PictureBookBuzz: Tell us about yourself.
Vivian: I always sat in the front row at school. I was short. I wore thick glasses. And my last name started with A – I knew I had to study hard because invariably, the teacher would call on me. Early on, I decided to become a teacher—not just any teacher, but a kindergarten teacher—probably because of all the picture books that I could have in my classroom. I loved teaching kindergarten at P.S. 29 on Henry Street in Brooklyn, a wonderfully diverse neighborhood, even back in the late 1960’s. My first real job while I was in college was at the Brooklyn Public Library. When our first child was born and we realized we needed more than one salary, I typed catalogues for a local book dealer.
My fascination with picture books continued when I became a parent—I even tried my hand at penning a few little stories for my own children. But I never seriously considered becoming a picture book writer until my children were grown. In 2011, I published a parent/teacher guide that included 100 picture book recommendations, Show Me How! Build Your Child’s Self-Esteem Through Reading, Crafting and Cooking. That’s when I began blogging and connecting with parents and teachers…and other writers. The name of my blog? Picture Books Help Kids Soar and I mostly blogged about…you guessed it…picture books!
It was when I visited picture book author Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog that I discovered a whole kid lit community. People were writing picture books, not just reading them. And I was hooked.
The next year, in 2012, I joined Julie Hedlund’s 12x12 Picture Book Writing Challenge and wrote and wrote and wrote. Then I joined picture book critique groups and I revised and revised and revised. And in 2014, when I realized that getting an A in college English did not make me a great picture book writer, I took a bunch of classes and studied and studied and studied. The process paid off in 2015 and I was offered representation by Essie White of Storm Literary Agency. She immediately created a submission list for the manuscript she had fallen in love with, Sweet Dreams, Sarah. And within a month, we had a book deal. I’m thrilled to report that book will be launching on May 1, 2019, published by Creston Books and illustrated by Chris Ewald.
PictureBookBuzz: What inspired your book, Sweet Dreams, Sarah?
Vivian: I’m glad you asked that question. Sweet Dreams, Sarah is the story of Sarah E. Goode, a former slave who became one of the first African American women to own a U.S. patent. I was surfing the net, looking for individuals who were the first to do something…anything. And Sarah’s name popped up. But there was almost nothing about her in the online sources. And I wondered…why not? This was an amazing accomplishment for a black woman in 1885, only 20 years after the Civil War. I began doing more research. My local librarian helped me reach out to reference librarians at other libraries. And the answer from almost all of them was the same:
Wow! Your author seems to have amassed much more information than we ever dreamed there would be. We have nothing in our files on Goode and her name only comes up every Black History Month when some unlucky child has her name assigned for a report. All we've ever been able to lead them to is a photo of the patent and a brief blurb in a "Black Inventors" book.
And that’s when I knew that I had to write this story about a woman who had done something astonishing and deserved to be remembered with more than a sentence or two. I’m honored to be able to help bring history alive for young readers and share Sarah’s ground-breaking accomplishment that opened the door for many other ingenious women who worked to make life better for their communities.
PictureBookBuzz: What other books have you written?
Vivian: Other books? I am writing all the time and love to write both fiction and nonfiction picture books…in rhyme, free verse and prose. I’ve been fortunate to have other manuscripts catch the eye of editors and have several other picture books in the pipeline: Pippa’s Passover Plate (Holiday House, Feb 12, 2019) illustrated by Jill Weber; Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book (Pomegranate, March 15, 2019) illustrated in woodcuts by Mirka Hokkanen; Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe (Little Bee Books, Spring 2020) illustrated by Alleanna Harris; and From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Fall 2020) illustrated by Gilbert Ford. The next couple of years are going to be a whirlwind, that’s for sure!
PictureBookBuzz: What are you currently working on?
Vivian: I’m currently working on a bunch of things: final revisions of From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves. The editor just sent me the PDF book dummy, so I’m able to see how the illustrator is bringing the stories to life with his pictures. And I say stories, because this is a unique compilation book of NINE full length picture book stories and kids will be able to experience that AHA moment for each visionary whose invention changed the landscape of the world.
I also just finished a sequel to Pippa’s Passover Plate…and just sent it to my agent for her to pass it along to the editor. Plus, I’m revising another nonfiction picture book biography for an editor who requested a particular story and polishing another manuscript, also nonfiction, that we hope to send out on submission soon.
Unfortunately, there are only 24 hours in each day and even though I push the envelope by staying up way too late, I’m not able to write all the stories that I have ideas for. Maybe someone will invent a way to stretch time…I would certainly buy that app. 😉
PictureBookBuzz: It sounds like you are really busy with your writing. Do you have time for anything else?
Vivian: Funny you should ask that. In 2019, I will be doing an insane amount of traveling. I was invited to speak at the Australia/NZ SCBWI conference. So, on February 19th, I’ll be flying to Sydney, Australia. And from there I’ll hop over to Auckland to stay for a few weeks with one of my critique buddies. And from there, I’ll fly to Geneva to stay with another writing friend. And from there we will train to Italy at the beginning of April for the Bologna Book Fair. And from there, back home to New Hampshire. I’m totally excited because I’ve never been to Australia or NZ or Europe. I’ll be able to see places I’ve only read about and hug people who have become close friends online through our critique groups. Plus, while in New Zealand, I’ll be hosting the #50PreciousWords Writing Contest on my blog from March 2-7. I also plan to attend various conferences in the U.S. and of course, with three books launching, I’ll be participating in book signings and other events. I am stocking up on Wheaties right now!
PictureBookBuzz: If you could give advice to writers who haven’t published yet, or an earlier version of yourself, what would you want to share?
Vivian: Advice to writers who aren’t published yet? That the path to publication is a process.
This is what worked for me. The process consists of reading current books in the genre you want to write. Really read them…and make a note of what you loved and what drew you into the story and how the ending made you feel. Then go back and observe exactly how that author accomplished it. The opening lines. The character that you connected with. The pacing/drama/tension of the plot. The satisfying ending.
And then, write. A lot. Whatever stories come to mind. I recently heard a webinar featuring an editor. She brought out that although quality is a very important element in your writing, quantity is also a factor. Most agents don’t want you to approach them with only one story that is submission ready, Join picture book writing challenges like ReFoReMo and Storystorm and 12x12. Connect with the kidlit community and find critique buddies who will support and encourage you and give you feedback. And write lots of stories.
Regarding feedback: please, embrace it. Stay true to what you are passionate about in your story, but be willing to try out other suggestions. Sometimes one word or the turn of a phrase can make all the difference.
And then, when you have revised and polished and your critique buddies say YAY and you read it aloud and it sounds great, then it is time to submit…because if agents or editors do not see your stories, they cannot want them.
IMPORTANT ALERT: Read your work aloud…record it on your computer or your phone and listen to yourself reading. This is CRUCIAL because you will hear when words don’t sound right or when you trip up on something. And if you trip up, so will the parents and teachers and children. A picture book story needs to have a rhythm to it, even if it is not rhyming.
It might take two years. It might take six years. And others might be plugging away for ten years before they sell a manuscript to a traditional publisher. But there is one thing that I think I can guarantee. If you don’t give up, you WILL succeed.
PictureBookBuzz: How can people connect with you?
Vivian: For someone who was afraid to turn on a computer less than 10 years ago for fear of destroying the world or, at the very least, all the memory on the hard drive, I’ve come a long way. I’m still learning about social media, but you can connect with me in many ways:
We are a group of picture book authors and illustrators whose first picture books will be released in 2019. Read about our roads to publication here.