Picture Book Biographies: Gloria Amescua & Carol Kim Discuss Mentors on the Path to Publication

By Gayleen Rabakukk

We’re wrapping up our picture book biography series with two more Austin authors, Gloria Amescua, author of Child Of The Flower-Song People: Luz Jiménez, Daughter Of The Nahua, illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh (Abrams, 2021) and Carol Kim, author of King Sejong Invents an Alphabet, illustrated by Cindy Kang (Albert Whitman, 2021). Their paths to publication are very different, but both illustrate how dedication to craft can lead to success.

In 2017, Gloria received the Lee & Low New Voices Honor Award and talked with Cynsations about how she discovered Luz Jiménez and researched her story.

What are your favorite structure tips? Since today’s picture book biographies are seldom birth-to-death stories, how do you zero in on the events or incidents to highlight?

At first, I didn’t know whether to focus on one or the other aspect of Luz Jiménez’s life, as an art model or as an “informant,” as anthropologists referred to Luz and other Native people relaying their stories and culture. Both were important aspects of her life, and I couldn’t see focusing only on one.

I connected them through Luz Jiménez’s dignity and pride in being Nahua and used a variety of circles. Luz listened to the tales of the ancients that were passed down as a child and told those stories as an adult to anthropologists and other scholars who wanted to learn about Nahuatl and the stories Luz remembered.

As a model for artists, Luz demonstrated traditional activities, which were grounded in her early experiences growing up as a Nahua. Luz’s dream to be a teacher, though seemingly destroyed, came true in a different way as she taught adults about the Nahua culture and language. The teaching aspect became the most important connection. These circular structures helped me pull together the different strands in her life.

Luz Jiménez early in her modeling career is shown posing for Ramón Alva de la Canal, Fernando Leal and Francisco Díaz de León at an outdoor painting school in Coyoacán, ca. 1920. Credit: Photographer unknown. Fondo Documental y Fotográfico Luz Jiménez. Original Fondo Fernando Leal Audirac.

That’s not to mean I will use the same structure for other biographies. Each structure depends on the life of the person, and the feedback from critique groups, my agent and editor help me refine it.

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

My book would not have been what it is without the courses I took from The Writing Barn with Bethany Hegedus. My first draft was written in the Picture Book II course in 2014. It may have just sat for a while as I worked on fictional picture books. However, I continued to research and decided to take a Picture Book Nonfiction course in 2016 with Bethany. Several of us in that first course are being published.

I also took other classes, attended weekend retreats and participated in Write Submit Support (WSS) with Bethany as my mentor, which helped me tremendously as I worked on revisions and the journey of finding an agent. I continue with our WSS group in an informal way, and I’m in the Courage to Create program.

The mentoring and support I’ve received from The Writing Barn, Bethany, the writing friends and critique group members I’ve met there are invaluable. I truly wouldn’t have this book coming out without the mentoring and support I’ve received throughout these years. I am so grateful.

Jesús Villanueva and his children in front of a section of Fernando Leal’s The Dancers of Chalma (aka Festival of Lord Chalma) at the San Ildefonso College, 1920. His grandmother Luz Jiménez is wearing the blue shawl.

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

I connected with Luz on a very personal level because when the Mexican government made school mandatory, the Indigenous students were shamed about their Native language, clothing, and traditions as has happened in the U.S. and around the globe. It was an attempt at erasure of Indigenous life.

A similar shaming of Spanish in the U.S. and punishments for speaking Spanish in school affected me. But in a different way than you might think. My parents took in society’s pressures and did not speak to my younger brother or me in Spanish, though they had with my older brother. They did this even though my father was from Michoacán, Mexico. Since my older brother entered school not speaking English, they thought that it would help us. I recognize that, but I’ve worked on regaining my familial language and culture. I’m proud of Luz for keeping hers. I hope Child of the Flower-Song People shows kids someone who felt that pride and shared it. That’s why I felt it was important to tell Luz’s story. I want kids to feel pride in their family, culture, languages, and who they are.

Jesús Villanueva in front of portrait of Luz Jiménez in 1924, by Diego Rivera. The painting is called La Molendera (The Grinder).

What advice do you have for others interested in writing picture book biographies?

