It’s Day 28 of Tara Lazar’s annual Picture Book Idea Month (AKA PiBoIdMo)! Two more days and you’re done. Best of all, you will have 30 ideas to explore for your next picture book draft… and hopefully, one day, a published book!
For today’s blog, I will walk you through the general process of how I write my non-fiction picture book biographies. Here we go…
1. How do I come up with a non-fiction picture book idea? I do the following:
KEEP CURRENT: Read books. Pay attention to the news (social media, TV news, newspapers/magazines).
BRAINSTORM: Brainstorm about your own personal life: hobbies, favorite music/TV/books/etc. You never know what ideas might spark!
FRIENDS: You never know—a friend might mention something that could spark an idea. For example, I have had friends mention an article they read that would inspire me to jot down a picture book idea…
Yvonne Mes is a children’s author, illustrator and devourer of books. She writes short stories, picture books and junior novels. Her stories are published in School Magazine, on the Kids Book Review website and as part of anthologies.
Yvonne has a Bachelor of Children’s Services, a Certificate in Professional Children’s Writing, and a Certificate IV in Visual Arts and Crafts.
Yvonne coordinates Write Links, the Brisbane children’s writers and illustrators group, and is vice president of Book Links QLD (Inc.) She writes reviews for Buzz Words magazine and is a member of SCBWI, CBCA, Book Links and the ASA.
She has two decades experience working with children of all ages, abilities, many cultures and in various settings.
Yvonne grew up in Amsterdam but has made her home in Australia. Her three sons make sure she is never lost for inspiration. Her mission: sneak a quiet cup of coffee. Result: cold coffee and noise.
1- June: Yvonne can you tell me about the book you are about to have published and how that came about?
Yvonne: I’d love to. Meet Sidney Nolan is the latest in the non-fiction ‘Meet …’ picture book series about the extraordinary men and women who have shaped Australia’s history by Random House Australia.
Meet Sidney Nolan is also is the debut for illustrator Sandra Eterovic, who is a successful visual artist.
The book came about through hard work, being prepared and luck. I had immersed myself in writing picture books, studying picture books, and taking courses in writing for children for two years before I attended my first SCBWI conference in Sydney last year.
I had paid for one editorial session with an editor, and unlike other conferences, editors were assigned to authors after submitting manuscripts. So when I learned that I was matched with Random House, the editor had already received my picture book manuscript (Fearsome Friends, a fun story about a competitive scorpion and snake). I decided to be bold and take my non-fiction manuscript I had worked on for over six months, about another Australian artist.
During the meeting I asked Kimberley Bennet in person if she would consider this manuscript for the Meet... series. A few weeks later I received a rejection email saying that though she really liked the writing and the story the team didn’t think this artist was well-known enough for the series, however, in the same email she asked if I would be interested in writing a story on Sidney Nolan.
I immediately wondered why I hadn’t considered that earlier, face palm! I had fallen in love with his work after visiting a Sidney Nolan exhibition in Brisbane a few years earlier. I enjoyed it so much, I made repeat visits. I got started researching and writing Sidney Nolan straight away.
2- June: Can you describe the process of how you were involved once it was accepted by the publisher and what you liked most about that process?
Yvonne: First I had to decide on which part of Sidney Nolan’s life to focus. His Ned Kelly series are what made him famous all over the world and at the time played a part in shaping Australia’s identity. I was interested in what led up to him creating this iconic series.
The Random House Australia team is fantastic. Editors Kimberley Bennett and Catriona Merdie were amazing throughout the editorial process. Their communication and feedback on drafts was respectful and they would explain their reasons for suggestions on the revisions.
It was difficult at times to see certain sentences go. Sidney Nolan was such a fascinating character and there were many anecdotes and facets of his life which couldn’t be included in the story, either to keep the word count down, or because, well, let’s say that not everything was suitable for children.
When the story was in reasonable shape we worked on pagination and the timeline, and I able to look at the rough illustrations before Sandra moved on to the final illustrations. Seeing the illustrations was the most exhilarating part of the whole process.
The Random House team were determined to find the right person for the project, and it was lovely to see such a beautiful and painterly illustration style to tell Sidney’s story.
3- June: What sort of things have you been doing to prepare for the launch of your first children’s book?
Yvonne: A bit of freaking out! As I am pretty new to this I have a lot to learn. However, I try to be proactive and attended the Launch Lab at the Queensland Writer’s Centre by Meg Vann. The lovely Megan Daley is involved in the launch so I know it will be great.
There will be a lunch time launch be at the Story Arts Festival in Ipswich on the 13th of September and I am organising a launch specifically for children with some interactive art activities to follow soon after. I have a few online interviews happening and I will be interviewing Sandra Eterovic. I am also planning a couple of readings at schools and libraries.
