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Interview: Joan Holub

Author and illustrator Joan Holub has written over 100 books for kids, ranging from picture books to early readers to non-fiction works about different animals and historical figures. Sometimes, she illustrates her own works, and sometimes, she collaborates with others.

Speaking of collaborations, Joan Holub and Lorie Ann Grover run readertotz, a spinoff from readergirlz which hopes to shine light on one of the most underappreciated corners of the library and bookstore: board books for toddlers.

Now, to wrap up this week's Winter Blog Blast Tour, I offer this interview with Joan.

You obviously love writing for all different age groups. What audience would you like to reach that you haven't yet?

I haven't written YA or even attempted one. I'm not sure if I have a YA voice. I'm pretty happy writing picture books, board books, easy readers, and chapter books, and am planning to stick with those, unless a YA idea comes and won't go away. I have so much admiration for novelists.

How did you first break into the publishing industry?

I moved to NYC to work in children's publishing. My first job there was at Scholastic as Associate Art Director, working in Jean Feiwel's trade book group. In my job interview with Jean, she asked which children's books I most admired. I was so nervous that I couldn't come up with more than one or two--Eloise and Where the Wild Things Are. At Scholastic, I learned from wonderful book designers such as Claire Counihan and Anna DiVito. When I first began submitting manuscripts to publishers, my husband called my submissions “boomerangs” because I'd send them out to publishers and they'd come right back with a “no thanks”. I think a turning point came when I began reading everything and anything in children's books, instead of relying on my memory of favorite children's books from my childhood. In 1996, publishers finally offered on three books in three months, including one of my favorites, Boo Who? A Spooky Lift-the-Flap Book (Scholastic.)

Tell us more about your work with readertotz.

Lorie Ann Grover called and suggested the idea for the readertotz blog to me. Since I had moved away from the Pacific NW, it was a fun way for us to stay in touch. We both write board/novelty books for toddler ages and our objective with the blog is to raise the profile of books for the toddler ages. Lorie Ann is a good friend, a great person, and is also one of my crit partners and the CEO of readergirlz, which focuses on the MG/YA reading community. On readertotz, we write responses to board and interactive (lift-the-flap, novelty) books for toddlers, plus post the occasional interview, etc. We sponsor a Wednesdays Win where we give away books. We're also beginning a feature called photototz on the blog, which is shaping up to be a lot of fun. Authors are welcome to be part of this celebration by sending us jpegs of a childhood photo and the cover of one of their books to and we'll post them on readertotz as part of the photototz roundup. Lorie Ann is the first brave soul to post hers. Take a look at Adorable!

Your newest book, Shampoodle, is a Step Into Reading Level 2 book with illustrations by Tim Bowers. Do you have any pets?

My older sister had a stuffed gray poodle like the one on the cover of Shampoodle, and I coveted it, and I think that's where this book idea came from. I admired my sister and pretty much coveted everything she owned. (We won't talk about the dress of hers I “borrowed” for my first dance and ruined. It was purple with giant white flowers.) The way Shampoodle happened is one of my most unusual acquisitions stories. I sent the ms out to two publishers, who both passed on it. Then a couple of years later, I was in London on vacation when I got email from a Random House editor, who said she hadn't been able to purchase it two years earlier but it had stuck with her and she was hoping it was still available. A “pass” on a book is usually final, so this was a huge, delightful surprise. Tim Bowers' art added so much kid-friendly stuff to the story. In easy readers for the 4-7 year old set, the art is supposed to offer cues to the text to help with the reading comprehension. One thing he did was to give the dogs “do's” that resemble their groomers' own wacky hairdos. Very clever. My best friend has a terrier that I dog-sit for. I love animals and have two cats, Scout and Boo.

Earlier this year, you released the picture book Knuckleheads. In December, your next picture book, Groundhog Weather School, will peek its head out. You have a lot of books on deck for release in 2010, including the picture book Twinkle, Star of the Week and Goddess Girls, a new series for kids you've written with Suzanne Williams. Do you still send out queries, write a certain number of books to fulfill contracts, or do publishers and editors come to you?

Publishers sometimes come to me, but I usually submit manuscripts to them. It's often easier for me or any published author to get a manuscript on an editor's desk than it is for an unpublished author to do the same, but an editor won't publish something of mine that's not good or that's not right for their publishing program. I get plenty of rejections.

Groundhog Weather School and Twinkle Star of the Week are both examples of one kind of picture that springs from me naturally. They combine a humorous, fictional story with a sprinkling of factual information. In GWS, the official weather-predicting groundhog gets it wrong and receives complaints, so he starts a school to get more weather forecasting animals to help out the following year. This book combines humor (One of the questions on the check-box school entrance questionnaire is: Are you furry? Answer: You be the judge.) and basic weather facts.

