Author Interview: Debbi Michiko Florence on China: A Kaleidoscope Kids Book


Debbi Michiko Florence on Debbi Michiko Florence: “I was born in San Francisco and raised in Los Angeles. My parents were also born in California. I am a third-generation Japanese-American.

“In college, I majored in zoology and minored in English. I volunteered as a raptor rehabilitator, interned as a zoo keeper’s aide, managed a pet store, did a short stint at the Humane Society, and worked as the Associate Curator of Education at a zoo. I have shoveled a lot of poop in my lifetime!

“As an adult, I’ve lived in California, Michigan, Mexico, Massachusetts, New York, China, and now I’ve come full circle and am very happy to be back home in California! Yes, I’ve been a bit of a wanderer, but I’ve finally found a place in the world as a children’s writer, and I’m thrilled! I’m in this for the long haul!

What were you like as a young reader?

I’ve always loved to read. My dad read to me when I was very young. I loved making him read Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss–and he was good at those tongue twisters. My mom took my sister and me to the library for weekly visits.

I read a lot and often in elementary school, but I read for pleasure less in junior high and high school. Part of it was due to the load of assignments, but to be truthful, much of it was probably due to my social life. (Okay, I was slightly boy-crazy.)

Why did you decide to pursue a career as a children’s writer?

I have always loved to write stories, even if I didn’t share them with others. It wasn’t until I married my husband Bob and moved for his job to Mexico City, Mexico; that I was gifted with the opportunity to do anything I wanted to do.

So after years of dreaming about it, I started writing. I wrote travel articles for a webzine and three of my short stories were published in small literary journals/magazines. All of it was exciting, but it wasn’t until I started writing a novel for teens that I felt a huge burst of passion.

Plus, I have had a lot of experience working with kids from when I did classroom visits as a raptor rehabilitator, worked as an outdoor educator, taught fifth grade, and worked in the education department of a zoo. It’s a great way for me to combine my love of writing and my experience with children.

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

It’s a long, bumpy road! I was lucky to connect early with the writing community through SCBWI and to have a wonderful mentor (thank you, Cyn, I’m forever grateful) to help me stay on the path. I also read voraciously on the craft of writing for children and about the business.

I wrote three novels for teens. The first one received a form letter rejection, and I promptly shelved it. The second two received a bunch of really nice personal letters from editors, but they were all rejections. One editor even called me to tell me how much she liked my writing, but also to tell me she had to pass on it.

It wasn’t until my fourth novel that I caught the attention of my agent, Jennifer DeChiara. I’m thrilled to be her client, and I absolutely adore her! She’s in the process of submitting my YA novel now.

While I was living in Shanghai, China (again for my husband’s job); an editor mentioned to an author friend with whom I’d been in a critique group in New York that she was looking for someone to write a children’s book on China. My friend told her about me and the editor got in contact with my agent. After I wrote up an outline for the editor, I was offered a contract! Talk about a lucky sprint!

Congratulations on the publication of China: A Kaleidoscope Kids Book (Williamson Books, 2008)! Could you tell us about it?

Thank you! This book has over 40 hands-on/minds-on activities that help children experience the history, language, arts, food, holidays, and wildlife of China. Kids will learn some Mandarin phrases and words, make dumplings, and use chopsticks. They’ll learn about China’s fascinating inventions like fireworks and the compass and they’ll “travel” to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.

I had a blast learning about all of these things and it’s exciting to be able to share them with kids. There are fun illustrations by Jim Caputo and color photographs (a few taken by me).

How did you come to write the book?

As I mentioned above, my friend, author Nancy Castaldo was speaking to an editor at Williamson Books. Nancy has written many great activity books about nature and the environment. When the editor mentioned her interest in a book on China, Nancy sang my praises as a writer and explained that I was living in Shanghai.

After a few conversations with the editor and after writing an outline, I was offered a contract! I think it helped that I had an agent and a background in education.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I spoke to the editor for the first time in April of 2006. I signed the contract in the fall of the same year. I researched and wrote the book, created activities to go with the text, and submitted the completed manuscript to my editor in January of 2007. I also had my daughter test all of the activities.

