By Gayleen Rabakukk and Stephani Eaton
Elizabeth Brown is the debut author of Dancing Through Fields of Color, illustrated by Aimée Sicuro (Abrams, 2019), and Meera Sriram is the debut author of The Yellow Suitcase, illustrated by Meera Sethi (Penny Candy Books, 2019).
What first inspired you to write for young readers?
I always loved to write, and I wrote stories as a child, especially from fourth grade onward. I thought a lot about becoming a writer for children even while I was in high school, but ultimately, I did undergraduate and graduate degrees in music and became a professional violinist.
Once I started my career in music, the urge to be a writer kept calling me, so I took many classes and workshops for many years in different writing genres, including some in children’s book writing.
The desire to be a writer became so strong that I ultimately went back to school to do an MFA in Creative Writing.
When my daughter was born, I fell in love with children’s books all over again and worked on picture book manuscripts.
It’s amazing how “full circle” my journey to becoming a children’s book author has been. Being a part of the children’s book community has been so rewarding, and I look forward to what’s to come.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
I first learned about Helen Frankenthaler in a modern art history course in college. My professor emphasized her work in the course as Frankenthaler was one of the major abstract expressionists in the 20th century and she overcame the male-dominated art world at the time.
I was also inspired by the artwork my daughter did as a young child in preschool and that she still does now in art class in fifth grade. Many art programs and classes incorporate Frankenthaler’s soak-stain technique into young children’s art classes and education programs.
There is an art activity for children using Helen’s soak-stain technique in the back matter of the book which I hope children will try and be inspired by.
Overall, my true inspiration for writing the book came from my connection with Helen’s journey as a female creative, largely due to my own story as a violinist. Her story as a child artist resonated with my own story as a young child musician.
Helen’s story will hopefully inspire all children to create art, in whatever form they choose, and to be fearless in their creative pursuits.
In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with his or her representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher?
My agent is Sean McCarthy of Sean McCarthy Literary Agency. When Sean saw a pitch for my book, he requested the manuscript, and soon after, he requested additional manuscripts. Sean emailed me after he read them and said he wanted to talk about representation. Once we talked, I knew that he was the agent for me, and I accepted his offer of representation.
Sean sent Dancing Through Fields of Color out to ten editors, and we sold it in this first round of submissions. It was thrilling to get the call from Sean that Abrams made an offer. It’s been extremely rewarding to work with my editor and everyone at Abrams Books for Young Readers on this book.
Nothing feels better than holding your book in your hands for the first time, and I’m so happy that it’s out in the world for young readers everywhere. I hope Helen Frankenthaler’s artistic journey inspires children to embrace and love the art of creating and to find strength and resilience within themselves because of Helen’s story.
As an author-teacher/librarian/agent/publicist/editor, how do your various roles inform one another?
As a college writing teacher, helping my students through the process of writing (from idea through final draft), has allowed me to stay inspired in my own writing process. Encouraging students to see other ways to write their story, to re-envision their story, to tell it in the most powerful way but in a way that also resonates within themselves, keeps me fresh in how I approach my own work.
Teaching has greatly impacted my writing in so many positive ways, and I feel fortunate to be an author-teacher because of this. Knowing I am helping other writers strengthen their craft and being a part of their journeys as writers keeps me learning and growing as a writer, too.
What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?
If you’re a beginning children’s writer, enjoy this wonderful time for developing your craft and exploring your voice, reading and studying books, and experiencing all that the children’s book world has to offer! Soak up everything you can about writing and about the books that are being published today.
Attend classes and workshops, sign up for critiques, be a part of critique groups, become a member of SCBWI, and attend conferences.
Keep developing as a writer, no matter how long it takes. Master the craft of writing. Never stop learning and never stop improving your craft.
Believe in your stories and always be revising. Develop a love for revision. Try to always see other ways and possibilities to write your story because there are so many ways to tell one story.
Get comfortable with rejection, and create and continue writing, despite rejections.
Most of all, one must enjoy the process and keep envisioning success.
Be patient, and keep believing in yourself!
What first inspired you to write for young readers?
