Author Spotlight: Christy Mihaly
September 7, 2018
Today we are pleased to feature picture book author Christy Mihaly and her picture book, HEY, HEY, HAY!, illustrated by Joe Cepeda (Holiday House Aug. 2018).
Welcome, Christy! Enter to win a copy!
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for children.
Thanks for having me here at Kidlit411. I’m happy to share how I started writing for kids – my apologies if the story meanders a bit.
All my life I liked to write, but didn’t consider writing something that you did for a living. I went to law school, practiced law, and became a mom. Then, I started daydreaming about writing for children. One day in the late 1990s in a pediatrician's office, I picked up a magazine. It flipped open to an ad for the Institute of Children's Literature, inviting me to submit a writing sample to see if I qualified to take their course. I did it. I mailed in my application, was thrilled when they accepted me, and dove into the assignments … at first. Then I got busy with other things. I didn’t complete course for more than ten years, and I'm not sure I ever did mail in that last assignment. (This was so long ago that I sent my work, and received feedback, by US Mail.)
But I held onto the dream, and seven years ago, I finally took the big leap when our family moved to Spain for a year. My husband was invited to teach at the University of Seville. Our daughter attended a Spanish school. I left my legal job, and started writing—seriously—for kids.
That year in Spain—communicating in a foreign language, learning another culture, and meeting people with a frame of reference so different from ours—expanded our minds. My Spanish language ability was decent, but not great. I was “the foreigner,” feeling inarticulate and slow.
Surrounded by the unfamiliar, I found my head exploding with new story ideas. I wrote it all down – what we were doing and feeling and learning. I spent hours writing every day. I researched children’s magazines that took electronic submissions. I submitted. While in Spain, I made my first sale, a short story to an online children's literature magazine, for $5.00. I couldn't wait for it to be published! Then, a few weeks before my piece was scheduled to go live, the magazine folded. Went out of business. The first story I sold is still unpublished.
But the fact that an editor had accepted my writing spurred me on. I wrote a new story, this one based on my daughter's experiences as an American in Spain. I submitted it to another online magazine, one that paid nothing. The editor loved it, and soon "Hola, Amiga" became my first published work for children. That magazine eventually went defunct too—but I retained the rights, and later revised and sold a new version of the story.
When our year in Spain ended and we returned home to Vermont, I kept writing. For a complex bunch of reasons, I stayed home to homeschool my daughter for the eighth grade. I sold an essay about homeschooling to a local parenting magazine. A children’s magazine accepted an article I pitched based on research I'd done in Spain. After that, I just kept going.
I realize my story is unusual in some regards. But basically, what started me on this path was that I was lucky to be able—finally—to make space for writing, and then I sat down and wrote.
Congrats on your debut picture book, HEY HEY HAY!. Tell us about it and what inspired you.
The view out my window inspired me! In the fall of 2013, we moved out of town and into a home in the country next to a beautiful hayfield. I loved watching the change of seasons. Snowshoeing across the field, I spotted footprints and snow tunnels of various critters making their homes under the snow. In spring, the snow melted, the brown ground cover turned green, the birds arrived, and the field filled with tall, waving grasses. Then when the grass was high enough and it was dry and sunny, it was time to hay.
The haymaking process was so intriguing. First the giant mowers ran up and down the field, leaving the grasses flattened. The whirring tedders came next, "wuffling" the cut grass to aerate it and facilitate drying. The hay rake formed long windrows, piles of cuttings running the length of the field. Finally, the baler created those neat bundles from the loose hay. Mower, tedder, baler, hay! The rhythms of all these machines seeped into my mind, and I found these lines running around in my head:
"Listen and I'll tell the tale
of storing summer in a bale."
Many of my neighbors (including the kids) are involved in haying. But I began to realize that in most places, people don't know much about hay or how it's made. I felt certain that kids would be interested in the process and the machines. I researched children’s books and couldn’t find any about haymaking. And so, I wrote one. At first I thought I was writing a poem, but soon it was clear that this manuscript wanted to be a book—a rhyming picture book.
How has your background and past professions helped you in your writing?
My academic background is in environmental policy and law. I practiced law for more than 15 years in San Francisco, representing environmental groups and other public interest clients. Then I moved to Vermont and worked in the state Attorney General’s Office.
My years as a lawyer taught me how to reduce complex concepts to simple terms (simple enough that a judge could understand). I am primarily drawn to nonfiction writing. In writing for kids, I look for ways to bring potentially dry topics to life. In HEY, HEY, HAY! I invented a fictional narrator and her mom, in order to explain the haymaking process in a fun (and rhyming) way.
I drew on my environmental studies background more directly in my other forthcoming book, DIET FOR A CHANGING CLIMATE: FOOD FOR THOUGHT (co-written with Sue Heavenrich). That book, a YA nonfiction releasing October 1 with Twenty-First Century Books, explores the interrelationship between our food and climate change. We hope to inspire kids to “take a bite out of climate change” with safe suggestions about trying easily available weeds, invasive animal and fish species, and even insects.
Was your road to publication long and windy, short and sweet, or something in between?
Is “long and sweet” an option?
I’d been writing short pieces for magazines for quite some time before I considered writing books. The first picture book manuscripts I wrote are still unpublished. They seemed to take forever to research and write, and they tended to be much too wordy. I racked up a lot of rejections.
HAY was different. I was working away on my biographies, poems, and articles when, in the summer of 2014, these words about haying started coming to me. Completing the first draft of HAY took only a few weeks, though I spent a good deal of time after that to research and make sure my story was accurate. And more time polishing up the rhyme.
That fall, I attended a conference where I met editor Grace Maccarone, of Holiday House. Listening to her describe what she was looking for, I thought HAY might be a good fit. I polished some more, and sent the manuscript to her in early 2015. She quickly responded – she liked it! After that, there was, of course, much waiting: waiting for the final word from acquisitions, waiting for a contract, waiting for an illustrator, back and forth with editing, and then waiting for a publication date. All of which of course in the end was well worth it. So from conception to publication was four years.
What projects are you working on now?
I do a lot of work in the educational market, writing books on a work-for-hire basis, which I really love because it’s so immediate and I know I’m writing just what an editor is looking for. I also have a new (and complicated) middle-grade nonfiction manuscript that I’m excited about but struggling with. And I’m revising several picture books on topics inspired by recent political events … we’ll see how those work out ….
What are the one or two things you did that most helped you in your writing and publishing career?
First, I spent many hours sitting at my desk, writing, honing, revising, researching, creating a pile of manuscripts, and submitting. Doing the work!
Second, I got up from my desk to meet other people—writers, editors, librarians, booksellers, agents—joining the active and supportive community of children’s book people. I realized that making those connections was a key part of becoming a real writer.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
I once lived on a houseboat in Sausalito, on San Francisco Bay. I owned a motorcycle, which I used to commute across the Golden Gate Bridge to my law office in San Francisco. Life before kids …
Where can people find you online?
If you’re interested, please visit me at any of these sites – thanks very much!
Facebook Author page: https://www.facebook.com/christymihaly/
Blogging (with others) at GROG: http://groggorg.blogspot.com
Christy Mihaly works under the supervision of her dog and cat, at a desk overlooking the hayfield that inspired her picture book Hey, Hey, Hay! Although she sometimes can’t believe her good luck, she gets to spend her days writing for kids. She has penned nonfiction books, articles, stories, games, and poetry. Christy also loves walking in the woods and playing the cello (though not simultaneously).