Over the years, I’ve had many aspiring children’s book writers approach me for advice on getting published. I’ve shared my experiences and hopefully offered insight and encouragement.
In these days of social media, I am glad to be part of a community of both established and aspiring writers, and I have “met” and corresponded with many. I am especially impressed with the new writers and their level of involvement and what a joy it is to witness their growth and achievements.
One such person is Penny Parker Klostermann, whom I have watched blossom from a budding writer to a published author. Her stunning début, THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT (Random House), was released this year to great reviews. It is a BEST in RHYME winner and is one of 15 books on the Florida Sunshine State Young Readers Award Jr. (Students in grades K-2 will vote on them this spring to choose a winner.) Her upcoming book, A COOKED-UP FAIRY TALE (Random House) will hit the shelves in summer of 2017. And I can’t wait!
Thanks for joining me, Penny! I am sure readers will swallow up your advice :-)!
Iza: Will you give us a little background on your life, your work, your passions and influences?
Penny: I grew up in Colorado next door to my grandparents. They owned a resort with rustic cabins. I have three sisters and summers were filled helping our grandparents clean cabins, saddle horses, and gather wood for frequent bonfires. A lot of great storytelling went on as we sat with guests around the bonfire. I loved those nights.
My first career was teaching. I taught twenty-six years and spent most of those teaching elementary physical education. Along the way, I also taught high school English, junior high language arts, and elementary computer.
It wasn’t until late in my teaching career that I had the dream to write picture books. I’d wanted to be a physical education teacher since I was in eighth grade and I poured my creative energy into teaching. But I always loved stories and using my imagination. As a physical education teacher, I brought stories into my classroom. One year my students brought art supplies to class and we created our own Jurassic Park. We had a huge brontosaurus on one wall that spanned half the length of the gym. We created the Jurassic atmosphere with tree fronds in the corners, jungle-decorated refrigerator boxes, and a variety of dinosaurs scattered here and there. When it was completed, students practiced physical skills in a dozen or so areas. The balls were dinosaur eggs, the refrigerator boxes were escape routes . . . you get the idea.
I, also, read the kids books and created games based on those books. One of those games was based on BONY LEGS written by Joanna Cole, illustrated by Dirk Zimmer. To this day I have former students reminisce about that game when I see them around town.
As far as influences, I have always loved Dr. Suess . . . the silliness, the nonsense words, the rhyme . . . it’s right up my alley. Some of the picture books that inspired me to eventually pick up the pen are THE MATH CURSE written by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith, LILLY’S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes, ONCE THERE WAS A BULL… (FROG) written by Rick Walton, illustrated by Greg Hally, and THE SEVEN SILLY EATERS written by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Marla Frazee. As you can see, picture books with humor are my first picks.
Iza: I love how you brought stories into your gym class! Clearly, your humor, imagination and lesson plans reflected an underlying dream of making books for children.
You have such a gift for words. Have you always been a writer, a poet?
Penny: I’ve always loved to write but writing to be published wasn’t on my radar for a long time. I have written poetry since I was a child. Mostly I wrote poems for family or for special occasions like anniversaries or birthdays.
Iza: At what point did you decide that you wanted to be published?
Penny: I wrote one story back in 1995. It was a rhyming story and I submitted it to three houses without any revisions. I got three rejections, of course, and then didn’t write again until the fall of 2010. At that point, I threw myself into all things picture books.
Iza: Did reading picture books to your son have something to do with it?
Did the books inspire ideas?
Penny: When I read to my son, I was in hog heaven. I loved the time we spent with picture books. At that point, I really hadn’t thought about writing books myself, but I did play a game with him and with my nieces and nephews when they visited. I let them choose characters and a setting and I made up a story using their choices. I didn’t write any of these down but I imagine that game helped my storytelling skills.
Iza: I’m sure it did! Does your son inspire ideas? Or do you find you draw on your own experiences? Or both?
Penny: You know, this is a really hard question for me because I don’t consciously think of my son’s experiences or my own when I sit down to write. But it seems when I look back on some of my stories that I can then see my son or myself in them. For instance, in A COOKED-UP FAIRY TALE, the chef is so caught up in his own interests that he isn’t very aware of what is going on around him. I have a tendency to do that, too!
Iza: The reason I had asked that question is because many of the aspiring writers who’ve approached me for advice said their children give them ideas for stories. But, like you, I believe that when we sit down to write, we may not even be aware of how an idea popped into our mind—but parts of us, our families and lives will be in the stories. I think this is true for any creative process.
When you finally made the decision to be published, did you have several manuscripts written, and did you feel good about them?
Penny: When I first started writing seriously in the fall of 2010, I knew I needed a critique group. I found my wonderful PictureBookies in January of 2011. They really helped me grow as a writer. I built up my body of work over the next couple of years. I was named runner-up for the Barbara Karlin Grant in 2012. I felt very good about the story I’d submitted for the grant, so when it got recognition that boosted my confidence. At that point, I had three other manuscripts that I felt were strong.
Iza: What were some of the first steps on your road to publication?
Penny: First, I joined SCBWI. Then, I got involved in the picture book community and feel like my involvement was instrumental in my growth. One thing that I heard over and over again was to read a lot of books in the genre I wished to write. So I made it a habit to keep a list of books that were mentioned on blogs and in Facebook groups. From that point on my library checkout number has averaged 30 books and I’m at the library at least once a week.
As I mentioned above, I found a wonderful critique group. I, also, participated in Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo, Susanna Leonard Hill’s contests, and Julie Hedlund’s 12 x 12. These all provided inspiration and kept me writing. I took Susanna’s Making Picture Book Magic class two times and still refer to the materials often. I, also, took Renée LaTulippe’s, Lyrical Language Lab, and applied her techniques to A COOKED-UP FAIRY TALE before it sold.
I read a lot of blogs…a LOT. Kidlit people are so generous in sharing their knowledge and experience and I soaked it all up. I still read a lot of blogs to keep learning.
Online challenges helped me grow, too. As a result of online challenges, I have written drafts that later resulted in the two picture books I’ve sold and in the manuscript that received the Barbara Karlin Grant Runner-up. I think all who are working toward publication can benefit from these challenges.
Iza: Did you submit before you had agent representation? Did you have some rejections?
Penny: Yes. But not a whole lot. Including the three submissions back in 1995, I had a total of 14 submissions before I got an agent. I had 7 manuscript rejections and 7 manuscripts that got no response. I also had some rejections from agents.
Iza: How did you go about finding an agent?
I did my research. I read a lot of blog posts about submitting to agents. Also, as I read my stacks of picture books I would take note of the books that felt similar to my style. Then I’d Google the author to see if I could figure out who represented them. Once I found that out, I would look at the other clients on that agent’s list and read books by those authors. I kept a spreadsheet with this information and that helped me narrow down the list to agents I felt would be a good fit. Erin Murphy Literary was top on my list. I did submit to other top choices, too. I first queried in August of 2012, and I signed with Tricia Lawrence the following April.
Iza: Wow! You really did your homework. And it paid off! Penny, thank you so much for sharing your experience. I think you’ve given readers a great model of what it takes to become a published writer.
I am really looking forward to what you prepared in A COOKED-UP FAIRYTALE. And I am sure you we will see many more wonderful books from you!
Penny: Thanks so much for interviewing me, Iza. I enjoyed it and I hope my journey will inspire other writers who aspire to be published.
Here’s where you can find Penny: