Mar. 20, 2015
KidLit411 is thrilled to feature author, Kim Norman in the author spotlight! Kim is the author of more than a dozen children’s books published by Sterling, Scholastic and two Penguin imprints. TEN ON THE SLED (Sterling, illustrated by Liza Woodruff) spent weeks on Barnes and Noble’s Top Ten bestseller list! Welcome, Kim!
Writing for children is not your first career. Tell us about your background and how you came to write picture books.
I was a graphic artist for many years. Not even sure how I fell into that because my report cards indicate that I was a much better writer than artist. But maybe it's just as well. If I had gone straight into writing right out of school, (say, as a journalist) I might have burned out before I discovered the joy of writing children's books. I did get to hang out with a lot of journalists and copywriters at newspaper and advertising jobs, and often wrote copy myself.
I started dabbling with writing again after my first child was born -- mostly writing humorous light verse. Even tried my hand at a romance novel, but suddenly one day, after a romance writers meeting at a library, I headed to the children's department and checked out a huge stack of children's books, instead. And, of course, by then, I was reading lots and lots of children's books to my own kids every day. So I switched my focus to children's books and have never looked back.
With your design background, have you ever considered illustrating your own stories?
I did try that with my first manuscript. (Never published, as you can imagine!) I created a pretty, turnable dummy and did send that around for a year or so. During that time (late 90s, early 2000s) I also joined SCBWI and went to a couple of regional conference. But then 9-11 happened, followed by the anthrax scare, and many of the publishing houses were closed to submissions. It seemed like a good time to pull back from submitting and learn more about my newly chosen craft.
A month later, I was invited to join a picture book critique group full of amazingly talented and knowledgeable people. (They were so far ahead of me, I kept worrying they'd realize I didn't belong!) There were 8 of us, and 4 were working illustrators. It was really from the illustrators that I learned I don't think as visually as they do. They were constantly coming up with brilliant suggestions for my stories I would never have thought of on my own. And because my drawing and art skills were so rusty (a graphic artist's easy access to clip art can quickly whither her drawing muscles) I didn't have a defined style, which is important for an illustrator to start getting work. So I decided to forget about illustrating -- at least for a good while -- and concentrate on writing.
I really enjoy your books like CROCODADDY that are written in rhyme and have such fun wordplay, yet picture book writers are dissuaded from writing in rhyme. What are your thoughts about rhyming picture books?
Kids love rhyme! And so do editors, if it's done well. Early on, I heard the same "editors hate rhyme" advice, so the first book I sold was non-rhyming. But I knew I was good at writing rhyme -- perhaps because I have strong musical skills -- so when the rhyming text of CROCODADDY came to me, I decided to go with my instincts.
Of course, good rhyme and meter are only HALF of a decent rhyming manuscript. The other half -- and definitely the most important half -- is a good story. As with a non-rhyming text, a rhyming picture book needs to be lean and mean, with not one single extra word that doesn't advance the story. That means no extra words allowed, even if they do "make the rhyme."
What projects are you working on now?
My agent is circulating a few things, and it looks like we have struck a deal for something new with a wonderful publisher I have never worked with before. I'm excited about that, but can't say anything more, of course. I've got 4 books in production right now, so I'm really looking forward to seeing those as finished books.
The soonest, coming out in August, is called THIS OLD VAN, (based on the song, "This Old Man"), illustrated by Carolyn Conohan, published by Sterling Children's Books.
It's the story -- in rhyme, of course -- of a lively hippie couple driving their colorful hippie van to a grandchild's special event. Carolyn's illustrations are pure joy!!
I'm also excited about a website I'm running called COOL SCHOOL VISITS. It's a blog devoted to helping authors and illustrators learn more about how to do school visits. http://coolschoolvisits.com
What are the one or two things you recommend aspiring authors do to further their careers?
Once you have begun to settle on a specific genre of children's writing you'd like to try, read HUNDREDS of them. You'd be amazed by the number of people who decide they want to write a children's book but have barely read one in decades.
And here's a great tip for picture book writers specifically: choose a few of your favorites (no more than 5 years since publication) and type up the text. Then study the text without the distraction of the illustrations. You'll come to understand how spare a modern picture book is.
Count not only the words in the whole text, but the number of words in each sentence. When does the author use short sentences? When does he/she switch to longer ones? Make notes about everything you notice. Perhaps even outline it on a storyboard and take note of when the real meat of the story begins (the conflict) and on which page(s) the problem begins to resolve.
You'll learn a LOT this way. You can do much the same with books for older readers. I still have books on my shelves filled with sticky notes about things like word count, chapter length, when the author introduced the first conflict, etc.
Where do you get your story ideas from?
Because I'm a word person (despite having spent decades as a misplaced graphic artist!) I come to many of my stories from the sound of the words. Often a great title will come to me, and then I'll have to rush to my computer and start writing. At the very least, I scribble the title on a scrap of paper to save for later. That happened with STILL A GORILLA, coming from Scholastic next year. I was at a school visit in New York, wandering around the school library during a break between sessions, and somehow those three words came came to me, full of whimsical possibilities. (Can't remember why. Maybe I saw a book about gorillas?) Wrote the words on a receipt in my wallet and promptly forgot about them. Weeks later, I was at another school visit in North Carolina, when I found the note in my wallet. During the drive home, I gave it a lot of thought. By the time I got home, I had fleshed out much of the story in my mind.
What is the hardest part of writing picture books for you?
First drafts! No, wait -- revisions! No, first drafts. No, revisions! Ha! Actually, I love doing first drafts of rhyming manuscripts. I struggle a lot more with stories in prose, because I don't have that crutch of rhyme helping structure the story.
Once I have managed to get through a first draft, I send it to my awesome picture book critique group, the "PB Jeebies." Once my Jeebies have given it a once over, then I struggle with revising. I have a bad habit of letting things sit for too long after critique. I think it's the perfection of my "Evil Inner Editor," who wants me to immediately fix all the problems. Since the fixes are often not readily evident, I stupidly avoid the issue by moving on to something else.
The other members of my group, Janee Trasler, Tammi Sauer and Jessica Young, all have much better revision habits than I do, and I think I've begun -- a teensy bit -- to pick up their better habits. But it's still my first instinct to just avoid the problem by procrastinating. Oh and check out all the PB Jeeebies at our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/PbJeebies
What is something most people don’t know about you?
I was born to parents who were very generous about sharing our home with foster and adopted children. When I was 8 years old, a quartet of older siblings joined my brother and me in the home. There were more fosters and my dear adopted little sisters when I was in my teens, and even more fosters, mostly teen girls, when I was grown but still living at home and working, in the 80s. Because of that, I fit into pretty much every birth order category.
Kim Norman is the author of more than a dozen children’s books published by Sterling, Scholastic and two Penguin imprints. TEN ON THE SLED, (Sterling, illustrated by Liza Woodruff) spent weeks on Barnes and Noble’s Top Ten bestseller list and has been released in Korean and German editions as well as appearing in Scholastic Book Fairs in schools around North America.
Among her books is I KNOW A WEE PIGGY (2012, Dial Books for Young Readers, illustrated by Henry Cole), which was reviewed in the New York Times, and is listed on the Texas “2x2 Reading List,” as well being offered on the lineup of books carried by Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Her most recent title is PUDDLE PUG, published by Scholastic Children’s Books, and illustrated by Keika Yamaguchi. A sequel to TEN ON THE SLED, entitled IF IT'S SNOWY AND YOU KNOW IT, CLAP YOUR PAWS, has been nominated for Tennessee's Volunteer State Book Award (Primary Division.)
Kim is represented by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency in San Diego.