In our author interview section this week, we feature American children’s author, Rhonda Gowler Greene who has written over twenty books. In this highly-interactive interview with team BookChums, she discussed her first published works, how her background in music inspires her works, the auction among four major publishers for a picture book manuscript of hers, contract with Simon & Schuster/Atheneum with the Barnyard Song, favorite authors, readings, and her advice to aspiring writers.
Greene has been a recipient of several accolades such as Children's Book Council Showcase Book, Bank Street College Best Book, International Reading Association Children's Choice Book, Junior Library Guild selection, and Michigan Reads One State One Children's Book Award among others. Her latest book, No Pirates Allowed! Said Library Lou is slated for release in May 2013.
First of all, thank you for your time to do this interview with BookChums, Rhonda. How long have you been writing for?
I’ve been writing for about 20 years. I began submitting picture book manuscripts in the early ’90’s, and submitted for 3½ years before making my first sale. My first two sales (Barnyard Song and When a Line Bends…A Shape Begins) actually came within weeks of each other. The books were released two years later. They both got starred reviews in major periodicals. That was exciting, especially since I was a new author at that time. Even though now I have over 20 children’s books published, I had an interesting thing happen last year that I’d never experienced—an auction among four major publishers for a picture book manuscript of mine. That was exciting too!
Tell us about the places where you grew up and what your first piece of writing was all about.
I grew up in southern Illinois (United States). I lived in the towns of Salem, Mt. Vernon, then Cahokia (near St. Louis, MO). The summer before my senior year of high school, my family moved to Florence, Kentucky (near Cincinnati, Ohio). I’ve always lived in suburban areas, never in the country or in the middle of a big city. For most of my adult life, I’ve lived in Michigan. My first published pieces were actually stories in children’s magazines. Then, an editor at Simon & Schuster/Atheneum pulled a picture book manuscript of mine from the slush pile. She liked it, called, and made an offer on it. It was Barnyard Song. I got the idea for the story from reading a very short poem in a children’s magazine. The poem was mostly just farmyard animal sounds in rhyme. I expanded on that and made a loose plot where the animals get sick, then get better after the doctor and nurse pay a visit and the farmer serves them soup. The “sick” sounds of the ten animals in the story were not in my original manuscript. My editor suggested I come up with that. It wasn’t easy since my story was in rhyme. But I think that addition really added to the story and made it more humorous. So, I’d say listen to what editors suggest and try to revise accordingly. It almost always makes your story stronger.
Writing for children is fun, creative and yet challenging. What are the kinds of challenges that you face while writing or developing a story for kids?
Since I write mostly picture books, I think the biggest challenge is writing ‘tight’—getting a good manuscript written in under 1000 words. Actually, editors are now looking for picture books that are about 500 words or less. That’s not a lot of words! Also, most of what I write is in rhyme. I have a music background (piano) and I think that plays a part in my loving to write with rhythm and rhyme. It’s challenging to find that ‘perfect’ rhyme for a line, one that’s not forced, but that delights the reader. I revise and revise (and revise!) my manuscripts to come up with “just-right” words. I study children’s poetry books to make my writing the best it can be. Writing a successful picture book is much harder than it looks. For me, writing a picture book is like putting a difficult puzzle together—getting all the right words in all the right places. As the great children’s editor, Ursula Nordstrom, once said—“Every word only has to be perfect.”
What inspires you to write?
I love children’s books. And I love kids. When my four kids were little, I read books to them—a lot! All those great children’s books I read inspired me to try my hand at writing my own stories. Great children’s books still inspire me to write. I own hundreds and am always buying more. I read them over and over and study them. Too, I try to keep up with what’s currently being published in the children’s book field. I was an elementary school teacher out of college and then got my master’s degree in educational media to become a school librarian. I think if I wasn’t writing now, I would probably be a librarian in a school. Both as a writer, or a librarian, you’re surrounded by books, and that’s what I love. My latest book, No Pirates Allowed! Said Library Lou (May 2013), happens to be about a librarian. And—a pirate! (Watch for a book trailer online soon!)
What genres do you read? Who all are the authors who have influenced you?
I mainly read children’s books, and ones written for all ages—picture books to novels. I tend to favor realistic stories over fantasy when reading middle grade or young adult novels. I also enjoy historical fiction. I would say the following children’s authors have influenced my writing through the years, though it’s hard to name just a few—Cynthia Rylant, Nancy White Carlstrom, Alice Schertle, Douglas Florian, and Mary Ann Hoberman.
What are your favorite books that you would recommend to other readers?
I love so many children’s books. It’s hard to pick favorites, but I’ll try! All my favorites are extremely well-written, so I highly recommend any and all of them. Regarding children’s novels, top on my list is Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. It won the Newbery Award (the highest American award for children’s literature) in 1998. It’s written in a free verse format. I love novels in free verse. In this format, so much is said within a tightly woven story of very carefully chosen words. Too, I love Cynthia Rylant’s books, from picture books to novels. She’s actually my favorite children’s book author. I especially like her Henry and Mudge easy reader series. Of all the types of children’s books, I’d say picture books are what I enjoy the most. Some of my favorites— Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain; Ox-Cart Man; Zin! Zin! Zin! a Violin; Snowflake Bentley; Winter Eyes; Bear Snores On; All You Need for a Snowman; One of Each; and Wild About Books. Other ones, more recently published, are— A Visitor for Bear; Bats at the Beach; All the World; Little Blue Truck; Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site; and The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School. I love discovering a new gem of a picture book!
What would your suggestions be to aspiring authors?
First, I’d say read, read, read as many children’s books as you can get your hands on. Read the best that’s out there. Study the writing and ask yourself why you think a particular book got published. Then, try to weave some of those good things into your own writing. I think reading great children’s books, too, is a good way to get inspiration for new story ideas of your own. Also, it’s often helpful to get constructive feedback on your work. Get feedback from trusted writer friends who will really tell you what they think. Consider and think on what they say. Too, try to “remove” yourself from your writing (it’s hard to do) and be your own editor. Be hard on your writing. Revise, revise, revise until you think your manuscript is as good as what’s being published. Then start submitting. It often takes months to hear back regarding a submission. If you get a rejection, send it back out to another editor or agent. Don’t give up! And constantly keep reading…and writing…and revising!