My editor sent me revision requests and edits throughout the spring. In June and then again in early fall, I read, proofed, and suggested changes to the manuscript. I believe the book went to print in mid-fall and the book was published and released in February of 2008.

Whew! It was all very fast for me!

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

The biggest challenge for me was that after years of studying children’s fiction, I knew very little about writing nonfiction. I had a crash course!

My book was to be the first Kaleidoscope Kids book in the series since Ideals bought Williamson Books, so while my editor sent me previously published books from the series to study, I understood that my book would have a completely different look and feel to it. I didn’t have a word count and other than my outline, no other guidance on what to write or how to write it. I was pretty much on my own! A very scary thing!

I wanted to make sure to get my facts right. I worried about that a lot. I was lucky that I was able to visit many of the places I wrote about. My Mandarin teacher helped me out tremendously by fact-checking my manuscript (particularly the Mandarin) and helping me interview kids in China for one section of my book.

I had the most fun and the easiest time coming up with the activities for the book. I had a lot of experience with that as an educator, particularly when for five years, I ran a successful summer camp at the zoo where I worked.

I over-researched and overwrote, but as my editor said, it was easier for her to cut text than have me add text. A big challenge for me was to pick and choose what I was going to write about, because there are so many fascinating things about China! My editor was very hands-on, and she did a great job of rearranging the text into kid-friendly chunks.

I’m very pleased with the end result, and I learned a lot from writing this book.

Do you work with a critique partner or group, with your agent or editor only? What is your approach, and how does it work for you?

I do a combination of all of the above. For my novels, I work with my writing group – the WWa WWas, Jo Knowles (author interview) and Cindy Faughnan.

We three have found the perfect chemistry and balance. We work together daily– logging onto a chat program and checking in every 15 minutes. We do not chit chat (although we might start or end our work day with chatter) and we’re very focused. Checking in every 15 minutes with word count (or whatever it is we’re doing) keeps us from goofing off, because we feel very guilty if we answer with, “Er, um, I was checking email/LiveJournal.” We started doing this while I was living in China (partly because I was so lonesome), and we found that it worked well for us.

We also exchange full manuscripts with one another. I have a couple of other critique partners that I was exchanging manuscripts with when the timing is right, but the WWa WWas are always my go-to group! There is zero jealousy between us. A success for one of us feels like success for all of us. At least once a year, we get together for a weekend writing retreat. (They live on the opposite coast from me.) I wish we could get together every weekend because they energize me!

I never submit to my agent until I feel my work is ready to be seen by an editor. My agent will let me know if it’s ready or if I need to work on it some more, but so far, with the exception of a few copy edits, I’ve not had to revise for her.

With the China book, I worked only with my editor and did not use my critique group. I showed a few early pages of my manuscript to Nancy Castaldo since she has a lot of experience writing these kind of books, and once she gave me the thumbs up, I wrote, revised, and sent to my editor. We went back and forth on revisions for about three months.

I also have a big support group of writer friends. We email and talk on the phone. We brainstorm, we commiserate, and we encourage. I couldn’t survive without the generosity and friendship of this writing community!

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

“Be patient and don’t compare yourself to others.” In fact, I still repeat those words to myself regularly.

You also have an active Web presence. Where and what can we find from you online?

I have a web site where I interview children’s authors regularly. I update the site at least once a month. You can also find information about me and my books there. My site was designed by the fabulous Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys.

I also have a blog on LiveJournal. It’s a mix of my writing life, my reading life, and my personal life. I also cheer on other children’s authors. I post almost daily! It’s hard to shut me up!

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Spend quality time with my family; read; watch TV or DVDs; take my dog, Trixie, for walks; meet up with friends for coffee or lunch; shop! I also love to travel with my family. Taking my daughter to Japan a couple of years ago was a huge highlight!

What can your fans look forward to next?

Japan: A Kaleidoscope Kids Book (Williamson Books) should be out summer 2009. It’s my second book for the series, and I’m very excited about it!