MICHELLE MARKEL is a successful writer and a local SCBWI member! She’s the author of Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909, which won the Bank Street Flora Stieglitz Straus Award and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for Younger Children, and was also chosen as an NCTE Orbis Picture Honor Book. Her recent titles are Balderdash!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books and Out of This World: The Surreal Art of Leonora Carrington.
CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT: Welcome to Kite Tales! Your career has included a number of popular narrative nonfiction books as well as some fiction. How is the industry changing?
MICHELLE MARKEL: The field of narrative nonfiction has busted open. There are now books about little known historical events, unsung heroes, and underrepresented groups (women and people of color). Editors are interested in expressive language, innovative artwork, and uncommon formats. They’re looking for creative “hooks” to grab young readers. If you love telling stories, and love nonfiction, this is your moment.
CVZ: What’s your writing process for your biographies?MM: 1) I pick a kid-friendly subject who attracts me, and whose story deserves to be told. That means her experience can tell us about the human condition—it has universal themes. For example, my new book on Leonora Carrington is about perseverance and believing in yourself. Leonora defied norms about her gender and class to become an artist. She loved myth and fairy tales, like many children do, and incorporated them in her art.
2) For research, I start with the main and most recent biographies (if they exist), and check out their bibliographies, searching for primary sources. I look at journal articles and sometimes do interviews. I may visit museums and cities where my subject has spent some time. I track down sensory details to help me depict the setting. My research for Balderdash! John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books, for example, included novels, old engravings, advertisements, and collections of [eighteenth century] street cries—the language used by vendors hawking their wares. I looked at Newbery’s cute little antique books in the flesh, at UCLA’s Special Collections.
3) I determine what theme to focus on, related to the narrative arc of the story. This usually takes a while. If there’s a shortcut, I haven’t figured it out yet.
4) I break down the story into at least 15 pivotal, illustratable scenes or moments, that fall roughly into three acts.
5) I start writing. The first paragraph is the killer. It’s the entry way into the whole enterprise, and I have to get it right.
CVZ: Where do you get your ideas?
MM: Ideas can pop up anywhere—even at a kidlit conference. All it took was a PowerPoint slide of A Little Pretty Pocket-Book with “A Letter from Jack the Giant-Killer” to get me hooked on John Newbery. [This now-famous 1740s book is credited with being the first book for children; it was published by John Newbery.] Some time later, researching the early days of the children’s literature industry, I came across a funny little book called Marmaduke Multiply’s Merry Method of Making Minor Mathematicians [an 1841 children’s classic]. Knowing that many kids despise learning multiplication, I was inspired to write a modern take, called Terrible Times Tables, which is coming out this August (Cameron Kids).
CVZ: Do you have any advice for aspiring children’s picture books writers?
MM: Learn to write by reading books you wished you’d written. Study their voice, pacing, structure, character development, imagery, motifs, and more. While working on a story, take breaks of days or weeks, and journal your thoughts about how the process is going. Rejection hurts, but remember that bruises are part of mastering your craft. Years ago, a bout of rejection got me so crushed that I nearly quit writing for kids. But I thought I’d try one more time, and gave myself permission to be playful with the writing, to have attitude, to break some rules. That manuscript became a successful book. I didn’t give up—and neither should you.
CVZ: Thank you for your helpful advice!
If you want to meet Michelle in person and learn more about her latest project: Michelle’s Out of This World Book Signing Party (with wine, cheese, and cake!) takes place on Thursday, March 28th, from 6 to 8pm at Small World Books, 1407 Ocean Front Walk, Venice, 90291. Free parking on the westside at Speedway and Market. Please RVSP on FB or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Images provided by Michelle Markel: Out of This World images from Balzer + Bray, author image by Susan Casey, and Terrible Times Tables image from Cameron Kids.