The most important aspect is you have to fall in love with the subject of your book. I truly mean you must feel that the person’s life connects with you and is so close to your heart that you must write about them. You want to be the one to write that person’s story, if they are relatively unknown or even if others have written about them because you feel you have a different viewpoint to bring.

This is the motivation for all the time you will spend researching, drafting and revising your story. All the rest—organizing information, structure, voice, and viewpoint—will fall into place as you work. You want kids and adults to know about this amazing, important person and for your story to have an impact on the readers. That is the key.

Lovey, Gloria’s writing buddy.

Carol Kim

What drew you to this subject?

I first heard about King Sejong and how he invented the Korean alphabet (Hangeul) from my dad. What is so remarkable is that Hangeul was invented in 1443. But it took 600 years for it to be adopted as Korea’s official alphabet—in 1946. At that point, my father was 18 years old! In other words, it happened during his lifetime.

So not only is the story of Hangeul fascinating, it is a story that directly affects my family. It’s amazing to me that there is this connection between my father and King Sejong.

I was able to learn more about Korea and King Sejong during a trip we took to Korea in 2014. My father took me and my oldest brother’s families on his one and only trip back to Korea after he had moved to the U.S.—almost 60 years before!

This is Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, birthplace of King Sejong. My father used to ice skate on this pond when it would freeze in the winter.

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

It was a very slow road for me. But that’s mostly because while I have wanted to write children’s stories since I was a kid, I did not apply myself seriously toward making it happen for many years. I would try something for a while, and then when it didn’t work out, I’d give up. I tried writing for magazines and got a handful of rejections. Then I took a couple of online writing courses, but only finished one.

It was pretty sad, actually.

But while I quit many times, I also would eventually start trying again. I finally managed to have a couple of successes—but they were not your typical children’s writing projects.

I got hired to help write nonfiction writing passages for a company that helps struggling readers, such as those with Dyslexia, improve their reading ability. It was really fun, and it helped me practice writing for beginning readers.

Then I stumbled upon an opportunity to help another author (her name is Cerece Rennie Murphy) finish writing a children’s book that she self-published. She usually wrote science fiction/fantasy for adults. She wanted to write some books with her eight-year-old son, but didn’t have the time to do it. So she hired me to help her.

Cerece also started encouraging me to write my own stories. She kept telling me I could do it, and really pushed me. I’m so grateful to her, and she is now a good friend. It was around this time I started exploring writing for the educational market.

Carol’s family visiting Korea. Her dad is on the far right.

When I landed my first educational book, I was over the moon. And I found I really loved writing for educational publishers! First of all, I enjoy researching and learning about all kinds of new subjects. Most of the books were nonfiction, which I love writing.

One project led to another, and I learned so much from working with editors. Then another publisher reached out to me asking if I would be interested in writing an early reader fiction book series. I was nervous about saying yes, because I didn’t have much practice writing fiction. But I soon learned it was a blast! All these projects helped me keep improving as a writer.

There were other things that helped along the way. I finally became a member of SCBWI and started volunteering with the Austin chapter. I went to conferences and learned a ton. I took more writing courses. I found an amazing critique group.

I believe the most important factor that led to me finally gaining traction and having some success in becoming a children’s author was when I became part of the writing community. I stopped trying to do everything on my own and started asking for help. Along the way I met so many wonderful people who encouraged and supported me.

It’s because of them that I’m a published author today. I am so grateful to them all!

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of connecting your manuscript with a publisher?

It seems that I was destined for an unconventional path in reaching my dream of becoming a children’s author.

First of all, I did not start out thinking I wanted to write picture books. In fact, I was pretty sure I did not want to write them. I was very intimidated by the tight word count, and thinking about a story visually does not come naturally to me.

But in 2019, I told myself I was really going to make a serious effort toward becoming a published author. It was basically my New Year’s resolution. It was not an auspicious beginning, because it was already July.

I decided I needed help, and decided getting a mentor was one way I could do that. So I Googled “children’s writing mentor.” (See what a skilled researcher I am?) That’s how I came across #PBChat, created by Justin Colón. This was the first year of his mentorship program, and the deadline for applying was in about two weeks!

