By Traci Sorell
Margaret Chiu Grenias
Margaret, tell us what got you started writing for children?
Like many writers, I loved reading as a kid. I’d haul grocery bags full of picture books home from the library to devour in one sitting.
After my first child was born, I read Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson (Harper & Brothers, 1955) for the first time as an adult. I was amazed and tickled by the creative wordplay. It stayed with me until I finally began to write my own picture books three years later.
What was that transition like going from beginner to published author?
Developing my craft has taken several years (and is still a work in progress).
Here are the resources I’ve used:
SCBWI: I joined SCBWI in 2010, and since then, I’ve attended several SCBWI craft-based workshops and conferences.
One wonderful workshop, taught by Caryn Wiseman of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, focused on character. Another workshop, offered by SCBWI Midsouth region with editor Alyson Heller, provided two editor critiques—one where Ms. Heller critiqued one manuscript, and then she critiqued the manuscript again after we’d had time to revise.
I’ve also taken advantage of conference critiques whenever possible (especially in-person critiques, which gave the opportunity to ask clarifying questions).
Critique groups: I found critique group feedback to be invaluable. Having more than one group enabled me to get fresh eyes on revised manuscripts.
Reading: I read about craft whenever I could:
- Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul (Writers Digest, revised ed. 2018);
- The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books by Linda Ashman (Amazon Digital, 2013);
- Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl Klein (Asterisk Books, 2011).
Online Craft-based Picture Book Writing Courses: These were a wonderful way to develop craft and develop a new manuscript with structure and accountability.
Freelance editors: When I could afford to, I hired a freelance editor who had previously worked for publishing houses I admired—especially when I felt my manuscript could still be improved but I wasn’t sure how. It was an excellent way to gain more advanced craft knowledge.
What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?
- Find a trusted support person or group: For critiques and emotional support.
- Read widely: Be sure to keep up-to-date on your genre by reading recently published books. The market changes and so the kind of books getting published changes with it.
- Don’t forget life: Take time away from writing to live life. That’s where inspiration comes from!
- Struggle is part of the process: The writing struggle is like exercise, which can be tough and painful, but in the end, we end up better for it!
I’m pleased to welcome Melissa Stoller, author of picture books and chapter books, and so much more! She contributes on so many different fronts within the field of children’s literature.
I live in New York City and take advantage of all the incredible museums nearby.
One day, while at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was standing in front of my favorite Impressionist paintings.
Specifically, as I gazed at a Monet, I thought, “What if I had a magic paintbrush and could paint like Monet?”
My mind filled with questions right there in the museum: What would I paint with such a brush? Would all the paintings be perfect? And what would happen if I ever lost the brush?
Thoughts of a magic paintbrush continued to push at my consciousness. And then broader themes of creativity and the search for perfection creeped in as well.
I wasn’t sure how I would put it all together, but I knew I had the spark of an idea that was worth pursuing.
Once you’d written the manuscript, how did you proceed to get it published?
I was already contracted with Spork, the children’s book imprint of Clear Fork Publishing, for my debut chapter book, The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection: Return to Coney Island, which published in 2017. It’s a time-travel adventure chapter book based on how my grandparents met on the Coney Island trolley.
At one point, my publisher Callie Metler-Smith and I were talking about art, and we realized that we both love Monet and the Impressionists. I pitched my work in progress: a picture book about a girl who paints perfect pictures with a magic paintbrush until the brush disappears and she must find her own magical creativity. Callie invited me to submit my manuscript, and I was delighted to sign a contract soon after!
Around the same time, I was taking classes and assisting Mira Reisberg, founder of the Children’s Book Academy (CBA). Mira became Editor and Art Director at Spork, and paired me with the brilliant illustrator Sandie Sonke. The collaboration process with Callie, Mira, and Sandie was seamless and wonderful!
And I have been lucky to view Impressionist art with Callie on two occasions: once at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and more recently, at the Met Museum, the very spot that started this entire picture book journey!
