by Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh
You may have heard these rules about getting published: Don’t pitch as a team with an illustrator. Don’t pitch directly to the publisher. And do not write in rhyme. I followed those rules until I didn’t. Here’s why breaking the rules was so good for me.
I started as a rule-follower. I joined SCBWI and formed a writers group. I read most of THE BOOK, SCBWI’s definitive guide to kid lit, agents, and publishers. I thoroughly researched agents and I penned cover letters.
Then I waited for responses.
When they finally trickled in, nearly every one included the sentence, “Please keep in mind that tastes are subjective and another agent may feel differently.”
In the wee, small hours, my thoughts tunneled. If it takes “X” years to land an agent…and another “X” months to sell a book, and another “X” years until publication…
I needed help.
So I started asking for it. “Do you know any agents or publishers?” I asked my hairdresser, some woman at the supermarket, and a gas station attendant.
It’s said that whatever we’re after tends to show up when we stop looking. I never really do that, but I do have moments of being in the flow. That’s how I was feeling at my daughter’s Mommy & Me group one morning.
That group, Friendship Circle LA, is a Jewish organization that supports parents of kids with special needs. I have a kid with special needs. Friendship Circle has given me and my family so much love and support, all I could think that morning was I have to write a book for you guys. So, as Mommy & Me leader Chanie Lazaroff helped my daughter paint a bicycle-shaped menorah, I asked her if she knew anyone in children’s publishing.
“YES!” she said. “You have to talk to Marc Lumer!”
Marc is an established illustrator and author, and I initially thought that talking to him might be akin to introducing two actors. How could one cast the other? But Marc turned out to be very kind, and he had an idea. “I have some illustrations on my website that are orphans,” he said. “If anything inspires you, you could write a story around it and we could pitch it together.” He’d been wanting to work on a book for Kar-Ben (one of America’s biggest publishers of Jewish children’s books), and he was looking for the right story. His art and my writing might just get us through the door.
So when I found three animals that reminded me of Indonesian paper cuts with a touch of 1960s flair, I was inspired to write a Noah’s Ark story around them. Marc helped and encouraged me to rewrite it many, many times. And then…I rhymed it.
I had a reason. My daughter’s special needs delay her ability to speak. Through hundreds of speech therapy lessons, I’ve discovered three commonalities among the books her therapists use: rhyme, rhythm, and repetition. Rhyme, I learned, seems to connect with the brain similarly to music, making language memorable. Rhythm does the same. And repetition drives it home. It also makes my daughter giggle.
Manuscript polished, I went online to The Manuscript Wish List, where I found none other than Kar-Ben publisher Joni Sussman calling for submissions. And I submitted to her directly, with Marc’s sample illustrations.
We sold Can You Hear A Coo, Coo?, a board book for ages zero to three, in a week.
Since then, I’ve sold four more books to Kar-Ben. I’ve also signed with agent Claire Easton of Painted Words.
So do I follow the rules anymore? Absolutely.
Just not all of them.
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Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh recently sold her first four children’s books, Can You Hear A Coo-Coo?, A Hoopoe Says, “Oop!”, Listen! Israel’s All Around, and The Biggest of All! to Kar-Ben Publishing. She regularly writes cover stories for National Geographic KIDS magazine. She also speaks conversational Felis Catus (house cat).
Photos by Daniel Alcheh. Book cover provided by Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh. Illustration by Marc Lumer.