inner world than anywhere outside of you.  For me, this required taking the time to sit quietly in a state of listening and receptivity—shutting out advice and chatter, and seeing what emerged from my own self.  I am struck by how these days we don’t seem to be able to do anything without coaching—from breathing and eating, to relationships and work.  There are so many people out there telling us how to live our lives, to be successful, happy, and on it goes. I, for one, think there’s something to be said about discovery and experience–allowing life to unfold on its own.  And I would apply this same philosophy to writing.  Be proactive, but don’t forget to take the time to sit back and just see what happens.  Because that’s the space of true inspiration and surprise.


What are you working on now?


I am currently working on a YA novel which originated from my work as a regression therapist.  I also have a few picture books ideas in the works in various stages. 


Where can your fans find you?


I am rarely in the States but when that happens I am available for book signings and school visits.  I also visit classrooms worldwide on SKYPE.  This fall I hope to be in New York and Boston in October.   My new picture book CITY CAT is out in November, and I urge you all to take a look at the trailer: 






You can find all of Kate’s books online or at your favorite local bookstore.



Interview with Vicky Shiefman




Vicky Shiefman fell in love with books and learning from her very first days at nursery school. From the start of her time at City and Country, a private school in suburban Detroit, she knew that education would shape her world as a child, as well as an adult. Fast forward years later and now Vicky is a teacher and published author specializing in children’s books and articles for the education market. Still moved by the themes of her early life, Vicky continues to teach, write and learn along with her students. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Vicky about some of her favorite authors and her advice for writers just starting out.


Where did you grow-up and where do you live now? 

I grew up in Detroit, MI.  I now live in New York, NY.  

What is a normal “writing” workday like for you?  

It varies so much.  I rarely sit down at my desk unless I know approximately what I’m going to say.  When I’m stuck, I may go to the library or take a nap or go for a walk to go into that zone where I contact my unconscious.  Then I sit down and type away.

You’ve written for all types of audiences. How does your writing process differ as your audience changes?  

I have to picture a young child, if it’s a picture book or middle school kids I know or was if it’s upper middle grade and write or talk to those children or child.

I was a full-time teacher when I sold my first children’s book.  My second, M IS FOR MOVE, actually used many of the children in my first/second grade class in the photographs.  Did working with children of many more than 50 countries (I stopped counting years ago) change my writing?  Not as much in obvious ways as I would have thought. When I wrote about kids from other countries in my class, I only knew them in one way, as students, so the stories weren’t real enough but I do think they inspired me to want to write about immigrants (like my grandmother, my third book) and people going from one culture to another, something I had been interested in since college, where I majored in linguistics as part of anthropology.

Who are your favorite writers and why?  

Harriet Beecher Stowe her UNCLE TOM’S CABIN changed history for the better,  Jane Austen paints a very vivid and authentic picture of her little world, Naguib Mafouz  draws an amazing cast of characters in turn of the 20th century Egypt that draw you into his world and make you want to stay for more,  Rachel Kushner’s new book, THE  FLAMETHROWERS, is just amazing, Margaret Wise Brown created picture book little stories that will last forever, Sarah Dessen captures teenage angst and desire and oversensitivity perfectly, Ellen Hopkins excels in portraits with few works but deep feelings that right true, Ruth White is the best middle grade writer, such great characters and story telling that touch my heart, Meg Rosoff’s HOW WE LIVE NOW is close to perfect.

What advice would you give aspiring writers? 

It’s not easy to enter this field but if you really really really want to write for children, don’t let anything stop you.  Join SCBWI, go to conferences, workshops, critique groups, network, read, read, read, read, read, read.  It is possible.

What are you working on now? 

I’m working on a picture book about a turning point in a deservedly famous American’s life that hasn’t been told for young children. Another project is about a spiritual awakening of a girl about to have her Bat Mitzvah.

Be sure to check out Vicky’s website at www.vickyshiefman.com. All of Vicky’s books are available at your favorite online bookstore or an indie bookstore near you!


Interview with M.G. King

When M. G. King was growing up in southern Indiana on the Ohio River she fantasized about being like her public librarian and driving a rusty bookmobile through snow. And if she managed to chase off neighborhood bullies so children could check out her books, all the better. Inspired by her bookmobile dreams, M.G. penned the picture book Librarian on the Roof! that tells the true story of Rose Aleta Laurell, the brave librarian who climbed the fifty-foot roof of the oldest library in Texas. Ignoring vertigo and violent Texas weather, Ms. Laurell spent a week on the roof , collecting over $40,000 in donations to improve the children’s section and to bring computers and public internet access into her rural, bilingual community. Recently I caught up with M.G. and we discussed her writing schedule, her inspirations and advice for new authors.


Where did you grow-up and where do you live now?

I grew up in southern Indiana, scooping up minnow in mayonnaise jars out of the Ohio River. Now I live in the Piney Woods just north of Houston, Texas, among flocks of house-trim eating woodpeckers.