I too value the relationship building and collaboration that goes on with a publishing house. Beyond your experience there, what is your relationship to the broader children’s writing and illustration community?
I love being part of the children’s writing and illustration community! It’s such a warm and dedicated group of individuals who have stories in their hearts.
I think making connections is so important. I try to connect with other authors online and in person through conferences or other opportunities.
I volunteer with my local SCBWI/MetroNY group and co-chair a monthly write/sketch event where writers and illustrators get together for two hours each session to work and chat.
I love working on my blog, titled “This Writing Life: Stories, Creativity, Connection,” where I interview authors and illustrators and learn so much in the process.
I assist with the CBA classes, and I enjoy working with the other students in the courses.
And I’m an admin for their Debut Picture Book Study Group, where we read and discuss debut picture books, and chat with authors. It’s been so amazing to connect with so many creatives along the way.
Also, I belong to several critique groups. The give and take in these groups is fabulous. The bonds I have made with fellow KidLit community members, including critique partners, Clear Fork Publishing authors and illustrators, and the Epic Eighteen group of debut authors and illustrators, has been so helpful as I navigate the children’s book world.
And lately I’ve been doing school visits and I love connecting with children. Their questions and insights are incredible. I can’t wait to do more!
I know all of this work keeps you very busy! What advice would you share with those just beginning their writing journey?
My advice to beginning children’s book writers is simple: Observe, study, write, and connect.
I try to constantly observe the world around me, because ideas are everywhere. My children are tired of hearing me say quite often, “Now there’s an idea for a picture book!”
I study the craft of writing for children by reading as many children’s books as I can. I mostly read picture books, but I also read in other genres such as chapter books and middle grade.
I also study craft through taking classes, workshops, and webinars; attending conferences; and reading books about the craft of writing.
A fool-proof way to improve writing is by continuing to write and revise, and to work with critique groups.
And I think it’s vital to connect with the KidLit community. Writing can be a solitary business, and it’s helpful to know that there are other people out there who are creating just as you are and also looking for connection.
And my final piece of advice: if you have a story to tell, don’t give up! Keep going!
She grew up in New York, Texas, and California, moving east to west.
She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, three children, and a fluffle of dust bunnies, and is represented by Sean McCarthy Literary Agency.
Melissa Stoller is the author of the chapter book series, The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection – Book One: Return to Coney Island (2017) and Book Two: The Liberty Bell Train Ride (2019), and the two 2018 picture books, Scarlet’s Magic Paintbrush and Ready, Set, GOrilla! illustrated by Sandy Steen Bartholomew, all published by Spork/Clear Fork Publishing.
She is also the co-author of The Parent-Child Book Club: Connecting With Your Kids Through Reading (HorizonLine Publishing, 2009).
Melissa is an assistant for the Children’s Book Academy, a Regional Ambassador for The Chapter Book Challenge, an Admin for The Debut Picture Book Study Group, and a volunteer with SCBWI/MetroNY.
Melissa has worked as a lawyer, legal writing instructor, freelance writer and editor, and early childhood educator. Melissa lives in New York City with her husband, three daughters, and one puppy.
When not writing, she can be found exploring NYC with family and friends, traveling, and adding treasures to her collections. You can connect with Melissa via her website or on Facebook, Twitter Instagram and Pinterest.
Traci Sorell covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She also covers fiction and nonfiction picture books.
She is the author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018), a 2019 Sibert Medal Honor and 2019 Orbis Pictus Honor award-winning nonfiction picture book with four starred reviews.
Her forthcoming works include: At the Mountain’s Base illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, Sept. 17, 2019); Indian No More, a historical fiction middle grade novel co-authored with the late Charlene Willing McManis (Tu Books, fall 2019); and Powwow Day illustrated by Marlena Miles (Charlesbridge, April 21, 2020).
Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and lives in northeastern Oklahoma, where her tribe is located. She is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency. Follow Traci on Twitter and Instagram.