Behind The Story: Janie Bynum on ALTOONA BABOONA

ALTOONA BABOONA by Janie Bynum (Harcourt, 1999). This book is more fun than a barrel-a baboon-as. The rhyme flows as Altoona takes her balloon-a to the skies. You’ll be humming this story long after you’ve put it down and picked it up again. Ages 4-up. Don’t miss the sequel, ALTOONA UP NORTH (Harcourt, 2001). This interview was conducted via email in 2001. Visit author-illustrator Janie Bynum.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

I was riding the train between Kalamazoo, MI and Chicago, IL when the name ALTOONA BABOONA just popped into my skull. I have no idea why.

Then the image of a free-spirited baboon-girl formed with these lines attached: “Altoona Baboona flicks peas with a spoon-a. She dances all night and sings songs to the moon-a.”

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Altoona Baboona by Janie BynumI THINK that spark happened in April of 1996. When I was on that train ride, I was in the process of moving to Chicago.

After I took two classes of children’s book illustration at the Art Institute of Chicago and put together a book dummy of ALTOONA BABOONA (as a class assignment), I joined SCBWI and learned about the National Conference. I attended the SCBWI National Conference in August of 1997, met another author/illustrator who forwarded my portfolio of artwork to her agent, then got a call from that agent a couple of weeks later asking me to see my writing and/or dummy work. I sent him my dummy which he sent to Harcourt the next day. I got a phone call that evening that Harcourt wanted to acquire ALTOONA BABOONA.

From “spark” to contract it was about 16 months, From contract, it was another 18 mos. to publication–after many revisions of the text. So, “spark” to publication was three years.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

This is a tough question since I sort of edged my way in to this business.

Since I ran a graphic design business (and still do to a lesser degree), I expected that if I worked hard enough, did my homework and had a great product, I’d reach my goal of getting published. I was too naive to realize how impossibly difficult it can be getting your first contract (or even subsequent ones for that matter)!

The one thing I think I did “right” was to “network” (SCBWI, internet listservs for writers, etc). I toted my portfolio and “dummies” off to SCBWI National and showed my work, talked to people. Had I stayed in my corner of the world (we had moved back to Michigan by then) and never networked, I don’t know that I’d be published today. I like to think someone at a publishing house would have plucked me out of a slush pile. But, who knows?