Ann Whitford Paul is the New York Times best-selling author of the picture book series If Animals Kissed Good Night and of the definitive children’s picture book writers’ reference book, Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide From Story Creation to Publication. She was kind enough to chat with us and share how her series got started, what’s next for her, her advice for other writers, and more
CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT: Welcome to Kite Tales! With over twenty children’s books published, there’s so much to talk about, but your If Animals Kissed Good Night series is a favorite of mine. The fifth book in the series, If Animals Gave Thanks (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), is out in time for the holidays. How did this series get started?
ANN WHITFORD PAUL: Writing a series was the farthest thing from my mind when I wrote If Animals Kissed Good Night. I simply wanted to tell the story of a game I played with one of my sons. We live close to the Los Angeles Zoo so at least once a week, after he wakened from his nap, we would head over there. Then that night, we would pretend we were the animals we’d seen. We would make an elephant trunk with our hands, stretch our necks like giraffes, or flap our hawk arm wings and kiss good night.
My first version was exactly as it happened. A mom and her son, doing the different animal kisses. My critique group liked it and I sent it out, but one editor commented the story felt oedipal! That was embarrassing! Something radical had to change.
I decided to take it out of the game and just make a concept book, imagining how animals might kiss and it sold right away. My editor, Melanie Kroupa, hired the wonderful illustrator, David Walker. The book did well. I earned back my royalties, but evidently it wasn’t selling as much as Farrar, Straus, and Giroux liked so they took it out-of-print. Should be the end of the story, right?
Melanie Kroupa had left the publisher and my book was assigned to Janine O’Malley. Janine’s son adored this book, so she lobbied marketing to bring it back as a board book and then it zipped to the top of charts so quickly that Janine asked me to write another. I tried one about animals bathing in tubs and another about animals wearing clothes. Both were rejected. Finally, Janine suggested trying If Animals Said I Love You. She and the marketing people have suggested all of the subsequent titles. I didn’t love assignments when I was a student, but I love them as a writer. Assignments make me think outside my box. Thanks to their suggestions David and I, in addition to Kissing, have published If Animal Celebrated Christmas, If Animals Went to School, and If Animals Gave Thanks. This spring If Animals Tried to Be Kind will be out and October 2022 If Animals Trick-or-Treated will be available in stores.
I am grateful to Janine and her son for loving my book, and forever in debt to the timing and luck that helped If Animals grow into a series. To learn more about the creation of this series, and meet the illustrator David Walker, check out THIS you tube video.
CVZ: Your writers’ reference book, Writing Picture Books, is foundational for anyone writing picture books. What made you switch gears from fiction to creating this informational book?
AWP: You’re the first person who ever asked me this question! It was both scary and relatively easy. I had taught at UCLA Extension and given talks at numerous conferences, so I had lots of material, but it took the urging of several of my students to take the plunge. The idea appealed to me because before I sold my first picture book, I wrote for five years and received hundreds of rejections. I believe strongly there is a craft to writing picture books and hoped if I shared what I learned over that time, other writer’s journeys would be easier and shorter.
I pitched a sample chapter and a tentative outline to Writer’s Digest Books, and they said YES. That’s when the scary part kicked in. Now I had to write the book! As a writer of picture books, rarely over 700 words, I was now committed to writing thousands and thousands of words.
Years ago, my father had been given a contract to write an insurance textbook that he never completed. I couldn’t let that happen to me, but didn’t know how to not get overwhelmed by all the material. I solved that by telling myself that each chapter was just one picture book. Moving from one picture book (chapter) to the next made it possible for me to proceed and finally finish the book.
Being asked to update the book ten years later was a gift. Many writers will tell you that when they reread one of their books, they find words they would replace, sentences they’d rewrite and topics they wished they’d included.
I added additional chapters and loved rewriting the quizzes and searching libraries and bookstores to find new books to provide as examples.
CVZ: What’s your favorite part of writing a book?
AWP: To answer this, I have to start with my least favorite part of writing—the first draft. I have a great idea in my head, but find it painful to put down. I must force myself to “vomit” it out. Sorry for the disgusting image.
My first draft is usually mundane, lacking music, and more like the beige of my living room walls, than the bright wallpapered dining room walls. All too often, beginning writers are so discouraged by this draft, they throw it in the wastebasket or delete it from their computers.
Don’t do that!
You’ll miss out on my favorite part of writing a book—revising. Here I get to brighten my words, up the tension, embellish the characters, and bring my story alive.
CVZ: Has the pandemic affected you as a writer?
AWP: Oh, my heavens, YES! I naïvely thought last March that stuck at home, I’d have oodles of time to write new stories.
WRONG! In spite of the extra time, I was suddenly bereft of ideas. How can one write happy, loving, and uplifting children’s stories when the world was so scary and depressing? My muse threw up her hands. “I’m out of here. You’re on your own!” Off she went to the safety of virus-free New Zealand. I hope she’ll return once we have a vaccine.
With no new ideas, I forced myself to switch gears and pulled up old stories that needed work. Some I’d been away from for months, even years. Coming back with the necessary distance one needs to view objectively, I was able to revise and improve enough to send to my agent who is now submitting some to publishers.
Then seven months into cocooning-at-home, I read an obituary that intrigued me and was a story relevant to our times. It would require two writers, each taking the voice of one of the characters, so I contacted a writer friend to see if she was interested. She said yes and so we’re busy writing together, encouraging each other and sharing and critiquing our work. It feels partly like I’m back at school with an assignment and not wanting to disappoint my friend, I make sure I do each assignment on time.
CVZ: What’s next for you as a writer?
AWP: Writing more stories! I feel blessed to have found a career I love and that I can do anytime, anywhere, even during these unsettling times, so I’ll keep on plugging away. If I don’t work at writing every day, I lose energy and feel depressed. Just completing a short poem, refining a sentence, or finding the perfect word, restores my energy and lifts my spirits.
CVZ: In closing, do you have a piece of advice to help other writers?
AWP: I’ve probably said this one zillion times, but it can’t be repeated enough. Trust your own voice. For years I was criticized for being a quiet writer. I tried to be noisy. I tried to be hip. I tried to be raucous, silly and edgy, but it wasn’t me.
My stories are quiet, because I was inspired to write after years of bedtime reading to my children. The last thing I wanted was to read them a book that would inspire them to activity. What I did need to learn was how to give my quiet books an arc, to have them build, and maybe even add some humor.
Embrace who you are. Write who you are, but study how you can take the unique you and shape it into a compelling, lyrical story.
CVZ: Thank you, Ann.
Ann Whitford Paul graduated from the University of Wisconsin and Columbia University School of Social Work. She became inspired to write picture books after years of bedtime reading to her four children. Now she gets story ideas from her seven grandchildren. She’s published over 20 award-winning picture books, (rhyme and prose—fiction and nonfiction) poetry, early readers and a book for adults about how to write picture books. When she isn’t writing, she loves listening to her cat purr, watching spiders spin their webs and following snails’ trails.
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Author image by Sonya Sones. Book cover images courtesy of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.