I scrambled to put together my application, and polished my one picture bookish manuscript (it was actually written as a magazine submission) as best I could. To my joy and astonishment, I was selected as a mentee by author Katey Howes! (There’s a rather funny story around my mentorship selection, but that’s for another time).

Since it was now apparent that I was going to try to write picture books, I signed up with the Children’s Book Academy’s (CBA) picture book course around the same time. It was during the course that I wrote the first draft of King Sejong’s story.

I came across this book during our trip to Korea. Thank goodness I picked it up–it was foundational for my research!

At the end of the CBA course, you have the opportunity to pitch one story to a group of editors and agents. When two editors expressed interest in my story, I was ecstatic! One of them was Christina Pulles with Albert Whitman.

Christina requested two R&Rs (revise and resubmits). While waiting for her response to them, I attended the Austin SCBWI conference. From there, I was selected by Liz Garton Scanlon for the 2020 Cynthia Leitich Smith mentorship!

After a few more months, Christina emailed me the news that Albert Whitman wanted to offer me a contract! It was a dream come true!

I was ready to go ahead and sign the contract. But a few people encouraged me to use my contract to try to get interest from an agent. I was pretty skeptical—because I needed a response within a couple of weeks.

Well, I had received good advice, because three agents got back to me requesting to see more of my work. This led to two requesting a call, and both of them offered me representation. It was an amazing and rather sudden turn of events!

While I liked both agents very much, I had to choose one. It turns out Charlotte Wenger was the first agent I ever queried, and I felt she and I were a good match. So I accepted Charlotte’s offer and I could not be happier!

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

Well for one thing, I don’t think I would have come across the story of King Sejong if it wasn’t for my father and our Korean heritage! While I am woefully ignorant of much of Korea’s rich history, it is interesting how much of Korea’s culture and customs I managed to absorb by just growing up in my family.

Statue of King Sejong in Seoul.

King Sejong is such an important figure for all Koreans. He is deeply revered and his legacy of Hangeul has far-reaching impacts that go beyond the country’s high literacy rates. It was very important to me to convey Sejong’s compassionate and forward-thinking leadership in addition to his amazing accomplishment of inventing Hangeul.

I am sure there are many people who could have told King Sejong’s story as well or better than I have. But having a personal understanding of how Sejong embodies so much of the Korean spirit of duty, honor, and tenacity may have helped me infuse the story with these important values.

Cynsational Notes

This is the fourth post in our series focusing on picture book biographies. See Bethany Hegedus’ interview, Azadeh Westergaard & Meghan P. Browne’s interview and Candy Wellins and Philip Hoelzel’s interview.

Gloria Amescua (Ah MES qua) has been a writer since she was a child, writing poems and stories throughout her life. She loves books that reach a young person’s heart, head or funny bone and strives to do just that in her writing. She is an educator, poet and children’s book writer. Abrams published her picture book biography in verse, Child of the Flower-Song People: Luz Jiménez, Daughter of the Nahua. Duncan Tonatiuh is the illustrator.

An earlier version won the 2016 Lee and Low New Voices Honor Award. A variety of literary journals and anthologies have published Gloria’s poetry. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published one of her poems in their national textbook literature series. Gloria received both her B. A. and M. Ed. degrees from the University of Texas at Austin. The grandmother of two amazing granddaughters, Gloria believes in children, pets and possibilities.

Carol Kim has written several fiction and nonfiction books, and enjoys researching and uncovering little-known facts. A second generation Korean American, she also loves creating stories that share Korean culture beyond kimchi and K-pop. Carol is a member of SCBWI, a Children’s Book Academy graduate, #PBChat 2019 mentee (with Katey Howes!), and 2020 Austin SCBWI Cynthia Leitich Smith Writer Mentee (with Liz Garton Scanlon!). She lives in Austin, Texas with her family.

Gayleen Rabakukk teaches creative writing classes for the Austin Public Library Foundation, is an active member of the children’s literature community and former assistant regional advisor for Austin SCBWI. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

This is the final installment in our series on picture book biographies. See Bethany Hegedus’ interview, Meghan P. Browne and Azadeh Westergaard’s interview and critique partners Candy Wellins and Philip Hoelzel.