4- June: You are very involved in the writing community for children’s and young adult authors, can you explain why you think that involvement is so important for you?
Yvonne: Being in touch with other creative people who have the same dreams and facing the same obstacles is a great sanity preserver! It was like finding my tribe, the people who ‘get me’ and vice versa. We talk about writing and writing related topics for hours without having eyes glazing over or people falling asleep, which is what happens with family members and non-writing friends, I guess we really are a nerdy bunch!
I have met many lovely and supportive people who write and illustrate for children over the last couple of years in person and on-line. I have made two close friends here in Brisbane who I met through the writing community and sharing our ups and downs can be a real lifesaver.
I also think the shared knowledge of the writing community leads to learning and growth and ultimately better quality books for children. As in my writing, I think it is important to make connections with and between others.
5- June: Where do you find readers for the drafts of your texts and how do they contribute to your process?
Yvonne: I ask for feedback on drafts from my amazing online picture book critique group, Penguin Posse, and my writing group, Write Links. Sometimes I think a story is fantastic and I get brought back to earth very gently, making the story so much stronger during the revision process.
Often I will let a story sit for weeks or months before looking at it again with fresh eyes, ready to take-in the critiques. At other times feedback gives me the confidence to start submitting a story.
The trick for me is to get at least six opinions in order to see the broad lines of what works or doesn’t, without losing the main heart and focus of the story I started with.
I hardly ever read something to my kids and have stopped asking my husband. Though he is extremely supportive, I just can’t deal with any constructive criticism from him until a story has gone through many drafts and revisions.
6- June:Can you tell me a bit more about the Sidney Nolan Book?
Yvonne: Sidney Nolan is one of Australia’s most admired and recognised visual artists. This is the story of how he developed his iconic Ned Kelly series of paintings, brought modernist art to Australia and took Australian art to an admiring international audience.
From Ned Kelly to Saint Mary MacKillop; Captain Cook to Banjo Paterson, the Meet … series of picture books tells the exciting stories of the men and women who have shaped Australia’s history.
June: All the best with the launch of the book Yvonne.
The first time I wrote this post it had more overtly personal family stories in it, yet I backed away and thought I can’t write that post yet because I am grappling with a deeper question.
Which is truer, fact or fiction?
I have responsibilities to those I am going to write of, or be inspired to write characters for.
Do you remember the first time you learnt that history might be biased in the telling, that history told from the ‘victors’ point of view will usually portray them without critique? Growing up none of us wanted to be native Americans in cow boys and Indians, because they always died. That was the story around when I was a child.
Do you remember the first time you learnt of the enforced silences of cultures, women, countries, the disadvantaged, the non-canon,caused by the lack of publication or shared words, shared spaces to bring their stories into the open?
Do you ever worry about the authentic self? Who do I write as? Me? A narrator nothing like me? A narrator a little like me? A narrator who is an amalgam of all I know and can imagine and research as well. Are my stories real? Are they imagined? Will I stay in my comfort zone? Will I push beyond that and take you the reader with me? I am not traditional. I never can be?
I set about the story of fictionalising the real to approach a deeper emotional truth, to see the signifiers of my own life and of those in my life more universally and my story genre slips between real and not real, fiction, and non fiction. It is apparent that research is going to be needed to understand this story.
Is it as a simple as fact, non-fact? What do facts tell us? What is the deeper story? What are the secret stories? Are all tellers of tales true reliable? Why do they hide things? Do they demand of us change of names, and exact locations to ‘protect the guilty’?
Are there some stories I will never tell? How much disguise will I have to put on to ‘protect the innocent?’
This is more than theory, this is the story of second generation migrants, looking for home in heritage, space and story. This is the story of those whose new identity is made up of an environment where several languages are spoken at home, and sometimes there is no translator, Who want more than the simple definition of ‘she had to go home to understand,’ What is home?
Diaspora – it’s a long time since I thought about that word.
It’s the story of not knowing if you will ever decode the mysteries of those close to you who grew up in other languages, with other cultural codes, that you struggled to understand as you were encultured in their new homeland.
What are the dangers and perils of making a connection of becoming obligated? Will you think less of me if I never go into the birth land space, and why should that be so?
I am not confused, down-trodden, silent – I am seeking for the writing light, where I can present you the stories that have made me, and yet is that really me you might wonder?
They dance culture just for one night
my daughter accepted in
where I never felt welcome
why did I never feel that
and she smiles
as they dress her in the costumes
of culture they have reinvented
when they don’t have the right materials nearby
Is this copy real
All I know is I am happy for her
that she has a taste I was not given in this way
and is the making a journey to her bubu’s homeland
and yet I ask
Why did my mother never take us to her home?
Is she taking my daughter there now in the only way she can now her parents have passed on?
What is your idea of home or your authentic writing self?