The Story Behind the Story
In the past few weeks, many friends have asked me about how and why I wrote this book. Here is the story behind the story.
We have two toddlers. In a previous life, I worked in finance: long hours that were equal parts exhilarating and stressful. When we decided to have kids, my husband (who travels a lot for work) and I decided to divide and conquer: he continues to conquer professional mountains and I conquer mountains of laundry. It’s more rewarding than it sounds.
I have always loved to write, but I never had it in me to write a novel. I don’t really have the patience or the focus. Now, instead of reading novels, I read children’s books. Suddenly I thought: “I could do this. I could be great at this.” Parents out there who love to read, and whose children love to read, will feel my pain on this one: most children’s books out there are not. good. Don’t get me wrong. There are dramatic exceptions. The Pout-Pout Fish. Rosie Revere, Engineer. The Gruffalo. These books are excellent. But there are a lot of others that are… less than excellent. You know what happens with kids books? You read them over. and over. and over again. So when they are less than excellent, as a parent, you feel it. That is a rough moment when your child asks to read a book that you find mind-numbingly tedious. Can’t we read something else? ANYTHING else? And then, you inevitably find a new book and your eyes bug out of your head. For example, the other day we read a book my three-year-old brought home from the library, and it had the actual words “Shut your mouth stinky crocodile, you smell just like a garbage pile!” At which point I snapped the book closed, looked at Claire and said, “Darling please don’t ever say that to anyone.”
So while listening to some Taylor Swift (because who isn’t inspired by T-Swift?) I decided to write a book. A happy, sweet book with a positive, useful message and a good melody. Because that is what I, as a parent, want to read to my children. There are a couple things I knew right off the bat: the main character had to be female. Do you know how many children’s books have female protagonists? As the mother of a daughter, I can tell you: very few. Even the ones with an all-animal cast of characters: the owl who invites a mouse over for tea? Male. The giraffe who gets nervous dancing in front of a crowd? Male. It’s pretty disheartening to realize that my daughter is forming her opinion of gender roles where almost every pronoun she reads is “he.” I cannot tell you how many times I have said the words “of course, baby, Gerald can be a girl. Why not.” So my protagonist is decidedly SHE. Not all of my characters, of course, because then my book would only be for crazy feminists, right? [eye roll…] But that’s neither here nor there.
My first thought was: I want a protagonist who kids will love, and with whom they will identify, so she can be a conduit for lessons children should learn early in life. Who do I love? MY DOG. She’s actually the greatest ever (and doesn’t everyone think that about their dog?). Ladybug, our 80-lb Bernese Mountain Dog, was the runt of her litter. Which got me thinking about size: it’s not about how big you are, it’s about how big you are relative to how big you want to be. Ladybug seems big as a dog, but for a Berner she’s quite petite. Kids are a lot like that. My daughter asks a few times a minute if she will be able to do something “when she is bigger.” Like all children, she wants to do things she can’t yet because she’s just not big enough.
So we have it – Pipsqueak the Puppy. Not to give away too much of the story, but she befriends a wise, old squirrel who helps her learn to embrace her own strengths and be who she is. The story is all about creativity, perseverance, and being yourself, with a nod to the value of unlikely friendships. It’s written in verse that is, I think, pretty solid.
Once I had the book, I thought: this is it! This is an excellent children’s book. It’s no Gruffalo but it’s definitely in the top quartile of what is out there. Surely I will send this to a publisher and we will be off to the races. I should probably start choosing outfits for a book signing tour.
Not surprisingly, that’s not what happened. I sent the book to a number of people in the publishing world – agents, publishers, other authors – and they all gave me the same feedback:
- We don’t want anything longer than 500 words. (Pipsqueak is ~1100.)
- We don’t want anything that rhymes. (I want books that rhyme.)
- We don’t want anything with a message. (Wait, WTF?)
The feedback baffled me. Pipsqueak is longer than Goodnight Moon, but it’s not Ulysses. The books that rhyme are the only ones that keep me awake. And the fact that “kids can smell a message book a mile away” – guess who’s not the one buying the book? It’s not about if they want it to have a message, it’s about if I want it to have one. As a parent, I could not “see their point” on any of these items.
