Claire Ward-Dutton is a web designer, a mother, and the founder of Little Parachutes, a website that finds and categorizes picture books that help children with some of life’s challenges. She was kind enough to take 5 minutes and answer a few questions!
1. What is Little Parachutes?
Little Parachutes is a website which provides a unique and simple way to search for picture books that address situations and issues that young children experience. By browsing the Little Parachutes library you can quickly find stories which feature subjects such as sharing, moving house, potty training, eating healthy and visiting the doctor. Also included are more challenging situations such as bereavement, adoption, divorce and serious illness in the family.
2. How did you come up with the idea?
The idea for Little Parachutes came to me at the time my son (who was then a toddler) started to be frightened at bedtime, claiming there were ‘monsters under the bed.’ He has always been comforted and entertained by picture books, so I instinctively started searching for a story that I thought might address his fears. I quickly realized, despite the fact that there is an abundance of picture books published which cover situations and issues affecting the very young, they are often very tricky to find.
As an adult facing a problem, we tend to browse for titles, and these titles invariably describe the problem (eg, ‘Coping With Divorce’). This searching method simply doesn’t work with children’s picture books , which often have completely abstract, unrelated titles (such as ‘The Last Noo Noo’ by Gill Murphy, which is a story about a little monster giving up his dummy, but you wouldn’t guess this from the title!) Even if you do ‘get lucky’ and find a title that gives you a clue to the content within, it is often still very hard to ascertain whether the story is suitable for a child’s particular situation (book publishers rarely provide a full synopsis of fiction books—adults don’t want to know what happens at the end of the story—but this is often vital if you are trying to judge the suitability of a picture book.)
So I embarqued on a journey to provide a service which would soothe this particular headache and Little Parachutes was born.
3. What’s the most interesting or unusual experience you’ve had establishing the site?
Something quite interesting and unusual about Little Parachutes is that it was built, and continues to run, on no budget whatsoever. My husband and I used our web development backgrounds to design and build the site. Friends and family were enormously generous with their time and helped to review books, write articles, and provide illustrations and other expertise. Despite the lack of budget, it has had millions of visitors from all over the world and seems to do the job it was intended for!
4. How much of an impact is Little Parachutes having? Are you getting much feedback?
The feedback I get is overwhelmingly positive. I get a lot of emails from parents and carers telling me how books they have found through the website have helped a child who is going through really troubling times. It is a great honour to be able to have a positive impact in situations such as these. I also get lots of inquiries from authors and illustrators who think their book might be a good match to the website and a good deal of book theme suggestions!
5. How can authors, illustrators, or publishers let you know of a book that should be listed on Little Parachutes?
I’m in the process of re-designing the website to include more submission guidelines, this is coming soon, but in the meantime you can reach me at email@example.com.
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
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.
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?
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.
You might recognize John Rudolph as one of our faculty members from Spring Spirit 2016! He presented an excellent session on contract negotiation, led a workshop on perfecting your pitch letter, and participated in a panel discussion with editor Tamar Mays that gave us insight into exactly what each were looking for.
& Goderich in 2010 after twelve years as an acquiring children’s book editor. He began his career at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers as an Editorial Assistant and then moved to the G. P. Putnam’s Sons imprint of the Penguin Young Readers Group, where he eventually served as Executive Editor on a wide range of young adult, middle-grade, nonfiction, and picture book titles. John is keenly interested in middle-grade and young adult fiction and would love to find the next great picture book author/illustrator.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, John!
You spent many years as an editor. Do you look for something different now, when you read a manuscript as an agent, or are the key points still the same?
On the whole, the key points are the same—compelling characters, an original voice, strong plotting, etc. However, I’m more aware that my personal tastes are not necessarily what editors are looking for. Case in point: As much as I enjoyed WONDER, I felt that it was geared more for adults to share with their kids much more than for kids to read on their own, which is a publication strategy I never supported as an editor. But as an agent, I have to acknowledge that editors are looking for books in that vein and be open to those kinds of stories.
What are you looking for in a potential new client?
Obviously, I’m looking primarily at the submitted work and whether I think I can sell it. But I also like to see that the author is engaged in the children’s book community, using social media, and that they have other manuscripts available or have ideas for future work. And, of course, being a member of SCBWI is a major plus!
Please describe a typical working relationship with one of your authors.
While every relationship with a client differs due to the client’s needs, typically I go through a couple of rounds of revisions with the client before I submit their book. Once the book is on submission, I try to be as transparent about the process as possible—I share my cover letter and the submission list, and if for some reason we don’t sell the book, I share all the responses and strategize with the author what to do next. Once a book is sold, though, I feel it’s important for me to step back and let the client and her editor form their own relationship. So at that point, my work with the client is more about next steps and projects than the one that’s currently under contract.
What are your turn-ons and turn-offs when reading a submission?
Biggest turn on by FAR is humor—anything that can make me chuckle is a plus, and if I laugh out loud, chances are you’ll get an offer. Beyond that, I look for a straightforward cover letter and if it’s a novel, a sample chapter that shows voice and characterization. As for turn-offs, not following our submission guidelines is a big one—they’re on our website, so not very hard to find, and they’re pretty easy to follow. And lately, I’ve developed a pet peeve with sample chapters that try to do too much. It’s a natural urge to try and cram in as much plot as possible in the opening chapter, but I would much rather see voice and characterization than have the central conflict introduced by the end of chapter 1.