5 Minutes With…Matt Ringler

Some of you may remember Scholastic senior editor Matt Ringler as one of the great faculty members from the 2016 summer conference in LA. Recently, SCBWI caught up with Matt for an Insight Exclusive. In case you missed the interview, here it is!

Matt Ringler is a senior editor at Scholastic specializing in chapter book, middle grade, and

Matt Ringler

YA fiction. He is the editor of the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine, the Game Changers series by Mike Lupica, the STAT series by Amar’e Stoudemire, and the Little Rhino series by Ryan Howard. His YA list includes the New York Times Bestseller Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky and It’s Not Me, It’s You by Stephanie Kate Strohm.

What elements does a manuscript need to get your attention and make you want to acquire it?

I want a manuscript to make me feel everything. If it’s funny, I want to laugh so loudly that people stare at me. If it’s heartbreaking, I want to have tears coming down my cheeks. I want to be turning pages tensely while my knuckles turn white. I want to miss my subway stop. I want to come home and not turn on the television because I need to know how the book ends. And I want the face of at least one other person who I know would love this experience to pop into my head without having to think about it all.

How do you know something is right for a series?

Most of the series that I’ve worked on have come in as multiple books from the get-go. But once in a while, you get to take a standalone and make it into a series. If a story does its job properly then you care about the characters even after the story ends. Because you should want to know what happens next (or in the case of prequels, what happened before). Giving readers more of a world they already love—that’s how you know you something is right for a series.

What is the acquisitions process at Scholastic?

The Acquisitions process is one of the most exciting parts of this job. A manuscript comes in and you love it—and you really do need to love it because you’re about to dedicate a large portion of your time and energy on doing this. The manuscript is shared with the acquisitions team, which is made up of other departments like sales, marketing, publicity, manufacturing, the publishers, and other editors. And hopefully, everyone agrees that they want to move ahead. You don’t always get every manuscript you want, there is sometimes disappointment. But when you do, it makes it all worthwhile.

Between the time you acquire a book or series and the pub date, what is your role with your authors?

Hopefully, if an author is choosing you as their editor then they have some level of trust for you already there. But it is important for that relationship to continue to grow. In my opinion, that’s the most important part of the editorial process. Trusting each other, and being able to have open and honest conversations about what is and isn’t working. The process of editing the manuscript and putting together a publishing plan all falls into place once that relationship is solidified. There are a lot of moving pieces that have to come together before anything is printed. Cover and interior design. The marketing and publicity plans. Sales materials. Putting a book out into the world is an exciting experience. It can also be nerve wracking and intimidating—sometimes all at once. So making sure my authors feels comfortable and have the tools that they need to succeed are a major part of it. Also, phone calls. Lots and lots of phone calls.

SCBWI, “SCBWI Exclusive with…Matt Ringler, Senior Editor, Scholastic,” SCBWI Insight (enewsletter), December, 2016, http://www.scbwi.org/scbwi-exclusive-with-matt-ringler/.

Margarita Engle Named Young People’s Poet Laureate

WOW. Just wow. Member and multiple award-winning author Margarita Engle has been offered the position of national Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. Spoiler alert: she accepted.

Margarita Engle, photo credit Sandra Rios Balderrama

The title, and its $25,000 prize, is given biennially in recognition of outstanding poetry for young children. In an interview after her win, Engle recently told Publisher’s Weekly, “I want to choose the theme of peace, or paz. It’s a bilingual theme, and maybe if I can draw in other poets it will become multilingual.”

Despite her new responsibilities and added work, Margarita agreed to share a bit about her journey and her love of poetry. Thanks again, and congratulations from the region!


Poetry is an Adventure

No one can prepare to become the national Young People’s Poet Laureate. There is no career map, alchemist’s recipe or scientific formula. One morning I was living in solitude, simply enjoying the process of writing. By afternoon, I had received a dreamlike phone call, and nothing seemed real anymore. The impossible had become possibleAlltheWayToHavana.MargaritaEngle through some mysterious pathway beyond my understanding or control. I was offered an honor, but it is also an opportunity, and in a certain sense, a responsibility. Now I need to figure out how to carry gifts of poetry to places where authors don’t usually go—children who live at the end of a rural road, and city teens whose schools can’t afford an honorarium.

