Debbie Leland on Debbie Leland: “I was born in Kansas City, Missouri and moved to Texas when I was 15 years old. I fell in love with Texas, with the wildflowers, the beautiful sunsets, the y’alls and even the pointy-toed cowboy boots. It didn’t take me long to develop a good ol’ Texas drawl. I spent many hours as a child writing. It’s always been something I wanted to do.
“After I graduated from Texas A&M, I started teaching Physical Education. But when my children were young and I read to them every night, I remembered what I really wanted to do when I grew up was to be a writer. I started studying writing. I started writing. And just a few short ten years later after I got serious about writing, I published my first book, Aggie Goose Rhymes, illustrated by Ann Hollis Rife (Wildflower Run, 1998). Writing has been a dream come true for me. I’m still in College Station, and I’m still teaching, but in the library now as a librarian, and I’m still writing.”
I previously interviewed you in 2000, after the release of the Jalapeno Man (Wildflower Run, 2000). Since that time, you have published The Firegator (2002), The Little Prairie Hen (2003), and Daddy’s Love (2006), all with Wildflower Run and illustrated by Ann Hollis Rife. What was your initial inspiration for The Firegator?
The Children’s Museum of the Brazos Valley was moving into the old fire station in Bryan, Texas. A man named Charles Stasny, who was about 80 years old then, had lived in the basement of the fire station as a child. His father was the only paid firefighter in Bryan back then in 1929. Members of the Children’s Museum contacted me about doing a book about the “boy who grew up in the fire station.” I talked with Charles and he told me about two alligators that lived in the window well outside the station for about two weeks. That’s when I thought it would be fun to write a fictional story about the adventures of a boy and an alligator.
What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?
The spark was really more like a dud for a long time. It wasn’t until I thought of the word ‘firegator’ that things really started clicking. We were on a deadline because Mrs. Barbara Bush was the honorary chair for the fundraising effort for the museum. There was a dinner scheduled and the book was to be presented at the dinner. My illustrator, Ann Hollis Rife, would call me and politely ask, “So how’s it going? Got anything written that I can start thinking about?” She knew she had to do the art after I did the words, and it was getting late. It was a close call, the books were so hot off the press they were still smoking, but we made it just in time for the dinner.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?
I did a lot of research with the fire department to make sure that everything in the book was actually like it was in downtown Bryan at that time. I spent a lot of time in the library looking through articles to see what was happening in 1929. I ran across an article about a yo-yo record for the most yo-yos in a row. I love yo-yos, so I put a yo-yo scene in the book.
The Little Prairie Hen won the 2005 Texas Golden Spur Award, sponsored by the Texas State Reading Association. Congratulations! This book is a retelling. Could you tell us how you approach reinventing the story?
I was so excited about that award, as it was totally unexpected. After the success of The Jalapeno Man, I knew I wanted to do another retelling. I picked The Little Red Hen because I didn’t think it had been over retold. My friend asked me if I was going to use the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken in my book.
“The what?” I’d never heard of the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken. So I started researching. I love that little bird now. It is one of the most endangered birds in all of North America.
Once I settled on the bird as my character, I had my setting, a prairie. The other animals needed to be prairie animals as well. I talked with my illustrator, and she wanted me to pick characters that were different in size for artistic purposes. So I picked the buffalo, the horned toad and the prairie dog. Once I put them all at the county fair, the story just took off from there.
Daddy’s Love is your latest book. It’s more of a concept book than your previous, story-driven titles. How was the writing process different?
The writing process itself didn’t seem that much different–same pulling of the hair, and eating potato chips out of the bag–but it does seem more like poetry than story.
I always wanted to write one of those sweet “I love you” books, even though I don’t consider myself one of those sweet, “I love you” characters. But my father passed away from cancer and he wasn’t an “I love you” guy as many fathers from his generation weren’t. Then I had a friend who was an expectant father, who told me he wasn’t from an “I love you” family. He was loved, he knew he was loved, as I knew, but their family just didn’t say it. He was worried about being able to say “I love you” to his child. So I wanted to write a book, where a father could sit down and read to his child to say the words “I love you” over and over and feel comfortable. And since it had fathers, I decided that competition would be a good way to write this book, so Little Bear and Little Rabbit and their fathers go about seeing who loves who more. Ann’s art in this book is incredible.
I often hold you up as an example of a self-published author who can successfully compete critically and in terms of sales with authors from established literary trade houses. What is it that puts your books above not only other self-published titles but also those with major publisher backing?
I never started out to be a self-published author. As a matter of fact my author friends really wanted me to be sure I knew what I was getting into when I told them my plans.
My first book was Aggie Goose Rhymes, and I knew that there was no way a New York publisher was going to understand about the Texas Aggies and their market potential. So I was lucky in that I had a niche market up front. Otherwise, knowing what I know now, I would have been terrified trying to sell my books competing with trade houses.
The key to producing a good self-published book is much the same as one a major publisher would have: a good story; good art–not art from some neighbor or cousin who likes to draw, but from a professional; a well-produced quality book; and a lot of marketing strategies.
I was very fortunate in that one of the reps at Scholastic was an Aggie, and she knew how well Aggie Goose Rhymes would do in their book fairs. It was a major break for me when Aggie Goose Rhymes was sent a couple of books at a time throughout Texas in Scholastic Book Fairs.
I’ve done a lot of research, taken a lot of classes, spent many Saturdays in workshops to learn the craft of writing for children. I think my experience as a publisher has also helped me in my writing. I think about market and how I’d sell the book after I’ve written. I don’t just look at the book wearing the author’s hat but also wearing the publisher’s hat as well
What advice do you have for those considering or already involved in self-publishing?
www.scbwi.org for starters. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is one of the best organizations for people who want to write for children. That’s were I started.
The first thing you have to do is learn the craft or writing. You have to practice writing. You have to learn what there is to know about the publishing world and how it works. You have to read children’s books. Then after you have all that down, you have to learn about publishing.
You have to know that you will end up with boxes and boxes of books on your doorstep that will stay there until you sell them. People are most likely not going to come knocking on your door to buy them. You are the one who has to do it all. You have to get out to the bookstores, out the the conferences, out to the schools and sell, sell, sell.
You have to be prepared to be the bookkeeper, the sales rep, the author, the marketing expert, the everything. Most likely all of this in addition to your regular job and your family. But it can be done. And it is fun. It is rewarding to see your dreams come true.
You recently moved from teaching physical education to becoming a librarian. Congratulations on finishing your degree! What inspired you to make the move? What do you love about being a librarian?
I’ve always loved books and the library. When I was in eighth grade, I was a library assistant for one of my class periods. We had to write down a goal for what we wanted to do when we grew up. I wrote down that one day I wanted to walk over the the shelf in the library and pull out a book that I had written. I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to see kids come to the library and pull your books off the shelf and be so impressed that you, their librarian, wrote them. It just seemed like a perfect fit for me at this time in my life. After teaching Physical Education for over twenty years, what I like most about the library is being able to say, “Shhhh, this is the library. We need to be quiet in the library.”
What can your fans look forward to next?
I have written an beginning chapter book called, Snake on the Loose. One time we had this snake in the science lab that got loose in the school. The principal came over the intercom and said, “There’s a snake on the loose in the school.” At that time after I looked around and made sure there wasn’t a snake in they gym, I thought wow that would be a fun story to write someday. So finally this year I wrote it. I’d love to write some chapter books for my older friends in third, fourth, and fifth grade. So hopefully there are chapter books and more picture books on the way. I do have an idea for another retelling . . . coming soon.
Check out my bibliography of recommended picture books, author-illustrator interviews, and learn more about Texas authors and illustrators.