At this point, I decided to go the self-publish route and turn the book into a fundraiser for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Our son Ryan, now 21 months, had emergency surgery at CHOA when he was only 7 months old for something called an intussusception, a rare, fluke intestinal issue that typically occurs in boys 6 months – 2 years old. It was the most terrifying experience of my life, standing by my baby in the Emergency Room and hearing the doctor tell the nurse – very calmly – that he needed to be at the top of the list for x-ray and ultrasound. Sidebar: don’t ever complain about being in the ER for too long. I promise you, you want to be the person who is waiting around because everyone in there is in worse shape than you are. We arrived at CHOA on a Sunday morning and I did not go outside again until Thursday afternoon. Everyone in that building is amazing: from the doctors and nurses who saved his life to the security guard who stopped my husband in the lobby to see how Ryan was doing. CHOA is an unbelievable gift, and 100% of the proceeds from Pipsqueak the Puppy will benefit the work they do for children in our community. Here’s a picture of our two kiddos on the day Ryan was released from the hospital [big time shout out to Wal-Mart: they gave every kid in the hospital a Halloween costume].
I continued to refine my text and started a search for an illustrator. I tried different search methods, and then ultimately typed “children’s book illustrator” into google. The first page that came up was for Tami Boyce. I was skeptical at first because hers was the first (and only) page that came up. Then I realized that meant that she is an artist who is also organized enough to handle marketing her illustration business. With two small kids and a husband who travels, heaven knows I need that. Organization is essential.
Working with Tami was a total dream. She is both an illustrator and a designer, so she took my text and brought it 100% to life with a text layout and everything. We started by storyboarding the book: I laid out how the text should be on pages and gave ideas for illustrations to match. Tami had some great ideas too, especially for the few pages where I hadn’t decided on anything. Once we had a general idea of how many illustrations she would do and how detailed they would be, Tami did some sketches of the two main characters (Pipsqueak and Chuck) to make sure we had them right.
Pipsqueak was pretty easy. I love a Bernese Mountain Dog, but you might not be able to see much expression on an illustration of completely dark face, which most Berners have. I googled pictures of “Bernese Mountain Dog / Great Pyrenees mix puppies” and we were pretty much good to go. Here’s where Pipsqueak started:
Chuck had a larger evolution. I originally described him to Tami as a kind of “friendly professor,” and she did exactly that – but it didn’t feel right. We settled on calling him “the Santa Claus of squirrels,” which was closer to the vision I had in my head!
Tami then drew a full set of rough illustrations, followed by the color proofs, and finally text layered onto the page. Here’s an example of the progression:
For the record, I wrote the book and came up with the illustrations I wanted, but this would not be a book without Tami. Here’s an example of what I set her (as a “let’s draw this”) and what she created from my sketch:
So yeah, having a professional illustrator is not so much optional.
And just like that, Pipsqueak the Puppy was finished. Tami and I started discussing the project right after the July 4 holiday and uploaded the book to the printer by October 15. It was an amazing process and so. much. fun.
I worked on some less exciting parts of the process while Tami was doing the heavy lifting on the illustrations. Here are some of the things I did to prepare for independent book sales:
- Established an LLC (using LegalZoom) to help keep book finances separate from ours
- Registered the book – both in draft and final forms – with the US Copyright Office
- Purchased an ISBN from the printer – IngramSpark – and wrote so. many. descriptions.
- Purchased domains and set up a website for sales (using Shopify – which is totally awesome)
- Opened a small business bank account with SunTrust
- Registered the LLC with the state of Georgia to get a Sales Tax ID number
As it turns out, having a publisher do those things for you would be handy. These things are all before you even get the book – they have nothing to do with marketing the book once you have it. Spoiler alert: there are big marketing challenges, too. But that is another post for another day!
If anyone would like to know more about my experience, I would be delighted to discuss it with you. Given the publishing landscape, I think it may be up to us (the parents) to write and stock bookshelves with high-quality books. I am all about that – let’s change the mold!