Twinkle, Star of the Week combines a universal experience of a child who's taking part in the weekly "star of the week" in her classroom with basic astronomy facts. Many schools have "star of the week" where a child gets to be special: lead the lunch/recess line, share a book/pet, bring a favorite snack. So I thought, why not have a school where the kids are actually twinkly stars?

That sounds cute! How do you keep up this momentum, professionally and personally? Do you work on more than one project at a time, or do you space things out?

I work on several things at once. Usually the projects are in different phases: one book is in a contract phase, another has come back to me for comments on the illustrator's sketches, another is in the development stage, and maybe I'm working on text revisions on yet another. Any new ideas that come along in the meantime get jotted down in my idea notebook. My ideas usually come from something I think is funny. About half of my books began with a title, for instance: Goddess Girls; Twinkle, Star of the Week; Knuckleheads.

I love retold fairytales and myths, so I'm anxious to check out Goddess Girls! How many stories will be in the series? How did you and Suzanne split up writing duties?

Goddess Girls debuts in April 2010 with the first of four titles, Athena, The Brain. Next up is Persephone, The Phony. I co-wrote this series with Suzanne Williams. We used to go to dinner about once a month and decided to see if we could collaborate. Voila - Goddess Girls! Although Suzanne and I live in different states, email and Word's tracking feature has made it easy to write together. We toss the stories-in-progress back and forth and rewrite each others' words so often that each book in the series is a true blend and winds up sounding like it's from one author. Like you, I love retold/revised myths and fairy tales. My Chronicle picture book, Knuckleheads, is fairy tales retold with characters who are literally hands (Handerella, Thumbelina, etc.) The Goddess Girls series focuses on four friends who go to Mount Olympus Academy—Athena, Persephone, Aphrodite, and Artemis. There are crushes on godboys, quirky teachers, an oddball principal (Zeus), and a few mean girls like the snaky Medusa. We tried to keep the core of the Greek myths, but tweak them and add humor. Goddess Girls is for tweens.

When writing a picture book or early reader book that needs illustrations, how do you decide whether or not you will illustrate it? Do you seek out artists yourself, or are they discovered/contacted/offered through your publishers?

I sometimes suggest illustrators, but art directors and editors are really good at this and it's a fun part of their job, so I'm almost always happy with their choices. I began as an illustrator, but mostly write now. About twelve years ago I wrote an easy reader for Grosset & Dunlap called Pajama Party. The art director suggested Julie Durrell as the illustrator. I was surprised, but I was busy and it was a bit of a relief that I wouldn't have to add this illustration project to my schedule. And Julie's art was perfect for the book, which is still in print! I learned from that not to insist on illustrating my own work. There are so many fantastic artists out there these days, so why insist? However, for a book like Knuckleheads, where there are speech bubbles, I usually make a dummy for an editor with scribbly stick figures and text. It's fine with me if they show my dummy to the illustrator, but she or he is free to ignore my ideas and do their own thing.

Which classic picture books do you treasure most of all?

Classics I love are Eloise, The Giving Tree, Make Way for Dumb Bunnies, Ruby The Copycat, Zelda and Ivy, and many many more!

What are your ten favorite novels?

I mostly read books for ages 1 to 10, or adult novels and nonfiction. However, I recently enjoyed: Hush, Hush; Libba Bray's Rebel Angels; The Lovely Bones
Francesca Lia Block's The Rose and the Beast (Fairy Tales Retold) was very moving; Lorie Ann Grover's verse novel On Pointe; and one title from Michael Buckley's The Sisters Grimm.

Visit Joan Holub's website.

Visit the readertotz blog.

Take part in the November Totz Community Service: In November, ask your totz to make Thanksgiving cards by tracing their hands. Have them write what they are thankful for on these "turkeys" and give them to the appropriate recipients.

Visit all of today's tour stops:
Lisa Schroeder at Writing & Ruminating
Alan DeNiro at Shaken & Stirred
Joan Holub at Bildungsroman
Pam Bachorz at MotherReader
Sheba Karim at Finding Wonderland
R.L. LaFevers at HipWriterMama

Here's the Bildungsroman schedule for WBBT 2009:
Monday, November 16th: Courtney Sheinmel
Tuesday, November 17th: Laurie Faria Stolarz
Wednesday, November 18th: Jacqui Robbins
Thursday, November 19th: Thomas Randall
Friday, November 20th: Joan Holub

View the full schedule for WBBT 2009.

Read my 2010 interview with Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams.
Tags: blog tour, books, interviews, readertotz, wbbt

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  • Red Hands by Christopher Golden

    A new Christopher Golden book is here, and I can't wait to get my hands on it! Here's the jacket flap summary for Red Hands: In bestselling author…

  • Annual Book Fair for Ballou High School

    It's that time again! Colleen Mondor has once again organized a book fair for the students of Ballou Senior High School. This time, the books are…

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