New Voices: Vivian Elbee & Hannah Holt on Persistence

By Traci Sorell

Today we’re chatting with picture book authors Viviane Elbee and Hannah Holt, both members of the Epic Eighteen debut group.

Viviane Elbee

Viviane Elbee, debut picture book author of Teach Your Giraffe to Ski (Albert Whitman, 2018), crafts a story that according to Kirkus Reviews “conceals a how-to for conquering one’s fears.”

Illustrated by Danni Gowdy and told in second person, the book features a headstrong giraffe eager to hit the big slope and not the bunny one, trailed by a cautious young child.

Viviane, while I’m curious to hear how you came to write this book. Let’s start with what first inspired you to write for young readers.

I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing, but when I had my first child I fell in love with board books and picture books. Babies are so adorable holding books, staring at the pages, and trying to flip pages. (Okay, sometimes babies also chew on books.)

My kids have gotten older, but we still enjoy our reading times together and have discovered so many fantastic picture books. So, I’ll say storytime with the kids inspired me.

Okay, now tell me how this story came about.

I got the idea for a ski story during my family’s very first ski trip, which coincided with the Winter Olympics. My kindergartner and preschooler helped pack, so a menagerie of stuffed animals joined us on the trip.

During the day the kids would learn to ski, and in the evening, we would watch the Olympics while stuffed animal “ski champions” slid down pillows and leapt through the air.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

Little, Brown Young Readers

While studying second person point of view, I read several of author-illustrator Elise Parsley’s Magnolia Says Don’t! series books from Little, Brown: If You Ever Want to Bring a Circus to the Library, Don’t! (2017); If You Ever Want to Bring a Piano To the Beach, Don’t! (2016) and If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don’t! (2015).

I also read How to Babysit a Grandma (2014) and How to Babysit a Grandpa (2012) books by Jean Reagan and illustrated by Lee Wildish from Knopf. And finally, I studied Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri (Dial, 2012). In addition to all being written in second person point of view, these books are quite humorous.

When I started revisions with editor Annie Nybo, some of the jokes I had initially included were cut.

I needed to find other ways to include humor, and one of the books I turned to was Princess Peepers Picks a Pet by Pam Calvert, illustrated by Tuesday Mourning (Marshall Cavendish, 2011). Peepers says things like “Fairy Dust!” and “Holy fireball!” and “Stinky troll’s feet!” These expressions were funny and added a lot of character, so I thought about ways to incorporate fun expressions in my book too.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?

Though snow sports are traditionally associated with Europeans and Canadians, I wanted to show that snow sports are for everyone. Ski resorts are present on all major continents, including Asia, Africa, Australia and South America.

In addition to having animals from different continents, the illustrations show an Asian-American boy. Hopefully the idea that snow sports are for everyone will come across thanks to the illustrations.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

It helps to be positive, prolific and persistent.

Staying positive is so important, but it can be tough sometimes. It’s great if you’ve got a supportive, encouraging and understanding community to turn to. I would highly recommend joining a critique group. Sometimes you’ll need to search a bit to find critique partners that are a good match for you, but it’s worth it, and it’s usually free. Some critique groups are online and others meet in person.

You can also join professional organizations, such as SCBWI and 12×12–they organize events, provide information, and are very helpful.

(Other things that can help with staying positive include going out for walks and exercise, doing yoga or meditation, taking a break to enjoy hobbies, or eating favorite foods.)

Being prolific comes naturally to some people, but for others, it’s a learning curve. Setting aside time for creativity and setting writing goals helped me improve, though I’m still working on this!

There’s a ton of rejections in publishing, so producing a lot of quality work increases your chances of publication.

Viviane’s writing space at Barnes & Noble

Persistence is also important, because publishing is slow and getting an offer can take years. Just keep going, one step after another.

Small steps include things like writing down a new idea. Writing a page or two. Writing a first draft. Revising. Getting your manuscript critiqued and then revising again. Submitting to one place, and then to another. These small steps add up, and in the long run, you’ll get there.

The past year I started planning writing meetings with an author/illustrator friend of mine–we meet at Barnes & Noble, get coffee, and work together.

There are many benefits to meeting up with a writing friend–it holds you accountable, it makes writing less lonely, and when you’re “stuck” you can discuss your manuscript problem with someone. If you’ve got a writer friend nearby this is something I’d recommend, too!

Hannah Holt

According to Booklist’s starred review, Hannah Holt’s The Diamond & The Boy, is “a gem of a biography.” Her debut picture book, illustrated by Jay Fleck and published last fall by Balzer & Bray, tells the story of her grandfather, Tracy Hall, who invented a machine that turned graphite into diamond. It also received acclaim on two Fuse 8 lists for Top Nonfiction Picture Books and Unique Biographies.

Hannah, I’d love to hear how you got started on this path to being a published author.

One Christmas during graduate school, my husband and I didn’t have money for presents.

However, we had pens, pencils, and paper, so I drew comics for family members.

The comic books were simple and rushed to meet the Christmas deadline. Even so, I enjoyed the process.