As a mom eager to read all sorts of stories to my kid, I searched for stories that included my children and for books on experiences beyond our own. However, I was disappointed by how the options were very limited. I felt that most bookshelves were sort of ‘single-dimensional.’ And I quickly grew tired of repetitive themes and over-familiar settings and characters.
I gravitated towards not so mainstream voices that had new stories to tell, and also stories set in other countries. Slowly, I realized I too had stories to tell, particularly those that could resonate with families like my own in the South Asian diaspora.
Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?
For several years before I started writing, I read many, many picture books, almost as excited as a kid! This was also because I did not have access to picture books while growing up in India.
I think I sort of developed the fundamental sensibilities of storytelling (in picture books) during this phase. I was also reviewing and blogging on diverse books at that time which prompted me to look deeper into the well-done ones. I guess reading, over years, led me to my own vision of what and how I wanted to write.
When I did write, I went on to co-author four books for children that were published in India between 2010 and 2013. They were mostly narrative nonfiction on marginalized groups and endangered ecosystems in the country. Looking back, most of my research skills were honed while working on these projects.
In January 2015, I registered with the Society of Children’s Books Writers & Illustrators and also attended my first ever critiquing session. I remember being overwhelmed that year by industry terms and names of agents, editors, and online forums.
Often, I had to take deep breaths and pull out my notepad. My critiquing partners played an important role in pointing me to resources and supporting my writing.
For two long years, I wrote and revised several manuscripts, studied and explored craft topics, and went to many workshops and conferences. I listened to critical feedback from both my writer buddies and professionals. But I also learned to process the feedback to decide on what to rework, while still holding on to the story I wanted to tell. I think finding this balance was important for polishing and getting manuscripts submission-ready.
What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?
The worst moments came with the nicest rejections. It seems ironic, but to me they were more painful than the outright rejections. Because I knew I was close, and yet I was so far.
The best moments were when I found my wonderful agent, Tracy Marchini, and also the perfect home, Penny Candy Books, for my story–both gave me a satisfying sense of validation for what I’d been doing for years. (See also, a Cynsations post from Tracy Marchini.)
What advice do you have for beginning children’s writers?
Be prepared for a journey that involves a lot of both writing and waiting. You’ll also have to dust yourself up only to try harder. This is challenging when most days are lonely and unrewarding.
But what helps is believing that your work is influential – whether it makes a kid laugh or cry or imagine or think – whatever it may be. Just believing that it is important and that your single-minded goal is to try to put the best version of it out is what the process is in the end.
Eventually, you will get there! Well, this is something I tell myself every day.
As a member of a community underrepresented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?
As people, we all grieve when we lose someone we love. However, how we mourn, offer respect, and remember our dear ones depends on our cultural context.
In The Yellow Suitcase, we see how a bicultural child struggles to make sense of everything beyond the heartbreak itself – her grief is intensified by funeral customs, people, and places she’s not familiar with. My story adds a layer to something universal (loss and grief). It tries to present a new perspective, from that of an immigrant family.
It also gives a fresh peek into the culture of India, one that goes beyond stereotypical associations of foods, holidays, and animals.
Elizabeth Brown’s debut picture book, Dancing Through Fields of Color: The Story of Helen Frankenthaler illustrated by Aimee Sicuro (Abrams, 2019). It’s a Junior Library Guild Selection for Spring 2019. She has additional forthcoming picture books and is represented by Sean McCarthy Literary. Elizabeth received her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and is a college writing teacher. She lives in the Chicago area with her family and their three cats. You can connect with Elizabeth on Twitter @ebrownbooks and her website: www.elizabethmbrown.com.
Meera Sriram grew up in India and moved to the United States at the turn of the millennium. An electrical engineer in her past life, she now enjoys writing for children, teaching early literacy, and advocating diverse bookshelves. Meera has co-authored several children’s books published in India, but makes her U.S. debut with The Yellow Suitcase. See the book’s teacher’s guide here.
She believes in the transformative power of stories and writes on cross-cultural experiences that often take her back to her roots. Meera currently lives with her husband and two children in Berkeley, California, where she fantasizes about a world with no borders.
Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. She’s worked with Cynthia Leitich Smith as a Cynsations intern since 2016 and also serves as assistant regional advisor for the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Gayleen is represented by Andrea Cascardi of Transatlantic Literary Agency.
Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.