Janet Halfmann is the award-winning author of many books, including the Sylvan Dell titles Little Skink’s Tail (Gold Mom’s Choice Award, Teachers’ Choice 2009), Fur and Feathers (Gold Moonbeam Award), and the upcoming 2012 Sylvan Dell title Home Sweet Cave. Janet very kindly agreed to answer some questions for SD about her books, and her life as an author.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer, and what drew you to children’s picture books in particular?
I’ve loved to write ever since I was a child, but didn’t realize that I wanted to be a writer until after I graduated from Michigan State University, with plans to teach English and Spanish. While home for a year with our first child, I enrolled in a children’s writing course by mail, and soon was hooked. I had some success selling articles to children’s magazines, like Ranger Rick and Jack and Jill, but I wanted a full-time writing job, so I got a second degree in journalism. That led to stints as a daily newspaper reporter in Wichita, Kansas; managing editor of a national children’s magazine based in Wisconsin; and many years as a creator of coloring and activity books for Golden Books, also based in Wisconsin. When a new owner moved Golden’s activity-book division to New York City, I decided to strike out on my own and write children’s books, my original dream.
From the very beginning, I liked writing picture books best. I prefer telling a story in a few words, and I like being able to make every word in a manuscript sing. I also enjoy writing for the picture-book age group. Many of my books are about nature, and when writing for ages 3-8, I can include lots of science and make the animals come alive without getting into all of the technical details. I think it is just more fun!
Where do you find inspiration for new books?
My ideas come from all kinds of places: from my children’s and my childhoods, from observing my grandkids and other children, from places I visit, from what people do and say, from nature, from things I read . . . the list goes on and on. Often research for one story leads to inspiration for another. For example, I got the idea for Little Skink’s Tail (Sylvan Dell 2007) while researching a factual book I wrote about lizards. I was fascinated by young skinks, who often have bright blue tails that they snap off to escape an enemy—and the tail grows back! I thought that a little lizard who loses her bright blue tail and must deal with that would make a fun and educational story.
For Fur and Feathers (Sylvan Dell 2010) and my upcoming book Home Sweet Cave (Sylvan Dell 2012), I got my basic inspiration from the wish list for manuscripts on the publisher’s website. From there, I added inspiration of my own—a huge sewing box like I always had handy when my four children were growing up for Fur and Feathers, and my and others’ fear of change (plus fascinating things I learned about bat poop) for Home Sweet Cave.
People want to know how long it takes to write a book. I tell them that each story is different. Many require lots of research. Even for a fiction picture book, I often have a pile of research books several feet high, in addition to research I do on the Internet. Also, story ideas often bounce around in my head for a long time before I start to write them down.
People also ask how I find my illustrator. I tell them that the publisher usually chooses the illustrator, and most of the time the artist and illustrator don’t even meet. That way, the writer can do her creative thing and the illustrator is free to do his or her creative thing. Often an illustrator adds some touch that never even entered my mind. For example, in Little Skink’s Tail, illustrator Laurie Allen Klein showed a caterpillar changing into a butterfly throughout the book. And in Fur and Feathers, Laurie dressed the animals in the kid outfits she thought would look the silliest. She also put Little Skink in the new book. Kids love these surprises!
How long does it take until you feel a manuscript is ready to be submitted to a publisher? Any particular process you go through to make sure it is perfect?
As I mentioned earlier, the time it takes to write a book varies greatly. Sometimes a manuscript is ready in a month or so, and sometimes it takes years. A lot depends on the amount of research needed, and whether that information is readily available. I’m working on a picture book biography now that I already have been researching off and on for two years.
Once a manuscript is almost perfect, I read it aloud many times, often pretending that I am reading to one of my grandchildren. Reading aloud helps me make sure every sentence and word flows smoothly and does what I want it to do. I also ask my husband and my grown children to read the manuscript. I spent a lot of time helping my children become good writers while they were growing up, and now they are great at finding things that don’t work in my stories.
Read, read, read, especially the kind of books you want to write.
Write, write, write, every day if possible, and write about what you enjoy.
Revise, revise, revise, until every word sings.
When you feel every word in your manuscript sings, research publishers to see who does your kind of book and send it off. Then forget about it and start something new. (Most writers have a huge stack of rejection letters.)
Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and get involved in their state or regional group. You can learn so much by going to writing conferences, workshops, etc. and listening to successful writers. It’s also very helpful to chat with other writers in person or in online writing groups.
Check out Janet’s Sylvan Dell titles on the SD website:
Fur and Feathers http://www.sylvandellpublishing.com/bookpage.php?id=FurFeathers
Little Skink’s Tail http://www.sylvandellpublishing.com/bookpage.php?id=23