It made me wonder: what could I create if I gave myself a year to make a children’s book?

A year turned into a decade, and what started as gifts of necessity transformed into a career.

How did you take your writing from simple comics to publishable picture books?

I came to this profession with no experience or connections. In fact, I started by googling, “How do you publish a children’s book?”

That took me to Harold Underdown’s site and a list of recommended reading.

I read craft books, current picture books, and drafted my first dummy.

A sketch from Hannah’s first dummy, used with permission.

Soon, I joined a local critique group and created more books. Making book dummies really slowed down the process of creating. At the time, young children monopolized most of my day. I realized I could either bring my art or writing up to the professional level but probably not both.

I simply didn’t have the stamina to do it all.

I chose writing for practical reasons. It was easier to edit manuscripts at the park while watching children than it was to paint. Also my children had a habit of “finishing” any drawings they found lying around.

One of Hannah’s spreads that was “completed” by her children, used with permission.

So, I became a writer.

I worked early in the morning and late at night for about five years before signing with an agent.

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher?

After reading my first book on publishing, I knew I wanted an agent.

My joy was in writing, researching, and creating—not contracts, negotiation, and following the ins-and-outs of publishing houses.

My first year of writing, I looked up the top-selling picture book agents and queried a dozen of them. In hindsight, this was pretty naive. My work wasn’t submission ready yet and even if it had been, querying well established agents isn’t likely to result in an offer of representation.

Acceptance rates for newer agents might be as high as one or two in a hundred queries, while established agents might only sign one in a thousand.

After being roundly rejected on my first query attempt, I put my energy into creating new work. I also started researching newer agents at established agencies. I looked for ones with tastes matching my work.

My queries started getting nibbles, and eventually I signed with an agent. I was sure my first agent and I would ride off into the publishing sunset together!

We didn’t.

As she took on more clients, her response times became slower and slower.

After a year together, we parted ways. I started querying agents all over again, but now I was looking for agents with tastes matching my work and a working style suiting my needs.

After another year of querying, I signed with my second agent. Oh, heavens! It was amazing.

She answered questions within 24-hours and turned around picture book manuscript feedback in less than two weeks.

We also sold two books our first year together. Now, I was ready to ride off into the publishing sunset and live happily ever after.

Only, we didn’t.

During our second year together, she left agenting to pursue her own writing.  I briefly had another agent at that same agency who represented my work, but I wanted to be with an agency more exclusively focused on children’s literature.

I hope to stay with my current agent, Jennifer March Soloway with Andrea Brown Literary Agency, for the rest of my career. I hope to make more books with the houses publishing my previous books. However, the only thing I can control is the work I put in year after year.

I feel fortunate to write for children for a living, and I’m happy to journey through whatever bumps lie ahead.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

The first thing that came to mind was the importance of research and treating your writing like a business, but I have a feeling I’d be preaching to the choir.

Anyone reading this blog probably already goes the extra mile.

Instead, I’ll leave you with this: Don’t be afraid to dream big crazy dreams. As writers, we know the importance of escape for readers, and a little escape is good for us, too.

Imagine! Daydream! Fantasize! See yourself on the bestseller list. Wave your hand and sign that huge publishing contract.

Philomel, 2019

For the longest time, I dreamed of the day I would sign a contract with a Big Five publisher.

Naturally, I would sign at a fancy restaurant with my husband. We’d be smiling, clinking our glasses, and eating something fabulous.

Well, by the time that contract finally arrived, every point had been months in the negotiating. I spent the day reading, scanning, and signing.

In the end, I just wanted to get it back to my editor without spilling something on it—so no romantic contract dinner.

I signed it in my home office. Alone. Wheeee!

Later, I celebrated with my husband, and it was also delightful.

I guess what I’m saying is: You don’t have to wait to enjoy the good life. Those big days will be great, but they probably won’t look or feel exactly as you imagined.

That’s okay. Dream those dreams anyway. You can enjoy it now and later!

With that in mind, let’s sit on a hypothetical white-sand beach together and laugh about that time you had to turn down the Today Show for an interview because the Nobel Prize committee called.

Go ahead. Dream big! You deserve it!

Cynsational Notes

Viviane Elbee is a multicultural, first-generation American children’s author creating fun books for fond memories.

Her debut picture book, Teach Your Giraffe To Ski, illustrated by Danni Gowdy, came out last fall from Albert Whitman. Her work has also appeared in Highlights High Five magazine. When she’s not reading, writing and revising, Viviane loves going on all kinds of adventures with her family, both at home in the Carolinas and abroad.

Hannah Holt is a children’s author with an engineering degree.

Her books, The Diamond and The Boy, illustrated by Jay Fleck (Balzer + Bray, 2018) and A Father’s Love, illustrated by Yee Von Chan (Philomel, 2019), weave together her love of language and science.

She lives in Oregon with her husband, four children, and a very patient cat named Zephyr. She and her family enjoy reading, hiking, and eating chocolate chip cookies.

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.

Traci 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.