I started writing poetry as a small child whose life alternated between urban northeast Los Angeles and a farm at the end of a muddy dirt road in a remote corner of Cuba. As an adult, I studied agronomy and botany, then changed directions after taking a creative writing seminar from Tomás Rivera. At first, I was dizzy with joy every time one of my haiku was accepted by an obscure literary journal, or one of my opinion columns was published by Hispanic Link News Service. Miguel'sBraveKnight.MargaritaEngleWhen I wrote novels for grownups, one reviewer accused my fiction of being too poetic. It was intended as criticism, but it felt like praise. Writing is an adventure. I needed to explore. I returned to my poetic roots, eventually discovering young adult verse novels.

After writing The Poet Slave of Cuba, I never returned to prose. In fact, at this point in my life, I only veer away from poetry when I’m asked to do a guest blog or interview, and even then, I find myself wishing I could answer prose questions in verse.
Why? Because poetry makes me happy. I could say that I choose verse in order to offer a welcoming expanse of white space to reluctant readers, and that would be true. I could add the fact that verse novels allow me to distill complex historical situations down to their emotional essence, and that would also be true. Some people might want to know about various awards, a Newbery Honor, multiple Pura Belpré Medals, Américas Awards, a Golden Kite, the Charlotte Zolotow Medal. Yes, it’s true, all those highlights of my writing life were received by verse novels, a verse memoir, and a poetic picture book, ForestWorldMargaritaEngleand as much as I treasure them, they are not my reason for devoting my life to poetry. I choose verse because no matter how much rage and resistance is encompassed by my stories of social justice, I feel peaceful whenever I have
a chance to communicate with young readers in rhythmic language, trying to offer them the beauty and hope they deserve, because they are adventurers, eager to explore.

Margarita Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award recipient. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text.

Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during childhood summers with relatives. She lives in central California with her husband, and continues to visit Cuba as often as she can. Her newest verse novel about the island is Forest World. Visit Margarita at her website.

Kantor, Emma. (2017, May 16). Margarita Engle Named Young People’s Poet Laureate. Retrieved from: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/73621-margarita-engle-named-young-people-s-poet-laureate.html.

Good News!

goodnewsCongratulations to member Gayle Pitman! Gayle’s new book, When You Look Out the Window: How Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin Built a Community (illustrated by Christopher Lyles)was published this month by Magination Press. WOOT!

I asked Gayle to share her inspiration for the new book and a bit about her journey to publication for this manuscript. Take it away, Gayle!

In 2012, I started working on a research project that explored the lives of LGBT/queer people who existed on the edges of their communities in some way—because of their race, their age, their gender status, their disability, or other factors. I interviewed about a dozen people, one of whom was Phyllis Lyon. I don’t think most people know Phyllis’ story, but she and Del Martin were like the goddesses of the San Francisco lesbian community. I got her number out of the phone book (who uses the phone book anymore?), but I put off calling her for weeks. What would I say? It sounds so ridiculous now, but I felt like a groupie who feared rejection from her favorite rock star. Finally I called her. She answered the phone on the first ring, and within two and a half minutes we had an interview scheduled for later that week. Just like that!

Phyllis’ house is located near the top of Castro Street in San Francisco, which

 Gayle Pitman

I think is so richly symbolic. But the inside of her home held even more power for me. Her house is tiny—maybe about 700 square feet—but the panoramic view of San Francisco from her living room window is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. During our interview, I learned that Phyllis rarely left her home because getting around was hard for her, and it seemed so Hitchcockian and depressing to think that she spent her days cooped up in her house, looking out her window. But later, my perception of Phyllis’ experience shifted, and it occurred to me that every day, she gets to look out her window and see how she and her partner Del transformed that city. And then, I thought, “Why not write a children’s book about Phyllis and Del?” So I did. There are so few children’s picture books out there that focus on LGBT history, and it seemed like a great opportunity to help fill that need.

Journey to publication:

This is a great SCBWI story! I attended the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles for the first time in 2015, and I submitted When You Look Out the Window for a manuscript critique. I met with a Big-Time Editor (who shall remain unnamed) from one of the Big Four publishing houses (which shall also remain unnamed). She LOVED the story, and wanted my agent to make a formal submission to her! Beyond that, it was clear from the beginning that this editor and I had a lot in common. What should have been a critique session ended up being a great conversation about writing, politics, and building a career in publishing. It was an amazing experience, and a huge confidence booster for a neophyte author like myself.


Postscript: That publishing house didn’t end up buying the manuscript. The editor wanted some significant changes made, and Phyllis wasn’t comfortable with the direction the story would take as a result. Even though publishing with that house would have been a great opportunity, it felt important to me to honor what Phyllis wanted. Meanwhile, my editor at Magination Press (who published my first book, This Day in June) REALLY liked the story, and she offered me a contract! It worked out perfectly, and I learned during this process that it’s not always about getting the big contract right away. It’s about building relationships, exercising patience, and trusting the process. When You Look Out the Window is a gorgeous book, and I’m so grateful that I get to share the story of Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin with children.

By day, Gayle E. Pitman teaches Psychology and Women/Gender Studies program at Sacramento City College. By night, Gayle writes children’s books and engages in other forms of subversive creativity. Her debut picture book, This Day in June, won the 2015 ALA Stonewall Award, was a Rainbow List Top Ten pick, and won the IRA’s 2014 Notable Books for a Global Society Award. A frequent speaker at colleges, universities, K-12 schools, and professional conferences on topics related to gender and sexual orientation, she has been featured in publications ranging from School Library Journal to The Advocate. Find more about Gayle at her website, on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter.

The Yellow Hat Syndrome by Dionna L. Mann

(Colors have been changed to protect the innocent.)


I loved my yellow hat with the little ball on top. When I saw it gleaming in a bin at a thrift shop, it called to me. “Hello! Ain’t I sunshiny!” I picked it up. No doubt, someone’s granny had crochet it. And now it would be mine. MINE!

I tried the hat on. Oh, yeah, baby! Don’t I look fine as sunshine dancing on a dewdrop! I couldn’t stop wearing it.

Then one day, my dear friend (and she’s the kind that will tell you ANYTHING) saw me wearing my bright-as-daylight find.

With eyes focused on my hat, she frowned and said, “Never wear that again. Never.”

“What? Never? You don’t like it?”

“No,” she said.

“But look at the color! And the little ball on top! And the way it slants to the side, like a French beret! You really don’t like it?”

“No. It’s…it’s… Well, it’s…ugly.”

“Ugly!” I said. “I don’t think so!” And I pulled the hat tighter around my head.

I was hurt. Offended. Angry! How dare she call ugly what I love!

I had loved it when a little girl at the grocery store peered over her mamma’s shoulder and said “Hat! Hat! Hat!” and her mother said “Haaaatt.” (Mom liked it so much, she would

Illustration by Tami Traylor

craft one later. I was sure.) I loved it when at the library folks did double takes. (They liked it so much, they were trying not to stare. I could tell.) I loved it when a workmate said “A new hat, eh?” then belly-laughed. (She liked it so much, she was jealous. I knew.)

I loved it then. And I loved it still! Something was wrong with my friend (and the rest of the world) to think my hat ugly. End of story.

Little did I realize it, but I was inflicted with the YELLOW HAT SYNDROME.

On the way home, I calmed down. (It was, after all, only a hat.) And then I began to reason: Was it possible that, because I loved my hat, my objectivity about its aesthetic value was clouded? Was it possible that my hat was not all sunshine-and-skipping-through-the-meadow? Was it possible that my hat was not all that? I had to admit, it was possible. My friend did have fashion sense, the kind I never had. My friend did care about me. My friend did only try to help.

When I got home, I looked myself over and tried to see my hat through my friend’s eyes.

And it was then, and only then, that I began to rethink the yellow hat.

And you know what? I decided my head-topper needed to be removed from my wardrobe. The hat needed to be history. The hat needed to be deleted.


Dionna L. Mann

I’ve noticed a similar tendency in us writers. Oftentimes, when a critiquer doesn’t join us in loving what we’ve written, we tend to get defensive and dismissive. Sometimes we get fuming mad. Sometimes we hold on to what we’ve written and refuse to reevaluate its place in the manuscript. Objectivity may be obscured by our love—The YELLOW HAT SYNDROME.

Of course, a critiquer’s opinion may simply be proving the truism that one person’s ugly is another person’s beautiful. Who knows? The critiquer may simply have an aversion to the color yellow. And so, after graciously thanking them for sharing their opinion, we may decide not only to keep our yellow hat but wear it loudly. That’s what owning our own voice is all about.

Either way, viewing our work through the lens of a thoughtful critique can increase our objectivity. It can cause us to pause and ask: Is what I’ve written as beautiful as I imagine? Is my yellow hat all that? In that case, we’ll be willing to re-write, revise, re-order, or retire those yellow-hat darlings. After all, don’t we all want our manuscripts to be as sunshiny-beautiful as my yellow hat?

Dionna L. Mann, an SCBWI Mid-Atlantic PAL member since 2005, considers herself more of a re-writer than a writer. Her current work-in-progress is a nonfiction picture-book about a surrogate owl papa that has helped no less than 30 owlets pass mouse school. Dionna can be found celebrating all things kidlit at www.dionnalmann/blog.



Teen Lit: Beyond YA Into NA

New Adult (NA) books aren’t new, in fact the category has had its own BISAC codeimgres-2 (FICTION/Romance/New Adult) since 2013. But what constitutes a NA book versus a YA book? Does the protagonist have to be 18-25? Is romance required? Where are the boundaries, guidelines, and limits, if any? How are readers, and writers, responding?

For an in depth discussion, and a list of books pushing the boundaries and crossing category lines, read the full piece from School Library Journal.



Wetta, Molly. (2016, Dec 1). Categories Blur as Teen Lit Comes of Age. Retrieved from: http://www.slj.com/2016/12/teens-ya/categories-blur-as-teen-lit-comes-of-age/?utm_source=Publishers+Weekly&utm_campaign=a2113e9534-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0bb2959cbb-a2113e9534-305871045#_.

Destiny Calling, or How SCBWI Happened

Ever wonder how SCBWI started? You may know Lin Oliver and Steven Mooser co-founded the organization over 40 years ago, but do you know why? 

SCBWI co-founder Lin Oliver

It all started with a job Lin didn’t want…and a bit of destiny.

Read David Henry Sterry’s full article and interview with Lin that appeared in The Huffington Post last June.

David Henry Sterry, “Lin Oliver on Founding the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators,” The Huffington Post (blog), June 23, 2016,

5 Minutes With…Alexis O’Neill

In addition to being the author of many acclaimed children’s books, Alexis O’Neill is a former elementary school teacher with a Ph.D. in Teacher Education from Syracuse University, the author of ‘The Truth About School Visits’, a column for the SCBWI Bulletin, and the founder of SchoolVisitExperts. She also teaches writing for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and served as a Regional Advisor for the California Central-Coastal region of SCBWI. And if you were lucky enough to catch one of her sessions at Spring Spirit last year, you already know she’s a dynamic speaker full of tips and actionable information to help you as an author.

I caught up with her for a few minutes after Spring Spirit ’16. Nice to talk to you, Alexis! 

What would you say to an author or illustrator who is shy and uncomfortable with the idea of doing school visits? 

Alexis O’Neill, photo by Sonya Sones

Authors and illustrators are not obligated to do school visits. But feeling “shy” and “uncomfortable” may be a factor of not having enough experience in front of groups of kids. Start small – with a library group or one classroom – to see how it feels. If you have a good experience, expand the size of the groups you interact with. Work with librarians and teachers that you know, and ask for their advice. I think that once you get rolling, you’ll find interacting with your readers to be very rewarding.

School visits can be unpredictable. What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you during a presentation?

Do you mean the time there was a fire drill called in the middle of my presentation? Or the time a second grader threw up? Or the time when I had to use an Elmo instead of a digital projector because the equipment had failed? Actually, the weird stuff is pretty uncommon, but authors need to learn to roll with it when it does happen.

To date, what’s been your best moment as an author, and why?

Last year, I visited Lewiston-Porter Primary Education Center in Youngstown, NY, a TK – grade 2 school just north of Niagara Falls. Even though my most recent book, The Kite That Bridged Two Nations, is a picture book for older readers, the whole school had read my story. Just before my first assembly, the music teacher, Nicole Mosier, had all the kids stand up to sing, “To Fly a Kite” to which they did dance steps and hand movements. I cried! It was the most perfect song sung by the sweetest voices. And when the kids in the second assembly sang it, too, I teared up again. That gift of preparing so deeply for my visit was my best moment in all my years of doing author visits.

Alexis O’Neill is the author of The Recess Queen (Scholastic), a bully book; The Worst Best Friend (Scholastic), a story about friendship and forgiveness; Estela’s Swap (Lee & Low Books), a book about generosity and a unique California experience; Loud Emily (Simon & Schuster), a tale about being yourself; and The Kite That Bridged Two Nations: Homan Walsh and the First Niagara Suspension Bridge (Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills Press), a work that highlights the skill and persistence of a remarkable boy in a challenging setting. Alexis has also written fiction and nonfiction for Cricket, Spider, Cobblestone, Calliope, Faces, and Odyssey.

How I Got My Agent by Linda Whalen

Sitting by the phone, my nerves running wild, I double check the prepared list. I’ve checked it at least a hundred times. Maybe not a hundred but it feels that way.

  • Make sure dogs are in another room (no barking)—check

    Linda Whalen
  • Glass of water in case throat goes dry—check
  • Notepad and pencil—check
  • Ask family not to interrupt—check

The phone rings and my heart does a flip.

Now, let me back up a bit. When I first started to explore writing for children, I didn’t even know I needed an agent. Thankfully, I followed the advice of my children and got on the computer. I typed “writing for children” in the search bar. Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators came up. Sometimes it pays to listen to your children. An SCBWI conference was being held not too far from where I lived. I admit I was kind of scared to go, but my desire to be a children’s book author was stronger. Conference registration in hand, off I went.

At the conference there were so many people wanting to write for children, writing for children, illustrating for children, publishing books for children, and agents representing children’s book authors and Illustrators. Besides being a mother, my profession as owner/operator of a Child Care Facility carried with it a great love for children. These people loved children, too. I was right at home. However, was I good enough? After all there were so many good authors already. Self-doubt tried to sneak in.

I signed up for critiques, attended more conferences and workshops. Getting to know and appreciate the creativeness and willingness of SCBWI members to help newbies (like me) was a wonderful experience.

It was at one such conference that I met Suzy Williams, the RA for Reno, NV. There were no critique groups in my area, so she steered me to local author Linda Joy Singleton, who in turn introduced me to Danna Smith. They became my critique group plus so much more. By then I had learned the etiquette of looking for an agent from a conference speaker.

  • Be polite and do your research.
  • Don’t take it personally when rejected.
  • Don’t post angry feelings on social media about the agent who rejected you.
  • Don’t ask your friends to recommend you to their agent.

I learned to take rejection as a learning experience and not a career stopper. Because I followed what I’d learned, when one of my writer friends, Linda Joy Singleton, ran into agent Karen Grencik at a conference, she recommended Karen contact me as she thought we would be a good fit. Within a few days Karen had emailed me asking for two Picture Book manuscripts of my work. Linda Joy informed me of her recommendation to Karen and after researching and contacting some of Karen’s clients, I agreed.

There is a lot of good advice out there for finding an agent. You have put in the work—and eventually the right connection is made. No one likes rejection and some of the best things we can do are hone our craft, take advice, learn from speakers, and always take some time to relax. We need to let our creative side flow and not be hindered by the business side of writing.

I believe if you don’t turn away from your love of writing and keep trying to find the right agent you will be able to announce your book sale, like I was with the sale of Little Red Rolls Away.

It may take longer, like it did for me, or might happen sooner, but either way I do believe it will happen.

And so that brings us back to the beginning.

“Hello, this is Karen Grencik. May I please speak with Linda?”

All the right answers and several minutes later, I had an agent. Yay!

Linda will be a featured author at the Great Valley Bookfest in Manteca on October 14, and has two book launch signings coming up, details listed below.
May 21, 11:00 am-1:00 pm   
El Dorado Hills, CA
June 3,  1:00 pm
Davis, CA

little-red-rolls-away-linda-whalen-pbWhen Little Red Barn wakes one morning he finds his animal friends have gone. He’s empty and alone. And then big noisy machines lift him up and put him on truck. As Little Red is transported across the countryside, down a major river, and through city streets, he feels anxious and a little afraid. Where is he going? Who will be there when he reaches his destination?

When Little Red does finally reach his new home in a surprising location, he finds things are even better than before. The story of the little red barn’s relocation and adjustment to a new place will reassure and comfort young readers facing changes in their own lives.

Linda Whalen lives with her husband on a plot of land in Northern California. Born a city kid, she married a farm boy from the midwest and fell in love with country life. Surrounded by family, pets, and bunches of wild creatures, life is never dull. After working in and owning her own childcare facility, Linda now pursues her passion of writing for children. She also enjoys time spent with her art supplies. Visit her at lindawhalenauthor.com.

Good News!

goodnewsCongratulations to member Jed Alexander! Jed’s new book, Red, was acquired by Amy Novesky at Cameron + Company and will be published in the spring of 2018. Red is a twist on Little Red Riding Hood and is the first in a series of wordless retellings of classic fairy tales for young children. The deal was made by Jed’s agent, Abigail Samoun at Red Fox Literary. I first learned of Jed’s new success when I read the announcement in the 11/17/16 Publisher’s Weekly Children’s Bookshelf. Way to go, Jed!

I asked Jed to share his inspiration for the new book and a bit about his journey to publication for this manuscript/series:

I’ve always been interested in the universality of wordless narrative—the idea that anybody can pick up the book and connect with it. This was the inspiration for my first book, funded through Kickstarter, (Mostly) Wordless.

Red, though, started as a mailer. A short, condensed, wordless version of Little Red Riding

Jed Alexander

Hood in a two-color trifold mailer. In the story, Little Red Riding Hood is confronted by a very menacing looking wolf. Later we find that the wolf is stalling Little Red, while grandma and the other animals in the forest are preparing a birthday party for her. My agent, Abigail Samoun, liked the mailer so much she suggested I turn it into a book.

So, unconventionally, I decided to draw the whole book instead of a dummy. I’d submitted book dummy after book dummy, and it was time. It was the same with (Mostly) Wordless, which was eventually picked up by the publisher, Alternative Comics. I’m in this to make books, not book proposals, and so that’s what I did. And I very much recommend it.

We’re told over and over, “That’s not how it works, don’t send the publisher a completed project, they won’t be interested.” But my background in small press comics informed me otherwise. When I was doing small press comics, people made books. You submitted a completed project, or you published it yourself, and in small press comics, self-publishing had no stigma attached to it. Whether is was photocopied or conventionally printed, if it looked good, people bought it. You might not have had many readers, but you had readers. And this is often still how it’s done. This is how Raina Telgemeier started. Before Smile she was doing photocopied ‘zines. That’s how she got the attention of Scholastic and was commissioned to do the Babysitter’s Club series.

I’m not saying I’ve given up on the conventional submission process. I’m just saying there’s only so long I’m willing to wait. And if you want to make a book, nothing’s stopping you.

So I finished the book, which I called “Red,” along with covers for two other prospective books in the series, “Yellow” and “Blue,” all based on fairy tales and designed for a two-color format. Abi took it to New York. Nobody was interested. Wordless books weren’t selling. Or that was one of the reasons they sited. I try not to think too hard about why a book is rejected. All I can do is do the best work I can. The fact is nobody knows what sells or why it sells. Not editors or publishers. If they had that magic formula, every book they published would be a bestseller and there would be no midlist books or failures.

My agent and I had already established a relationship with Cameron + Company, and Amy Novesky had shown interest in expanding one of the short pieces in (Mostly) Wordless into a full-length picture book. I’d put together a dummy, but ultimately they passed. Still, Amy really liked my work, and asked, “Do you have anything else, particularly with animals?”  And I said, “Of course I do.” I sent her Red. She got back the same day. She said she loved it, and asked if I had any ideas for a “Green.”

An excerpt illustration from Red

Eventually, Amy and the rest of the fine folks at Cameron + Company asked me to expand my little 24-page square book to a more conventional 32-page 7×10 format. This required me to redraw most of the book, but I’m glad for the opportunity to improve it. It’s going to look great!

What I particularly like about the concept of Red is that even the title is universal. The whole series is designed for very young children. I’d love to have them say, “I want the red one,” or “I want the yellow one,” and that could be “red” or “yellow” in any language. The story is all told in pantomime. This too comes from my background in comics, in which so much of the story has to be communicated with attitude and body language. Other influences are turn of the century books by Wilhelm Busch, and Rodolfe Topffer, which also rely very much on pantomime.

I think more than ever, right now we have to ask ourselves as artists—what is the value of what we’re doing? What am I adding here? And that’s why I think wordless books are so important, because any kid can connect with any other kid through a book like this, or see themselves in it. And in a culture where we have so many other barriers beyond just language, we need as much common ground as we can get.

