Guest Post: Erik Talkin on Finding the Book You Are Uniquely Qualified to Write

By Erik Talkin

I had been the talented “nearly” man for a while, with a middle-grade that was purchased by a mid-level publisher that promptly decided to get out of the MG market before the book was published.

This was followed by a novel that went to the final stages of acquisition with a major publisher, before the marketing department decided that series were out that week.

At that time, my work was entirely focused on YA and MG that was urban fantasy or on high-concept ideas derived from my days as a screenwriter. I would have laughed if you had suggested that my first published book would be a heartfelt, empowering picture book, but here we are.

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I kept hitting a wall with my writing. I worked to improve my craft, I worked with a couple of highly respected agents, but things weren’t connecting. I decided to go to Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I met my wife Mari.

We got married, wrangled five kids from our previous relationships and a sixth ‘miracle’ child. These commitments slowed both of our writing down.

I had to do something different, and so I developed a new strategy to move me to publication in kidlit. That strategy was to operate from a place of demonstrable expertise–to write about something that I, more than many writers, had the credibility to write about.

The garage of our house has become my Covid command center and writing area.

I focused on the expertise I had from my day job as CEO of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County in California. We distribute over ten million pounds of food a year to over 300 local nonprofit agencies, and we run national award-winning educational programs for kids.

I still wanted to write for kids, so how could I straddle these two worlds?

My plan involved me starting with a nonfiction book for adults, Hunger into Health, that put forward what we had learned about empowering and educating kids to be ‘food literate.’ This was published in cooperation with the food bank. It allowed me to promote them and them to promote me. It raised the profile of work that I had dedicated over a decade to. I also was asked to do a TED talk on the same subject.

The next stage was to write a book for kids about issues of food insecurity, and have the book be from a child’s perspective.

Lulu and the Hunger Monster was developed as a result of my experiences over years of working with food insecure families with young children. I saw how much stigma was a key issue in preventing kids from getting help. I hope that Lulu will help kids learn to get over their fears and ask for help.

In the book, Lulu is a brave girl who is trying to help herself and her mom face a monster called “hunger.” The story (helped by wonderful illustrations by Sheryl Murray) empowers both kids who might need help and also their friends to build empathy and create real-world solutions together.

I received lots of help from Mari and from my SCBWI peers, and then shared the manuscript with various agents. Getting an agent with a single picture book is pretty hard. But I also sent it to a publisher open to submissions called Free Spirit that specializes in SEL (Social and Emotion Learning). They loved the book and felt it would be great for teachers to use in class to trigger discussion.

In the absence of an agent, I hired a literary attorney to negotiate the deal and worked with Free Spirit’s wonderful in-house editor, Alison Behnke, to hone the manuscript.

My plan was to use my expertise to get this first book published, and then use that as a beachhead to write broader based books. I’m pleased to say that I am in discussion now with the same publisher about a series of chapter books that are not related to hunger.

The next part of the plan would from there will be to jump from chapter books to MG or YA. I am working my plan with all I have, but as with all plans, it needs to be continually checked and tweaked as it progresses.

Mia, the young anti-hunger advocate who features in the You Tube videos that accompany the book, which look at how kids can help each other fight food insecurity.

I would encourage everyone who has been close to publication but never quite got over the line to consider: What is the book that you are uniquely qualified to write? How can you make it relevant to what is happening right now in the world? Then start making your plan.

Lulu and the Hunger Monster, illustrated by Sheryl Murray was published in August 2020.

Cynsational Notes

Erik Talkin thought of himself as exclusively a YA and MG writer–urban fantasy, sci-fi, punk rock, and now he finds himself the author of a sensitive picture book on hungry kids. Funny old world.

In a previous life, his short film, “The Gallery,” starring Helena Bonham Carter, was selected for the London Film Festival. He has won an International Television Association Award for writing and directing educational drama and his theatrical work has been produced on the London Fringe. He holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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