Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Behind the Books: Under the Snow

Children’s books can be released anytime of the year, but most come out in September or March. Up until now, all of my trade picture books have had March pub dates, but my new title, Under the Snow, came out September 1.
A fall publication definitely makes sense for a book about winter and snow, but my guess is that sales will get off to a slow start—even though the book is a Junior Library Guild Selection. After all, who wants to think about snow right now? Not teachers. Not librarians. Not me.

When I think about this book’s path to publication, I realize that almost everything about it has been slow. The idea came to me in 2002. I did the research right away, and I decided what my focus would be—animals that hibernate and animals stay active under the snow—within a matter of weeks.

But then the project came to a screech halt. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a structure that I was happy with. I struggled and struggled for a lo-o-o-o-o-ng time. Two years, in fact. But I knew I had to be patient because finding the right structure for a book is important—more than ever before.

Back in the day, books were pasted up by hand. (Yep, I’ve been in publishing that long.) Because the process was so laborious, people didn’t experiment too much with format, design, and structure. But easy-to-use computer layout software programs have brought about a revolution.

Couple the new world of creative capabilities with the MTV mentality, and you end up with a generation of kids who have a staggering degree of visual sophistication. Today’s readers expect more. So as authors, we need to dig deeper to surprise and delight them.

Most of the time searching for the perfect structure for a work-in-progress is fun, but sometimes it’s frustrating. And Under the Snow was frustrating.

I tried a million different things (Well, maybe more like two dozen, but it sure seemed like a million). Nothing seemed to work.

Then on a frigid winter night in 2004, I dragged myself out of the house to hear author-illustrator Timothy Basil Ering speak at an event sponsored by the Foundation for Children’s Books. Tim was so engaging, so charismatic, his energy was so contagious that I was inspired to take another stab at my manuscript—as soon as I got home. I finished the new draft around 1:00 a.m., took it to my critique group meeting the next night, made some changes based on their suggestions, and mailed it to my editor the next day.

Okay, so that part was quick, but then I waited and waited and waited. Six months later, I finally heard from my editor. She loved it. Hooray! Remarkably, only a few tiny things changed during the editorial process.

But wait, there’s more. That’s not the end of the journey. In fact, in some ways, it was just the beginning. The manuscript was accepted in 2004, but it wasn’t published until 2009. More waiting.

Why did it take so long? Because there was lots more work to do. The illustrator needed time to make sketches, revise sketches, get sketches approved, complete final art, and then make small changes requested by the publisher. The designer needed time to lay out the book, and the printer needed time, too. Add all those steps together, and you get 5 years—at least for this book.

Think about it this way: The book-making process for Under the Snow took longer than some of my young readers have been alive. But it was worthy the wait.

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