Friday, November 1, 2013

Advice from Jane Kohuth

Jane Kohuth has written a book about Anne Frank for the Step Into Reading series, which wouldn't be an easy task for any writer. Jane impressed me with her ability to arouse empathy without going too far for young readers. 

Thanks for being on my blog, Jane!

When did you decide to be a writer?

I decided for the first time that I wanted to write children’s books when I was in elementary school. I loved creative writing -- it was my favorite part of school -- and I wrote a lot at home as well. By the time I was in fifth grade my best friends were already saying that I should write children’s books when I grew up.

I decided for the second time that I would be a children’s writer when I left a Ph.D. program for health reasons in 2007. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and found a writing group (which is still going six years later). I started working seriously, drawing on my undergrad degree in creative writing (poetry), and learning as much about the publishing world as I could.

How did your first book publication come about?

It was a case of right place, right time. In 2008, I went to the New England SCBWI conference and submitted a manuscript for critique by an editor. The editor I was matched with, Christy Webster, worked on the Step Into Reading line of early readers at Random House. She thought that the manuscript I’d submitted, Ducks Go Vroom, which I had envisioned as a picture book for toddlers, would work well as a Step One reader, because of the simplicity and pattern of the language. She asked me to revise the manuscript to meet Step Into Reading Guidelines. I went home and set to work right away. I probably sent her my revision within a week! That was my first experience with the glacial pace of the publishing industry. Nine months later, I received the phone call that changed my life.

Your previous books vary widely, from early reader to early picture book to picture book. Now Anne Frank’s Chestnut book is a paperback. What age range is the easiest to write for? What age range is the hardest?

Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree is a Step Three early reader. It’s suited for elementary students who are starting to read independently and can also be used as an introduction for classes studying the Holocaust or Anne Frank. For students who choose the book on their own, for interest or for a biography project, I strongly recommend that a parent or teacher read the book as well and be available for discussion. The books is available in a trade hardcover as a well as a paperback edition. It was quite a different experience from my other work to write a Step Three reader and a biography. The challenge of doing justice to a person’s life and work within the strict early reader guidelines was like doing a very complicated puzzle.

For me, the easiest age to write for is the preschool/early elementary school set. Coming from a poetry background, I tend to focus on catchy, interesting, and lyrical language which is attractive to very young listeners. I also tend to think in shorter, simpler stories. I’ve made attempts at a novel for young adults, but I find that very hard! Perhaps I can find a compromise and try a chapter book.

I see on your page that you tailor your author visits to a particular book. You also do in-person and Skype visits. What advice can you give authors about author visits?

I create special workshops for each book, and I can also change my general “How Do You Grow up to Be a Writer?” presentation depending on which book I’m featuring. Having a bit of teaching a experience was very helpful coming into author visits for the first time. I write up very detailed plans for the visit in the way I do for lesson plans. I try to be very familiar with what I want to say, so I can be loose and improvise a little based on students questions and reactions. I try to ask as many questions as possible, to keep students participating throughout my presentations, and to have a lot of visuals. I worked as an author visit coordinator for a bookstore, so I was lucky to see many other author presentations. I would recommend going to public events and watching what other authors do. Being a coordinator also helped me understand the kinds of questions I needed to ask the schools and other venues. Make sure you talk to them about the space you’ll be in, the set-up, the equipment you’ll need, how many students you’ll be seeing and their ages etc. Ask schools how they will make your books available for sale. You can help them out by sending them to your local bookstore or sending them your publisher’s guidelines for ordering books for school visits.

What are you working on next?

I’ve been doing more Skype visits, which lets me visit places all over the country.

I’ll be at the SCBWI sponsored “Inside Story” event at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, MA on Sunday, November 3rd at 1pm, along with a fabulous slate of writers and illustrators who have books out this fall. And for every book purchased, the organization First Book will donate a book to a child in need:

And I’m very excited for the Family Trees exhibit at the Concord Museum, which runs from November 27th-January 1st. I will have a tree, created by my sister and mother, who are artists, decorated in the theme of my picture book Duck Sock Hop. I will be at the museum for Author Day on December 8th:

I’m at different stages, from second draft to submission ready for a few picture book manuscripts, and I’ll also be working on a new non-fiction picture book soon!