What is a normal “writing” workday like for you?

I wake up at 4 am. No joke! Without an alarm, almost every day. I try to write at least 500 words before everyone else gets up. By seven everyone is tromping through the house searching for sneakers and homework, the phone starts ringing, and the dog is begging for a walk. Productivity goes downhill from there. Sometimes the muse hangs on for longer. I can get so focused on the story in front of me that I tune out everything else and I don’t even need to eat. That happens a couple times a year. Right now, writing is mostly a hard slog between interruptions. But that’s a deliberate choice — my kids are at the age where they still think it’s fun to have mom around. I don’t want to miss out. All too soon, I’ll have more time to focus on writing.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Being with my kids and their friends helps me see the world from their point of view — what they find funny or frightening or fascinating. I also read widely. Fiction, nonfiction, every genre, every age range. The world is filled with ideas and words and images, all waiting to be turned into stories.

What has been your biggest writing challenge?

I’ve learned a lot about failure. Traditional publishing is a highly competitive business, and every step is paved with more “nos” than “yeses.” Every day is a choice to give up or work harder. I choose to write because there is joy in creativity, even when there are no guarantees.

Who are your favorite writers and why?


Too many to name! Recent favs would include the whimsical Ingrid Law (Savvy, Scumble); for boys, I adore Gary D. Schmidt (Wednesday Wars, Okay for Now) — his prose is funny and honest, and doesn’t condescend to flat stereotypes. I love the poetic style of Kate DiCamillo, and the intelligence of Trenton Lee Stewart (The Mysterious Benedict Society series).

What advice would you give aspiring writers?

Read a lot. Read out loud. Hear the way the words flow, or don’t flow. Write even more. The American crime writer John D. MacDonald was credited with the famous statement that you have to write a million words to find your own unique voice.

What are you working on now?


I love to dabble in both picture books and novels for tweens. Right now I’m working on a seaside puzzle mystery (think The Westing Game, with sand and sapphire crabs) and a picture book biography for math lovers.

Do you have any upcoming appearances or events?

Not right now. I’m wrapping up school and Skype visits for the year, and hunkering down to focus on my writing for awhile. You can always find me on my website www.mgking.us/.

M.G. King’s books are available either in local bookstores or any online bookseller.


Interview with Varsha Bajaj

The world’s most populous democracy is the subject of award-winning author Varsha Bajaj’s latest picture book T is for Taj Mahal. In the book, Varsha combines her talent for rhyme and measure with a veritable encyclopedia of information about India. A transplant of India herself, I visited with Varsha recently about her beautiful native country, picture books and comfort food.

India is such a huge and diverse country. How did you choose which aspects to highlight in your new book?

The size and diversity of India did make writing the book quite daunting. I grew up in India and wanted very much to portray it accurately. I made an effort to include aspects of India’s history, geography, and government as well as its popular culture, food and dress. I wanted to be sure to include facts that kids would find interesting. For example, B is for Bollywood highlights the movie industry and C is for Cricket describes India’s favorite sport. As I wrote the book I considered myself a tour guide to India!

The book is written in both poetry and prose. Is one type of writing easier for you than the other?

Both are difficult, but I feel more comfortable writing in prose. I love poetry and rhyme but I wish it were easier to write. Rhythm and rhyme is appealing and fun but can also be constraining.

You’ve written both picture books and longer fiction. Which genre is your favorite to write in at the moment?

I tackle more than one project most of the time. I like to go back and forth between different stories. Some days are novel kind of days and other days I love the challenge of a picture book. So, I really can’t choose. It would be like picking my favorite child. Today, I am deep in the throes of my novel but tomorrow will be a whole new day!

Recently, the New York Times ran an article stating that the picture book genre was “dead”. Do you agree? Why or why not?

That article caused so much angst to so many writers, including me. I don’t think the picture book is dead. But it is harder to sell a picture book today than it was in the 1980’s. They are expensive to produce and in a tough economy it is difficult to sell a $20 picture book. But I believe there will always be readers for a good picture book. After all, a good picture book is a work of art.

What are your three favorite things about India and why?

I love Indian food. For me it is comfort food. The zing of a well made curry makes life worth living. I love the warmth and simplicity of Indian people. They welcome you with a genuineness that makes you feel at home. I grew up listening and learning Indian music and could not imagine life without it.

What events do you have scheduled for the book launch?

I’m scheduling events now! Watch my website and children’s literature blogs for more information! The Houston SCBWI conference bookstore in April will carry the book as well as local bookstores and online. It’s also being featured in a sourcebook that will reach thousands of librarians across Texas.

You can learn more about Varsha by checking out her website at www.varshabajaj.com or follow her on Twitter @varshabajaj.



This interview appeared in the HOUSTON BANNER newspaper, March 2011 edition.