After working for over ten years in the editorial field for such publications as LA Weekly, The Sacramento News and Review and The Santa Cruz Metro, Jed returned to his first love, children’s literature. With this new focus, Jed debuted his portfolio at The 2009 Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators North/Central California conference where he won Best in Show. He has since contributed to Nickelodeon Magazine, Spongebob Comics, and Cricket Magazine as both an author and illustrator. Find out more about Jed at jedalexander.com.

What Motivates Us? by Josh Nash

I recently read the following quote: “Insecurity breeds quality.” Is that true? And no, not the kind of insecurity where you worry that your nostrils are bigger than everybody else’s (for example). The quote in question comes from Don Robinson, the editor of a small WWII infantry division newspaper, for whom “insecurity” meant the constant fear of the paper being shut down, which in turn pushed his work to the highest standard of quality. It really got me thinking. What is it that motivates us as illustrators to create and achieve great things with our art? There are undoubtedly countless causes for motivation—probably as many as there are illustrators. But I am one illustrator, and I can think of a few.

One good motivator is having a goal, a brass ring to reach for. My wife would very much

Josh Nash

like to win the lottery. Which would be really great for me. I could finally put that animatronic jungle cruise in the backyard, and she could finally build those schools in Africa or whatever. But if I really think about it, a winning lottery ticket for me would look a bit different. For me, it would be walking into my local independent bookstore, and seeing a book I made, wrapped in a shiny, beautifully designed dust jacket, spread across the lap of mom and child as they lose themselves in the magic of storytelling. Eventually they buy 24 copies and pass them out to friends, family, grocery clerks, mail carriers and random motorists waiting at red lights. What does your winning lottery ticket look like? What is your brass ring?

Competition motivates. I look at art by Marla Frazee and Adam Rex and I see a level of intention and excellence that is so inspiring. So inspiring that it makes me want to run straight to my studio, close the door, tear my current work into confetti-sized pieces, toss it into the air and let it rain over me in a shower of ordinary. But just before I go in for such dramatics, I remember that if I want to make great art, my competition is the place to look for inspiration. There are vast amounts of talent among the throbbing mob of hopeful illustrators just waiting to be tested, dying to be published. And we can learn so much from each other. Though, I find it very motivating to turn to the illustrators at the top of the heap as well. These are the artists who are making amazing books, and theirs is the level of excellence I strive for in my art.
Closely tied to that sense of competition is the desire to improve, which is also a strong motivator. How many times have you completed a work of illustration and compared it to that first vision you had in our mind? How many times has that initial vision eluded you? When you realize that the only way to improve is to keep working, you can turn that into a kind of purpose. A working mantra.
Another catalyst for improvement is critique. I have found that the most valuable critiques come from the professionals in the industry. SCBWI conferences are obviously a great place to sit down with an art director, agent, or professional illustrator and say “Please look at the very embodiment of my naked soul which I have delivered onto page from the absolute furthest reaches of my ability and do please indicate in the most precise language possible, just how I have fallen short.” I have also come by great critiques by following Penguin Random House Executive Art Director, Giuseppe Castellano on twitter (@pinocastellano). Giusseppe will periodically offer twitter crits in 140 characters or less. I was happy for the benefit of his expertise on one particular piece I was working on. He pointed out to me that it could certainly use a splash or two of color throughout. I took his advice and I think the illustration is better for it.
Finally, it seems to me that there is one motivator that ensures all others—the need to create. We would not even be discussing these subtler instruments of motivation were it not for the very need we feel deep in our bones to make art! This is the same need that, when neglected, can make us feel cranky and out of sorts, kind of like skipping breakfast—only imagine breakfast contains all the essential soul-sustaining minerals and life-affirming vitamins a healthy body requires.

Whatever it is that motivates you to create, be it a brass ring, or simply an innate need, keep letting it push you to achieve greatness with your art. It may even lead to a winning lottery ticket—whatever that might look like to you.

Josh is 50% eraser shavings, 50% animal cookies and 50% Café Americano. Josh is also horrible at math but he loves to draw. Josh has been drawing professionally since 2004 and has done so for the nice folks at Scholastic, Hooked on Phonics, and singer-song writer Kenny Loggins. When he isn’t drawing he can be found enjoying beautiful Northern California with his wife and dog, traveling to a rainy European city, reading a book or doing any number of activities that don’t require math. He may also be busy writing his own stories, querying agents, or working on a new board book for Beacon Publishing.

Visit Josh at joshuanashillustratesFacebook, and Twitter.