Fraser is also the Regional Advisor for SCBWI’s Central-Coastal Region. She talks to Kite Tales about her prolific career and shares lessons learned over the years.
Erlina Vasconcellos: Congratulations on your new book, a nonfiction look into the childhood of Alexander Graham Bell. How did you choose him as the subject?
Mary Ann Fraser: First, thank you for the opportunity to share my journey toward this latest book. As always, I am so grateful for the support and encouragement of my friends and peers that make up this amazing community we call SCBWI.
In 2012 my husband and I visited the Alexander Graham Bell Historic Site in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. I was amazed at Bell’s endless curiosity, inventiveness, and desire to help others, particularly the deaf, and was struck by how his life’s work seemed inevitable from the time he was a young lad. His mother was deaf and his father and grandfather were speech therapists. At the museum bookstore, I asked if they had any picture books on Bell. The cashier said they didn’t but wished they did. That’s when bells (excuse the pun) started ringing, and I realized I had my next project.
EV: After 60 books, how do you stay inspired and keep things fresh? Is your method for generating ideas different from when you began?
MAF: I’ve learned over the years that if you are curious about the world and observant, ideas come to you. The real challenge is finding a unique approach to a subject or story that will resonate with the intended audience. That’s where voice, point-of-view, and focus come into play, that and more rewrites than I can count on all my fingers and toes.
EV: How did you get started with creating picture books?
MAF: I had thought about creating picture books from the time I was in second grade, but was told that the field was too slam-jammed with talent for me to find success. It wasn’t until some years later, when someone saw my commercial illustration work and asked me to illustrate their manuscript, that I began to seriously consider a career in children’s books. The first thing I did was to sign up for a class through UCLA Extension. From there I joined SCBWI, began attending local workshops and conferences regularly, and joined two critique groups.
EV: What comes first, the words or the pictures?
MAF: I began as an illustrator, so initially it was the pictures. But fairly quickly, I discovered that, for me, writing to serve the pictures made for really lousy, limp stories. I had to retrain myself to first think as a writer, then as the artist. You might ask, “but what about wordless picture books?” But even in that case, the story drives the art.
EV:What’s the most common advice that you give to SCBWI members?
MAF: Read, read, read! And not just the books from your childhood, but current titles. Also, read your own work aloud. Better yet, have someone else read it aloud to you. And don’t try to write to the market. That boat has sailed and docked. Editors are looking for the next new concept, voice, or vision. We are each unique and must look to mine the gold within.
EV: What have 60 books taught you about the kid lit publishing industry and picture book world that you wish you knew at book one?
MAF: 60-plus books have taught me that the world of children’s books is a lot like elementary school (except in my case, minus the nuns). If you work hard, turn your assignments in on time, treat others with respect, do your homework, you’ll continue to advance and others will want to play with you.
EV: Your website is full of resources. Besides a press kit, you include lots of resources for parents and teachers, like activity guides, teacher guides, instructions for crafts. How did you get started putting those together? I imagine those extras take a lot of time.
MAF: Those resources do take a fair amount of time to pull together, but sometimes the publisher contributes by hiring someone to create an activity guide. Still, I find the best thing to do is to start gathering materials and ideas as soon as you have a contract in hand. My own research for the book generates a lot of the activities. I also look to see what else is out there already on the topic and try to add to that or to put my own spin on it. And teachers can be a wonderful help, too. I’m not an educator, so I make a point of asking them what would be most appropriate and helpful in the classroom.
EV: The book launch party for Alexander Graham Bell Answers the Call included a STEM activity, contest, and old phones on display. What have you learned about book launch parties? What makes them successful? Does it always have to be more than reading, answering questions, and signing books?
MAF: I make any launch about more than just the book. In the case of Alexander Graham Bell Answers the Call, 20 percent of the proceeds from sales went to benefit the Friends of the Library. Also, the library does a STEM activity once a month, so in the case of the Bell book, it made perfect sense to team up with staff. Kids made their own harmonicas, exploring how sound is made, and we had old rotary telephones on display for them to examine. They couldn’t figure out why there was no “enter” button to direct a call. And don’t forget, people like what they know. Sharing the story behind the story is always more interesting than just a read. Of course, none of this guarantees a big turnout, but if you make the event entertaining and engaging, you are more likely to see success.
Learn more about Mary Ann Fraser at www.maryannfraser.com.
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Erlina Vasconcellos is the Kite Tales assistant editor. When she isn’t working as a journalist, she is writing — and rewriting — a picture book and a middle grade novel. Find her on Twitter: @noterlinda
All photos courtesy of Mary Ann Fraser.