Christine Van Zandt is a Los Angeles writer, editor, and longtime SCBWI volunteer. She’s a familiar name here on Kite Tales, previously as the Editor and now as a regular contributor. Her debut picture book, A Brief History of Underpants, will be published in June, though that wasn’t the initial plan . . . read on to get the scoop!
CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT: There have been various pandemic-related delays, then the Suez Canal blockage stopped ships for about a week and further backed up international shipping. A lot of authors publishing in this past year have experienced something similar.
FK: Now let’s talk about the book itself, or more specifically, the topic of your book. What made you decide to write about underpants?
CVZ: My (then) third-grade daughter came up with the topic after I volunteered at her elementary school’s week-long Book Fair in 2018. Nonfiction books were prominently featured, yet kids resisted the awesome titles, complaining that nonfiction was boring, so I set out to prove them wrong.
Once the manuscript was completed and workshopped with various critique partners, I pitched the 32-page picture book on #PitMad (a Twitter pitch event) and landed a publisher (Quarto Kids’ imprint becker&mayer! kids).
FK: What was your research like? How do you research underpants?
CVZ: The publisher decided to expand the book to 48 pages during the early months of the pandemic when libraries and bookstores were closed. So, I bought reference books—a lot of reference books. And hunted down underwear facts from every continent, back to the beginning of fossilized undies. I thought I’d have a hard time finding a fact from Antarctica, but that ended up being one of the funniest ones.
Overall, it was a difficult topic to research. I stuck to reputable sources and verified each item at least three times. Yet, since some of the information is ancient, I found contradictions.
In many reference books, “unmentionables” weren’t mentioned—and they certainly weren’t photographed. Researching a clothing item that’s not talked about or shown as truly worn made this aspect challenging. Data often contained partially preserved scraps; historians tried to reconstruct exactly how they were worn and by whom.
My final list of references and facts that went to the publisher’s fact-checking department was sixteen pages, single-spaced. Already now, a year later, there likely have been new discoveries and ideas about what people wore and why. It’s hard to fit an ever-changing world history into a 1,500-word book and, as it goes with traditional publication, some decisions are out of the writer’s control.
FK: How does your book tie into STEM?
CVZ: Archaeological finds contributed to the history of underpants and the Industrial Revolution changed how underwear was made with its engineering inventions, technological advances, and innovations using textiles or other materials.
FK: What’s been beneficial to help promote your book?
CVZ: The publisher secured some fabulous opportunities for me including being featured in their April educator newsletter and in a podcast. I also have a column coming up in Shelf Awareness which has a readership of ~500K!
I’ve been boosting the book too. It’s amazing how much time and money you can put into this aspect. Joining up with other authors has been beneficial. I belong to a debut picture book group, 21 for the Books, and also to STEAM Team Books which is a mix of experienced authors and some newbies like me. These groups provide a place to ask questions, swap information, and vent when needed. There is a lot to learn, especially with how things have recently changed: How do we sign books remotely? What’s the best way to film virtual author events? Stuff beyond “just” writing and selling a book!
I’ve had two virtual in-school events. One for Literary Week. In another, I paired with the nonprofit Undies for Everyone, combining an elementary school’s service project with my author visit. These events included a reading of my book, answering specific questions from the classes and providing classroom materials such as bookmarks, stickers, a word search, and Beyond the Book questions.
FK: What are Beyond the Book questions?
CVZ: Beyond the Book questions take the information that’s touched upon in the book and asks kids to think about it further. For example, consider the different uses we’ve had for underpants. They protect our bottoms, but have also shown a person’s rank or social status, and have been a sign of protest (by making and wearing traditional handspun clothing, Gandhi tried to help India gain independence from British rule).
Then inventions changed everything. Kids can discuss how the sewing machine produced clothing much faster than hand sewing, or how today’s synthetic fabrics are negatively impacting our environment.
FK: What advice do you have for pre-published authors?
CVZ: Regularly participate in one or more critique groups—I hope you attended SCBWI-L.A.’s annual Critique Day on May 16, 2021! Attend workshops or conferences to learn and work on your craft. Read, read, read, then write, write, write.
FK: What are you currently working on?
CVZ: I have completed picture book manuscripts, so I’m ready to sell the next book and am open to finding an agent.
FK: Since your book sold unagented, why not go that path again?
CVZ: While I have no regrets choosing to publish this book unagented and would publish another book that way, I don’t typically have access to the big publishers without an agent. For anyone wondering which route is best for them, there was information in our May 5, 2021, “Ask an Editor” column.
FK: Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
CVZ: When you like someone’s book, please leave a review on sites like Amazon, Goodreads, or Barnes & Noble. Reviews help authors immensely. It gets their books noticed and that’s important with how many books are published in today’s marketplace.
Maybe reviews aren’t your thing. In that case, check out the book from your local library so it shows activity. If your library doesn’t have it, request that they purchase a copy.
I had no idea how important these things were. I’ve always checked out a ton of books, but now I write reviews, then copy and paste them across those three platforms. It just takes a few minutes and is my way of giving something back to authors whose books I like.
FK: Thanks for sharing your experience and expertise, Christine. We look forward to seeing your published book!
Christine Van Zandt hasn’t found fossilized underwear, but she loves digging up ideas that make great books for kids. She’s a literary editor and lives in Los Angeles, California, with her family and a monarch butterfly sanctuary. Visit her online at christinevanzandt.com, or connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
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Farrha Khan is the Managing Editor of Kite Tales, a Los Angeles Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators board member, and a writer in the nonprofit industry. When she’s not advocating for better representation, diversity, and inclusion in the arts and entertainment, media, and tech industries, or championing everyone to tell their own stories, she writes YA and short stories. Connect with her on Twitter: @farrhak.
Book cover and interior images by becker&mayer! kids.